Flops, Failures and Niche Markets

“My dear madam, it is no good bringing me a poetry book; nobody wants poetry now. Bring me a cookery books, then we might come to terms”

(Thomas Longman to Eliza Acton, cited Matthews 656)

Flops and failures

The Germ (1850): 700 copies of the first issue were printed & 70 sold; 500 copies of the second issue were published & 40 sold

Poems by Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell (1846): sold 2 copies out of a print run of 1,000 in the first year

[Robert Browning,] Pauline (1833)

Oscar Wilde, Poems (1881): 750 copies in first print run & third sold; cost 10 shillings 6d;  three editions were published in 1881, but not because of good sales: unsold editions were re-packaged and re-branded (Small xii)

Posthumously published poets

G. M. Hopkins: published posthumously by Robert Bridges, whose 1918 edition of Hopkins’ poems, at 750 copies, had not sold out by 1930 (ODNB).

Niche markets for poetry

“publishers made a marketing virtue out of a practical reality: only a few poets sold well enough to justify publication of larger first editions” (Erickson 358).

Anodos [Mary E. Coleridge,] Fancy’s Following (Daniel Press, 1896): 125 copies printed (Whistler 67)

Anodos [Mary E. Coleridge,] Fancy’s Guerdon (The Shilling Garland series, Elkin Mathews, 1897): 10 years after publication  half the print run was still unsold

Michael Field, Underneath the Bough (G. Bell, 1893)

Richard Le Gallienne, Volumes in Folio (Elkin Mathews, 1889): 250 copies

Katherine Tynan Hinkson, Cuckoo Song (1894): 500 copies

Edmund W. Gosse and Divers Kindly Hands, The Garland of Rachel (Daniel Press, 1881)

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does a popular Victorian poetry canon include and exclude?
  2. What are the factors that make Victorian poetry a flop or a failure?
  3. Why did some poets choose not to publish?
  4. Why did the 1890s see a rise in private presses, small print runs, and books as collectors’ items?
  5. How does the relationship between poetry’s literary value and cultural value change over the century?
  6. How do institutions (e.g. contemporary reviewing practices, the education system, publication industry) produce categories of cultural value? And how do those categories of cultural value become bound up in narratives of literary history (as “what counts”)?

Words Cited

Lee Erickson, “The Market,” A Companion to Victorian Poetry, ed. Richard Cronin, Alison Chapman and Antony H. Harrison (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002)

Samantha Matthews, “Marketplace,” The Oxford Handbook of Victorian Poetry, ed. Matthew Bevis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Ian Small, “Introduction,” The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)

Theresa Whistler, “Introduction,” The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954)

For more on cultural capital and canon formation, see: Pierre Bourdieu’s The Field of Cultural Production (1994), and John Guillory’s Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (1995).

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