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Victorian Poetry 41.4 (2003) 603-611

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Victorian Poetry's Modernity

Ivan Kreilkamp

The title of this special issue, "Whither Victorian Poetry?" poses a somewhat paradoxical question. To ask of an object "whither" is to imply the possibility of change, yet the object specified is defined by its temporal closure and completion. How can "Victorian Poetry," now over a century past, change or have a future? The way out of this impasse is, needless to say, through interpretation, criticism, and scholarship—the activities through which we give a future to what would otherwise live in a completed and static existence. In thinking about the question posed by this issue's title, I became convinced that Victorian poetry particularly invokes the paradoxes of temporality, interpretation, and the construction of pastness and futurity. Kathy Psomiades has recently argued that "almost all versions of the standard story about the field in the twentieth century end with the invocation of some point in the recent past, or perhaps just now arising, or anticipated in the near future, when Victorian poetry receives its proper due at last." 1 She confirms my instinct that the question of the "future" of Victorian poetry is particularly over-determined. Here I want not to try to repay this debt supposedly owed Victorian poetry, but to [End Page 603] consider the ways that both this work, and the scholarly field devoted to it, define their relation to temporality and to constructions of the present and future. In particular, I want to consider the relation of Victorian poetry to modernity and the modern, and to wonder what it would mean to bring this body of poetry more closely into conversation with both nineteenth- and twentieth-century accounts and theories of European or trans-national modernity.

I am thinking of "modernity" in the sense defined by Jürgen Habermas in his essay "Modernity—an Unfinished Project." Habermas explains that "the word 'modern' in its Latin form 'modernus' was used for the first time in the late 5th century in order to distinguish the present, which had become officially Christian, from the Roman and pagan past." 2 Distinctions between the "modern" era and an ancient past "appeared and reappeared" over the centuries until, after the French Revolution, another and historically new "form of modernist consciousness was formed," a "radicalized consciousness of modernity which freed itself from all specific historical ties." Habermas locates the clearest moment of emergence for this new form of modernist consciousness in the mid-nineteenth century:

The spirit and discipline of aesthetic modernity assumed clear contours in the work of Baudelaire. . . . Aesthetic modernity is characterized by attitudes which find a common focus in a changed consciousness of time. This time consciousness expresses itself through metaphors of the vanguard and the avant-garde. The avant-garde understands itself as invading unknown territory, exposing itself to the dangers of sudden, shocking encounters, conquering an as yet unoccupied future. The avant-garde must find a direction in a landscape into which no one seems to have yet ventured.

As Habermas defines it, such a "discipline of aesthetic modernity" possesses a particular relation to time and temporality. No longer, as in pre-nineteenth-century manifestations of the modern, does the modern relate itself "to the past of antiquity, in order to view itself as the result of a transition from the old to new." Such a stable, progressive model of temporality gives way instead to the expression of "the experience of mobility in society, of acceleration in history, of discontinuity in everyday life." Such an emergent nineteenth-century modernity "revolts against the normalizing functions of tradition" and takes as its historical given "the transitory, the elusive and the ephemeral" (pp. 3-5).

Is Victorian poetry modern in this sense? In the most compelling and authoritative recent full-length study of the genre, Isobel Armstrong says yes. "The Victorian poets . . . saw themselves as modern" and need to be understood as fundamentally concerned with the experience of a rapidly [End Page 604] modernizing society. 3 Yet, she points out, "the major critical and theoretical movements of the twentieth century have been...