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9 TeachingVictorian Poetry and the Body: Forming Affect Kirstie Bla ir • This short reflection thinks through some of the issues potentially involved in teaching Victorian poetry and the body, whether at the undergraduate or postgraduate level, and very briefly discusses a related course that I have been teaching in various forms for the last few years,“Victorian Sensations.” In terms of pedagogy, the method illustrated here could be described as formally inflected close reading, with attention to cultural and historical contexts. Whether performing a close analysis of a poem in front of several hundred students in a lecture or focusing in depth on one passage with a small group, I aim in most if not all of my teaching of poetry to help students understand wider cultural forms through detailed attention to the microcosm of the poem’s language.This method undoubtedly has the weight of various British and North American critical traditions behind it, but it is also a subject of renewed interest at the moment in discussions of what has been called“new” or“strategic” formalism (Levine,Tucker). Since studying the poetics of the body necessarily involves the question of “form,” it could provide a test case for these kinds of reading. In addition, as I suggest below, working on Victorian poetry and the body might lead us to theoretically innovative, interdisciplinary work on affect and emotion. In developing a course onVictorian poetry and the body, I would pose three main questions. First and most straightforward, how does Victorian poetry represent the body? What kind of bodies appear in these poems, and how do they behave?There is, of course, rich potential here for locatingVictorian poems within wider discourses on sexuality, gender, race, class, and religion in the period, as well as in relation to critical and theoretical concerns. Essays such as HerbertTucker’s dazzling“When the Soul Had Hips,” a lively reading of the tensions that become immanent whenever poets attempt to represent the soul in language, show that such representations are seldom simple to analyze. The second (and perhaps more intriguing) question is, how does Victorian poetry act upon the body? Should we take account of bodies outside the text—the writer’s or reader’s body—as well as bodies within it? What designs might a poem have on its reader’s feelings, and are these conceived of as mental emotions or physical sensations? Leading on from this, we need victorian review • Volume 34 Number 2 10 to consider whether it is the formal effects of poetry that create such affect. Among the various bodies inside and outside the poem, how significant is the body of the poem itself? Critics such as Jason Rudy and others have done important work on the ways in which form and metre in Victorian poetics were perceived in active, organic terms, as the embodiment of poetic ideas and arguments.A course onVictorian literature and the body would still work well, without taking poetic form into account, but considering this issue could take the course to a higher level of discussion by introducing questions of the affective power of form and its role in forming affect. Finally, in these discussions of affect, we might question how it operates in the classroom. Can our own affective responses to such material as teachers and learners be put to use? If we begin with the representation of the body in poetry, one obvious starting point would be the female body and its presence both in poetry and art.A number of figures immediately spring to mind here, from Robert Browning’s dying Pompilia, whose wounded body is the object of the voyeuristic gaze of his gossiping Romans but whose own speech is deliberately constructed to show her distance from physical concerns, toTennyson’s abject Guinevere, to the tortured and dissolving female (and male) bodies of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, and beyond. But I would be inclined to start with Augusta Webster, whose poetry is attracting renewed critical attention and whose female speakers in her dramatic monologues focus very strongly on their external, physical appearance.The speaker of “By the Looking-Glass” exclaims: Alas! it is I, I, I, Ungainly, common.The other...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 9-18
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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