Gregory Tate, The Poet’s Mind

Gregory Tate, The Poet's Mind: The Psychology of Victorian Poetry, 1830-1870 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). 224pp. £60 Hb. ISBN 978-0-19-965941-8.

In The Poet's Mind: The Psychology of Victorian Poetry, Gregory Tate works, in the true spirit of BSLS, to repair what so much of the twentieth century has torn asunder - the close and complex relations between Victorian literature and science. Tate identifies the poetry of psychological analysis as among the most influential types in Victorian Britain, in spite of a Victorian resistance to certain Romantic forms of introspection, and in spite of the promulgation of a strict separation between poetry and the study of psychology, not only among Victorian writers, but among recent critics as well. Where the latter have sought to close the gap, showing the response of the poets to Victorian physiology, Tate worries that even 'this criticism runs the risk of reinforcing divisions, between thought and feeling or between mind and body' (185). While certainly prevalent among post-Romantics seeking in poetry a model of unmediated affect, such divisions tend to obscure the complexities of Victorian poetic wrangling with the categories themselves. So far from taking any such a priori approach, Tate's book depicts just how unclear such distinctions were; just how vexed, the poetic exploration of the entanglement between body and mind under the pressure of increasingly influential physiological models of the mind.

His early chapters establish key foundational distinctions between Romantic and Victorian poetics of introspection, between the 'spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings' so often associated with the former, and the self-analysis pursued through the latter. Chapter 1 opens with early Tennyson and Browning, showing how in the 1830s, both authors worked to develop a new poetics of introspective analysis, participating in a 'growing culture of introspection' and laying the foundation for the psychological verse of the next several decades. Chapter 2 depicts a genre in conversation with itself, as poet-critics Arthur Hugh Clough, Matthew Arnold, and others debate 'the merits of psychological analysis as a subject for poetry', even as they explore in their writings such psychological questions as the corporeal origins of thoughts and feelings. Chapter 3 returns to the more mature Tennyson of In Memoriam and Maud, and the reciprocal impact made by contemporary physicalist conceptions of psychology and his poetry on each other. These are the 'before' chapters, traversing a time (or perhaps a state of affairs), in which poets develop their tools of psychological introspection and scientists hope to borrow some of poetry's cultural and moral authority as they struggle to establish what will come to be the science of psychology.

The 'after chapters, 4 and 5, consider the poetry of George Eliot and Robert Browning, respectively, as these develop after the 1850s in conversation with an established scientific discourse of the embodied mind. Chapter 4 progresses through Eliot's poetic fiction Silas Marner, through the exploration of the poet's mind in 'The Lifted Veil', the use of poetic epigraphs (from the poems of others as well as her own) in fiction, and culminating in readings of Eliot's free-standing verse. So well-known for her interest in contemporary science, Eliot manifests in her poetry a shift towards the metaphysical; and in spite of The Spanish Gypsy apparently equating 'soul' with 'race memory', the poems reveal an Eliot resisting the psychological materialism she tests. The return to Browning in Chapter 5, like that to Tennyson in Chapter 3, emphasizes how thoroughly these concerns presented career-long challenges to the poets themselves, the details of which undermine any simple picture of an overarching Victorian attitude. Here, action becomes a key term in Tate's readings. As the individual speakers in The Ring and the Book wrestle with the relations among thoughts and actions (including speech and writing poetry), meaning and morality, Browning acts through the poem itself to reconcile science and religion and 'to "save the soul" by educating its readers about how psychology works' (181).

The Poet's Mind is especially impressive in the apparent ease with which it clarifies such challenging and changing concepts as Brain, Mind, and Soul, without a hint of the reductive. While these terms may reasonably evoke a continuum from the fully somatic to the immaterial and immortal, where each term sits on such a continuum, and how each affects the others, remain constantly in question - for Tate himself as for the poets he reads so deftly. It is, perhaps, his sensitivity to poetic form and language that makes Tate's case so compelling, his close-readings often providing the characteristic 'but' that undermines dominant readings. The Poet's Mind makes clear how poetic form itself serves as a means of exploring the embodied mind - how Tennyson's binaries, Browning's dramatic monologues, even Clough's hexameter, enjambment, and what Tate terms 'syntactic violence' are deployed in the service of poetic analysis. Tennyson's model of a divided mind, for example, earlier formulated through the eponymous 'Two Voices', is subject to further exploration via the very structure of In Memoriam: 'While the formal identity of the elegy's stanza's functions to an extent as a "mechanic exercise" that soothes the speaker's mental upheaval', emphasizing stability and inertia that resist the prospect of a fully corporeal and mutable self, 'the abba rhyme scheme reinforces more than it counteracts the poem's representation of a changing and self-doubting mind' (97).

Also impressive is how apparently effortlessly Tate moves between such close attention to the poems and the critical and scientific contexts that surround them. The Poet's Mind wears its considerable erudition lightly. As sensitive to the influence of spasmodic poetry as to theories of associationism, Tate reads the readings, addressing not only the limitations of recent criticism, but also identifying such selective appropriations as Herbert Spencer makes, for example, in a letter to Tennyson, sent with a copy of his book The Principles of Psychology. In his letter, Spencer quotes three lines of 'The Two Voices' that affirm 'an accord between poetry and physiological psychology' in spite of the focus of the larger passage on the progress of the soul (43). In a study of poetry, at a time when it was called upon both to inculcate higher truths and to study the workings of the mind, to pursue the fragile mutability of the body and brain, even as it reassures regarding the permanence and stability of the self or the soul, the intellectual agility Gregory Tate manifests seems absolutely necessary. It also makes The Poet's Mind a pleasure to read.

Barri J. Gold (Muhlenberg College)

 

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