Collapse of the Sofa Cushions

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics by Isobel Armstrong
    Routledge, 545 pp, £35.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 415 03016 1
  • The Woman Reader: 1837-1914 by Kate Flint
    Oxford, 366 pp, £25.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 19 811719 1

New literary movements often declare themselves by denouncing their immediate predecessors, but the Modernist attack on Victorian poetry has endured longer than most. In his Introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936) Yeats summed up his generation’s complaint: ‘The revolt against Victorianism meant to the young poet a revolt against irrelevant descriptions of nature, the scientific and moral discursiveness of In Memoriam – “When he should have been broken-hearted,” said Verlaine, “he had many reminiscences” – the political eloquence of Swinburne, the psychological curiosity of Browning, and the poetical diction of everybody.’ For all the scepticism currently being directed at the high Modernists themselves, their charges against the Victorians have not altogether lost their sting. An aura of sentimentality and prosaic discursiveness still hangs about the images of Tennyson, Browning and the rest. Though there have been individual studies of note, nothing like the feminist affinity for the novel or the deconstructive fascination with the Romantics has brought the Victorian poets back into critical fashion.

Isobel Armstrong’s Victorian Poetry represents a massive attempt to alter the balance. The break between the Victorians and the Modernists, Armstrong contends, is largely an illusion, a fiction constructed by the later writers in order to ‘repress’ the anxieties aroused in them by the work of their predecessors. The Victorians, she reminds us, already self-consciously thought of themselves as ‘modern’, and they were as obsessed with the problems of the subject, of representation and of the status of language as the 20th-century writers who followed them. Armstrong does not cite T.S. Eliot’s celebrated dictum that ‘poets in our civilisation, as it exists at present, must be difficult,’ but she effectively advances a Modernist defence of her subject by strenuously insisting on the difficulty of even the most apparently simple lyrics. Victorian poetry, she contends, ‘asks more demanding and radical questions of its culture than other genres of the period, experimenting with forms and poetic language commensurate with this complexity’. Readers of Armstrong’s book will not always find it possible to distinguish the opacities of her prose from the genuine difficulty of the poems, and there are many moments at which the critic’s own ingenuity appears to have created the complexities she purports to discover. Despite its formidable weight, her book can be irritatingly thin in its presentation of evidence, sending the reader back to the poems less to appreciate them anew than simply to make sense of her elliptical allusions. But Victorian Poetry is also an impressively learned and intermittently brilliant work, which has the considerable virtue of crediting the Victorians with at least as much sophistication as ourselves.

Armstrong terms the principal form in which this sophistication manifests itself the ‘double poem’, a form she defines with sufficient looseness to cover everything from Browning’s dramatic monologues and the religious lyrics of Christina Rossetti to Arthur Clough’s The Bothie of Tober-Na-Vuolich(1848), James Thomson’s The City of Dreadful Night (1874) and Thomas Hardy’s The Dynasts (1904-8). Though she has been considerably influenced by recent theorising, both linguistic and otherwise, Armstrong does not so much wish to deconstruct Victorian poetry as to show how it was already struggling with something like the scepticism now associated with deconstruction. In fact she sharply resists the symptomatic readings of some Marxists and feminists, who condescendingly presume that they can distinguish between the manifest meaning of a poem and the latent or unintentional meaning that ultimately subverts it. ‘To simplify a text’s projects and then to invoke the complexities of the text itself to undermine the simple project is an odd procedure,’ she remarks. ‘A text is not quite like a patient in analysis and actually anticipates these strategies of deconstruction by enabling them to take place.’ Rather than decide ‘what is “really” a poet’s interests politically or what is really intentional as against unconscious’, Arm-strong offers ‘a more generous understanding of the text as struggle ... struggle with a changing project, struggle with the play of ambiguity and contradiction’. Hers is a way of reading ‘which gives equal weight to a text’s stated project and the polysemic and possibly wayward meanings it generates’.

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