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Social Responsibility for the Destitute

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As England headed into the fin de siècle, the nation confronted a plethora of societal challenges, especially on the economic front. Summarizing the situation, William Greenslade asserts that “[i]n the early 1880s, Britain was entering what appeared to contemporaries to be a decisive economic, social, and political crisis.” The turn of the decade, the Times claimed, “combined ‘more circumstances of misfortune and depression than any within general experience.’” The problems in the agricultural and industrial sectors of the 1870s brought high unemployment, both for rural and urban laborers, and by the mid-1880s affected a tenth of the population, Greenslade indicates. Moreover, the movement of unemployed workers from the country to the city led to a horrific London plagued by overcrowding, cramped housing, and dangerous slums, and the population burgeoned into the next century. “Huge agglomerations of people lived … in a densely packed urban environment,” comments Jose Harris, “to an extent that was quite unprecedented in human history.” Aggravating the problem was the continuing rise in the city’s population, which Andrzej Diniejko places at four million in the 1890s. Foreign economic threats added to the nation’s burdens as Europe tended toward a tightening of its markets and kept England from continental consumers, David Thomson states. A revitalizing Germany brought competition in commerce, and the United States became a powerful antagonist in the wake of the Civil War, “provid[ing] new and serious competition” for agricultural and industrial goods. U.S. railroad development increased access to grain, creating “a dramatically different scale of productivity, which England could not match.” Also impeding British trade was the U.S. MacKinley tariff of 1890 with its “rigorous system of protection,” Thomson observes. Penned during this difficult fin de siècle, the poetry of Isabella J. Southern and other New Women spoke eloquently about the misery of the destitute.

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  1. 1.

    William Greenslade, “Socialism and Radicalism,” 76; Jose Harris, Private Lives, Public Spirit, 54; David Thomson, England in the 19th Century, 194; “The Victorian Age,” 1029; Thomson, 194.

  2. 2.

    The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, 7.

  3. 3.

    Ibid., 8.

  4. 4.

    Sidney Webb, “The Basis of Socialism: Historic,” 58.

  5. 5.

    Two critics who have examined Southern’s poetry are Fabienne Moine in Women Poets in the Victorian Era: Cultural Practices and Nature Poetry (114) and Amy Christine Billone, who devoted part of a chapter in Little Songs: Women, Silence, and the Nineteenth-Century Sonnet to assessing Southern’s work (Chap. 4).

  6. 6.

    Thomas Pallister Barkas was involved in business and occupied municipal positions. He held a keen interest in science and published books on fossils of a variety of wildlife. He was also an advocate of spiritualism, about which he wrote and lectured.

  7. 7.

    All of Southern’s poems discussed in this chapter were published in Sonnets and Other Poems.

  8. 8.

    Moine discusses “The Thirst for Knowledge” in the context of gardens. The main character, Moine comments, lives within “a prison, albeit a gilded one.” Because she is female, the character “has to live by social rules and accept the limitation of space and opportunity imposed on her sex.” Moine asserts that “Southern questions the gendered orientation given to gardens and those who use them” (Women Poets in the Victorian Era, 114).

  9. 9.

    Sarah Grand, “The New Aspect of the Woman Question,” 272–73; Grand, “The New Woman and the Old,” 674; J. Ashcroft Noble, The Sonnet in England and Other Essays, 13.

  10. 10.

    Samuel Waddington, English Sonnets by Living Writers, 192; Alex H. Japp, “The English Sonnet and Its History,” 259; Theodore Watts-Dunton, Poetry and the Renascence of Wonder, 172, 173. Japp mentions several critics discussed in this chapter: Waddington, Watts-Dunton, T. Hall Caine, Noble, and William Sharp.

  11. 11.

    Natalie Houston, “Towards a New History,” 148, 164.

  12. 12.

    Sharp, Sonnets of This Century, xxxv. While Japp said that Sharp’s book was “admirable … in many ways” (“The English Sonnet and Its History,” 276), Japp nevertheless registered strong criticism about the volume’s supposed failings.

  13. 13.

    Sharp, Sonnets of This Century, lxii, lxi; “Review,” 188. Recognizing an eleventh syllable as acceptable in an octave is not a radical idea. An additional unstressed syllable is a common approach.

  14. 14.

    Among them were the Quarterly Review essayist, Caine, and the Spectator essay mentioned above. Japp, however, was strongly opposed. Japp said that “it is clear that close study finds a sufficiently strong precedent for the rhyming couplet-ending, whatever critics may choose to urge against it nowadays” (“The English Sonnet and Its History,” 269).

  15. 15.

    William Sharp, Sonnets of This Century, xxxvii, lxii, xxxvi.

  16. 16.

    John Wesley, The New Testament with Explanatory Notes, 252, 41.

  17. 17.

    Webb, “The Basis of Socialism: Historic,” 58.

  18. 18.

    Caine, Sonnets of Three Centuries, xxiv.

  19. 19.

    C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 423.

  20. 20.

    Benjamin Hall Kennedy, The Anglican Hymn Book, no. 45.

  21. 21.

    Symonds quoted in Watts-Dunton, Poetry and the Renascence of Wonder, 185.

  22. 22.

    Watts-Dunton, Poetry and the Renascence of Wonder, 179.

  23. 23.

    Ruth Livesey reads the poem as referring to two children. “The two songs of the first two contrasting sesta rima stanzas are those of girl children in radically different social positions: the indigent beggar child and the happy ‘little maid” out for a walk with her mother” (“Dollie Radford and the Ethical Aspects of Fin-de-Siècle Poetry,” 504). Linda K. Hughes speculates that Radford’s poem itself may count as one of the songs (New Women Poets, 7).

  24. 24.

    Florence Boos, “Annie Matheson,” 143; Matheson quoted in Boos, 147.

  25. 25.

    The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, 16.

  26. 26.

    Diana Maltz, “Sympathy, Humor, and the Abject Poor in the Work of May Kendall,” 313.

  27. 27.

    William Morris, Signs of Change, 28.

  28. 28.

    Ibid., 16, 11.

  29. 29.

    The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, 4; William Booth, In Darkest England and the Way Out, 16.

  30. 30.

    Virginia Blain, Victorian Women Poets, 323.

  31. 31.

    Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, 62.

  32. 32.

    Ibid., 13.

  33. 33.

    Coleridge quoted in Angela Leighton, “Mary E. Coleridge (1861–1907),” 612.

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Murphy, P. (2023). Social Responsibility for the Destitute. In: Poetry of the New Woman. Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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