- Sydney Dobell and the Victorian Epic
Associate Professor of English Literature, Brandeis University; author of Bentham, Coleridge and the Science of History (1958)
1. This turned out to be his final utterance on the subject. His editor said that “the exhaustion resulting from the effort further impaired his already weak health” and that from this time forward the poet was forbidden “regular literary work” by his physicians. He was only thirty-three.
2. Joyce’s account of the aesthetic image occurs in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The relevant passages in Yeats are very numerous. In Ideas of Good and Evil (London, 1903), 60, he remarks; “I have found it in the prophetic books of William Blake, who calls his images ‘the bright sculptures of Los’ Halls’; and he says that all events renew themselves from these images.” The reference is to Blake’s Jerusalem, 11. 61–9, Plate 16. (See below, n. 7, as well.) From the essay on “Magic,” one can cite his three principal ideas: “I. That the borders of our minds are ever shifting, and that many minds can flow into one another, as it were, and create or reveal a single mind, a single energy. 2. That the borders of our memories are as shifting, and that our memories are a part of one great memory, the memory of Nature herself, 3. That this great memory can be evoked by symbols.”
3. The plot of Balder will indicate something of what is meant. Balder is a dedicated visionary, of necessity pursuing his calling in the unnatural isolation of a Gothic tower. His allegiances are to this demonic world as well as to his ailing child and grief-stricken wife. The child dies, the wife ultimately falls into madness through grief and neglect, and Balder, unable to endure her agony, causes her to die. It is a symbolist situation but perhaps Dobell came to it after reading Keats’ Letters: “I could live like a hermit…bear anything—any misery, even imprisonment—so long as I have neither wife nor child.” In our time, it has not only been the poet who feels the dangers of having both convictions and a family.
4. Sydney Dobell, Thoughts on Art, Philosophy, and Religion, introd. by John Nichol (London, 1876), x. (Henceforth page references to his volume will be inserted in the text.)
5. John Sterling’s novel, Arthur Coningsby (1833), tells us a great deal of the esoteric studies in these circles. Arthur identifies “the pentapha and the rose of the hermetic philosophers” on a bit of ancient glass; Isabel Barrington recalls his addiction to “strange emblems and calculations, alchemical, I believe, and astrological.” On Hallam and Tennyson see my “Tennyson As An Oracular Poet” MP (May, 1958); for Browning, “Robert Browning: A Reading of the Early Narratives” ELH (Dec., 1959).
6. Cf. Mill’s marginal comments in the review copy of Pauline, the Preface to Taylor’s Philip van Artevelde, Arnold’s 1853 Preface, and so on.
7. I suspect that some irrational identification was often made between Platonic (or imaginative) Ideas and neo-classical sculpture, which was thought to render their nature more exactly than other art forms. See Blake’s comments in n. 2; and consider this comparison of a statue to a star, a picture to a flower: “The one is apart, unchanging, independent, and sublime; it is full of a light that burns only for itself; it derives no apparent nourishment from any outward source; and it lifts our thoughts to hold communion with higher races than men. The other belongs to our earth…is a portion of that nature to which we ourselves belong.” John Sterling, Arthur Coningsby, 85. Ezra Pound speaks of a “form of the mind” that a sculptor “sees in the air before he sets hand to mallet.” This image is immaterial or ideal, a poetic fact that pre-exists in the mind rather than in the realm of Platonic ideas. (Cf. Canto XXV, 11. 90–1; “The Serious Artist”).
8. “Evil and misery were deep and dark from the first. Pain is black in Horner.…To ask how these...