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The Poetry of Indifference

From the Romantics to the Rubaiyat

Erik Gray

Publication Year: 2005

Indifference is a common, even indispensable element of human experience. But it is rare in poetry, which is traditionally defined by its direct opposition to indifference—by its heightened emotion, consciousness, and effort. This definition applies especially to English poets of the nineteenth century, heirs to an age that predicated aesthetics on moral sentiment or feeling. Yet it was in this period, Erik Gray argues, that a concentrated strain of poetic indifference began to emerge. The Poetry of Indifference analyzes nineteenth-century works by Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Edward FitzGerald, among others—works that do not merely declare themselves to be indifferent but formally enact the indifference they describe. Each poem consciously disregards some aspect of poetry that is usually considered to be crucial or definitive, even at the risk of seeming "indifferent" in the sense of "mediocre." Such gestures discourage critical attention, since the poetry of indifference refuses to make claims for itself. This is particularly true of FitzGerald's Rubáiyát, one of the most popular poems of the nineteenth century, but one that recent critics have almost entirely ignored. In concentrating on this underexplored mode of poetry, Gray not only traces a major shift in recent literary history, from a Romantic poetics of sympathy to a Modernist poetics of alienation, but also considers how this literature can help us understand the sometimes embarrassing but unavoidable presence of indifference in our lives.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press


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Title Page

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p. iii

Copyright Page

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p. iv

Table of Contents

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p. v

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pp. vii-vii

There is no shortage of critical works entitled The Poetry of>/em> something. The popularity of this formula can be attributed to two distinct causes. The first is that most books with this title are not works of criticism but collections or anthologies—The Poetry of Wallace Stevens, or The Poetry of the English Renaissance. By giving a similar title to a critical study, the ...

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Introduction - The Poetry of Indifference

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pp. 1-26

The first great English poem of indifference is Milton’s Paradise Regained, which involves indifference at every level. The poem as a whole is based upon the “doctrine of things indifferent,” which holds that nothing is either good or bad except according to how it is used.1 In a brilliant essay, “Things and Actions Indifferent: The Temptation of Plot in Paradise Regained,” ...

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Chapter One - Indifference and Epistolarity in The Eve of St. Agnes

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pp. 27-46

There is a self-contradictory quality about Keats’s The Eve of St. Agnes that has struck readers from the very first. Richard Woodhouse, who recorded his thoughts about the poem while it was still in manuscript, admired it in general, but was shocked, even repulsed, by a few of the stanzas (LK 2: 161–65). Above all he objected to Porphyro’s stratagem for seducing Madeline ...

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Chapter Two - Don Juan and the Poetics of Tourism

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pp. 47-71

In the last chapter I suggested that indifference constitutes an inherent part of letter writing. Both in his correspondence and on those occasions when he deployed epistolary tactics in his verse, Keats took advantage of those qualities of mail that permit a certain superficiality and apparent failure of sympathy. But “mail”can refer not only to correspondence but ...

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Chapter Three - Tennyson, Christmas, and Poetic Ambition

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pp. 72-92

Tennyson was acutely conscious of his own poetic development. He sedulously reworked his early poetry in response to reviewers’ criticisms, and even at the end of his career he continued to compose poems that revised his work from many decades before (“The Death of Oenone,”“To Ulysses,”“ Locksley Hall Sixty Years After”). Yet Tennyson’s greatest poem ...

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Chapter Four - Forgetting FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát

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pp. 93-112

A year before his death, Edward FitzGerald speculated that the reason for the success of his Rubáiyát was that Omar “sang, in an acceptable way it seems, of what all men feel in their hearts, but had not exprest in verse before” (LF 4:487). It would be difficult to find a more succinct explanation for the poem’s enormous popularity, and equally difficult to put a ...

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Chapter Five - FitzGerald, Browning, and the Limits of Indifference

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pp. 113-132

One of the few major disagreements to break out between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning during their courtship concerned indifference. In February 1846 Barrett sent Browning a letter from her friend, the writer Harriet Martineau, which she found “delightful . . . & interesting for Wordsworth’s sake & her own” (Kintner 1:447). Part of the section ...

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pp. 133-140

In 1949 John Abbot Clark noticed that the opening lines of T. S. Eliot’s “Gerontion”—“Here I am, an old man in a dry month, / Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain”—come almost verbatim from A. C. Benson’s biography of FitzGerald. Clark went on to assert “that T. S. Eliot, especially in his early years, was greatly influenced” by FitzGerald’s life and writings ...

Works Cited or Consulted

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pp. 141-148


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pp. 149-151

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613760970
E-ISBN-10: 1613760973
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558494909
Print-ISBN-10: 1558494901

Page Count: 168
Publication Year: 2005

OCLC Number: 636874632
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Poetry of Indifference

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Subject Headings

  • Indifferentism (Ethics) in literature.
  • Romanticism -- Great Britain.
  • English poetry -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
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