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  • Decadent Textualities
  • John Lamb
Marion Thain. The Lyric Poem and Aestheticism: Forms of Modernity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016. 280 pp. $120.00

IN THIS COMPELLING and thought-provoking book, Marion Thain charts late-nineteenth-century lyric poetry's response to "modernity before modernism." Addressing the sometimes critical neglect of the closing decades of the nineteenth century in histories of the lyric and its modernization, The Lyric Poem and Aestheticism explores the relation between the lyric genre and "cultural" modernity in the late nineteenth century through a careful consideration of poetic form, particularly the revival of strict, often antiquated, verse forms that are a distinctive feature of the period. Cultural modernity for Thain designates a nexus of late-nineteenth-century contexts which are the outgrowth of a process of urbanization and industrialization and which are marked by the engagement of aestheticism with what Matthew Rowlison identities as the "totalization" of the lyric in print. It is through form, Thain argues, that aesthetic poetry engages with those very cultural conditions.

Taking a cue from Edmund Gosse's 1918 review of Thomas Hardy's poetry in which Gosse identifies Charles Algernon Swinburne as the inaugurator of a poetic revolution that paves the way for the poetry of Hardy, the work of these two poets defines the parameters of this "history" of late-nineteenth-century lyric's formal engagement with modernity, [End Page 403] a history deepened by the addition of the Parnassians and by additional case studies and detailed close readings of Michael Field, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Arthur Symons, and Alice Meynell. The Lyric Poem and Aestheticism concludes with a consideration of the early poetry of Ezra Pound, completing what Thain calls "the chronological arc of aestheticism."

That arc is contemplated in a three-part structure that investigates key areas in the response to the "problem" of lyric transcendence: time, space, and subjectivity. Each of these areas is interrogated through a particular theoretical framework—Hegel and Benjamin in Part I, Merleau-Ponty in Part II, and Adorno in Part III—and this framework informs the case studies and close readings that follow.

Chapter One, "Lyric, Aestheticism and the Later Nineteenth Century," provides the background for the investigations of time, space, and subjectivity that follow. The opening chapter introduces a way of thinking about aesthetic poetry that is no longer defined only in relation to aurality. While acknowledging the extent to which strict form poetry is cognizant of its aural heritage, Thain identifies a growing awareness at the end of the nineteenth century that the lyric poem in print was no longer a record of an aural performance and that the broad range of forms and verse structures employed by fin-de-siècle poets capitalize "on a textual as well as aural presence." Coupled with this awareness of the textual is an increased suspicion of the lyric quest for eternal transcendence, the hallmark of an early-nineteenth-century lyric aesthetic now seemingly at odds with the values of modernity. This "lyric crisis" is, in part, what motivates an attempt to rethink the possibilities for lyric in the modern age and which inaugurates a search for a form of lyric which is responsive to and can reflect on modernity.

Using Michael Field's "Grow vocal to me, O my shell divine!" from the 1889 Long Ago as her test case, Thain locates a method of meaningful emotion expression in what she calls the "affective corporeality" communicated through the textual body of the printed poem. In addition, "Grow vocal to me" raises questions about the relationship of lyric to time, space, and subjectivity that The Lyric Poem and Aestheticism will attempt to answer.

Part I, Time, situates aestheticist poetry and its attention to metrical form within a fundamental nineteenth-century shift from a Hegelian [End Page 404] to a Benjaminean theory of time, a shift which creates a complex temporal interplay in which time is experienced as "interrupted, disturbed, and characterized by moments of discontinuity and repetition." Ironically, as Thain observes, the temporalities of modernity seem at first glance surprisingly at odds with the intense interest in strict metrical forms so central to the aestheticism's lyric project. But she demonstrates how developments in...


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pp. 403-407
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