- Back to the Future:Lionel Trilling, “The Scholar-Gipsy,” and the State of Victorian Poetry
Now that both a new generation of Victorianists and a group of senior scholars have had their say in the "Whither Victorian poetry?" debate, an outsider's view of some of the issues raised might prove useful. Many specialists in contiguous areas have worked on the poetry and are curious about how it might be studied in the twenty-first century. In what follows, I consider some of the implications of what has been discussed and suggest some background reading for those involved. Given the labor-intensive agenda contributors have set themselves for the medium-term future, it might seem absurd to propose adding to the list of material to be covered and tasks to be performed. Their projected workload is already formidable, particularly because it involves such a range of competencies on the part of those in the newly defined discipline. Creating "a paradigm shift that eliminates the binaries of idealist/materialist, form/content, representation/reference, and, by inference, ontological human subject against non-human world," or reading to see "technology as poetry (and by extension culture as technology)," or extending the boundaries "that an inward-looking, narcissistic, and gender-bound account of Victorian poetry too often adopts" so that "a new intertextuality emerges," or fashioning a "neoformalism . . . that Cultural Studies could yet put to use," or "releasing [Victorian poetry] from coercive readings, mechanistic 'approaches' that do not speak to its psychic understanding of damaged emotion,"1 to take a representative clutch of suggestions catalogued in Isobel Armstrong's helpful summary of the positions assumed when the Victorian critics meet—these are activities that will already give those intent on remaking the discipline plenty of time-consuming things to do. Then there is the vastly increased amount of primary material to be considered. More was said in the discussion about how the canon might be expanded than about introducing it to a new generation of students in ways guaranteed to create sufficient interest, but, given all the theory students will have to master and the sheer number of texts they will have to engage with, the underlying assumption of most contributors seems to be that making students passionate about reading a bunch of poems written [End Page 1] in Victorian England is either not a priority or will continue to take care of itself.2
As my title indicates, I think some of the discipline's new directions are still best defined in terms of what it has already accomplished. It is true that in the current debate some critics from the past have been usefully invoked and handsomely acknowledged. The question "Whither Victorian poetry?" made a number of contributors muse about "whence," and they invoked figures like Pound, Eliot, and Cleanth Brooks, who once had to be argued with, on the one hand, and Edmund Stedman, E.D.H. Johnson, and Walter Houghton, who helped define and extend Victorian poetry, on the other. But by far the bulk of the discussion constitutes a direct and compelling response to a question that asked contributors to look to the future. As Joseph Bristow reminds us, there are potential pitfalls in trying to learn too much by looking backwards. He notes that "the future we might wish to virtualize for this field of study" could turn out to be "one of our retrospections on what Victorian poetry actualized in the past," and warns of "a cultural reprise, if not a cybernetic loop, which brings about a return not to a place that we are moving toward but a location that shows that what we are examining is where Victorian poetry remained positioned from the start."3 The desire to make it new and the apprehension about the widespread dangers involved in not doing so could not be clearer.
At the risk of adding more to a crowded agenda by engaging in precisely the sort of excursion Professor Bristow warns against, I want to suggest that a more extended backward glance can be useful in any meditation on how studies in Victorian poetry might evolve. Since so many contributors described what are essentially new...