- “The Infinite within the Finite”:Victorian Prosody and Orthodox Theories of Mind
Coventry Patmore, early in his “Essay on English Metrical Law” (1857), reaches for a telling metaphor to explain his prosodic theory: “Art … must have a body as well as a soul,” he writes, “and the higher and purer the spiritual, the more powerful and unmistakable should be the corporeal element;—in other words, the more vigorous and various the life, the more stringent and elaborate must be the law, by obedience to which life expresses itself.”1 Versification, or the poet’s “peculiar mode of expression,” stands in this figure as the body that gives form to the ideas, or the “matter,” of verse (“Essay,” p. 72). Yet in the pages that follow, Patmore’s articulation of the distinction between rhythm and meter—a distinction that several critics have suggested Patmore was the first to describe—seems subtly to shift the tenor of this metaphor.2 Meter, what Patmore calls the “ictus” or “time-beater” of verse, comes to sound very much like the immaterial soul: for Patmore, after all, it “has no material and external existence at all,” but is instead a mental structure by which the corporealized rhythms of poetry may be measured. That is, meter in Patmore’s essay becomes the inaudible and immaterial law that orders the rhythmically manifested life of poetry, or its actual words and sounds. But while commentators have often credited the “Essay on English Metrical Law” with giving rise to the “New Prosody,” Patmore’s argument wasn’t necessarily new: as T. S. Omond put it in 1921, “Patmore voiced ideas that were in the air, and was sometimes less original than he fancied.”3 If anything, Patmore’s essay constituted a defense of orthodoxy against the metrical experiments of those poets grouped by their critics into the Spasmodic School, as Jason R. Rudy has argued.4
Patmore’s essay has received considerable attention in recent years, but no one has yet adequately discussed the way that Patmore’s prosodic conservatism is founded on another sort of orthodoxy, itself besieged in the middle of the nineteenth century: the dualist psychology that was under fire in the 1850s from new physiological theories of mind.5 Critics have instead been most [End Page 245] interested in the bodily effects of poetry on its readers, in the connections between poetic rhythm and the physiological rhythms of daily life; most inquiries into the links between prosody and Victorian mental science have connected midcentury “physiological poetics” with new physicalist theories of mind.6 But such psychophysiology was not, in the 1850s, the most common way in which the Victorians conceived of mental life. On the contrary, most midcentury psychologies still figured the mind as both immaterial and immortal, insistent that our mental and spiritual beings—the two entities are largely indistinguishable in such theories—would ultimately live on past the dissolution of the body.7
This essay attempts to unpack this forgotten side of the connection between midcentury metrics and the field of mental science in two ways: by shifting attention from psychophysiology to the soulbased psychology that remained dominant at midcentury, and by turning from the poetic rhythms that have fascinated critics to the invisible and inaudible meters that, for many Victorians, gave those rhythms meaning. I focus in particular on a poet whose work always struck his contemporaries as deeply unorthodox: Robert Browning. Browning’s Men and Women (1855) was published in the same year as two key psychophysiological works that powerfully challenged psychological orthodoxy; the collection also appeared in the wake of the Spasmodic controversy that made especially pressing the connections between prosody and psychology. As had become routine for Browning by the 1850s, reviewers complained about the volumes’ obscure rhythms, finding in them echoes of the excesses of the Spasmodics. But I contend that Men and Women nevertheless represents a conservative response both to materialist science and to physiological poetics, a response that in many ways anticipates (and illuminates the stakes of) the poetics articulated in Patmore’s “Essay.” To put it another way, Men and Women, I argue, offers a metrical argument in defense of the...