Rhythmic Intimacy, Spasmodic Epistemology

By Rudy, Jason R. | Victorian Poetry, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview
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Rhythmic Intimacy, Spasmodic Epistemology


Rudy, Jason R., Victorian Poetry


AMONG THE MANY REASONS CRITICS IN THE 1850s CONDEMNED WHAT WAS called the Spasmodic style, none appears to have perplexed and frustrated readers so much as the poets' seemingly irregular use of rhythm. In response to Sydney Dobell's 1856 volume England in Time of War, a critic for the Saturday Review complains that the poet "neither sees, feels, nor thinks like ordinary men.... Before we are half through the book, we begin to distrust the evidence of our senses." (1) A writer for the National Review similarly critiques the apparent disorder of Dobell's poetry: "His thoughts and fancies flow like the sounds from an instrument of music, struck by the hand of a child,--a jumble of sweet and disconnected notes, without order or harmony." (2) But Dobell and his Spasmodic compatriots were not alone in challenging the senses of their readers, and literary critics in the 1850s show increasing indignation and anxiety that any poet should "rel[y] on the sympathy of the interpreter" to intuit a poem's intended rhythmic design. (3) Writing of Robert Browning's Men and Women, a reviewer in the Athenaeum protests that recent poets

   have expected [the reader] here to lean on a cadence,--there to
   lend accent to the rhyme, or motion to the languid phrase; in
   another place, to condense a multitude of syllables, so as to give
   an effect of concrete strength.... Our poets now speak in an unknown
   tongue,--wear whatever unpoetic garniture it pleases their conceit
   or their idleness to snatch up; and the end too often is, pain to
   those who love them best, and who most appreciate their high gifts
   and real nobleness,--and to the vast world, whom they might assist,
   they bring only a mystery and receive nothing but wonder and
   scorn. (Chorley, p. 1327)

Though concerned with more than formal irregularity, the reviewer identifies his contemporaries' rhythmic waywardness as part and parcel of their poems' "unpoetic garniture," their difficult language, and, here in the case of Browning, the shocking images and figurative language. Many critics simply did not know how to read rhythmically irregular poetry, and they did not trust, or did not want to trust, to their intuition. (4)

The criticism perhaps would not have been as vehement had not Victorian readers associated the Spasmodics' unruly formal styles with Britain's own fragmented and increasingly heterogeneous culture. When a writer for Putnam's Monthly Magazine, an American journal, called Alexander Smith "a child of the time," the point was clear enough. (5) As other contributors to this special issue demonstrate, the Spasmodic poets were linked by their critics to cultural crises in gender and sexuality (Blair, Hughes), class and national identity (Tucker, Harrison, Boos), and religious practice (Mason, LaPorte). Perhaps most threatening were not the particular cultural values Spasmodic poetry seemed to defy, but the formal methods poets such as Smith and Dobell used to propagate these challenges to British readers. According to Sydney Dobell, the most sophisticated theorist of Spasmodic poetics, the self-conscious work of poetic interpretation matters little next to the unselfconscious effects of rhythm on the physical bodies of readers. As we shall see, Dobell's poetic theory holds that poetry transmits knowledge and feeling primarily through rhythm, rather than through words or other formal structures. Rhythm for Dobell expresses metonymically the physiological conditions of the human body--its pulses either harmonize with or strain against the throbbing of our physical beings--and poets communicate most readily through a reader's sympathetic and unmediated experience of these stressed and unstressed rhythmic impulses. (6) Physiologically felt rhythm creates an intimacy between poet and reader such that the reader shares in the physical, and sometimes even mental, experiences of the poet. Hence if Spasmodic poetry threatens Victorian cultural values by unseating conventional notions of gender, sexuality, class, nationality, and religion, Spasmodic poetics--and especially Dobell's notion of rhythm--threatens Victorian culture by promulgating these unconventional values, by offering a vehicle for the widespread dispersal of the eccentric.

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