- Narrative Means, Lyric Ends: Temporality in the Nineteenth-Century British Long Poem
The structural challenges of long nineteenth-century poems, their multimodal attempts to combine an account of events with the effusions of figurative language, and the literary problems inherent in these generic experiments have for many decades exercised the minds of poetry critics. The relationship between form and content, between poetic devices and dramatised subjectivities, as one might expect in the context of new critical methods in the mid-twentieth century, was often a critical focus around forty years ago (when Alfred Tennyson's In Memoriam  was always a good test case). More recently—amid the developing culturally based theories of the last thirty years—attention has been given to the interweaving of such poems with a multiplicity of other discursive formations. Few studies, however, have so single mindedly focused on one contained feature as does this book, which attends exclusively to the relationship between narrative methods and lyrical impressionism in four major poems: Lord Byron's Don Juan (1819-24), William Wordsworth's The Prelude (1850), Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh (1856), and Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book (1868-69). If in recent years we have become attached to questions about literary function within a given sociocultural dynamic, this book returns to questions about the aesthetics of form: "Can a poem achieve artistic unity when its purposes are so multiple and divergent . . .? What poetic elements are retained in poems that imitate narrative prose?" (2). It also asks about satisfying public cravings for story as well as dreaming, but that question is not answered in relation to any specific nineteenth-century readership.
I remain unpersuaded, however, about the value of what is effectively a return to an earlier methodology (the inclusion of terminological definitions from narratology and references to more recent theorists do not alter the book's new critical formalism). As Morgan summarizes, we learn that in Don Juan "self-reflexivity can produce lyrical effects," that in Aurora Leigh "lyric does not always have to be brief, nor . . . ahistorical," that in The Prelude "narrative is not necessarily a retrospective experience for the reader," and that in The Ring and the Book dramatic monologues may "seamlessly blend lyric and narrative temporalities" (200). While there are moments of attentive and fluent close reading to support these conclusions, they are hardly startling and nothing in previous scholarship has led me to doubt their possibility. If temporality is the intended focus, that concept becomes absorbed into a simplistic distinction between the temporal movement among events in a story and the illusory suspension of time in lyrical moments.
There is perhaps an issue here for literary scholars interested in renewed formalist studies, whether in relation to Susan Wolfson's "activist formalism" or to Herbert [End Page 769] Tucker's "Cultural Neo-formalism" (qtd. in Morgan 13). Morgan is aware of these alternatives, but claims for herself a different emphasis, an approach that is "complementary rather than oppositional" (13). Neglecting, however, as this book does, the insistence of Wolfson and Tucker that formalist methods incorporate what we learned from New Historicism and cultural studies, may too easily lead to repeating the truths of yesteryear (is anything significant really added to Herbert Lindenberger's account of The Prelude from 1963?), to writing as if the critical commonplace is newly discovered (we all know Browning emphasizes explanation or motive rather than event in The Ring and the Book), to citing numerous critical views as if their very listing substitutes for an analysis of their assumptions, or to leaving too many simplifications. The main thesis, for example, is based on defining narrative as a causal relationship between events, and lyricism as an atemporal transcendence. Nothing wrong with that. But these are not new propositions, and while they certainly allow for a thematic recalibration that points to varying versions or forms of their interacting elements in the selected poems, the generalizations—an attempt to avoid...