Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics

By Isobel Armstrong | Go to book overview

5

THE POLITICS OF DRAMATIC FORM

To begin with Mill, Browning’s poems, ‘Porphyria’ and ‘Johannes Agricola’, constitute a running dialogue with his ideas. The two Repository monologues emerge as parodies of his aesthetics and their politics. They draw out and expose the implications of Mill’s thought with devastating rigour and virtuosity. Mill’s apologetics, ‘What is poetry?’ and ‘The two kinds of poetry’, make a fundamental distinction between two kinds of knowledge. 1 One is the knowledge granted by expressive feeling and psychological experience. The other is the knowledge granted by the scientist. The poet describes the lion affectively through the emotions, the scientist neutrally, abstractly and literally (the lion becomes a locus classicus of Utilitarian aesthetics, making an appearance in George Eliot’s famous justification of realism in Adam Bede, 1859). 2 Hallam had granted knowledge to the poet of sensation as well as to the poet of reflection. In denying the poet knowledge Mill effectively removes poetic knowledge into the post-Kantian realm of the aesthetic, cut off from discursive rationality and instrumental activity. But, despite his emphasis on emotion, the representation of the poet’s lion must take place without self-conscious displays of subjectivity. This was the ground of Mill’s objection to Pauline. His attack on its morbid self-consciousness this side of madness is perfectly consistent with his belief in expressive emotion. Like Fox, he believed that the poet educates feeling, but unlike Fox he believed that poetry educates by belonging to the domain of private feeling and not by negotiating the public world of power. His distinction between the poet of nature (Shelley) and the poet of culture (Wordsworth) rests on his belief that the drama of expressive presentation actually transcends the immediate social order and has its own form of truth. The poet of nature frees feeling and emotions, returning a refreshed and purified experience to the society from which he has escaped in order that the social can have access to a new aesthetic order, a harmonised and healthy order, which becomes a form of control on excesses of emotion. 3 Here is initiated the idea of poetry as therapy, an alternative poetics which attempts to erase the political by proposing to cure the neurosis of social division rather than to analyse it.

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