Poems Without Heroes:
The Relevance of Victorian Self-Consciousness and the History of Poetry
by Paul Rogov
Let’s examine Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” and Matthew Arnold’s “Preface to Poems” to illuminate the significance of a poem’s relationship to time and history. I side with Hegel, as he demonstrates in his Aesthetics—poetry is always too spiritual. As an art form, poetry is not the same as Greek sculpture, where the form of man and the idea of man are coeval. Poetry’s content alludes to something beyond its form, and its text, and its utterance, even beyond possible justification for its own existence. The reason poetry is effective is that its material—its empirical existence, that is—does not account for the meaning of its immaterial content. The event of poetic enunciation, that is, the reading of a poem, does not bind the potentiality of possible meanings as it could be ascertained by a future audience. In that regard, the aporia, or gap, between the form and content of a poem, suggests a poem’s structure is both temporal and noumenal: its form is bound to time, though its content, can and will suggest a dimension that is not bound to time.
Tennyson’s “Ulysses” opens up the space for intimacy, hospitality, and invitationality that not all Victorian poems possess. Unlike Arnold, who bemoans, and mourns, how poetry, written during the Victorian era, can and will never rival, equal, nor surpass the poetic achievement of the Greeks, Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” demonstrates how poetry’s “a-temporal dimension” is always-already inherent in a poem’s form, in spite of modernity, or any other historical era. The tension, then, between the historicity of poetry and the significance of a particular poem, shows how a modern and contemporary poem’s “self-consciousness” does not infringe on a poet’s ability to transcend time, despite poetry’s historicity. A Victorian poem can still allow the reader/listener to lift the veil of Isis.
Regardless of its receptivity on the part of a particular historical era or culture, poetry must be conceived of a language art, a technology, a tool. It is different from expository writing, where the reader anticipates a mode of deduction, or sequencing of logic. By definition, a poetic line “turns.” A verse falls into, furtively follows, or falls behind the line preceding it. These “turns” are the ineffable pause or rhythmic units that comprise a poem’s temporality. In this regard, a poem is always about itself and beyond itself; it depicts “turning” thoughts, “turning” feelings, “turning actions”—past, present, or future.
In this sense, if there is a looping effect in poetry—in the genre itself, no matter how or why it “turns” or “moves” (as blank verse, free verse, limerick or iambic hexameter, etc.), it follows that poetry has the potential of linking our past to our present as well as to our future. Poetry, in this regard, is a suspension of the normal use of language due to the looping temporality coordinated by its own function. If human actions are repeatable, so is poetry. If human desire is repeatable, so is poetry. A poem is always arriving. When one reads a poem to oneself or out loud to others, its content travels to us from the past.
Why did so many British poets from the Victorian Period feel inferior to the poets that historically preceded them? Was it the sheer quantity of poetry that was being written? Was it because they felt their poetry was not distinct enough from their everyday speech and/or expression? Was there a kind of “demythologization of poetic force,” a falling out of favor, tied to the rise of secular subjectivity, or the wide-spread use and mastery of printing technology? Certainly, all of these are the case. If, however, Victorian poetry does cover so much ground, simply by virtue of the sheer quantity of it, there is a specter that haunts this era of history also: poetry’s past. If Victorian poetry, as expressed in the content of its poems, depicts an exhilarated anxiety about itself as a historical presence—its mode of expression takes place in its present despite the poetic works that preceded it.
In this sense, while Arnold seeks to defend the relevance of poetry, he is forced to contrast his own age with the ancients, when he claims they knew what Art was, and that his age does not. In Preface to Poems, Arnold cites Shiller: “all Art is dedicated to Joy.” and there is no higher and no more serious problem, than how to make men happy. The right Art is that alone, which creates the highest enjoyment.” It expresses human actions. It has to be truthful, accurate, emotive. A poem is not automatically a poem if it merely represents something human beings feel, say or do. “A poetical work,” Arnold writes,
is not yet justified when it has been shown to be an accurate, and therefore
interesting representation; it has to be shown also that it is a representation from
which men can derive enjoyment. (Arnold, 5-7).
If poetry is to bring pleasure, as well as “interesting representation,” is the question as to what poetry is supposed to do adequately understood? If poetry as such is unique from other forms of literary expression, as I have indicated, is there not an ethical imperative as to how poetry precisely accomplishes what it sets out to do? If poetry should aim at and evoke Joy, supplementing even the basest content, or the tragic dimension, even of utmost catastrophic human predicament, how is this done as Arnold suggests? Case in point: What is defensible as far as poetry is concerned, according to Arnold, is not merely its existence as a form of expression, but also what it carries within its form, which has its own autonomy, and/or hermeneutic integrity. For Arnold, a poem is perfectly justified when it can shed light on the relationship that it has with itself, as well as its relationship to its readers and/or audience. Poetry is a shared experience, an experience of opening, a lichtung (a clearing) in the meadow. A poem’s temporality, therefore, entails that it draw attention to its own versalitity; it is a unique form of describing the self and the world, as it attempts to illumine the integrity of a dual relationship, that is: the dignity, Joy, felt by the poem’s audience, and the dynamic, and a-historicity, of the relationship itself (1505).
Paradoxically, however, Arnold rejects and regrets the selfsame era in which he is born. He takes note of the common complaint in regards to the critics of the age: that as Victorians, as moderns, Victorian poetry will never equal the majesty of the poems of its predecessors. Arnold, after all, as a poet, perpetually reminds us how, no matter how “great” a modern poet may be within the age in which he lives,
a host of voices will indignantly rejoin that the present age is inferior to the past
neither in moral grandeur nor in spiritual health (Arnold, 26-27).
This is problematic in light of the standards which I have outlined in respect to what I believe poetry is supposed to do. If literary critics keep reminding poets how there will never be another Shakespeare or Ovid or Homer, are they not in some way betraying the open hospitality implicit in poetic expression? What makes a poem great? Does it matter how old a poem is—or does it matter how it being old makes us feel? How do some Victorian poems seem closer to the lofty heroism found in the poetry of antiquity, therefore, appear to be seemingly closer to the origin of pre-lapsarian poetic intent? It is difficult to accept such an interpretation. It’s not the concern of the poem to be great, but to present to us its cage, the singularity of its finitude, wrought with both grandeur and fragility, historically self-conscious or otherwise. Arnold is right in criticizing critics who say that modern poetry cannot top the ancients. Yet poetry is not a competition; and could only be conceived of as a competition in a society that is competitive or nostalgic for heroes. Poetry markets and publishers did not exist for the Greeks or the Romans.
For a purist, like Arnold, it should come as no surprise why the ancients’ poetry was “better.” It was not tainted with the corruption that goes along with a market economy that perpetually conflates human ambitions (which is limitless), with the limitlessness of material production. Along these lines, the content of spiritual excess, which might include, though is not limited to the deployment of myths, or the creation of new ones that debunk old ones, even within a certain epoch, is unable to protect itself from later generations from re-contextualizing the past in order to explain its present. Old poems, then, poems with heroes, are novelties reduced to the status of sculptures. They “turned” into cultural matter, into fetishes; rather, than being conceived of as temporal objects moving along an a-historical substrata of our shared human experience.
In this sense, poetry, because it pushes the limits of language, and attempts to express human actions, or longings, for all time, runs into problems at different historical periods for different reasons. But let us consider, the integrity of a poem, precisely as Arnold envisions it, which depicts a human action.
if it is impossible for us, under the circumstances amidst which we live, to think
clearly, to feel nobly, and to delineate firmly; if we cannot attain to the mastery of the
great artists; let us, at least, have so much respect for our art as to prefer it to
ourselves (Arnold, 32-35).
What does Arnold mean when he says we have to “have so much respect for our art as to prefer it to ourselves?” Is he, in light of the fact that he champions some unsurpassable summit modern poems can never reach, putting art above life? After all, if art is to be bring joy, who does it bring joy to? To those that are incapable of joy or those that are not? To those that prefer timelessness over timeliness? To those who derive pleasure from the grandeur of immortal heroes over the insecurity of being bound to time itself?
Arnold is mistaken by divorcing art from life and life from poetry. For in thinking that the poetry of the ancients is better because they understood Art better than Arnold’s own culture does mean that poetry must be preferred over ourselves and our lives. Poetry reminds us of what we do prefer: namely that we, like poems, confined to a form that also “turns,” moves inwardly, has its own temporality. By failing to notice the relationship between self and world first, poetry has no power. By failing to notice the dynamism and even futility of such a relationship is to render any encounter with poetry moot or dead in advance. If one can conceive any form of expression that does not attempt to illuminate, at minimum, the metaphysics of being-in-the-world as such, however meekly or forcibly it is rendered stylistically, then one can deduce the form of expression is not poetry, but a statement of facts. It is one thing to elevate poetry to a divine status, make it equal with the divine, as a purist would; it is quite another to condemn a poetry altogether for being historical. This notion is similar to saying Jesus Christ would be less who he is, or a being lower than how history has thus far elevated him, simply because his incarnation took place during the Roman occupation of Judea, and not during Babylonian Captivity! In this sense, we must contend with both the a-historical and historical elements inherent in poetic form: between what changes, on the page, and what does not change, on the page, in order to properly allow a poem to succeed or fail.
Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” where a hero from antiquity is chosen as its subject matter, motivates an appeal towards the future of poetry, in light of the verse already encapsulated by posterity. Ulysses shares with the reader the vastness of the journey upon which “he” has embarked. “Much have I seen and known; cities of men / And manners, climates, councils, governments / Myself not least” (Tennyson, 13-15). Ulysses, both as a character of one the oldest poems of antiquity, as well as the speaker of the poem, (the poem being in first person), serves as trope for the potential of poetic content transcending poetic form. Ulysses is always-already present. He has been traveling through time, through a series of historical fluxes, in which he is included.
For this reason, the trope of Ulysses, somewhat of a linguistic indicator of the History of Poetry itself, remarks that “I am a part of all that I have met.” There is a spark of Ulysses’ travels in every poem. There is inherent temporality to his travels. There is a sense that poetry, for Ulysses, cannot give up, nor cannot end his journey as a result of the success of the poetic past. The speaker of the poem indicates clearly:
How dull is it to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use! (Tennyson, 23-24).
Here, poetry’s usefulness comes to the fore. Are Victorian poets supposed “to pause, to make an end,” as a result of their self-consciousness in respect to their predecessors? The poem suggests otherwise. Of the relationship between poetry and life
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought (Tennyson, 26-32).
Tennyson, though equally concerned with the relationship between modern and ancient poetry, adopts a cavalier approach to poetry and its purpose. In his view, poetry attempts to describe a particular self in perpetual relationship to a world that always was, is, and will be there. This is why the trope of Ulysses, a figure of poetry’s past, is so effective. “Vile it were / for some three suns to store and hoard myself.” Poetry can hold, retain the fury of three suns. Its form is an embodiment of a multitude of meanings, the multiple embodiment of many truths (the sun being a symbolic gesture of light, of knowledge).
In this sense, “Ulysses” is a sort of apology for the state of poetry: it must continue despite poetry’s past. “Death closes all: but something ere the end, / Some work of noble note, may yet be done.” The personal historical moment of “Ulysses,” as written by Tennyson, underscores how the limitations of language coupled with historical self-consciousness must be pushed to the limit, that the once occurrent-ness or hermeneutic currency of the Victorian situation (in is present) requires poetry, in a way, to serve as an interlocutor between what can be known and who and/or what is worth being known.
Poetry’s task, therefore, as depicted in “Ulysses,” is never finished, despite historical temporality, that is, the skein of linear time. “’T not too late to seek a newer world. . ./ To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths / Of all the western stars” (Tennyson, 84-88) Poetry goes beyond, transcends; it is never late; it is always arriving. New eras arise that are nurtured by poetry. Old eras fade and leave behind Ulysses’ vessel. The lines “to sail beyond…all the western stars,” above suggests poetry, as a medium of expression, has the ability to transcend itself. This it is not to say that poetry has some kind of mystical volition, rather by its very definition, the way poetry “moves” through time— by the way it “turns”—means that it always invades the present, invades history, ends up somewhere, and exists perpetually, as a present memory along the skein of Time itself.
In this regard, the meaning of a poem always transcends its form; a poem is never “simply” words, letters or sounds, however lofty or dexterously they are invoked. As Tennyson’s “Ulysses” seems to suggest, the time of heroic epics and grand style has, indeed, passed. The Victorian poet can never be a version of a Greek Homer:
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are (Tennyson, 66-67).
This concession, humble as it might appear, is a defiant one. Several lines later, towards the end of the poem, it is clear what Tennyson means by “that which we are, we are”
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield (Tennyson, 68-70)
Tennyson’s “Ulysses” alludes to how a poet is to understand poetry’s own genealogy. The poetic tradition has a historical character in its commitment to its timelessness— it itself serves as the medium of expression throughout all human ages, “and not to yield.”
Along with the moment of its original enunciation (the factical writing of a particular poem, its origin), a modern poem reaches back into the past to the moment before it itself was enunciated, before it entered history, incarnated, became self-conscious. Likewise, a poem also reaches towards the future: to a moment a future reader, and more importantly, a future poem yet to be written, enters history, or appears in our midst. In this sense, a poem’s present, its present existence within its form—the poet’s present, if you like— links up perpetually with other “presents”—other moments, either in the past or in the future, that with the a content that does not change and is mobile despite the moment of a poem’s enunciation. The historicity of a poem, and the power of poem, much like a poem’s content rupturing out from its material form, shows us how a modern poem’s self-consciousness does not alter a poet’s ability to create for the future, despite it having a past in which it is couched, its historical context. This suggests an eternal dimension to poetry. Whether such a dimension is a phantasm of the mind, an epiphenomena about human experience, is a task for metaphysicians and phenomenologists. If poetry is temporal, yet its concern is the human soul—a spirit trapped in the material finitude of words, poetry is an analogue to the mind capable of apprehending the vastness of infinity within a mortal body. It is for this reason poetry unites and severs the nexus of Self-World and reminds us of the anxiety such a metaphysical relationship produces. The time of heroes might very well be gone forever, yet it is by uniting the present to one’s past and—reminding the reader of his/her own mortality and historicity— that poetry succeeds in what it sets out to do. In this sense, perhaps, poetry is doomed to rupture from the past, and repeat itself, within a particular poem’s eternal ether; yet, it can only enrich our experience—when our experience apprehends and understands the fragility of time as the primordial horizon upon which we grasp all worlds.
Arnold, Matthew. “Author’s Preface.” (1853). The Poems of Matthew Arnold, 1840–1867. London, New York: Oxford University Press, 1909; Bartleby.com, 2011.www.bartleby.com/254/.[6/29/2015].
Tennyson, Alfred Lord. English Poetry III: From Tennyson to Whitman. Vol. XLII. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; Bartleby.com, 2001.www.bartleby.com/42/. [6/29/2015].