Introduction: Braithwaite's nonce definition of "Georgian Verse"
In his preface to the book you're asking about, The Book of Georgian Verse, the anthologist William Stanley Braithwaite explains what he means by the term "Georgian":
This anthology, according to the editor's intention, includes those poets born under the four Georges, who seem to represent the rise and development of a distinct poetical epoch. (p. xiii)
The four Georges are the British monarchs between George I, who ascended the throne in 1714, and George IV, who died in 1830. The poets Braithwaite saw as belonging to this Georgian epoch ranged from Thomas Gray (1716–1771) to John Keats (1795–1821).
However, Braithwaite's use of the term Georgian verse here is highly problematic. There are two excellent reasons to avoid using the term Georgian in Braithwaite's sense:
- Literary historians do not consider the poets from Gray to Keats to represent a distinct era.
- The term Georgian verse now has another meaning altogether in literary history, as Braithwaite himself acknowledged later.
Let's examine each of these reasons in turn.
Braithwaite's nonstandard periodization of literary history
Braithwaite compiled this anthology as part of a projected four-volume series collecting English poetry from the Renaissance to the Victorian period. Each volume was to represent what he saw as a distinct period of the literary history of England:
- The Book of Elizabethan Verse, covering roughly the period 1557–1660 and including such poets as William Shakespeare (1564–1616) and John Donne (1572–1631)
- The Book of Restoration Verse, covering the late 17th and early 18th centuries and including such poets as John Milton (1608–1674) and Alexander Pope (1688–1744)
- The Book of Georgian Verse
- The Book of Victorian Verse, covering the era of the eponymous monarch (1837–1901) and including poets such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892) and Matthew Arnold (1822–1888). Although Braithwaite completed work on this volume, it was never published as he could not obtain copyright permission to reprint poems by Tennyson, Arnold, and some others (Szefel p. 582 n. 19).
This periodization of literary history that Braithwaite asserts, particularly in the middle two volumes, appears to be unique to him. He was aware that his view was unorthodox. In the preface to Georgian Verse, he writes:
This grouping of British poetry seems, to the present editor, to furnish a very definite classification. With the first and fourth books in the design stated, there seems little or no difference from the accepted classification of literary history; the division between the second and third books, he realizes, suggests the acceptance, on his part, of a theory in literary interpretation about which many are certain to discover matter for discussion. Some critics are likely to find fault with the scope of a period to which he has applied the designation "Georgian" ... (ibid.)
The more standard view of English literary history during the period Braithwaite covers would be:
- The Renaissance (1500–1660). Milton is typically placed here rather than among the Restoration poets, where Braithwaite has him.
- The Neoclassical period (1660–1789), comprising the Restoration, the Augustan Age, and the Age of Sensibility. Poets from John Dryden (1631–1700) to Gray are included here.
- The Romantic period (1789–1832), which includes poets from William Blake (1757–1827) to Keats.
- The Victorian period (1832–1901), where Braithwaite's periodization tracks the standard.
It is not entirely clear why Braithwaite chose a nonstandard periodization. An African-American poet and critic, Braithwaite faced discrimination and poverty. Needing to support his family after his father's death, he began working as a very young boy and never received any higher education. He determinedly set out to educate himself, eventually becoming a major figure in American letters during the early years of the twentieth century. Perhaps the self-taught nature of his scholarship allowed him to break past traditional views and reconsider literary history with fresh eyes. But the fact remains that the periodization he lays out has not been widely accepted.
The typically understood meaning of Georgian poetry
In English literary history, the term Georgian poetry has taken on another meaning. It refers to a group of poets who were influential during the early part of the reign of George V, who had come to the throne in 1910. The Georgian poets included John Masefield (1878–1967) and Walter de la Mare (1873–1956). They are considered transitional between the Victorians and the modernists such as T. S. Eliot (1888–1965). Five anthologies entitled Georgian Poetry were published between 1912 and 1922, showcasing the work of these poets.
As these Georgians arrived on the literary scene, Braithwaite himself came to recognize that the term Georgian verse could no longer be used to refer to pre-Romantic and Romantic poets, as he had done in his 1909 anthology. In 1919, he published The Book of Modern British Verse, writing in the foreword:
This little collection is intended to present to American readers the character of contemporary British verse. The period has now definitely assumed the name of "Georgian."
Braithwaite does not explicitly acknowledge that this nomenclature supersedes his prior deployment of the term Georgian to refer to an earlier era, but the implication is clear.
From the preceding, it should be clear that while the specific book the question asks about uses the term Georgian verse to refer to English poetry written from the mid 18th to the early 19th century, this terminology is idiosyncratic and not shared by other critics or literary historians. Instead, the phrase typically covers poetry written in the second decade of the twentieth century. It is readily understood in the latter sense; using it in the former sense would be ill-advised.
- Braithwaite, William Stanley. The Book of Elizabethan Verse. Boston: Turner, 1907. Archive.org. Accessed 22 Feb. 2021.
- ———. The Book of Georgian Verse. New York: Brentano's, 1909. Archive.org. Accessed 22 Feb. 2021.
- ———. The Book of Modern British Verse. Boston: Small, 1919. Archive.org. Accessed 22 Feb. 2021.
- ———. The Book of Restoration Verse. London: Duckworth, 1909. Archive.org. Accessed 22 Feb. 2021.
- Szefel, Lisa. “Beauty and William Braithwaite.” Callaloo, vol. 29, no. 2, 2006, pp. 560–586. JSTOR. Accessed 22 Feb. 2021.