- Elegy for an Age: The Presence of the Past in Victorian Literature
In this collection of John D. Rosenberg's essays on Victorian poets and prose writers, elegy has no fixed form or tone; "grief is a ventriloquist who speaks in many voices" (5), including those of the historian and autobiographer. Although Rosenberg declares that the elegy "must center on personal loss" (4), in the texts under his study it is sometimes unclear, to paraphrase Sigmund Freud, what exactly has been lost. For in Elegy for an Age, "personal" pertains to a wide range of experiences and memories. It covers the loss of a beloved, such as Alfred Tennyson's Arthur Henry Hallam and John Ruskin's Rose La Touche. Less immediately, perhaps, it describes the continued attachment to Oxford, or the idea of Oxford, for its graduates John Henry Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Matthew Arnold. With Thomas Carlyle's "elegies in the guise of history" (8), "personal" extends beyond the tangible, empirical losses of the individual being and becomes a sense of cultural decline, a longing for a past beyond the writer's lifetime. In the works of Algernon Charles Swinburne and Walter Pater, this sense of loss is continuous and diffuse. Surpassing memory, it encompasses time present and future.
Rosenberg's understanding of the elegy is Schillerian; it assumes that feelings of loss, because they are pervasive, manifest themselves not only in outright expressions of mourning, but in veiled representations of grief, even in pleasant memories and deliberate acts of forgetting. In a very veiled allusion to Schiller, Rosenberg acknowledges the "deep inner complementarity" (74) of elegy and idyll, noting the "fine equipoise between remembered joy and present regret" that all elegy requires (4). Still, the Schillerian concept of elegy at times seems simply to be a convenient collection point for eleven essays on some of the Victorian era's best-known poets and prose writers, and the texts covered in Rosenberg's volume range from outright poetic expressions of mourning based on specific deaths, such as Hopkins's "Binsey Poplars" (1918), to elegiac autobiographies and cultural criticism, such as Newman's Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864–65) and [End Page 557] Letter 20 of Ruskin's Fors Clavigera (1872). In Memoriam (1850) and Praeterita (1885–89) receive prolonged attention in chapters of their own, but they are exceptions. The chapter on Swinburne is really an assessment of a career, an act of recuperation for neglected poems like "Tristram of Lyonesse" (1882) (one of the "great erotic elegies in English" ), and a defense of the poet from the Modernist notion of him as a repetitive and mannered poet of the Decadence. The chapter on Pater is a similarly broad discussion of his significance in literary history, with elegy as a recurring motif. Arnold, Newman, and Hopkins are grouped together as Oxford elegists and their relations with the city are discussed, though not in great detail. In an intriguing chapter, Charles Darwin is finally excluded from the capacious genre, for his "capacity to visualize time in slow-motion" makes elegy "a virtual impossibility" (136).
Elegy for an Age reflects venerable and useful views of the Victorian era as a time of transition. The more general and wide-ranging the discussion, the more familiar (though unassailable) are Rosenberg's views. This is most evident in the book's final section on the literature of the city from William Blake to T. S. Eliot, a "literature of nightmare on the one hand, and of nostalgia on the other" (235). Rosenberg understands nostalgia as a variant of mourning but notes that it "rarely produces great literature" (140). His comment, which echoes Schiller's view of the idyll as an inferior mode, illustrates an assured interest in aesthetic value, which is seldom displayed in today's scholarship but is evident throughout this volume. An experienced reader of great tact, Rosenberg moves through verse and prose as an exegete and...