Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

"Modern-Antiques," Ballad Imitation, and the Aesthetics of Anachronism

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

"Modern-Antiques," Ballad Imitation, and the Aesthetics of Anachronism

Article excerpt

Rubbishy seems the word that most exactly would suit it. All the foolish destructions, and all the sillier savings, All the incongruous things of past incompatible ages, Seem to he treasured up here to make fools of present and future.

--Arthur Hugh Clough, Amours de Voyage

Writing to the Irish poet and ballad anthologist William Allingham in the summer of 1855, Dante Gabriel Rossetti explained that he was underwhelmed by the former's poem, "The Music Master," as it lacked the enticements he expected of ballads:

   [O]ne can only speak of one's own needs & cravings: & I must confess
   a need, in narrative dramatic poetry ... of something rather
   "exciting," indeed I believe something of the "romantic" element, to
   rouse my mind to anything like the moods produced by personal emotion
   in my own life. That sentence is shockingly ill-worded, but Keats's
   narratives would be the kind I mean. (1)

One is struck both by the aesthetic feeling that Rossetti attempts to discriminate-the connection he draws between romance narrative and personal emotion-and by the hesitation with which he does so: before he wrote "romantic," Rossetti wrote "schoolgirl," then crossed it out. The strikethrough has the force of an embarrassed admission about the appeal of ballads to an otherwise high-minded literary reader, particularly when the ballad in question is neither antiquarian artifact nor popular street song but artfully contrived pastiche. This self-conscious mode of genre performance had its roots in such eighteenth-century ballad "scandals" as Lady Elizabeth Wardlaw's "Hardyknute." (2) Ballad forgeries turned eventually to avowed imitations, and, after picking up sentimental, romance, and gothic elements from Thomas Chatterton, Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Letitia Elizabeth Landon, and many others, the literary ballad had thoroughly saturated the literary field by the early decades of the Victorian period.

This essay explores the ballad aesthetics inherited by Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites and, more particularly, those of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a less-remarked influence on Pre-Raphaelite medievalism. The ballad in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was less a stable form than an evolving discourse-an overlapping assembly of ballad collections and antiquarian scholarship that gathered together metrical romances, broadside ballads, ballad romances, hymns, lays, ballad parodies, and lyrical ballads that variously expanded and chastened the idea of the ballad. The ballad's prominence as cultural form has been given considerable attention, though recent work has focused primarily on antiquarianism, popular balladry, or the ballad's significance within print culture and romantic nationalism. (3) Turning to the relatively neglected form of the literary ballad, I am interested less in specifying what this genre was than in exploring what we might call the historical aesthetics of genre-the kinds of feelings and judgments that get attached to a given genre and their role in its style, rhetoric, and form. (4) What language did nineteenth-century readers use to distinguish their impressions of poetic genres, and what relationship can we see in this language between aesthetic judgment and poetic form? How do aesthetic categories shore up, innovate, or otherwise inflect categories of genre?

In particular, my discussion aims to uncover the aesthetic and affective dimensions of the stylistic anachronism-Rossetti called his poems, after Walter Scott, "modern-antiques"-that characterizes the literary ballad in its tendency to evoke without fully inhabiting the conventions of traditional songs and ballads (Correspondence, 1: 389). (5) The subgenre of the literary ballad represents an important aspect and outgrowth of what Albert Friedman has termed the ballad's "museum-life," its abstraction within the discourses of antiquarian revival, "sophisticated" poetry, and historical scholarship (p. …

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