- The Poet’s Mind: The Psychology of Victorian Poetry 1830–1870 by Gregory Tate
Gregory tate is to be commended for his examination of the philosophical and affective complexities of Victorian poetry and poetic theory in relation to nineteenth-century debates about embodiment and mind. The Poet’s Mind: The Psychology of Victorian Poetry 1830–1870 traces the relationship between developments in Victorian psychology and the manner in which Victorian poets folded new scientific understandings of mind into their work. “The poetry of psychological analysis,” Tate contends, “became one of the most influential poetic modes in Victorian Britain” (3). Tate rightly points out that critics interested in literary responses to the rise of psychology and psychiatry as disciplines have tended to focus on the novel. Tate’s contribution is distinctive for its focus on poetry and for the implicit suggestion that the study of Victorian poetry may be dramatically refigured when its traditional concerns with introspection and self-making are recast in the context of emerging materialist theories of mind and the kinds of cultural controversies these provoked.
In the poetic mode that Tate identifies as central to the formal and intellectual concerns of Victorian poets, writers explore the nature of mental processes, analyzing these as, in his words, “a combination of physical, psychological, and spiritual impulses” (6). In sustaining the interplay among these elements, poets work both within and beyond Romantic discourses of identity, subjectivity, and introspection. What accelerates by the 1850s, in Tate’s view, is the articulation by scientists of physiologically based theories of mind. The longstanding critical view that introspection and self-analysis are key features in Victorian poetry needs to be augmented by research in [End Page 170] the relationship between poetry and psychology: specifically, new materialist theories about the functioning of the brain, the processing of perceptual and affective environments, and the operations of human will.
In chapters on Lord Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, Arthur Hugh Clough and Matthew Arnold, and George Eliot, Tate demonstrates that Victorian poets were ahead of the critics, “employ[ing] strategies and forms that subjected the operations of the mind to unprecedented levels of scrutiny” (3). Tate sees Victorian poetic experiments with fragmentary form as related to a shift toward “process-based” concepts of mind in Victorian psychological theory. In this reading, the early careers of Tennyson and Browning exemplify the move from the Romantic preoccupation with “interiority” to a more fully articulated Victorian interest in poetry that “[interrogates and analyzes] the mind’s processes” (25). Clough, Tate contends, “viewed poetry in near-scientific terms, as a means of acquiring and examining fresh perspectives on the self and the world” (61). Tate presents anatomical sketches from Clough’s notebooks, including one of parts of the nervous system, to demonstrate Clough’s interest in human physiology. As these images are contained in the same notebook that Clough took to Rome in 1849, prior to writing Amours de Voyage (1858), the sketches highlight visually the discourse of the body and the materiality of sensation that Tate outlines in Clough’s poetry. Tate traces Arnold’s fascination with introspection, delineating as he does in his readings of the other poets, various discourses of mind and mental activity operating in the poems. Both Clough’s and Arnold’s interest in what Tate terms “the creative psychology of the poet” lead ultimately to indeterminacy in the poetry of Clough and, in the case of Arnold, to the poet’s well-known turn away from the analysis of mental processes as not meeting the affective and ethical functions of poetry. Curiously, the Spasmodics, according to Tate, are fascinated by the language of the embodied mind, exploring and complicating the separation of “the somatic and the psychological” (80) without the kind of ambivalence that marks Clough or the early Arnold.
Part of what is exciting in Tate’s work is his engagement with the rich cultural and intellectual history mapped by Isobel Armstrong in Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (1993) and by W. David Shaw...