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Victorian Poetry 38.2 (2000) 319-323

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Book Review

Origins of the Monologue:
The Hidden God

W. David Shaw, Origins of the Monologue: The Hidden God (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999). Pp. xii + 250. $50.00.

With his remarkably broad and deep learning, his thorough understanding of Victorian philosophy, and his fine ear for poetic language, W. David Shaw has long been among the very best critics of Victorian culture and, especially, of Victorian poetry. His new book continues the exploration of Victorian agnosticism undertaken in The Lucid Veil and Victorians and Mystery, returning to what he calls, after Foucault, a "common 'episteme' of learned ignorance or informed Socratic humility before the unknown" (p. 197), and finding in this epistemic uncertainty the sources of the complex ironies of the dramatic monologue. As in his previous books, Shaw draws heavily on the philosophical agnosticism of H. L. Mansel and Sir William Hamilton to give philosophical shape and substance to this episteme, and in this case he draws especially on them for his defining figure, the "hidden God" lurking "behind such logically contradictory attributes as the Absolute, the Infinite, and a First Cause" (p. 3). As Shaw seems uncomfortably aware, however, this God hides so effectively that his presence even in Shaw's own text is often difficult to discern, so as a controlling metaphor it frequently leaves the discussion seemingly adrift.

In the introductory chapter the hidden god is first seen as a figure for the author of dramatic monologues, who is "created in the image of this protean god" (p. 3), but by the end of the chapter the "protean and unstable" god re-emerges as a figure for the audience: "The subversive apostrophes or turns of voice in monologue occur whenever a speaker switches audiences by redirecting his words to a hidden god" (p. 17). The shiftiness of the god, however, is only a problem for the reader who is looking for what might be called a strong theory of the monologue, a definitive model that would explicate any and every monologue, but Shaw is explicitly wary of such models. Even as he contextualizes his own study in relation to the strong theories of such influential critics as Robert Langbaum, Ralph Rader, and Isobel Armstrong, he expresses reservations about generic criticism as a "traditional enemy of literary texts" (p. 12), arguing plausibly that stringent generic definitions may tell us more about the critic's categories than about "the immensely protean and impish genius of the genre he is trying to analyse" (p. 13). As a result, Origins of the Monologue may disappoint [End Page 319] readers looking for a convenient, user-friendly key to unlock any monologue, but Shaw's own protean genius offers a consistently rewarding discussion in its revisions of currently accepted ways of approaching the monologue, and especially in its impressive, sensitive readings of poems.

I do not mean, however, to suggest that Shaw's refusal of a monolithic theory leaves him without a clearly defined approach. What he offers instead of a monolithic redefinition is a clearly articulated, convincingly argued analysis of "three neglected causes of the ascendancy of the monologue": "the agnostic thought of Kant, Sir William Hamilton, and H. L. Mansel; . . . new theories of the unconscious associated with John Keble, Thomas Carlyle, and E. S. Dallas; [and] nineteenth-century adaptations of three legacies: the dialogues of Socrates, the conversation poems of Coleridge, and the Keatsian poet's licentious practice of endlessly proliferating his identities through self-created masks" (p. 4). Examining the first of these causes, the age's agnosticism, inevitably draws Shaw back to the subject matter of previous books and also into an analysis of the monologue akin to J. Hillis Miller's reading of Victorian poetry in The Disappearance of God. In this respect, what is especially valuable in Shaw's reading is the philosophical and theological precision he brings to discussion of Victorian concerns with an absent or hidden god. The second of Shaw's neglected causes behind the Victorian monologue, new Victorian theories of the subconscious, pays off...


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