Budgets and Brownings: The Function of Poetry at the Present Time

Article excerpt

There is a crisis in poetry. There is a crisis in Victorian poetry. At least according to much that has been said of late about the future of verse. PMLA recently sought submissions for a special issue on poetry, asking, "has the time come to revisit the relevance of poetry and the pleasures of the poetic text in this changed interpretive universe?" and questioning "the possibilities of aesthetic analysis after deconstruction." A recent call for papers for a conference on the future of Victorian poetry notes "gloomy prognostications about the academic future of poetry in general and 'difficult' poetry in particular." No other literary form that I know of seems to generate this apocalyptic rhetoric, doubtless because poetry, perhaps unlike prose, loses much if it loses its aesthetic capital. Poetry's relevance and survival are ongoing concerns, as many Victorians themselves thought the fate of Western civilization to turn in large measure upon the question of verse. While Matthew Arnold prescribed the "sweetness and light" of culture as the tonic for a society sick with philistine utility, Lord Macaulay provocatively declared in his essay on Milton, "we think that, as civilization advances, poetry almost necessarily declines." If poetry has survived utilitarianism and industrialism, can it survive in the wake of theory or post-theory? More important, can it weather the downsizing, utilitarian university and a student population unequipped to encounter "poetry in general and 'difficult' poetry in particular"?

I would not be writing this article, nor would you be reading it, if most of us were not prepared to answer "yes." To convince others to answer in the affirmative, I hope to profile some trends in the study of Victorian verse and to sketch out new scholarly dimensions grounded in the classroom, where the future of Victorian poetry, like that of the rest of the liberal arts, lies. I shall keep in the background of this academic profile the following practical concerns: the survival of Victorian poetry classes amid shrinking budgets and enrollments; the ongoing crisis in the job market; and the enduring problems of reading, difficulty, and rigor in our ever-changing classrooms. Three broad areas of scholarship address these concerns--the cultural status of poetry, its forms and genres, and its academic history.

As the Victorians placed the value of poetry at the center of culture, so I think the best work today examines Victorian poetry's cultural value. I am encouraged by scholarship that both investigates and challenges nineteenth- and twentieth-century patterns of canon formation, (1) as Victorian poetry is, in the words of Kathy Alexis Psomiades, "that area of literary endeavor upon whose devaluation the profession of literary criticism was founded." (2) The work of recovery and the analysis of dominant canonical values in scholarship on Victorian women's poetry continue. Isobel Armstrong, Joseph Bristow, and Cath Sharrock's anthology, Nineteenth-Century Women Poets, is exemplary in its generous selections of both canonical and noncanonical women's poetry, including sentimental lyrics and evangelical hymns. (3) This endeavor extends to a large number of journal issues, books, and collections of essays on women's verse. (4) Following from groundwork laid down by James Eli Adams and others in the study of Victorian masculinities, much recent work has also taken a self-consciously "masculinist" approach, as does Clinton Machann's essay on Lord Tennyson's Idylls. (5)

The study of Victorian genre and form seems never quite to exhaust itself, partially because the Victorians themselves were such innovators of genre. I am interested in a kind of scholarship that examines poetic form as both reflective and constitutive of the outside world. Yopie Prins studies the lyric and the fragment, arguing that Sappho, and therefore lesbian desire, are its origin (pp. 3-5); Prins demonstrates elsewhere that the Victorian explosion of prosody books reflects the death of voice and the emergence of a graphic materialization of poetry "through the continuity of metrical marks. …