Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics

By Isobel Armstrong | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION REREADING VICTORIAN POETRY

WHAT KIND OF HISTORY?

Critical history generally divides literature into blocks, corresponding with literary periods. I begin with the difficulty of thinking about history in this way.

The habit of thinking of literary periods as segments creates the same kind of history that produces it. The Victorian period has always been regarded as isolated between two periods, Romanticism and modernism. Thus Victorian poetry is seen in terms of transition. It is on the way somewhere. It is either on the way from Romantic poetry, or on the way to modernism. It is situated between two kinds of excitement, in which it appears not to participate. What has been called the ‘genetic’ history of continuous development through phases and periods, a form of history which the Victorians themselves both helped to create and to question, sees Victorian poetry as a gap in that development. 1 Modernism, in spite of its desire to see itself in terms of a break with history, actually endorses that continuity, for a radical break must break with something. And correspondingly it endorses the gap which Victorian poetry is seen to inhabit. The anxieties of modernism, trying to do without history, repress whatever relations the Victorians may seem to bear to twentieth-century writing. Thus Joyce’s frivolous ‘Lawn Tennyson, gentleman poet’ appears dressed for tennis in Ulysses. Virginia Woolf dissociates herself from the Victorians in her unscrupulously brilliant impressionistic account of them in Orlando.2 There ivy covers buildings and large families come into being with almost equally magical suddenness. She intuitively registers the drive to produce in Victorian society, whether it is children or industrial goods, and the need to muffle. The eroticisms and the euphemisms of bourgeois capitalism and its ideology, its inordinate excesses and concealments, are embodied in the voluptuous taxidermy of the stuffed sofa.

So the major critical and theoretical movements of the twentieth century have been virtually silent about Victorian poetry. As the stranded remnants of high bourgeois liberalism, the poets have been consigned to sepia. New

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