On Cultural Neoformalism, Spasmodic Poetry, and the Victorian Ballad

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Whither the study of Victorian poetry? I'll put my money on the "long odds" of what Herbert Tucker calls "a neoformalism that ... Cultural Studies could yet put to use." (1) There are and have always been many more practices of formal analysis than the much-maligned New Criticism. Through Cultural Studies, we can now imagine techniques of formal analysis that bring to literary texts the direct opposite of New Critical decontextualization. And this seems exactly what some of the most exciting criticism in our field is doing already. Matthew Campbell's Rhythm and Will in Victorian Poetry (Cambridge, 1999), for example, reads the metrical innovations of Tennyson, Browning, Hopkins, and Hardy as expressive of Victorian selfhood. Yopie Prins in Victorian Sappho (Princeton, 1999) yokes formal analysis to the cultural phenomenon of the Victorian poetess. (2) In these works, Tucker's included, close reading of the very best sort takes literary form as a subtle and often neglected vehicle for broader cultural forces. Such a coupling of methodologies has the dual benefit of enlivening formal approaches to poetry and grounding work in cultural studies more firmly in textual evidence. It also opens for new discussion a host of Victorian poetic oddities that critics have long avoided.

Take as an example the brouhaha inspired by the so-called Spasmodic school of poetics. Critics of the 1850s were most disturbed by the works of Sydney Dobell, Alexander Smith, and Philip James Bailey--the most prominent of the Spasmodics--precisely because many Victorians believed poetry embodies the spirit of its age. In an essay attacking the Spasmodics, Coventry Patmore warns that "poetry is coloured by the age in which it is produced, and takes its tints from the various influences that surround it, quickening its life, fostering its strength, or stunting its growth." (3) Reflecting its time, perhaps, Spasmodic poetry was noted for its violent meters, its egoistic disregard for community, and, according to Patmore, its "remote and involved thinking, abrupt and jerking mental movements" (p. 130). Patmore sums up his distaste in an Edinburgh Review essay wherein he argues that the "chief characteristics" of Spasmodic verse are "violence and incongruity, ... tawdriness, bombast, and imbecility." (4) A passage from Alexander Smith's A Life-Drama (1852), chosen almost at random, indicates that such criticism is not entirely without reason:

      by constant staring on his ills,
   They grew worse-featured; till, in his great rage,
   His spirit, like a roused sea, white with wrath,
   Struck at the stars. "Hold fast! Hold fast! my brain!
   Had I a curse to kill with, by yon Heaven!
   I'd feast the worms to-night." (5)

More brilliant yet, Sydney Dobell's Balder (1854) features imagery rarely encountered--to say the least--in nineteenth-century print: "The hot and hideous torrent of his dung / Roared down explosive." (6) If poetry mirrors the world in which it is composed, then Spasmodic verse provides a suggestive picture indeed of Victorian England. And the style was not limited to minor poets; even the poet laureate was to publish a poem--Maud (1855)--in the Spasmodic mode, with language comparable to "the rasping of a blacksmith's file." (7)

According to Edmund Gosse, writing with hindsight in 1877, it was the Spasmodics' lack of form and style--"blustering blank verse"--that led to their imminent (and, to Gosse, welcome) demise: "the whole school passed into thin air." (8) Gosse announces with pleasure that the poets who emerged after the Spasmodic debacle, notably Swinburne, Morris, and D. G. Rossetti, brought new life to structural technique: "variety and richness of rhyme, elasticity of verse, and strength of form" (p. 55). But why should one care that a sonnet has "fourteen lines with four rhymes, in decasyllabic iambics, duly arranged"? Echoing Matthew Arnold, Gosse's response makes perfectly clear the social and political implications of poetic form: "because it has been proved in the history of literature that law is better than anarchy" (p. …