Friday, May 25, 2018

Getting to the Heart of Spasmodics

Review of Kirstie Blair's Victorian Poetry and the Culture of the Heart by Amanda Mordavsky Caleb


Of all the –ologies discussed in relation to Victorian literature—neurology, psychology, gynecology, and even toxicology—cardiology is strangely absent from the list. Given the unhealthy Victorian interest in disease and death, it is surprising that only in Kirstie Blair’s Victorian Poetry and the Culture of the Heart do we see any extended study of the heart. Here Blair considers medical discourse in relation to Victorian poetry, suggesting that the literal organ was used metaphorically to simultaneously unify and separate a community, demonstrating its multifaceted function as “material and spiritual, public and private, active and passive” (4). This encompassing look at the poetic use of heart and the subsequent culture it created is a refreshingly new consideration of the intertwined relationship between science and literature.



Blair begins by tracing the pathological fascination with heart disease in Victorian culture, citing numerous examples of how heart disease became a mainstream concern relating to one’s “habits, career, and emotional susceptibility,” as well as broader social conditions (67). The infiltration of heart disease into mainstream society can be seen in an early nineteenth-century parlour game which involved the art of pulse-taking. Although seemingly innocuous, this playful pastime reveals the effect of the psychosomatic on the physical, as heartbeats race when a person is mentally excited. It also reveals the public interest in the workings of the cardiovascular system, even if on a very basic level, an interest that reveals itself in the fiction of the period. Critical studies of medicine and the Victorian novel have become almost commonplace; Blair, however, has chosen the most appropriate genre to consider the heart: poetry. Although the connection between the heartbeat and poetic rhythm is an obvious comparison, Blair embraces the cliché of the poem’s heartbeat to demonstrate how Victorian poets rebelled against classic prosody, turning instead to the heartbeat to reveal the fixed yet spasmodic nature of emotion reflected in meter. This leads Blair to a discussion of Spasmodic poetry as dealing with the relationship between structure and meaning through the use of medical notions of bodily movement, which paved the way for the poets of the mid-Victorian period.

The remainder of the book focuses on the 1850s and three major Victorian poets: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Matthew Arnold, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The choice of a female poet may seem obvious given the Victorian association with women and the heart, and certainly Blair’s selection of Aurora Leigh is one that has received significant attention. This chapter reiterates some of the notable criticism of this künstleroman, specifically gender politics. Blair focuses her analysis on Aurora Leigh’s attempts to reconcile the female heart with the poet’s heart; although she is specific in her analysis of the representation of the heart, this resembles much of the criticism which addresses the conflict of being female and a poet. That being said, Blair would have been equally criticized had she neglected the most prominent use of the heart by a female Victorian poet. Her critical readings, however, are particularly strong and truly emphasize the emotional and physical nature of the heart, allowing for some forgiveness for the lack of pure originality throughout this chapter.

In contrast, Blair’s treatment of Matthew Arnold embraces a fresh look at the relationship between poetry, religion, and the heart. Arnold’s obsession with his health—and specifically his heart—make him a fitting choice for this book. Beyond this, his poetry allows Blair to move away from the more familiar gender politics of the heart and consider the religiosity. The heart as religious symbol has been ever-present in various faiths, and it is no surprise that Arnold turns to this symbol in his poetry. However, rather than merely representing the heart as the centre of faith in God, Arnold also embraces the diseased heart as the location of the loss of feeling. This loss of feeling is the result of an age that relies solely on the brain, separating itself from the emotional and religious elements of the heart. Through her close reading of Arnold’s poetry of the 1850s and his prose, Blair rightly concludes that the representation of the diseased heart is Arnold’s view of the detached individual—one that has lost the religious faith embedded within the heart—as the product of the modern age.

The effects of the modern age can be seen in Blair final analysis of Tennyson, another fitting choice given his prominence and long-reign as poet-laureate. This chapter is a culmination of what the others were moving towards: a full understanding of the relationship between meter and meaning in relation to medicine and poetry. In this, Blair’s finest chapter, she considers Tennyson’s sympathetic view of the universal heart, questioning whether it represents a healthy or diseased worldview. Within this analysis Blair explores two of Tennyson’s most famous poems, both riddled with heartsickness: "In Memoriam and Maud." Blair argues that in the former the speaker refuses to discuss the heart directly, yet heartsickness is still evident through a meter that, though controlled, is resented by the speaker. As the poem progresses, however, the speaker moves from having a diseased heart (from his loss) to being in good health, a credit to his ability to feel again and perhaps to regain his religious faith. In contrast, the heart is a constant image in "Maud," demonstrating the deranged heart which reflects the unbalanced mind. Blair refuses the obvious psychological reading and instead provides a fresh reading of the poem as representing the culture of the heart through its pathological symbolism, Spasmodic features, and medical references. This chapter captures the importance of the heart to Victorian poetry and demonstrates the strength of this book.

Although Blair does cover some familiar ground at times, the overall focus of this book provides such an important look into an overlooked organ that one is willing to forgive any repetition of previous criticism. The need to consider the heart as a literal and symbolic element of Victorian poetry has been neglected; this book begins to redress this disregard in a fresh and exciting way, suggesting that there is more to the heart than just its beat.

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