Volume 77, Issue 1 | March 2016

Special Issue: Historical Poetics

Author Title
Joel Calahan, Ian Duncan, and Michael Hansen Introduction
Author Title
Yopie Prins “What is Historical Poetics?”  
In posing questions about what is “historical” and what counts as “poetics,” historical poetics cannot separate the practice of reading a poem from the histories and theories of reading that mediate our ideas about poetry. While nineteenth-century verse cultures revolved around reading by generic recognition, a reading of poetry as a form of cognition emerges among later critics like I. A. Richards, who illustrates how a line from Robert Browning is read in the mind’s eye, as if in the present tense. But Browning was already doing a version of historical poetics, in writing “Pan and Luna” as a poem about reading other poems about Pan, among them “A Musical Instrument,” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In the composition and reception of her poem, we see how Victorian poetry foregrounds its multiple mediations, including the mediating figure of voice. The recirculation of her popular poem through citation and recitation, illustration and anthologization, prosody and parody, demonstrates a varied history of thinking through—simultaneously “about” and “in”—verse.
Ian Duncan From Grief to Leisure: “Lycidas” in the Eighteenth Century  
Milton’s elegy for Edward King was widely admired and imitated in the eighteenth century. These imitations tend to celebrate the poem as an ornamental, musical work while suppressing its politics. By contrast, Samuel Johnson recognized that the poem’s prosody and its generic heterogeneity were intrinsically related to its political critique. His objections to “Lycidas” also reflected his view that pastoral depicted an idealized life of rural leisure to distract and entertain city men. This ancient association between pastoral and leisure may have informed eighteenth-century readers’ delight in the poem’s “ease and variety,” but it is also a fundamental misreading of the ethics of labor set out in the poem. In its enactment of the spiritual and writerly work of the shepherd, in Milton’s revisions, and in its monodic form, “Lycidas” offers readers a choice between sensual dalliance and arduous song. Monody was both a collective song, performed during work to relieve its strains, and an individual utterance. This form reasserts the labor idealized by pastoral as a spiritual necessity. The eighteenth-century reception of “Lycidas” reveals how the revolutionary potential of lyric was converted to entertainment, a moment whose legacies may be perceived in some contemporary theories of lyric.
Caroline Levine Revaluing Repetition: John Clare’s Verse-Thinking  
This essay seeks to revalue repetition in literary studies. Critics have often treated repetition—clichés, rules, norms, mechanization, monotony—as the painful or oppressive backdrop against which their best values emerge: originality, distinctiveness, resistance. But this critical tendency has carried its own repressive effects, including wresting our attention from collectivities and solidarities. A reading of John Clare’s 1820 poem “The Harvest Morning” shows that repetition is crucial to the exercise of political and economic power and that poetic forms, especially rhythm and rhyme, are well suited for theorizing the repetitions of political power through their own intrinsic repetitiveness.
Naomi Levine Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Historiographic Poetics  
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s imperfect rhymes, criticized since the nineteenth century, strangely resemble her blank verse. This essay argues that her experiments in poetic form should be viewed in relation to her reading and writing of literary history, particularly her intellectual engagement with the work of Henry Hallam. Barrett Browning’s remarks in the margins of Hallam’s books and in a historiographical essay of her own reveal a poet thinking about her craft in the context of a transnational history of poetry. Barrett Browning’s idiosyncratic prosody becomes another means of writing literary history.
Dino Franco Felluga Truth is Stranger than Fiction: Don Juan and the Truth Claims of Genre  
This essay examines the ways that Lord Byron’s Don Juan engages both the novel’s and the lyric’s claims to truth and virtue, thus setting up the maneuvers that would later be exploited by the Victorian verse novel.
Simon Jarvis Superversive Poetics: Browning’s Fifine at the Fair  
A superversive line is that line in a given poem which most eminently exploits the play between syntactic and metrical segmentation, between an ordinary and a special phonology; which peculiarizes verse as verse. A superversive poetics places composition and technique, not theme and representation, at the center of the historically material practices of poetry. For superversive poetics, poems are not only representations but also quite singular machines, devices for body modification. Here the verse repertoire of Robert Browning’s Fifine at the Fair, in particular its exploitation of bimetricality, is explored from the point of view of such a poetics.

Modern Language Quarterly | Department of English, Box 354330 | University of Washington | Seattle, WA 98195-4430