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Reason and Emotion: The Victorian ‘Double Poem’

Tashan Mehta


Victorian poetry, according to Isobel Armstrong, had to face two cataclysmic changes to its reception. Art, for one, was viewed as redundant, extraneous to life (4). Life, then, became established as “the condition of alienation” (reflecting the poet’s relationship to society) and poetry traced these redefined and ambiguous relations between self and other; the other defined as lover, society, nature, labor (6-7). This, coupled with the ambiguities of meaning produced by the universality and range of print, created what she sees as the unique form of Victorian poetry:


If the poet knows the act of representation is fraught with problems, and if it is not clear to what misprisions the poem might be appropriated, then a structure which analyses precisely the uncertainty, and which makes that uncertainty belong to the struggle and debate, a structure which fills that uncertainty with content, is the surest way to establish poetic form (14).


She terms this structure as a double poem: “two concurrent poems in the same words” (12). Her interpretation is distinctive from what other critics have seen as the latent versus the manifest meaning in the text: the two levels can be given equal weight by circumventing their classifications as levels and seeing the text as a struggle. While Armstrong implies that the ‘double poem’ is a unique and defining structure of Victorian poetry, the analysis is not necessarily confined to that time: poetry has always existed with latent and manifest interpretations that can be given equal weight. What is defining about Victorian poetry, I would argue, is the dialogue between the two concurrent poems, their entwining and their ability to enrich each other through that dialogue. The two concurrent poems as I see them, then, are ‘distance’ and ‘intimacy’ poems (corresponding to reason and emotion): neither exist as two different interpretations of the whole text, as Armstrong suggests, but function as distinctive but intertwining sections within the entire text. I hope to show how reason and emotion in two major Victorian poets, Mathew Arnold and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, is negotiated and presented through this dialogic double poem structure and how their interplay, though differing in each poem and poet, serves to create an overarching emotion of melancholy, a subtle inability to indulge in any absolute.


It is perhaps imperative to note that the structure of double poems as I perceive them in Arnold and Browning differs to Armstrong’s conclusion of what a double poem is. Double poems, to Armstrong, not only express themselves in the concurrent presence of latent and manifest meaning of the text but in the ability of the dramatic monologue (as well as framed narrative, dream, dialogue or parody) to turn the subject’s utterance into the object of analysis: “By seeing utterance as both subject and object it was possible for the poet to explore expressive psychological forms simultaneously as psychological conditions and as constructs” (13). None of the poems I have chosen to focus on (Arnold’s “Dover Beach” and “The Buried life”; Elizabeth Browning's “Portuguese Sonnets”, specifically 21 and 32) are framed as dramatic monologues, nor do they specifically examine the psychological condition of any character as such, or the constructs of representation. Their duplicity, then, is not narrowed to the two poles of the subject’s utterance turned into an object of analysis, a construct that can be applied to any dramatic monologue. Their duplicity is created by a shift in perspective or tone (‘distance’ and ‘intimacy’), a movement towards a more polymorphic reading of text, revealed in the text itself. The double poem, then, is not exposed by a different reading of the same text, as it is in the latent and manifest reading or the subject and object analysis, but is openly present in the poem itself, through the interaction and interplay of the tones of reason and emotion.


In Arnold, both in “The Buried Life” and in “Dover Beach”, the shift from one ‘poem’ to the other, is in perspective. In “Dover Beach”, the poem opens with an all-encompassing view of the landscape; lines 1-5 describe the sea, the tide, the moon, the cliffs of England, the strait and the light upon the French shore. The panorama created is one of range and scope, of epic distance. The poem then adopts that tone of standing at a removed and elevated position to survey the broad sweep of passing time. Hints of this transition are layered into the repetition of “Begin, and cease, and then again begin,” (12), a sense of the eternal creeping in, and then the transition is made, “eternal note of sadness” (14) is introduced, and the poem moves to Sophocles and the past (15-8). “Dover Beach” holds this tone until near the end of the poem, allowing Arnold to reflect upon the present simultaneously with the past and all that is changed, lost, or no longer eternal. But in line 29, the poem jolts you out of the register of generalized musing with a direct, passionate and relevant address:


Ah, love, let us be true

To one another!... (29-30)


The tone shrinks, instantly, from distance to intimacy, from the world and all of time, to two individuals, here and now. Here, the concurrent poem of “Dover Beach” is revealed, its intimate half. Glimpses of its presence exist in the very beginning of the poem; exclamations of “Listen!” (9) and the request to “Come to the window” (6) which serves to emphasize the then narrative tone of distance and height. Both ‘poems’ interweave into each other, distinctly autonomous but interplaying with each other. Line 30 pulls the intimate context of address into the larger register and framework that came before it— “…for the world, which seems”— to move into eternal truths—“So various, so beautiful, so new,/ Hath neither joy, nor love, nor light” (32-3)— and then pulling back in to the two individuals, to intimacy— “And we are here” (35)—;before pushing, finally, into merging the individual and scope into “ignorant armies” (37).


This mingling and merging in the form of the double poem is how Arnold perceived the relationship between reason and emotion. In an 1869 letter to his mother, he commented upon his poetic fusion of “intellectual vigour” and “poetic sentiment”, a fusion that he “regularly applied to the main line of modern development” (qtd. in Collini 26). The flexibility of that “intellectual vigour” or reason and “poetic sentiment” or emotion is crucial to the understanding of the interactive double poem of “Dover Beach”. Reason, as a concept, expands to inhabit the distance poem of the text. The perspective is presented as observation, in the description of the landscape and its imitation of the ocean’s phonetics upon the shore. It then moves into fact, of “Sophocles long ago/heard it on Aegean and it brought/ into his mind the turbid ebb and flow/ Of human Misery;…” (15-8). Using the same tone of knowledge and reason, the poem presents us with personal observation as universal fact, as a logical deduction. “The sea of faith/ was once too, at the full, and round the earth’s shore.” (21-2)—an imitation of the above description of the shore—; and “But now I only hear/ Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” (24-5)—again, reflective of Sophocles’ “ebb and flow”. The distance poem of the text, then, exists in a register of accepted and universal reason. Emotion, on the other hand, shrinks, on a content level, to the notion of love, existing in the communication between lovers, in the register of the intimate poem of the text.


The same concurrent poems of reason and emotion, of shift in perspective, can be seen in “The Buried Life”. Here, the text opens with the poem of intimacy with direct address: “Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!” (2) and “Give me thy hand, and hush awhile/… and let me read there, love! thy inmost soul” (9 11). The poem shifts subtly into a tone of universality and distance in the second stanza: “I knew the mass of men concealed/… I knew they lived and moved/Tricked in disguises, alien to the rest/Of men, and alien to themselves—” (16 20-2), but pulls itself back to intimacy with:


But we, my love!— doth a like spell benumb

Our hearts, our voices? — must we too be dumb? (24-5)


The subtlety of “The Buried Life” lies in its almost indiscernible mingling of the two poems of the text. The intimacy of direct communication between the two lovers is made the theme and subject matter of the distance and universal poem, causing the shift in tone to be perceptible, but seamless, unlike “Dover Beach”. Lines 24-5 address the unseen lover and lie at the heart of the intimate poem: passionate pleas, direct address, and the expression of a wish. But the next lines bleed out that deep-seated tone of intimacy gradually, a movement from onomatopoeia to a more placid and level register, the number of caesuras decreasing:


“Ah! Well for us, if even we,

Even for a moment, can get free

Our heart, and have our lips unchained;” (26-8)


This then leaves us with a perceived universal observation or truth that, once again, transcends time: “For that which seals them hath been deep-ordained!” The subject of the remaining text, shifted as it has now into the register of distance, is still the communication between lovers, but zooms out to include communication between mankind, faith and our inner selves. Emotion then, or the discussion of emotion, is not the sole domain of the intimate poem of the text: it can exist as subject matter in the distance poem, but does not reside in its tone. The register of distance poem remains that of reason, fact, and observation over time.


Further evidence of the flexibility of the concepts of emotion and reason within the form of the double poem can be seen in the two inverted roles they play in “Dover Beach” and “The Buried Life”. In “Dover Beach”, the distance poem describes the world as having “neither joy nor love nor light” (33), as being dissolute of hope while the intimacy poem, in its impassioned plea to the lover to not be similar to “ignorant armies clashing by night”, offers a sense of faith, a possibility of salvation in the desperate picture that the distance poem paints. In “The Buried Life” the distance poem provides this sense of a reconciled and harmonious reality: “When a beloved hand is laid in ours,… A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast, / And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again”, but the intimacy poem questions its veracity: “Are even lovers powerless to reveal/To one another what indeed they feel?” (14-5).


The effect that the dialogue of the two poems creates is the same, however: emotion undercuts reason and vice versa. How can two lovers “be true to one another” in a world that has neither “love…nor help for pain” (33-4)? And does this world really have no certitude, light or joy if there is such a thing as love, if the poetic persona has someone to address this to? Similarly, in “The Buried Life”, the ideal presented as a truth at the end is underscored by the doubt expressed at the beginning: “is even love to weak/ To unlock the heart and let it speak?” (12-3). Yet the end leaves us with this tone of universality, of lovers connecting and accessing their inner selves as a fact:


When our world-deafened ear

Is by the tones of a loved one caressed-

…The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,

and what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.

A man becomes aware of his life’s flow (82-8).


All the doubts raised in the intimacy poem are addressed and you are left with the possibility of this idealized ending as pre-ordained, if only one had the courage to wait for it. “Dover Beach” and “The Buried Life” do not pit their two inner poems against each other, or present them as a ‘struggle’ within the text as Armstrong suggests. Rather, it pushes them forward as fact, as the ambiguity of reality as it exists, and allows both poems to engage in an interplay that raises both of them to a more polymorphic meaning: “a dialogue of a poem with itself” (Armstrong 14).


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