One of the more unsettling elements of the vast network of modern interpretive disciplines—structural linguistics, structuralism, post-structuralism—is the idea that language is not something that we as human beings use as a medium, a register of our perceptions, beliefs and experiences, but a continuum that we inhabit, a system through which we construct patterns of faith, order and perceptual stability. Poetry, particularly regular poetry, further complicates the relationship between language and identity. If we accept that language is an autonomous system, then to supplement existing rules and conventions with an even more arbitrary set of structural regulations would seem to deny the speaking subject and the originator yet another dimension of individuality and expressive freedom. But it could also be argued that the separation of the intrinsically poetic text from all other linguistic types and functions actually guarantees a form of independence. I would cite this second argument as the key to our understanding of why the Victorian poets, even in their most innovative moments, refused to dissolve the interdependent relationship between the manifest tradition of the poetic (its metrical and phonemic devices), and its ability to mediate particular situations of experience, perception and reflection. Think about Arnold's thesis that poetry would compensate for the gradual but incessant fragmentation of systems of belief and social organisation. By the mid-nineteenth century most other linguistic genres had in various ways been adapted to the new and uncertain conditions of existence and thought. Marx and Engels, amongst others, were collapsing pre-nineteenth-century distinctions between philosophical, historical and political discourses. Huxley and Darwin were combining the disturbing empiricism of science with subjects and discourses that had once been comfortably protected by theological absolutes. The novels of Dickens, Thackeray and the Brontes were structured as much by the unpredictable contingencies of life as by any corresponding duty to the orders of art. In 1889 Walter Pater (see 'Style', in Appreciations) argued that the 'chaotic variety and complexity of the modern world' could not be properly mediated by 'the restraint proper to verse form', that the 'special art of the modern world' was imaginative prose. This is both a diagnosis and a misrepresentation. The double pattern, the essence of Pater's concept of 'restraint', was the poet's final point of resistance. If the forms and functions of other discourses had been shaped and conditioned by circumstances then at least the tangible presence of metre would maintain a sense of continuity with the (imagined) order of the past, against the unpredictable contingencies of the present—and in the following chapter we will find a similar desire for continuity in the work of Eliot.
It might seem rather presumptuous to base such a sweeping generalisation on the work of three poets but my thesis can be tested against the following texts and issues.
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