The "Spasmodic" Hoaxes of W. E. Aytoun and A. C. Swinburne
Morton, Heather, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
Measured by its immediate impact, W. E. Aytoun's hoax review "Firmilian: A Tragedy" published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine surely must be one of the most successful pieces of literary criticism ever written. (1) Because it was a hoax, the article effectively ended the school it ridiculed, "Spasmodism." Aytoun invented a poet who supposedly authored the copious extracts he himself had written expressly for the review. The tongue-in-cheek "Firmilian" had many admirers, including a sixteen-year-old Algernon Charles Swinburne, who, four years later, wrote an imitation, "The Monomaniac's Tragedy,' and Other Poems by Ernest Wheldrake, Author of Eve, A Mystery, London, 1858." (2) Like "Firmilian," 'The Monomaniac" purports to review a verse drama about a poet who commits murder in order to experience the remorse necessary for writing a verse drama about a murderer. Both parodies create a humorous miseenabime around the figure of the poet, as both enlist the hybrid form of the periodical review to forge a new cultural relationship between poetry and criticism.
The inherent hybridity of any periodical review, and the collaboration that entails, becomes a more pronounced feature in a hoax since the different genres--prose and poetry--are defamiliarized as purely formal divisions. Aytoun's hoax uses the hybrid to critique the Spasmodic poet as a marginal figure; Swinburne, however, accepts that marginality as a legitimate position within a larger cultural field. He takes the generic division one step further by satirizing the authoritative moralism of the prose as well as the flighty poetry the reviewer presumably indicts. Whereas Aytoun's hoax tries to put poetry back on track, Swinburne's has purposiveness without purpose, by simply reflecting on the mutually enabling cultural positions of a conservative critic and a licentious poet. That such a reflection occurred before the publication of Swinburne's own 1866 Poems and Ballads suggests how Swinburne's poetry might have been consciously crafted to be avant-garde.
The Spasmodic poets of the 1840s and 1850s took one aspect of romantic poetry and criticism to an extreme; they fervently embraced, and repeatedly articulated, the high calling of their metier. (3) Alexander Smith's "A Life-Drama," one of the most famous productions of the movement, insists that
a Poet must ere long arise, And with a regal song sun-crown this age, As a saint's head is with a halo crowned;-- One, who shall hallow Poetry to God And to its own high use ... ... A mighty Poet whom this age shall choose To be its spokesman to all coming times. In the ripe full-blown season of his soul. He shall go forward in his spirit's strength, And grapple with the questions of all time, And wring from them their meanings. (4)
Passages such as this seem to make extravagant claims for the poem that contains them, and therefore, for the poet who writes them. Although often cast in the form of a drama, Spasmodic works were always thematically subjective, focused on and through a particularly sensitive hero-poet, whose wide experience allowed him to speak to and for his age. (5) Philip James Bailey's Festus: A Poem (1839), generally considered the first recognizably Spasmodic poem--encompassing heaven, hell, and earth--has its hero Festus give an account of the poem he has written, which turns out to be Festus. John Westland Marston's Gerald; A Dramatic Poem, centers on the hero Gerald (1842); Alexander Smith's "A Life-Drama" (1853) on Walter; Sydney Dobell's on the eponymous Balder (1854); and J. Stanyan Bigg's Night and the Soul (1854) on a poetic genius Alexis. (6) As the genre developed, the hero went to increasing lengths to enlarge his experience, hence his subjectivity; Balder (1854) disturbingly ends with Balder contemplating the murder of his wife. Among the attributes of Spasmodism, Fennell Francis Leroy lists "projection of inner emotion," "the Byronic or Shelleyan hero," "extravagant imagery," and a "sense of self-importance. …