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Victorian Poetry 42.4 (2004) 491-508

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Alexander Smith and the Bisexual Poetics of A Life-Drama

In a sense, the binary restriction on culture postures as the precultural bisexuality that sunders into heterosexual familiarity through its advent into "culture." From the start, however, the binary restriction on sexuality shows clearly that culture in no way postdates the bisexuality that it purports to repress: It constitutes the matrix of intelligibility through which primary bisexuality itself becomes thinkable.
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble
Our pulses beat together, and our beings
Mixed like two voices in one perfect tune,
And his the richest voice.
Alexander Smith, A Life-Drama1

Most commentators on Alexander Smith's A Life-Drama, first published in biweekly installments in the Critic from March 1, 1852-January 15, 1853 before becoming the lead poem in Smith's debut volume of Poems (1853),2 make two points: the poem seems to exist more for the sake of the images that constantly disrupt its narrative than for the story itself, and the narrative shifts from transgression to redemption when, abruptly, the poet Walter pledges himself at the end to union with the woman he formerly wronged and to "go[ing] forth 'mong men . . . / . . . in the armour of a pure intent. / Great duties are before me and great songs" (Smith, p. 211). In other words, the poem culminates in chivalric masculinity and heterosexual union—compensatory assurance after earlier solecisms against form, taste, and moral decorum. Rarely do nineteenth-century reviewers or recent scholars direct attention to another feature of the text, the origin of Walter's love of image-making, and of his poetic vocation, in an intimate friendship with an unnamed male poet. His achievement of a poem, in contrast—publicly acknowledged work—is tied to a narrative of heterosexual transgression recuperated by heterosexual union. I want to suggest that the two most notable features of Smith's Life-Drama[End Page 491] its preoccupations with image-making and with erotic transgression—are founded on bisexual poetics, the embedding of male-male desire within an unconventional courtship narrative. I here use "poetics" in the broadest sense to indicate a poet's implied principles. Bisexuality, I argue, is the medium through which Smith imagines the action or plot of his verse drama and also an authorizing principle that allows poet and poem (including its proliferating imagery) to emerge.

Bisexuality, defined by its instability and unpredictable sequence of erotic objects,3 is also associated with a distinctive world view. As Maria Pramaggiore observes,

Bisexual epistemologies—ways of apprehending, organizing, and intervening in the world that refuse one-to-one correspondences between sex acts and identity, between erotic objects and sexualities, between identification and desire—acknowledge fluid desires and their continual construction and deconstruction of the desiring subject.4

However conventionally the poem ends, the epistemology of A Life-Drama is bisexual in the terms Pramaggiore identifies. Indeed, the culmination of the closet drama's bisexual narrative in marriage and armored masculinity exemplifies Judith Butler's arguments about Freud's distinction between infantile bisexuality and subsequent ego development, a distinction that in Freud's work underwrites the interdependence of culture and gender binaries. In A Life-Drama, as in the scenario Butler identifies in her critique of Freud,5 the very swerve into compulsory heterosexuality at the poem's end is the medium through which the poem's prior investment in bisexuality and bisexual poetics becomes legible. In this essay, accordingly, I trace the bisexual plot of the verse drama, its interweaving of same-sex desire with heterosexual romance, of effeminate men with assertively desiring women. Ultimately the poem's bisexual poetics do more than trouble gender norms, however: they enable Smith to perform Byronism and thereby to mediate a more threatening scandal, the suggestion that a "great" poet is not born but made by a sponsoring editor and literary critic.

Several traces of discomfort with the orientation of A Life-Drama among Smith's sympathetic critics suggest the difficulties his narrative posed for contemporaries. Finding much to...


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