Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Whithering Away: Editorial Introduction

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Whithering Away: Editorial Introduction

Article excerpt

ALTHOUGH THIS EDITORIAL INTRODUCTION MIGHT HAVE GLANCED BACK TO the first special issue of "Whither Victorian Poetry" to assess its significance, the need for such retrospection has withered away. (1) Happily so, since the six distinguished scholars in this second special issue perform the task themselves with great sensitivity and panache. (2) All were given advance proofs of the younger contributors' essays and asked to respond and to indicate as well their own views of where scholarship might most productively venture. My comments here, accordingly, will be confined to a preview of the essays by Isobel Armstrong, Herbert Tucker, Yopie Prins, E. Warwick Slinn, Virginia Blain, and Joseph Bristow, with an additional postscript on my choice of title for both issues.

This second special issue appropriately opens with Isobel Armstrong's "The Victorian Poetry Party" since it so beautifully captures--and extends--the energy and carnivalesque atmosphere of the first issue while systematically surveying its contents. As Armstrong envisions herself circulating from group to group at the "party" she attends, she reminds us just how creative scholarship can be: her performance piece is at once playful, passionately felt, and erudite. Though their energies spill over into constant motion between groups, Armstrong discerns three principal clusters of partygoers, "Technologies" conversationalists, "Expansionists," and "Neoformalists." Noting how seldom the word "politics" appears in "Technologies" and "Neoformalist" conversations even when critique is the point, Armstrong asks whether this might indicate a retreat from direct engagement with politics. She does not shy away from engagement herself, questioning members of each group even while praising their talents (and pointing out the provenances of their theoretical frameworks). She questions, for example, whether reconceiving lyric poetry and technology as parts of a continuum, though so powerful an insight, might also obscure one oppositional context that surely mattered, the oppressive living and working conditions wrought on workers' bodies by industrial machines and the organizational technologies that administered them. If Armstrong praises renewed attention to the many poets formerly shuffled out of sight in the rush to form a literary counterpart to the "canon" of religious texts, she worries about the ironic obscurity of major poems--too beautiful to lose, she asserts--in younger scholars' conversations, and suggests inventive new ways (dramatic, somatic, mimetic, parodic) to teach the era's best-known poems so that they become new again. In the act of imagining kinetic classrooms (and briefly raising the curtain on her own scene of writing at Breadloaf, Vermont), these concluding paragraphs also pose an alternative to concern with job placement and professional strategies that she finds worrisome among some younger North American contributors. None who have witnessed the trials of those seeking admission to the academy can be surprised by such preoccupations; Armstrong's concern, rather, is that scholarship not be perceived as--or dwindle into--mere fashion ("designer commodities") in an academic marketplace. But her narrator is given as much to delight in the younger scholars' "party" and self-directed irony as to keen scrutiny. Armstrong's inclusive welcome of younger scholars resonates in turn with her insistence that future work include more attention to poetry and race, while her frank acknowledgment of emotion (in herself and in poetic texts) finds expression in her call for a new theorizing of affect, a key component of the historical experience of nineteenth-century poetry.

If Armstrong adopts the guise of partygoer, Herbert Tucker dons a lab coat to classify, test, and weigh the range of methods suggested by contributors to the prior special issue. For, as he shrewdly observes, they characteristically address the "how" of literary study more often than the ends "whither" such study should tend. …

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