Victorian Poetry 41.4 (2003) 490-499
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Transgressing the Law of Genre
Dino Franco Felluga
The future calls for perverse crossings: between genres, between periods, between theories. Although critics have responded to the demand for interdisciplinary and cultural studies for many years now, there are a few boundaries that have, nonetheless, resisted transgression: in particular, those between the Romantic and Victorian periods and those between poetry and the novel. One reason for this resistance, of course, is the very structure of academia: jobs are generally advertised for either poetry or the novel, either the Romantic or Victorian periods. And various institutional structures support such divisions (national organizations, conferences, period and genre journals, even listservs). Such separations are, however, perfectly artificial, themselves the product of retroactive reconstructions of a [End Page 490] literary history that is, inevitably, much more mixed. With all deserved respect to Jerome McGann, 1 we have not Romantic but Victorian ideology to blame for many of these distinctions: the belief that the Victorians represent a hard separation from the perversities of the Byronic, histrionic, Romantic poet; the belief that the true poet must "succeed in excluding from his work every vestige of . . . lookings-forth into the outward and every-day world"; 2 the belief that poetry is a pure form separate from not only politics but also the messy comminglings of the heteroglot, carnivalesque, and polyphonic novel. 3
I believe that it is time to take seriously poetry's challenge not only to the novel but also to the most dearly held ideologies of the Victorian period. As E. Warwick Slinn points out, cultural critics have tended to give little attention to "the potential for cultural critique engendered by referential aberration, by that suspension of normative referential logic which is frequently an effect of poetic utterance, accompanying the foregrounding of complex, often conflicting, discursive codes." 4 For this reason, he argues, poetry has been unfairly marginalized by contemporary cultural criticism, which tends to read verse as overly precious and electively disengaged from politics and history. Given criticism's concern over the last two decades with the Victorian novel's formation of bourgeois, domestic ideology, 5 it is now time to explore the ways that much Victorian poetry functions as a counter-discourse to the novel's domestic and realist vision, the ways poetry actively and self-consciously engages, performs, disrupts, and critiques the dominant ideologies of nineteenth-century Britain. 6 Some of the best work in Victorian scholarship has explored the transgressive aspects of verse; 7 what has been less commonly explored are the ways such troublings of ideological consistency extend outward to affect the novel and Victorian society at large.
Indeed, as I explore in my forthcoming book, 8 the ability of poetry to question the ideologies of the status quo is precisely the threat that many nineteenth-century critics saw in Byron and in the most Romantic of the Victorian poetry movements (from the Spasmodics of the early- to the Aesthetics of the mid- to the Decadents of the late-Victorian period). After Byron, the novel and society at large recognized in many Victorian poetic forms a real challenge to the dominant ideologies of the age. How else can we explain why so many Victorian novels felt the need to exorcise the specter of the poetic, often with Byron and Romantic excessiveness as foils for the dangers perceived in poetry at large? Carlyle set the stage for the Victorian age in his satirical and highly influential novel Sartor Resartus (1831), where he has his main character, Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, pass through the melancholic "no" of the Romantic ideology in order to reach his philosophy of work and duty. As Carlyle so famously exhorted his [End Page 491] audience, "Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe." 9 The Victorian novels negotiating and domesticating the Byronic hero along similar lines were legion, with Rochester in Jane Eyre (1847) and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1847) being but two of the more famous examples. 10 As late as the 1860s, we can find George Eliot in Felix Holt, the Radical...