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  • Guide to the Year's WorkGeneral Materials
  • Andrew M. Stauffer (bio)

Taken together, this year's books in Victorian studies demonstrate the continuing ascendancy of historical contextualization as a critical mode. Two of them explore a dialectical relation between mind and body, out of which some aspect of culture—and particularly of literary culture—emerges. Kirstie Blair, in Victorian Poetry and the Culture of the Heart, reveals the complexity of Victorian cardiac discourse and examines its involvement with mid-century poetry in ways biographic, thematic, and prosodic. Linda M. Austin's Nostalgia in Transition, 1780-1917 offers a psycho-physiological study of nostalgia in the nineteenth century, tracing a shift in the word's meaning from "an occasional disease . . . to a cultural aesthetic" (p. 2), and making the case for the importance of bodily states to memory. Part of the current renewal of attention to Victorian science in literary studies, these valuable books suggest some of the ways that somatic criticism can help us rewrite the traditional mentalist narratives of intellectual and cultural history.

Of all the books in nineteenth-century studies published in the last year, Kirstie Blair's Victorian Poetry and the Culture of the Heart is the only one devoted exclusively to Victorian poetry as such. In an illuminating opening chapter, Blair demonstrates the mutual exchange of influence between the poets and the medical writers of the period when it came to matters of the diseased heart. Doctors borrowed metaphors to describe cardiac function and warned poets about the deleterious effects writing could have on the heart. The poets (many of whom suffered or imagined that they suffered from heart disease) adapted medical terminology when versifying the passions and crafted rhythms to convey the heart's errant pulses to their readers. By focusing on the pathologized heart in the 1850s, Blair reveals a tightly involved braid of poetic and physiological discourses of "heartsickness," with important consequences for our parsing of cardiological imagery of Barrett Browning, Arnold, Tennyson, and the Spasmodics. In addition, as a particularly able guide to prosodic effects, Blair demonstrates that the Victorian poets' interest in the heart expressed itself more viscerally, revealing itself along the very pulses of the line. An early chapter presents the Spasmodics as championing a theory that united the pulse with an impulsive, explicitly pathological poetics. A chapter on Barrett Browning shows the poet confronting and ultimately (via Aurora [End Page 263] and Romney) transcending charges of feminine excess and the problem of "the gendered heart." Matthew Arnold's diagnostic attitude towards culture looks fresh in Blair's analysis, wherein the "buried life" appears to be located squarely in the thoracic cavity, and the "broken, hesitant rhythms" (p. 178) of Arnold's verse are entrained with modern religious doubt. Blair's major figure is Tennyson, and in her best chapter, she reads the myriad throbbings of In Memoriam and Maud as signs of heart trouble (in the former case, curable; in the latter, not). There is a great deal here to admire. The exclusion of Robert Browning from the book does strike me as a missed opportunity, however; can it really be true that he "writes of the heart less than most of his contemporaries" (p. 20)? His poetry seems eager to record the various pulsations of that central organ: the "two hearts beating each to each" (l. 12) of "Meeting at Night"; the "pain / Of finite hearts that yearn" (ll. 59-60) of "Two in the Campagna"; the "heart [that] rises up to bless" (l. 6) its mistress' name in "The Last Ride Together"; the "heart, convulsed to really speak" that "Lay choking in its pride" (ll. 164, 165) in "By the Fireside"; the arterial flushes of Porphyria and the last Duchess; and the triumphant refrain, personalized in the repetition, of "One Word More" (a poem celebrating the relation of heart to art): "Where the [my] heart lies, let the [my] brain lie also!" (ll. 4, 142). Blair's excellent book invites our renewed attention to such passages (as in her own fine readings of lines like Tennyson's "Doors, where my heart was used to beat / So quickly") in the knowledge that they are part of a...


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