In the introduction to her study "Victorian Poetry: Poetry, poetics and politics", Isobel Armstrong states that Victorian poets are "post-Romantic", which at the same time entails being...

In the introduction to her study "Victorian Poetry: Poetry, poetics and politics", Isobel Armstrong states that Victorian poets are "post-Romantic", which at the same time entails being "post-revolutionary", "post-industrial", "post-teleological" and "post-Kantian". What does she exactly mean by this and how does these terms relate to Tennyson's "In Memoriam 50"? Can someone please put this in simpeler terms, I can't seem to grasp what she exactly means by her definition of "post-Romanticism."

"The Victorian poets were post-Romantic but to understand the political and aesthetic consequences of this it is necessary to see what being post-Romantic entailed. For to be ‘new’, or ‘modern’ or ‘post- Romantic’ was to confront and self-consciously to conceptualise as new elements that are still perceived as the constitutive forms of our own condition. Whether a poet was a subversive reactionary, as Tennyson was, or attempting to write a radical poetry, as Browning was, such a poet was ‘modern’ or secondary in a number of ways, all of which involved the reformation of the categories of knowledge. A belated poet was post-revolutionary, existing with the constant possibility of mass political upheaval and fundamental change in the structure of society, which meant that the nature of society had to be redefined. Belatedness was post-industrial and post-technological, existing with and theorising the changed relationships and new forms of alienated labour which capitalism was consolidating, and conscious of the predatory search for new areas of exploitation which was creating a new colonial ‘outside’ to British society. It was post-teleological and scientific, conceiving beliefs, including those of Christianity, anthropologically in terms of belief systems and representations through myth. Simply because of its awareness of teleological insecurity, Victorian poetry is arguably the last theological poetry to be written.

Lastly, the supreme condition of posthumousness, it was post-Kantian. This meant, in the first place, that the category of art (and for the Victorians this was almost always poetry) was becoming ‘pure’. Art occupied its own area, a self- sufficing aesthetic realm over and against practical experience. It was outside the economy of instrumental energies (for in Kant art and technology spring into being simultaneously as necessary opposites). And yet it was at once apart and central, for it had a mediating function, representing and interpreting life. These contradictions were compounded by post-Kantian accounts of representation, which adapted Kant to make both the status and the mode of art problematical by seeing representations as the constructs of consciousness which is always at a remove from what it represents. Thus the possibility of a process of endless redefinition and an ungrounded, unstable series of representations was opened out. So the Victorian poets were the first group of writers to feel that what they were doing was simply unnecessary and redundant. For the very category of art itself created this redundancy."

Armstrong, Isobel. Introduction. Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics. London: Routledge, 1993. 3-4

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Armstrong's analysis makes sense when it is placed in the intellectual tradition where Victorian poets like Tennyson followed their Romantic counterparts and preceded the Modernists.  In seeing the placement of the Victorians in this light, Armstrong's analysis helps to accentuate how they were uniquely placed in the intellectual discourse.

There are many "posts" in Armstrong's ideas.  The overall idea Armstrong wishes to put forth that underscore all of them is how the Victorians rejected totalizing visions of consciousness.  This means that the Victorians opposed the idea that there was one unifying answer to everything.  For example, the Neoclassical thinkers believed "science" was the answer to consciousness.  If one followed science, all problems could be solved and it was seen as "the answer." The Romantics who followed them responded with the opposite in suggesting that subjectivity was "the answer," that if individuals adhered to their subjective notions of the good, this could provide "the answer."  

Armstrong's analysis suggests that one of the defining elements of Victorian poetry was how it simply could not find any sort of transcendent "answer."  It could not suggest much of anything was "the answer" because of the failures of previous "answers' and the world that enveloped them.  It is in this "reformation of the categories of knowledge" that Armstrong feels that Victorianism defined itself in a fundamentally different way than other intellectual traditions that preceded it.

Through this repudiation of totality, Armstrong is able to suggest how Victorianism defined itself as fundamentally different in a "post" manner.  For example, Victorianism reformed previous "categories of knowledge" from the Romantic point of view in suggesting that there are limitations to human assertions of the good.  "The belated poet" that was intrinsic to the Victorians was one who recognized that the world around them was in constant change and flux.  Even after Romanticism's professed answer of the subjective was made available to so many, revolutions and change still underscored reality. This aspect of being undermined the claims of totality and universality so important to the Romantic thought process.  It is in this light that the "post- Romantic" aspect of the Victorians were evident.

The same flux and revolutionary change that defined society was also seen in the post- industrial reality of the Victorians.  In this mode of being, the Victorians recognized that they were subject to the laws of industrialization and capitalism, realities that predicated exploitation and alienation of labor.  Once again, despite the calls of subjectivity that were intrinsic to the Romantic movement, the Victorians could not escape the industrial condition that bound their being.  This reality was both within England and outside of it with the advance of Imperialism.  The Victorians struggled with how the artist call to social justice could be heard and validated, and yet not change reality.  This same questioning and what Armstrong would call skepticism was evident in the post- teleological condition where Christianity and spiritual notions of the good were scrutinized and questioned in terms of value and meaning.  Finally, Armstrong's suggestion of the Victorians being "post- Kantian" is rooted in how they saw art.  The Kantian vision of the artist was akin to a "cable box" in which the artist was the medium in which there was an interpretation of reality.  Since definition and redefinition were integral parts of consciousness, art "created a redundancy."  There was no "cable box" role of the artist.  Victorians viewed their art in the capacity of art for artsake because the world around them was constantly in flux and change.  Victorian art was reflective of their view of the world as one constantly in redefinition and transformation, never being solidified and absolute in its construction of being in the world.

Within all of this, one can see the placement of Tennyson's "In Memoriam 50" as significant.  There is a continual referential point in the "reformation of the categories of knowledge."  The referential point in the first stanza of "all the wheels of Being slow" is a post- Romantic notion.  Romanticism stressed the vitality and energy to being in the world.  Even in death, there was an excitement of voyage. Yet, in Tennyson's "post- Romantic" construction, death is seen as a slowing down of consciousness, a condition that does indicate an end without the triumph that was infused to it within Romantic thought.  The images of the second stanza that define  "Time, a maniac scattering dust, 
And Life, a Fury slinging flame" underscore the post- teleological element of Tennyson's being.  There is a repudiation in the Christian construction of time and life, not as directed ends, but rather as forces of chaos and potential disorder.  The "post- Industrial" condition that Armstrong associates with exploited labor, alienation, and dehumanization can be seen in the third stanza's picture of  "flies" who "lay their eggs, and sting and sing/ And weave their petty cells and die," a statement of how industrialized life fueled by capitalism does not validate the individual's experience.  Finally, Armstrong's idea of a world that the Victorian perceived as "with the constant possibility of mass political upheaval and fundamental change in the structure of society" is seen in Tennyson's last stanza:

Be near me when I fade away,
      To point the term of human strife,
      And on the low dark verge of life 
The twilight of eternal day. 

In Armstrong's understanding, "Human strife" can represent the only transcendent reality that governs Tennyson's view of the world as a "belated poet" who viewed the world around him.


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