Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics

By Isobel Armstrong | Go to book overview

4

EXPERIMENTS IN THE 1830s

Browning and the Benthamite formation

It must have been unsettling to the Hallam group to discover that his favourable review of their coterie poet was pre-empted in the most unexpected quarter. W. J. Fox reviewed Tennyson’s Poems, Chiefly Lyrical in the Westminster Review, which was avowedly anti-conservative and Utilitarian, in January 1831, about six months before Hallam’s Englishman’s Magazine article appeared. In the Westminster Review Tennyson was associated with social progress and improvement and annexed to a radical programme of change. Poetry was not mythological but contemporary. The French Revolution was a greater theme than the fall of Troy. Scientific change did not make the world strange but demythologised the poet’s imagination by bringing it into the realm of literal, psychological knowledge - the ‘science of mind’, or the new positivist understanding of association which underpinned radical political principles and above all philosophical radicalism, upon which the Monthly Repository prided itself. When Fox wrote that the poet injects ‘the principle of volition’ into ‘the pineal gland’ of alien species he was thinking of the post-Cartesian theory which supposed the pineal gland to unify the mind and body. Thus the new poetry is a materialist, psychological poetry. It is allied with reason and thought and does not dissociate sensation and reflection. It is essentially a dramatic, sociological poetry because it depends on projection into the not-self and an analysis of different orders of experience. Its ideological importance is that it extends the range of knowledge into what is other to us and brings it into the area of rational and imaginative understanding and debate. It is decisively in the public arena, whereas Hallam’s theories marginalise poetry. To Fox this provided an exhilarating, functional place for imaginative writing and made it essentially democratic.

Part of Hallam’s purpose in his own discussion was to correct what he saw as fundamental misprisions of Tennyson’s work by Fox, to whom he refers. The difference, as has been remarked, is between aestheticised politics and politicised aesthetics. The two theories are not structurally dissimilar and Fox had some brilliant things to say about Tennyson’s experiments with alien states of volition and perception and in particular

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