The Figure of Music in Nineteenth-Century British Poetry (review)
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The Figure of Music in Nineteenth-Century British Poetry, edited by Phyllis Weliver; pp. xiii + 266. Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 2005, £47.50, $94.95.

Ten critical essays, about half of them on Victorian topics, make up The Figure of Music in Nineteenth-Century British Poetry, a collection that explores "how literature constructs the meaning of music" and examines the relation between music and a number of topics, including "constructions of class, nation, gender and sexual identity" (5). Editor Phyllis Weliver suggests that the image of a web is a helpful metaphor for interdisciplinary studies like this one (17), noting that several chapters are conceptually interconnected, despite the authors' "methodological differences" (14). Some of these interconnections are made explicit in footnotes, as are the authors' complex, sometimes nuanced dialogues with previous critics.

In the chapters on the Victorian period, most of the authors focus on a single work, but two take a broader view. One of them, Emma Sutton ("Music and Sexuality in fin-de-siècle Poetry"), disarmingly concedes the "familiarity, even banality, of the association of the musical and the erotic" (221), and proceeds to examine this familiar association in [End Page 553] the light of intriguing excerpts from poets of the 1890s, including Arthur Symons, Aubrey Beardsley, and Michael Field. This chapter covers much of the same ground as Chris Snodgrass's chapter on the 1890s in the Blackwell Companion to Victorian Poetry (2002), but Sutton, unlike Snodgrass, offers close readings of selected poems and excerpts. For example, she discusses "Nella Trista Valle" (1891), one of Michael Field's sonnets written after hearing a performance of C. W. Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice, in relation to "gender ambiguity" (225), since, in this version of the opera, Orpheus is "performed by a woman disguised as a man, [who] sings in . . . a vocal register unequivocally perceived [in the nineteenth century] as 'feminine.' Moreover, the singer's desire is, of course, directed towards another female performer" (225). Thus Sutton reads Michael Field's poem as a "subversive evocation of unconventional desire" (226), one in which allusions to music explore "homoerotic desire and homosexual identity" (224).

Ruth Solie's essay, "George Eliot's 'The Legend of Jubal' and Victorian Musicality," covers even more ground. Eliot's "Jubal" (1870) has fewer fans, I suspect, than her "Armgart" (1871), which powerfully dramatizes (and questions) the nature of self and sacrifice, but Eliot's view of the significance of Jubal's mission and of the poignance of his death allows for grand mythmaking. I am struck by how Eliot shows memory, mother of the muses, connecting music with other forms of creativity (in Jubal's rapture, thought "flamed from memory / And in creative vision wandered free" [297–98]). But Solie believes that Jubal is not a generalized "figure of 'the artist.'" He is, instead, a figure that "embodies a much more restricted focus on music itself" (108), and she maintains that "the poem is really (or, at the very least, is also) about music" (118), a thesis with which it is hard to disagree. She moves from "Jubal" to a detailed discussion of how "musicality can signify and resonate . . . through Victorian culture generally" (109), citing numerous examples from a wide variety of sources, from Macmillan's Magazine through H. R. Haweis's Music and Morals (1871).

In "Musical Reactions to Tennyson," Michael Allis shows how the compositional choices made by Herbert Parry and Edward Elgar in the process of setting "The Lotos Eaters" (the 1842 version) form "a significant contribution to the literary debate over the meaning of the poem" (132): that is, to the debate (which he summarizes extensively) about whether the poem is didactic or aesthetic. For Allis, both composers are "strong readers" (173). Some of Parry's contemporaries, however, were unfavorably impressed by his "musical reaction." Fuller Maitland's disappointment, for example, may have been caused by Parry's lack of "necessary moral uplift" (161). Elgar did not provoke this kind of negative response, perhaps since, unlike Parry, he set only the first stanza of the choric song and his reading thus "avoids any real sense of debate" (163).

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