Despite the disregard in which it has dwelt for a century and a half, the Victorian movement called spasmodism matters to literary history because of the maximal registration it gave to the atmosphere that conditioned anglophone poetry circa 1850. This is so whether we consult the larger cultural barometer of contemporary critical debate or look to the prosodic and rhetorical details of the many mid-century poems that attest spasmodism's practical influence. Still, the pressure that was, in its hectic day, everywhere has long since vanished without conspicuous trace from our working literary history, remaining detectable only by the radar of specialists whose claims are justly liable to dismissal as special pleading. A first step, therefore, toward rehabilitation of this unduly neglected movement is to assure general readers of poetry that they know spasmodism better than they think.
Spasmodist poetics wrote very large certain Romantic tenets that persist among us, involving the centrality of the self, the sanctity of the moment of heightened perception, and the totality of the truth to which creative poets enjoy privileged if fitful access. Call it transcendentalism with its American fans, or spilt religion with the tight-lipped Modernists of a century ago: spasmodism was Romanticism in bells and whistles, hawking in the limelight of the Victorian market a gospel to which the poets of the early century had given unanimous, if less indiscreet, assent. The pleasure Wordsworth took in his own feelings and volitions, Coleridge's supping on the milk of paradise, Shelley's hierophancy of the fading coal, Keats's squirmy erotic dissolves, that being-more-intense which Byron tasted in creativity—and, epitomizing all these, Blake's pulsation of the artery in which the poet's work is done—what these Romantic passages had in common Victorian spasmody enlarged upon, and inevitably vulgarized.1 The pervasive myth that Romantic poetry privileged lyricism tout court here came true at last, and on an epic scale. It was spasmodism that fully lyricized narrative, or narratized lyric, in long texts aspiring to string together the [End Page 429] best and happiest moments of the poet's mind, and to make the result prevail with a resonance as wide as culture.
For the poet's mind, under the dispensation of spasmodism, was not alone. It—or the mind of a thinly veiled surrogate named Festus or Walter or Alexis or Balder—was a self-interpreting aspect of the cosmic mind. The spasm of affirmative self-transcendence replayed in miniature the whole gamut of a history running from the Big Bang of creation to the Big Hug of apocalypse. Furthermore, because poetic genius embraced all humanity, the insights and transgressions of a protagonist who was endowed with poetic genius were ipso facto heroic. As J. Westland Marstonpresciently put the matter in Gerald: A Dramatic Poem (1842):
To choose the struggles and experiences of Genius as a subject, might seem to evince temerity, if not presumption, on the part of the Author. But, were such a reflection allowed any weight, it would preclude the attempt to portray the heroic,—not only in the instance of the Poet—but in those of the Warrior, the Patriot, and the Philosopher. For what is the heroic in Man, but his Genius?2
Here in a recognizably Carlylean prose polemic, as elsewhere in verse roaring at full throttle, spasmodism speaks for a Victorian human-potential movement. Its New Age analogy between the growth of the individual and the actualization of the universal covers a multitude of sins by recuperating deviancy as an innovative, species-enhancing experimentation on life. The poet-hero exemplifies the divinity for which he quests, and at his acutest moment, which spasmodic texts replay again and again with a wonder nothing can apparently blunt, he becomes conscious of precisely this fact, which is his freedom and also his fate.3
Where there is no guilt and the only error is inhibition, time has no significance beyond the steady accrual of experience as a uniform good. In this sense spasmodism is literally optimistic: any time is best, since every time is better than what has preceded...