Victorian Literary Criticism

Victorian literary theory, sometimes dismissed as a hinterland, is a remarkably diverse and productive field. Of the four lines of theorizing identified by the philosopher of art Francis Sparshott in Theory of the Arts (1982)— the classical, expressive, oracular, and purist lines—Victorian theory has original contributions to make to all but the first. Its theological and Hegelian alignments, as well as its later doctrine of art for art’s sake, also anticipate important developments in twentieth-century hermeneutics and formalism.

The most important British critics of the 1830s are Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), a representative of the oracular line of theorizing, which venerates the poet as an involuntary channel of communication with higher powers, and three expressive critics, Arthur Hallam (1811- 33), W. J. Fox (1786-1864), and John Stuart Mill (1806- 73). In an influential theory of poetic empathy, published in 1831 in The Englishman’s Magazine, Hallam praises poets of sensation such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson for their remarkable ability to find in the “colors … sounds, and movements” of external nature the signature of “innumerable shades of fine emotion,” which are too subtle for conceptual language to express (850, 856). In a Westminster Review article earlier in 1831 on Tennyson’s Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830), Fox argues that the poet can best concentrate his energies by sketching his relation to a desolate landscape or to some ruined paradise, as in Tennyson’s “Mariana” or “Oenone.” Insisting that the sensory correlatives of feeling, like music, can convey complexities of meaning and subtly nuanced moods for which no dictionary words exist, Hallam is the prophet of a symbolist aesthetic later endorsed by W. B. Yeats. Fox, on the other hand, writes as a disciple of James Mill. Just as Joseph Addison is liberated by John Locke’s theory of the ideality of the secondary qualities, according to which sounds and colors are truly a poem of the perceiver’s creation, so Fox is liberated by the penetrating power conferred on the mind by the empirical psychology of James Mill’s treatise Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind, published two years earlier, in 1829. Since Fox’s poet dramatizes each interior landscape through projection, and since Hallam’s poet internalizes each picture, they tend to converge on common ground. Despite their different starting points, both critics anticipate modern psychological theories of introjection and projection, and both are agreed that poets must find in some external object the focus or medium of their truest self-expression.

Like Fox and Hallam, John Stuart Mill also subscribes to an expressive theory of art. But he is always ready to inhibit theory and quicken truth in pursuit of the wider premise, the more inclusive synthesis. His earliest articles on poetry, which he published in 1833, try to vindicate the poet against Jeremy Bentham’s charge that because poetry is fictitious and untrue, it is a dangerous enemy of utilitarianism. The failure to see that poets use language in ways beyond the scope of traditional description in order to express and refine emotion and to do things with words is also the failure to which J. L. Austin draws attention when trying to extricate from descriptive statements the kind of utterance he calls “performative”. To distinguish between poetry and rhetoric, Mill also insists that in poetic language there is no direct address: as Oscar Wilde observed of Walter Pater when he lectured, Mill’s poet is overheard rather than heard. The oracle speaks in a state of rapt self-communion.

The other most innovative theorist of the 1830s, Thomas Carlyle, holds that a great poet such as Dante Alighieri or William Shakespeare is an autonomous source of power, not reducible to anything in the world that may stimulate him. Since only the unconscious is healthy, Carlyle paradoxically concludes in “The Poet as Hero” that in writing allegory in The Divine Comedy Dante, like any sincere poet, did not, in the precise sense of the phrase, know what he was doing. Does Carlyle’s unselfconscious poet create a genuine novelty? Or does he merely manifest some higher antecedent power of which he is unconscious? If truth lies outside of consciousness, perhaps the answer does not matter. Because creative artists are a mystery, even to themselves, why should they not be willing to ascribe their creation of novelty to an equally mysterious higher source?

Carlyle also deserves to be remembered for his contribution to semiotics in his chapter on symbols in Sartor Resartus. Anticipating Charles Sanders Peirce‘s notion of an icon and of a sign that requires a more developed sign to interpret it, Carlyle argues that only intrinsic symbols exhaust their subject and that they cannot be analyzed. Only extrinsic symbols can be analyzed, and like the ritual naming by the herald at the coronation of George IV, they tend to trivialize their subject. The life of Christ, Carlyle argues, was once authentically symbolic, and intrinsically so, just as the original Last Supper was a symbolic performance of the utmost daring and genius. But if we try too hard or selfconsciously to invent a rite or make our life an allegory, it will become instead a mere piece of theater. Like David Friedrich Strauss’s notion that myth is unconscious invention, lives that become allegories are unconsciously symbolic. When we try to invent a symbol, like the festivals in honor of a supreme being in The French Revolution, we discover that an authentic intrinsic symbol can never be legislated; it has to be believed into being, by faith and civic love. The harder Carlyle tries to explain intrinsic symbols, the less intelligible they become: all intrinsic symbols require other symbols, or what Peirce calls “interprétants,” to explain them.

One of the most original critical theorists of the late 1830s and the 1840s is John Keble (1792-1866). Though a psychological and expressive critic, Keble continues to honor the classical precept that literature is mimetic, or an imitation of nature, long after that doctrine has ceased to deserve his theoretical respect. Few passages in Victorian criticism are more revealing than the one in which Keble casually equates Aristotelian imitation with his own antithetical expressive doctrines. “It would seem,” Keble says in an 1838 review of John Gibson Lockhart’s Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, “that the analogical applications of the word ‘poetry’ coincide well enough with Aristotle’s notion of it, as consisting chiefly in Imitation or Expression” (435). Yet in his Praelectiones Academicae (1832-41), better known in its English translation as Oxford Lectures on Poetry, as well as in his review of Scott, Keble argues, contrary to Aristotle, that all epic and dramatic genres are displacements of the poet’s lyric impulse. Thus Virgil’s epic the Aeneid is said to disguise a pastoral yearning, indulged most directly in the Georgies. Fed by unconscious sources, “Virgil’s master passion” for pastoral celebration is so artfully veiled in his epic poem that it is preserved by being disguised, by not being named directly. Keble’s originality consists in his taking a familiar theological doctrine, the Tractarian theory of reserve, and transplanting it to the psychology of poetic composition, where it anticipates Freudian theories of displacement.

In other essays, however, Keble asserts that great poetry exists only as a fallout from religion. In tract 89 of Tracts for the Times, “On the Mysticism Attributed to the Early Fathers of the Church” (1840), Keble argues as a brilliantly conservative critic, insisting that the unity of Scripture is the expressive evidence of divine power. By “mysticism” Keble means the typological interpretation of Scripture that allows a reader to discern a resemblance between Old Testament types and their New Testament antitypes. As God’s grammar or code, biblical typology is more than a mere set of “poetical associations” chosen at will by individual interpreters. But this is not to say that hermeneutics properly conceived and practiced is a univocal decoding of God’s meaning. Because every figural analogy merely approximates, like any analogy, the unnameable essence of what it tries to name, Keble uses his doctrine of reserve to keep intact the mystery of indefinition.

Benjamin Jowett’s influential essay “On the Interpretation of Scripture” (i860) develops a far more liberal theory of biblical interpretation than Keble’s. Asserting that readers should be able to recover a biblical author’s original intentions and the effects the meaning had on the “hearers or readers who first received it,” Jowett (1817- 93) assails as anachronistic and dangerous the typological methods of biblical interpretation revived by Keble and Newman. But Jowett’s appeal for unprejudiced reading, however plain and straightforward, assumes a zero degree of literacy that is illusory in theory and unattainable in critical practice. The real problem with Jowett’s hermeneutics is its attempt to assess an author’s original intention. As twentieth-century critics of the “intentional fallacy” have argued, an intention that has not already been realized and made accessible to an intelligent reader can never in practice be recovered. In what sense, then, can it qualify as an intention at all? If Jowett wants to call an unrealized intention an intention, he is free to do so. But it seems to be of doubtful authority and of no interpretive use.

Outside Keble’s writings, the most innovative critical theories of the 1840s are to be found in John Ruskin’s Modem Painters, especially in his commentaries on the imagination, which contain the most important contribution to their subject since Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ruskin (1819-1900) identifies three forms in which the imagination operates. Achieving the integritas that St. Thomas Aquinas associates with the aesthetic object, the “imagination penetrative” is the faculty most consistently displayed by Ruskin’s first and highest order of poets. In 1846 Ruskin insists upon this faculty “as the highest intellectual power of man” (4:251): he associates it with Dante and Shakespeare, whom ten years later he places in the highest rank of poets, among those who “feel strongly, think strongly, and see truly” (5:209). Their art is the product of educated innocence, an art that is “naturalist, because studied from nature,” but also “ideal, because … mentally arranged in a certain manner” (5:113).

Once Ruskin’s poet has been initiated into the mysteries of a thing’s existence, using the imagination penetrative to expose the wonder of the thing and to present it as an imaginative whole, the poet may then proceed to combine a number of such wholes into new and harmonious arrangements. Corresponding to the consonantia, or harmony, of Aquinas’s aesthetic object, the arrangement of sensory wholes is the function of Ruskin’s “imagination associative.” What is expressed in art by the imagination associative is usually something self-effacing and elusive, something just out of sight, which the artist can merely point toward or intimate. Though Ruskin is baffled to explain its operation, he takes this uncanny power of intimation (a power E. S. Dallas will later ascribe to its unconscious manner of working) to be the chief hallmark of the imagination associative.

When a poet such as John Milton or Shelley is prophetically inspired and begins to “see in a sort untruly, because what [he] see[s] is inconceivably above [him]” (5:209), he may approximate what Aquinas calls the radiance, or claritas, of oracular vision. The poet then exhibits the faculty Ruskin calls the “imagination contemplative.” But because Ruskin, as a Victorian, has more in common with Keble or Pater than with Dante or John Bunyan, he has a keener sense than his medieval and Renaissance predecessors that the mystery of life and its arts does not allow the poet to fix or assign one meaning only to each visible type of the spiritual world. The imagination contemplative of Ruskin’s poet has all the hallmarks of a true allegorical symbolism except one. Its symbols are untranslatable, because unlike the goat or wolf of conventional allegory, they lack an assigned connotation.

The 1850s mark the emergence of Matthew Arnold‘s early criticism, which staunchly opposes the dominantly expressive criticism of contemporaries such as David Masson and Sydney Dobell. One twentiethcentury critic, R. G. Cox, argues that Arnold’s neoclassical criticism is simply the best-known example of an anti-Romantic “minority tradition” running through the first half of the Victorian period. More recently, Antony H. Harrison has tried to elucidate the “literary politics” surrounding Arnold’s preface to his Poems of 1853, which endorses an overtly Aristotelian theory of poetry that consistently misreads Aristotle by substituting an inward, psychological action for an outward, dramatic one. Arnold (1822-88) is covertly attacking his rival, Alexander Smith, a member of the so-called Spasmodic school of Byronic and Shelleyian imitators, and is trying to purge from his own poetry, partly for political reasons, all traces of Spasmodic influence. Arnold’s conservative aesthetic must be seen as a response to the political radicalism of the Spasmodic poets and, like his essays on the Romantic poets, to his own complex and changing reactions to the cockney Keats.

David Masson (1822-1907), the reviewer whom Arnold misquotes in his 1853 preface and the author of important critical pieces collected in Essays Biographical and Critical (1856), draws attention to distinctive Spasmodic features of language that help distinguish poetical ideas from scientific ones. Masson repeats Immanuel Kant’s teaching that whereas scientific understanding translates sensory facts into concepts, the poet’s imagination is effective, not in duplicating nature, but in creating a second and stronger nature. It replaces the open-ended orderliness of nature with an orderliness that is closed, repeatable, and intensive. Masson’s arresting word for this process is the imagination’s capacity to “secrete” fictitious circumstance (431).

The rhapsodic, visionary writing that Masson’s essays are best designed to analyze is also the subject of an important essay, “The Nature of Poetry” (1857), by the Spasmodic poet and critic Sydney Dobell (1824-74). Shrewdly noting that there is often a phenomenal difference between an aesthetic idea or feeling and its metaphoric equivalent, Dobell criticizes the many-breasted Hindu goddess for being too similar to the fertility she is meant to represent. By contrast, Bertel Thorwaldsen’s celebrated statue of night, which makes an observer experience a black and shapeless void, is sculpted out of white marble. To explain the paradox, Dobell develops his theory of substitution. Instead of saying “I love,” a poet will call up in his imagination some beautiful object, such as a rose, and then find for the object some equivalent in words. The poet’s metaphoric equivalents, what Dobell calls his “homotypes,” are related to each other, not in the way types are related to their biblical antitypes, and not in the way an algebraic sign is related to an unknown quantity, but in the way atoms are joined together to form the beautiful structure of a crystal.

The most ambitious work of literary theory to appear in the 1860s is E. S. Dallas’s monumental two-volume study, The Gay Science (1866). Arguing that only the paradox of unconscious thought can explain the difference between the imagination of a Homer and the genius of an Aristotle, Dallas (1822-79) claims that both are automatic but only the former is an involuntary or unconscious process. Dallas believes there are two tests the critic can conduct to determine whether the poet’s mind has indeed been operating imaginatively “in the dusk of unconsciousness” (1:265). A poet who has been composing imaginatively (i.e., in an involuntary or unconscious manner) will discern resemblances rather than differences. And that poet will also “assert the resemblance of wholes to wholes” (1:269). Dallas’s theory of the unconscious has important antecedents in German criticism, especially in F. W.J. Schelling. But in Victorian Britain the idea of unconscious and automatic mental processes, though applied by Carlyle in his essay “Characteristics” to mental health in general, does not assume a crucial role until Dallas offers what he takes to be a new theory of imagination, that “Proteus of the mind,” which has been identified with all the human faculties—memory, passion, reason—and which has proved as a result “the despair of metaphysics” (1:179).

Dallas’s earlier and more modest monograph, Poetics: An Essay on Poetry (1852), deserves to be known for the ingenious theory of genres it proposes. That theory, which praises the drama as the culminating genre of nineteenth-century literature, may be hard to understand until we grasp its connection with G. W. F. Hegel’s theory of an evolution of symbolic, classical, and romantic genres. When Dallas calls the lyric and visionary genres of poetry the dominant mode of Eastern, primitive art, he is alluding, like Hegel in his posthumously published Philosophy of Fine Art, to the lyric art of the Psalmist. Having used the genres of lyric poetry to describe the divine poetry of the ancients, Dallas must equate the dominantly religious art of the nineteenth century, which he finds comparably sublime, with a different genre. When he speaks of dramatic art as a religious, Romantic form, embodying hope and the impulse to worship, Dallas is thinking, not of Shakespeare or Greek drama, but of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues and of lyrics of “saving faith” written by devotional poets such as Christina Rossetti.

One of Dallas’s most original insights is that the transformation of classical epic into Hebrew lyric and then into modern Romantic and Christian forms of art is accompanied by a corresponding change in the poet’s use of pronouns. In classical literature the poet describes persons and things: the third-person pronoun dominates. By contrast, the sublime lyric poetry of the Psalms is a poetry of first-person pronouns. Only in nineteenth century poetry, which is a literature of dramatic intimacy and empathy, does the “you” enter. Anticipating T. S. Eliot’s argument in “The Three Voices of Poetry,” Dallas distinguishes the first-person voice of lyric and the third-person voice of drama proper from “the familiar you-and-me style” of genres such as the monologue, which uses first- and second-person pronouns to dramatize a speaker’s efforts to empathize with his or her auditor.

The last three decades of the nineteenth century mark the ascendancy of a far-reaching Hegelian legacy in Victorian criticism, one that is already discernible, as we have seen, in Dallas’s theory of genres. Among major critics, Walter Pater (1839-94) shows Hegel’s influence most clearly. Pater manages to formalize Hegel in subtler but no less radical ways than he manages to formalize Plato in Plato and Platonism (1893). In the most Hegelian of his critical writings, the essay on J. J. Winckelmann (1867), Pater draws upon Hegel’s theory of a symbolic, a classical, and a romantic cycle of art, each phase aligned with a particular art form. “As the mind itself has had an historical development,” Pater observes, “one form of art, by the very limitations of its material, may be more adequate than another for the expression of any one phase of that development” (1:210). Few pronouncements could be more Hegelian. And yet there is nothing in Pater’s statement to rule out a relativism quite alien to Hegel’s theory of progressive aesthetic change. Unlike Hegel, who sees in the progress of the arts a secure evolution toward an eventual victory of Absolute Spirit, when art will perfect itself by turning into dialectic, Pater sees a progressive attenuation of spirit. He actually reverses Hegel’s strategy. Instead of freeing a spiritual content from a material form, which is the process Hegel analyzes, Pater praises art for freeing a highly refined and attenuated form from the bondage of any impure content or contaminating message. Pater keeps altering the teleological drift of Hegel’s aesthetic doctrines by assimilating life to art, subordinating the spiritual content of Romantic art to the subtleties and refinements of the art form itself.

In his essay “The Philosophy of Art” (1883), W. P. Ker (1855-1923), a more scholarly interpreter than Pater, is torn between conflicting reactions to Hegel’s theories. Should the critic use poems for their educative value, subordinating art to the claims of some absolute spirit that is asserted to be the ground of art’s efficacy? Or must each poem be studied as an end in itself? A chief tenet of Hegel’s theory is that art is an education, that it exists for the sake of something higher. Ideally, poetry is absorbed at last into philosophic vision. But Ker, like Pater, always wants to honor the integrity of each work of art. Ker criticizes Hegel for failing to see that though art is educational, it is not necessarily “an education for some end different from art” (166). Is poetry’s transformation into science or philosophy a consummation devoutly to be wished? Or does poetry educate by a nonutilitarian but valuable deployment of the cognitive faculties, in abstraction from any practical context?

The second possibility is the one preferred by Oscar Wilde (1856-1900), who allows art to occupy a spiritual territory segregated from the everyday world. The claim of purist art to be holier or more sacred than other activities is not supported by any moral or metaphysical claim. Indeed the artist as such is said to have no “ethical sympathies” (230). Purist art has its priest, rite, church, and congregation but no god. It is endotelic, never merely a means to some external end. The absence of teleology is even celebrated as a virtue: “All art is quite useless,” Wilde says in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). Its value is its very pointlessness. Like later formalists, Wilde knows at first hand how a despotic moral or theological consciousness can inhibit the creative faculties. To defend the poet against a censorious superego, Wilde revels in the paradox that the “morality of art” consists wholly “in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.” “An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style” (230).

Wilde’s celebration of art’s inutility and reduced ambition remains, however, a Victorian aberration. Unlike the pursuit of virtue or a liberal education, the pursuit of literary theory in Victorian Britain is seldom regarded as its own reward. It is not the autonomous study that specialists laboring in a more Alexandrian age have tried to make it. To understand Victorian literary theory, we must study it in the context of nineteenth-century hermeneutics, for example, or philosophies of history, science, and religion. As G. B. Tennyson says in Victorian Devotional Poetry: The Tractarian Mode (1981), these disciplines do not “grow in alien soils.” In the Victorian period, “they are branches of the same tree” (61).

Matthew Arnold, The Complete Prose Works (ed. R. H. Super, 11 vols., 1960-77); Thomas Carlyle, The Works of Thomas Carlyle (ed. H. D. Traill, 30 vols., 1898-1901); E. S. Dallas, The Gay Science (2 vols., 1866), Poetics: An Essay on Poetry (1852); W. S. Fox, Review of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830, reprint, Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Scrutinies: Reviews of Poetry, 1830-1870, 1972); Arthur Hallam, “On Some of the Characteristics of Modern Poetry” (1831, reprint, Victorian Poetry and Poetics, ed. Walter E. Houghton and G. Robert Stange, 2d ed., 1968); G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Fine Art: Introduction (trans. Bernard Bosanquet, 1886); Benjamin Jowett, “On the Interpretation of Scripture” (Essays and Reviews, i860); John Keble, Keble’s Lectures on Poetry, 1832-1841 (trans. E. K. Francis, 2 vols., 1912), “On the Mysticism Attributed to the Early Fathers of the Church” (tract 89, Tracts for the Times, 1833-41), Review of John Gibson Lockhart, Life of Sir Walter Scott, British Critic and Quarterly Theological Review (1838); W. P. Ker, “The Philosophy of Art,” Essays in Philosophical Criticism (1883, ed. Andrew Seth and R. B. Haldane, 1971); G. H. Lewes, The Principles of Success in Literature (1865); David Masson, Review of E. S. Dallas’s Poetics and Alexander Smith’s Poems, North British Review 19 (1853); J. S. Mill, Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, vol. 1, Autobiography and Literary Essays (ed. John M. Robson and Jack Stillinger, 1981); J. H. Newman, “Poetry, with Reference to Aristotle’s Poetics” (1829, reprint, Essays Critical and Historical, 1871); Walter Pater, “Winckelmann” and “Style,” The Works of Walter Pater, vols. 1 and 5 (1910); Coventry Patmore, Principle in Art, Religio Poetae, and Other Essays (1889); John Ruskin, The Works of John Ruskin (ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, 39 vols., 1903-12); Robert Louis Stevenson, “On Some Technical Elements of Style” (1885, reprint, English Prose of the Victorian Era, ed. C. F. Harrold and W. D. Templeman, 1938); Oscar Wilde, Literary Criticism of Oscar Wilde (ed. Stanley Weintraub, 1968). Patricia M. Ball, The Science of Aspects: The Changing Role of Fact in the Work of Coleridge, Ruskin, and Hopkins (1971); R. G. Cox, “Victorian Criticism of Poetry: The Minority Tradition,” Scrutiny 18 (1951); Antony H. Harrison, Victorian Poets and Romantic Poems: Intertextuality and Ideology (1989); George P. Landow, The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin (1971); Robert Preyer, “Sydney Dobell and the Victorian Epic,” University of Toronto Quarterly 30 (1961); Alba H. Warren, English Poetic Theory, 1825-1865 (1950).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

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