Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Whither and Yon, and How

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Whither and Yon, and How

Article excerpt


   What else should he be set for, with his staff?
      What, save to waylay with his lies, ensnare
      All travellers who might find him posted there,
   And ask the road?

("'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,'" ll. 7-10)

GINGERLY IS HOW I OPENED THE THICK PACKET LINDA HUGHES HAD SENT. IT rumbled forth a salvo of essays from scholars deemed likeliest to succeed in the advanced study of Victorian poetry, which was to say likeliest to become our successors, which was not to say bent on superannuating us, not quite that exactly, and yet.... The emergence on our secluded scene of a generation substantial in number, energetic in hope, and fertile in thought came as great news, made better to me by a contributors' roster sporting the names of many I had taught as students and several I called friends. Still, the brash promise of all those essays was damped, somehow, by my rash promise to comment on them. In prospect the young lighthearted masters of new waves, breasting mackerel-crowded seas in their merry Grecian coaster, brought out the grave Tyrian trader in me. It stayed this dyer's purple hand, subdued to what it worked in. Where these smart youth knew Whither, mustn't I make do with sagely remembering Whence, and so dwindle into the court historian of a relegated realm? Vide passim J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, and tremble.

Or else call it a senior scholar moment and forget it. For I felt better--I usually do--once I started to read. In general the contributors turned out to be addressing the editor's question about Whither with remarks about How. They weren't telling us where to go after all, or where to get off either, but were instead recommending ways of getting started and manners of proceeding. Their collective dispatch had less to do with what a revitalized scholarly-critical enterprise would disclose about Victorian poetry than with the instruments of that enterprise, the means of study that were to be adopted towards such disclosure. In other words, the contributors wrote for the most part as advocates and exponents of method, often (predictably, understandably) of the methods informing their current research. This circumstance freed me--it frees me now, by the performative power of this tense shift--to exchange the historian's bulky robe for the light lab coat of the methodologist, to shore up the endangered distinction between method and methodology (whereby the latter is properly the study of the former), and to dedicate this space to a methodological overview of the VP special issue. It's still rather a jungle out there, is Victorian poetry, riddled with old roads much overgrown and markers nigh obliterated. Now here come two dozen expeditionaries, abuzz with talk of navigation, negotiation, intervention, deployment, and transgression, to offer pathfinding guidance that mixes map-reading skill with bushwhacking chutzpah. My job is to survey the offers, speculate where I can about destinations, and offer an educated guess as to road conditions and attractions by the way.

I should probably announce an (admittedly immethodical) itinerary of my own in these matters. My zeal is for initiatives that investigate--precisely because they admire and fear it--the historical power of literary form. Interpreting "literary" in as broad a sense as can be, provided "form" retains a technical sense that furnishes analytic purchase, I take literary form to be the chief agency by which Victorian cultural meanings were organized, transmitted, and enforced. Especially in the nineteenth-century heyday of print, when it came to cultural dominance literary form was the way and the truth; form was each of these two things because it was the other; and it was most conspicuously both in the genre of poetry. For, by long-standing consensus if not by definition, among literary kinds poetry excels at merging its content with its technique. Furthermore, as much in this special VP issue teaches us freshly to understand, the technical means of Victorian as of all poetry were culturally and historically bounded. …

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