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  • Rhythms, Poetic and Political:The Case of Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  • Caroline Levine (bio)

How should one go about addressing the politics of prosody? In recent years scholars of Victorian poetry have tended to choose among three alternatives. The first is what we might call the "reflective" model. In this school of thought, poetic meter points us to the temporal patterns of social life, mirroring or enacting a historically specific shaping of experiential time. Herbert F. Tucker, for example, reads the meter of Barrett Browning's "Cry of the Children" as revealing the uncomfortable disjuncture between the embodied time of human life and the jolting experience of factory labor. "Nauseatingly ill-proportioned to human measure," Barrett Browning's "stop-and-start versification mimics the strain and clatter of steam-driven machinery."1 Similarly, Ivan Kreilkamp suggests that Victorian poetry could be read in a newly "super-charged realm of electricity, speed, heat, and light," offering up metrical experiences of social "shock … mobility, acceleration, discontinuity, the transitory, the elusive and the ephemeral."2 One of Kreilkamp's most vivid examples comes from Aurora Leigh, a passage when Aurora flees "southward in the roar of steam" (VII.396). Barrett Browning emerges here as ambivalent, torn between excitement at the "velocity and eroticized power" of the train and horror at its "frightening bath of sound in which individual voice and thought are submerged and overwhelmed" (p. 608). The reflective model, then, is a way of reading metrical forms for their mirroring of lived temporalities, allowing us access to the power and pain of contemporary modes of production.3

The second general way of reading the politics of meter, which we might call the "expressive" model, is one that takes prosody as a purposeful expression of political positions or convictions. Jason Rudy, for example, draws attention to the difference between the metrical patterns of Victorian ballads and those found in Spasmodic poetry. Rudy explains that ballads in the 1850s were simple, widely accessible national songs which, by popular demand, kept to strictly predictable patterns, "offer[ing] insistent regularity [End Page 235] as a model for cultural stability."4 "Through their formal regularity, ballads insist on 'law' rather than 'anarchy,'" he writes (pp. 591-592). And yet, Rudy explains, the same period saw the Spasmodic poets opting for violent, abrupt, jerking rhythms, deliberately repellent to conservative readers. Metrical forms thus express positions on a political spectrum that range from an embrace of unity and stability to radically unsettling conflict and lawlessness.

Perhaps the most venerable tradition of reading the politics of literary form—and one that still wields considerable persuasive power—is the Marxist model. Here, critics read literary forms as struggling to contain or repress the reality of social conflicts and contradictions. Garrett Stewart writes, for example, that "in contriving to secure its formal symmetries," a literary text may offer "a formal recompense for totality's absence from any other life sphere."5 Thus the resolutions achieved by a text's prosodic patterns appear as vain but compelling attempts to cover over the terrifying impossibility of achieving real social resolutions. In this light, Tennyson's "sad mechanic exercise" (In Memoriam V.7) is indeed numbing; the comforts of metrical regularity dull our access to the real pain of loss, though rather than the private or intimate loss of a beloved friend they numb us to the very possibility of collective social relationship.

In practice, these three models are not mutually exclusive. Isobel Armstrong's magisterial Victorian Poetry moves in astonishingly complex ways among the ideological, the reflective, and the expressive. A poet such as Tennyson emerges in Armstrong's study as both highly self-conscious and deeply ideological, fully intending to resolve social contradictions through myth and yet, in his brilliant lyrics, also exposing the material conditions of social life and the temporal patterns of industrial labor. In the process, the attempt to represent both the subjective and objective conditions of alienated labor—carefully reflecting the social—ultimately undermines both ideological and expressive readings. Reading "The Lotos-Eaters," for example, Armstrong argues that Tennyson's "slumberous cadences betray a real anxiety, as they struggle to represent a materialism which actually makes consciousness more and more...


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