The Poet's Mind: The Psychology of Victorian Poetry 1830-1870

By Martens, Britta | The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE, January 31, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Poet's Mind: The Psychology of Victorian Poetry 1830-1870


Martens, Britta, The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE


The Poet's Mind: The Psychology of Victorian Poetry 1830-1870. By Gregory Tate. Oxford University Press. 224pp, Pounds 60.00. ISBN 9780199659418. Published 8 November 2012

In his 1800 preface to Lyrical Ballads, which was to become the Romantic poetic manifesto, William Wordsworth replaced the traditional generic opposition between poetry and prose with that between poetry and science. He also promoted a concept of poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" that would shape the British public's poetic taste for the ensuing century. Yet the most exciting work of the next generation of poets was to challenge both Wordsworth's privileging of subjective self- expression and his distancing of poetry from science. As Gregory Tate argues, major Victorian poets drew especially on the scientific analysis of mental processes as developed in the new discipline of psychology. The purpose of their poetry was not simply to express emotion but also to scrutinise the workings of the mind.

The debt of Victorian dramatic monologues depicting abnormal mental states to 19th-century psychiatry has been examined in earlier studies. Tate's interest lies in the less extreme exploration of the psyche, the kind of introspective poetry that Matthew Arnold described as "the dialogue of the mind with itself". Tate not only shows how Victorian poets adopted the vocabulary of contemporary writings on psychology, but also documents how writers of books on psychology used quotations from poetry to validate their analytical models.

The Poet's Mind is unapologetically old canon in its choice of authors, focusing on four "big" white, middle-class males: Tennyson, Browning, Arnold and Clough. The acute analysis of mental processes that they undertake in their major works fully justifies this textual choice. Tate's look at George Eliot's poetry further supports the pre-eminence of the other four. While Eliot's engagement with the materialist psychological writings of her partner, George Henry Lewes, is reflected in her much studied, quasi-scientific analysis of characters in her novels, her poetry remains disappointingly traditional in its preference for an essentially still Wordsworthian, subjectivist and metaphysical concept of lyricism. …

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