- American Victorian Poetry:The Transatlantic Poetic
In A Speech Given At A Formal Dinner In 1868 For Samuel Breese Morse (The Americanportrait painter who invented the electric telegraph), William Cullen Bryant began by speaking "in behalf of the press" as a New York City newspaper editor and ended by giving a bravura performance of the transatlantic imaginary he had become famous for as a poet. "My imagination goes down to the chambers of the middle sea," Bryant mused,
to those vast depths where repose the mystic wire on beds of coral, among forests of tangle, or on the bottom of the dim blue gulfs strewn with the bones of whales and sharks, skeletons of drowned men, and ribs and masts of foundered barks, laden with wedges of gold never to be coined, and pipes of the choicest vintages of earth never to be tasted. Through these watery solitudes, among the fountains of the great deep, the abode of perpetual silence, never visited by living human presence and beyond the sight of human eye, there are gliding to and fro, by night and by day, in light and in darkness, in calm and in tempest, currents of human thought borne by the electric pulse which obeys the bidding of man. That slender wire thrills with the hopes and fears of nations; it vibrates to every emotion that can be awakened by any event affecting the welfare of the human race.1
As a member of the press, Bryant stressed the telegraph's speed of transmission; as a poet, Bryant transfigured electric cable into a lyric impulse, a "mystic wire" that "vibrates to every emotion" on both sides of the Atlantic, a fantasy of "living human presence" where there is none, "currents of human thought" circulating around the detritus of culture and nature alike. This poetic notion is the real communicator: an idea of expression much more capacious than expression itself, however transmitted; not the news itself but the vibrating cords that will unite nations, that will affectively perform "the welfare of the human race" that (alas) over-water politics may have failed to sustain.2 As the essays in this special issue amply demonstrate, Bryant's fantastic elaboration of this transatlantic poetic was symptomatic of what we now call "Victorian Poetry"—a phrase coined in New York rather than in London, and one which [End Page 157] now finds itself strung not only between continents, but between notions of "poetry" that themselves seem whimsical responses to the technology of modernity: colorful, humanistic, and (already, in 1868) somewhat pathetically out of date.
In recent issues of this journal both parts of the journal's title have come up for discussion: What was or is it to be "Victorian"? What does and does not count as "Poetry"? Last year, in "Whether Victorian Poetry: A Genre and its Period," Joseph Bristow responded to Linda K. Hughes's introduction to a previous issue on the future of Victorian poetry studies ("Whither Victorian Poetry?") by suggesting that "if the poetic genres produced in the period known as 'Victorian' have a future, then their future resides in a present moment that is increasingly motivated by the belief that the forecast for this area of study remains exceptionally promising because the field itself belonged to a technological age whose fascination with material progress nonetheless anticipated our own interest in virtual technologies."3 For Bristow, as for Bryant, the question of technology is really the question of transmission: how do old poetic genres travel across an ocean and a century to become living poetry (or live-feed poetry), how is our current sense of what that poetry was determined by our current sense of what poetry is, and what connects those senses to one another? For contemporary scholars of Victorian poetry, as for Bryant, the idea of "poetry" does a lot of cultural work: it transcends particular genres (ballads, say, or elegies or odes), and it even represents technological progress, the "electric pulse" that might connect literature and literary study, one century to another and now to another.
Bristow suggests that the adjective "'Victorian' was both the subject and the object of its own construction" (p...