Victorian Poetry as Victorian Studies

Article excerpt

It has become almost customary to begin discussions of Victorian poetry with a lament. Whether the occasion is formal or simply that of everyday conversation among colleagues, we tend to bemoan the low profile of the field, the misunderstandings and inadequate attention to which Victorian poets have been subjected, and the tyrannical dominance of the field's neighbors, Romantic and modern poetry and the Victorian novel. (1) Although many of the intellectual movements that initially gave rise to this lament have passed (clearly we no longer feel the need to argue with T. S. Eliot and Cleanth Brooks), the mood of pessimism has proved remarkably resilient. Today, that structure of feeling is driven not by a widespread criticism of the aesthetic value of our subject but rather by a curious incongruity: while Victorian poetry was central to the life of the Victorians, it remains marginal to the study of modern Britain. We need to claim for Victorian poetry a vital, pivotal place within the larger field--and to make good on that claim, not by adopting the methods, hermeneutics, and debates developed within the study of Romanticism or the Victorian novel but instead by reshaping them.

Victorian poetry itself, and its presence in every arena of Victorian culture and society, points the way forward. To say poetry permeated Victorian life is to insist upon a fact doubtless endorsed by most if not all the readers of this journal, but it also is to remind ourselves about the deep texture of the world we are engaged in trying to understand and describe. Claims about the autonomy of the aesthetic realm notwithstanding, we know that poetry and ideas about poetry were fundamental to the time. This is true not of canonical verse alone but of all poetry, canonical and forgotten, high and low, avant garde and conventional, hortatory and anti-didactic, philosophical and psychological. To recognize this is to see that the importance of Victorian poetry to British studies rests not so much upon the popularity or the intellectual reach of its finest writers as it does upon the way they and their fellow poets together helped create their age. The Victorian social whole was often imagined as a congeries of interconnected spheres, as a house with as many nooks and crannies and hidden staircases as the architectural style that took its name. The study of Victorian poetry can enter all these spaces of Victorian life.

To do so, we need to develop the interdisciplinary and trans-generic methods that are beginning to flourish in our field and to understand them in a new way. The value of interdisciplinary work resides in its dialectical processes, its capacity both to enrich our analysis of a particular literary text and to complicate our understanding of the topics, discourses, and modes of expression upon which it bears. The outward movement represented by interdisciplinarity is most effective as an extended visit: for instance, when a study not only brings ideas about geology to the analysis of In Memoriam but also brings Tennyson's ideas to the history of scientific thought. Of course, this is easy to say and excruciatingly difficult to do. Yet studies of Victorian poetry in particular have had a tendency toward a narrow and inward-looking conceptualization of their aims and ends, not to mention an occasional stance of dogged resistance to the "trendy" preoccupations motivating work elsewhere in Victorian and British studies. These tendencies no doubt emerge from, as they reinforce, a sense of the marginality of the field. To the extent that this is the case, a simple reorientation in perspective and ambition alone may enable a richer engagement with larger debates. Victorian poetry scholarship deserves an expanded sense of the conversations in which it participates and a more capacious understanding of the aims to which it is directed. (2) Recent studies of aestheticism might serve as a model in this regard. In Linda Dowling's foundational Language and Decadence in the Victorian Fin de Siecle (1986), as in more recent works such as Yopie Prins's Victorian Sappho (1999), Talia Schaffer's Forgotten Female Aesthetes (2000), and the pieces in Schaffer and Kathy Psomiades' collection Women and British Aestheticism (1999), poetry figures centrally in a scholarly project geared toward the reconceptualization of Victorian culture from the 1860s into the 1890s. …


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