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Tennyson & Dobell

William Edmonstoune Aytoun, 'Alexander Smith's Poems', Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 75 (March 1854): 345–351:

Alexander Smith has one characteristic in common with Tennyson, the author of Festus*, and some other poets of the time. All seem to have a great power in the regions of the dreary. Their gaiety is spasmodic; when they smile, 'tis like Patience on a monument, as if Grief were sitting opposite. If this is their way of setting the age to music, 'tis, if most musical, yet most melancholy. Tennyson, who possesses the power of conveying the sentiment of dreariness beyond most poets that every lived, generally selects some suitable subject for the exercise of it, such as Mariana in the Moated Grange; but Mr Smith's hero, and Festus, are miserable from choice, and revel in their unaccountable woe, like the character in Peacock's novel**, whose notion of making himself agreeable consists in saying "Let us all be unhappy together". Not thus, O Alexander! sounds the keynote of the genial soul of a great poet.

* Philip James Bailey, author of Festus: A Poem (1839)

** Thomas Love Peacock, Nightmare Abbey (1818)

Jason R. Rudy and Charles Laporte, 'Spasmodic Poetry and Poetics', Victorian Poetry 42.4 (2004) 421-427

"Eureka! Eureka! The coming man has arrived, and his name is Smith!"

According to the American journal Putnam's Monthly Magazine, "about the first of May" in the year 1853, "all the English papers came hurrying over the sea with a loud chorus of Eureka! Eureka! The coming man has arrived, and his name is Smith!" The almost messianic triumphalism of this announcement now appears a bit startling, since it celebrates the little-known Glaswegian poet Alexander Smith, a member of the emerging "Spasmodic" school who had recently published his chef-d'œuvre, A Life-Drama. Putnam's assures us that A Life-Drama had just "received a more universal and flattering welcome than was ever before awarded to an English poet." Yet those readers of Victorian Poetry familiar with Smith and his Spasmodic fellows will know that his "universal and flattering welcome" was soon followed by a less congenial appraisal, and that it is this critical backlash, characterized by vicious attacks and condescending accusations, that has dictated the re-telling of Spasmodic literary history. With few exceptions, scholars of Victorian poetry have been content to ignore the Spasmodic phenomenon, except as window-dressing for more "refined" poetry, or for an easy laugh.

But who were the Spasmodics? It should be said at first that the Spasmodic poets constituted a "school" in name only; most of those who came to be associated with Spasmodism did not know one another, or developed relationships after having published their major poems. Roughly speaking, the group included Philip James Bailey, Richard Hengist Horne, Sydney Dobell, Alexander Smith, John Stanyan Bigg, Gerald Massey, J. Westland Marston, and Ebenezer Jones. Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, among others, were also identified by their Victorian contemporaries as marginal Spasmodic figures. The movement stretched from the 1830s to the mid-1850s, starting with the publication of Robert Browning's early works and Bailey's Festus (1839)—which most consider the first truly Spasmodic production—and concluding with poems such as Maud (1855) and Aurora Leigh (1856; dated 1857). Critical examinations of Spasmodic poetics have most often focused on the works of Dobell and Smith, no doubt because they present the most audacious and the most difficult of the Spasmodic experiments. Dobell's Balder (1853; dated 1854) and Smith's A Life-Drama (1853) received much more contemporary critical attention, both for good and for ill, than did the work of the other Spasmodics, and both had a strong influence upon the early-1850s literary scene.

Jason Rudy, Electric Meters: Victorian Physiological Poetics (Athens, Oh.: Ohio University Press, 2009)

. . . the history of Victorian poetry is in no small part a history of the human body. Whether we look to Alfred Tennyson’s “poetics of sensation,” the midcentury “Spasmodic” phenomenon, or the so-called fleshly school of the 1870s, Victorian poetry demands to be read as physiologically inspired: rhythms that pulse in the body, a rhetoric of sensation that readers might feel compelled to experience. . . . Victorian poets turned to various manifestations of electricity—lightning strikes, electric shocks, nerve impulses, telegraph signals—to articulate the work of physiological poetics. The electrical sciences and bodily poetics, I argue, cannot be separated, and they came together with especial force in the years between the 1830s, which witnessed the invention of the electric telegraph, and the 1870s, when James Clerk Maxwell’s electric field theory transformed the study of electrodynamics. Because much of nineteenth-century electrical theory had to do with human bodies, and specifically with the ways that individual human bodies might be connected to one another, electricity offered Victorian poets a figure for thinking through the effects of poetry on communities of readers. Electricity, in other words, serves in the nineteenth century as a tool for exploring poetry’s political consequences. Scholars have long identified the political work of Victorian poetry, just as they have recognized the astonishing physicality of Victorian poetics. Electric Meters insists that these phenomena be understood as two sides of the same coin, and it uses electricity as a model for reading that aesthetic and physiological conjunction.

More specifically, I argue that Victorian readers understood the connections between bodily and poetic experience in ways that took more seriously the unself-conscious effects of poetic form. “Physiological poetics” thus refers to the metrical, rhythmic, and sonic effects that, along with other formal poetic features, were increasingly imagined as carrying physiological truths. Whereas the predominant eighteenth-century model of poetic transmission privileged the mind’s interpretive role (the brain acting as mediator between the poem and the individual), nineteenth-century readers gave credit to the body as an arbiter of poetic truths. . . . Readers prior to the physiological trends of the Victorian period were more likely to opt for figuration, to understand a poem’s semantic presence but not its mimetic facility. In contrast, the Victorian poets and critics at the center of this study err on the side of the literal: the poem is itself a magnetic force . .