- Electric Meters: Victorian Physiological Poetics
An 1881 article in Scientific American looks forward to a day, made possible by the invention of the telegraph, when “science shall have so blended, interwoven, and unified human thoughts and interests that the feeling of universal kinship shall be, not a spasmodic outburst of occasional emotion, but constant and controlling” (quoted in Marvin 199–200). Drawn together in this quotation are some of the key concerns Jason R. Rudy addresses in his compact yet wide-ranging study of electricity’s impact on Victorian poetry and poetics: first, the degree to which the immediacy of electric impulses represented for Victorians a powerful way of re-imagining human connections and, second, anxieties embedded in this discourse about the potential for “spasmodic outburst[s]” of emotion, on the one hand, and the necessity of “controlling” them, on the other. Rudy’s argument centres on the assertion that innovations in the electrical sciences played a pivotal role in the development of Victorian bodily poetics—an idea he articulates under the term “rhythmic epistemology,” defined as the “communication of knowledge and feeling through physiological pulses” (80). Just as the telegraph employs electrical impulses to transmit information immediately across vast distances, he notes, so the rhythmic stresses of poetry convey “the physical impress of a speaking poet” to the reading public (84), imaginatively closing the gap between writer and reader. In this way, the metaphor of electricity and the motif of the electric shock are important means by which Victorian poets explored the interwoven issues of community, communication, and poetics at a time of massive cultural and technological change.
Electric Meters contributes to the discussion, gaining momentum since the 1990s, about the effect of electricity and new technologies of communication [End Page 231] on the Victorian vision of human society. Carolyn Marvin’s When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Nineteenth Century (1990) and Laura Otis’s Networking: Communicating with Bodies and Machines in the Nineteenth Century (2001) investigate these developments in Victorian culture more generally; the recent work of Richard Menke (Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems, 2007) makes the significant observation that electric communication served as a metaphor for realism in Victorian fiction. Meanwhile, scholars such as G. S. Rousseau, G. J. Barker-Benfield, John Mullan, and Deidre Lynch have uncovered similar points of interchange between the discourses of sociability, sensibility, physiology, and literature in the long eighteenth century—an adjacent area of study Rudy is careful to acknowledge in the first chapter of his book. Thus, while a study of electricity’s influence on the Victorian understanding of human interaction may seem to break little new ground, this book’s focus on poetry and poetics certainly does: where other works in this field address literature at all, they deal almost exclusively with prose fiction. Not only is Rudy’s attention to poetry therefore a welcome and long-overdue broadening of this fascinating line of inquiry, but, as he himself demonstrates, the potential for linking “word, mind, and body” (9) inherent in electrical communication was especially alluring to Victorian poets, who came inevitably to view their work as serving parallel aims.
Although Rudy’s stated aim is to study “electric meters” (his term for the interplay of poetic form and electrical epistemologies) in the period between 1830 and 1870—from Tennyson’s poetry of sensation and the invention of the telegraph to the introduction of electric field theory and the “fleshly school” controversy—his first chapter (“The Electric Poetess”) productively traces the roots of these issues into the latter part of the age of sensibility, revealing how the poetry of Mary Robinson (especially in her Della Cruscan incarnation) and Felicia Hemans explores tensions between the communication of passionate feeling and the necessity for reason and restraint. Both poets seek to stimulate sympathy in their readers. However, Robinson and many of her contemporaries, under the influence of Adam Smith and other theorists of sensibility, employ conceptual rather than formal and physiological means in order to appeal to a reader’s reason and...