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  • Victorian Prosody:Measuring the Field
  • Meredith Martin (bio) and Yisrael Levin (bio)

The idea of proposing a special issue on Victorian prosody occurred to us after meeting at the 2007 North American Victorian Studies Association annual conference in Victoria, B.C. While attending the various panels, we noticed that we kept running into the same group of scholars. The conference was scheduled so that we could walk together from one poetry panel to the next, and so we began to participate in an ongoing conversation that continued over the three days of the conference. The theme of the 2007 NAVSA conference was "Victorian Materialities" and what we began to observe in the papers was that we were all interested, in one way or another, in the boundaries and borders of what had been named "cultural neoformalism." From Jason Hall's paper on the "hexameter machine" to Emily Harrington's discussion of Michael Field's publication history, to Catherine Robson's history of the popular poem "The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna," it was clear that less abstract and more historical, indeed, more material investigations of poetic form were afoot.1 The words "culture," "history," "meter," "nineteenth century" continually appeared together, and we eagerly followed up what it meant for each of us to work with the historicity of poetic form in informal conversations throughout the conference. By the end of the conference, we felt that that the confluence of poetic form and considerations of materiality and material culture presented new ways of approaching the study of Victorian prosody.

But how was this renewed interest in prosody distinct from what had come before? Since Dennis Taylor's book, Hardy's Metres and Victorian Prosody (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988) scholars have turned their attention to the theories of Coventry Patmore as a pivotal turning point in what early prosodic historian T. S. Omond called the "New Prosody" in 1907.2 Indeed, following Taylor, important essays by Herbert Tucker and Yopie Prins reinvigorated the study of Victorian poetic forms more broadly for the Victorian era,3 while Susan Wolfson's Formal Charges did the same for the Romantics.4 And this narrative—of the contemporary interest in poetic form that began in the last decade of the twentieth century—is repeated at the beginning of most scholarly articles that talk about prosody. Like Victorian prosodists listing their [End Page 149] forebears, we follow a Victorian prosodic tradition, here, of paying tribute to those who have been interested in reviving the study and understanding of the history of poetic forms, as well as acknowledging the various, and potentially competing, methodologies as a way to assert that we are a discipline in need of (re)consideration.

Our initial interaction as potential co-editors, we should probably admit, was somewhat contentious. Why were we hesitant to say that we were simply "neo-formalist"? How did we perceive prosody in its historical and formal contexts? Did a consideration of the formation of prosodic concepts mean that we had to put aside any reflection about the specific cultural circumstances that may have influenced these concepts, or, as many twentieth century linguistic scientists argue, did English prosody contain its own formal genealogy, bound only to linguistic change without any concerns for a larger cultural context? Was the division between cultural circumstances and the development of a linguistic structure an artificial division? There was something intriguing about how our interests in the nature and function of English prosodic categories led each of us in what seemed to be entirely different directions. The fact that we had such divergent approaches made us wonder what other scholars were thinking about prosody at the edges of new historicism and cultural studies. This sense became even more apparent once we started to read the proposals for the papers that now constitute this issue. That is, whereas we are now clearer as to our own approaches, allegiances, and the fissures of our particular disagreements, we can also more clearly see where and how the study of Victorian prosody has significantly changed in the last two decades. Though still attentive, always, to the ways that poems are made and received, the scholars in this...


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pp. 149-160
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