On Cultural Neoformalism, Spasmodic Poetry, and the Victorian Ballad

By Rudy, Jason R. | Victorian Poetry, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

On Cultural Neoformalism, Spasmodic Poetry, and the Victorian Ballad


Rudy, Jason R., Victorian Poetry


Whither the study of Victorian poetry? I'll put my money on the "long odds" of what Herbert Tucker calls "a neoformalism that ... Cultural Studies could yet put to use." (1) There are and have always been many more practices of formal analysis than the much-maligned New Criticism. Through Cultural Studies, we can now imagine techniques of formal analysis that bring to literary texts the direct opposite of New Critical decontextualization. And this seems exactly what some of the most exciting criticism in our field is doing already. Matthew Campbell's Rhythm and Will in Victorian Poetry (Cambridge, 1999), for example, reads the metrical innovations of Tennyson, Browning, Hopkins, and Hardy as expressive of Victorian selfhood. Yopie Prins in Victorian Sappho (Princeton, 1999) yokes formal analysis to the cultural phenomenon of the Victorian poetess. (2) In these works, Tucker's included, close reading of the very best sort takes literary form as a subtle and often neglected vehicle for broader cultural forces. Such a coupling of methodologies has the dual benefit of enlivening formal approaches to poetry and grounding work in cultural studies more firmly in textual evidence. It also opens for new discussion a host of Victorian poetic oddities that critics have long avoided.

Take as an example the brouhaha inspired by the so-called Spasmodic school of poetics. Critics of the 1850s were most disturbed by the works of Sydney Dobell, Alexander Smith, and Philip James Bailey--the most prominent of the Spasmodics--precisely because many Victorians believed poetry embodies the spirit of its age. In an essay attacking the Spasmodics, Coventry Patmore warns that "poetry is coloured by the age in which it is produced, and takes its tints from the various influences that surround it, quickening its life, fostering its strength, or stunting its growth." (3) Reflecting its time, perhaps, Spasmodic poetry was noted for its violent meters, its egoistic disregard for community, and, according to Patmore, its "remote and involved thinking, abrupt and jerking mental movements" (p. 130). Patmore sums up his distaste in an Edinburgh Review essay wherein he argues that the "chief characteristics" of Spasmodic verse are "violence and incongruity, ... tawdriness, bombast, and imbecility." (4) A passage from Alexander Smith's A Life-Drama (1852), chosen almost at random, indicates that such criticism is not entirely without reason:

      by constant staring on his ills,
   They grew worse-featured; till, in his great rage,
   His spirit, like a roused sea, white with wrath,
   Struck at the stars. "Hold fast! Hold fast! my brain!
   Had I a curse to kill with, by yon Heaven!
   I'd feast the worms to-night." (5)

More brilliant yet, Sydney Dobell's Balder (1854) features imagery rarely encountered--to say the least--in nineteenth-century print: "The hot and hideous torrent of his dung / Roared down explosive." (6) If poetry mirrors the world in which it is composed, then Spasmodic verse provides a suggestive picture indeed of Victorian England. And the style was not limited to minor poets; even the poet laureate was to publish a poem--Maud (1855)--in the Spasmodic mode, with language comparable to "the rasping of a blacksmith's file." (7)

According to Edmund Gosse, writing with hindsight in 1877, it was the Spasmodics' lack of form and style--"blustering blank verse"--that led to their imminent (and, to Gosse, welcome) demise: "the whole school passed into thin air." (8) Gosse announces with pleasure that the poets who emerged after the Spasmodic debacle, notably Swinburne, Morris, and D. G. Rossetti, brought new life to structural technique: "variety and richness of rhyme, elasticity of verse, and strength of form" (p. 55). But why should one care that a sonnet has "fourteen lines with four rhymes, in decasyllabic iambics, duly arranged"? Echoing Matthew Arnold, Gosse's response makes perfectly clear the social and political implications of poetic form: "because it has been proved in the history of literature that law is better than anarchy" (p. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

On Cultural Neoformalism, Spasmodic Poetry, and the Victorian Ballad
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.