This critical-historical account of Victorian poetry attempts to give some sense – to make some sense – of the productions of the most aweingly productive period of poetry there’s ever been, in any language. Just how many ‘Victorian’ poets and poems there were really came home to me in compiling my Blackwells collection The Victorians: An Anthology of Poetry and Poetics (2000), with its 158 named poets (and a ghostly band of not-all-that-bad poets excluded for reasons only of space). Most of the discussion in this book has grown out of lectures and classes at Oxford and elsewhere seeking to arm undergraduates and graduates – and still more grown-up readers too – with some map through this densely matted overgrowth and undergrowth. How to see the wood for the trees, and the trees for the wood. To make out the figures in this very large carpet. To see, in Matthew Arnold’s phrase, the poetic object ‘as in itself it really is’ – though reckoning the poetic object, the text, not as some neatly bounded, autotelic, done and dusted, perfectly finished thing (did Arnold ever really think that?), but as it indeed is, a messy, fluid scene or drama of language, its ‘final’ words never unconscious of their precedent try-outs (many of them now handily, and always eye-openingly, available in major editions), and in many cases bearing the traces of its as it were evolutionary ancestors in earlier poems (what we now think of as its intertextual forebears); its words slippery to grip, given as they are more to connotation than denotation, to multivalence rather than singleness of mind; its grammar happily fuzzy (as modern grammarians have it); its referentiality so difficult to pin down because this writing is so utterly receptive to the world of things outside it. These texts are deictic alright, but pointing all over the place. This textuality is so porous: all at once also intertextual and contextual.

Every genre, said Derrida on a wise occasion, overflows all boundaries assigned to it. And so it is with every item in consideration by my title: poem, poetics, poet even, certainly poetry, and of course Victorian. They’re all of them hazy and blurry as would-be knowable ‘objects’; though in practice we do have to keep talking about them as such: Victorian, poetry, poet, poem, poetics.

A multi-pronged complexity then. My prime critical business is with ‘poems’, those complex utterances. Poems in their great Victorian multiplicity. High canonical ones, of course, but backed of necessity by reference to the great mass of second-division and also obviously minor ones. As well as merely citing lots, I do keep dwelling at some length on individual poems – there’s much close reading here – singletons which have to stand (as is the inevitable way of criticism) synecdochically, and I hope convincingly, for the always greater numbers of their authors’ production, and the literary production of their era, the very very large Victorian poetic oeuvre. My sub-title puts ‘poets’ first, because I’m not afraid of the fact that poems are produced by poets, actual men and women, living in the real world, who are the actual thinking, feeling, writing channels for all the contents and discontents which poems evince. It’s not writing that writes – to reverse Roland Barthes’s notorious formula – but writers. So, no Death of the Author here, but rather constant biographical name-checking and a constant eye out for what have been called ‘biographemes’, the textualizing of authorial concerns. Poets, then; and my mission is to show how poets, and so their poems, come marinaded in politics and economics, the wars of contemporary ideas, and how they’re utterly conscious of their times. And poets, and so their poems, also, in the main, highly self-conscious poetically, aesthetically. These writers are nothing if not readers, who keep positioning themselves and their work in relation to other writers and writings, and other aesthetic practices like painting, practising intertextuality and intermediality (as we say nowadays). Hence the constant stress in my analyses on the ‘poetics’ of my title – on the contemporary theorizing of poetry and the poetic; on the constant discussion within poems about poeticity and aesthetic function (metatextuality: poems about poems; poems self-reflecting by proxy in ekphrastic engagements with surrogate made-objects such as paintings); my constant hearkening to what’s done with the Bible and Shakespeare and Dante and the Classics (especially the Roman); and my interest in the debate for and against medievalism and classicism. I persistently position my poets and their poems around large nodes of contemporary theoretical/critical discussion – about rhyme, onomatopeia, Ruskinian ‘pathetic fallacy’, Arnoldian ‘modernity’, the so-called ‘Fleshly School’, Mrs Browning’s ‘sort of novel-poem’, and so on – because that’s what contemporary poets and their poems and their readers did.

Much of what reading the poetic objects as in themselves they really are must take in is, of course, given: the particular words on the page (and/or in the footnotes of good editions), and so words and word-issues occupy prime place in my critical narratives; as also the available, legible, statements from the poets about what they think and mean and intend; and the poetic concerns and topics of my authors and of their times; and the contemporary Victorian critical agenda which foreground the current questions of form, rhetoric, content, style. But reading in the ‘Now’ of my title – Victorian Poetry Now – is always contingent on the modern reader’s contemporary reading agenda. Which is constantly shifting the textual and critical emphases and directions, refocussing response, refocalizing it (as we say now, borrowing from film-theory). No modern reader’s contemporary critical agenda can utterly ignore, let alone displace or erase the givens perceived to be importantly in play in whatever old poetic object, whenever. But current critical thought about how words and so poems work and mean, and the possibilities for interpretation, for hermeneutics, and the importance or otherwise of this or the other issue of belief, thought, action, politics economics, class, gender, race, and so forth, will inevitability inflect the modern reader’s approaches. However retro, however hostile to modern theory, you want to be, you will inevitably be affected by it. And since we all now come After Theory, we all now read, more or less, some of us enthusiastically, some of us distantly, under the fashionable twin, hegemonic flags of (post)structuralism and post-Marxist materialism. We’re inevitably commanded on the one hand by the so-called Linguistic Turn, stressing textuality (and intertextuality and metatextuality), a sort of neo-formalism, with a prominent stake in aporia, abysmality, endless difference rather than reference, that is something like Derridean deconstruction, certainly an epistemological and hermeneutic scepticism about readability and knowability which scoops in Freud, courtesty of Lacan, and thus applies to persons as well as texts. And on the other, rather contradictorily, commanded by deep and wide contextualism – politically concerned, ideologically curious and furious, concerned to discuss the ‘construction’ of gender, race and class, the self, the body in literature – travelling variously under the names of Cultural Materialism, New Historicism, third-generation Feminism, Gender Studies, especially Q, that is Queer, Studies, and Post-Colonialism (with its mighty subset Edward Saidian Orientalism), all mightily animated by Michel Foucault and his studies of institutionalized power and its assorted discourses. This is the modernist critical recipe book which has made Victorianists all more or less a spotty, opportunistic blend of a sort of Derrideanism and Focauldianism. And so it is inevitably here. I try to write as plainly and unjargonizingly as possible – William Empson is my favoured model – but it should be clear just how much I accept how much Theory and Theorized reading have affected our sense of what’s up, and what’s important, in Victorian poetry.

Introducing a characteristically of-now Tennyson-centennial number of Victorian Poetry (Vol 30, iii–iv, Autumn-Winter 1992), the volume’s editor, the openly deconstructionist Tennysonian Gerhard Joseph, imagines the Shade of Tennyson complaining about ‘All this talk about “repression”, “sexual confusion”, “patriarchal functions”, cultural formation of masculinities, … “deconstruction” of one binary opposition or another, “colonial discourse”, ideological moments and disruptions’. Tennyson’s ghost is not placated, but Gerhard’s point that all this sort of reading is inevitable is not to be gainsaid. Of course Joseph concedes that there is a possible danger of current readers ‘imputing’ (he uses Tennyson’s own word) our contemporary concerns in the old writings, that is forcing in such considerations, even imagining some issues and practices to be present when they’re not. But what’s arresting is just how little false imputing of values and meaning has gone on through the critical agenda Gerhard Joseph is so receptive to. I myself believe, in fact, that nothing critically useful (to paraphrase King Lear) comes out of nothing; critical somethings only come from things actually present – however previously invisible they might have been. The falsely imputed doesn’t stick long – if it sticks at all. And, in fact, what I hope I keep showing is the way Now reading is actually only reworking what Victorian poets and poems have already worked with, whether consciously or not – an emphasis culminating in my final chapter on ‘Victorian Modernismus’.

What’s striking in recent times is how post-Theory reading has opened up Victorian poetry so convincingly, and (in the best sense) as never before. With palpable gains of all sorts. In terms, not least, of expanding the ranks of considerable clientele. Theorized rereadings of the canon have brought in from the cold many otherwise neglected men and women, including regional and proletarian writers, who are given their now due weight in my account: Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, now in the Top Team, jostling hard against the Top Three of Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Hopkins (though I do think some of the feminist praise-singing on behalf of LEL, Felicia Hemans, and Michael Field a parti-pris advocacy too far); Swinburne, happily promoted by Gender Studies; Oscar Wilde, convincingly placed now as the most considerable end-of-century British writer through the efforts of Queer theorists. And so forth. There have been massive conceptual, hermeneutic gains too, notably the queering of Hopkins (and Tennyson), but with accesses of new meaning all over the shop – about the poets’ anxieties for language, form and genre (the post-structuralist linguistic, epistemological, deconstructionist challenge), about how selfhood, belief, history, politics, empire, the real, play. Issues, to repeat, rarely imputed; but animated and, of course re-animated, for our greater advisement.

My own now reading – Victorian Poetry Now – falls into two, I think necessary rather than contingent, and I hope critically useful, parts. Part I, ‘So Far as the Words Are Concerned’, foregrounds basic verbal, textual issues; Part II, ‘Contents and Discontents of the Forms’ tackles major issues of content, the subject-matters of the poetic forms, and inspects the interactions of form and content (branching out from the demonstrations in Part I, Chapter 4 of the way poems’ merely verbal practices (in this case rhyming/repetition) sustain the extra-verbal meanings – are rhymings with reasons beyond what’s merely aural. ‘Words, Words, Words, and More Words’, Chapter 1, dwells on the aweingly large scope of Victorian poetry, its numerosity, its big poems, its multivalence; how (contrary to myths of Victorian repression and narrowness – which lasted well into the twentieth century) and the allegation that formal prowess over-rode close attention to the choice and arrangement of the words, the Victorians lavished great care on their verbal doings – in the unstoppable critical conversation going on in the extended Victorian poetic family (examples from the Rossettis and their chums, Tennyson and the Reviewers, and Ruskin and Browning toughing it out mano a mano, hard and personally). ‘Rhyming/Repeating’, Chapter 2, sets out my theory of essential poetic (how to tell a poem when you see one), offering rhyme, ‘bound words’, that is repetition (anaphora, doubling, iteration, dittography; rhyme as the repetition of any and every possible verbal item) as the hard core of (Victorian) poeticity. (Victorian) poetry as a set of repetition machines. (No such thing as free verse; no refraining from refraining, from the burden of the burden.) ‘Making Noise/Noising Truths’, Chapter 3, suggests mere noise, the mere ‘ring of rhyme’, as prime (Tennyson the Auriculate Laureate leading the noisy way), and examines varieties of poetic noise-making, the lure of onomatopoeia (with special reference to Hopkins: God’s rhymester), Tennyson and noise as horrible vitality, Hardyesque stillicide, the noisiness of Browning and his marginalized ilk that’s so offensive to the elitist and the posh (Arnold’s ‘tone of the centre’), and noise-making as a kind of truthfulness to the real. ‘These Rhyming/Repeating Games are Serious’, Chapter 4, expands the idea of repeated noise, the poems’ noise-making – poetry’s jouissance in the repetition/rhyming games it indulges so much, its delighted response to the abysmality of nonsense and Nonsense (helter-skelter ‘Goblin Market’, and all that) – as nonetheless the bearer of meanings beyond mere aurality: by the way repetitions, doublings, returns, echoings sustain and make fulness of meaning, work the question of meaning, in particular in representative main poems by Hood, Christina G Rossetti (‘Goblin Market’, ‘Winter: My Secret’ (aka ‘Nonsense’), ‘Echo’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (‘Troy Town’), Clough (‘Dipsychus’), Tennyson (‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’), Robert Browning (‘Two in the Campagna’), and Hopkins (‘Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves’).

Part II is besotted by content, the contents (and discontents) in, and made by and through, the poetic forms, the verbal containers. Chapter 5, ‘Down-Sizing’ makes a methodological segue into the critical ways of Part II. Offering an antithesis to the massivity, the bigness heroic, of the period it investigates the way the forms and contents of smallness interact – the small poem (exemplarily the sonnet, a main production of this sonnettomaniac time, especially Charles Tennyson Turner’s sonneteering); the child subject and children’s literature; the fetish of dollanity, of the small subject, the small text (little girls, dolls, toys, photographs, postage-stamps); the metonymic, synecdochic force of the small poeticized item (the ‘flower in the crannied wall’ syndrome); the overwhelming powers of reductionism (‘Letty’s Globe’, Browning’s Duke); the menace and horrors of smallness (poetry’s shop of little horrors); fairyology (fairies, fairy poems, fairy paintings); the convergence of these tropes, subjects, objects in particular in Lewis Carroll; the shock, menace, madness, neurosis of such fetishizing (black-handed Carroll, mad Richard Dadd, the exemplarily fearful Dong-ish nose of Edward Lear). Chapters 6, 7, and 8 in Part II are large umbrellas under which are instructively clustered what seem to me the most prominent and far-reaching anxieties of Victorian poetry (with much side-glancing, here as elsewhere, at parallel pictorial work). ‘Selving’, Chapter 6, exposes the massive self-preoccupation of Victorian poetry, thinks much about the going problems with personification (prosopopoeia, the making of prosopa), feels the force of Ruskin’s ‘pathetic fallacy’ charges, focusses a lot on the dramatic monologue, on deceiving self-presentation (slippery characters), on variously distraught persons – people in poetry’s madhouse cells, the wildly spasmodic ‘Maud’ very important here), selves on edge (especially on the beach, where they’re threatened with disselving, self-dissolution under the real and allegorical threat of incoming tides), with much about poets and poetry taking on the destructive element of water (Swinburne not least); all of which wateriness leads into the gender perturbations (the massive Queer- dilemma mongering) typically allegorized in and around water (Hopkins’s ‘Epithalamium’, Clough’s swimming holes, Symonds’s blue Venetian lagoon, Swinburne’s Hermaphroditus fantasy), and to the frustrations of hermaphroditism and ‘Contralto’ parts, and the problematic of garbled and garbling poetic identity (the truth/untruth of pronouns) especially in the gay aesthetic practices of Michael Field, Symonds, and Pater. Which selfhood considerations and consternations turn into bodily questions in Chapter 7, ‘Fleshly Feelings’, where the poetry’s faith in the body as the most reliable signifying system of personal meaning (body truth) is inspected, beginning with the large issue of the sexualized body as prompted by Buchanan/Maitland’s revealing attacks on ‘The Fleshly School’ of poetry; going on to look at how the poetry handles all sorts and conditions of body, the desired and the undesirable, the good, the bad and the ugly; and climaxing with an extended discussion of poetry’s (and painting’s) troubling body synecdoches for the person – mouths, of course, but above all hair (fetishistically alluring, frighteningly demonic, genderized (straight, gay), religious – religiose hair starring ‘Mary Magdalene’, the composite fantasy woman from the Gospels so enticing to poets (and painters). ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, Chapter 8, the longest chapter because these are Victorian poetry’s biggest subject-matters, deals with the ubiquitous sadness, grieving, mournfulness, melancholy, ghostedness, death-consciousness, death-wishing, death-anticipating (the direct inheritance of Albrecht Dürer’s Protestant ‘Melencolia’ and Shakespeare’s Melancholy Protestant Man Prince Hamlet); its tone set by ‘The City of Dreadful Night’ by James Thompson the Victorian Dürer-ite known as the ‘Laureate of Pessimism’; the period when elegy is the prevailing mode (with ‘In Memoriam’ as exemplary poem, and Tennyson’s Hallam-grieving ouevre as exemplary poetic career). A typology of the period’s huge roster of elegies, the poetry that remembers the dead, is offered: elegy the genre of grieving which has so many prompting causes – ruins of all sorts: civilizations, cities and empires (Timbuctoo, Babylon, Nineveh, Pompeii, Rome; British imperialism), Italian culture, fallen leaves (the large glum poetry of autumn and winter); the fallen trees of Hopkins and Barnes; the death of God and allied Recessionals; all an extensive poetry of apocalypse, ending-up, endedness which provokes much poetic wondering about the possible cheating of death, of doing something ‘ere the end’, the poetry of ‘penultimateness’ and possible living-on, of survival, of resurrection (hence the great poetic interest in the Gospel’s Lazarus). Elegy, then, as memorial, mnemotechnik, an art of aesthetic life after death. The chapter ends with the cravings to make, at the least, a good end, massively illustrated by the cultic construction of the ‘Last Chapter’ of Tennyson’s life, and with what the exhumation of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poems from Lizzie Siddall’s tomb might mean.

My final two chapters are a connected pair, about how modernity incites, infects, and affects Victorian poetry. ‘Modernizing the Subject’, Chapter 9, looks at how poets braced up (or not) to the challenges of the modern subject in the sense of the realist issues of society, economics, politics which were commonly thought rather the prerogative of the novel; and ‘Victorian Modernismus’, Chapter 10, shows how modernist, even (post-modernist), Victorian poetic practices actually were. ‘Modernizing the Subject’ is about how the period’s genre wars between the realist, modern, outward-looking, publicly-minded claims and tendencies of the novel and the private, anti-modern, backward-looking inclinations of much poetry worked out. A class warfare, on the whole, with the aesthetic gents, Anglican Christians, Oxonian posh or posh-ish poets (and painters), tending to retreat Arnoldianly into classicizing, pastoral and the medieval, shunning the modern world of urbanism, mechanism, the factory, democracy; and, on the other side, with the aesthetic proletarians and provincials, the truculent underclass of poetry (including many women), the religious Dissenters (in particular the Unitarians, and notably the Congregationalist Brownings) being steeped in urban, regional, technological and industrial matters, the movement of masses at home and abroad, the Carlylean stuff of the period’s novels. This conflict of genre and matter is focussed in the terrifically important Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Carlylean ‘Poetry of theWorld’, her ‘sort of novel-poem’. That this was by no means a simple of matter class and background alignments, though, is shown variously in the exemplary conflict between pastoralizing, classicizing, urban-provincial-Dissenter-averse Arnold and Oxonian ‘Citizen Clough’, in the two-way street up which fairyologist socialist Dissenter George Macdonald and the medievalizing Oxonian socialist William Morris travel, and in the fraught, unresolved, dualisms of Tennyson: his medievalism, pastoralism and classicism on the one hand, and his (Aurora Leigh-admiring) urban-conscious, machine-age, political, imperialist (and orientalist) preoccupations on the other. The chapter closes with Arnold and Tennyson fighting over who is the truest classicist, Virgilian, Horation, and with Tennyson acing Arnold in revising the classical subject as truly modern – releasing Lucretius’s inner modern, rewriting him as a Roman Hamlet, melancholy mad like the narrator of ‘Maud’, or Tennyson himself.

Tennyson’s modern Lucretius: signpost into ‘Victorian Modernismus’, which argues that so much of the linguistics, poetics, hermeneutics, narrativity, characterologies which have emerged in precedent chapters is in fact so proto-modernistically sceptical and relativist, even deconstructionist, as to be reckoned actually modernist, even post-modernist. Proof is offered in the great Victorian indebtedness of the great modernists, especially Pound and Eliot, and the way modernist Henry James could read The Ring and the Book as a Jamesian novel. The modernism of The Ring and the Book brings home the case, as, amply, does the great array of Victorian ekphrastic poems (by the Brownings and Swinburne and Dante Gabriel Rossetti), which the chapter ends by reading – powerful, metatextually modernist inspections of art-objects as surrogates for poems, poised in classic deconstructionist fashion at the aporetic borders of fulness-emptiness, presence-absence, meaning-unmeaning. Here’s the challenging textuality of (post)modernism well before its time. Or, as one might well think, well within it.

Part I

So Far as The Words Are Concerned

‘Whitman was … a poet of the greatest and utmost delicacy, and sensitivity, so far as words are concerned.’ ‘So Far as Words are Concerned’ might almost be the title of this book; every page brings out the forgotten truism that words are what poems are made of.

Louis MacNeice, quoting Randall Jarrell’s Poetry and the Age (1955) on the subject of Walt Whitman’s poems.

London Magazine 2:9 (Sept 1955), 71–74; Selected Literary Criticism of Louis MacNeice, ed Alan Heuser (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1987), 205.