Among the many books that I was skimming yesterday under the guise of “working on my dissertation” (before the bloom of my approved prospectus wears off) was Stephen Gill’s Wordsworth and the Victorians,which examines the Victorian reception of Wordsworth both during the last part of his life and afterwards. In the introduction, Gill recalls the experience of having looked through the files of letters at Grasmere and notes the number of letters to Wordsworth that thank the poet for having written something that helped the correspondent through a crisis or, in some other sense, saved their life. For Gill, these letters reflect “the unmisgiving directness with which many Victorians looked to literature for instruction and spiritual guidance”–an impulse that his book aims to explore “without condescension.”

Erik Gray makes what I consider to be a similar gesture in the introduction to his more recent study, The Poetry of Indifference from the Romantics to the Rubáiyát (one of the other books I looked at yesterday). His emphasis on “personal relevance” and the consolatory potential of nineteenth-century poetry emerges as an attempt to counter the way that Victorian texts especially have been read over the last fifty years of scholarship–generally as agonistic, conflicted, ambiguous, and (to a certain degree) self-deconstructing. As he notes, these kinds of readings were especially important in inventing a field of “Victorian poetry” with a value that accorded with a certain set of (largely New Critical) principles–and no one’s denying that the agonistic thing isn’t there. But Gray cautions us (and I think rightly so) against naturalizing these kinds of critical commonplaces: “Revisionist readings of Tennyson (for instance) ought not to blind us to the fact that he was not always read as a troubled and troubling poet but as a comfortable and comforting one, and not without reason.” 

Probably the most famous example of what Gray is talking about in regards to Tennyson is Queen Victoria finding In Memoriam second only to the Bible in its ability to provide comfort, and I’m sure this is also the kind of anecdote that’s been deconstructed and critiqued to the point that it descends into parody. (I would try to Google some examples, but I do have other things I need to do today and I feel like this would be something of a black hole, were I to pursue it.) And I’m sure there would be much in those files at Grasmere that would make us laugh with its bathos, obvious misreading, poorly-expressed piety, and Tiger Beat-style fawning. We need to have some sense of critical distance, particularly in this business.

And it’s precisely that critical distance (or perception thereof) that makes us (as literary professionals) look so bad to everyone else. Gill makes the typical distinction when he writes that “Within university departments of English such a mode of reading is regarded as old-fashioned at best, suspect and misguided at worst, but it is still more common, and more valued in the wider world than professors suppose.” But this, too, feels to me like a critical commonplace, and it’s one that has gotten me into a lot of fights over the years, usually with men between the ages of 35-45 who are well educated yet not academics and have a very clear idea of how I’m supposed to be doing my job and who feel free to give unsolicited advice about how I should be doing my job in social situations that would not seem to call for it, such as a group brunch or a date. (Not that I’m bitter or anything.) The only way to defend myself, I’ve learned, is to try to convince them that I also “love” literature and am not being corrupted by all that evil Theory or something. 

This is usually an exercise in frustration, and I tend to emerge from these kinds of discussions feeling slightly violated.

Some of the frustration/violation is the general “WTF?” reaction, and not the productive kind, either. But some of it is my own frustration with how difficult it can be to articulate a more complex relationship to literature that can express a variety of levels of investment–and whether or not it’s anyone’s business, particularly vis-a-vis my professional identity. These questions all share certain features of the “character identification” question. If I tell you that reading Ulysses saved my life (metaphorically, of course) during my first year in Chicago, that I derive an enormous amount of comfort from reading Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode,” and that I think that Maudcontains some of the most heartwrenchingly true descriptions of love in British poetry,* I have revealed something about myself as a person.

But isn’t it more interesting (at least to people who are not me or who are not on dates with me) to see these as critical statements as well, as much as, say Mill’s famous account of how he came out of his breakdown in the Autobiographyor some Lambeth housewife taking the time to tell Bill Wordsworth how much the Lucy poems meant to her after her child died? (As a footnote to his introduction, Gill mentions that he got a number of similar letters from readers after he wrote his biography of Wordsworth.)

And I think this is ultimately the question that both Gray and Gill invite: how can we talk critically about something like consolation or comfort that seems, on the face of it at least, to be by definition uncritical? Certainly part of this project would be historicizing consolation in the first place, particularly the kind of consolation that people expect to get from literary texts, but is there a way to do this that doesn’t involve a kind of flattening out of consolation in general? And, relatedly, am I allowed to have my literary consolations and analyze it, too? I know people who claim to only work on texts that they hate or that make them uncomfortable; I’ve never been that person myself. And I do resent the common perception that analyzing something (particularly from a theoretical standpoint**) is somehow equivalent to “ruining” it (even though I have had a couple of texts “ruined” for me in that way, namely Tess of the d’Urbervilles). But maybe I’m still overly optimistic that I can have my literary consolations and deconstruct them too.

Which is, of course, a question that will have to remain open and also somewhat disturbingly tangential to what I thought I was going to write about when I started this post over an hour ago. It feels, to some extent, like a retread of the character-identification post, though I didn’t intend it to be. Of course these things are related–perhaps we could schematically and quickly posit that self-consciously reading for the plot is the kind of “safe” alternative to plain old comfort. Yet comfort is important, and it’s complicated, not the least because our definitions of what is complicated can change so much–perhaps this is the next thing to think about?


*By which I mean mostly Part 1, Canto XI–

O let the solid ground
Not fail beneath my feet
Before my life has found
What some have found so sweet;
Then let come what come may,
What matter if I go mad,
I shall have had my day.

Let the sweet heavens endure,
Not close and darken above me
Before I am quite sure
That there is one to love me;
Then let come what come may
To a life that has been so sad,
I shall have had my day.

–and Canto XV:

So dark a mind within me dwells,
And I make myself such evil cheer,
That if I be dear to some one else
Then some one else may have much to fear;
But if I be dear to some one else,
Then I should be to myself more dear.
Shall I not take care of all that I think,
Yea ev`n of wretched meat and drink,
If I be dear,
If I be dear to some one else.

Both of these are, of course, also riotously depressing. I get that.

**I also frequently find consolation in works of “theory” as well. I love the “Envois” section of Derrida’s The Post-Card for precisely this reason.