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Swinburne, Impressionistic Formalism, and the Afterlife of Victorian Poetic Theory

From: Victorian Poetry
Volume 51, Number 3, Fall 2013
pp. 271-295 | 10.1353/vp.2013.0016

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Nicholas Dames' recent, illuminating study, The Physiology of the Novel: Reading, Neural Science, and the Form of Victorian Fiction (2007), testifies to a resurgent scholarly interest in Victorian literary theory. Eschewing the text centered approach that has traditionally dominated criticism of Victorian novels—an approach aimed at discovering the "organic form " or "total structure" of literary productions—Dames uncovers a rival strain of interpretation that has its origins in the Victorians themselves: "physiological theory," which attends to the mental and bodily responses of the reader during the (ideally silent) reading act. Armed with this forgotten method, which he ascribes largely to a group of bohemian writers affiliated with periodicals such as The Fortnightly Review and Mind—G. H. Lewes, Alexander Bain, E. S. Dallas, and others—Dames argues that Victorian novels, through their prodigious length and undulating form shaped the consciousness of the solitary Victorian mind. Forming a "training ground for industrialized consciousness," these works mentally and physically conditioned readers for the demands of an increasingly mechanized reality, rather than merely furnishing them with an escape from it.

The Physiology of the Novel is an often gripping book, in large part because it reminds us of a fact that ought to be obvious but that literary criticism has nevertheless tended to forget: that the Victorians developed sophisticated hermeneutical models for understanding contemporary texts, and that these models have much to tell us as critics who would engage meaningfully with these same texts. Dames' characters were formalists of a sort, and the innovative manner in which they understood form presents a fresh alternative to the more familiar conceptions of the New Critics. More precisely, these writers thought about form as something time-bound: through analogies with waves and music, they "temporalized" form, revealing it to be dynamic, inescapably "processual," not frozen in time as many twentieth-century theorists would fantasize (Dames, pp. 128, 10). In this aspect of their thinking they were very much akin to another Victorian critic, one whose ideas are no less provocative but whose criticism, like their own, has been largely forgotten or cast aside: Algernon Swinburne. Virtually no scholarly ink has been spilled on this subject of Swinburne's formidable critical output over the last three decades: following Thomas E. Connolly's Swinburne's Theory of Poetry (1964), Robert Peters' incisive The Crowns of Apollo (1965), Meredith B. Raymond's Swinburne's Poetics (1971), and Jerome McGann's witty, jocund Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism (1972), there was a momentary effluence of academic work on the topic—most notably David G. Riede's Swinburne: A Study in Romantic Mythmaking (1978)—but after the late seventies it seems that, with certain isolated exceptions, people simply ceased talking about Swinburne as a critic.

Why is this? How is it that this writer, a critic every bit as voluminous, and arguably as discerning, as Matthew Arnold—though deeply antithetical to him in most respects—gets so frequently overlooked in discussions, not merely about Victorian criticism, but about the history of criticism generally? Should it strike us as peculiar that so many of the magisterial critical voices of the first half of the twentieth century appear to have grappled with Swinburne's critical legacy and walked away from it altered in some way? What are we to make of the fact that Northrop Frye announces, in the preface to Fearful Symmetry, that his study is "an extended critical essay in the Swinburne tradition"? What has Frye, the politely Linnaean and Aristotelian literary theorist, ordained as a minister of the United Church of Canada, to do with the scandal-ridden, foppish proponent of free love, atheist, and disciple of Baudelaire? Why do scholars as wide-ranging as I. A. Richards, F. R. Leavis, and A. C. Bradley cite him as a profound influence? And why did a 2009 issue of Victorian Poetry devoted entirely to Swinburne, trenchant though it often was, contain no articles dedicated to the poet's critical writings?

Building on recent work that rethinks form and formalist methods, I will focus, with special attention to William Blake: A Critical Study (1867), probably his single greatest volume of criticism, on making sense of Swinburne's critical technique, which I...

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