The University of Virginia’s Victorian Literature and Culture Series aims to “publish the best contemporary scholarship and criticism on the Victorian period,” and Charles LaPorte’s contribution to the series fulfills this goal admirably. Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible persuasively argues against “conventional models of secularization” (7) that posit the association of poetry and religion as a compensatory response to nineteenth-century religious decline. In contrast to traditional scholarship’s pervasive attempts to “minimize the oddness of Victorian poetic theory’s claims for religious significance” (7), one might say that LaPorte aims to maximize this strangeness, or at least capitalize on it. Noting the Victorian engagement with German higher criticism, which applied historical methods to the Bible, LaPorte avers that “poetry inspired by the higher criticism almost never comes down to a tactical withdrawal from biblical literalism” (20), and argues that the reluctance of nineteenth-century poets “to disentangle the scriptures from… ‘the puzzled skein’ of history’” evidences their desire “to reclaim the whole skein as the province of poetry” (21).
LaPorte devotes a chapter each to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Arthur Hugh Clough, Robert Browning, and George Eliot. Happily, his focus encompasses more than those poems most frequently anthologized or critically examined; the section on Robert Browning, for example, positions Red Cotton Night-Cap Country as an achievement equal to that of the oft-praised The Ring and the Book. LaPorte reads the works of these major Victorian poets as varying responses (he calls them “poetic experiments”) to the burgeoning trend of German higher criticism. Contemporary debates of the period called for a reevaluation of the Bible’s poetic quality, arguing that this was an integral part of its religious significance. While acknowledging current reevaluations of religious vitality in the Victorian era, particularly the recent scholarship of Emma Mason, Mark Knight, and William McKelvy, LaPorte’s work helpfully narrows the conversation to five mid-century authors who run the gamut from confessional poet to agnostic. By doing so, he manages to draw a detailed portrait of “dramatically successful and unsuccessful instances of Victorian literary ambition” (22). But his book also charts the enthusiastic reactions of his five chosen poets to the idea of an inspired text. The zealous devotion of the Brownings and Tennyson contrasted with the agnostic temperament of Clough and Eliot might seem to promise an uneven study, given that the former set embraced higher criticism as an opportunity for their poetry to fulfill a role akin to that of scripture. However, LaPorte skillfully navigates the religious divide and demonstrates that even unbelievers like Clough and Eliot actively engaged with the idea of an inspired text and ardently responded to the possibility of poet-as-prophet.
The conflation of religious and poetic sentiment was not without its challenges, as LaPorte notes in his first and most approachable chapter on Elizabeth Barrett Browning. He describes her literary stance as one that “vacillates between devotional reverence for the traditional scriptures … and a Romantic ambition to craft new religious texts” (23-4), and his detailed analysis of her 1857 masterpiece, Aurora Leigh, demonstrates the tension between Barrett Browning’s expressed distaste for the higher criticism and her integration of its fundamental values into her work. Such professed aversion makes Barrett Browning the most unusual of LaPorte’s subjects, but she emerges as a perfectly salient example of his thesis: a poetess who channeled her religious ideals into the creation of her own sacred text.
The standout chapter in LaPorte’s volume is that on Robert Browning and The Ring and the Book, which begins with the deceptively simple assertion that the “the poem’s excitement of the nineteenth-century religious imagination itself contributes to—or in some cases constitutes—the meaning of the work” (155). Browning, as the Victorian poet most commonly associated with the higher criticism, seems a startlingly traditional subject for a study that aims to break with years of established scholarship. However, LaPorte provides an enviably elegant reading of Browning’s work. His observation that the poem “insists upon the historical truth of its world even as it delivers that world in conspicuously ‘poetic’ language, refusing the devices of realism in pursuit of something very unlike most Victorian fiction” (156) lends itself to the sort of close reading at which he has proven himself particularly apt. Furthermore, the aesthetic slant of this section—LaPorte begins by recounting Robert W. Buchanan’s experience of the “‘almost insufferable beauty’” of The Ring and the Book—represents a much-needed intervention into the explanation of Victorian poetry’s “radical engagement with the Victorian changing Bible” (154), which occasionally suffers from excessive rationalization. Although LaPorte admits that “mid-Victorian poetic interventions into the hermeneutics of the changing Victorian Bible” were both “artful” and “oblique” (236), his engagement with these so-called “artful” interventions rarely moves beyond mentions of meter and rhythm, leaving the issue of emotional investment untapped.
LaPorte takes the scholarly familiarity with the religious zeal of Browning’s poetry as an opportunity for further investigation; in his final chapter on Eliot, he reads the scholarly focus on her prose as a series of misguided attempts to derive a sense of her engagement with biblical issues. Instead, he argues, we should look for this devotion in her poetry. He even goes so far as to contend that Eliot “hoped by verse to achieve something distinct from (and loftier than) what she had achieved with novels” (202). Though this closing chapter, committed to dissecting Eliot’s lesser-known verse such as “The Spanish Gypsy” and “Legend of Jubal,” might seem the oddest contribution to a volume that professes a concern with poetic heavyweights, the fresh take on Eliot is both appreciative and welcome.
Ultimately, LaPorte’s thesis calls for a more wide-ranging study of Victorian poetry. His text rightly points out the unique, if not extraordinary, cultural position that poetic register occupied in the nineteenth century. Despite leaving the issue rather open-ended, his study manages, as he remarks in his conclusion, to “speak to the work of other poets as well, from both sides of the Atlantic” (231).
What makes this text a truly standout addition to the recent scholarship on biblical hermeneutics is the interdisciplinary nature of his research. Close reading is undoubtedly his strength (occasionally pushed to a fault); but the volume benefits from the inclusion of excerpted correspondence; close readings of poems both anthologized and ignored; graphics (H.W. Pickersgill’s portrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for one); and LaPorte’s incisive and numerous citations of higher criticism. Unlike Barrett Browning, whose work “attests to the force of the higher criticism although she leaves little independent evidence of having read it” (234), LaPorte’s study not only fearlessly investigates the force of the higher criticism on Victorian poets and their poetry, but also vigorously reassures us that he has read it—and more. By emphasizing Victorian poetry’s ambitious embrace of an open canon (237), LaPorte underscores the ambitiousness of his own project and its relevance to scholars of Victorian poetry and poetics, particularly in light of the ongoing reevaluation of religious vitality in the Victorian era. The book suffers from the pitfalls of rapid editing; missing prepositions on more than one occasion interrupt the flow of LaPorte’s typically eloquent prose. And his habit of name-dropping Derrida (he wryly assures his readers, more than once, that they “need not be Jacques Derrida” in order to observe the cultural conflation of poetry “qua inspiration” and “qua verse” (12); later on he argues that Browning “anticipates Jacques Derrida’s twentieth-century hermeneutics of the ‘supplement’” (161)) makes one wish for a more in-depth analysis of his argument’s Derridean influence (or at least higher criticism’s relationship to poststructuralism). These minor flaws aside, however, Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible is a must-read for Victorian scholars looking for a fresh perspective on mid-century canonical works and post-Enlightenment biblical criticism.
Elizabeth Ryba is a graduate student in the department of Comparative Literature at Indiana University. Her current project focuses on female authorship, victimization, and narrative identity in nineteenth-century literature.