The reluctant founder of the so-called Spasmodics, Phillip James Bailey, trained as a barrister before turning to compose his enormous and enormously popular poem Festus (1839). For a book both long and difficult, full of grand abstractions and abstruse theological musings, Festus was a hit, to quote one early reviewer, "even among those who do not usually go in for poetry," a popularity that began with its very first public reading, conducted by the mechanics working the printing presses and binderies on which it was produced. The book became a social object as soon as it became a book, and Bailey's home became a social space, a place of pilgrimage almost immediately thereafter.
One such pilgrimage was made by Alexander Smith, inheritor of the Spasmodic mantel, whose first book A Life-Drama (1853) likewise blurred social barriers, this time, within the text. Poets and prostitutes blend therein with aristocrats and even goddesses in a drama not only of one person's life, but of social life in Britain generally. Like Bailey's, Smith popularity cut right across classes, the working-class writer a guest of nobility immediately following his book's publication. Here too, the book became not only a social object, but a ticket for its author into new spheres of sociability.
As Antony Harrison and Charles LaPorte have noted, the Spasmodics touched off a kind of Victorian culture war in criticism, but, this paper shows how their books also created radically new social, from their radically new artistic, forms.
"The Spasmodics' Social Anxiety Salve"
North American Victorian Studies Association: ASU. November 2-5, 2016
Note: a video recording of this talk is available here.
Byron's explosion of the epic in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Don Juan threw wide the gates to other aspirants. Would-be practitioners of the form no longer had to choose and master a historical period with which to contend, nor any longer to aggrandize martial conflict, as had been the practice from Homer, to Milton, to poems like Jerusalem Victorious in Byron's own time. Likely the most important, and certainly the most popular, poets writing in English following Byron's death--the much maligned Spasmodics--took the newfound freedom of subject he offered, but rather than use it as a license for titillation and self-aggrandizement as he had done, turned their corporate attention to subjects more worthy of their talent and of their callings as Christian artists. While J. Stanyan Bigg rhapsodizes about the glory of God as evidenced in the stars, Alexander Smith about the difficulties of art-making in an uncertain time, and Phillip James Bailey about sin and redemption from the points of view of angels (fallen and otherwise), Sydney Dobell turns a relatively minor domestic tragedy--a wife suffering depression and her husband's inability to help her--into the stuff of legend in his book-length poem Balder (1854). This essay introduces Dobell's poem as a poignant meditation on suffering and loss that examines attendant unravellings of confidence in medicine and providence, while asking how we might respond to the pain of others in a way that's helpful rather than indulgent. No mere morality tale, Balder follows both figures through a different kind of battle than epic poems usually treat, giving us the first serious consideration in English poetry of a category of affliction more widespread than is evident from the literary record: an epic of mental illness.
"An Epic of Mental Illness: Sydney Dobell and the Psychology of Suffering."
Faith in Humanities Conference: Kirkland, WA. March 22, 2016
This essay argues that one demonstration of literary power might be to construct a black hole as a way of exploring what is poetically knowable. I use a section of Coleridge’s Nihil Negativum Irrepresentabile in which he differentiates between a “negative quantity” and “an absence,” to show how poems like This Lime Tree Bower, my Prison, and Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement are epistemological excursions before they are purely literary ones. We generally imagine that Coleridge’s response to the semiotic crisis engendered in Romantic aesthetics is to seek a kind of clarity through “reconciliation.” If we look at the seventh of his “Lectures,” however, we see that achieving something more like rest, achieved through charged negativity is the poet’s goal. He attempts to ensure an ongoing imaginative engagement in certain poems by denying the slippage into understanding, which he takes to be a lower-order faculty. By building a kind of prison for meaning itself, he mimics the tension created by the “effort in the mind when it would describe what it cannot satisfy itself with the description of, to reconcile opposites and to leave a middle state of mind more strictly appropriate to the imagination than any other when it is hovering between two images.” Edward Pechter has shown the Lectures indicative of Coleridge’s belief that “imaginative activity...entails an effort that is ongoing; it fails to find--or, rather, succeeds in not finding--a stable closure” (169). Pechter’s sense of “success in not finding” is the goal of Coleridge’s suspension of meaning, or “rest,” as I argue in the essay. In the middle of his chapter On the Imagination, of Esemplastic Power, Coleridge approaches a definition of this literary project, and grounds the project philosophically in Kant, writing, “the venerable sage of Koeningsberg has preceded the march of this master-thought as an effective pioneer in his essay on the introduction of negative quantities into philosophy, published 1763” (162). The “negative quantities” in this passage is the same artistic/philosophical move as I mean by “charged negativity.” That Coleridge means to use this philosophical device toward a literary end, and not just as a “toy of thought” is evident in the section immediately following. “Another use is possible,” he writes, “and of far greater promise, namely, the actual application of the positions which had so wonderfully enlarged the discoveries of geometry, mutatis mutandis, to philosophical subjects” (163). “Actual application” is what Coleridge endeavors to show, who further distinguishes between “stillness” and “rest,” explaining that,
a body at one and the same time in motion and not in motion is...nonsense...but a motory force of a body in one direction and an equal force of the same body in an opposite direction is not incompatible, and the result, rest, is real and representable. (BL 163)
The poem’s main thrust is one direction; the “negative quantity” is “the motory force in the opposite direction,” and this essay means to show how that “rest” is achieved.
“Negative Knowledge: Kant to Coleridge.”
Gesellschaft für englische Romantik (German Society for English Romanticism): Munich, Germany. Oct 10-13, 2013
Note: this presentation was adapted for publication as this article.
Although Ernest Jones has been called both "the last leader of the Chartist movement," and "the one poet Karl Marx could talk to," his work is read almost not-at-all today. When he is mentioned, it is as a footnote to the mid-Victorian experimental poetic movement carried out largely by the working-class and praised to the skies by Tennyson, the Brontes, the Rossettis and most of the Victorian reading public called "The Spasmodics." As a way to disparage it, critics of the day (notably William Edmounstone Aytuon of Blackwood's Magazine whose own father-in-law wrote the damning article that "killed" Keats) took to linking their work with Keats' and Shelley's.
Contemporary critics Kristie Blair and Herbert Tucker have picked up on the Keats charge, especially when the charge is linked with effeminacy, but, this paper argues, it makes much more sense to consider the movement as a continuation of Shelley's critical project: not only for its radical politics, and concern for the working poor, but also in its classicism and style.
Moreover, several principal Spasmodists deliberately fashioned themselves as Shelleyans: James Thompson, whose moniker "B.V." stands for "Bysshe Vanolis," writes long poem "Shelley" with accompanying essay; and Sydney Dobell's lecture "The Nature of Poetry" is an answer, indeed, a challenge, to Shelley's "Defense." This paper offers brief readings of the explicitly Shelleyan work of Thompson, Dobell, and Jones to show how Shelley's idealsfueled and his enemies ended, the nascent movement.
“The Second School of Keats.”
North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR): Boston, MA. Aug 8-11, 2013
“Shelley Amid the Ruins of Language.”
International Conference on Romanticism (ICR): Tempe, AZ. Nov 8-11.