So I admit that I’ve sort of been coasting on the series of posts I wrote in January, and once again I find myself in blog arrears. As an apology, I offer a smattering of my recent reading and scattered nineteenth-century-related thoughts:

At the risk of forever branding myself as a closet hipster, I confess that I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the song “A Horse is Not a Home” on Miike Snow’s debut album (the two Is in Miike are intentional) is a rewriting of Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” [Ed. note: the e on the end of Childe is intentional ;)] This has been the obsession of several commutes this past week. I don’t have any particular fantastic analysis for why these two texts have become connected in my mind, except for the similar images they evoke and (arguably) a shared mood. I think maybe it has something to do with the chorus, disenchanting the same things that Browning was: “With a hole in my heart I was supposed to ride / In morning traffic / With a golden hand by your fortress side / But without magic.” Okay, these guys aren’t Browning. And they’re, um, Swedish. But I can respect a good pop song. You can decide for yourself. The song is here. The lyrics are here. “Childe Roland” is coming to the Dark Tower here.

I don’t remember exactly why I went to the NYU library last week, but I’ve ended up checking out a bunch of books, many of them pulled from the shelf in fits of semi-desperate inspiration. One of these was Andrew Miller’s The Burdens of Perfection. I realize that I’m late to the party on this one, but–wow. Good stuff. I hope that I can write a book like this someday. It was somewhat gratifying to see that Miller and I are coming from a similar view of 19th century history, a shared sense of the “epistemological disarray” of Victorian modernity and a need for thinking about receptivity to others. Miller also quotes Maurice and Newman, two figures who are virtually guaranteed to lead to an hour of fun on GoogleBooks and the entertainment of the idea of writing my second book on Victorian theology.

…which explains why I was probably the only person on the North Jersey Coast Local line yesterday kicking back with a copy of Newman’s “Christ Hidden From the World.” Here, Newman’s dwelling not on the works of Jesus as they are recorded in the gospels but on the obscurity in which Christ passed the first thirty years of his life, and it imagines Jesus in those years as being deemed unremarkable to those around him, particularly his close family and friends.  One of the recurring themes, in fact, is how difficult it is to tell the difference between someone who is merely outwardly good because of habit or calculation and someone who is truly holy, since many of the acts of holiness that exceed outward form are hidden from view. Holiness, Newman implies, must almost by definition be misunderstood by most people who are not holy — even though not everyone who is misunderstood is holy. Newman delivers a particularly strong smackdown to those who assume that they would have been numbered among the faithful in Jesus’ time:

We are very apt to wish we had been born in the days of Christ, and in this way we excuse our  misconduct, when conscience reproaches us. We say, that had we the advantage of being with Christ, we should have had stronger motives, stronger restraints against sin. I answer, that so far from our sinful habits being reformed by the presence of Christ, the chance is, that those same habits would have hindered us from recognizing Him. We should not have known He was present; and if He had told us who He was, we should not have believed him. Nay, had we seen His miracles (incredible as it may seem), even they would not have made any lasting impression on us. … I believe this literally would have been the case with most men.

Burn! There’s also a somewhat weirder passage where Newman goes into pretty specific detail about how the people physically closest to Christ would have been those who tortured and crucified him, though that’s less relevant to the above to what I’m still trying to do with “Karshish.” I’m sure, incidentally, that there’s a lot of Christian fiction out there that’s predicated on the idea that Newman presents here, of our  not being able to recognize Jesus if he was literally our next door neighbor — there was a skit that I used to perform in my evangelical youth group days that was based on this premise — but it certainly doesn’t seem like a major epistemological concern in these days when everyone has a Personal Jesus. (You had to know I was going to go there. I thought the Johnny Cash version would be particularly appropriate.)

Also did some detouring through Arnold this week, revisiting some of my old favorites: “The Buried Life” (which I sent to my lovely first-year writing students this weekend), “The Scholar-Gipsy,” and “Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse.” I’m probably going to have to get Matt into my dissertation somehow. Maybe that will be the chapter I write when it’s a book. I’m very susceptible to some of Arnold’s complaints, even when I should know better. The following lines from “The Scholar-Gipsy” made their way into my notes for Wednesday:

For early didst thou leave the world, with powers

Fresh, undiverted to the world without;

Firm to their mark, not spent on other things;

Free from the sick fatigue, the languid doubt,

Which much to have tried, in much been baffled, brings.

O life unlike ours!

Who fluctuate idly without term or scope,

Of whom each strives, nor knows for what he strives,

And each half lives a hundred different lives;

Who wait like thee, but not, like thee, in hope.

It’s at least a tempting lament when one is looking forward to days of meetings and various bureaucratic strife.

Speaking of “The Buried Life,” I haven’t yet caught the MTV show of the same name. I’m sure I will at some point — many of the cardio machines at the gym I recently joined are connected to TVs, and I’ve already seen several meta-iterations of Jersey Shore and an intensely disturbing feature called “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” So, yeah, “The Buried Life” can’t be far behind.

Finally, I’ve also been enjoying Pater this week. I’ll leave you with a quote from his 1865 essay, “Coleridge,” which was reprinted in Appreciations.

The relative spirit, by its constant dwelling on the more fugitive conditions or circumstances of things, breaking through a thousand rough and brutal classifications, and giving elasticity to inflexible principles, begets an intellectual finesse of which the ethical result is a delicate and tender justice in the criticism of human life.

In other news, I started my Christina Rossetti bibliography today in hopes of spurring myself to finish up with Browning. Am annoyed by journals that still have obnoxiously slim archives online. Essays In Criticism, I’m looking at you.

So, our article for tomorrow’s reading group meetingis Andrew Miller’s piece on unled lives in realist fiction. Me being myself–or, to quote Miller’s Kierkegaardian hook, me being nailed to myself–and it being April Fool’s Day in parts of the intertubes, the most beloved of holidays around the nerdosphere–I’ll draw your attention to an unfeatured AFD feature article on wikipedia–and make it relevant to the century we know and love.

The feature article that did make it is Boston’s Museum of Bad Art, which really does exist, and which I will put on my list of things to see before I die. After doing some digging around on discussion pages, I came upon one of the unlucky candidates that didn’t make it, the entry on raining animals. You can check out the discussion here.

Raining animals? Hallelujah! And there’s a whole list of days when animals were reported to have actually rained. Most of them have “citation needed” tags, but following one of the duly citationed ones led me to a book of questionable scholarly merit. I spent some time checking one fact on the London Times digital archive (bad OCR + tiny text + broadsheet = epic procrastination) and found this example.


April 24, 1871, bottom right corner of page 7.

I could probably find a more biblical example, but I’m too busy a-twittering and lusting over recently-obsolete netbooks.

I have no reason for posting this other than that it mentions Victorian underwear in passing and makes for a fun read  about the MLA. I stumbled upon it while looking for a picture of Andrew Ross in his mango Comme Des Garcons jacket (I am reading The Sokal Hoax).

So, Victorian poetry made the news yesterday when everyone’s favorite coxcomb, Rod Blagojevich, ended his already bizarre post-impeachment press conference with a completely inappropriate quotation from Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” The blog of the Chicago Tribune‘s Washington Bureau has video here.

The Trib also notes that this is not the first time that Blago has turned to dead British poets in order to class up the cesspool of his involvement in Illinois politics: he cited Kipling’s “If” at the time of his arrest.

Now, I’m all for people raising the profile of Victorian poetry in the media, but I do wish that Blago had been a little bit more adventerous with his choices. The video clip in the first link (which, sadly, doesn’t include the poetry), where Blago offers this weird, twitchy explanation for his impeachment that apparently has to do with the Illinois legislature not wanting children to have health care (or something–I kept shuddering every time he said “poked and prodded” and there were a lot of those times) suggests nothing so much as the early rants of the Maud speaker against everyone *else’s* corruption (“Villany somewhere! whose? One says, we are villains all”), or even some of the more outrageous portions of the Locksley Hall poems.

The other Victorian genre that springs to mind is, of course, a straight-up Browning-style dramatic monologue. We could see Blago as a kind of inarticulate Bishop Blougram–“You do despise me; your ideal of life / Is not the bishop’s: you would not be I”–or, perhaps more appropriately, as one of the speakers of the early “madhouse cells” poems–a Porphyria’s Lover or Johannes Agricola. He might even declare himself to be a Fra Lippo Lippi-type figure:

You tell too many lies and hurt yourself:

You don’t like what you only like too much,

You do like what, if given you at your word,

You find abundantly detestable.

And I’m sure we could go on–I’d love to hear your suggestions for even more outrageously inappropriate Victorian poems in the comments. In the meantime, I’m sure that the recent visibility of Victorian poetry in our political landscape means that Victorian poetry scholars everywhere will be in high demand for talking-heads gigs on cable news. Jon Stewart, I’m waiting for your call.

There’s a blog about it, of course! It’s called ExecutedToday. It even has a special literary section. My favorite is Captain Henry Nicholas Nicholls, executed in 1833 for sodomy. According to ExecutedToday:

A first-person narrative written in 1833 under the name of Lord Byron (who was in fact nine years dead, but whose queer identity clearly informs the work), Don Leon was a signal piece of literature: the first overt literary defense of homosexuality in English.

It opens with a scene said to be inspired by Captain Nicholls:

Thou ermined judge, pull off that sable cap!
What! Cans’t thou lie, and take thy morning nap?
Peep thro’ the casement; see the gallows there:
Thy work hangs on it; could not mercy spare?
What had he done? Ask crippled Talleyrand,
Ask Beckford, Courtenay, all the motley band
Of priest and laymen, who have shared his guilt
(If guilt it be) then slumber if thou wilt;
What bonds had he of social safety broke?
Found’st thou the dagger hid beneath his cloak?
He stopped no lonely traveller on the road;
He burst no lock, he plundered no abode;
He never wrong’d the orphan of his own;
He stifled not the ravish’d maiden’s groan.
His secret haunts were hid from every soul,
Till thou did’st send thy myrmidons to prowl,
And watch the prickings of his morbid lust,
To wring his neck and call thy doings just.

The author — whose identity is still debated — continues writing more or less autobiographically of Byron’s life, and using his illicit desires and lifestyle (with digressions into historical precedent) to defend homosexuality as ultimately natural and harmless.

This year’s NAVSA centred around two buildings: the Yale Center for British Art (where that miracle of miracles happened–the transformation of a conference registration fee into decent coffee, and enough to feed an army of Victorianists) and the Linsly-Chittenden Building (where the registration desk was located and many of the conference panels). For some reason I can’t really explain, I think it’s fantastic that in between these two buildings is located this edifice:


It’s the Skull and Bones “Tomb”–the secret society (founded in 1832–there must be a connection to the Reform Bill!) which was the subject of so many conspiracy theories in that election of which we shall not speak when two “Bonesmen” competed for the Presidency of Ohio. [Weird sexual trivia follows, repressed Victorianists be warned!: I heard something from another conference goer that sounded too good to be true–that the initiation ceremony involved initiates being masturbated upon by members of the Bones–meaning that the 41st and 43rd President would not legally be allowed to donate blood, at least according to Canadian regulations. However, this seems an exagerration of a rumour reported in more reputable circles (here from the Washington Post): “Some accounts say each member lies naked in a stone coffin and describes his most intimate experiences while masturbating, but Robbins speculates that the coffin confessions went out of style decades ago and Bonesmen now fess up more civilly.”]

I came across two other windowless buildings owned by Yale secret societies, but I won’t waste your bandwidth with the pictures I took…

So here’s my tell-all account of the day’s ultra-secret Victorianist activity:

The panel on “Defining Styles” and “Ephemeral Arts” were two of the best panels I’ve seen, both in terms of the quality of the individual papers and the numerous connections between the papers. Each of the papers on style offered fresh takes on what I had kind of assumed was an antiquated and etiolated category of evaluation.  Catherine Maxwell’s talk contrasted the aesthetic of the vague and the aesthetic of the definite, with particular attention to Walter Pater and Vernon Lee, who definitely prefered the vague. What intrigued me the most though was Maxwell’s genealogy of the aesthetic of the vague–one which would extend back to Shelley and go forward all the way to Pound with the Metro poem. And during the Q & A, she cited our very own Gerhard Joseph’s Tennyson and the Text as an inspiration for her work. Vanessa Ryan did the improbable and made me want to read not just one, but perhaps more than one George Meredith novel. She compared Meredith’s novels with sensation fiction–not in terms of content, which has been done, but in terms of the physical effects on the reader. In contrast to the quick read of the sensation novel, Meredith’s “effortful style” produced the “blood-heat of feeling” in the reader because of the cognitive demands required to piece together events related by the elliptical narration. Victorians thought thinking hard was a physical action with physical demands, as anybody who’s read Charlotte Yonge’s The Daisy Chain can confirm. Finally, William McKelvey’s paper on “The Last Duchess” took the line “Fra Pandolf’s hands / Worked busily a day” and suggested that it should be read according to the undergraduate intuition (painted in one day) rather than the scholiasts’ gloss (painted day after day). This stylistic contrast was between traditional portraiture using oils (which my studio arts friends tell me perfectionists like because it takes days to dry, so touch-ups can be performed long after the paint hits the canvas) and painting a la fresco, where a large area of wall needs to be painted quickly in a day so it can be plastered over. I can’t comment fairly on how it works as a reading of the poem, because my prosaic mind balks at Browning (although now Vanessa Ryan’s made a case for the “Robert Browning of prose,” I’ll work harder), but I love the idea of speed of execution being a central problematic in early and mid-Victorian aesthetics.

I’m going to have to be brief with the Ephemerality panel, as this post has not been as hastily executed as I originally intended. Laurel Brake’s presentation provocatively argued that Victorian periodicals were not the ephemera we take them to be. Publishers carefully prepared bound volumes of issues, removing issue covers and adverts (more truly ephemeral), and adding outer covers and an index. There was lots more going on to the talk, but I took awful notes, as always, so I’ll leave it there. Rachel Buurma’s talk seemed to pick up right where Laurel Brake’s left off: her paper was on reprints of reviews, and the qualities of both timelessness and datedness that periodical articles paradoxically had to have to be reprinted. Dagni Bredeson’s paper (which was actually in between the ones above) found some ridiculously cool stuff about mid-Victorian female detectives, most importantly, that they actually existed in both fiction and in real life. She also mentioned that Old Bailey records were a source–I’m looking forward to seeing what other scholarship comes out of that resource. Finally, Paul Fyfe’s paper dealt head on with the digital research that was present in all of the previous papers, either in methodology or in actual paper content. We, like the Victorians, are embarking on a new era of different forms of random access. I’m glad that my love of randomness is shared by many, although I don’t know quite what I’d do if I found somebody who appreciated random wikipedia-style quite as much as I do.

177 speakers, 3 days. 450 Victorianists. Yale undergraduates wondering wtf are all these weird people doing here. It’s all been quite overwhelming, so I’ll resort to a bullet point listing of things I did today:


  • Learned that microscopically small writing was measured in Bibles per square inch. (from a talk by Meegan Kennedy)
  • Introduced two people to Talia Schaffer (Susan E. Colon and Karen Bourrier) because they were really excited about Charlotte Yonge (one was a nice coincidence, two was spooky–I don’t know how I feel about living in, as Tamara Wagner calls it in her recent CFP, a “Yongean moment)
  • Found about forty Victorian novels with a question mark in the title via Troy Bassett’s “At the Circulating Library” database project
  • Thought about John William Waterhouse (I’ve pasted a less reproduced painting below) both as the visual arts version of The Beatles/Nsync (wow, that was really satisfying slashing them together) in terms of consumer demographics, and as an erudite occultist obsessed with the number 7 (plenary talk by Elizabeth Prettejohn)
  • Sang along during an extended magic lantern story extolling the necessity of prayer and proper railway signals (presentation, recitation, and chorus leading by Joss Marsh, lantern magic by David Francis, piano accompaniment by Phil Carli)    

    The Remorse of the Emperor Nero After the Murder of His Mother

    The Remorse of the Emperor Nero After the Murder of His Mother

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