Historical poetics is a way of working through various ideas about poetry: what it is, how to read it, and how these ideas have changed over time. These are theoretical as well as historical questions, especially in the nineteenth century, a period of rapid development of historicisms, prosodic systems, and the global spread of English. Beginning in 2002 with a conference on “The Traffic in Poems,” our historical poetics group has been dedicated to individual and collaborative critical explorations of Anglophone poetry from the long nineteenth century, considered in a transatlantic and broadly comparative framework. This website collects the work of our group over the last fifteen years, in an ongoing project to diversify our understanding of nineteenth-century verse cultures.

Historical poetics is not an ideology, not a school, not a single methodology. It takes many forms. It is informed by practices of reading and writing that we no longer know how to recognize because they have been obscured by reading practices that emerged in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. We pursue intensive reading of poems in relation to multiple discourses around, about, and in poetry, including (but not limited to) histories of genre, form, format, medium, prosody, parody, performance, circulation, translation and transmission. We read both forward and backward in history through poetry, in order to discover the historical constitution of poetics and the poetics of historical thinking.

Other scholars have used “historical poetics” to mean the continuity of poetic forms over time, or micro specification of verse technique, or macro analysis of the ethnocultural history of poetry, or histories of reading, or the recovery of texts and poets seldom read in the present. We are interested in all of these approaches, but none is sufficient without a self-conscious and rigorous critique of the historical implications of our present assumptions. What are we talking about when we talk about poetry? What were poets and readers thinking about when they thought about poetry in 1801? In 1833? In 1854? In 1896? In 1952? In 2015? As scholars of nineteenth-century poetry and poetics, we are especially interested in what has been lost but also in what has changed since 1900.

By historicizing the terms through which we recognize, describe, and evaluate poems, we encourage skepticism about the normative concepts that have been used to study and teach poetry. It is important for contemporary readers of nineteenth-century poetry (and by implication, readers of poems in any period) to rethink the social, institutional, and generic histories that have governed the reading of poetry then and now, including the determinations for what counts as poetry worth reading. The work gathered on this website is meant to exemplify such critique, and to encourage further exploration in historical poetics.