Jason R. Rudy, Electric Meters: Victorian Physiological Poetics

Jason R. Rudy, Electric Meters: Victorian Physiological Poetics (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2009). xiii + 222 pp. £40.50 hb. ISBN 0821418823.

Electric Meters—the subject of which should not be confused with devices you may (or may not) have fitted to your power mains at home—is an ambitious and welcome addition to the growing field of ‘historical poetics’. In recent years there has been an upsurge in scholarship on metre and poetic form, much of it issuing from within Romantic/Victorian Studies, and Rudy’s contribution is, without a doubt, among the best I have read. Across five chapters (each of which does its own work effectively while still pointing up the book’s bigger picture), Rudy constructs a compelling narrative about nineteenth-century ideas of ‘embodied lyricism’, specifically the ways in which poets’ engagements with contemporary sciences and technologies—‘from William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone’s invention of the electric telegraph to Alexander Bain’s analysis of nerve impulses in the human body’ (8)—impact not only their themes but also the very rhythmical fabric of their verse. Successfully uniting attention to prosodic detail with a thoroughgoing historicism, Electric Meters also manages to balance major and lesser-known figures. Chapter one focuses Mary Robinson’s pre-Victorian ‘portrayals of bodily feeling’ (20); chapter two scrutinizes the telegraphic aesthetic of Alfred Tennyson’s 1847 ‘medley’ The Princess; chapter three anatomizes the visceral rhythms of Sydney Dobell’s Spasmodic verse; chapter four, which engages with both Coventry Patmore and Gerard Manley Hopkins, analyses reactions to an embodied poetics in relation to issues of metrical isochrony and accent; and chapter five finds a ‘post-Spasmodic’ aesthetic asserting itself in the rhythms of Algernon Swinburne and Mathilde Blind. The book concludes with an intriguing meditation on the material (as well as spookily immaterial) modulations of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose ‘simultaneously physical and immaterial’ (176) poetic overlaps with American ‘spirit poets’ like Lizzie Doten.   

Broadly speaking, Electric Meters participates in a critical reassessment of poetry’s relationship with the body, making it companionable with recent work by scholars such as Kirstie Blair and Michael Golston (among others). What Rudy’s book adds to this evolving literature-and-science narrative is an emphasis on electricity. Taking ‘electricity as a model for reading [an] aesthetic and physiological conjunction’ (3) that becomes more and more pronounced during the course of the nineteenth century, the book investigates thinking related to, primarily, telegraphy and electrodynamics, assessing their impact on experiences of communication. From the 1830s, with the invention of the electric telegraph, a new awareness of the physicality of communication began to assert itself, not just among practising scientists but also among scientifically aware poets. Just as electrical currents might be understood to ‘sing’ rhythmically along telegraph wires (as Tennyson imagined) or to pulse through bodies via nerves and muscles, so too do sensations vibrate materially (and at times convulsively) along the verse line. Poetry, as Rudy shows us, is another live wire, and its rhythms are not merely perceived mentally (as Patmore asserted); rather, they could be ‘felt like an electric shock’—as capable of conducting sensory information (of generating affect) as other, more obviously electrical impulses.

Surveying the sweep of Rudy’s argument, which cuts across the long nineteenth century, we can see the outlines of a transition—not only in sciences and technologies of electricity but also in the ways poets responded to them. What begins, towards the end of the Romantic period, as a fascination with bodily experience often goes, as Rudy demonstrates, little beyond a supplementing of poets’ stock of imagery and metaphor. Yet by the middle decades of the nineteenth century, ‘the figurative has evolved into the concrete’ (83): a full-blown poetics of sensation emerges, in which poets (e.g. Dobell) go beyond merely talking about the energies and movements of the body in favour of using their own rhythms as conduits for ‘felt experience’. For example, while Mary Robinson’s poems clearly show an interest in the electric palpitations of her age—they contain all the ‘accoutrements of sensibility’—they nevertheless ask us as readers ‘to use our thinking minds (as opposed to our feeling bodies) to sympathize with her various passionate tableaux’ (21). Sydney Dobell’s Balder (1854), by contrast, almost compels us (if we are responsive to its metres, that is) to hear and feel with our bodies: its ‘passionate vibrations’ are ‘telegraphed’ to readers directly by means of ‘language and rhythm’ (87). ‘The convulsive nature of rhythmic spasm’, as Rudy notes, ‘is what gives [this] poetry its communicative strength’ (98).

Part of what gives Electric Meters its broad appeal is its ability to speak lucidly to those coming to Victorian poetry with ‘historicist’ as well as ‘formalist’ questions. An example worth citing involves Coventry Patmore, whose own poetic exhibits a somewhat equivocal relationship to the body and to sensation. While Patmore’s role as a deft versifier, not to mention as an influential theoretician of metre, has achieved more recognition of late among scholars of Victorian poetry, his complex prosody—particularly as elaborated in his 1857 Essay on English Metrical Law—has yet to be fully contextualized. Rudy gives us a much-needed new perspective on Patmore’s theory of versification, showing us that the poet-prosodist’s ‘insistence on meter’s immateriality’ is in fact a consequence of his reaction to ‘the profound physicality of Spasmodic poetics’ (115, 122). While at certain points Patmore’s poetry—in particular his well-known 1854-56 poem The Angel in the House—reinforces the abstract[ing of] poetry from bodily experience, critics have failed to see how other poems, such as The Unknown Eros (1877), complicate the picture. By looking closely at works across Patmore’s oeuvre, and by placing them in conversation with contemporary examples of embodied verse, Rudy reveals to us a new, more physiological Patmore and, in doing so, complicates considerably the narrative of Victorian versification.

Electric Meters will appeal to a wide range of readers, not just those who have a predilection for scansion. Anyone teaching Victorian poetry should get a copy—and it ought to be recommended to postgraduates interested in the subject. More work in this area would be a good thing, and Rudy’s exemplary book could show a new generation of scholars the way forward.

Jason David Hall, University of Exeter

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