- General Materials
There is a transumptive magic by which a work of criticism comes to resemble its subject matter while maintaining a critical purchase upon it and thereby takes on the unique power of the thing under discussion. This year, we are lucky to have two books that accomplish this feat: Herbert Tucker's Epic: Britain's Heroic Muse, 1790-1910 and Isobel Armstrong's Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination 1830-1880. At over 700 pages and in 12 epical chapters, Tucker's Epic traverses the long nineteenth century (and a myriad of long nineteenth-century poems) in heroic pursuit of "an occluded tradition of epic poetry" (p. 9). Armstrong's Victorian Glassworlds is a work of both imaginative dazzle and reflective clarity, evoking the emergent glass culture of scintillating display and optical lens that shaped Victorian ideas about mediation. In very different ways, Tucker and Armstrong make the case for the central importance of a cultural phenomenon usually given only glancing or highly selective attention in our accounts of the Victorian era. Both books inspire alternating recognition and amazement, as familiar objects (like The Ring and the Book or the Crystal Palace) are shown to be part of a much larger variegated pattern of history and human engagement.
Tucker's Epic is by any measure a great achievement; for students of Victorian poetry, it is the book of the year—or more. Proceeding via stepwise chronicle from the later eighteenth century to the eve of the first World War, Tucker offers a richly arresting narrative of the passage from the Enlightenment to Modernism via a poetic genre mistakenly, repeatedly pronounced moribund. Against the accepted literary-historical myth, Tucker shows that epic remained vital and epoists legion through the century, despite related anxieties. In turn, the genre (true to its nature) morphed to accommodate the cultural and political pressures of its day. The sheer amount of material that Tucker has canvassed in order to tell this story is daunting: the bibliography lists hundreds of epic poems, every one of which he discusses, whether briefly or at length, with insight, wit, and sureness of touch. One sentence does enough for James Bird's 1828 Dunwich: A Tale of the Splendid City to evoke not only plot but also mood and scope: "Now a pair of high-born medieval lovers must plunge for each other into rising seas that, as they lick flat the solid-seeming [End Page 299] sanctuary of a church, portend the coming loss of the whole East Anglian coast to an erosion as intractable as time, and as curiously tranquilizing as fate" (p. 262). Thus unfamiliar poems are characterized memorably and arranged deftly among works by Scott, Byron, Browning, Tennyson, Morris, Hardy, and many others. It turns out that virtually all of the major poets of the century were epicizers, an occupation that Tucker measures via an author's creative engagement with the genre and its problems. As the focus moves through the lesser-known epics to linger on Idylls of the King or Sigurd the Volsung, it feels like moving from the Iliad's small-fry—Meges slaying Pedaeus—to the great aristeiae of the heroes. And I can think of no higher praise than to say Tucker does honor to them all: from Ossian to The Dynasts, he gets at the heart of these poems. Offering an unmatched analytical portrait of nineteenth-century epic, and cast in humane, engaging prose, this book advances a renovated literary history that we all have need of hearing.
In Victorian Glassworlds, Isobel Armstrong locates a Victorian "poetics of glass" by examining the various consequences—imaginative, aesthetic, political, philosophical—of the ascendancy of public glass. In a series of detailed case studies, evocative readings, and inspired connections, Armstrong shows how the glass panel, the mirror, and the lens in various combinations became the means by which the Victorians confronted modernity. She argues that, as a newly omnipresent and widely functional substance, glass in the nineteenth century transformed ideas and practices of perception, primarily by installing mediation (and its attendant anxieties) at their center. Glass came between the Victorians and their subjects, and even as it provided...