General Materials

By Pionke, Albert D. | Victorian Poetry, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

General Materials


Pionke, Albert D., Victorian Poetry


Seven books are featured here in the general materials section: five monographs, one essay collection, and one anthology. Their subjects range from the Victorians' lively debates over prosody, to the impressive outpouring of English language verse from British India, to the intersection of poetry and pictures in the mid-century illustrated gift book, to broad surveys of the expanded poetic canon for the undergraduate market. Together, they ask us to reconsider the dominance and ideological valence of definitions of meter grounded in syllabic stress, the formation of literary canons on the basis of ethno-nationalism, the material conditions under which poetry was produced and consumed in the Victorian period, and the strategies of reading required to ensure that this poetry will continue to appeal to new generations of students.

Faced with readers "deaf to a significant dimension of the meaning of poetry produced during a period when poets were not simply interested in the technicalities of verse but obsessed by them" (pp. 1-2), and determined to complicate simplistic accounts of the triumph of free verse after Whitman, Joseph Phelan, in The Music of Verse: Metrical Experiments in Nineteenth-Century Poetry (Palgrave, 2012), reconstructs the position of "musical prosody" within nineteenth-century debates over English poetry. Chapter one traces the genealogy of this theory of versification from its beginnings in Joshua Steele's Prosodia Rationalis (1779) through William Mitford's Inquiry into the Principles of Harmony in Language (1804), John Thelwall's Illustrations of English Rhythms (1812), William Crowe's Treatise on English Versification (1827), William O'Brien's The Ancient Rhythmical Art Recovered (1843), Coventry Patmore's Prefatory Study of English Metrical Law (1878), the key ideas of which first appeared in "English Metrical Critics," in the August 1857 issue of the North British Review, and Sidney Lanier's The Science of English Verse (1880). Never quite a homogeneous school of thought, these writers nonetheless asserted in common an analogy bordering on identity between music and poetry and, in Phelan's words, shared two idees fixes, "the fundamental principle of isochronous intervals between accents" and "the recognition of the potential for 'harmony' between the meaning of a line of poetry and its metrical structure" (pp. 17-18).

Although "quixotic and ultimately doomed," and exercising an "extremely limited" influence (pp. 41-42), the musical prosodists provide Phelan with a compelling point of entry into two intriguing nineteenth-century poetic experiments: the attempt, confined largely to the 1820s through the 1850s, to adapt the hexameter to English language verse, which forms the subject of chapter two; and the theorization and reemergence of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse by the 1870s and 1880s, the focus of chapter three. Within these two central chapters, Phelan devotes meticulous attention to several poems that no longer enjoy a wide readership, including Robert Southey's The Vision of Judgment, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Evangeline, Arthur Hugh Clough's The Bothie of Toper-na-Fuosich, William Morris's Love is Enough, and Patmore's The Unknown Eros; chapter three also concludes with a broad discussion of the poetry and poetics of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The book's fourth and final chapter chronicles the incremental rise to dominance of free verse and concomitant decline of musical prosody. In Phelan's nuanced account, Whitman's example did not take the poetic world by storm, but instead provided one impetus, albeit a powerful one, for individual "irruptions of proto-free verse" that assumed only gradually and retrospectively "the revolutionary significance later imputed to them" (p. 135). The chapter and the book conclude with T. S. Eliot's 1942 lecture "The Music of Poetry," which completes the "migration of the idea of poetry as music from analogy to metaphor" by eschewing scansion and locating poetry's expressive power in "the rhythmical structures of everyday language" (p. …

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