- Visionary Imagination
In the Past Two Decades of Victorian scholarship, a few special themes have been of particular interest to critics: the indebtedness of mid- and late-nineteenth-century writers to Romanticism; the cultural significations of plots and images centring on the supernatural and otherworldly; and the Victorian preoccupation with the science of visual perception. Second Sight: The Visionary Imagination in Late Victorian Literature brings together all three topics in a fresh way. Catherine Maxwell’s challenging examination of core Romantic symbols rearticulated by late-nineteenth-century poets, essayists and novelists argues that these images offered access to a heightened mystical and emotional aesthetic experience for certain writers and readers. This new apprehension of “spirituality” depended not on a cosmic deity or orthodox faith, but on the power of imagination and creativity to transcend what Yeats termed “‘a materialist, empiricist, and positivistic ethos.’” Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Walter Pater, Vernon Lee and her half-brother, Eugene Lee-Hamilton, Thomas Watts-Dunton, and Thomas Hardy form, for Maxwell, a coherent grouping of writers who exemplified Pater’s definition of the Romantic character with its delight in “visionary strangeness” as well as beauty.
The connections between these “‘creatures of the imagination’” were personal as well as thematic and stylistic. While the friendship between Rossetti and Watts-Dunton or that between Lee and Pater are well known, it might surprise some readers to learn Pater met, called on, and invited Hardy to dinner in London. They also read and reviewed each other’s work, corresponded, shared literary models and influences, and often evidenced deep interest in the same topics, such as classical sculpture. By outlining their biographical and literary affiliations as well as dissecting key texts, Maxwell builds a persuasive case that this group of writers developed a “characteristic form of expression” that defines “the visionary Romanticism of the late Victorian era.” Central to the distinctive voice she identifies are key motifs that [End Page 485] were also prominent a century earlier in the work of the great Romantic poets: sculptural fragments; shadows and spectres; the mutilated or incomplete body; mesmeric power; the beautiful corpse; the suffering male poet; the melancholy maiden; the magnetizing femme fatale. While other scholars have tracked similar images as a way of determining their place in Victorian cultural discourses such as gender, Maxwell shifts attention away from immediate social meanings. Instead, her interest lies in the ways in which these recurrent symbols point to an occluded dimension of the psyche which her chosen writers sought to recover, that of the creative consciousness. As Hardy said in an interview in 1901: “‘[t]he material world is so uninteresting, human life is so miserably bounded ... cribb’d, confined. I want another domain for the imagination to expatiate in.’”
Maxwell does a very good job of delineating the distinctive emphases that each of her authors gives to the imagistic resources of Romanticism. Rossetti, for example, focuses particularly on the mournful, seductive woman. Like Coleridge and Shelley, he identified strongly with the allure of these Proserpine-like figures, especially attractive to the wounded, hypersensitive, and narcissistic male poet. “Eroticised knowledge” serves as a parallel for the magnetic energy that can carry poet and reader to the sublime “ideal of creativity,” piercing to the unseen reality beyond mere physical beauty and material sensation. On the other hand, the visionary dimension as Pater expressed it is often associated with the “excavated classical relic” that can be transformed and completed by the imagination, or with mysterious alchemical images that imply dissolving boundaries. The latter is a favoured Paterian trope for distilling the essence of a writer, artist or even culture so that its abstract, unseen character shines through the fleeting phenomena of materiality. This diaphanous permeability is bound up with a range of refining processes for Pater—for sculpture, with the passage of time; for humanity, with the fusion of beauty and death.
Admittedly, Maxwell’s approach does not yield especially new readings of individual works by Pater and Rossetti. For instance, the sacramental nature of physical love that she argues is central...