What is style? This essay follows the emerging relationship between aesthetic sense and literary personality as core components of nineteenth-century style. The formation of style is guided by two sets of exemplars: Keats and Carlyle, on one hand, and Byron and Arnold, on the other. Keats and Carlyle stand as touchstones for an aesthetic discourse whose sensuousness and literariness transforms experience. From a different angle, Arnold uses Byron to underscore the sincerity and strength of personality as a model for stylistic coherence. Together these figures define the sense and sensibility of style as the organizing structure for poetry’s sensory experience and literary affect. As my choice of foundational writers makes clear, this essay challenges any strict division between the Romantic and Victorian periods. My question is how far does the influence of identifiably romantic authors, such as Keats and Byron, reach into the nineteenth century. What notably drops out of this equation is the sway of Wordsworth ’s stylistic claim to the “real language of men.” Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott” and Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover” are the first stops on my itinerary of poets who explore the stylistic modes of Keatsian aesthetic sensuousness and Byronic personality. The poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Christina Rossetti expose how these elements reach their limit as poetry points towards the specifically literary, rather than sensory or personal, aspects of style. Ultimately, an aesthetic density comes to the fore as the mark of later nineteenth-century poetic literariness. What emerges in the poetry of Swinburne and Hopkins is the crush of language that displaces Keats’ and Byron’s formative influence over nineteenth-century style.
Critics often note the coincidence that Thomas Carlyle and John Keats were born in the same year: 1795. This happenstance is perhaps unexpected because it challenges the strict periodization of the Romantic and the Victorian. Against this tendency, I suggest that Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus and Keats’ “Ode to Psyche” formulate complementary modes of aesthetic sense-making. Carlyle employs the aesthetic as a mode of literary defamiliarization. Keats’ sensuousness undertakes a similar project in its attempt to enliven everyday sensations with an aesthetic and often erotic charge. Carlyle and Keats then notably break with Wordsworth’s dictum in his preface to Lyrical Ballads: “that the language of such Poetry as is here recommended is, as far as is possible, a selection of the language really spoken by men” (452).
Carlyle’s Literary Aesthetics and its Departure from Wordsworth
Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (serially published during 1833-4) exemplifies his break from Wordsworth over questions of style. As translated “The Tailor Retailored,” Carlyle’s title plays with the longstanding metaphor of style as the dress or vestment of thought. Carlyle points to the changeability of clothes as a way to investigate the social construction of meaning:
All visible things are emblems; what thou seest is not there on its own account; strictly taken, is not there at all: Matter exists only spiritually, and to represent some Idea, and body it forth. Hence Clothes, as despicable as we think them, are so unspeakably significant. Clothes, from the King's mantle downwards, are emblematic, not of want only, but of a manifold cunning Victory over Want. On the other hand, all Emblematic things are properly Clothes, thought-woven or hand-woven: must not the Imagination weave Garments, visible Bodies, wherein the else invisible creations and inspirations of our Reason are, like Spirits, revealed, and first become all-powerful; the rather if, as we often see, the Hand too aid her, and (by wool Clothes or otherwise) reveal such even to the outward eye? (56)
Carlyle’s approach is aesthetic in the way he translates material things into mental symbols or emblems. Matter is material insofar as it is thought. The social imaginary dresses physical bodies in the garments of the mind. Conversely, matter reveals “invisible creations and inspirations” to the “outward eye.”
Carlyle goes on to introduce language as the third term linking mind to body:
Language is called the Garment of Thought: however, it should rather be, Language is the Flesh-Garment, the Body, of Thought. I said that Imagination wove this Flesh-Garment; and does not she? Metaphors are her stuff: examine Language; what, if you except some few primitive elements (of natural sound), what is it all but Metaphors, recognized as such, or no longer recognized; still fluid and florid, or now solid-grown and colorless? If those same primitive elements are the osseous fixtures in the Flesh-Garment, Language, — then are Metaphors its muscles and tissues and living integuments. An unmetaphorical style you shall in vain seek for: is not your very Attention a Stretching-to? (57)
Carlyle points out that a metaphorical transposition occurs when word becomes flesh. Language operates as the medium, or “Flesh-Garment,” that clothes the world in sense. On this view, Carlyle draws on style to defamiliarize transparent meaning. Carlyle’s treatment of metaphor performs what Viktor Shklovsky’s essay, “Art as Device,” terms the work of “enstrangement”: “By enstranging objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and laborious” (6). Artistic expression forces the reader to encounter the unexpected and unfamiliar, and thereby view the world without the aid of automatic recognition and categorization. Shklovsksy describes “defamiliarization” as “stumble[ing] onto a poetic something that was never meant, originally to serve as an object of aesthetic contemplation” (2). Carlyle stages this encounter by highlighting the Latin etymology of “attention” as a “Stretching-to.” By returning language to its metaphorical point of origin in the physical body, Carlyle destabilizes its function as a “solid-grown and colorless” vehicle for meaning. In pointing up the impossibility of “an unmetaphorical style,” Carlyle positions style as an instrument for aesthetic dislocation. Writing becomes an “enstranged” object of contemplation which no longer relies on the received connection between signifier and signified. My argument is that nineteenth-century poetry invokes the literariness of style to access the aesthetic register of ordinary life; to experience the world with new eyes.
Carlyle’s advocacy for “Language [as] the Flesh-Garment, the Body, of Thought” prominently breaks with Wordsworth’s claims to stylistic simplicity. Wordsworth’s “Essay on Epitaphs,” written for Coleridge’s The Friend in 1810, denounces the metaphor of language as the vestment of thought: If words be not (recurring to a metaphor before used) an incarnation of thought but only a clothing for it, then surely will they prove an ill gift; such a one as those poisoned vestments, read of in stories of superstitious times, which had power to consume and to alienate from his right mind the victim who put them on. Language, if it do not uphold, and feed, and leave in quiet, like the power of gravitation or the air we breathe, is a counter-spirit, unremittingly and noiselessly at work to derange, to subvert, to lay waste, to vitiate, and to dissolve. (361)
Wordsworth censures the very technique of aesthetic defamiliarization that Carlyle advocates: the power “to derange, to subvert, to lay waste, to vitiate, and to dissolve.” Instead he advocates a style that is wholly invested and embodied in thought. Language becomes an instrument for “upholding, feeding, and leaving in quiet” the life of the mind. Carlyle, by contrast, promotes what Wordsworth calls the “counter-spirit” of language, whose “poisoned vestments” and alienated garb taint the “incarnation of thought.” Wordsworth’s call for stylistic simplicity rejects the metaphor of language as the clothing for thought. In picking up this dropped thread, Carlyle fashions a technique of aesthetic literariness that recurs throughout nineteenth-century poetry.
Keats’ Sensual Aesthetics
Complementing Carlyle’s program of stylistic defamiliarization, Keats endows sensation with an aesthetic, and often erotic, charge. Keats’ reception by later writers like Tennyson points up his sensuousness. In Keats’ poem, “Ode to Psyche” (1820) the poet encounters the vision of Cupid and Psyche asleep in the forest:
I wander'd in a forest thoughtlessly,
And, on the sudden, fainting with surprise,
Saw two fair creatures, couched side by side
In deepest grass, beneath the whisp'ring roof
Of leaves and trembled blossoms, where there ran
A brooklet, scarce espied:
'Mid hush'd, cool-rooted flowers, fragrant-eyed,
Blue, silver-white, and budded Tyrian,
They lay calm-breathing on the bedded grass;
Their arms embraced, and their pinions too;
Their lips touch'd not, but had not bade adieu,
As if disjoined by soft-handed slumber,
And ready still past kisses to outnumber
At tender eye-dawn of aurorean love:
The winged boy I knew;
But who wast thou, O happy, happy dove?
His Psyche true! (lines 7-23)
Keats gives an aesthetic rendering to this scene. The hush of the “whisp’ring roof” and “trembled blossoms” carries with it an erotic charge, as the speaker gazes voyeuristically onto the implicitly post-coital slumber of “two fair creatures, couched side by side.” Keats’ poetic style enlivens sensation as wrought to dazzling effect in these lines: “'Mid hush'd, cool-rooted flowers, fragrant-eyed, / Blue, silver-white, and budded Tyrian.” Keats calls upon the senses: hearing, touch, smell, and sight. Though taste is withheld, it remains within reach of the “lips [that] touch'd not, but had not bade adieu.” The lush sounds of these verses are meant to show how the senses gratify experience. Consonance and assonance pervade throughout, as with the “D” sounds in “'Mid hush'd,” the “Os” of “cool-rooted,” alliterative “Fs” of “flowers, fragrant” and “Bs” of “blueÉ budded.” These effects add to the poem’s erotic charge, which enthralls the speaker with an excess of passion. In his observation that “Their lips touch'd not, but had not bade adieu,” the speaker has a presentiment of the future parting between Cupid and Psyche. Yet the very possibility of this division enables the speaker to envision the antithetical possibility of a passion that would remain “ready still past kisses to outnumber.” All in all, Keats elevates his poetry into an aesthetic register fully felt by the senses. He engages the libidinal energy of his language in order to organize its impressions. His style is then in consonance with Carlyle’s ability to defamiliarize ordinary experiences and cognitions. Both writers apply style as the mark of aesthetic difference.
The Keatsian Language of Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott”
As a further link between the Romantic and the Victorian, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poetry foregrounds a model of Keatsian stylistics. Following Keats’ example, Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott” (1832/1842) not only defines experience in sensuous terms, but position art as an aesthetic engagement. The poem follows a noble Lady, who is haunted by a curse: to live confined within her bower forever weaving “a magic web with colors gay” (38). Her experience of the world is always mediated: “Moving thro a mirror clear / That hangs before her all the year, / Shadow of the world appear” (lines 46-48). The Lady’s brightly colored weaving represents the work of art. As a whole, the poem negotiates art’s relationship to the sensuous world. The Lady’s art making comes to crisis when she encounters what I would call a Keatsian aesthetics of erotic experience. The Lady is lured from her web by Lancelot’s appearance in her mirror. Tennyson describes Lancelot’s entrance as follows:
A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley-sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro' the leaves,
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A red-cross knight for ever kneel'd
To a lady in his shield,
That sparkled on the yellow field,
Beside remote Shalott.
The gemmy bridle glitter'd free,
Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.
The bridle bells rang merrily
As he rode down to Camelot:
And from his blazon'd baldric slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armour rung,
Beside remote Shalott. (lines 73-90)
The sensuous world blazes up in response to Lancelot’s approach: the sun sparkles, Lancelot’s shield dazzles, his bridle glitters, his bridle bells ring, and on and on. I interpret Lancelot’s song, “Tirra lirra,” as a blithe celebration of his erotic appeal. Indeed, Lancelot first gains the Lady’s attention in sexual terms. His very proximity is measured as “A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,” suggesting a violent invasion of her womb-like space. He rides “between the barley-sheaves,” themselves a symbol of male phallic power. In detailing every feature of Lancelot’s garb, she focuses on its sensual ostentation. Tennyson highlights the Lady’s attention to the aesthetics of male sexuality with highly alliterative language, whose euphonious end-rhyme echoes four-fold: “The gemmy bridle glitter'd free, / Like to some branch of stars we see / Hung in the golden Galaxy. / The bridle bells rang merrily / As he rode down to Camelot.”
The Lady’s sudden downfall is a central indicator of how Tennyson receives Keats’ style. The Lady’s desire moves her to turn away from art and gaze on Lancelot directly. The curse immediately sets in as her artistic lens for viewing the world, the mirror, cracks. Here Tennyson rejects the mimetic style that would live its artistic life through mirrored forms of poetic experience. The aesthetics of Keatsian sensuality is both alluring and deadly to art. While struggling to make sensuality artistically viable, art can no longer resist its charms. Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott” illustrates the powerful draw of Keats’ aesthetic style on the nineteenth century. With a later poet like Swinburne, we will watch how Keatsian sensuousness develops in tandem with a Carlylean technique of literary defamiliarization.
Matthew Arnold Reading Byron’s Literary Personality
If Keats and Carlyle’s aesthetic sense is one side of the equation of nineteenth-century literary style, personality is the other. Nineteenth-century stylistics then extends along two axes: where Keats and Carlyle offer poets an approach for exploring the aesthetics of sensation, Arnold uses Byron to limn out the function of personality. The relationship between these elements defines the evolving configuration of nineteenth-century literary style. Here my concern is with how Matthew Arnold treats Byron’s personality — in particular, his sincerity and strength — as a mode of poetic affect. Matthew Arnold’s 1881 preface to his edition of Byron’s poetry codifies an assessment that has been operative throughout the nineteenth-century: “The power of Byron’s personality lies in “the splendid and imperishable excellence which covers all his offenses and outweighs all his defects: the excellence of sincerity and strength” (xxiv, original emphasis). Arnold takes the quotation from Swinburne’s own 1865 introduction to Byron’s poetry. Yet as Leon Gottfried notes in Matthew Arnold and the Romantics, Swinburne’s evaluation of Byron is much more equivocal than Arnold’s citation suggests: “Swinburne believed that Byron’s virtues and defects were so inextricably tangled that he `can only be judged or appreciated in the mass’” (Gottfried 99). In excerpting Swinburne’s qualified praise as his maxim, Arnold turns Byron into an exemplar of literary personality.
Arnold’s treatment of Byron’s sincerity and strength has sparked recent critical debate. Jerome Christensen’s Lord Byron’s Strength takes issue with the longstanding critical assessment — running from Swinburne, Arnold, Lionel Trilling, to Jerome McGann, most recently — which emphasizes “the standard of sincerity and with it the genteel definition of Romantic poetry as a mode of discourse that `presents itself as artless and premeditated’ (xiii). McGann’s essay on “Lord Byron’s Twin Opposites of Truth” indeed gives pride of place to Byron’s Arnoldian persona: “Sincerity: that is one of the key touchstones by which Romantic poetry originally measured itself. In a poem’s sincerity one observed a deeply felt relation binding the poetic Subject to the poetic subject, the speaking voice to the matter being addressed” (38). McGann adds that “discourse is sincere, in a Romantic mode, when it appears least concerned with the effect it produces. Thus we recognize the style of sincerity by its self-attention” (38-9). These comments outline a stylistics of sincerity, which matches the mode of address to the truth-value of its content. Romantic sincerity is the sign of authentic self-expression.
In disputing McGann, Christensen focuses on what Arnold identifies as the other aspect of Byron’s personality: his strength. Christensen explains: The strong poet answers not so much with a rightness that fits the occasion (that would be a historicist standard) but with a rightness that decides the occasion (and that, I take it, is a rhetorical standard). What distinguishes the strong poet from the strong man, then, is the transformation of a creatural capacity for consequential action into a rhetorical capacity for consequential action. (xviii)
Stylistic strength is the power to influence action via rhetorical intervention. The difference between a “creatural” and a “rhetorical capacity for consequential action” is that the former describes a doer of deeds whereas the latter describes a writer’s translation of action into an authorial personality that can, in turn, impact the world.
Together sincerity and strength contribute to Arnold’s larger category of “personality:”
We talk of Byron’s personality, “a personality in eminence such as has never been yet, is not likely to come again;” and we say that by this personality Byron is “different from all the rest of English poets, and in the main greater.” But can we not be a little more circumstantial, and name that in which the wonderful power of this personality consisted? We can; with the instinct of a poet Mr. Swinburne has seized upon it and named it for us. (xxiv)
Here I am less interested in whether or not Arnold properly understands Byron, than I am concerned with how Arnold appropriates Byron on an exemplar. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “personality” as “the quality or collection of qualities which makes a person a distinctive individual; the distinctive personal or individual character of a person, esp. of a marked or unusual kind.” Through Swinburne, Arnold uses the term to point to the height, or eminence, of Byron’s distinctiveness. Personality is what endows Byron’s unique and individual traits with their irreplaceable greatness.
Take note of the competing tendencies in Arnold’s account. In attempting to point out what is most personal about Byron — that is, at the moment when Arnold’s critical evaluation claims sincerity — he shifts to a language of strength. Though Swinburne’s praise of Byron’s personality is instructive for Arnold, he deems it too general. Arnold rather seeks to communicate Byron’s “wonderful power.” In attempting to define the je ne sais quoi of Byronic personality, Arnold arrogates its strength to himself. By dint of his own affirmation (“We can”), Arnold implicitly appropriates Swinburne’s “seizing” insight as his own instinctual gesture. In this context, Arnold’s “circumstantial” account connotes the “full[ness] of circumstances, details or minutiae, minutely detailed, particular” (OED). Arnold attaches literary personality to the exacting particulars of its rhetorical performance. Indeed, Arnold’s own prose demonstrates just such personality in its ability to juxtapose its critical sincerity with the claimed force of its utterance. In conjunction with Keats and Carlyle’s aesthetic sense, the legacy that Byron leaves for the nineteenth century is one of personal style. As McGann aptly points out: “The touchstones of Romanticism point towards style of writing rather than states of mind or soul — that `sincerity’ in poetry is an illusion generated by the way certain forms of language have been deployed” (40). The stylized personality that claims unadorned sincerity also possesses the rhetorical strength to disseminate anything but the truth. McGann thus makes the paradoxical observation that sincerity is always capable of hypocritical inauthenticity (38). In the wavering balance between sincerity and strength, Arnold converts Byron into a model for the affective lure of writing — an example explored to striking stylistic effect in Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues.
Browning’s Disassociated Personality
Browning’s poem, “Porphyria’s Lover” (1842), takes the construct of literary personality to its extreme. The poem is a dramatic monologue which endows the speaker with a persona independent of the author’s. Browning’s technique displays the epitome of rhetorical strength in its ability to 1. disassociate the poet from the poem, and in doing so, 2. require the reader to confront the sincere expression of immorality and violence. As McGann points out, poetry produces sincerity as a product of its rhetorical strength. The sincerity of Browning’s dramatic monologues seems all the more earnest, their rhetorical all the more effective, when he creates a personality that adheres to neither the author’s viewpoint nor commonly held morality. As an aside, I would note in passing how far Browning strays from a Wordsworthian standard for sincerity that deems the poet a “man speaking to men.” William Galperin’s Revision and Authority in Wordsworth provocatively asserts that — even in Wordsworth — sincerity “was both sporadic and short-lived” (65): “The imperatives, indeed, which led first to a relationship between the “man speaking” and the “men” he was addressing led inevitably to a relationship based on difference, making sincerity, in the end, a virtual condition of its dissolution” (65). While my aim is not to analyze the trajectory of Wordsworth’s poetic ethos, I will say that over the course of the nineteenth century the authenticity of the poet’s sincerity gives way — via Arnold’s reading of Byron — to a construct of literary personality, whose strength lies in what Arnold calls its “circumstantial” distinctiveness. While the speaker of “Porphyria’s Lover” is undoubtedly earnest, his actions are hardly acceptable. The poem displays the force of its writing without falling back on the reader’s sympathies or the writer’s authority.
The male speaker of “Porphyria’s Lover” narrates his situation: with his “heart fit to break” (line 5), he sits alone in a cottage listening to the rain-swept night. His lover, Porphyria, sweeps onto the scene:
When glided in Porphyria; straight
She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
Which done, she rose, and from her form
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
And laid her soiled gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
And, last, she sat down by my side
And called me. (lines 6-15)
Porphyria immediately performs a series of actions for the speaker’s benefit. Only after warming the room does she remove her wet and soiled clothes. Porphyria does not even dry her hair before she goes to comfort the speaker, coddling him in her arms and murmuring her love (line 21). The speaker has this striking response to her actions:
Too weak, for all her heart's endeavour,
To set its struggling passion freev From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me for ever. (lines 21-25)
Not only is the speaker blind to Porphyria’s kindness, but in mistaking her actions for an inability to express her “struggling passions,” he chides her supposed pride and vanity. The speaker’s attitudes split from both the author’s sanction and the reader’s approbation. Through the first person narration, readers can measure the speaker’s statements again their own judgments about Porphyria. In facilitating this rift between speaker and reader, Browning encourages the reader to disassociate the speaker’s attitudes from his own authorial viewpoint.
Sincerity is the wedge that divides the speaker’s personality from the author’s:
So, she was come through wind and rain.
Be sure I looked up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipped me; surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
I am quite sure she felt no pain. (lines 30-42)
The speaker’s account of how he strangled Porphyria is direct and explicit. The reader has no reason to doubt him. The narration is shocking because of how, as McGann points out, it attains to the “truth-structure postulated by the idea, and the style, of sincerity” (38), without any acknowledgement of guilt or transgression. The speaker goes on to display his rhetorical strength when he remarks, “No pain felt she; / I am quite sure she felt no pain.” In justifying his act of murder, the speaker suggests that Porphyria is, in fact, better off than she was before:
The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,
That all it scorned at once is fled,
And I, its love, am gained instead! (lines 52-55)
To paraphrase Christensen, a man obtains literary strength when he converts his “creatural capacity for consequential action into a rhetorical capacity for consequential action” (xviii). Words become action, when sincerity announces the strength of its utterance: that is, when the speaker unflinchingly claims that Porphyria is posthumously “glad” and “smiling rosy” to have gained the speaker’s love. Together sincerity and strength form the basis of a literary personality. Browning thus explores Arnold’s notion of Byronic personality to stunning and often grizzly effects. The agency of distinctly literary personality has set out under its own auspices.
The Limits of Personality in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny”
In extending the approaches of Tennyson and Browning, Dante Gabriel’s and Christina Rossetti’s poems push the capabilities of poetic personality and sensuality to their utmost. Dante Gabriel’s “Jenny” and Christina’s “Goblin Market” each fashions a limit case for the Byronic and Keatsian modes, respectively. These inherited modes strain under the pressure to contain what I will describe as the literariness of style.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny” (1870) provocatively meditates on a sleeping prostitute. The poem employs the formula of Browning’s dramatic monologue through its construction of a distinctive viewpoint: the sincere and forceful expression of a man who simultaneously reviles and is drawn to the prostitute before him. Rossetti shows where the construct of personality begins to warps. Jerome McGann’s introduction to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Collected Poetry and Prose notes that “a poem like “Jenny” is a dangerous critical mirror that turns the readers’ eyes back on themselves” (xxviii). A similar process of destabilizing critical reflection takes place within the speaker’s personality. I examine the poem’s motif of reading as a signal for the literariness — following Carlyle — that begins to undercut the integrity of poetic personhood.
In the poem’s second stanza, the speaker reveals that what brought him to Jenny was his turn away from the reading:
This room of yours, my Jenny, looks
A change from mine so full of books,
Whose serried ranks hold fast, forsooth,
So many captive hours of youth, —
The hours they thieve from day and night
To make one's cherished work come right,
And leave it wrong for all their theft, v Even as to-night my work was left:
Until I vowed that since my brain
And eyes of dancing seemed so fain,
My feet should have some dancing too: —
And thus it was I met with you. (lines 22-33)
The speaker associates reading with his confinement to literature. Books become a military presence, whose “serried ranks” hold the speaker as an intimidated captive. The metaphor evolves when the speaker explains how his reading serves as the dilatory preamble to his stymied writing. Literary work steals away the speaker’s life and leaves him at a loss. The speaker would supplement his fruitless endeavors with a return to the body and its motive (i.e. dance) rhythms. Jenny is the person who would then free the speaker from his imprisonment in the world of books.
Even in turning to the carnal passions afforded by a prostitute, the speaker cannot stop using reading as a model for his bodily experience:
Let the thoughts pass, an empty cloud!
Suppose I were to think aloud, —
What if to her all this were said?
Why, as a volume seldom read
Being opened halfway shuts again,
So might the pages of her brain
Be parted at such words, and thence
Close back upon the dusty sense.
For is there hue or shape defin'd
In Jenny's desecrated mind,
Where all contagious currents meet,
A Lethe of the middle street?
Nay, it reflects not any face,
Nor sound is in its sluggish pace,
But as they coil those eddies clot,
And night and day remember not. (lines 155-170)
As the speaker’s aspiration for carnal release fades, he figures his disillusionment as a return to reading. To describe Jenny’s thoughts as a book that can be open and shut reveals how the speaker’s would-be omniscience struggles between the poles of unmediated insight and absolute opacity. Admittedly, the speaker would arrogate a power over Jenny’s thoughts; after all, he is the one opening and closing the “pages of her brain.” Nonetheless, insight into another’s consciousness remains “dusty” — that is, obscured by little use — and “desecrated” by the “contagion” of forgetfulness. Where the speaker would read the text of Jenny’s mind, he finds its face a blank. The speaker’s work of reading hereby funnels into an abyss of meaninglessness. His attempt to “read” Jenny then follows the same pattern by which he loses his life to his work.
Notice how the speaker’s sincerity and strength begins to collapse under the strain of reading into personality. The speaker describes Jenny’s consciousness as “reflect[ing] not any face, / Nor sound is in its sluggish pace, / But as they coil those eddies clot, / And night and day remember not.” Jenny’s thoughts are untraceable, like the river Lethe that the speaker describes. Notice, furthermore, that the expectation of an erotic encounter with Jenny is postponed at every moment; Jenny remains asleep for the duration of the speaker’s ruminations. In comparison with Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott,” “Jenny” produces little sensuality of the kind modeled in Keats’ poetry. Certainly this expectation is set up by the speaker’s ostensible meeting with a prostitute. In the felt absence of carnal fulfillment, the speaker explores how sincerity and strength are not enough to make personality understandable. Jenny’s blankness moves the speaker to question what his own personality can know and the experiences it can formulate.
Because “Jenny” is unable to access a Keatsian aesthetic mode, the poem devolves into a mode of aesthetic “enstrangement,” as Shklovsky employs the term. The speaker’s reflections about Jenny’s tainted sensuality precipitate this defamiliarization:
Like a rose shut in a book
In which pure women may not look,
For its base pages claim control
To crush the flower within the soul;
Where through each dead rose-leaf that clings,
Pale as transparent psyche-wings,
To the vile text, are traced such things
As might make lady's cheek indeed
More than a living rose to read;
So nought save foolish foulness may
Watch with hard eyes the sure decay;
And so the life-blood of this rose,
Puddled with shameful knowledge, flows
Through leaves no chaste hand may unclose. (lines 253-266)
The book is a figure for the crushed soul. Implicitly, if the speaker has the power to open and close the book, he is also culpable for crushing Jenny’s personality with his obtuse speculations. The speaker’s reading practice enacts this transgression. Not only is the text a quagmire of meaninglessness, but the speaker taints this now “vile text” with his will to knowledge. It is ironic that the speaker imagines himself censured by the implied reader he strives not to become. If the speaker would escape from his literary activities to more tangible, bodily pleasures, he finds that reading itself returns to mark the impropriety of his association with a prostitute. On the one hand, the speaker’s wonderment about Jenny’s mindset ultimately falls off into thoughtlessness. On the other hand, what takes its place is the physical response of a supposedly proper lady blushing over his text. The speaker hereby witnesses his meditations on bodily experience devolve into “foolish foulness.” Rather than reveling in Keatsian physicality, the speaker’s recourse to reading becomes just the opposite: a cold-blooded response to emptying the “life-blood of this rose.” In producing a text whose “leaves no chaste hand may unclose,” the speaker repudiates literary sensuality in the moment when he is most captivated by the aesthetics of its “shameful knowledge.”
The speaker’s approach to reading adheres to what Viktor Shklovsky describes as the work of “enstrangement”: “By enstranging objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and laborious” (6). Rossetti’s aesthetic sense and personal sensibility produces an encounter with the literariness of style. Both the information of the senses and the interpretability of personality fall back upon the act of reading, which it itself always shut out or obscured. In this context, style becomes the access point for the unexpected and unfamiliar that defies automatic recognition and categorization. In his attempt to “read” Jenny, the speaker “stumbles onto a poetic something that was never meant, originally to serve as an object of aesthetic contemplation” (Shklovsky 2). Thus the poem defers or denies the eroticized sensuality and cohesive personality of Jenny’s character. Reading personality takes place as the literariness of non-reading. Returning then to McGann’s assertion that “a poem like “Jenny” is a dangerous critical mirror” (xxviii), Dante Gabriel Rossetti reveals the moment when the sense and sensibility of style turns back upon itself and constructs its text as a thoroughly literary, which is to say a defamiliarized, object. Poetic sensation and personality no longer render the world intelligible. These stylistic strands that worked to such rich effect in the poetry of Tennyson and Browning are stretching to the breaking point.
The Content of Sensuality in Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”
Where Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny” may read personality as a blank, Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” (1862) appears to access a surfeit of aesthetic sensation. The poem is propelled by the seductive and nearly destructive power of sensuous experience. Two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, encounter a Goblin market selling its damned produce to the weak willed. Laura is seduced to eat their forbidden fruit, and she wastes away as a result of its poison. Lizzie saves her sister by confronting the Goblin men, who attempt to force her to eat their wares. Surviving their assault, Lizzie brings her fruit stained clothes back to her sister. Laura consumes the forbidden juices for a second time and is cured. This storyline might lead us to conclude that for Rossetti, sensuous is a threat that must be overcome. Lizzie’s ability to encounter the Goblin men without eating their fruit indicates her triumph over the seductive allure of the senses.
Yet at the level of style, Rossetti’s poem everywhere celebrates the Keatsian language of sensuality. The poem opens in the following way:
Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Apricots, strawberries; —
All ripe together
In summer weather, —
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy:
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye;
Come buy, come buy.” (lines 1-31)
The Goblin fruit sounds so lush that it practically falls off the page. Yet strictly speaking, the passage is merely a long list with little added description. The adjectives are far outweighed by the preponderance of nouns, and the some of the recommending modifiers sound generic: “Our grapes fresh from the vine, Pomegranates full and fine.” What then is the allure of the goblin’s solicitations? I would point to the orthographic variety of Rossetti’s writing style as a draw for the reader. The extended rhyming sequence, “cherriesÉ raspberriesÉ mulberriesÉ cranberriesÉ dewberriesÉ blackberriesÉ strawberries,” is a case in point. The fruit’s exotic names — including rarities like “PomegranatesÉ bullacesÉ greengagesÉ bilberriesÉ Currants and gooseberriesÉ barberries” — defamiliarizes the sensuous appeal of this passage. The reader is left wondering more about what the fruits are, than how they will taste. Accordingly, Lizzie enjoins her sister,
“We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?” (lines 42-45)
Her concern is with the ill-begotten origins of the Goblin fruit. Indeed, the poem repeats a parenthetical statement that runs in a similar vein: “Men see not such [fruits] in any town” (lines 101 and 556). Lizzie gives priority to a what question (What are they?) over a question of how (How will they taste?).
Of course, her perspective is only one side of the story. Laura is enraptured by the taste of the Goblin fruit:
[She] sucked their fruit globes fair or red:
Sweeter than honey from the rock.
Stronger than man-rejoicing wine, Clearer than water flowed that juice;
She never tasted such before,
How should it cloy with length of use?
She sucked and sucked and sucked the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;
She sucked until her lips were sore;
Then flung the emptied rinds away
But gathered up one kernel-stone,
And knew not was it night or day
As she turned home alone. (128-140)
Notice how unsensuous this passage is in comparison to the Goblin’s own solicitations. The main feature of these lines is its repetition of the word “sucked.” It is ironic that the key word in a passage about sensuous gluttony is a verb, not an adjective. The provided descriptors are furthermore comparative: the fruit is sweeter, stronger, or clearer than something else. While the poem’s opening listing of the Goblin fruit had an orthographically sumptuous style, Laura conveys her bliss in relational terms instead of providing a positivistic account of sensuous experience.
When Laura returns home to encourage Lizzie to enjoy the Goblins’ meal, her style reverts to that of the poem’s opening, though in a modified form:
I ate and ate my fill,
Yet my mouth waters still;
Tomorrow night I will
Buy more:" and kissed her:
"Have done with sorrow;
I'll bring you plums tomorrow
Fresh on their mother twigs,
Cherries worth getting;
You cannot think what figs
My teeth have met in,
What melons icy-cold
Piled on a dish of gold
Too huge for me to hold,
What peaches with a velvet nap,
Pellucid grapes without one seed. (lines 165-179)
The language returns to its noun oriented focus on the kinds of fruit that Laura ate and hopes to eat again. Notice, though, that the enumeration is dulled. Laura mentions plums, cherries, melons, peaches, and grapes. In comparison to the former listing of “raspberries, mulberries, cranberries,” etc., Laura’s recounting seems fairly quotidian. I would like to draw three conclusions from these observations. First, Laura’s sensuous experience is attenuated by her eating the forbidden fruit. Mortal food no longer appeals to her, and even the Goblin fruit is toxic when she tastes it again. Second, in attempting to supplement her lack of sensory fulfillment with a description of what she ate, Laura once again degrades the aesthetic value of sensuality. The Goblin fruit, once imaged as unearthly, are now merely ordinary cherries and melons. Third, Laura’s continual devaluation of aesthetics is not only dissatisfying but deadly. Laura wastes away because her lust for Goblin fruit is not only unattainable but now unimaginable. In other words, the Goblin fruit loses the charm it never had. Sensuality spells its own stylistic death in Rossetti’s “Goblin Market.”
Or does it? Lizzie hails Laura with these words after she returns from the Goblin horde bruised but fruit drenched:
She cried “Laura,” up the garden,
“Did you miss me?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me:
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men.” (464-474)
This passage engages a notable stylistic shift. The language exhibits a Keatsian erotics without the concomitant sensuality. The sexual connotations of Laura’s saving kisses are abundantly clear, especially in the context of how the two sisters would sleep together each night, lying “Cheek to cheek and breast to breast / Locked together in one nest (197-198). Having said this, the physicality of the Goblin fruit is wholly eradicated from this passage. The once sumptuous produce remain in the now unrecognizable form of “pulp” and “dew.” Running in parallel with Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s dissolution of personality in “Jenny,” Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” heightens the expectations of blissful aesthetic sensuality only to evacuate the very content of the senses. Both poets actively inhabit the legacy of Keats and Byron, Tennyson and Browning, only to show how the stylistic resources of aesthetic sense and personal sensibility have exhausted themselves. Literariness supplants the aesthetic of sensuality. Goblin fruit is more read than tasted. Poetry enacts itself and not the senses. Christina Rossetti shows how style no longer requires sensation as the guarantor for its meaning. The literariness of exotic Goblin fruit fashions a stylistic object of contemplation without claiming aesthetics content as its groundwork.
Swinburne’s Crush of Aesthetic Density
In the wake of Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti, nineteenth-century poetry begins to resituate its access to language. The stylistic model that nineteenth-century writers received from Keats, Carlyle, Byron, and Arnold operated between the poles of surface and depth: the aesthetically styled word was to the underlying sensation as persona was to an underlying personality. While Tennyson and Browning test these relationships, Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti extended these analogies to the breaking point. With the ensuing poetry of Swinburne and Hopkins, aesthetic density comes to the fore as the mark of later nineteenth century literariness. Their style points towards the textual crush of language, signaling the terminus of Keatsian aesthetics and Byronic personality as the nineteenthcentury had known them.
Swinburne’s “Anactoria” explores the force of language through the voice of the Greek poet, Sappho. The poem’s closing is remarkable for the rolling thunder of its diatribe against omnipotence. The speaker gives rhetorical emphasis to her status as coequal with God: “But, having made me, me he shall not slay” (line 252), or “Of me the high God hath not all his will” (line 267). The speaker goes so far as to affirm that “I Sappho shall be one with all these things, / With all high things for ever” (line 276-7). Such megalomania is the sine qua non of personality. Yet underlying the speaker’s sincerity and strength is a claim about the textuality of language.
The speaker announces her poetic project over the fourteen-line length of a typical Swinburnean sentence:
Yea, thou shalt be forgotten like spilt wine
Except these kisses of my lips on thine
Brand them with immortality; but me —
Men shall not see bright fire nor hear the sea
Nor mix their hearts with music, nor behold
Cast forth of heaven, with feet of awful gold
And plumeless wings that make the bright air blind
Lightning, with thunder for a hound behind
Hunting through fields unfurrowed and unsown
But in the light and laughter, in the moan
And music, and in grasp of lip and hand
And shudder of water that makes felt on land
The immeasurable tremor of all the sea,
Memories shall mix and metaphors of me. (lines 201-14)
The continually evolving metaphors exemplify Swinburne’s style. The words take on a life of their own. Though short-lived, the verses begin with a controlled piece of rhetoric: a simile compares the listener’s fleeting presence to spilt wine. Yet the terms of the figuration immediately exceed the parameters that the poet has set out for it. Wine becomes kisses. How? The poet uses an implied metonymy to substitute wine for the lips that would drink it. On this basis, lips are converted from an object, “thou,” into a figure for the speaker’s subjectivity. This mutation from object to expressive subject tracks the ascendance of what Arnold described as poetic personality. Yet my suggestion is that the morphing of wine into kisses into lips into a “brand of immortality” has less to do with the sensual or the personal than it does with how Swinburne empowers language’s transformative potential.
Even with only fourteen lines of verse, it would take a considerable amount of space to disentangle the entire passage. Suffice to say, the penultimate verses offer an exemplary metaphor for the force of language: metaphors culminate and concatenate as water would on land. The speaker imagines a veritable earthquake-force landfall of water. The image is apt: even the most placid ocean registers its tremendous power when crashing against the shore. With the lines, “shudder of water that makes felt on land / The immeasurable tremor of all the sea,” the poem depicts the inertia of a dynamic system as its encounters a fixed body.
It is in this sense that “Memories shall mix and metaphors of me.” The unchecked force of poetic metaphor comes crashing down against the body of memories that make up the self. With each passing wave of language the poem dislodges a previously fixed component of the self and churns it into the linguistic froth. The speaker thus hurls the seismic force of literariness itself against the Divinity. Her ultimate assertion, “Yea, though thou diest, I say I shall not die” (290), performatively attains to truth by the force of its saying. Whereas Byron, Arnold, and Browning would lead us to attribute these utterances to the speaker’s strong personality, I suggest that Swinburne’s language is the agent that buffets all forms of self and sense.
Swinburne’s poetic style is then driven by the literariness of language itself. Carlyle formulates literariness as the unexpected taking apart and putting back together of the connections between words and meaning. Swinburne style has similar objectives, but the Carlyle’s synthetic or reconstructive component. Swinburne enables language to sweep away all constructs of sense and sensibility as the surf drags away the sand. What he fashions is the crush of language. In Hopkins’ poetry we will see how style empties personality into the ghostly space of linguistic textuality.
Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall”
While it is hardly a new topic of discussion, I would like to examine how Hopkins’ poetic style constructs the compactness of language. We can see this even in a “simple” poem like “Spring and Fall,” which conveys a young child’s first intimation of mortality. This compressed poem measures the density of Hopkins’ style:
Márgarét, áre you gr’eving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Le‡ves, l’ke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
çh! ‡s the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you w’ll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow's spr’ngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ’s the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Hopkins’s use of “unleaving” captures the paradox of Margaret’s dawning realization. The “goldengrove” is “unleaving” in the sense that the trees are losing their yellow leaves. Contrastingly, what is “unleaving” or eternal about the vista is its golden character. Hopkins holds the diverging connotations of a single word in direct tension.
The poem continues in a pattern of involuted development. The speaker asks, “Leaves, like the things of man, you / With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?” The poem’s explicit subject is a young child’s “grieving” for the turning of the season and its effect on a “goldengrove.” By likening leaves to “the things of man,” Hopkins reverses this scenario: the appurtenances of man become the exemplar for nature. This self-reflexive turn locates the object of Margaret’s “care” in the human subject, not nature. While the child’s identification with nature is the ostensible source of her emotion, her pathos finds its origin and destination within the self.
The trope of turning inwards continues with lines 8-9: “Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie; / And yet you will weep and know why.” The mature speaker announces a progression in the consciousness of his na•ve ward. His rumination on her attitude takes the form of a sentimental education. The speaker first instructs Margaret to read nature “like the things of man.” From this vantage, he intimates that she knows the origin of her sorrow, and he uses the example of his own “colder sighs” to indicate the emotional path forward. Lines 8 and 9 suggest that Margaret finds herself emotionally invested in the sights of fallen leaves, in part, because the spectacle of autumn is personally relevant. Like his comment on “Goldengrove unleaving,” the speaker asserts that “Sorrow’s springs are the same” (line 11). On one level, the speaker suggests that the emotive mechanism, or spring, lies within the feeling subject. Having said this, the effect of the phrase, “Sorrow’s springs,” depends on a homophony with the season of Spring. The troping of a season, Spring, into an action, spring, is a mirror image of how the Fall season devolves into an emotional awareness of humanity’s mortal fall. The aspirations of “a Young Child” in the spring of her life declines into the speaker’s more somber, shall we say autumnal, prognostications for her growing awareness of life’s transience.
Here I am less interested in the speaker’s grim verdict, “It is Margaret you mourn for,” than I am with the voice that emerges in the penultimate couplet: “Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed / What heart heard of, ghost guessed” (lines 12-13). The speaker cedes his didacticism in favor of Margaret’s liminal realizations. In this scenario, the speaker becomes a ghost who only guesses at what Margaret feels.
What takes place in Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall” is a version of de Manian prosopopeia. Contrary to appearances, the poem is not about a young child’s personification of the landscape. Rather the speaker “confers a mask” (the etymological definition of “prosopopeia”) upon the face of a young child’s sorrows. The paradoxical result is that speaker threatens to make himself into a ghost haunting Margaret’s life — one who overreaches in his attempt to have Margaret realize what only he can express: death is all. The force of the speaker’s final verdict indicates how he is no more alive than the “wanwood leafmeal.”
Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall” then turns from nature to a child’s consciousness to the views of a disenchanted speaker. In doing so, the poem departs from its experience of nature’s “goldengrove” to entwine itself in the reflexive turns of consciousness. The mind becomes a ghost in taking itself as an object of thought. “Spring and Fall” evacuates personality into a textual medium. The density of language constantly reverts upon itself, revising and multiplying its connotations from a set of counterpoised perspectives. The voices that circulate in “Spring and Fall” are what Roland Barthes calls an effet du text; the liminal voice of mortal consciousness is a byproduct of the personification, or prosopopeia, that the speaker would ascribe to a young child’s sorrows. Such language knows no inside. Textuality becomes a feature of the figuration that never finds its identity within consciousness, let alone a recognizable personality. We learn from both Swinburne and Hopkins that language, above all, is the operative agent, rather than the stylistic dictates of aesthetic sense and literary personality.
Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall” recalls several Wordsworth poems. The poem reprises the character of Margaret from Book I of The Excursion, “A Slumber did my Spirit Seal” for its ironic juxtaposition of naive and disillusioned perspectives, “We are Seven” for the way a mature speaker educates a young child about morality, and even Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” Wordsworth’s claim to the simplicity of poetic language serves as a point of departure for Hopkins’ style. Wordsworth writes in his 1800 preface to Lyrical Ballads:
Humble and rustic life was generally chosen, because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings co-exist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated and more forcibly communicated. (447)
With even the most Wordsworthian of Hopkins’ poems, we can measure the distance that nineteenth-century poetic style has traversed since this landmark pronouncement. The “essential passions of the heart,” with their plain, emphatic, elemental, and simple feelings gives way to a stylistic density of figuration. As a result, the ghostly presence of sense and sensibility can neither be “accurately contemplated” nor directly experienced.
Yet Hopkins’ revision of Wordsworth does not occur sui generis. Hopkins and Swinburne’s poetry comes at the tail-end of a trajectory of stylistic development initiated by Keats and Carlyle, Byron and Arnold. Each set of exemplars react against Wordsworth’s stylistic precedent. Keats and Carlyle emphasize a poetic sensuousness that runs against the simplicity of rustic language. Byron and Arnold hone a model of poetic personality that takes on a life of its own. With the poetry of Tennyson and Browning, the stylistic tendencies of sensuality and personality are brought to full effect. Yet with Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti we begin to see these capabilities begin to warp and bend. Personality boggles in the face of its own blankness. Sensuality fails to satisfy in a poetry that is written to be read more than tasted. Both poets foreground the literariness of style that defamiliarizes the very structures of sense and sensibility. Swinburne and Hopkins alter the tenor of poetic style by fashioning a language whose textual density stymies the formation of sense and self. In other words, a distinctly modernist poetic apparatus enters with Swinburne and Hopkins, whose texts rely on neither Wordsworthian simplicity nor Keatsian aesthetic sensuality nor Byronic personality. Poetry produces its own dynamic patterns of figuration. Rather than focusing on who authors are or what they feel, the text creates.
Arnold, Matthew. “Preface.” Poetry of Byron. London: 1881. vii-xxxi.
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McGann, Jerome. “Introduction.” Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Collected Poetry and Prose. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. xvii-xxix.
—_____. “Lord Byron’s Twin Opposites of Truth.” Towards a Literature of Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. 38-64.
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_____. Preface to the Second Edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800). Selected Poems and Prefaces by William Wordsworth. Ed. Jack Stillinger. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965. 445-464.
Last modified 11 December 2006