Experimental Form in Victorian Poetry

In 1844, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wanted to write “a poem of a new class,” one that included “[conversations & events” and “philosophical dreaming digression.”1 She also wanted to purify George Gordon Byron‘s sexually contentious poetry, to write “a Don Juan, without the mockery impurity.” But this moral aim, while acknowledging her wish to elude the precedents created by Byron, was less important than her larger formal purpose. This desire to compose a new poetic form, one that would adapt established styles to contemporary needs, and particularly one that would combine narrative and speculative commentary with the requirements of aesthetic unity, typifies many Victorian poets. It led to widespread poetic play that transgressed boundaries between the three classical genres identified by the Greeks – epic (or narrative), drama, and lyric. And in the twentieth century it led in turn to standard critical discussions of Victorian experiments with form.2

Established accounts of experimentation tend to work within a critical legacy that associates experimental writing with internal features of structure and style. More recent critical practice, however, directs our attention to broader cultural contexts and particularly to the potential for cultural critique. Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer, for instance, distinguish two types of critique: institutional critique, which aims to expose the conditions and principles which govern existing institutions and cultural practices, and transformative critique, which aims not only to question the conditions which sustain existing institutions but to change cultural practice. Poetry, I suggest, is more likely to offer examples of institutional critique.3 In other words, when genres are reshaped or recovered (like medieval ballads in the eighteenth century), they may test or expose paradigms of contemporary values (reason, orderliness, universality) as well as aesthetic norms (neoclassical decorum). Alternatively, when new forms are developed they tend to cohere culturally at the point where their characteristics become recognizable or even dominant within an emerging social system (such as the nineteenth-century novel of manners). The consequence of this approach is to broaden the cultural significance of experimental writing. It can involve testing cultural conventions and assumptions, where testing means checking the resilience and flexibility of received literary norms, seeing if shifts in cultural practices and beliefs require new cultural forms. Conversely, it may entail seeing whether new or revitalized forms might themselves provoke changed cultural perceptions. In this sense, literary experimentation functions as a form of social dynamism, breaking up the inertia of linguistic habits and, ambiguously, questioning or rehabilitating them.

By the time Victoria came to the throne in 1837, Romantic poets had already begun this kind of cultural testing. Generic categories had long been challenged and reshaped by several decades of shifting poetic structures, ones that adapted old forms (ballads, odes, and pastoral) and refashioned old hybrids (the lyrical ballads of William Wordsworth Samuel Taylor Coleridge, or the lyrical drama of Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley). Victorian poets certainly continued to employ a range of differing forms. But in this general cultural shift they tended to sustain further movements and variations rather than offer sudden innovation – Barrett Browning, for instance, had to acknowledge that Byron had in part anticipated her purpose. At the same time, the one generic exception is the dramatic monologue, and this innovative form helps us to understand what is at stake in other modes of poetic experimentation in the period. Critics generally concur that this type of poem stands as the main Victorian contribution to a distinctly modern, if not Modernist, literature. With its hybrid combination of lyric and drama, the dramatic monologue produced an intensive focus on the exigencies and processes of human subjectivity. This concentration on human agency – on the psychology and politics of individuation – draws attention to a consistent feature of Victorian poetic forms, as the title of Langbaum‘s famous 1957 study, The Poetry of Experience, suggests. Victorian forms emphasize a particular conceptual strand of experimentation: namely, that which overlaps with the modern category of experience.

The English word experiment derives from the Latin experimentum (proof or trial) and experiri (prove, test, try), which is also the source of experientia (experience).4 If experience is that which is based on actual observation, on practical acquaintance with events considered as a source of knowledge, then the experimental is that which is based on experience only – on direct acquaintance or personal knowledge, not on separate or agreed authority. These close correlations between experience, experiment, and testing produce a sense of knowledge as incomplete, neither authoritative nor fixed. In an age of growing challenges to established knowledge, therefore, it is hardly surprising that poetic forms emphasize the experiencing, thinking and feeling, human subject. Growth in the sciences, particularly the physical sciences such as botany and geology, as well as in theological questioning (notably the Higher Criticism of the Bible), created an intensifying uncertainty in the face of fundamental change. Emergent ideas about evolution, for example, displaced earlier concepts of mutability where change involved cyclical repetition rather than radical transformation, so that in Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850) even solid lands “melt like mist” (AT CXXIII, 7).

In conjunction with this uncertainty, poetic forms shift in emphasis. Rather than discovering completed wholes, we find structures that stress movement toward an end but where the attainment of that end is shrouded in incertitude. In other words, speakers in Victorian poems rarely find the palpable end or closure that would ensure aesthetic order and cultural or personal meaningfulness. There is no attainable goal for the eponymous hero of Tennyson‘s dramatic monologue Ulysses (1842): for him the “margin fades / For ever and for ever” when he moves (AT 20-21). Similarly, the concluding vision of a New Jerusalem in Barrett Browning‘s epic Aurora Leigh (1856) remains rhetorically articulated yet tantalizingly remote: the “first foundations of that new, near Day” (EBBAL IX. 956) lie “faint and far. . . / Beyond the circle of the conscious hills” (IX. 952-54). In Arthur Hugh Clough‘s Amours de Voyage (1858), the protagonist’s moment of conclusion is the debilitating paradox of an active passivity, a determination of will that is a capitulation of intent: “I will go where I am led” (AHC V. 179).5 And for Robert Browning‘s speaker in Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came (1855), the moment of discovering the dark tower, the object of his quest, is a moment of utter ambiguity where revelation and destruction are inseparable. Like a sailor at the mercy of a storm, he sees “the unseen shelf / He strikes on, only when the timbers start” (RB 185-86).

In many respects, Childe Roland might be considered the quintessential Victorian experiment. It was a poem that Browning felt compelled to write, despite his uncertainty about its purpose; it was written in a single day, in fulfillment of a New Year resolution to write a poem a day;6 and its intensively figurative style has generally baffled anyone seeking allegorical solutions to its perplexing narrative. Roland, the presumed protagonist, has spent a lifetime searching for the dark tower, much in the manner of a Childe (a knight in training), who is on a mission to secure his identity as knight. But Roland has journeyed without success. At the beginning of the poem, he seeks only an end to his suffering. On glimpsing the prospect of an “end descried,” he feels only “gladness that some end might be” (17-18). He has heard failure prophesied so often and stated so many times of those other knights who have preceded him, that now “just to fail as they, seemed best” (41). Hence the poem resembles a medieval quest, a journey of self-discovery, but one in which the ghastly wasteland imagery sends the speaker into an intensifyingly isolated confrontation with strange grotesque phenomena. Once he leaves the road, it disappears. The grass, he says, grew “as scant as hair / In leprosy” (73-74). He sees a “stiff blind horse” (76). He crosses a stream which might have been a “bath” (112) for the “fiend’s glowing hoof” (113) or contain “a dead man’s cheek” (122). And he finds inexplicable marks “trample[d]” in the soil (130). Unexpectedly, when about to give up again, he realizes he is at “the place!” (176) – the tower is discovered. At the same time, he is trapped among hills, and his peers seem arranged to view “the last” of him (200). Yet he concludes by dauntlessly blowing his “slug-horn” (203), apparently announcing his presence: Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came(204).

The poem’s formal features close around a past-tense narrative whose effect is paradoxically one of present immediacy. While the poem grammatically relates a series of past events, the result is one of continuing action, as if the speaker were attempting to explain events as they happen: “grey plain all round: / Nothing but plain to the horizon’s bound. / I might go on; naught else remained to do” (52-54). Momentary expostulations indicate present-tense outbursts: “For mark!” (49), “No!” (61), “Alive?” (79), “Not it!” (91). The exclamations also accentuate the attempt to make sense of his experience: “solve it, you!” (167). Hence, as the horrendous features multiply, the poem dramatizes the attempt to wrest, through narrative structure, accountability and understanding from confusion and uncertainty. It represents the search for a structural and thus structuring conclusion from the despair of continuing failure. The poem, therefore, is dominated by the desire for a structural principle that would ensure the homogeneity of completed form. In terms of content, this principle becomes embodied in the formalized object of the tower, which thus structures both quest and poem. But formal homogeneity is disrupted in two respects: first, by the gross condition of the tower once it appears (it is both “round” and “squat” [182]); and second, by the concluding location of the tower within a phrase, cited and italicized, from outside the poem (Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came). “Childe Roland,” then, refuses to supply a seamless unified object, whether as narrative event or structured poem. Instead, this haunting work draws attention to the means by which the speaker attempts to make sense of his world. He confronts strange signs in the landscape: “What made those holes and rents . . . ?”(69); “Who were the strugglers . . . ?” (129). And he offers grotesque answers: “’tis a brute must walk / Pashing their life out” (71-72); “Toads in a poisoned tank, / Or wild cats in a red-hot iron cage” (131-32). Through this very process of articulating his responses, the speaker enunciates the means by which experience is constructed and thereby given shape. The harrowing features of the landscape emerge generally from his own similes or speculations rather than from any external reality: the little river appeared “As unexpected as a serpent comes” (no), and its waters “might have been” (109) a “bath” for the “fiend’s glowing hoof.” If the writing of “Childe Roland” was Browning’s experiment with disciplined creativity, then the poem itself enacts the speaker’s experiment with his own life, where the metaphor of the quest figures the fusion of personal experience with the necessary experiment that constitutes a life seeking meaningfulness and identity.

Acclaimed Romantic poems such as Wordsworth‘s Tintern Abbey (1798) or Intimations of Immortality (1807) can be said to have anticipated this attention to the relationship between past perceptions and present understanding. But the disturbance of harmonious form through ironic discrepancies within self-conscious speakers becomes an increasingly Victorian phenomenon. Even when self-consciousness is not undercut by irony, the emphasis on formal experiment as formalized experience remains. In this regard, Barrett Browning‘s The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point (1848) provides a good example. Spoken by an escaped female slave, the poem recounts the events that have led to the present moment of direct address to the slave-owning sons who have run her down. The monologue falls into three parts: an apostrophe to the Pilgrim Fathers; a narrative about the slave’s infanticide; and a cursing of the slave-owners. The first two sections act as a prelude and grounding for the immediacy of the third, where the poem establishes the conditions of a performative speech act: a curse that enacts its own meaning and thus constitutes the agency and identity of the speaker (acting on her own behalf). The poem moves from contemplating the contradictory legacy of the Pilgrim Fathers (who built a supposedly free nation on slavery) and the ambivalence of blackness (black people are made to feel inhuman and yet animals and birds treat them as people) to an assertion of her blackness when the slave claims that the ghosts of the Pilgrim Fathers will no longer confront her: “My face is black, but it glares with a scorn / Which they dare not meet by day” (EBB 202-03). On one level, the poem offers a conclusion that promotes unity and closure: a climactic self-assertion that transforms the slave’s initial doubt about her black identity. But on another level, the speaker’s reflexive recounting of events introduces the insurgent dimension of an uncertain performativity, notably at the moment when her claimed identity has to be constructed in terms of the social context provided by the “hunter sons” who finally encircle her (204). At that moment, she neither stands alone nor speaks alone. The assertion of a single unified voice is disturbed by the intruding strands of class difference and racial threat: the voices of the “hunter sons” echo in her monologue as she accosts them with the marks on her wrist where she was tied for flogging, and she speaks for all slaves in their rebellion against oppression – “We are too heavy for our cross, / And fall and crush you” (244-45). Both Childe Roland and The Runaway Slave, therefore, produce a similar formalist effect. In each monologue, formal properties of art are tied to the dramatization of human experience. This link means that the principle of aesthetic unity is enacted as a feature of personal desire while it is simultaneously subverted as an impossible ideal.

The concept of form as a homogeneous whole was promoted by Romantic aesthetics. In this concept, all parts cohere: they should, according to Coleridge, “mutually support and explain each other.”7 The model is an organic one, taken from nature – from plants that consist of distinct yet inseparable components (roots, stem, and leaves). Organic form, Coleridge writes, “shapes as it develops itself from within, and the fullness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward form.”8 In this organicism, however, there remains a fundamental conflict between form as a fixed completed object and form as an ongoing process. Coleridge’s formulation implies an inward essence that is represented by an outward shape. Yet the organic model also allows for growth: a dynamic movement toward wholeness. Does, then, the truth of the oak reside only in its fully grown shape? Or is it also present in the acorn from which the oak will grow? Presumably, the essence of the oak includes both acorn and tree. But wherein lies the whole? In the moment of completion? Or in the progress toward it? In other words, how far should a concern with form as innate being incorporate vigorous process and growth (temporality and movement) as well as fixed shape or architectural space (aestheticized truth)?9

This inquiry underscores the necessary materiality of all poetic form. Coleridge acknowledges the point when he says that the spirit of poetry “must embody in order to reveal itself.”10 But he nevertheless continues to privilege the truth of the spirit that precedes the embodiment, neglecting how the mode of revelation might affect the nature of what is revealed. The materiality of appearances leaves an inherent ambiguity between their function as representation and their function as constitution. The former gives rise to the sense of a reality or truth that is ahistorical or transcendent (the idealist emphases of Romantic aesthetics), whereas the latter suggests process and incompleteness (the gaps of Romantic irony). Fundamental to this organic concept of form, therefore, is a conflict – one that Romantic practice could not ultimately avoid – between form as embodied essence (complete product, unified perfection) and form as material process (sensible effects, dynamic shaping, empty ceremony). If Romantic poems accentuate the former, then Victorian poems strive to accommodate the latter.

The claims of idealist poetics about the innate truth of organic form tend to presuppose an essentialism that is inherent in the individual organism. It is as if the organism can be separated from its support systems or mediums of development and growth. This assumption informs the strong emphasis in Romantic poetry on lyrical modes – such as the ode, the hymn, pastoral, and the sonnet – which articulate the voices of solitary speakers. It also nurtured twentieth-century tendencies to treat poetic form as if it were selfenclosed, leading in the 1930s and 1940s to influential New Critical views of the poem as icon. According to this critical approach, poetry was to be viewed as a well-wrought urn whose imaginative success was demonstrated by its internal coherence, where all parts mutually support a homogenous whole.11 For both Romantic poets and New Critics, organic form was also most successfully realized in shorter lyrics where the poetic artifact could more readily establish its formal unity. Longer forms, however, shift inevitably toward the urgency of temporal process, thus affecting their own structural components. Wordsworth‘s The Prelude, for instance, as an attempt to represent the growth of a poet’s imagination, keeps changing its size from two books (in 1802) to thirteen (in 1805) and eventually to fourteen (in 1850). If idealist essentialism is more readily represented in shorter forms, then the move in Victorian poetry away from personalized and homogeneous lyrics toward dramatic-lyrical and epic-narrative-lyrical hybrids suggests a growing dissatisfaction with the essentialist assumptions of organic poetics. Such hybrids shift individual expressiveness away from isolated subjectivism toward social contexts and culturally produced discursive processes. Consequently, formal experimentation by Victorian poets continually suggests the inseparability of material reality from the sentient subject’s experience.

As he does for so many Victorian poetic issues, Matthew Arnold epitomizes this disjunction between Romantic poetics and Victorian practice. In The Study of Poetry (1880), he claims that for poetry “the idea is everything.”12 Whereas religion attaches its emotion to fact, “poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact.” Thus Arnold articulates the idealist view that poetry gives shape to an abstract idea. In such a view poetry provides access to a metaphysical absolute, one free from material taint – including its embodiment in sign and print. But here Arnold, in the final decade of his career, attempts to make large claims for poetry as a cultural substitute for religion, while his own poetry (much of it written in the 1840s and 1850s) belies the theory. Whether exposed on darkling plains, wandering between worlds, or dying in craters, his fraught speakers show all too often the limitations of materialism or the failures of idealism. In particular, The Scholar-Gipsy (1852) exemplifies what we might call the Victorian formalist dilemma where a poet like Arnold not only seeks the conditions of aesthetic wholeness and transcendent truth but also wishes to incorporate the conflicting conditions of mid-nineteenthcentury values.

“The Scholar-Gipsy” rests upon a conflict between the values of pastoral (the relaxed peacefulness and untainted idealism manifested in the simple life of shepherds) and modernity (the confused, aimless and mechanized life of Victorian England). The poem begins with the celebration of a pastoral setting wherein a shepherd is urged, once he has fed his “wistful flock” (MA 3), to begin again “the quest” (a “quest,” we assume, for the Oxford scholar-gipsy of the title). The poet-speaker, however, remains separate. He sits and waits, “Screen’d” in a “nook” (21). Instead of actively joining the pastoral context, he reads again Joseph Glanvill‘s book – The Vanity of Dogmatizing (1661) – which Arnold purchased in 1844. In this seventeenth- century work, Glanvill recalls “lately a lad in the University of Oxford, who being of very pregnant and ready parts, and yet wanting the encouragement of preferment, was by his poverty forced to leave his studies there, and to cast himself upon the wide world for his livelihood . . . he was at last forced to join himself to a company of vagabond gypsies.”13 This “lad” enjoys the gypsy life for some time before he is discovered by some of his former university friends, who take him back in their company. Arnold‘s poet-speaker undertakes to reimagine the young scholar’s extraordinary story, locating his adventures within the harmonious naturalness of the Oxfordshire countryside. After thirteen stanzas, however, the appeal to literary pastoralism is dismissed: “But what,” the speaker exclaims, “I dream!” (131). With this abrupt turn, he introduces the contrasting realities that comprise “this strange disease of modern life” (203). The opening evocation of the fields near Oxford as a repetition of pastoral values transmutes, then, into the recognition that these values belong to an outmoded and idealized past – the dream provoked by “Glanvill’s book” (31). Subsequently, the organicist detail of the opening description (“round green roots and yellowing stalks I see / Pale pink convolvulus in tendrils creep” [24-25]), repeating the specificity of Romantic – indeed Keatsian – sensuality, gives way to the obvious conventionality of an abstract pastoral: “silver’d branches of the glade” (214), “forest-skirts” (215), “moonlit pales” (216), and “dark dingles” (220). Thus the formal structure of the poem articulates an opposition. This opposition is between the ideal (represented by the life of the gypsies and the scholar who left Oxford in order to join them) and the real (contemporary social conditions, characterized by images of sickness and disease).

What becomes apparent in The Scholar-Gipsy is that the cultural basis for positing the conditions of aesthetic idealism was more and more in doubt. Although it was still possible amid the emerging industrialism of Victorian cities to walk in the woods and renew acquaintance with pastoral surroundings (such as the Cumnor Hills outside Oxford where Arnold’s poet-speaker reads Glanvill’s book), it was no longer possible to literalize the values of earlier neoclassical convention and establish the countryside as a referent for the pastoral. Instead, the pronounced imitation of Keatsian stanzas, notably those of “Ode to a Nightingale” (1820), implodes upon their structural division. Arnold also shifts the trimeter (surrounded by pentameters) to the sixth line, instead of Keats’s eighth. This more central position of the short line within ten-line stanzas produces the formal condition for a turn, one that encourages antithesis (“But when the fields are still” [6]) and opposition (“Here will I sit and wait” [16]). Resolution inany organic sense proves difficult because the aesthetic and formal means of such unity (the literary conventions and metaphors of past ideals) remain unavailable: their cultural currency is no longer underwritten by what Arnold later claimed as the poetic gold standard – the guarantor of the “idea” as referent.

The speaker in The Scholar-Gipsy acknowledges this insufficiency of the idea when he reaches the emotive climax of the poem, instructing the scholar-gypsy to flee his “feverish contact” (221) – contact that would infect the disease-free scholar. The speaker is tied irrevocably to the contemporary social world, one whose mental life has been infected by the disease of “sick hurry” and “divided aims” (204). In order to sustain the scholar’s contrasting unity of purpose (“one aim, one business, one desire’^152]), he must keep the scholar separate in a world of literary idealism located on “some mild pastoral slope” where the scholar may “listen with enchanted ears, / . . . to the nightingales!” (219-20). But the idea of the pastoral (the slope and the nightingales) refers to no contemporary reality and therefore cannot exist for the poet-speaker in his modern world. Arnold’s determination to attach poetic emotion to the idea requires the speaker in this poem to sustain a painful dichotomy between literary idea and historical truth. Any formal poetic construction of pastoral idealism must consequently surrender to the juxtaposition of irreconcilable opposites. The speaker, for instance, apostrophizes the gypsy (“O born in days when wits were fresh and clear” [201]), constructing a vision of untainted delight (when “life ran gaily as the sparkling Thames” [202]), only to shift immediately into its contemporary alternative: “this strange disease of modern life.” Here Arnold implicitly admits the fundamental paradox of organic formalism where an emphasis on organic growth and fulfillment has to allow for the inseparable counterpart of organic death. Arnold, however, cannot conceive of the means of resolution, only the discomforting irony of unresolved juxtaposition: the scholar-gypsy and modern life must be kept separate, lest the second (the diseased real) will destroy the first (the pastoral ideal). Hence his apostrophe quickly transforms into admonition: “Fly hence, our contact fear!” (206).

Once, therefore, the poet-speaker reaches his moment of impasse (the insoluble contrast between the scholar’s “perennial youth” [229] and the speaker’s “mental strife” [222]), he has nowhere to go in order to achieve formal unity. The pastoral imagery upon which the poem is initially founded disallows resolution with the images of disease and infection that characterize “modern life.” Certainly, Arnold does not provide organic metaphors that might produce such a settlement. Instead, the poem closes with what is formally an epic simile: an extended image describing the manner in which the scholar-gypsy should flee, like “some grave Tyrian trader” (232) escaping the intruding “Grecian coaster” (237). Yet, as is often the case with epic similes, the vehicle of the comparison (the trader) becomes so elaborate that it becomes a separate aesthetic object, losing touch with the source of the comparison (the scholar). Consequently, critics have expended considerable energy in attempting to integrate the metaphor of the trader with the imagery of the earlier sections of the poem. Some commentators read this metaphor as an allegory for sustaining an alternative lifestyle; others relate it to the power of imagination.14 But in whatever way this epic simile is read, its imagery and formal devices neither provide a unified closure for the poem nor present a solution for the poet-speaker. He is left corrupted by disease, celebrating an unrealizable dream-vision: the empty form of an outmoded literary convention. Thus Arnold’s mid-century experiment with pastoral, his attempt to repeat Romantic formalism, transforms itself into the ironic experience of a divided sensibility.15

This sense of division or ambivalence has become a focus for discussions of Victorian poetic form. In an important essay on the idealist legacy in Victorian poetry, W. David Shaw refers to the way that “Victorian poets experiment with genres in which the true subject of the poem is bracketed.”16 The result, he claims, is “generic indeterminacy.”17 By this term, Shaw identifies two tendencies. First, he means forms where the main subject of the poem remains elusive: Is “The Scholar-Gipsy” a narrative about the gypsy, a disrupted dream-vision, a lyrical expression of loss and regret, a satirical critique of social ennui, or a dramatization of a cultural impasse? Second, he distinguishes a “radical failure” to satisfy expectations: The Scholar-Gipsy begins as a pastoral idyll but does not end as one. In a similar vein, George Bornstein focuses on a distinction between the Greater Romantic Lyric and the Greater Victorian Lyric. Where the Romantic Lyric rests upon a shifting relationship between speaker and nature, the Victorian Lyric emphasizes linguistic self-consciousness and textual defensiveness. Both forms, however, manifest a tension between visionary and ordinary experience. This tension, Bornstein claims, provokes a potential for self division, one that “the Romantics tend to mitigate and the Victorians to exacerbate.”18

An obvious example of this exacerbation is always provided by Tennyson’s The Two Voices (1842). But the ultimate Victorian experiment with self-division is arguably Clough‘s Dipsychus (1865). This poem, arranged into various scenes and couched in various verse forms, is written as a dialogue between a pragmatic tempter and a naive idealist. The dialectical interplay in this contest offers a subtle exploration of the multiplying divisions of consciousness and of its inconstant relationships with external phenomena and cultural ideologies – phenomena and ideologies that may or may not be the consequence of the speaking subject’s self-projections.

Exacerbation of the potential for division sustains Isobel Armstrong’s remarkable analysis of what she calls the Victorian double poem: a poem in which the Victorian poet dramatizes and objectifies the simultaneous existence of unified selfhood and fracturing self-awareness. Her crucial point is that this doubleness is structural, built into the basic processes of the poem. In this respect, it formalizes the link between poetry and culture, both testing the systematic ambiguities of language and drawing attention to “the nature of words as a medium of representation.”19 The result is consistent with Shaw’s theory of “generic indeterminacy,” where lyrics, for instance, become reclassified as drama. In other words, a poem that presents itself as lyric expression turns that expression around so that the utterance itself, as well as representing the speaker’s outpouring of personal feeling, becomes the object of analysis and critique. Bearing this point in mind, Armstrong gives the example of Tennyson’s Mariana, where the speaker’s account of her tortured isolation is “the utterance of a subjective psychological condition.” At the same time, the poem incorporates the narrative overtones of a ballad into its lyrical expressiveness so that the act of narration restructures the utterance into a “symptomatic” cultural form, turning it into an “object of analysis.” Victorian poets thus wrote texts that present utterance as both subject and object. Hence they were able to experiment with forms that simultaneously represent psychological processes (the self as internalized subjectivity) and the phenomenology of a culture (the self as an externalized manifestation of social practice). It follows that for Armstrong the Victorian double poem functions as a skeptical form: “It draws attention to the epistemology which governs the construction of the self and its relationships and to the cultural conditions in which those relationships are made.”20 To suggest that epistemological and hermeneutic problems characterize Victorian poetic forms is again to allude to “generic indeterminacy” and the consequential problems for critical interpretation. This approach also focuses a growing awareness in recent decades about the manner in which Victorian double poems – especially the dramatic monologue – challenge the epistemological assumptions that are so strongly embedded in post-Cartesian idealist traditions.21 Indeed, the way that many Victorian poems portray expressive desire in relation to cultural conditions locates ironic displacement within the very processes of experience, where expressive form and cultural construction are part of the same utterance.

One of the more obviously innovative poetic forms of the period, Clough‘s Amours de Voyage, explores this displacement with subtlety and finesse. In this work, Clough combines an epistolary method (written in hexameters) with lyrics and cantos. The letters are written by Claude, an English visitor to Rome during the French intervention in the Risorgimento of 1849, to his friend Eustace. The descriptive and expository nature of these letters, therefore, grounds the poem in specific historical circumstances. At the same time, as Claude recounts his experiences in Rome, including a potential love affair with another English tourist, Mary Trevellyn, his correspondence becomes a record of a personalized and intricate introspection. Claude repeats Hamlet’s problem, where the doubts of a skeptical intelligence induce psychological paralysis; he resists acting upon perceptions and descriptions that seem endlessly problematic, particularly in the way he articulates them in his letters to Eustace. Hence in the very act of reporting what he sees of events in Rome, Claude ties empirical reality to subjectivity and discourse: “there are signs of stragglers returning; and voices / Talk” and “on the walls you read the first bulletin of the morning” (AHC II. 141-43). Signs, readings and bulletins, an already textualized world, were all he “saw” and knew of “the battle” (II. 144). Another level of discursive action is added to the poem, however, by one of its complex structural elements: the separate lyrics, or elegiacs, that open and close each canto. These lyrics disperse the authority of Claude’s central consciousness, since they refer both outwardly to the indeterminate continuities of lyric convention and internally to the content of the poem. For example, the apostrophe at the end of Canto I to Alba, the hills outside Rome, transforms the hills into a realm of cultural and lyrical abstraction while at the same time making a direct reference to the immediate Roman context: “Beautiful can I not call thee, and yet thou has power to o’ermaster, / Power of mere beauty” (I.281-82). That is to say, the structural arrangement of the intervening lyrics reverses the usual referential pattern for poetic formalism. In these elegiacs, intrinsic reference, which is conventionally self-enclosed, points instead to the historically contextualizing narrative of Claude’s letters. By contrast, extrinsic reference, which is normally historical, points to the formalist conventions of lyricism: namely, the detached timelessness experienced by unspecified poetic voices. In Amours de Voyage, then, the combination of elegiacs and letters produces a double level of indeterminacy and lack of closure. At the narrative level of the letters, Claude experiences no closure of resolution or decision, only a moving on to Egypt. For him the epistolary act is one of differentiation: the production of a divided self-consciousness and a subject-in-process, a self that is never complete or fixed. At the lyrical level of the elegiacs, the poem is released into the instabilities of textual production: acknowledged artifice (“Go, little book!” [V. 218], which echoes Geoffrey Chaucer’s directive in Troilus and Criseyde [1385]); historical reference (“writ in a Roman chamber” [V. 223]); and ambiguous readings (“flitting about many years from brain unto brain” [V. 221]). By combining an array of formal methods in this manner, the poem displays a complex interrelationship of cultural and subjective practices.

Moreover, the kind of dialectical intertwining of social action and subjective process that is evident in Amours de Voyage emerges in hybrid forms that combine lyric and narrative. One lyric may embody a frozen moment of emotional intensity but a series of lyrics may produce a shifting temporalized narrative. As a consequence, we find a growing experimentation among Victorian poets with relationships between smaller discrete units – such as couplets, sonnets, or stanzas – and extended, often loosely constructed, narrative sequences. Tennyson’s In Memoriam and Maud (1855); Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850); Arnold’s “Empedocles on Etna” (1852); Clough’s Amours de Voyage and Dipsychus; George Meredith’s Modern Love (1862); Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The House of Life (1881); and Christina Rossetti’s “Monna Innominata” (1881): all of these poems provide diversified forms constructed from component parts – separate lyrics or sonnets, differing stanzas and various sections, scenes, cantos, letters, and interspersed lyrics. The obvious nineteenth- century paradigm for such structures, particularly those that employ lyrics of varying stanzas and length, is the monodrama. This genre developed in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century as a flexibly structured work that represented sequential phases of varying feelings – usually those of a distracted female character who is torn by conflicting passions and who shifts rapidly between moods.22 For most monodramas the sequence is determined by formal considerations, as in music, whereas the narrative dimensions of these more sophisticated Victorian forms develop ethical, political, and psychological significances that extend beyond those required by pure form or merely oscillating moods. It is the narrative implications of these lyric sequences that develop modes of cultural experimentation, even more than the dramatic analogies that applications of monodrama tend to emphasize – such as when Tennyson famously remarked that in Maud he substituted “different phases of passion in one person” for “different characters.”23

Narrative adds a political dimension to lyrical formalism. Lyricism tends to reflect back on itself, on the expressive quality of the moment – the feeling states and verbal display of the lyrical voice. The result is frequently the portrayal of an experience that is formally aestheticized or ideologically homogenized. By contrast, narrative modes, insofar as they are often associated with realist fiction, tend to encourage a relationship with referential contexts, whether explicit (as in Amours de Voyage) or implicit (as in Modern Love). As a result, the addition of narrative to lyric forms reinforces a move toward social connections and ideological contextualization.It locates otherwise solitary speakers within cultural and therefore political circumstances. In doing so, the addition of narrative creates two effects in Victorian poems. First, narrative induces a sense in which the speech acts of separate speakers are commensurate with the historical contexts of other social discourses. In these terms, the hybrid tendencies of Victorian poetry anticipate principles of dialogism that have been argued by the twentieth-century Soviet theorists, V.N. Voloshinov and Mikhail Bakhtin. In their influential work, individual speech is always simultaneously social; any single utterance is always contaminated by the already preceding cultural use of the terms and phrases.24 Second, narrative elements invoke a concern with cause and effect relationships. Such relationships provide the ideological grounding on which most narrative proceeds: they promote the difference between events that are merely sequential and events that are integrated with one another, or the difference between random action and motivated behavior. Both of these effects allow possibilities for cultural critique, whether to expose cultural ideologies or indicate the material grounding of lyrical idealism.

Tennyson’s Maud illustrates both features. This poem was virtually written backward: Tennyson started from an already written lyric, “O that ’twere possible,” and added both preceding and ensuing contexts. The result provides a series of lyrics, all of which differ in stanzaic structure and size, that represent the shifting and oscillating moods of the protagonistspeaker, much in the manner of a monodrama (a subtitle Tennyson added in 1875). True to the format of monodrama, the speaker remains embroiled in his (or her) own highly wrought sensitivities; he is obsessed with Maud, his childhood sweetheart, and he rails periodically at the increasingly bourgeois culture ruined by laissez-faire economics that he feels has dispossessed him of his birthright as a man from the landed classes. In attempting to indict his society, he remains aloof. But the poem extends beyond the tenets of monodrama precisely to the extent that it exploits the irony of a maniacal personality whose mania may reflect the very social ills of which he complains. In the climactic moment at the end of Part II, the speaker enacts what has become known as the madhouse cell scene. He believes that he killed Maud’s brother in a duel and he has consequently fled England. Now isolated from Maud’s influence and from his own landed society, he becomes further enclosed within his own introspective processes. His introspection culminates in a fantasy of burial: “my heart is a handful of dust, / And the wheels go over my head” (AT II. 241-42). Yet the quietness of the grave is contaminated by the unceasing utterance of other people. These figures represent social icons – lord, physician, statesman – and all participate in an “idiot gabble” (II. 279) that for him begins to characterize all human speech, whether inside or outside the madhouse. Personal and social discourses thus become coextensive; private utterance is social speech: “For I never whispered a private affair I… I But I heard it shouted at once from the top of the house” (II. 285-88). Following this episode, in Part III the speaker leaves his “cells of madness” (III. 2) and proposes to rejoin his “kind” (III. 58), to fight in the Crimean War with his countrymen. If, however, the noticeable brevity of Part III and its shift into the public rhetoric of war hardly provides an acceptable resolution for the poem, then echoes of earlier images and an identification between protagonist and society through the battle-cry of a nation nevertheless imply a closure of the gap between self and culture which has been a source of irony throughout. It can, therefore, be argued that several elements of the poem combine at this point: poetic structure (form), psychological need (content), and cultural belief (theme). All coalesce in the concluding embodiment of public and private rhetoric, in the private commitment to public and cosmic fate: “I embrace the purpose of God, and the doom assigned” (III. 59). Formalist closure in Maud draws attention to the dialogical link between subjective and public constitution, asking implicit questions about the connections between public and private sanity and morality.

Maud also exploits the impetus toward referential reality in narrative method for another purpose: to disrupt any cultural assumption of a simple cause and effect relationship between social reality and subjective perception. The poem frequently encourages the sense of a literal context within which the speaker’s story takes place, and yet referents are notoriously vague. Is the “dreadful hollow” (I. 1), where the speaker’s father died, literal or figurative? It appears to be literal and yet it functions figuratively. Did the betrothal to Maud when she and the protagonist were children actually happen? We might observe that expression in the poem, the speaker’s utterance, continually responds to the demands of experience. But in Maud these are demands that require experience to be always already a fusion of event and interpretation. Experience – active observation or participation – is not therefore simply a literal event: it is always an articulated (and in the poem lyrically formalized) embodiment of the speaker’s thinking and expression. In other words, experience is constituted as much by figuration as by literalness. A classic example occurs in Part I (lines 190-284), where the speaker posits a range of explanations for Maud’s smile. In this lyric, his experience comprises both smile and speculation. Consequently, the section reads as a lyrical endeavor whose explanatory excesses refuse any easy separation of event (smile) from effect (speculation). What the reader receives is therefore predominantly effect: cause is continually an inference. As Herbert F. Tucker observes, Maud is “a poem not only written backward but inevitably read backward as well, from moment to moment, despite the forward thrust of its plot.” “This monodramatic retrospection,” he adds, “kinks up the chain of cause and effect by compelling us to gather the story by extrapolation from what the hero tells us.”25 The thematic result, however, of this inverted reading process is that cause becomes diffused through an array of effects (since it is left to the reader to extrapolate events). Thus the usual narrative structure of a plot based on cause and effect connections is broken apart, challenging conventional narrative expectations and their inherited cultural assumptions about causality and continuity. With this point in mind, Tucker suggests that the poem exposes how the question of causal linkage in any narrative remains potentially “arbitrary and inferential.” Yet given that each section of the poem habitually presents a response to events that have already occurred (Maud’s arrival, Maud’s kiss, Maud’s smile, Maud’s song), the extent to which the speaker’s expression is reactive means that external causes (social conditions, social events) cannot be ignored either. Rather, in Maud cultural determination, subjective responsibility, and cosmic purpose all become intermingled within imagistic and rhetorical connections.

Finally, Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh and Browning’s The Ring and the Book (1868-69), poems by the wife and husband poets, offer what remain arguably the most ambitious literary experiments in the period. Aurora Leigh – the result of Barrett Browning’s desire to write a new form with which I began – is a verse novel that features the autobiography of a woman poet. Its combination of genres (autobiography, dialogue, narrative, prophecy, satire, treatise) comprises an attempt to write a modern epic where the protagonist’s mythic quest becomes regendered and historicized as the desire of a woman poet to achieve both artistic and personal fulfillment within contemporary Victorian society. As the poem theorizes its own production (Aurora’s famous reflection on poetry in Book V), the dominating aesthetic question is how to combine conflicting domains of experience: the external boisterous age which “brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires” (EBBAL V. 204) and the internal stage of “the soul itself, / Its shifting fancies and celestial lights” (V. 340-41). Aurora’s answer to that question (“What form is best for poems?” [V. 223]) might be taken from Coleridgean poetics: “Trust the spirit, / As sovran nature does, to make the form / . . . Inward evermore / To outward” (V. 224-8). In the Fifth Book, Barrett Browning appears to follow this dictate by shifting from retrospective (inward) narration, where Aurora is in control of her narrative, to the unfolding of (outward) events as they happen. From this book onward, Aurora’s narration resembles journal entries that have been recorded daily where we see once again the ambiguous narrative formalism of a poem like “Childe Roland” with its past-tense account told from a present-tense perspective.

The aesthetic trick, however, is to combine the poem’s formalist method with the protagonist’s personal dilemma, since Aurora realizes in Book V that her personal success as a poet has left her socially isolated. While her reading public appropriates her work, using her poems to represent their own feelings of love and joy, she remains solitary and loveless (see V. 439-77). The alteration in mode from retrospective narrative to journal writing thus registers Aurora’s own transformation from the controlled and known world of her autobiographically constructed childhood and youth to the less secure exigencies of fate and social action. The later books consequently focus more and more on dialogue, as a dialectic of internal and external discourses shapes Aurora’s experiences. This dialectic has already begun with her childhood move from the masculine world of her father’s books (“Which taught her all the ignorance of men” [I. 190]) to the feminine world of her aunt’s passive renunciation (“she had lived / A sort of cage-bird life” [I. 304-05]). But it continues through several crucial interactions with the disturbing social events relating to the working-class character Marian Erie (such as rape [VI. 1219-34] and single parenting [VI. 566-81]). The resulting interplay of constitutive discourse (the affective power of figurative language) with referential discourse (narrative or historical description) becomes particularly arresting in its presentation of female images and their relationship to patriarchal convention. Ultimately, Aurora Leigh remains consistent with other Victorian narrative poems – like Amours de Voyage, Maud, and Modern Love – because it makes the protagonist’s self-consciousness the focus of dramatic action. Yet Barrett Browning’s grand experiment produces a more distinct embodiment of the intermingling constructions of private and public processes. It extends social reference into a greater variety of class and political contexts – such as “drawing-rooms” (V 206) and “Fleet Street” (V 213). And it achieves a more intensive mixing of discursive elements. Gothic (“Ghost, fiend” [I. 154]), classical (“A loving Psyche” [I. 156]) and Christian (“Our Lady of the Passion” [I. 160]) images mingle with what Aurora calls “the woman’s figures” (VIII. 1131): “Her. . . forehead braided tight” (I. 273); “behold the paps we all have sucked!” (V 219); “puckerings in the silk / By clever stitches” (VIII. 1129-30).

A decade later, Browning’s The Ring and the Book takes the dramatic monologue’s potential to direct an ironic and discursive gaze on that same mutual construction of self and world to an altogether new extreme. Browning selects a Renaissance historical event concerning a middle-aged husband’s murder of his fourteen-year-old spouse, and turns it into a series of monologues representing various perspectives: the three protagonists (husband, wife, and the priest who tried to rescue her), members of the public, the lawyers from the trial, and the Pope who acted as an ecclesiastical court of appeal. These ten monologues are framed by two from the poet, thus constructing a twelve-book form of epic status. If the formalist methods of Aurora Leigh ask questions about gender, then the epic structure of The Ring and the Book raises urgent questions about epistemology – on the production of knowledge, the search for the truth, and the evidence that supports them. Does the addition of each monologue add a further perspective that eventually completes a circular whole, a ring of truth? Or does the addition of each account simply obfuscate events, dissipating the truth? If we expect a conventional narrative conclusion or a teleological climactic moment, then the “generic indeterminacy” of this poem is bound to disappoint us. “Here were the end,” says the poet in Book XII, invoking the irresolution of the subjunctive, “had anything an end” (RBRB XII. i). Rather than providing a terminal explanation for his poem, Browning instead suggests a structural supplementarity: each speaker enacts a pattern of retrospective narration which claims a truthful account but each monologue is also succeeded by another that extends the context and alters the meaning of the previous one. Through the monologue form, Browning draws attention to the ironic limits of each speaker, to the contingent circumstances of any claim to total or transcendent truth. Yet, by means of serial juxtaposition and recurring images, and through the contestation of institutional languages (of church, law, and literature), he also displays the structuring processes of social practices. The result is a subtle critique of the complex interrelationships among private and public discourses. Meaning, perception, and understanding are all rendered fundamentally textual in this story of citations, citations within citations, eyewitness accounts, hearsay, and letters, with one textual version succeeding another.

The Ring and the Book provides a climax for the formalist claim that underpins this whole discussion: that poetry, through its intensive linguistic formalizing, foregrounds the inseparability of experience and discourse. The Ring and the Book overtly asks the question that implicitly lurks in other Victorian poetic experiments: In a culture where signs and texts continually proliferate, “how else know we save by worth of word?” (I. 837). If there is no other means of knowing, then all knowledge is mediated. We are, therefore, thrust back onto the epistemological dilemma of a relationship between self and world that is always already constituted through representation, through the discursive descriptions and expression that characterize all our versions of experience. An awareness of this formalist dilemma, and the way it characterizes acts of human perception as well as acts of poetic creation, is the legacy of Victorian revisionary formalism. Through adapting and restructuring previous conventions, poems such as Amours de Voyage, Aurora Leigh, Maud, and The Ring and the Book explore possibilities for combining poetic expression with cultural critique. They contest, extend, and transform perceptual conditions and ideological assumptions. In this sense, they manifest cultural experiments, textual testing grounds where various discourses – epistemological, liturgical, poetic, political, psychological – meet, mingle, and question one another.


Source: The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry Edited By Joseph Bristow Cambridge University Press 2000.


1 Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “To Mary Russell Mitford,” 30 December 1844, in The Brownings’ Correspondence, ed. Philip Kelley et al., 14 vols. to date (Winfield, KS: Wedgestone Press, 1984-), IX, 304.

2 See, for example, Donald S. Hair, Browning’s Experiments with Genre (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972); and F.E.L. Priestley, Language and Structure in Tennyson’s Poetry (London: Andre Deutsch, 1973).

3 Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer, Criticism and Culture: The Role of Critique in Modern Literary Theory (Harlow: Longman, 1991), 23-25. For further discussion, see E. Warwick Slinn, “Poetry and Culture: Performativity and Critique,” New Literary History 30 (1999), 57-74.

4 This connection was pointed out to me by Herbert F. Tucker somewhere in the Buller Gorge, New Zealand, on 27 January 1998. See also The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

5 Quotations from Arthur Hugh Clough’s poetry are taken from Clough, Amours de Voyage, ed. Patrick Scott (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1974); line references appear in parentheses.

6 See William Clyde DeVane, A Browning Handbook, second edition (New York: Appleton Century-Crofts, 1955), 229.

7 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria; or Biographical Sketches of My Life and Opinions, ed. James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate, 2 vols. Bollingen Series (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), II, 13.

8 Coleridge, Coleridge’s Writings on Shakespeare, ed. Terence Hawkes (New York: Capricorn, 1959), 68.

9 On the interpenetration of space and time in Victorian poetry, see Herbert F. Tucker, “Of Monuments and Moments: Spacetime in Nineteenth-Century Poetry,” Modern Language Quarterly 58 (1997), 269-97.

10 Coleridge, Coleridge’s Writings on Shakespeare, 67.

11 See, for example, Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1947).

12 Matthew Arnold, “The Study of Poetry,” in Arnold, English Literature and Irish Politics, ed. R.H. Super, The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold, 11 vols. (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1960-77), IX, 161.

13 Joseph Glanvill, The Vanity of Dogmatizing; or, Confidence in Opinions.

Manifested in a Discourse on the Shortness and Uncertainty of Our Knowledge,

and Its Causes; with Some Reflexions on Peripateticism; and an Apology for Philosophy (London: H. Eversden, 1661), 196.

14 See, for example, A. Dwight Culler, Imaginative Reason: The Poetry of Matthew Arnold (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966), 189-93, and George Bornstein, Poetic Remaking: The Art of Browning, Yeats, and Pound (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988), 44-45. David G. Riede recognizes that the poem provides no resolution, noting that adverse judgments about its aesthetic failure are based on expectations about organic unity, and concluding instead that the poem’s “inability to resolve a dialectic is a proper and inevitable reflection of a godless society in which no goal can be posited and no quest is possible”: Matthew Arnold and the Betrayal of Language (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1988), 147.

15 Such an effect should be distinguished from the work of the “Spasmodic” poets (Philip Bailey, Alexander Smith, Sydney Dobell), also writing in mid-century, who sustained an elaborate expressionism seeking the truths of personal subjectivity. Their unquestioning absorption of Romantic aesthetics is illustrated by a remark about creativity in Smith’s “A Life Drama” (1854): “it was his nature / To blossom into song, as ’tis a tree’s / To leaf itself in April” (Smith, Poems [Boston, MA: Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, 1854], 18). For further information on the “Spasmodics,” see Mark A. Weinstein, William Edmondstoune Aytoun and the Spasmodic Controversy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1968).

16 W. David Shaw, “Philosophy and Genre in Victorian Poetics: The Idealist

Legacy,” ELH 52 (1985), 472.

17 Shaw, “Philosophy and Genre in Victorian Poetics,” 473.

18 Bornstein, Poetic Remaking, 39.

19 Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (London: Routledge, 1993), 12.

20 Armstrong, Victorian Poetry 13.

21 See, for example, Loy D. Martin, Browning’s Dramatic Monologues and the

Post-Romantic Subject (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), and E. Warwick Slinn, The Discourse of Self in Victorian Poetry (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1991).

22 See A. Dwight Culler, “Monodrama and the Dramatic Monologue,” PMLA 90 (i975), 366-85.

23 Tennyson, The Works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ed. Hallam Tennyson, Eversley edition, 6 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1908), IV, 271.

24 There has been debate about whether or not Voloshinov and Bakhtin are the same person. For a dialogical view of utterance, see V.N. Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, trans. Ladislav Matejka and I.R. Titunik (New York: Seminar Press, 1973); this work was first published in Russian in 1929.

25 Herbert F. Tucker, Tennyson


Categories: Literary Theory, Victorian Literature

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1 reply

  1. Hello I am Zeeshan hafeez. Sir can I send me notes regarding the topics of romantic poetry, Wordsworth as a poet of nature, and keats as an romantic? On Nov 8, 2017 11:36 PM, “Literary Theory and Criticism Notes” wrote:

    > Nasrullah Mambrol posted: “In 1844, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wanted to > write “a poem of a new class,” one that included “[conversations & events” > and “philosophical dreaming & digression.”1 She also wanted to purify > George Gordon Byron’s sexually contentious poetry, to wr” >


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