Victorian Metaphors for Poetry

By Gibson, Mary Ellis | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Winter 1988 | Go to article overview

Victorian Metaphors for Poetry

Gibson, Mary Ellis, Nineteenth-Century Prose

W. David Shaw. The Lucid Veil: Poetic Truth in the Victorian Age. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1987. 311 pp.

Taking his title from Tennyson's In Memoriam, David Shaw focuses his examination of Victorian poetics and philosophy on a series of epistemological metaphors. Shaw's work in his influential studies of Tennyson's Style and Browning's Dialectical Temper gives him a detailed and allusive command of the standard Victorian poetic canon. In this more comprehensive study, Shaw discusses various Victorian metaphors for poetry beginning with poetry as a mirror of nature. This understanding of poetry, Shaw argues, quickly gave way to metaphors likening poetry first to a darkening glass, then to a lucid veil through which some higher reality is glimpsed. In the mid to late Victorian period poetry was characterized as a lucid veil concealing at least as much as it reveals, and finally as a "kaleidoscope of presentational forms."

In his examination of these and other metaphors, Shaw groups critical, philosophical and poetic texts, reading them against each other, sometimes to trace influences, more often to suggest analogous approaches to questions of language, knowledge, and art. As the dominant metaphor of the study suggests, Shaw is most keenly interested in poetry's transcendent claims. He explores in Victorian poetics the aspiration toward spiritual truth that Tennyson even in his deepest doubt believed to be "behind the veil, behind the veil." Shaw declares at the outset a certain sympathy with an idealist tradition in Victorian aesthetics deeply influenced by Hegel and represented in its culmination by F. H. Bradley.

Like many of the poets he discusses, Shaw himself sees poetry as the most significant compensation for Bradley's sense of loss, his feeling that "the sensuous curtain is a deception and a cheat" (46). Shaw quotes Bradley's view of scientific explanation, atomic theory in particular, as a dance of "bloodless categories" that cannot "make that Whole which commands our devotion" (46). Shaw's effort is to show how Victorian poetics makes possible an understanding of poetry as a means of evoking some Bradleyan "Whole." This, it seems to me, is the crucial subtext of Shaw's analysis. Through analyzing Victorian poetics Shaw would argue that poetry and the criticism of poetry can "continue science or philosophy by other means. This is why poetry can illuminate the mysterious trouble spots of knowledge" (284).

Poetry, Shaw argues, is knowledge, and specifically it is a knowledge of transcendence. Having reflected initially on literature and science in Victorian Britain and having noted that scientists like John Tyndall, T. H. Huxley, and Karl Pearson recognized the fictional or poetic character of scientific language, Shaw argues at last for an "immanent teleology" which is good poetry but "bad science." Implicitly Shaw enrolls himself as a descendant of Matthew Arnold in defending the centrality of poetry to liberal education and to the spiritual needs of modern society. His search for transcendent meaning in poetry leads Shaw to argue further that "there can be no interpretation of physical nature, because physical objects are never an experience as such. They are always the mere objects of experience. In order to be an object of poetic knowledge, natural events must be viewed as the actions of some spirit or god immanent in nature" (283). For Shaw, then, both poetry and its criticism is a hermeneutic by definition theological.

In this definition of poetry and its critical interpretation Shaw defies even while recognizing the dramatically skeptical bent of much contemporary criticism. The skeptical positionings of post-structuralism enter almost exclusively in Shaw's treatment of Victorian agnosticism, particularly in his discussion of Pater's "deconstructed Platonism."

The Lucid Veil, then, has more in common with the history of ideas and with theological hermeneutics than with post-structuralism or with overtly social or political criticism. …

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