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’.

What makes the Victorian poem ‘double’ in Armstrong’s sense is its capacity at once to express and to analyse, to give voice to feelings and beliefs and sceptically to question them. Such divided consciousness was a frequently articulated theme of the period. ‘We wish to be a twofold thing,’ wrote Arthur Henry Hallam, ‘And keep our present self to watch within!’ In his Preface to his Poems of 1853 Matthew Arnold famously located the beginning of modernity in ‘the dialogue of the mind with itself’. Though Armstrong does not wish to restrict her focus to the dramatic monologue, Tennyson’s and Browning’s familiar experiments provide the clearest examples of what she means by a double poem. ‘In a feat of recomposition and externalisation the poem turns its expressive utterance around so that it becomes the opposite of itself, not only the subject’s utterance but the object of analysis and critique. It is, as it were, reclassified as drama in the act of being literal lyric expression.’ While Armstrong devotes extended attention to monologues such as Tennyson’s ‘Maud’ (1855) and Browning’s ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’ (1855), she finds a related doubleness even in poems not obviously dramatic in their sense: in Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market (1862), for example, whose enigmatic narrative provides a demonstration that ‘the energy of resistance is the condition of the energies of expression’; or in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘Pied Beauty’ (1918), whose ‘dappled things’, at once sharply individuated and resembling one another by their very difference, threaten to manifest the potential contradictions in the poet’s theory of language. If one suspects that Armstrong’s dialectical method could tease similar tensions and ambiguities out of any poem written from the Romantics to the present, that is partly her point: since the Victorians wrote the most sophisticated and politically complex poems of the past two hundred years, she wants to argue, ‘It is proper’ that their work should serve to generate a way of reading the poetry of the whole period.

Armstrong’s effort to place Victorian poetry at the centre of modern literary history is not quite as new as she sometimes implies. In Victorian and Modern Poetics (1984), a work unmentioned here, Carol Christ similarly questioned the critical habit of accepting at face value the younger generation’s repudiation of its predecessors; and like Armstrong, she emphasised the tension between lyric subjectivity and dramatic distance that characterises the poetic forms of both periods. What distinguishes Armstrong’s densely argued book from Christ’s far more readable study is not only the greater range of its examples and its serious effort at providing a historical account of its subject, but the author’s insistence on the complex interdependence of poetics and politics. For Armstrong, the doubleness of Victorian poetry is always a question of political conflict as well as of literary form: indeed, it is precisely the Victorians’ own effort to preserve a political and cultural role for their art that divides them from their successors. While the 19th-century writers struggled to retain some ‘content’ for poetry, some reference other than to poetry itself, with the advent of Modernism ‘the stuffing of the Victorian sofa disappears and art becomes self-reflexive and self-referential.’ Though the collapse of the sofa cushions provides a momentary diversion from the customary abstractions of Armstrong’s style, this Orlando-like bit of social history is somewhat misleading, since the position of the Victorians as she presents it is anything but cosy and comfortable. There is no question, on the other hand, that her Modernists suffer a kind of fall. ‘The Modernist repression of the Victorians,’ she writes, ‘comes surely from an understanding that the Victorians had anticipated the self-reflexive condition and rejected it. The Modernists are haunted by the Victorians because they are haunted by the plenitude which eludes them.’

By Victorian ‘politics’ Armstrong means far more than conflicts of party and class. Her understanding of the term includes struggles over sexuality, epistemology, science and theology; and the lines of affiliation and influence she traces among the participants are subtly entangled and shifting. Though there are occasions when her political claims for poems are scarcely credible (she describes ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’, written in 1852, as ‘surely Browning’s prophetic Crimean War poem’), for the most part she manages to avoid reductive readings. Her book begins by placing the early work of Browning and Tennyson within the ‘two systems of concentric circles’, as John Stuart Mill described them, that radiated out from the radical Bentham and the conservative Coleridge. While Browning wrote for the Monthly Repository, edited by the Benthamite W.J. Fox, the young Tennyson associated with Arthur Hallam and the conservative society of Cambridge Apostles. Deliberately borrowing from Walter Benjamin on the 20th century, Armstrong identifies the Monthly Repository group with ‘a politicised aesthetics’ and the Apostles with ‘an aestheticised politics’. But she has no sooner traced these circles than she characteristically complicates the picture. On issues like the first Reform Bill, the two groups were sharply opposed, yet both ‘belonged to a new middle-class intelligentsia who repudiated aristocratic privilege and wanted change’, and both conceived of themselves – if avant la lettre – as avant garde: in fact they were ‘arguably ... the first recognisably avant-garde group to emerge in Britain’, with Hallam himself rather surprisingly proving ‘an Adorno before his time’. Both groups, she contends, recognised the connections between literature and power, and both saw problems of consciousness, language and gender as central to their aesthetics. Both also, of course, experimented with the double poem. Though Hallam’s sophisticated poetics proved more fruitful for subsequent generations than the somewhat literal-minded tradition associated with the radicals, waves radiating out from the two circles continued to ‘meet and intersect’, as Mill had predicted, throughout the century.

Victorian Poetry does not confine itself to the obvious figures. To argue for the subversive force of early Tennysonian conservatism, for example, Armstrong reads his poems of the 1830s against more orthodox Tory productions by John Wilson, John Keble and Robert Montgomery, as well as some ‘vapid’ lyrics (the adjective is Tennyson’s) from the popular album collections of the period. Familiar works like ‘The Palace of Art’ and ‘The Lotus Eaters’ (both 1832; revised 1842) appear alongside poems by Monckton Milnes, R.C. Trench and John Sterling to exemplify the ‘breakdown’ of the poetry of sensation. Browning’s ‘problematising the text’ in Pauline (1833) is juxtaposed with the more overtly radical works of Ebenezer Elliott and R.H. Horne, including the latter’s burlesque ‘A Political Oratorio’ (1835), with its competing choruses of peers, paupers and trade unions. There are extensive discussions of ‘working-class poetry’ (defined for the most part, though somewhat uneasily, by the class of its author) and a long chapter on women’s poetry, although Armstrong’s welcome introductory remarks on the dangers of constructing a women’s tradition ‘according to a unique modality of feminine experience’ are partly contradicted by the very act of quarantining the women in a single chapter. Inevitably, perhaps, the discussion achieves some coherence only by virtually excluding one of the most important female poets of the period. Armstrong’s rule for women’s poetry – ‘the simpler the surface of the poem, the more likely it is that a second and more difficult poem will exist beneath it’ – produces some fine readings of Christina Rossetti among others, but proves pretty much beside the point in the few pages devoted to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

The last thing most readers will wish, however, is that Victorian Poetry were longer. As it is, the book’s peculiar combination of allusiveness and syntactic uncertainty renders considerable stretches of the argument nearly impenetrable. Two examples:

And consciousness does avail itself of reflections by presenting the train of associative sensation as a retrospective act, capable of reflexive analysis by as it were historicising the consciousness and working upon it with the analyst’s understanding which comes from the acknowledgment of the latter-day poet that all experience is comprehended in a series of backward questions.

We must differentiate between the hero’s compliance in an account of universal war from the analysis of the text, which sees the madness of the ‘civil’ life of the Ha1l as an extension of and double of the hero’s madness and not its opposite, and the madness of war as a double of both.

Too often Victorian Poetry reads like a private set of notes for a scholarly course rather than a serious effort at persuading others.

Kate Flint’s study of women’s reading incidentally demonstrates that the Victorians themselves did not always recognise the radical sophistication of their poetry. ‘Tennyson is another poet whose poems may be put before “virginibus puerisque”,’ an anonymous advice book of 1881 confidently assured its readers, before going on to issue the usual warnings against Richardson and Smollett. For Sarah Stickney Ellis, poetry was particularly suited to women readers because it is removed from ‘the realities of material and animal existence’. On the other hand, much of the autobiographical evidence that Flint has assembled suggests that any work could seem radical enough if only it were forbidden. One former schoolgirl recalled how a classmate was expelled for sneaking a look at some prohibited passages from Cranford, while another remembered being punished for surreptitiously reading Macaulay’s Essays when she was supposed to have been preparing her lessons. As Flint reminds us, most official rhetoric in the period concentrated on the dangerous consequences of women’s appetite for fiction. But poems too could seem seductively illicit. The future Ruskin scholar, Joan Evans, was liberally supplied with the novels of Scott and Thackeray, but found herself tempted by a few well-bound volumes of poetry kept behind glass in the drawing-room: whenever her parents were in London, she later reported, she would open the bookcase and ‘take delicious draughts of verse’ – Tennyson and Matthew Arnold proving, it seems, ‘all the sweeter for being read in secret’.

By her own account, Flint does not so much set forth a thesis as dismantle one: The Woman Reader: 1837-1914 essentially argues that there is no way of generalising about the singular subject of its title. Having begun by asking how a 19th-century woman might have read differently from a man, Flint eventually found that the heterogeneity of women readers and modes of reading made her original question unanswerable. This is not to say, however, that ‘the’ woman reader didn’t figure prominently in prescriptive writing of the period. For many 19th-century commentators, anxiety about woman’s reading was bound up with the stereotype of her peculiar vulnerability, both natural and cultural. As one reviewer succinctly put it in 1842, first, women ‘are naturally more sensitive, more impressable, than the other sex; and secondly, their engagements are of a less engrossing character – they have more time as well as more inclination to indulge in reveries of fiction.’ By mid-century the ‘natural’ sensitivities of the woman reader were frequently being attributed to her physiology, with the practice of novel-reading understood as both cause and effect of physical lassitude and even hysteria. Flint cites an 1892 advertisement for Caffyn’s Liquor Carnis, Malto-Carnis and allied Products of Raw Beef Juice, which promised to cure ‘bloodlessness in girls’ who ‘pore for hours over novels and sickly sentimental stories, becoming weaker and weaker’.

Against all such stereotypes, The Woman Reader poses the variety of the historical record. In addition to 19th-century advice literature, most of it concerned with middle-class subjects, Flint has collected discussions of working-class reading habits, medical texts, articles on women’s education, histories of public libraries, as well as early sociological surveys (one of which questioned both ‘Colonial and Indian Girls’ and ‘British Girls’ to determine their favourite novelists), and the testimony of many autobiographers. She also briefly addresses images of reading within fiction itself and attempts – not altogether persuasively – to defend sensation fiction and ‘New Woman’ novels on the grounds that they encouraged their readers’ analytical powers and the ‘active construction of meaning’. By the end of the century feminists were increasingly inclined to attribute women’s vulnerability as readers to their ignorance rather than their bodies, but the assumptions that women read primarily for escape and that they identify uncritically with the protagonists of fiction, Flint suggests, still inform much up-to-date theorising on the subject. Though she makes relatively little of the comparison, the possibility that our own theories may be as remote from the experience of actual readers as were the prescriptions of the 19th-century conduct books is worth pondering.