Reviews

Jason Rudy. Electric Meters: Victorian Physiological Poetics. Athens: University of Ohio Press, 2009. ISBN: 9780821418826. Price: US$44.95/£39.95[Record]

  • Rhian Williams

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  • Rhian Williams
    University of Glasgow

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 ...

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