The Year’s Work in Victorian Poetry: General Materials

Erik Gray’s elegant and evocative new study, Milton and the Victorians (Cornell Univ. Press, 2009) takes up the question of Milton’s influence in the wake of the Romantic agon diagnosed by Harold Bloom. Paying closest attention to Christina Rossetti, Arnold, Tennyson, and George Eliot, Gray offers variations on a double theme: the obvious yet diffuse nature of the Miltonic in Victorian writing and the roots of this model of influence in the work of Milton himself. Unlike the Romantics who struggle insistently and Satanically with Milton as their precursor, the Victorians accept him as a “classic”—meaning he is both everywhere, taken for granted, and yet strangely obscure, occluded in ways that nevertheless express his power as an influence. Christina Rossetti’s biblical allusions, for example, keep turning to Milton in a way that quietly demonstrates the pervasiveness of his poetry. In the central portion of the book, Gray chooses a particular rubric for individual authors. Arnold is drawn to “the Might of Weakness” in Milton: the tendency for power to get expressed paradoxically through retreat or self-limitation. This provides a model for Arnold’s own poetry and its frequent yet oblique allusions to Milton. Similarly, Tennyson adopts Miltonic modes of “Diffusive Power,” limiting his scope, trading in understatement, and emphasizing the earthly, mortal beauty in Milton rather than the sublime. George Eliot thematizes “Troubled Transmissions” in Middlemarch, drawing on David Masson’s then-recent biography to invoke a Milton both great and “subject to inevitable distortion” (p. 151). Each section of Gray’s book leads into a series of readings of related texts, brought to life by the critic’s fine ear and sure touch, his real ease with language and perhaps more crucially, with the more subtle range of human emotion. His previous book, The Poetry of Indifference, was also devoted to the understated and the oblique, yet his own habits of mind are anything but slack. In a characteristically witty move, Gray entitles his new book’s conclusion, “The Heirs of Milton,” and it dwells tellingly, amusingly, and finally movingly on Milton’s hair—and human hair generally—as a way of thinking about influence via self-possession and dispersal. Readers may not accept all of Gray’s suggestive formulations, but they cannot fail to be impressed by his nuanced mode of proceeding and the winning style of his prose. Milton and the Victorians provides valuable new ways of thinking about Milton, about the [End Page 533] relationship of Romantic to Victorian literature, about the specific authors and works it takes up, and about the nature of influence itself. It reveals an impressive literary critic at work.

In Electric Meters: Victorian Physiological Poetics (Ohio Univ. Press, 2009), Jason Rudy asks us to re-imagine the history of Victorian poetry by placing the Spasmodics at its center. In such a narrative, the prosodic experiments of Sydney Dobell and Alexander Smith represent an extreme version of what motivated Victorian poets across the board: the struggle to forge a “rhythmic epistemology,” involving “the communication of knowledge and feeling through physiological pulses” conveyed via the reading of verse (p. 80). Using the debates over Spasmody as a lens, Rudy reveals patterns of engagement with “embodied poetic form” as characteristic of the age of electricity and the telegraph. He argues that while the poets of Sensibility (for example, the Della Cruscans) and the Romantics had some allegiance to the idea of electric communication of emotion, it was the Victorians who moved beyond mere intellectual processing and metaphorical deployment: they wanted verse to work directly upon the body. One might argue with the quick dispatch of Romanticism along these lines, particularly the sidelining of Coleridge, but Rudy is looking ahead to Tennyson’s early work, and particularly The Princess, as involved with the telegraph and the physiological effects of electric sensation. That these effects could have socio-political consequences meant that the debate over embodied poetics was conducted at a nervous pitch. Rudy has Tennyson swerve from a commitment to this type of poetry as “too extreme, too extravagant, and ultimately, in a time of national unease [i.e., Chartism], too dangerous” (p. 75). In a chapter on the Spasmodic poets, Dobell is a culture hero, championing a “universalized notion of feeling” (p. 80) and relocating sympathy “from the isolated, thinking brain to the body at large” in pursuit of a “communal poetics” (p. 96). Another chapter presents both Patmore and Hopkins confronting “electric poetics” as a “foil, a style of writing to be avoided” (p. 112), even as their work is profoundly shaped by concerns with meter and physiology. Rudy presents Swinburne and Mathlida Blind as rejecting mere spasm for its more sublime sibling, something he terms “rapture,” which “fuses emotional affect with structural poetics” (p. 168), and he concludes with a look at Victorian spiritualist poetry as an emblem for the commerce between poetry and the embodied world. The book is filled with valuable insights and connections as Rudy pursues the discourse of poetry’s physiological modes of affect in the nineteenth-century. Readers will have different takes on the overall argument. On one hand, almost every poet treated here has deep reservations about the conceptions of the Spasmodics that supply Rudy with his paradigm; this is mostly a book about why the Victorians turned away from physiological poetics and rhythmic irregularity. On the other, Rudy makes clear that Victorian poetry was profoundly influenced by these ideas, and he [End Page 534] illuminates its attempts to rework Romantic aeolian communication in the age of the electric telegraph. One appreciates the valuable close reading and metrical analysis found in Electric Meters (I wished for even more of the latter), as well as the attention to lesser-studied figures like Dobell and Blind. Rudy has written a book that will reorient our attention towards the language of pulse and shock in the period, and will get us thinking about aesthetic and social consequences as we take the measure of Victorian poetry.

Virginia Zimmerman makes an important contribution to the study of relations between Victorian science and literature in her new book, Excavating Victorians (State Univ. of New York Press, 2008). As geology and archaeology made great strides in the nineteenth century, she argues, the Victorians were confronted not only with new matter for interpretation (e.g., fossils, the remains of lost cities) but with new questions about their own relationship to time and loss. The “dreadful hammers” of Ruskin’s geologists and the equally disruptive excavations of the archaeologists produced anxieties of insignificance that authors met with complex meditations and ultimately with visions of hope. Zimmerman makes use of “excavation” as a guiding trope in her study, finding in it a model for contextual interpretation and archival recovery of the significant trace. Indeed, it seems that interpretation was the primary means by which the Victorians reasserted the primacy of the individual in the face of annihilation and “the dark and backward abysm of time.” She presents geologists Charles Lyell and Gideon Mantell as storytellers exercising interpretive authority over time and materiality. Tennyson’s Princess is offered similarly as domesticating an indifferent nature via narrative. The book’s second half moves to archaeology, and really comes into its own there. Zimmerman has illuminating things to say about the Victorian reception of Pompeii, Assyria, Egypt, and ancient London, weaving together works by Bulwer-Lytton, Hemans, Dante Rossetti, and Dickens with contemporary journalism and visual images that evoke a distinct period of excavatory anxiety. Engagingly written and thoroughly researched, Excavating Victorians has riches to offer: not only its well-chosen representations of Victorian geology and archaeology but also its own interpretive power and moments of insight. The book begins and ends with Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” wherein the individual voice is pitted against the roar of pebbles that, as Zimmerman writes, “closes up time like a fan” (p. 178). She argues that the Victorians found hope and meaning in that contest, asserting the power of articulation that is called forth by traces of the past.

Kathryn Ledbetter’s British Victorian Women’s Periodicals: Beauty, Civilization, and Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) makes a spirited case for the importance of poetry in nineteenth-century periodicals for women. Working against the habitual dismissal of these “women’s magazines” and the sentimental poetry that filled them, Ledbetter asks her readers to attend more [End Page 535] closely. By reading such poems within their original contexts of publication and with a sympathetic understanding of the cultural system in which they operated, she argues, we can gain a purchase on the Victorian transactions of gender, identity, and power. Herself highly attuned to the range and complexity of Victorian periodicals and sensitive to gender politics, Ledbetter moves through a large number of examples with a deft hand. The central argument here is that “women’s periodicals expressed a domestic and feminine power centered in the home” (p. 206), while also encouraging them to become poets, thereby consolidating the feminization of poetry that was underway. Ledbetter uses this general rubric to organize “a sample of meanings from a sample of women’s periodicals” (p. 17) under general themes: women’s work in chapter one (including motherhood and authorship); “moral themes and exhortations” in chapter two (including piety, philanthropy, and missionary subjects); beauty in chapter three; and the interplay between magazine editors and female poets in the final chapter. Far from confirming a neat thesis, the book instead demonstrates the value of avoiding monolithic ideas about anything happening in the Victorian periodical press. The critical method of the book is in some sense reflective of the periodicals upon which it is engaged: various, capacious, darting, miscellaneous. Ledbetter likes to unfold new examples for us, and it is these well-informed acts of selection and explication that prove most valuable. Ledbetter’s extensive experience with Victorian periodicals has led her to produce a growing body of such illuminating work, including her recent Tennyson and Victorian Periodicals: Commodities in Context. In British Victorian Women’s Periodicals, this trajectory continues; the book illustrates the rich contingency and signifying power of women’s poetry in the annuals and journals of the Victorian era.

Second Sight: The Visionary Imagination in Late Victorian Literature (Manchester Univ. Press, 2008) by Catherine Maxwell is not another study of Victorian visual culture or optical technologies. Rather, it focuses on the late Victorian inheritance of the Romantic imagination and its visionary supplements in the face of absence and loss. It could be said to chart the course that lies between the Romantic sublime and the Modernist epiphany; it investigates the late-Victorian investment in the Romantic Image. Maxwell has chosen six representative authors whose lives were connected in various ways—Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Walter Pater, Vernon Lee and her brother Eugene Lee-Hamilton, Theodore Watts-Dunton, and Thomas Hardy—and shows how each was drawn to the borderlands of the invisible world. Accordingly, uncanny revelations, bittersweet visitations, and rich hauntings come to characterize their work, typically prompted by “lost or elusive women” (p. 17). Maxwell proceeds by means of substantial and subtle intertextual readings, looking to biography or psychoanalytic theory when necessary while maintaining a focused interest in matters literary-historical and aesthetic. She emphasizes Rossetti’s fusion [End Page 536] of the mystical and fleshly, and shows the importance of magnetism in his evocations of female figurae, especially Proserpine. Pater is also attracted to Persephone as a fusion of the worlds of life and death; the goddess becomes an emblem of the embodied transcendence that he admires in art, especially sculpture, which allows us to “arrest the elusive phantasm of an essence” (p. 80). Lee and Lee-Hamilton are “given to images of burial and submersion, disinterment, emergence, and discovery” (pp. 114-115), and Maxwell focuses on the their common allusions to the Venus de Milo as a touchstone for the sublime. Watts-Dunton’s Aylwin reveals its allegiance to Coleridge (and Rossetti) with its emphasis on the mesmerizing, self-replicating femme fatale, and Hardy’s poetry is rife with ghosts, a window onto a phantasmal space not unlike a page of printed verse. Maxwell’s Second Sight asks us to take another look at Victorian literature with an eye for its phantoms, the occult revenants that signify a yearning for the visionary fusion of the seen and unseen. For these Victorian poets in the Romantic tradition, Maxwell shows us, such emergent figures are the essence of the imagination.


One thought on “The Year’s Work in Victorian Poetry: General Materials

  1. Pingback: Victorian Poetry: Fall 2009 issue, with Year’s Work « The Hoarding

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