Post-Romantic Ideologies and Victorian Poetic Practice, or, the Future of Criticism at the Present Time

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By most accounts, professional academic scholarship in English grew out of Victorian literary ideology, especially out of what Gerald Graft lightly calls "cultural tradition in the Matthew Arnold sense." (1) Historically, such accounts have tended to treat nineteenth-century poetic theory in isolation from actual poetic practice. Future criticism on Victorian poetics, though, seems likely to reshape our sense of "cultural tradition," not least by demonstrating the complexity of the relation between nineteenth-century literary ideology and praxis. As I argue below, the development of online scholarly resources and scholars' growing interest in formerly marginal texts both presently lead in this direction, and their development will increasingly show how far poetic ideologies and practices determined one another. The relation between specifically Victorian ideology and practice has been undertheorized, especially the contemporary practice of using "poetry" to denote both a kind of literature and an index of artistic achievement. To distinguish between "poetry" and mere "verse" is to accept one of the more abstruse parts of the Romantic legacy. But most Victorians did so, just as they used "poetic" to describe prose, painting, or sculpture. (Anna Jameson's The Poetry of Sacred and Legendary Art [1846], for instance, instructs readers in Renaissance painting but never, to my recollection, discusses actual poems.) It is an important part of the Victorian legacy that its diction systematically blurs the distinction between poetic form and artistic value despite the fact that Victorian critics increasingly felt compelled to distinguish between them.

Consider the case of George Henry Lewes from among the many mid-century Victorians who tried to rethink this conflation of poetry and artistic value. In 1865, Lewes assumed the editorship of a new journal, the Fortnightly Review, and in its opening issue began his Principles of Success in Literature, a series of articles that promised to reconsider Victorian truisms about art and its production. Rather than recycling cliches, Lewes pledged to address "Literature, in its widest sense." (2) Not only did he wish to say something new, but he depended upon the newness of what he said to help launch the Fortnightly. He had also personal reasons for wanting to do so, for, as George Eliot's partner, he was keenly interested in the rising status of the novel in Victorian literary culture. (3) In the Fortnightly's initial number, then, Lewes adheres to the term "literature" to discuss the highly unstable and shifting ground of mid-century aesthetics. Where his Romantic predecessors took for granted the conflation of "art" and "poetry," Lewes keeps himself to such generic terms as "books," "authors," "works," and "writers," and he specifies that he means novels and essays as well as dramas and poetry. Yet as early as the second issue, Lewes begins to abandon these distinctions, and uses "poet" for "artist" in almost half his references to literary writers, or else he reflexively and tautologically combines them, as in his claim that "Vigorous and effective minds habitually deal with concrete images. This is notably the case with poets and great literates" (p. 46). Even if in such phrases "poets" are understood to be distinct from "great literates," Lewes implies their equivalence or interchangeability. In 1865, such a claim would be scarcely imaginable were "novelists" or "essayists" substituted for "poets," for among the arts, only poetry had an evaluative sense as well as a generic one. Romantic texts like Hegel's Aesthetics--a major source of Lewes's ideas--take for granted poetry's status as the crown of art. But Lewes's approach indicates the theoretical force and unwieldiness of "poetry" in the mid century more clearly than Hegel's, because he resolutely challenges this dominant model before succumbing to its idiom.

The force of highbrow Romantic theory tended both to shape Victorian poetic practice and to circumscribe unrelated intellectual ventures. …