The essayist, engineer, and political theorist Herbert Spencer’s 1852 “The Philosophy of Style” is one of several Victorian texts that describe written language as directly impacting human physiology. The most effective language, Spencer writes, is that which most closely mimics speech. This is particularly true for poetry, which “regarded as a vehicle of thought, is especially impressive partly because it obeys all the laws of effective speech, and partly because in so doing it imitates the natural utterances of excitement.” Spencer judges printed poetry by how it achieved effect within contemporary spoken discourse. His poetry is a force that could leap from live performance to printed text—and back out again—without losing the force of its originating idea. In this paper, I propose that Spencer’s understanding of poetry as a universally exciting form of language appealing to a mass audience influenced much poetry written during the mid-to-late nineteenth century.
I take as my case study the late-Victorian poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. Spencer’s ideas can help us to understand the poetic theory presented by Gerard Hopkins’ 1874 “Rhythm and the Other Structural Parts of Rhetoric—Verse” and his subsequent poetic masterpiece “The Wreck of the Deutschland” (1875). Hopkins’ essay, a series of lecture notes, presents the idea that poetry is primarily a “figure of spoken sound,” and poetic language inherently performative. Hopkins’ poem and essay reveal how late-century lyric writers imagined their poetry addressing the public, showing the depth of influence that Spencer’s theories could claim over late-century verse.
Presenter: Dr. Michael Meeuwis
Date: Monday, 26 November 2012, from 11.00 to 12.00 in the G-160 Seminar Room.