- Poetry, Media, and the Material Body: Autopoetics in Nineteenth-Century Britain by Ashley Miller
In “Deconstruction and the Lyric,” published in Anselm Haverkamp’s edited collection Deconstruction is/in America: A New Sense of the Political, Jonathan Culler points out that a lyric poem may become “lodged within mechanical memory” and eventually “proliferat[e] in its iterability” ([New York University Press, 1995], 46). I was frequently reminded of this essay as I read Ashley Miller’s excellent new book, Poetry, Media, and the Material [End Page 699] Body: Autopoetics in Nineteenth-Century Britain, which shares Culler’s concern with the automatic or involuntary reproduction of poetic language. In exploring this topic, Miller deftly connects nineteenth-century discourses surrounding literature, physiology, and media. She contends that a “logic of quotation, fragmentation, and allusion” begins to frame poetry as “independent, autonomous, and self-replicating”; she makes a convincing case that this phenomenon is related to the ways in which new technologies (such as phonographs and radios) and the human body itself serve as material media for the transmission of poetic language (2–3). Miller’s talent for weaving seemingly disparate topics into a cohesive argument is showcased in her four chronological chapters, each of which pairs close readings with considerations of “a specific aspect of the automatic body as it engages with the developing media of nineteenth-century poetry” (20).
Central to Miller’s opening chapter (and to the book as a whole) is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s description of the “striking passage,” which he defines as a piece of poetry that is liable to be recalled involuntarily (18). Miller uses this concept to associate the visual mnemonics that attend the rise of print culture with nineteenth-century theories of hallucination. Romantic physiologists thought of memory as “a somatic repository imprinted with past sensory experiences”; an out-of-context image may reproduce itself as a hallucination, just as a striking passage, previously seen on a printed page, may leap to mind unbidden (27). Readings of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (1816), “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere” (1798), and “Christabel” (1816) confirm that we can link “both poetic memorization and composition to the possessive forces of oddly autonomous language” (44). Miller’s powerful claim about the ability of striking passages to replicate themselves, which ultimately undermines human creative agency, allows her to identify critically neglected Romantic challenges both to the logic of Hartlean associationism and to the model of the poet as an inspired visionary.
This demotion of authorial volition continues in chapter 2. Scholars of nineteenth-century literature usually think of sympathy as the imaginative capacity to feel for another person; Miller, however, argues persuasively for the importance of what she calls “self-sympathy,” a physiological concept that describes resonances among various bodily systems. Such internal sympathy reveals that both poets and their readers may remain surprisingly passive as they are “guided by the workings of their own involuntarily responsive bodies,” which “respond not to each other but to themselves” (61). The critical writings of William Hazlitt, William Johnson Fox, and Arthur Henry Hallam, particularly as they relate to the so-called poetry of sensation exemplified by Alfred Tennyson, strengthen Miller’s case for the solipsistic and embodied nature of sympathy—a notion that, she adds, anticipates Victorian aestheticism. Miller adeptly ties her physiological analysis not only to Tennyson’s poems (“Adeline,” “Oriana,” and “Recollections of the Arabian Nights,” all published in 1830) but also to the phenomenon of mass readership. Thematizing a resistance to interpersonal sympathy, these poems cue readers to turn inward, thus aligning themselves with critical attempts to “shore up the boundedness of the individual” despite the presence of “an ever-increasing, and largely anonymous, reading public” (86). Here Miller offers a useful alternative to the influential idea of the imagined community.
Chapter 3 synthesizes the work of the previous two chapters, ingeniously complicating the concepts of the striking passage and of bodily self-sympathy. Having emphasized [End Page 700] the visual aspects of memory...