Notes before my nap….

It’s interesting to me that a panel billed as “Victorian Poetry, Literary Form, and the Social,” and that had the stated intention of demonstrating poetry’s particularity as a cultural form ended up being, to a great extent, about sleep, death, and dreams – topoi that are assumed to be private and ambiguous. In thinking about my own project, I am struck by the fact that these are, indeed, recurring themes – so far I’ve done Christabel (dreams), Maud (if we were going to add a fourth to the list above, I think madness would be it), “An Epistle” (death, sleep) and am considering doing The Ring and the Book (death) while I’m at it. And the two chapters that I can remember off the top of my head from Slinn’s Victorian Poetry as Cultural Critique are ones on “The Bishop Orders his Tomb” (death) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny” (sleep). Sleep, death, dreams, and madness don’t of course cover all Victorian poems (come to think of it, I think Slinn also has a chapter on Barrett Browning’s “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point”), but it may be significant that these are also the ones we gravitate towards as representative of Victorian poetry in general – and of Victorian poetry as a particular cultural form with particular relations to the social.

Someone asked me in the Q&A if the gaps and hesitations in Browning’s work were perhaps also a failure of poetic nerve. When I answered, I mostly focused on why I didn’t think that was the case with “An Epistle,” which at least in the critical reception has been read as a conservative poem, kind of a dramatic monologue with training wheels. (Though in conversation after the panel, it occurred to me that the poem may be more difficult to read in 2009 simply because people don’t know the bible as well.) On further reflection, I think the person who asked that question may have been asking it more generally about Victorian poetry as well – basically, isn’t suspension basically just a failure of that nerve, a symptom of anxiety of influence. My short answer is going to be no, but it might be worth thinking about why that is. To call these gaps failures of nerve assumes that there’s some (Romantic?) wholeness that the poet is failing to capture, something out there that a stronger poet would have been able to communicate in full, through a language that isn’t so fragmentary. I don’t think that’s the case, but it is a compelling fiction. But part of my argument about suspension being a “constitutive absence” is that it’s not something that happens to subvert an original stability – it’s part of the structure to begin with. (I’m patterning my argument here after Derrida’s in “Signature Event Context” – I don’t see suspension entirely as a synonym for iterability, but they are connected.)

Someone else brought up the image of the thread in the Q&A – the first quote I used on my handout had Lazarus “hold[ing] on firmly to some thread of life.” It was pointed out that you don’t actually know whether the thread is horizontal or vertical. I’d had the same thought as I was practicing my paper just before the panel, even though I was trying to make the argument that the passage was still more horizontal. Probably the more important point is that it isn’t hierarchical – and I did manage to get that across. There’s also a pretty famous thread in “Two in the Campagna.” This is, of course, potentially another kind of suspension. Lots of the work I’ve been doing lately has been with interruption and ambiguity, but there’s also, of course, suspension that is hanging by a thread….

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Today’s been sort of a frustrating one so far. The first panel I went to this morning (which shall remain nameless) was marred by the rudeness of one of the speakers – a shame, because the paper before his was actually pretty interesting. (Let’s just say it’s one thing to write a paper that goes one or two minutes over your time and it’s an entirely other, more obnoxious move to just show up with a 20 page paper and see how long the moderator lets you go.) The Victorian Commemorations panel was fine, and I did think that Margaret Linley had some interesting things to say about In Memoriam that I’ll probably have to process later – possibly thinking about the dual public/private status of the lyric. In the Q&A someone brought up the idea that, among the texts in the traditional literary canon, In Memoriam is notable for the amount of disagreement about its basic interpretive details. That was a total side-note to the question that was being asked, but it did get me thinking about the difference between In Memoriam and some of Browning’s canonical dramatic monologues—especially “My Last Duchess” and “An Epistle”—about which there’s very little interpretive uncertainty and where interpretation itself is, to a certain extent, being taught. I wonder if this, too, could be theorized as a difference between lyric and dramatic monologue – and whether there’s something that could be brought over from lyric to read dramatic monologue in a way that doesn’t feel so constrained.

That’s pretty much been the highlight of my day so far. I’m probably out of sorts due to a lack of sleep. I’ve been off my networking game because of the tired, and now of course I’m starting to have that vague anxiety that my Moment To Meet All These Important People has passed and I’ll never have a chance to talk to them ever again. That’s probably stupid – or, at least, I hope it isn’t the case. I’m also irritated with myself because I didn’t give myself enough time to get from the Victorian luncheon (which felt like it was in the middle of nowhere) to the 1:45 panel on “The Thinking Proper to Poetry” which I really really really really really wanted to go to – by the time I arrived, the panel had started and from what I could see, the room was full anyway. Am feeling a little better and less anxious after a couple of strolls through the book exhibit, but I now really want to make sure I get to go to the 7:15 panel on Romanticism and the Antisocial – I need at least one more truly good panel today. (Then again, I’m tempted to go hear Marjorie Levinson talk about bounded infinities again, too. Decisions, decisions.) I also clearly need a nap.

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