Jason Rudy’s Electric Meters: Victorian Physiological Poetics – a volume produced with striking typography and layout– importantly crystallizes some of the most influential concerns to emerge from the cross-currents of Victorian studies over the last decade or so. Seeking to “connect formal poetic innovations to developments in the electrical and physiological sciences,” Rudy’s monograph (his first) entices with its declared commitment to materializing study of the sometimes abstract concerns of poetic formalism. In execution, the study works its way through the uses of electricity as a “figure for thinking through the effects of poetry on communities of readers” (2) as it is employed in poetry by Mary Robinson, Felicia Hemans, Alfred Tennyson, Sydney Dobell, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Mathilde Blind, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Lizzie Doten, among others, and in Victorian poetics by writers such as W. E. Aytoun and Coventry Patmore.
Rudy’s eclectic and diverse approach draws out suggestive connections – between Hemans’ imaginative empathy and Francis Jeffray’s experiments with galvanism (41), between the circling girls of Tennyson’s The Princess (1847) (59) and the monks of Jean-Antoine Nollet’s 1746 experiment with electric shock (6), or between Swinburne’s “fleshly” poetry and John Tyndall’s scientific materialism (145). These links strive to coherently connect Victorian poetry and poetics to the body, the collective, the individual and the expressive, under the governing principle of “electricity. The book is especially compelling in its illustration of the conflicts and containments struggling both to emerge from Victorian poetics: from Henry Taylor’s desire for “a return to reason, to feeling governed by active thought, and to a form of poetry—that is, diction, rhythm, and rhyme—reflective of emotional containment” (54); to Patmore’s assertion that art induces the mind to take on “a new and excellent shape” (qtd. in 119); and on to Blind’s frustrated desire to “accommodate in regulated meter the spasmodic fluctuations of women in the modern world” (162). Rudy’s study is gratifyingly intent on relating form to politics, prosody to the social world, poetry to the satisfaction of “the longing for connection and community at a time of profound technological, scientific, and cultural change” (187). These dynamics are cleaved to the “electrical” through the book’s assertion that “there can be no greater figure for interpersonal communication—the negotiation of self and world—than electricity” and that there is “no greater manifestation of this phenomenon in literary form than poetic rhythm” (11) – an assertion that allows Rudy to claim that “to understand poetic transmission as electric in nature is to foreground one’s bodily relationship to aesthetic production, and – by extension – the relationship of one’s body to others” (69).
These flashes and sparks of electrical connection are eye-catching, although a sustained illumination across the book is less forceful. “Electricity” describes a phenomenon produced by proximity between charged objects: in this sense it suggests one model for social relations, and this is central to Rudy’s reading. Yet, the book’s emphasis is much more securely on the body-as-conductor, as materializing principle. Rudy provides restrained close readings that illustrate Victorian poetry’s intense self-scrutiny, its relationship (via the body-as-trope) with agitation (in chapter three’s particularly rewarding chapter on Dobell and Aytoun), with passionate uncertainty (in chapter four’s account of the contradictions between Hopkins and Patmore), with “rapture” (in chapter five’s unusual pairing of Swinburne and Blind), and finally with the divide between the now and the after, the materially present and the ghostly suggestion (in the conclusion’s account of Spiritualism and haunting).
Within this trajectory there are surprising shifts and even “electrical” jolts – the status of the body is neither certain nor consistent, despite its critical necessity in Rudy’s bringing together of electrical and poetic discourses. Notwithstanding Patmore’s suggestion that “Art, indeed, must have a body as well as a soul” (qtd. in 115), Rudy finds in his writing an insistent drive towards “bodiless” metrics, a move that unsettles attempts to make the metrical meaningful. The attention paid to Patmore’s “Lilian” (117), while indebted to Herbert Tucker’s agenda-setting example of “cultural formalism,” sees anapaests and trochees emerge as fossilized packets of abstracted stress and non-stress rather than living, breathing speech patterns. On Hopkins, Rudy takes the poet’s prudish rejections (of Whitman for example) on face value (135) in a chapter in which electricity might have served definitively as a figure to conduct the contradictions of Hopkins’ writing – material and immaterial, there and not-there, invisible yet instrumental. On Swinburne, Rudy opens up a rich suggestion – the poet’s interest in materialist science and philosophy. But his reading of Swinburne’s apparent nervousness about “the place and value of human life in a seemingly indifferent natural world” (147) works better than his attention to the underlying pulse of Swinburne’s method-- its awesome commitment to materialization in metre, form, and prosody—which Rudy treats as sound games rather than embodied rhythmic ones (151). The brief discussion of Barrett Browning in the book’s conclusion reverses this general corporeal hesitation by beginning with the ambivalence of the angelic body, and turning towards the plastic poetics of Aurora Leigh (1856) and Casa Guidi Windows (1851) (179-183).
The significance of this book’s arrangement of poets and practices lies less in novel re-readings – Tennyson remains recognizably ambivalent, Hopkins arrestingly concerned with vitality and synthesis, Blind with anxious desires to make poetry socially responsive, Barrett Browning driven to embody the figure of the prophet – and more in the question of how we undertake Victorian studies itself. Its desire to “make sense of the enormous shifts in British poetics that occur across the nineteenth century, and to explicate more specifically the cultural and political nature of these changes” (11) places it directly in response to the conceptual shifts anticipated by the groundbreaking special issue of Victorian Literature and Culture edited by Carolyn Williams in 1999 (to whom Electric Meters is dedicated). Yet comparison with that volume also ignites some reservations. The title Electric Meters does more than cleverly pun on a connection – it brings into view a material history (of electricity made functional, brought into the home, controlled, regulated and incrementally valued). This side of nineteenth-century electricity flickers uncertainly around the edges of Rudy’s book. The historical context of electrical development is apt to fragment under the weight of concentration on electricity as metaphor or trope – so history flashes in and out of view, as in a discussion that moves briskly from the optical telegraph of the 1790s to the electric one of the 1870s (61-2). Here the profound shifts in perception, material experience, and subsequent metaphysical understanding that such a change implies are sacrificed to the need to make telegraph poles “mediate in a flash the most contradictory poetic theories of the 1830s,” “offering an ideal—if abstract—structure for poetic transmission” (63).
While this is a neat move on the book’s terms, there is also the danger that material experience becomes reduced to a footnote, or a trope, made rather to serve than inspire the metaphor. The book’s gestures toward cultural studies suggest a willingness to organize material in ways that invoke such lived experiences and material encounters, and so re-consider tropes and canons. Its rhetoric and arrangement (author-headed chapters, with shifts – such as Tennyson’s reappearance in chapter three, or Barrett Browning’s relegation to the conclusion – that respond to the vagaries of trope rather than the progression of chronology), on the other hand, belies a commitment to a different model of literature as an index of individualized sincerity, “genuine” feeling, and hermetically-sealed tropic invention (with attendant hierarchies of value that name some poems’ lyrics and some ditties (48), or some poets significant and others unrewarding of “extended reflection” ). Such fissures reveal the volume’s new historicist inclination (where history might function as trope) whilst prompting a desire for more on how electricity’s material history modified and intervened in its figurative potential. These contradictions bring important debates into view, and remind the field of the complex legacy of theoretical deferral with which cultural studies continues to grapple.
Ultimately, Rudy’s nimble moves between the electrical, the collective, the individual, the bodily and the poetic execute smart stretches that suggest that the Victorians had no’t quite settled on how they drew connections between collective, politicized poetry and electricity – although poets often alighted on electricity as metaphor, this is sporadic and not yet engrossed in lived experience of the phenomenon. Rather, this connection emerges from a different kind of intellectual endeavor – that of the Victorianist scholar looking to make connections across the landscape of the past. While this does hold the risk of presentism (by which I mean the adoption of a vantage of retrospective assessment, rather than a responsible cultural-materialist reading of the past as context for the present – see Regenia Gagnier’s contribution to Williams’ special edition), this volume’s earnest commitment to responding specifically and intimately to the details of Victorian poetry and poetics (admirably compensating for what is less clear in terms of synthesis) would seem to guard against this, and opens the door a little wider on the hope of recovering – and implementing – a materialized, cultural poetics.
Rhian Williams is Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of Glasgow, UK. She is author of The Poetry Toolkit: The Essential Guide to Studying Poetry (Continuum International, 2009) and of several articles on nineteenth-century poetry and theatre, as well as on Shakespearean reception. She is the honorary secretary of the Browning Society.