Editorial Introduction: Spasmodic Poetry and Poetics

Article excerpt

"Eureka! Eureka! The coming man has arrived, and his name is Smith!"

ACCORDING TO THE AMERICAN JOURNAL PUTNAM'S MONTHLY MAGAZINE, "about the first of May" in the year 1853, "all the English papers came hurrying over the sea with a loud chorus of Eureka! Eureka! The coming man has arrived, and his name is Smith!" (1) The almost messianic triumphalism of this announcement now appears a bit startling, since it celebrates

the little-known Glaswegian poet Alexander Smith, a member of the emerging "Spasmodic" school who had recently published his chef-d'oeuvre, A Life-Drama. Putnam's assures us that A Life-Drama had just "received a more universal and flattering welcome than was ever before awarded to an English poet." Yet those readers of Victorian Poetry familiar with Smith and his Spasmodic fellows will know that his "universal and flattering welcome" was soon followed by a less congenial appraisal, and that it is this critical backlash, characterized by vicious attacks and condescending accusations, that has dictated the re-telling of Spasmodic literary history. With few exceptions, scholars of Victorian poetry have been content to ignore the Spasmodic phenomenon, except as window-dressing for more "refined" poetry, or for an easy laugh.

But who were the Spasmodics? It should be said at first that the Spasmodic poets constituted a "school" in name only; most of those who came to be associated with Spasmodism did not know one another, or developed relationships after having published their major poems. Roughly speaking, the group included Philip James Bailey, Richard Hengist Home, Sydney Dobell, Alexander Smith, John Stanyan Bigg, Gerald Massey, J. Westland Marston, and Ebenezer Jones. Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, among others, were also identified by their Victorian contemporaries as marginal Spasmodic figures. The movement stretched from the 1830s to the mid-1850s, starting with the publication of Robert Browning's early works and Bailey's Festus (1839)--which most consider the first truly Spasmodic production--and concluding with poems such as Maud (1855) and Aurora Leigh (1856; dated 1857). Critical examinations of Spasmodic poetics have most often focused on the works of Dobell and Smith, no doubt because they present the most audacious and the most difficult of the Spasmodic experiments. (2) Dobell's Balder (1853; dated 1854) and Smith's A Life-Drama (1853) received much more contemporary critical attention, both for good and for ill, than did the work of the other Spasmodics, and both had a strong influence upon the early-1850s literary scene. Because part of our goal is to recapture the terms of that literary scene, this special issue devotes particular attention to Dobell and Smith, but we hope what follows will also encourage discussion of the other Spasmodics.

The spring of 2003 marked the 150-year anniversary of Alexander Smith's delirious rise and fall, and it seemed for a variety of reasons a propitious time to ask whether the Spasmodic school might be due for a revisiting. Some of these reasons are theoretical; some are purely practical. To start, the collapse of the traditional canon in recent decades has increased interest in forgotten, or nearly forgotten, poetry. Add to this the fact that the Spasmodics, though under-studied in the last century, were in fact central to the development of mid-Victorian poetics and poetic theory, and the need for a reappraisal becomes clearer. Little of what the Spasmodics published can qualify as "great" poetry, if such qualitative language must be used, and yet the Victorians themselves could not help but be moved and inspired (either to sympathy or to revulsion) by what struck nearly all readers as a demonstrably new mode of poetic composition: "There was a thrill in the air," writes a critic in 1909 whom Florence Boos quotes in her contribution to this volume, "a belief that the new world was at hand. …