Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics

By Isobel Armstrong | Go to book overview

PREFACE

The poetry and poetics of the Victorian period were intertwined, often in arresting ways, with theology, science, philosophy, theories of language and politics. As cultural and intellectual change became progressively more apparent, two traditions of poetry developed, one exploring various strategies for democratic, radical writing, the other developing, in different forms, a conservative poetry. I have taken John Stuart Mill’s description of these two movements, ‘two systems of concentric circles’, as the title of my first chapter, though I do not think these circles met and merged quite as he would have liked them to, particularly if one remembers the workingclass and women poets who often worked outside these spheres. However, a study of these two great interacting circles discloses the immense sophistication and subtlety of Victorian poetry. It is a poetry, whether it belongs to democratic or conservative formations, which asks more demanding and radical questions of its culture than other genres of the period, experimenting with forms and poetic language commensurate with this complexity. The novel, with its need to gain the consent of a wide readership, could not afford such experiments. In reading the poets in this way I have excluded much material. But it seemed that this exploration would best reveal how the prolific creativity of these writers belongs recognisably to our own cultural situation and, conversely, exists in sharp separation from it. Victorian culture is our precursor culture, but, like the duck/rabbit, with its mutually exclusive configurations, we find in it important affinities - and differences which are just as important. Victorian poetry was written, for instance, in a society which was not a democracy. On the other hand, that was what Arnold called one of its ‘modern problems’, and one of the excitements of reading the poetry of this period is to understand the imaginative energy invested in such ‘modern problems’. My study begins, of course, before Victoria came to the throne in 1837, because Tennyson and Browning identified ‘modern problems’ in their early work of the 1830s.

Beyond the horizon of one book, like Pope’s mountain peaks, another usually appears, a prospect both pleasurable and daunting. While this

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