"Spasm" and Class: W. E. Aytoun, George Gilfillan, Sydney Dobell, and Alexander Smith

By Boos, Florence S. | Victorian Poetry, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

"Spasm" and Class: W. E. Aytoun, George Gilfillan, Sydney Dobell, and Alexander Smith


Boos, Florence S., Victorian Poetry


THE BRIEF FLORUIT OF THE "SPASMODIC" POETS FOLLOWED CLOSELY ONE OF I nineteenth-century British radicalisms most signal defeats--the ejection of the 1848 People's Charter. Spasmodic poems also "consistently [took] as their subject a young poet's struggle to write the poem that would make him famous" (1)--a conspicuous underlying theme of Wordsworth's Prelude (1850), as well as the first edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855). Such personal and collective struggles in fact provided signature-themes for hundreds of English and Scottish working-class and humble life poets of the era, who penned Shelleyan "dream visions," declaimed in the voice of rustic prophets, and focused their aspirations on the tenuous outlines of a more democratic culture to come. Melodrama and popular stage productions were also quintessential mid-Victorian working-class genres, (2) and political relevance may be found in contemporary critical tendencies to attack the Spasmodic poets for their melodramatic and declamatory extravagance.

Sydney Dobell, Alexander Smith, Gerald Massey, and Ebenezer Jones, in particular, were working- or lower-middle class in their origins and education, and several of these poets had contributed to the democratic fervor which culminated in the People's Charter of 1848. Under the penname "Bandiera," for example, Massey had written revolutionary verses, and Jones's pamphlet on Land Monopoly (1849) anticipated arguments made famous by Henry George in Progress and Poverty two decades later. (3) Smith followed with interest the actions of Chartism's Scottish wing, and Dobell's first poem, The Roman (1850), celebrated an imaginary hero of Italian independence after the manner of Browning's Sordello and Bulwer-Lytton's Rienzi.

Confronted with critical disregard of their work by social/literary "superiors," working- and lower-middle-class poets faced certain recurrent dilemmas in their attempts to frame individual and collective identities. If they retreated into "proper" sentiments which "befitted" their station, who would notice them? But if they seemed more assertive, topical, or sensuous, they inevitably affronted the sensibilities of influential middle- and upper-class critics. And if they dared to appropriate dramatic or sensational modes accepted in works of more respectable writers (such as Joanna Baillie in Plays of the Passions, Robert Browning in Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, or Matthew Arnold in Empedocles on Etna) they could expect damning autobiographical readings and ad hominem scorn from critics who contemned their authorial projections as well as their obstinate resistence to the critical instruction of their betters.

In this essay I will consider such nuances of social class in the "Spasmodic" controversy, (4) and focus primarily on opposing critics W. E. Aytoun and George Gilfillan, and the effects of the controversy on Sydney Dobell, "home-schooled" author of The Roman (1850) and Balder (1854); and Alexander Smith, a modestly educated pattern designer who published A Life-Drama (1853), City Poems (1857), and Edwin of Deira (1861). (5) I will also review briefly some of the ways in which critical savaging of the "Spasmodics" influenced canonical and semi-canonical poets such as Tennyson, the Brownings, and William Morris, and constrained the reception of other attempts at generic and stylistic innovation in the third quarter of the century.

Aytoun

William Edmondstoune Aytoun (1813-1865) was the only son of a wealthy Edinburgh family. His mother, a distant relative of Walter Scott, was a fierce Jacobite and lover of old Scottish lore, and his father was a successful lawyer of intellectual tastes and Whig political sympathies. (6) Private tutors prepared the bookish and intelligent boy for the newly established Edinburgh Academy, after which he attended Edinburgh University. A staunch Anglican, he eventually abandoned his parents' apparent politics to become a lifelong Tory. …

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

"Spasm" and Class: W. E. Aytoun, George Gilfillan, Sydney Dobell, and Alexander Smith
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.

    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.