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Monique R. Morgan. Narrative Means, Lyric Ends: Temporality in the Nineteenth-Century British Long Poem. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-8142-1111-3. Price: US$47.95

  • Stephanie Kuduk Weiner

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  • Stephanie Kuduk Weiner
    Wesleyan University

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In her terrific new book, Monique R. Morgan demonstrates how lyric and narrative modes interact in four nineteenth-century poems: George Gordon, Lord Byron’s Don Juan (1819-23), William Wordsworth’s Prelude (1850), Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856), and Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book (1868-69). Morgan argues that each of these poems use narrative techniques to achieve lyrical effects. As a result, they mingle the two modes in ways that register and explore their complex, often tense, relation. For Morgan, the lyrical mode in these poems manifests itself in an emphasis on figurative language, an associative rather than causal logic, the deliberate crafting of emotional and ethical responses in the reader, and, especially, the impression of a timeless present. This lyric temporality is shown to be supple and rich, but it is chiefly characterized by its suspension from sequential time and by its foregrounding of the time of discourse rather than the time of story. Each chapter offers compelling close readings that illuminate the operations and commitments of the poems while also effecting a theoretical intervention into debates within narratology and poetics. In so doing, this inventive study bridges the divides that too often separate Romantic from Victorian poetry and narrative from poetic theory.

The vitality and force of this study lie in its painstaking and convincing readings, which are hard to convey in summary. Nevertheless, I will try to indicate briefly the contours and stakes of the argument of each chapter. Morgan’s first chapter demonstrates the various ways in which the narrator of Don Juan privileges the time of composition at the expense of the time of story. The labyrinthine plots of the poem, along with the tendency of the narrator to imply, comment upon, or sketch alternative plots and outcomes, foreground “a multitude of plot options” that exist simultaneously in the moment of discourse and diminish a sense of the plot as a sequence of events unfolding within narrative time (29). Similarly, the narrator’s digressions emphasize “the associational, rather than causal, logic characteristic of lyric” and generate a “focus on the constructedness of the poem” that “creates an awareness of time as a suspended moment of composition,” an awareness that is heightened by the poem’s many playful lists of similes (41). At the level of theme, the poem’s presentation of “time as something to be endured, coupled with the narrator’s act of writing to pass the time, creates an acute awareness of time as a suspended moment” (60). And at the level of the structure of the whole poem, Morgan argues that its “large-scale episodic structure” abides by an associational, lyrical logic that works to deny retrospection and reinforce the impression of timeless, lyric temporality.

The Prelude, too, eschews retrospection, but in its own way. Morgan argues that “Wordsworth constantly directs his readers to process the text prospectively—to look forward to the endpoint as they read the poem, rather than to confer retrospective significance at the end of the reading process” (19). According to Morgan, the river emblematizes this mode of prospective reading—our own as readers, and Wordsworth’s own as he contemplates and shapes his personal history: “there is always only one point toward which all the plot elements could and will converge,” and that is his vocation as a poet (83). Through a series of careful analyses of the relation between Wordsworth’s “narrating self and the narrated boy” (86), the associative and accumulative rather than sequential organization of the poem’s episodes, and the figurative means by which the poem generates meaning, line by line and book by book, Morgan shows how the narrative elements of The Prelude work in a decidedly lyric fashion.

Morgan argues that Aurora Leigh juxtaposes the conflicting modes of lyric and narrative in order to demonstrate the reciprocal strengths and weaknesses of each, thereby justifying its own generic hybridity. This chapter examines the exceptionally complex, even internally contradictory, temporality of the poem, whose moment of narration itself extends within the sequential time of the plot. One consequence of Barrett Browning’s decision to narrate later books in the poem from a “close proximity to the described experience” is to borrow a tool from epistolary fiction to create a very lyric “illusion of experience blurred with discourse, of absolute simultaneity in a suspended moment” (135). For Morgan, Aurora Leigh associates lyric with emotional insight and links narrative to didactic politics, and it uses the interplay between the two to “develop subtleties of thought, but still put them in a social context to serve a rhetorical purpose” (148).

In her final chapter, Morgan asserts that The Ring and the Book “achieves a seamless blend” of lyric and narrative modes, each working for the other: Browning “narrativizes the moment of discourse, but does so in part to serve the static interests of lyric. Yet these static interests are also placed in the service of narrative’s rhetorical project: engaging the reader’s judgment” (155, 156). At the heart of Morgan’s argument here is her consideration of the temporal structures of all dramatic monologues, which feature a temporal progression at the level of discourse. She demonstrates through a series of subtle explications the complex ways in which Browning harnesses this unique temporal scheme, manipulating the interaction between story and discourse, between speaker and reader, and among the narrators of the poem’s books.

This study suggests the continued importance and influence of two vital works of the 1990s, Isobel Armstrong’s Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics (1993) and Susan Wolfson’s Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism (1997). In this respect, Morgan’s study takes up a place among an impressive group of recent books whose strength and diversity speaks to how productive and enabling Wolfson and Armstrong’s projects have proven, including, among many others, Jane Stabler’s Byron, Poetics, and History (2002), Ana Parejo Vadillo’s Women Poets and Urban Aestheticism (2005), Jeffrey Crane Robinson’s Unfettering Poetry: The Fancy in British Romanticism (2006), and Michael Wood’s Yeats and Violence (2010). Wolfson and Armstrong are cited numerous times across Morgan’s chapters, and the style of “activist formalism” they exemplify (to use Wolfson’s term, cited by Morgan [13]) is evident in the conceptualization and organization of this book. Morgan’s concerns are formal and theoretical rather than historical, and her method is intrinsic and interpretive rather than historicist, but she attends to how formal techniques engage with social and political questions of great significance to these four writers and to the nineteenth century more broadly. She notes a shift over the course of the century, from the “primarily narrative” Don Juan and the “primarily lyrical” Prelude, to the more fully hybrid Aurora Leigh and The Ring and the Book. But this shift is not the thrust of her argument.

Indeed, the one wish I had in reading this study was that Morgan had used her formalist and theoretically informed method to explore how these poems relate to nineteenth-century poetry and poetics—that is, to literary history. She does situate her four key texts within a literary milieu marked by the prestige of lyric poetry and the popularity of the novel, asserting that “writers as varied as Wordsworth, Shelley, and Mill value poetry for the emotional intensity usually associated with the lyric” even as poets “were responding to the increasing popularity of a new narrative form—the novel, [by] incorporat[ing] narrative elements” into their works (3). I would have liked to have heard Morgan’s account of that dynamic interplay between prestigious lyric and popular novel. I would also have liked to learn more about how that context registered in the poems she considers, and about how representative, or perhaps how unique, trenchant, or nuanced, those poems were in their responses.

More particularly, Morgan’s study shares much with two recent books that show how nineteenth-century poems shed light on theoretical questions regarding lyric and narrative modes, Christopher R. Miller’s The Invention of Evening: Perception and Time in Romantic Poetry (2006) and Stefanie Markovits’s The Crisis of Action in Nineteenth-Century English Literature (2006). Though her concerns are less historically inflected than are those of Miller and Markovits, Morgan shares with them an interest in temporality and plot and a commitment to examining how nineteenth-century poems speak in all their complexity and originality to narrative and poetic theory. Her book contributes a great deal to these important conversations.