PARTING WORDS: VICTORIAN POETRY AND PUBLIC ADDRESS by Justin A. Sider, Reviewed by Veronica Alfano
 

PARTING WORDS: VICTORIAN POETRY AND PUBLIC ADDRESS
By Justin A. Sider
(Virginia, 2018) xi + 263 pp.
Reviewed by Veronica Alfano on 2019-07-27.

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Victorian poets often find themselves bidding adieu. "For my part," says Thomas Hardy, "if there is any way of getting a melancholy satisfaction out of life it lies in dying, so to speak, before one is out of the flesh; by which I mean putting on the manners of ghosts [...] To think of life as passing away is a sadness; to think of it as past is at least tolerable" (The Early Life of Thomas Hardy [Macmillan 1928] 275). Such rehearsals of specterhood came to my mind frequently as I read Justin Sider's elegant and thought-provoking study. Sider focuses on what he calls the valedictory--which is, among other things, the way in which poetic speakers take their leave (as of an interlocutor, an audience, or the world). While the thought of withdrawal and pastness generates "melancholy satisfaction" for Hardy, Sider finds that it creates opportunities both to re-define oneself and to set the terms of one's reception. Those who say farewell become transmissible entities, circulating in "print or posterity" (2) and thus simultaneously navigating and shaping a reading public that became ever larger and more diverse in the nineteenth century. According to Sider, interpreting parting words as public address is crucial to understanding the poetics of this era, in which writers must "imagine forms of intimacy across the distances of Victorian mass culture" (1). As the departed or departing poetic speaker addresses her auditors, so the finished poem and its author address a community of readers. Newly mediated, newly consumable, both speaker and poem use the valedictory to orient themselves toward a future of transformed persistence. Sider argues persuasively that a rich variety of Victorian texts, from heroic epistles to deathbed scenes, love poems, and elegies, aspire both to thematize and to "reconfigure the terms under which poetry can be public" (26).

Refreshingly, Sider's discussion of the valedictory affords him a useful new perspective on the much-debated question of Victorian poetry's engagement (or lack thereof) with Victorian culture. By approaching this issue via the rhetorical strategies rather than the topical content of the poems at hand, he productively blurs the lines between public and private address. Moreover, by foregrounding less the actual readership of printed verse than "the public as a conceptual category for Victorian poets" (30), he cannily complicates the notion that poetry was marginalized by the novels of the age. Poets, he explains, were expected to address or represent their culture even as they felt their influence waning and even as that culture became impossibly variegated. The valedictory is uniquely positioned to illuminate this dilemma because it produces an "evacuated space of departure" (34) in which poet and public can negotiate the terms of their relationship.

Given the immense influence of the valedictory "Ulysses," Sider aptly devotes his first chapter to Alfred Tennyson. Victorian anxieties about the decline of poetry, Sider contends, sprang from "mounting tension between poetry's idealization and abstraction within critical discourse and its commodification within mass culture"; in Tennyson's work, this tension tends to appear as "an interplay between material and immaterial, embodied and disembodied" (40). Here the poet's framing devices are of particular interest. When Tennyson uses "The Epic" to introduce and conclude "Morte d'Arthur," or when he prefaces "Tiresias" with an epistolary poem to the recently deceased Edward FitzGerald, he employs the valedictory to meditate on the various forms of address and mediation that turn the poetic voice into a cultural artifact. Arthur's uncertainty about his future ("I am going [...] / if indeed I go [...] / . . . / To the island-valley of Avilion" [256-259]) mirrors the uncertainty in "The Epic" about how this Arthurian poem will be received. But while "Morte d'Arthur" insists that a tangible object cannot stand in for the king, that Excalibur can and must be cast away as Arthur vanishes, the frame-poem stresses the importance of material transmission by describing the rescue of a manuscript that had been tossed into the fire. In Sider's view, Tennyson struggles to "preserv[e] a transcendent poetic authority apart from the vagaries of the literary field" (59), while also acknowledging that such authority is embedded in a consumable article--the printed page--that the poet takes leave of and ceases to control as it enters the public sphere. Both "Tiresias" and "To E. FitzGerald" raise similar questions: how much does the power of a poet or prophet depend on his reception? How can he best assume a public form? As a statue or as a voice? By circulating his work to intimate friends or to a large and anonymous audience? Since he must surrender his poems "to their own materiality and the conditions of publication" (70), Tennyson underscores the valedictory logic that underlies authorship itself.

Turning in the second chapter from Tennyson to dramatic monologue, Sider highlights a genre that lends itself particularly well to an analysis of poetic reception because it demonstrates how speech can produce character by finding (and failing to find) an audience. Through what Sider calls "the shaping force of retrospective self-narration" (73), speakers and writers submit themselves to hearers and readers. This authorizes the valedictory tactics of the monologue to reflect broader Victorian concerns about the poet's cultural role. Ranging expertly across a wide variety of texts, Sider cites Augusta Webster on the relationship of the poetic "I" to various readerships, along with F. D. Maurice, John Stuart Mill, and Charles Dickens on the public nature of character. He applies these concepts by reading an impressive array of monologues as forms of public address, including poems by Tennyson ("St. Simeon Stylites"), Webster ("An Inventor"), Felicia Hemans ("Properzia Rossi"), Robert Browning ("Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's Church," "A Death in the Desert," and most notably The Ring and the Book), William Morris ("The Defence of Guenevere"), Amy Levy ("A Minor Poet"), and Eugene Lee-Hamilton (Imaginary Sonnets). As the poems conclude, as the speakers take their final forms and give themselves over to the contingencies of print, endings for Sider "become the sites of imagined relations between speaker and auditor as well as poem and public" (81). Sider is especially suggestive on The Ring and the Book, wherein the investigation of character comprises the narrative itself. Through the medium of testimony that is endlessly interpreted, misinterpreted, and reinterpreted, he writes, Browning's masterwork reveals selfhood as "a fiction of mediation" (111).

The poetic leave-taking most strongly associated with Matthew Arnold is his decision to abandon verse. In his third chapter, Sider takes this withdrawal seriously, but he also flouts conventional wisdom by using Arnold's critical prose to highlight the achievement as well as the uneasy shortcomings of his poetry. According to Sider, his valedictory scenes show that Arnold "experiences the pressures of the emergent mass public as a breakdown of intimacy"; seeking instead "a mediated intimacy fitted to the public sphere" (114), he privileges the notion of representativeness over the personal. In part by both mourning and accepting departure and retreat, a poem like "Dover Beach" thus speaks not as one lover to another but as the voice of human experience in the modern world. Throughout this chapter, Sider skillfully juxtaposes Arnold's poetry and criticism. Biographical narratives and review essays, in which the termination of a life or a career gives it shape and meaning, allow Arnold to address a broad readership at an ambiguously impersonal distance. Therefore, Sider says, "[t]he ends of lives and the public character of writing are brought together in a striking fashion by these pieces" (125). A related pattern plays out in the verse, which strives for public stature by staging a valedictory turn away from (and even a collapse of) private relations. "Empedocles on Etna," for instance, isolates its titular character from his friends and depicts his suicide. Yet it also permits him to be confident that he will not "die wholly" (2.406) but will, via the transmigration of the soul, circulate in the world and gain a future reception. And like the scholar-gipsy or like Sohrab in "Sohrab and Rustum," Empedocles will also become an exemplary figure as he disappears. In this context, the 1853 Preface to Poems--which "oscillates between an elegiac past and a subjunctive future" (150)--represents not a rejection but an extension of Arnold's valedictory poetics.

While Arnold, Browning, and Tennyson all hope to achieve some sort of intimacy with their reading publics despite feeling distant or detached from them, the final chapter of this book shows that Algernon Charles Swinburne embraces distance, alienation, and loss of control. In "Laus Veneris" and "Anactoria," Sider demonstrates, Swinburne uses valedictory strategies of self-assessment and self-display to emphasize aesthetic rather than moral value, which creates a tension between the text's status as an autonomous object and "the real-time demands of public circulation and print mediation" (171). Ultimately, Swinburne's solution is to frame aesthetic accomplishment itself as a mode of public address that draws its affective power from remoteness and depersonalization. The poet, portraying departure, also vanishes into his texts; Swinburne and his speakers become a style.

To supplement his analyses of the poetry, Sider considers Swinburne's thoughts on the nature of being public (what would it mean for his work to appeal to a broad readership without sacrificing its aesthetic self-reflexivity?), his use of the valedictory envoi (which associates address not with the author but with the transmissible poem itself), and his fondness for self-parody (which allows him to assert ownership of his signature style even as he turns away from it). Swinburne was seen as a potential heir to Tennyson, but because his work also taps into anxieties about the decline of verse, he "seems to oscillate between the broad public aspirations of his major predecessors and the reconsolidation of poetry within a (proto-)modernist avant-garde" (155).

Fittingly, then, Sider concludes by convincingly arguing that "the vocabulary of modernism's break with the past" (207) draws on the Victorian valedictory. The work of Ezra Pound, like that of Swinburne, he says, enacts an authorial withdrawal that leaves the poem itself--despite its tendency to be difficult and obscure--to engage with and address the public.

Beautifully written and brilliantly argued, erudite and witty, Sider's monograph brings a new interpretive lens to both under-theorized works and some of the most-discussed poems of the period. At several points, a little more close reading might have grounded its dense and often rather abstract claims. Also, though the book tantalizingly glances at how the valedictory mode illuminates the poetess tradition, it could have done more to organize and develop its valuable insights about gender. But all in all, Sider offers compellingly original perspectives on the critical debates to which he is so carefully attuned. (And in observing that a different version of the study might have described in detail "the complex and overlapping contexts of reception among various poetic communities" [27], he also furnishes a useful blueprint for future research.) Parting Words is an outstanding piece of scholarship that should be read and enjoyed by all students of Victorian poetry.

Veronica Alfano is Assistant Professor in the Institute for Languages at Delft University of Technology and Research Fellow at Australian Catholic University.


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