Re-reading Victorian Poetry

  • Isobel Armstrong

Abstract

The habit of thinking of literary periods as segments creates the same kind of history that produces it. The Victorian period has always been regarded as isolated between two periods, Romanticism and modernism. Thus Victorian poetry is seen in terms of transition. It is on the way somewhere. It is either on the way from Romantic poetry, or on the way to modernism. It is situated between two kinds of excitement, in which it appears not to participate. What has been called the ‘genetic’ history of continuous development through phases and periods, a form of history which the Victorians themselves both helped to create and to question, sees Victorian poetry as a gap in that development.1 Modernism, in spite of its desire to see itself in terms of a break with history, actually endorses that continuity, for a radical break must break with something. And correspondingly it endorses the gap which Victorian poetry is seen to inhabit. The anxieties of modernism, trying to do without history, repress whatever relations the Victorians may seem to bear to twentieth-century writing. Thus Joyce’s frivolous ‘Lawn Tennyson, gentleman poet’ appears dressed for tennis in Ulysses. Virginia Woolf dissociates herself from the Victorians in her unscrupulously brilliant impressionistic account of them in Orlando.2 There ivy covers buildings and large families come into being with almost equally magical suddenness. She intuitively registers the drive to produce in Victorian society, whether it is children or industrial goods, and the need to muffle. The eroticisms and the euphemisms of bourgeois capitalism and its ideology, its inordinate excesses and concealments, are embodied for her in the voluptuous taxidermy of the stuffed sofa.

Keywords

Stake Alan Century Poetry Proteus Prose 

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Michel Foucault makes a critique of continuous ‘genetic’ history in his foreword to the English edition of The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London: Tavistock Publications, 1974):Google Scholar
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    Illustrative of the preoccupation with Romantic poetry among Deconstructionist critics is the collection of essays by Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Hartman and J. Hillis Miller, Deconstruction and Criticism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979). Derrida’s major literary text beyond Rousseau is Mallarmé.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Isobel Armstrong 1988

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  • Isobel Armstrong

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