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Listening to the Victorians

I admit I know little about poetry, and probably even less about Victorian poets.  When I started discussing the possibility of a Victorian Poets event at Bryant Park with Justin Tackett, I realized that one of my favorite poets was actually a Victorian poet.  Below Justin gives a little taste of what he’ll discuss in Bryant Park on July 19th, 12:30pm in the Reading Room (see details below).     –Purdy, @purdyoxford

Some thoughts on poetry, prosody, and Gerard Manley Hopkins

By Justin Tackett
Magdalen College, Oxford University
and Stanford University

“One distinction of Victorian poetry is the degree to which serious work and popular culture converged, as evidenced by snippets of poems now proverbial,” Linda K. Hughes notes in her recent introduction to the topic in the Cambridge Introduction to Victorian Poetry. Indeed,

Alfred Tennyson’s “‘Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all,”
Robert Browning’s “God’s in his heaven — / All’s right with the world!” and
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”

remain part of our colloquial repertoire. But Hughes adds another observation that seems to speak more deeply to our current age.

“The best Victorian poetry is complex, challenging, and experimental,” Hughes says, and it enjoyed a wide readership as part of “the first era of mass media.” As literacy increased and printing technology advanced, the Victorians witnessed a media explosion during which more books, journals, magazines, and newspapers were published and read than ever before. The Victorian period, in this sense, was a forerunner to the Information Age, and much of the excitement, empowerment, bewilderment, and concern they felt as a result of revolutions in communication resembles our own.

Poetry, as ever, had its part to play in transforming how people communicated and expressed themselves. Victorian poets explored the political, social, and technological aspects of their rapidly changing environs. More specifically, poets experimented with elements of prosody, among other pursuits, as a means both of entrenching themselves in the past and moving beyond it. They deployed diverse forms of meter, rhythm, rhyme, and sonic patterning, and explored the classical, Anglo-Saxon, gendered, local and national aspects of their culture and language as they viewed and understood them.

Victorian prosody (and prosody in general) can and should be seen as situated in time and space — as historical — just as the content of poetry often is. As Meredith Martin, a professor of Victorian and modernist poetry at Princeton, and Yisrael Levin put it in “Victorian Prosody: Measuring the Field,” “[W]e might describe historical prosody as an awareness that forms might mean different things at different historical moments.” Many nineteenth-century poets were particularly engaged in speaking to and through prosody as an historical discourse.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Catholic convert and priest, was one such poet. Hopkins managed to publish only a handful of poems before he died in Dublin in 1889. The first edition of his work, published by OUP, didn’t appear until 1918, and it took several years after that for his poetry to experience the surge in popularity that ushered him into the canon.

Widespread appreciation for Hopkins’s poetry was delayed in part because his prosody is complex and challenging and very unlike much of Victorian poetry. His poems often exhibit simultaneous experimentation with a number of elements, including “Stress,” “Reversed Feet,” “Counterpoint Rhythm,” “outrides,” “Greek and Latin lyric verse,” “old English verse,” and of course “Sprung Rhythm,” the technique for which he is perhaps most recognized today. Scholars have long studied these elements and identified many more in his work.

Despite Hopkins’s own explanations of his theories and decades of academic scrutiny (or perhaps because of them), his prosody still largely mystifies. Scholars struggle to agree why lines such as

“And the inboard seas run swirling and hawling;
The rash smart sloggering brine
Blinds her;”

“Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!”

“Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here

“Man’s mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house, dwells –”

and “Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours

are so dynamic, haunting, shocking, and beautiful. Nevertheless, they are felt to be all of these, and readers continue to find startling new ways of looking at Hopkins’s poetry and poetics, doubtless oriented by their own place in history.

Hopkins’s poetry is a good test case for why Victorian poetry – and especially Victorian prosody – is still compelling. Studying poetry always seems to raise more questions than we are able to answer, in large part because shifting historical perspectives are constantly revising our understanding of poetry and its relations to culture and identity. Such questions reflect many of the ones we ask ourselves today, amid a mass media world not only of print and poetry, but of blogs, tweets, texts, and podcasts. How do these new forms relate to older forms? In what ways can tradition and experiment co-exist? How does technology change our experience of a poem? Rather than asking these questions only for our contemporary media climate, we ask these questions of the changing Victorian media world, hoping to look and listen closely for a kind of harmony.

For more on Hopkins and other Victorian poets, join me and Meredith Martin at Word for Word Poetry in Bryant Park (New York City).

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Meredith Martin (Princeton University) and Justin Tackett (Oxford University) discuss Victorian Poetics

12:30pm – 2:00pm | Bryant Park Reading Room

Join Meredith Martin (Princeton University) and Justin Tackett (Oxford University) who will read and discuss some of their favorite Victorian poets and writers including Gerard Manley Hopkins, Tennyson, Browning, and others.

Rain Venue(s):
*The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen
20 West 44th Street (between 5th & 6th Avenues)

*Not all rooms in The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen are handicapped accessible – we are sorry for the inconvenience.

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