The problem faced by the Victorians is captured in Matthew Arnold's classic essay The Study of Poetry' (1880). The essay addresses the relationship between the structural and the functional identity of poetry and it contains what would appear to be a fundamental contradiction. Arnold implies that the post-Shakespearean langue of forms and stylistic devices is effectively complete; the question is what its nineteenth-century inheritors should do with it: 'poetry is at bottom a criticism of life;... the greatness of a poet lies in his powerful and beautiful application of ideas to life,—to the question: How to live' (p. 376). This sounds like a plea for a return to the relevance and accessibility of the Augustan public poem, but elsewhere in the essay he dismisses Dryden and Pope as 'classics of our prose'. His argument, roughly summarised, is this: poetry is able to address moral, philosophical and even political themes and disclose absolute conditions of knowledge and truth that would be contaminated and distorted by the prose treatise or, by implication, the novel. He wanted poetry to replace religion and science as an instrument of personal and social harmony, but he maintained that it could only achieve this by retaining its structural difference from prose: Non-poetic discourses—speech, fictional and non-fictional prose— were limited by their structural dependency upon pre-linguistic circumstances and the only discourse that could be relevant to these uncertain conditions was that which removed itself from them. How did this seemingly contradictory thesis translate into practice? The double pattern is the element from which the speaking presence, whether textual, imagined or verifiably real, can never fully detach itself. The common feature of all Victorian poems is their self-conscious awareness of the double pattern which the speaker must inhabit (without it the text would not be poetic) but which exists uneasily as a legacy, something which cannot be discarded but whose relevance to the non-poetic social, intellectual and emotional condition is uncertain.
Arnold's 'The Scholar Gypsy' (1853) is a curious and often misinterpreted instance of this conflict. The most recent misinterpretation occurs in Belsey's Critical Practice (1980). Belsey regards it as a culmination of the tradition of the Romantic ode (Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats in particular) in which there is a decentring, 'a formal absence at the centre of the poem'. This most certainly is not the case. It is true that Arnold invokes various elements of the Romantic programme—the eponymous scholar gypsy personifies the Romantic ideal, consciously and deliberately detaching himself from conventional systems and institutions of learning, thinking and behaviour. But unlike its counterparts in Keats's or Shelley's odes the speaking presence of this poem establishes his condition as a non-participating observer of the aesthetic and existential ideal. The poem's deictic pointers, again unlike those of its Romantic predecessors, are clear, specific and unambiguous. He is in a field near Oxford with a copy of Glanvil's book open on the grass (stanzas 3-4) and throughout the poem he balances the imagined situation of Glanvil's subject (the eponymous seventeenth-century ex-scholar turned to simple rural existence) against a very specific pattern of images drawn from the immediate circumstances of the speech act: 'the Stripling Thames', 'Godstow Bridge', 'the Cumner Hills', 'Bagley Wood', 'Hinksey', 'Christ-Church'. You will search in vain for a high Romantic ode which situates the speech act within such specific spatio-temporal conditions. Again we find that the text invokes but does not reconcile crucial elements of the metaphor-metonym columns. Belsey claims that the erratic shifts in tense (stanzas 1516, principally 'Hast' and 'Had'sf) contribute to the decentred illogic of the text, but the opposite is the case. The distinction between the scholar's absence (past tense, since he is dead) and presence (present tense, since his story occupies the mind of the speaker) effectively guarantees the speaker's control of the text and its ideational pattern: 'I' (speaker) contemplate the past in relation to the present. The poem is post-Romantic in that it is both about Romanticism (left-hand column) and structurally unromantic (right-hand column). Compare it with the odes of Coleridge, Keats and Shelley discussed in the previous chapter and you will find that its syntactic and deictic features concentrate the reader's attention upon a stable speaking presence subtly interposing his own controlled imaginative resources with a creative and existential ideal that is touching but in practical terms unrealistic. The high Romantic ode draws the speaker into the shifting images and patterns of the text (left-hand column); this poem foregrounds the extra-textual presence of a particular speaker inspired by a particular book in a particular time and place (right-hand column). It is the equivalent of interposing the prose description of 'Kubla Khan' with the textual substance of the poem.
In Memoriam and 'The Scholar Gypsy' submit readily, perhaps too readily, to the protocols of naturalisation. Their deictic features are sufficiently detailed to subdue any serious imbalance between poetic intention and the situation of the speech act—a stable relationship between addresser-poet and addressee-reader is maintained. The relationships between the metonymic-realist and the metaphoric-Romantic dimensions are dutifully poetic but at the same time coordinated so that the reader remains clearly aware of distinctions between contact, message, context and code. The stabilising axis between these potentially disruptive elements is the regular double pattern. In both poems the stanzaic formulae are complex enough to allow the type of textual-contextual disorientations of metaphysical verse, but the nineteenth-century inheritors of the poetic langue display a control of the double pattern that is comparable to a contemporary prose writer's control of the sentence. In this respect the nineteenth-century poets were the most confidently yet cautiously literate generation of the pre-modernist canon. The langue of iambic, trochaic patterns, stanzaic formulae and complex rhyme schemes was their grammar; and grammar is the science or at least the competence that enables the linguistic addresser to achieve a transparent agreement with the addressee.
Was this article helpful?