Victorian Poetry as Victorian Studies
Author(s): Stephanie Kuduk
Source: Victorian Poetry, Vol. 41, No. 4, Whither Victori...
STEPHANIE KUDUK / 513

Victorian Poetryas VictorianStudies
STEPHANIE KUDUK
It has become almost customary to begin discuss...
POETRY
514 I VICTORIAN
text and to complicate our understanding of the topics, discourses, and
modes of expression upon wh...
KUDUK
STEPHANIE
1515
poetry are playing a role in pushing historicist approaches in new directions, expanding the scope of...
POETRY
516 I VICTORIAN
Dobell's strangely intriguing "spasmodic"
school, to Arthur Hugh Clough's
and Algernon Swinburne'sr...
STEPHANIE KUDUK 1517
formalist approaches, on the vitality and centrality of Victorian poems to
modern British culture and...
POETRY
518 / VICTORIAN

5
6

7
8

9

Clough, Amoursde Voyage,and the Victorian Crisis of Action," NCL 55, no. 4
Frameof Mi...
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Victorian

  1. 1. Victorian Poetry as Victorian Studies Author(s): Stephanie Kuduk Source: Victorian Poetry, Vol. 41, No. 4, Whither Victorian Poetry? (Winter, 2003), pp. 513518 Published by: West Virginia University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40007024 . Accessed: 07/03/2014 01:51 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org. . West Virginia University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Victorian Poetry. http://www.jstor.org This content downloaded from 117.211.90.252 on Fri, 7 Mar 2014 01:51:29 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
  2. 2. STEPHANIE KUDUK / 513 Victorian Poetryas VictorianStudies STEPHANIE KUDUK It has become almost customary to begin discussions of Victorian poetry with a lament. Whether the occasion is formal or simply that of everyday conversation among colleagues, we tend to bemoan the low profile of the field, the misunderstandingsand inadequate attention to which Victorian poets have been subjected, and the tyrannical dominance of the field's neighbors, Romantic and modern poetry and the Victorian novel.1 Although many of the intellectual movements that initially gave rise to this lament have passed (clearly we no longer feel the need to argue with T S. Eliot and Cleanth Brooks), the mood of pessimism has proved remarkablyresilient. Today, that structureof feeling is driven not by a widespreadcriticism of the aesthetic value of our subject but ratherby a curious incongruity: while Victorian poetry was central to the life of the Victorians, it remains marginal to the study of modern Britain. We need to claim for Victorian poetry a vital, pivotal place within the larger field- and to make good on that claim, not by adopting the methods, hermeneutics, and debates developed within the study of Romanticism or the Victorian novel but instead by reshaping them. Victorian poetry itself, and its presence in every arena of Victorian culture and society, points the way forward. To say poetry permeated Victorian life is to insist upon a fact doubtless endorsed by most if not all the readers of this journal, but it also is to remind ourselves about the deep texture of the world we are engaged in trying to understand and describe. Claims about the autonomy of the aesthetic realm notwithstanding, we know that poetry and ideas about poetry were fundamental to the time. This is true not of canonical verse alone but of all poetry, canonical and forgotten, high and low, avant garde and conventional, hortatory and antididactic, philosophical and psychological. To recognize this is to see that the importance of Victorian poetry to British studies rests not so much upon the popularity or the intellectual reach of its finest writers as it does upon the way they and their fellow poets together helped create their age. The Victorian social whole was often imagined as a congeries of interconnected spheres, as a house with as many nooks and crannies and hidden staircasesas the architectural style that took its name. The study of Victorian poetry can enter all these spaces of Victorian life. To do so, we need to develop the interdisciplinaryand trans-generic methods that are beginning to flourish in our field and to understand them in a new way. The value of interdisciplinarywork resides in its dialectical processes, its capacity both to enrich our analysis of a particular literary This content downloaded from 117.211.90.252 on Fri, 7 Mar 2014 01:51:29 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
  3. 3. POETRY 514 I VICTORIAN text and to complicate our understanding of the topics, discourses, and modes of expression upon which it bears. The outward movement represented by interdisciplinarity is most effective as an extended visit: for instance, when a study not only brings ideas about geology to the analysis of In Memoriambut also brings Tennyson's ideas to the history of scientific thought. Of course, this is easy to say and excruciatingly difficult to do. Yet studies of Victorian poetry in particularhave had a tendency toward a narrow and inward-looking conceptualization of their aims and ends, not to mention an occasional stance of dogged resistance to the "trendy"preoccupations motivating work elsewhere in Victorian and British studies. These tendencies no doubt emerge from, as they reinforce, a sense of the marginality of the field. To the extent that this is the case, a simple reorientation in perspective and ambition alone may enable a richer engagement with largerdebates. Victorian poetry scholarshipdeservesan expanded sense of the conversations in which it participates and a more capacious understanding of the aims to which it is directed.2 Recent studies of aestheticism might serve as a model in this regard. In Linda Dowling's foundational Languageand Decadencein the VictorianFin de Siecle (1986), as in more recent works such as Yopie Prins's Victorian Sappho (1999), Talia Schaffer's ForgottenFemale Aesthetes (2000), and the pieces in Schaffer and Kathy Psomiades' collection Women and BritishAestheticism(1999), poetry figures centrally in a scholarly project geared toward the reconceptualization of Victorian culture from the 1860s into the 1890s.3 These works not only employ but actively participate in the study of gender, sexuality, language, linguistics, visual art, classics, material culture, and nationalism and imperialism. They also are exemplary in examining more than a single literary genre by exploring the conversation Victorian poetry held with literary prose, drama, and, most unusually, the novel. These and other excellent works of interdisciplinary scholarship in Victorian poetry build on traditions distinctive to our field- traditions that provide a foundation of unique insights and approaches for future scholarship. The field's strong connection to intellectual history, for instance, can bring new perspectives to Victorian studies, with its emphasis on social history, realist novels, and the texture of everyday life. Studies of Victorian poetry have long drawn on, and sometimes doubled as, histories of ideas, from the seminal work of Walter Houghton, in The PoetryofClough (1963) and The VictorianFrame of Mind (1957), which devotes more atsuch as Robert Browning and Alfred Tennyson tention to "artist-thinkers" than to the Brontes and Charles Dickens, to the recent scholarship of Matthew Campbell and Stefanie Markovits, which is guided by a vision of poets as thinkers engaged with the intellectual currents of their day.4 By pursuing this connection with intellectual history, scholars of Victorian This content downloaded from 117.211.90.252 on Fri, 7 Mar 2014 01:51:29 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
  4. 4. KUDUK STEPHANIE 1515 poetry are playing a role in pushing historicist approaches in new directions, expanding the scope of topics and contextual materials that "count" as history for the purposes of fulfilling FredricJameson'sinjunction to "always historicize."5 This expansion occurs within the context of the reinvigoration of intellectual history across the humanities, offering a golden opportunity for Victorian poetry scholars to set the terms for a new series of debates about historicist methodologies and the relation between literature and its moment. The study of Victorian poetry also is distinguished by the long-standing and vital conversations it enjoys with the history of art and philosophy. These dialogues reflect the close connections of Victorian verse itself to painting, aesthetic theory, and philosophical discourse, and they also point the field of Victorian studies toward largelyunexplored terrain. Fascinating issues remain to be explored in these areas, especially beyond the mantles of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, John Ruskin, and John Stuart Mill. Through engagement with the philosophy of language, for example, we can reassert poetry as a unique window onto linguistic meaning, and at the same time engage in a dialogue with those who are dedicated to the rigorous philosophical analysis of how language works.6 We can learn much, too, from what we might call an interdisciplinary formalism, exploring for instance the similarities and differences between the techniques of Victorian painters and poets, the ways they announce their forms and interrogate the rendering of "reallife" and abstractideas in an artistic plane, be it the ode or the two-dimensional surface of a canvas. As this last point suggests, the outward movement of interdiscipliand trans-generic scholarship is also an inward movement, a returnnary ing to the formal matters of Victorian poetry. This return through interdisciplinarity to what Susan Wolfson calls the "formal charges" of poetry helps us to see the poems we study in new ways, and to ask new sets of questions about them.7 One such set of questions that I believe holds particularpromise for future research involves the eclecticism and breadth of the theories of poetry expressed within Victorian poems themselves. Every Victorian poem contains a theory of poetry and its role in the modern world. We are less practiced at seeing a theory of verse in Victorian poems than in Romantic and modernist ones, in part because those periods are defined in terms of a well-established group of aesthetic ideas (ideas which, while not conclusive or exhaustive, have amassed a scholarly consensus that helps us to recognize them- when one speaks of the "Romantic ideology," others know what one means). No such group of distinctively Victorian theories of poetry has achieved a similar canonical status. But this is so much the better for us. Instead, we have the bewildering variety of aesthetic ideas that appear in Victorian poems, from Gerard Manley Hopkins' innovative theories of instress and inscape, or Sydney This content downloaded from 117.211.90.252 on Fri, 7 Mar 2014 01:51:29 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
  5. 5. POETRY 516 I VICTORIAN Dobell's strangely intriguing "spasmodic" school, to Arthur Hugh Clough's and Algernon Swinburne'sreconceptualizations of Romantic and classical principles of political verse and prosody. When we have examined these ideas in past scholarship, the danger has been to mistake variety for balkanization, to see a collection of individual authorial idiosyncrasies or styles rather than coherent theories of aesthetics. Not only do Victorian poems present such theories, they offer ideas about art and its relation to society that are emphatically connected to largerbodies of thought, a bounty that includes liberalism, nationalism, utilitarianism, economics, physics, geology, linguistics, Spenserian social science, physiology, and theology.8 Victorian poems contain a record of how ideas about art- and also about art as a vehicle for ideas about politics, people, and society- percolated through the Victorian world, how the theories of Ruskin and William Wordsworth and John Henry Newman and Thomas Paine were understood, employed, and reworked by practicing poets and readers in all the spaces where poetry flourished. To trace this process, we might ask about how Ruskin's productivist aesthetic was seen to confer value upon poetry, in which the craftsman ideal struggledfor prominence against the pressure of vatic and bardic conceptions of the poet. We know very little about the politics and ethics of art for art'ssake among politically committed poets, or among poets whose writing was a practice of religious devotion. We have much to learn about the interactions between formal strategies and social, political, and intellectual questions, for instance about how Victorian poets understood the structures of poetic meaning-making that they inherited from classical and Renaissance prosody, such as chiasmus, elision, or ploce, in light of the ways that modern linguistics was beginning to theorize grammarand language history was reconceptualizing words. The study of literature ought never lose sight of the literariness of its texts, not because the aesthetic is sacred or inviolable, or even because it is beautiful, but because the capacity of literature to act in the world cannot be separated from the formal nature of its meaning-making. While this is true of all works of art, it is a truth Victorian poems enunciate with particular energy. To do justice to this enunciation, we have needed, and continue to need, to be both Victorianists and scholars of poetry, fluent in both an interdisciplinaryand historicist idiom and in the dialect of formalism. The study of Victorian poetry, as a result, has the capacity to reinvigorate the interplay- and set aside the tension - between formalist criticism, historicist criticism, and cultural studies.9 As new historicism slowly makes way for the methodology that will succeed it, scholars of Victorian poetry are well poised to chart a course for the future of Victorian studies, the study of modern Britain, and literary and cultural studies more generally. This course can draw on the strengths of our interdisciplinary and This content downloaded from 117.211.90.252 on Fri, 7 Mar 2014 01:51:29 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
  6. 6. STEPHANIE KUDUK 1517 formalist approaches, on the vitality and centrality of Victorian poems to modern British culture and society, and, I hope, on a well-deserved sense of ambition and optimism within the field itself. Notes 1 2 3 4 Thus Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (New York: as Routledge, 1993), pp. 1-2: "The Victorianperiodhas alwaysbeen regarded isolated between two periods,Romanticismand modernism.Thus Victorianpoetryis seen in termsof transition. It is on the waysomewhere. It is either on the wayfrom Romantic poetry,or on the way to modernism. It is situatedbetween two kinds of excitement, in which it appearsnot to participate.... So the majorcritical and theoretical movements of the twentieth century have been virtuallysilent about Victorianpoetry. New criticism . . . consideredVictorianpoetry to lie outside its categories[, as did ] RaymondWilliams. . . [and]feminism. . . [and]deconstruction. No majorEuropeancritic has seen Victorian poetry as relevant to his or her purand Poetics(Chicago: Univ. of Chicago pose."Or CarolT. Christ, Victorian Modern Press, 1984), pp. 1-2: "ToEzraPound the VictorianAge, like the rest of the nineteenth century,was'a ratherblurry, messysortof a period,a rathersentimentalistic, mannerishsortof a period.' T. S. Eliot, too, dismissesthe Victorians.. . . The antiVictorianismof the chief Modernistpoets is well known, in largepart because it was incorporatedinto the New Criticalvision of poetic history.. . . The Victorians provide [Cleanth Brooks]with the most extreme example of the poetic failureshe describes.. . . Recent scholarshipin literaryhistoryhas largelyfollowed the pattern which Brooks[established].There has been an elaborateand subtle revaluationof the complex relationshipbetween Romanticand modernpoetry.. . . But the poetry of the Victorianshas been either neglected in these discussions... or assimilatedto the Romantic tradition." Or Tess Cosslett, Victorian WomenPoets,ed. and intro. TessCosslett (New York: Longman, 1996), p.l: "I recently bought a copy of the . . . NortonAnthology Poetry. I was disappointed,but not reallysurprised, find to of that it containedonly five poemsby EmilyBronte,threeby Elizabeth BrownBarrett ing, and eight by Christina Rossetti. Other Victorian women poets, such as AugustaWebsteror Michael Field, were not representedat all." Even Tennysonand recovered" from the processby which "greatVictoBrowninghave only "partially rian reputationswere gleefullydeflatedby the Modernists" 1). (p. Recent calls for entirely abandoningthe terms"Victorian" "Victorianpoetry" and include IsobelArmstrong,"When Is a VictorianPoet Not a VictorianPoet?Poetry and the Politics of Subjectivity in the Long Nineteenth Century,"VS 43, no. 2 (2001): 279-292. Linda Dowling, Language and Decadence in the Victorian Fin de Siecle (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1986); YopiePrins,Victorian (Princeton:Princeton Sappho Univ. Press, 1999); TaliaSchaffer,The Forgotten Female Aesthetes (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 2000); and Schaffer and Kathy Alexis Psomiades,eds., Womenand British Aestheticism (Charlottesville:Univ. Pressof Virginia, 1999). Walter E. Houghton, The Victorian Frameof Mind, 1830-1870 (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press,1957) and The Poetry (New Haven: ofClough: An Essayin Revaluation Yale Univ. Press, 1963); Matthew Campbell, Rhythm Will in Victorian and Poetry (Cambridge: CambridgeUniv. Press, 1999); Stefanie Markovits,"ArthurHugh This content downloaded from 117.211.90.252 on Fri, 7 Mar 2014 01:51:29 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
  7. 7. POETRY 518 / VICTORIAN 5 6 7 8 9 Clough, Amoursde Voyage,and the Victorian Crisis of Action," NCL 55, no. 4 Frameof Mind,p. xvii. (2001): 445-478. The quotation is from The Victorian FredricJameson, The PoliticalUnconscious: Narrativeas a SociallySymbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1981), p. 9. To do so will requireus to counter the implications of semiotic analysis, which largely dethroned poetry from the privileged position it enjoyed in the work of earlier scholars of language. For a prominent recent example of scholarshipof poetry engaged with philosophical analysis of language, see Marjorie Perloff, and Ladder:PoeticLanguage theStrangeness theOrdinary of (Chicago: Wittgenstein's Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996). Susan Wolfson, FormalCharges: The Shapingof Poetry in BritishRomanticism (Stanford: StanfordUniv. Press, 1997). Excellent workon these and similartopics hovers aroundthe edgesof the field, for Plots:Evolutionary in Narrative Darwin, instance Gillian Beer on science, Darwin's Fiction(Cambridge: CambridgeUniv. Press, GeorgeEliotand Nineteenth-Century 2000); Jonathan Craryand Nancy Armstrongon visuality, Techniques the Obof in server:On VisionandModernity theNineteenth Century(Cambridge:MIT Press, : in 1990) and Nancy Armstrong,Fiction theAge of PhotographyTheLegacy British of Realism(Cambridge: HarvardUniv. Press, 1999); David S. Ferrison Hellenism, SilentUrns: Romanticism, Hellenism,Modernity (Stanford: StanfordUniv. Press, 2000); RegeniaGagnieron economics, The Insatiability HumanWants: Economof inMarket icsandAesthetics (Chicago:Univ. of ChicagoPress,2000);Catherine Society Gallagheron theoriesof culture,"Darwin,George Eliot, and Culture'sMalthusian Turn" (Locatingthe Victorians, July1245, 2001:Science MusuemandThe Victoria and Albert Museum,London); Suvir Kaul on nationalism, Poemsof Nation, AnVersein theLongEighteenth thems Empire:English Century(Charlottesville: Univ. of Fact: Pressof Virginia,2000); MaryPoovey on accounting,A Historyof theModern in and Problems Knowledge theSciences Wealth Society(Chicago: Univ. of Chiof of Writer The and cago Press,1998); JenniferSummiton gender,LostProperty: Woman History,1380-1589 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press,2000); and Literary English UnderPressure,1789-1832: Aesthetics, John Whale on utilitarianism,Imagination Politics Utility(Cambridge:CambridgeUniv. Press,2000). and Recent discussionsof the relationbetween historicistand formalistcriticismin the wake of new historicismthat I have found helpful include Ann W. Astell, Political in Brown, (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press,1999); Laura England Allegory LateMedieval and Fablesof Modernity:Literature Culturein theEnglish Eighteenth Century(Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press,2001); MarshallBrownand SusanWolfson, eds., Special Issue on Formalist Criticism, MLQ 61, no. 1 (2000); Kaul, Poems of Nation; Katie The NovelandtheBritish Bardic Nationalism: Romantic (Princeton: Empire Trumpener, Princeton Univ. Press, 1997); and Wolfson, Formal Charges, This content downloaded from 117.211.90.252 on Fri, 7 Mar 2014 01:51:29 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

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