Victorian Poetry 42.4 (2004) 553-583
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"Spasm" and Class:
W. E. Aytoun, George Gilfillan, Sydney Dobell, and Alexander Smith
Florence S. Boos
The brief floruit of the "Spasmodic" poets followed closely one of nineteenth-century British radicalism's most signal defeats—the rejection of the 1848 People's Charter. Spasmodic poems also "consistently [took] as their subject a young poet's struggle to write the poem that would make him famous"1 —a conspicuous underlying theme of Wordsworth's Prelude (1850), as well as the first edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855). Such personal and collective struggles in fact provided signature-themes for hundreds of English and Scottish working-class and humble life poets of the era, who penned Shelleyan "dream visions," declaimed in the voice of rustic prophets, and focused their aspirations on the tenuous outlines of a more democratic culture to come. Melodrama and popular stage productions were also quintessential mid-Victorian working-class genres,2 and political relevance may be found in contemporary critical tendencies to attack the Spasmodic poets for their melodramatic and declamatory extravagance.
Sydney Dobell, Alexander Smith, Gerald Massey, and Ebenezer Jones, in particular, were working- or lower-middle class in their origins and education, and several of these poets had contributed to the democratic fervor which culminated in the People's Charter of 1848. Under the penname "Bandiera," for example, Massey had written revolutionary verses, and Jones's pamphlet on Land Monopoly (1849) anticipated arguments made famous by Henry George in Progress and Poverty two decades later.3 Smith followed with interest the actions of Chartism's Scottish wing, and Dobell's first poem, The Roman (1850), celebrated an imaginary hero of Italian independence after the manner of Browning's Sordello and Bulwer-Lytton's Rienzi.
Confronted with critical disregard of their work by social/literary "superiors," working- and lower-middle-class poets faced certain recurrent dilemmas in their attempts to frame individual and collective identities. If they retreated into "proper" sentiments which "befitted" their station, who [End Page 553] would notice them? But if they seemed more assertive, topical, or sensuous, they inevitably affronted the sensibilities of influential middle- and upper-class critics. And if they dared to appropriate dramatic or sensational modes accepted in works of more respectable writers (such as Joanna Baillie in Plays of the Passions, Robert Browning in Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, or Matthew Arnold in Empedocleson Etna) they could expect damning autobiographical readings and ad hominem scorn from critics who contemned their authorial projections as well as their obstinate resistence to the critical instruction of their betters.
In this essay I will consider such nuances of social class in the "Spasmodic" controversy,4 and focus primarily on opposing critics W. E. Aytoun and George Gilfillan, and the effects of the controversy on Sydney Dobell, "home-schooled" author of The Roman (1850) and Balder (1854); and Alexander Smith, a modestly educated pattern designer who published A Life-Drama (1853), City Poems (1857), and Edwin of Deira (1861).5 I will also review briefly some of the ways in which critical savaging of the "Spasmodics" influenced canonical and semi-canonical poets such as Tennyson, the Brownings, and William Morris, and constrained the reception of other attempts at generic and stylistic innovation in the third quarter of the century.
William Edmondstoune Aytoun (1813-1865) was the only son of a wealthy Edinburgh family. His mother, a distant relative of Walter Scott, was a fierce Jacobite and lover of old Scottish lore, and his father was a successful lawyer of intellectual tastes and Whig political sympathies.6 Private tutors prepared the bookish and intelligent boy for the newly established Edinburgh Academy, after which he attended Edinburgh University. A staunch Anglican, he eventually abandoned his parents' apparent politics to become a lifelong Tory. In view of his later role, it is interesting that Aytoun's first published work was a collection of utopian romantic poetry. He dedicated Poland, Homer, and Other Poems (1832), published by his family when he was nineteen, to...