June 2009

…in honor of the upcoming July 4 holiday, the Poem of the Week takes a quick, spasmodic step backwards in the Oxford Book of Victorian Verse.

304. Sonnets. America by Sydney Dobell (1824-1874)


Men say, Columbia, we shall hear thy guns.

But in what tongue shall be thy battle-cry?

Not that our sires did love in years gone by,

When all the Pilgrim Fathers were little sons

In merry homes of England? Back, and see

Thy satchell’d ancestor! Behold, he runs

To mine, and, clasp’d, they tread the equal lea

To the same village school, where side by side

They spell ‘Our Father.’ Hard by, the twin pride

Of that grey hall whose ancient oriel gleams

Thro’ yon baronial pines, with looks of light

Our sister-mothers sit beneath one tree.

Meanwhile our Shakespeare wanders past and dreams

His Helena and Hermia. Shall we fight?


Nor force nor fraud shall sunder us! O ye

Who north or south, on east or western land,

Native to noble sounds, say truth for truth,

Freedom for freedom, love for love, and God

For God; Oh ye who in eternal youth

Speak with a living and creative flood

This universal English, and do stand

Its breathing book; live worthy of that grand

Heroic utterance–parted, yet a whole,

Far, yet unsever’d,–children brave and free

Of the great Mother-tongue, and ye shall be

Lords of an Empire wide as Shakespeare’s soul,

Sublime as Milton’s immemorial theme,

And rich as Chaucer’s speech, and fair as Spenser’s dream.

(c. 1855)

Dobell will be familiar to some of you as one of the major poets and theorists of the Spasmodic school. The entry on Dobell in Cambridge History of English and American Literature in Eighteen Volumes describes him as the “best of this group” and lavishes such praise as the following: “…England in a Time of War contains a good deal of rubbish, with some things as different from rubbish as it is possible to conceive.” Ridiculed in their time and afterwards as practicing a kind of overly materialist, cut-rate version of what the Romantics had been doing, the Spasmodics have more recently been reclaimed by VP scholars–for example, the Winter 2004 issue of Victorian Poetry was dedicated to “Spasmodic Poetry and Poetics.” My own attitude has always been that I’ve found the theories of the Spasmodics more palpable than their poetry; in some circles this makes me a snob. On the other hand, some of the poems that I love most dearly, among them Maud and Aurora Leigh, were derided in their time as spasmodic productions. (The other one that always gets named here is Arnold’s Empedocles on Etna.) So I’m a snob but not a particularly discerning one. Or something.

At any rate, a good intro to Spasmodic theory is Dobell’s own “Nature of Poetry.” I read this for my orals last year and remember it as being an interesting mishmash of the material (trying to ground meter and poetic form in the pulsations of the human heart) and the idealist, a sort of interesting though often reductive distillation of Kant and Burke with a strong strain of Shelley. And if my notes from that period of my life are any indication, I saw at the time a couple of ideas that seem to anticipate the Austinian performative as well as reflect more quintessentially Victorian theories of language.

Now, as the poetic works of the Spasmodic school go (or so I have heard), these sonnets are pretty tame. It took a little while for their weirdness to sneak up on me.

But let’s start with a bit of context.

These poems are excerpted from a longer series of sonnets on the subject of the Crimean War. “That’s funny,” you say, “I don’t remember there being significant American involvement in the Crimean War.” However, if this website is to be believed (and, hey, when has the first hit on Google ever been wrong?), America did end up being fairly sympathetic to Russia in the whole thing, and that relationship paved the way for American expansion in Alaska and Hawaii. Which basically means that Barack Obama’s presidency is perhaps the best thing to have come out of what was by all accounts a huge disaster. (Remember “The Charge of the Light Brigade“…)

I digress. But I do think that the historical context, such as it is, is at least a little bit helpful for understanding Dobell’s otherwise sort of perplexing insistence on the English language as this sort of sacred bond between Britain and the United States that reduces the Revolutionary War, for instance, to the outgrowth of a spat between schoolboys, some of whom then took their “satchells” and their Shakespeare and, apparently, crossed the Atlantic in a huff. That first sonnet in particular is pretty insistent on this idyllic childhood in England–note especially the emphasis on parity between these two “ancestors” that tries to appropriate some of the discourses surrounding American democracy–the “equal lea” sounds a lot like “equality,” and we have the “same village-school” (no class disparity here!), the “twin-pride” in an architectural patrimony, and women who are also equally attractive.

Of course, I’m not really doing justice yet to the first question that Dobell’s poems pose: “in what tongue shall be thy battle cry?” It’s an interesting version of a kind of linguistic imperialism, but it also seems to be a version of that truism of high school political science classes about democracies not fighting each other. I assume that Dobell is overstating the case for effect–though it’s interesting to think that in 1855 it could be seen as even a halfway plausible idea that the main language of America was still up for debate.

…but there’s the rub, isn’t it? I’m no Americanist, but I’m going to venture a guess that, by 1855, the majority of people who called themselves Americans were not, in fact, descended from those “Pilgrim Fathers” back in England–or *any* fathers back in England. Indeed, I’d even go out on a limb and say that many of these folk spoke English as a second or third language, if at all. (Americanists and/or people with more of an interest in Googling the above can feel free to correct me on this one.)

The developmemt of thought across the two sonnets suggest that Dobell himself knows that the “common national heritage” argument isn’t really going to carry the day. Something more complicated happens in the second sonnet–almost a kind of imagined community based on a common language–as in, you become American by speaking English (and who hasn’t heard versions of that one even now) but, in Dobell’s rendering, you also get the bonus of carrying on the “living and creative flood / This universal English”–you become the heir of Milton, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Spenser. So in a single fell swoop, American literary production–which, you know, by 1855 was not all that insubstantial–is reduced to something of a symptom, the triumphant productions of wandering children.

(And, let’s face it. “Ye who in eternal youth” is rarely a compliment in these kinds of contexts.)

There is also, of course, the “we use the same words so we obviously mean the same things with those words” canard that’s going on in that second sonnet. However, I am nearing 1200 words on this puppy and will therefore let you imagine what I would say about that.

Just, um, happy upcoming Fourth of July holiday, y’all.

I plugged Regenia Gagnier’s The Insatiability of Human Wants at our last meeting, and, Kiran, you really ought to check it out, maybe put it on a list? Here are some snippets from the Appendix, which I’m sure why it’s so called:

Taste–or class as culture–may disincline middle-class people to share anything but political solidarity and economic resources with the working class. Put differently, a good leftist will willingly share the pains of working people, willingly redistribute the wealth, but will she share in their pleasures? (238)

Objectively, one’s class is one’s position in the labor process, although one’s political identity and subjectivity may be in ambivalent relation to one’s class. One may perform a class identiy, but the performance is subject to material limits [….] The introduction of consumption models of taste and status draws together both class and gender, for consumption and leisure, the realms of pleasure for most wage laborers, are as significant in the formation of identity and subjectivity as production. (243)

Since I’m all about binary distinctions, I’ll just say that I’m a fan of the identity/subjectivity dialectic Gagnier uses, especially as a way to think about my own ambivalent relations to class. I’m probably a textbook case of the “good leftist” who’s really saddened by the stuff that passes for entertainment on the radio, on movie screens, hell, even on the internet. And that doesn’t make me a bad leftist (hopefully not!) identity-wise, but initiates a subjectivity worth thinking about critically?

As for my bitchy comment, it’s not really directed towards Gagnier (maybe towards the world in general). It’s when she compares gender and class performativity:

Eric Schocket [The essay G refers to, I’m guessing, has become this book chapter]has recently employed performance theory in general and Marjorie Garber’s work in particular in the development of what he calls “class transvestitism,” that is , when middle-class writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries showed their comradeship with the poor, the social body, by literally costuming themselves in the garb of poverty. Schocket shows how the comradeship was born of simulation and created a “culture of poverty.” Yet whereas Garber sees transvestite logic as working toward progressive ends by destabilizing gender, class transvestism occludes economic relations and reconstructs class as culture, but culture as voluntary rather more than, as in taste, a product of one’s particular history and environment. Then, Schocket shows, class culture can be read as difference and absorbed into “pluralism.” This is, of course, the problem of multiculturalism when it is treated as a mere celebration of diverse cultures rather than as cultures also embedded in political and economic inequalities. (242)

Why is it so hard for people to see that so-called progressive destabilizing through cross-dressing (using the term “transvestite” is frowned upon among trans people and allies), transgendering, or transitioning, is very much imbricated with social and economic privilege, and the celebration of it “occludes economic relations”? Transition is fucking expensive in all sorts of ways, and gender politics ought not to be reduced to a set of consumer choices. Grumble grumble grumble.

Before I start, I should say that I had every intention of coming back from the woods to take on Coventry Patmore again (specifically, this gem [#290] from The Angel in the House), largely because Mia’s always after me to write about poems that I dislike. Alas, I am finding that my Victorian heart is not rising to such an occasion today. (The reasons for this can be roughly approximated by the sentiments expressed in Browning’s “Two in the Campagna” [not in the OBVV]) So I plunged again into the pages of the OBVV, through poems about dead brides and modest attractions and Christian consolations. You know, the usual–without anything in particular striking me as an appropriate site for kicking my Victorianist brain back into gear. And it seems self-indulgently biographical to leap right to the “Bride’s Song” from Christina Rossetti’s Prince’s Progress (#338 — “Too late for love, too late for joy! / Too late, too late!” — yeah, you know what I mean).

Instead, I offer the following sonnet from George Meredith (1828 – 1909), which should at least be a change of pace:

332. Lucifer in Starlight

On a starr’d night Prince Lucifer uprose.

Tired of his dark dominion swung the fiend

Above the rolling ball in cloud part screen’d,

Where sinners hugg’d their spectre of repose.

Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those.

And now upon his western wing he lean’d,

Now his huge bulk o’er Afric’s sands careen’d,

Now the black planet shadow’d Arctic snows.

Soaring through wider zones that prick’d his scars

With memory of the old revolt from Awe,

He reach’d a middle height, and at the stars,

Which are the brain of heaven, he look’d and sank.

Around the ancient track march’d, rank on rank,

The army of unalterable law.


This is a particularly masterful sonnet, in my humble opinion, in both its content and the use of its form. I was particularly struck in the transcription of it by the number of end-stopped lines–especially the ones where a single line is also a single sentence–this, for me, helps convey the sense of disenchantment so powerfully present in the language. It verges almost upon the boring, the desultory. Everything is contained and measured, and “unalterable law” is as much a matter of meter and structure as it is of those epic geological forces that come to replace God’s providence in our narrative of Victorian thought. It’s not so much that the struggle naught availeth, contra Clough, but more that the struggle itself was just one manifestation of a different time, something to be looked back upon from an almost Hegelian historical distance, memories of Milton and Romanticism, and how quaint indeed these echoed questions of being of the devil’s party. Lucifer, in the old mythologies, was a star himself once. Now even his fans don’t do much for him.

Reading this, I’m reminded of that thing that Kant says about the two things that fill him with wonder: “the starry sky above us and the moral law within us.” “Awe” (as in “the memory of the old revolt from”) is sometimes used as a figure for the sublime as well as for God himself. Is it possible, then, that the memory here is not simply that of the epic battles of good and evil (decided in advance, though only according to another set of laws) but also of awe itself, of the sublime, of wonder? For Meredith writes of the stars as the “brain of heaven”–a jarring, striking, clinical-seeming image. Something vast but mappable: a game of connect the dots that is infinite only because we’re better at spurious connections than intrinsic ones. Ever-expanding, but also ever dying.

Yes, these are reflections of the “middle height”: a mediocrity that passes, in these times (though I’m not speaking historically here, necessarily) for an apex, a zenith. In the old days–or so it seemed, we thought–he flew much higher, burned much more brightly before he sank.

And it’s possible, of course, that I’m projecting too much of my own world-weariness onto these fourteen lines. We could see this all, certainly, as simply another iteration of a detente between rationalism and religion–in a world where the hand of God has become more difficult to see, we still need not worry about the old demons–they are here, but the laws that bind them to defeat are more stable, more unalterable, than the myths by which we used to contain them. “Brain” will triumph, even if we no longer call it Providence or Love. It’s not so bad. It’s just that–it’s this formalist itch again–something about doing this in a mostly end-stopped sonnet that makes me feel like it’s not just projection. What still moves in all of this is the dark shadow, the “huge bulk” of Lucifer himself–and it moves more fleetingly, more powerfully, than the forced march below or the intelligent pulses above. Yet, in this movement, it doesn’t seem entirely malignant anymore, possibly because Lucifer, in leaving the sleeping sinners alone, has perhaps learned to pick his battles more carefully–no longer subject to this one “hot fit of pride,” now itself passed on?

…but what does it mean for us if the Awe (revolted against and otherwise) is a memory that only Lucifer has?

I’ve been meaning to read up on Adorno over the past, oh, year or two, but I’ve really not succeeded so far, so I might be misrepresenting what he says. My idea in sticking the encyclopedia block quote in the last post was that Adorno’s position on art is pretty relevant to how we might think of literary criticism today. At our last meeting, before margaritas, we talked about how much it’s our responsibility to do something actively political with our criticism, or whether it’s even  possible at all. Shouldn’t we be doing something in the real world instead of just talking about Victorian novels? Perhaps Adorno’s answer to this question would be that literary criticism becomes politically effective precisely through its autonomy, its separation from the “real” world.

Or, when it makes such autonomy more generally viable, livible, visible, inhabitable.

If you’re weird enough to read a lot of reviews and blogs and articles about dance music, every once in a while you’ll hear descriptors like “pure” and “uncompromising” to describe techno. What this means is that there’s no hint of those things that most people look for in songs–vocals, melodic lines, harmonic progressions. The language of techno at its purest consists of repetitions of short snippets of sounds for five, ten, fifteen minutes, with long, subtle, gradual shifts in timbre, introducing or taking away an element every so often–with potentially devastating effects. The tracks from the “M-series” of Maurizio (Moritz von Oswald) are giants in the canon of techno. This is my personal favorite, M5:

In Part I of this post, I linked to Steve Reich’s Music as a Gradual Process, the last point of which describes perfectly the aesthetic experience of this music:

While performing and listening to gradual musical processes one can participate in a particular liberating and impersonal kind of ritual. Focusing in on the musical process makes possible that shift of attention away from he and she and you and me outwards towards it.

It was this it I was thinking about when I block quoted the bit on Adorno.

So I think I’ve cleared up, at least for myself, of the kind of aesthetic experience I’m after, of the kinds of aesthetic judgments that I not only make, but that I, in a sense, need to make. Of course, I’m not saying that everybody else in the world has to adhere to these pseudo-Adornian principles. I certainly don’t read and enjoy Victorian literature in this way, although I’m sure it’s possible. Maybe my takeaway point is that instead of dividing lit crit into aesthetics-based and politics-based camps, we could think of the multiple aesthetico-political registers which are available to our reading practices.

I still haven’t talked about Gas, the ambient music project that got me thinking about my own aesthetic judgments. The stuff on autonomy (i.e. from late capitalism) and shifting attention away from “he and she and you and me outwards towards it” might seem most at home in the twentieth century (and maybe C21 too), but Wolfgang Voigt’s use of Wagner and Mahler suggests that the (highly autonomous) aesthetic of electronic music with its samplers, synthesizers, laptops, mixers, turntables, and assorted gear might be thought of as the (similarly autonomous) aesthetic of Romanticism with its emphasis on organicism and Nature, but above all an individual’s experience of Nature. (Voigt has described his work in Gas as an attempt to recreate his feelings as a child walking in the Black Forest.) I guess what I’m saying is that both electronic music and Romantic art are both machines for producing feelings, and that those feelings are self-consciously distanced from the society which produces them.

So I told myself that I would do Part II of “In Which the Long Nineteenth Century Stretches its Legs,” but I didn’t. Here is, instead, a little snippet from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philsophy page on Adorno:

Because of the shift in capitalism’s structure, and because of Adorno’s own complex emphasis on (modern) art’s autonomy, he doubts both the effectiveness and the legitimacy of tendentious, agitative, or deliberately consciousness-raising art. Yet he does see politically engaged art as a partial corrective to the bankrupt aestheticism of much mainstream art. Under the conditions of late capitalism, the best art, and politically the most effective, so thoroughly works out its own internal contradictions that the hidden contradictions in society can no longer be ignored. The plays of Samuel Beckett, to whom Adorno had intended to dedicateAesthetic Theory, are emblematic in that regard. Adorno finds them more true than many other artworks.

Seems relevant to the things I’ve been thinking of.

I’m reading Lata Mani’s Contentious Tradition: The Debates Around Sati, wherein she quotes a missionary, William Ward, who talks about the caste system in India by analogy with Chinese shoes: “like all other attempts to cramp the human intellect, and forcibly to restrain men within the bonds that nature scorns to keep, this [caste] system, however specious in theory, has operated like the Chinese national shoe, it has rendered the whole nation cripples” (Qtd. in Mani 133)

288. “Heraclitus” by William (Johnson) Cory (1823-1892)

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,

They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.

I wept as I remember’d how often you and I

Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,

A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest

Still thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;

For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

(written 1850?ish, published 1891)

There’s a moment in the “Fair Ship” sequence of In Memoriam where the poet imagines himself meeting the ship that bears the corpse of Arthur Hallam and for just one moment finds that he expects his friend to simply walk off the ship instead. Absence is a funny thing, something we can get used to as long as it meets our expectations and conforms to our timetables. Temporary if somewhat open-ended absences are bittersweet, though they often don’t change our routines so much; when more definitive, traumatic partings take place…well, it’s also sometimes striking how quickly their effects fade. This is all, to some extent, par for the course in a world of constant flux–a world, perhaps, as understood by Heraclitus–though that very sense of flux, perhaps akin to a kind perpetual Paterian weaving and unweaving of ourselves. How can you register absence when the river you step into isn’t even really the same river, or when you can still hear the nightingales?

There is, of course, a fairly obvious “trick” going on in the first line of this poem (which, according to its Representative Poetry Online page, is a translation of “an epigram of Callimachus”–though if you read that epigram, you’ll see that the repetitions and the tricks, as it were, belong to Cory). “They told me you were dead” suggests the kind of misinformation that one recalls years later while having a good laugh with Heraclitus himself–who may, if we read line 5 too quickly (the one about “thou art lying”), have faked his own death. But Heraclitus is dead–so far as we know, for the poem’s speaker still seems somewhat divided on this point. Sure, his friend’s ashes are not just at rest but “long, long ago at rest” (“Cinders there are”? Anyone?), but so much of the rest of this short poem seems to be conspiring to make the speaker’s hold on this bit of knowledge somewhat tenuous. He knows it in his head but not, perhaps, in his senses, in his body.

Aside from all their overdeterminedness as poetic symbol* the nightingale voices strike me as interesting here because they’re used to invoke a kind of permanence that is actually produced through a kind of endless replaceability. Death “cannot take” the nightingales away because there is nothing to take–unlike Heraclitus himself, they are not individuated (since this isn’t an Oscar Wilde fairytale–see “The Nightingale and the Rose”) and in fact are kind of expendable–it’s not death, exactly, but a kind of mindlessness in advance thereof.

The other thing I just want to observe about this poem is the overall difficulty of talking about the issues of death–and survival. I’ve been beginning to think about this as an angle on Browning’s “Epistle,” since one usually doesn’t get the chance to be both the dead guy and the dead guy’s survivor at the same time. But even when they are (as per usual) different people, the lines get blurred a bit.

William (Johnson) Cory, in case you were wondering, was a famed tutor at Eton and, as Wikipedia puts it, “the ‘coach’ of the cult of Victorian pederasty,” in actions as well as in literature, which seems to be related to his eventual resignation from his post. He was also an influence on Pater, Symonds, and perhaps Wilde. You can see the 1891 edition of his Ionica (from which “Heraclitus” was taken) here. He also said, according to an unsourced quote on the Wiki page, that “Above all, you go to a great school for self-knowledge,” which seems quite lovely and true indeed.

*Really, can you think of a bird more overdetermined in Western poetry/literature than the nightingale? I’m not sure even the albatross holds a candle to this. (I think Google’s going to back me up. 4.2 million hits for albatross, 7.9 million for nightingale.)


A brief programming note. By this time next week I will have winged my way to the woods of Northern Wisconsin and a cabin remote enough from the rest of the world to be served only by a dial-up connection that runs somewhat slower than a Victorian-era telegraph. So there will be no new Poem of the Week until June 22 or thereabouts. Try not to miss me too much while I’m gone.