Conjuring the Spirit: Victorian Poetry, Culture, and Technology

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The ubiquity of fiction by the late nineteenth century suggests the decline of poetry from its central cultural status as a public discourse and masculine preserve of "a man speaking to men." (1) A standard explanation for the decrease in verse publication and the rise of the novel during the course of the century has been that science and technological progress replaced poetry as the discourse that captured the public imagination, while the cultural critic came to overshadow the poet as the aristocrat of public intellectuals. However, this account fails to register the paradoxical nature of poetry's cultural status in Victorian times: literal marginalization in the marketplace was often translated through aesthetic appreciation into the social prestige of "high" art. (2)

If the future of Victorian poetry is to differ from the narrative of its past, as I think it surely must, one avenue to be explored is necessarily the complex dynamics between Victorian poetry and technology. Work thus far on the relation between Victorian literature and technology for the most part has tended to converge with the culture and society tradition which subsumes the issue of technology within the class and gender critique of the capitalist economic system. When technology is conceptualized separately at all, it is often cited in terms, deeply rooted in the nineteenth century, that posit it as a corrupting influence on culture. It is time, I think, to look at the issue differently. There is an alternative narrative of culture to be written and new methodologies to be applied when technology in the full range of its meaning is reinserted into literary history. Given that the nineteenth century was a time of tremendous and exciting proliferation of new industrial and communications technologies, there is much to be done by simply considering poetry in historical relation to the vast array of Victorian inventions such as the stereoscope, kaleidoscope, phonograph, computational machines, photography, and film. However, we need to conduct such studies with a theoretical awareness that takes us beyond the limited sense of technology as instrument and instrumentality (or tool and discipline), and we can begin by returning to the etymological origins of the word technology itself. In addition, contemporary concepts of informatics, media, and discourse networks can help us to understand better the reception and circulation of poetry. Whereas previously we might have examined the relation between Victorian poetry and technology, it is time now to address Victorian poetry as itself a technology.

As is so often the case, the work of Tennyson may shed light on the subject, and so I will begin with a brief reading. Tennyson's invocation of a spirit in section 82 of In Memoriam that moves in an "eternal process" (l. 5) (3) through one phase of existence to another could function purely and simply as a figure or tool for conjuring the spirit of Victorian poetry. When the poet states that "From state to state the spirit walks" (l. 6), he raises the well-worn epistemology of a disembodied spiritual truth that lives on in different forms through time but in essence is unchanging. Yet stylistically, in its solemn formality and stately rhythm, the statement announces and methodically displays the apparatus of the spiritual sublime as a mechanism of faith, faith measured and molded, moreover, in the utilitarian spirit of the age. For "virtue" will be of "use" (l. 10) and "human worth" (1. 11) will "profit" (l. 12) in exchanging one state for another: spirit's rise is therefore simultaneously a decline. Alluding to the political dimension of the narrative of faith in machinery already well established by Carlyle and Ruskin (and soon to be all but consecrated by Arnold), Tennyson signals the stakes for the national "state" of the spirit when the opposition between humanity and mechanics simply does not hold. Well before the poet blasts Death in the fourth and final stanza of the lyric, he thus implicitly challenges the promise of transcendence inherent in the paradoxical doctrine of rebirth by asking whether spirit can survive essentially untarnished the dictates of "use" and "profit" in its earthly walk through the modern industrial nation state of Victorian England. …