Abstract: “Augusta Webster’s Unfinished Forms.” Northeast Victorian Studies Conference. Philadelphia, PA. April 2018.
Although unity was the ostensible standard for the Victorian subject and for the nation, nineteenth-century women poets recognized that society is always dissevering women even as it perpetuates a discourse of wholeness. Where Romantic aesthetics promoted homogeneous wholes in which all parts cohere, and as Coleridge wrote, “mutually support and explain one another,” Victorian revisionary formalist poets sought incertitude and plurality that might ensure cultural and personal value. For women poets, this experimental project was inflected by the knowledge that to be a woman is to always be unfinished, incomplete, and fractional.
Consequently, poets such as Augusta Webster constructed alternative unifying models, as both measures of a population and as ways of mattering politically. As Caroline Levine discusses in Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, many critics decry wholeness as a freighted aesthetic term, “pernicious on political grounds.” However, cohesion is not the only way of thinking political wholeness. By addressing relations between the one and the many in the themes and forms of their work, women poets were crafting meditations on social counting, as both measures of a population and as “mattering.” As I use it here, mattering refers to the way that norms as a measure of populations’ behaviors make individuals socially intelligible to other members of society. Departing from a norm, being outside of a unified counted group, causes one to become socially illegible or uncountable. Being disenfranchised, nineteenth-century women lacked social and political influence, and once married, coverture ensured that women as citizens and individuals were insignificant. In other words, they ceased to count—and therefore to matter. As Judith Butler points out, to ask “who counts” is to ask whose lives count as lives. Although feminists and literary critics have recognized multiple ways of counting and discounting women, few have connected nineteenth-century women’s lived experiences of political and social counting to the ways that they theorized numbers in and through their poetry for political ends.
This talk will argue that Webster registers anxiety about the social mandate for women’s subjective wholeness in the prosodic and syntactic forms of her poetry. Webster’s work is perpetually attentive to the ways that one is only ever half, at best, and frequently even smaller percentages. For example, her emphasis on love triangles, or what Albert Pionke calls “triangulation,” in “Medea in Athens,” “With the Dead,” and “By the Looking-Glass,” troubles the expectation that marriage resolves how one fits socially. Building on Pionke, here I offer the term “polynomial relations,” in which multiple subjects surround one social variable and the resulting relationships signify an expression (in both a mathematical and linguistic sense) of the ways that social connections necessitate constants, variables, and exponential interactions. Rather than seeking social union in marriage or motherhood, Webster advocates for her speakers’ heterogeneous self-definition through polynomial relations as a powerful political method of mattering. Her poetry ultimately suggests that the statistical impulse to lump women into categories is one which elides “separate souls” who are an outlying, incomplete, and crucial, part of the social equation.
Abstract: “Nonscalable Forms and Epistemological Mediation.” (panel with Jill Ehnenn, Devin Griffiths, Tanya Agathocleous, and Virginia Piper), Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies Conference. San Francisco, CA. Mar. 2018.
The suicidal speaker in Tennyson’s “The Two Voices” is torn between desiring an end and the inability to bring an end about. Long read as commentary on the mind-body problem, or as Matthew Arnold had it, “the dialogue of the mind with itself,” “Two Voices” also offers a meditation on divided and antiteleological forms. In keeping with the E. Warwick Slinn’s account of Victorian poetry’s revisionary formalism, Tennyson’s poem stresses “movement toward an end where the attainment of that end is shrouded in incertitude.” Both the debate staged between the speaker and the “still small voice” and Tennyson’s formal experiments with iambic tetrameter shape the poem’s reflection on the relationship between knowledge and scale as an epistemological problem. The more information the speaker gains over the course of the poem, the less he actually knows. Knowledge is, therefore, “nonscalable,” as what the speaker knows fails to improve when more forms are added.
My paper takes up Tennyson’s nonscalable forms to address how forms mediate knowledge. Rather than failing to produce or improve when forms are added, Tennyson’s nonscalable forms endorse an epistemology in which the inability to know preserves the speaker’s life, reinforcing his connection to the world. The infinite scale of the unknown confronts the speaker with the openness of form, amounting not to stasis but to deferral. Propagating intellectual activity without physical action, Tennyson’s nonscalable forms ultimately embrace the epistemological dilemma of a relationship between the self and the world as always mediated through formal representations.
Abstract: “Goblin Market and the Durability of Uncertainty.” (panel with Kate Flint and Joanna Swafford), North American Victorian Studies Annual Conference. Banff, Alberta, Canada. Nov. 2017.
Two of anything might be the beginning of a pattern; more than two of something begins to establish an expectation of additional pairs, and that a pattern will emerge. But some nineteenth-century authors were invested in troubling expectations for patterns to pair and repeat. Twoness takes many forms in Christina Rossetti’s work, from the pairs necessary to create rhyming patterns to the plurality emerging from repetition. More than mere binaries or doubling, Rossetti refuses to reconcile models of two, opting instead to embrace their uncertainty, monstrosity, and strangeness. Indeed, many critics, such as Emily Harrington, Angela Leighton, and Peter McDonald, have substantiated Rossetti’s repetition as critically important to our understanding of her poetry. Repetition in Rossetti’s Goblin Market, for example, gives us an unpredictable rhyme scheme, inconsistent metrical clusters, and syntax that joins together and rends asunder. In this paper, I argue the formal ambiguities of Rossetti’s poem point us toward the ways that she was calling modern certainty based on burgeoning statistical “social physics” into question. Despite new nineteenth-century methods for calculating chance, Rossetti’s poem discloses how uncertainty endures due to free will and the ability to take risks. Prediction breaks down, Goblin Market declares, in the face of enumerative scenarios wherein numbers fail to act as we expect and instead one becomes two or many—hybrid, combinatorial, and aggregated. Rossetti’s quantitative strategy of conjoining ones and twos in various formal ways, but not in predictable intervals, suggests that negative events cannot be anticipated based on patterns of prior behavior.