Poetry and the Thought of Song in Nineteenth-Century Britain by Elizabeth K. Helsinger (review)
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Poetry and the Thought of Song in Nineteenth-Century Britain. By Elizabeth K. Helsinger. pp. xi + 239. Victorian Literature and Culture Series. (University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, Va. and London, 2015. £39.95. ISBN 978-0-8139-3800-4.)

Elizabeth Helsinger's volume offers a much-needed consideration of the idea of song, as [End Page 655] both theory and praxis, in nineteenth-century British poetry. This innovative and detailed study considers the age-old link between song and poetry not in terms of how composers have fused words with music, but instead examining the mythopoetics of song and its thematic and structural implications within the context of literary production and criticism in nineteenth-century Britain. In the introduction to the book, Helsinger deems 'the Victorian fascination with metrical patterning' to be a 'technology for producing—not reproducing—''voice''' (p. 33). Her particular use of the word 'technology' reflects the book's sensitivity to the way in which socio-historical factors shaped the understanding of ideas of poetry, song, and oral performance, addressing changing attitudes to sound and auditory experiences as the Industrial Revolution took hold.

Helsinger's adept close readings, and the rich network of thematic, historical, and interpersonal relationships between the poets in her corpus, make for an engaging and rigorous study. She begins from the dual premise that the 'thought' of song 'refers both to ideas about song and to song as a possible model for understanding how poems can be said to think' (p. 2). With its literary approach and insightful close readings, Poetry and the Thought of Song offers an important contribution to scholarship on word-and-music relations, developing questions of orality and aurality raised in Peter McDonald's Sound Intentions: The Workings of Rhyme in Nineteenth-Century Poetry (Oxford, 2012) and in Daniel Karlin's The Figure of the Singer (Oxford, 2013). Helsinger's study is divided into seven chapters: the first three take a general, thematic approach to the idea of song in nineteenth-century poetry, grounded in the work of some of the poets within her tightly focused corpus, while the latter four chapters examine, in turn, the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti and Emily Brontё, William Morris, and Algernon Charles Swinburne.

The introduction is organized into two distinct sections. The first situates the study within the context of theoretical ideas put forward by Baumgarten, Kant, Hegel, and Adorno, as well as drawing on the ideas of the Romantics themselves. Helsinger also considers the writings of contemporary critics such as William Hazlitt, Arthur Hallam, and Walter Pater, in order to establish the central concept of song as an 'embodied mental process' (p. 2) within the context of nineteenth-century poetic practice. In this section, and indeed throughout the book, the philosophical and theoretical foundations of the study feel less than secure. While the contextual basis offered by citing contemporary critics is useful and engaging, it is difficult to see the relevance of invoking these German thinkers, whose ideas are, at various points in the study, presented through others' readings rather than as philosophical standpoints in their own right.

Much more successful is the second half of the introduction, in which Helsinger offers a comprehensive overview of the idea of song and poetry as similar modes of thinking within the context of post-Romantic British poetry, evolving from the work of Shelley and Keats. From this point, she draws extensively on the criticism of the short-lived Arthur Hallam and later of Walter Pater, grounding her study in contemporary critical ideas and leading seamlessly into chapter 1, entitled 'The Persistence of Song', which looks at the Romantic idea of song in poetry as absent or incomprehensible. Already, in this opening chapter, it is clear that the real strength of this study lies in Helsinger's adept close readings: her examination of staged encounters between the poet and these strange lyrical modes—revealed through consideration of poems by Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and Tennyson—all intertwine neatly in an exhilarating feat of analysis, which vividly showcases the strangeness of song.

In the later chapters, the analysis moves beyond poetry itself to consider the inter-art implications of...