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Retreat into the Mind: Victorian Poetry and the Rise of Psychiatry

Retreat into the Mind: Victorian Poetry and the Rise of Psychiatry

by Ekbert Faas

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Here Ekbert Faas examines the complex interrelationships among the fields of early psychiatry, poetry, and aesthetics through an in-depth study of the Victorian dramatic monologue and its Romantic antecedents. Discussing the work of over thirty major and minor poets, he focuses on what Victorian critics viewed as an unprecedented psychological school of poetry related


Here Ekbert Faas examines the complex interrelationships among the fields of early psychiatry, poetry, and aesthetics through an in-depth study of the Victorian dramatic monologue and its Romantic antecedents. Discussing the work of over thirty major and minor poets, he focuses on what Victorian critics viewed as an unprecedented psychological school of poetry related to early psychiatry and rooted in the poetic "science of feelings" (Wordsworth). This broad historical perspective enables Faas to redefine our current terminology regarding the dramatic monologue and to document the extent to which early psychiatry shaped the poetry, poetics, and general frame of mind of the Victorians. "In the nineteenth century, English poetry began to explore the psyche in ways contemporaries recognized as new. Wordsworth and Coleridge pioneered what Arnold, Tennyson, and Browning continued. Professor Faas painstakingly documents this, and reactions to it, with reference to simultaneous psychiatric work. Fascinating."--Encounter

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Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Princeton Legacy Library
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6.53(w) x 9.57(h) x 1.04(d)

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Retreat into the Mind

Victorian Poetry and the Rise of Psychiatry

By Ekbert Faas


Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06748-3


Dramatic or Psychological Monologue?

The dramatic monologue, for Robert Langbaum, induces a tension in the reader between "sympathy versus judgment" and dramatizes the mind of a natural person imagined as "other" than the poet. "Now it seems to me," counters a more recent critic, "that the dramatic monologue is built not just as a generalized image of an 'other' person but specifically as an artificial replication of this structure of interpersonal understanding." Other critics, building more directly on Langbaum, stress the "artificial" distance between poet and speaker, arguing that the poet's ironic betrayal of his speaker is crucial to the genre. "Indeed, in the modern view, the peculiar structure of the dramatic monologue depends entirely upon this tension between sympathy and judgment—on the dramatic irony that arises from the contrast between the limited understanding the speaker has of his own words and the larger, encompassing understanding of the poet and reader. Scholars of the dramatic monologue have also emphasized its techniques for portraying character, viewed it as expressive of the "dual claims of the self: objectivity and subjectivity, and the thresholds in between," or described it as a form that "plays self against context" and creates "conflicts about self-conception." There is good reason for the diversity of these and similar definitions. No doubt a form as complex to the post-Romantic consciousness as the dramatic monologue is open to multiple approaches, and the new light that recent criticism has thrown on it from these various perspectives is considerable. However, as diverse as these perspectives are in one sense, as much do they tend toward uniformity in another. Most of them either downplay or lose sight of an aspect of the genre that Victorian critics considered crucial.

The Dramatic Monologue and Victorian Criticism

To Browning's and Tennyson's contemporaries, the dramatic monologue was, above all, the poetry of psychology. Hence, the genre's present denomination was far from the only one. Victorian critics, in fact, preferred to speak of "dramas of mental conflict," "dramas of the interior," of "mental monologues," "psychological monologues," "portraits in mental photography" and poems of a new "dramatic-psychological kind." To them, Browning, at least since the publication of Men and Women (1855), had proven himself to be a "mighty ... master of psychology." To a hostile critic like Alfred Austin, he was more of an analyst than a poet, but to most others he was simply "the poet of psychology" or "primarily a psychologist."

One of the first to use such terminology was George Eliot who in a review of 1856 coins the phrase of a "dramatic-psychological kind" of poetry found in Men and Women. In order to appreciate this new genre, the reader, in George Eliot's view, must shed most of his traditional preconceptions. For in Browning, "he will find out no conventionality, no melodious commonplace, but freshness, originality, sometimes eccentricity of expression; no didactic laying-out of a subject, but dramatic indication, which requires the reader to trace by his own mental activity the underground stream of thought that jets out in elliptical and pithy verse." "Bishop Blougram's Apology" serves George Eliot as an example of such "dramatic-psychological" technique: "The way in which Blougram's motives are dug up from below the roots, and laid bare to the very last fibre, not by a process of hostile exposure, not by invective or sarcasm, but by making himself exhibit them with a self-complacent sense of supreme acuteness, and ... worldly common sense, has the effect of masterly satire."

Such criticism is by no means blind to the genre's multiple other aspects. Like her fellow reviewers, George Eliot draws attention to the author's irony in betraying his persona to the reader, notes how we are caught in a tension between sympathy and moral judgment, and details other effects as discussed by more recent criticism. But somehow all of these are seen as secondary, if not subservient, to the major concern of psychological exploration. Browning's main purpose in his poems, to the Victorians, was the "acute analysis of supposed states of existence, and the action of the mind therein." In their view, Browning had no peer in analyzing "the minds of men as deftly as a surgeon can dissect their bodies," or, as John Addington Symonds put it, "of photographing subtle and obscure phases of mental activity and emotion in condensed and artistic pictures."

Even critics who disapproved of the results agreed with Browning's admirers about the poet's main concerns. In describing "what may be called mind in difficulties," the poet, in Walter Bagehot's view, produced a second-rate, "grotesque" kind of poetry. Nonetheless, the critic concedes to the poet wonderful powers of intellectual analysis: "Put before him a psychological conundrum, and he will turn you off a dozen solutions in a minute." Even Alfred Austin, Browning's worst opponent in later life, calls him a "subtle, profound, conscious psychologist, who scientifically gets inside souls." What was wrong with his dramatic monologues was that the author, having scrutinized his characters' "thoughts and motives in a prose and methodical fashion, then makes them give the result, as if they had been scrutinising themselves, in verse."

For all his hostility, Austin comes near to ascertaining the peculiar kind of empathy that allowed Browning to enter the inner world of others. Clearly such empathy was not like the "Negative Capability"—"when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason"—which Keats had described as the hallmark of Shakespeare's genius. Although the personae of dramatic monologues speak on their own behalf throughout, the author's presence is somehow manifest in all of them. Even Swinburne who otherwise praised Browning's empathetic powers to the utmost, stresses the omnipresent element of subliminal authorial exposition, analysis, and apology in his "mental monologue[s]." Characteristically, he calls it Browning's "gift of moral imagination," observing that this "work of exposition by soliloquy and apology by analysis can only be accomplished or undertaken by the genius of a great special pleader, able to fling himself with all his heart and all his brain, with all the force of his intellect and all the strength of his imagination, into the assumed part of his client; to concentrate on the cause in hand his whole power of illustration and illumination, and bring to bear upon one point at once all the rays of his thought in one focus."

Victorian reviewers also noted more specific aspects of these portraits in mental photography. For instance, they often stressed how the poet managed to convey mental processes below the level of both articulated speech and conscious thought. Browning, at least in his soliloquies, shows us "how people think rather than how they speak." "One of his strongest points," writes another reviewer, "is the faculty of seizing the lower and more bestial currents of thought and feeling, and translating them into human language."

Still, why drag out these dusty Victorian reviews or, worse perhaps, claim that they hold insights neglected by more recent scholarship? After all, Victorian critics clearly exaggerated the psychological perspicacity evident in, say, Hamlet, Macbeth, or King Lear, and might have done the same regarding the new "psychological" monologues. The extremes of crediting Shakespeare with a "deep and accurate science in mental philosophy" (S. T. Coleridge) or with surpassing most other poets in "psychical research" (Victor Hugo) need not be demonstrated in detail. To Charles Lamb, for instance, Shakespeare's plays "are less calculated for performance on a stage, than those of almost any other dramatist whatever." For the playwright was concerned with the inner world of his characters rather than with the outer world of action. Shakespeare, as later reviewers would say of Browning, more often than not shows us how people think rather than how they speak. To Lamb it was obvious "that the form of speaking, whether it be in soliloquy or dialogue, is only a medium, and often a highly artificial one, for putting the reader or spectator into possession of that knowledge of the inner structure and workings of mind in a character."

Hence scholars like E. E. Stoll surely had a point when they began to oppose this more than one-hundred-year-old tide of psychological Shakespeare criticism at the beginning of our century. Hamlet's "To be, or not to be," for instance, might well be read as reflecting the silent thoughts of the prince. But to claim that such stream-of-consciousness technique prevailed in the plays or that these were not, in principle, written for stage performance, contradicts everything we know about the Elizabethan dramatist. What could be more natural than to argue that Victorian critics misinterpreted contemporary poetry in similar fashion! However, most evidence seems to suggest the very opposite.

To begin with, most authors of dramatic monologues wholeheartedly agreed with those who called them poet-psychologists. Robert Browning, for instance, did so even as a playwright. Paracelsus, his first attempt along these lines, reverses the traditional method of suggesting the inner world of the characters through outward events: "instead of having recourse to an external machinery of incidents," as the author put it, "I have ventured to display minutely the mood itself in its rise and progress." Similar interests prompted his two final plays, written after his ill-fated attempts to produce action dramas for the real stage. One, Luria, was composed for a "purely imaginary stage," the other, conceived in similar spirit, was appropriately entitled "A Soul's Tragedy." Needless to say, Browning made similar comments regarding his narratives and dramatic monologues. His "stress lay on the incidents in the development of a soul: little else is worth study," he said of Sordello in 1863. "I, at least, always thought so." Commenting on Tennyson's The Holy Grail and Other Poems, he (somewhat erroneously) stressed how much his own main bias differed from the Laureate's. "We look at the object of art in poetry so differently!" he wrote. "Here is an Idyll about a knight being untrue to his friend and yielding to the temptation of that friend's mistress ... I should judge the conflict in the knight's soul the proper subject to describe: Tennyson thinks he should describe the castle, and effect of the moon on its towers, and anything but the soul." Browning even corroborated those who claimed that he showed, at least sometimes, how his characters think rather than how they speak. Hence Arthur Symons can quote Red Cotton Night-Cap Country to this effect. Here the poet, by way of introducing one of his characters' soliloquies, wonders whether this persona spoke aloud or merely thought to himself:

He thought ... [sic]
(Suppose I should prefer "He said?"
Along with every act—and speech is act—
There go, a multitude impalpable
To ordinary human faculty,
The thoughts which give the act significance.
Who is a poet needs must apprehend
Alike both speech and thoughts which prompt to speak.)

Comparable evidence can be gathered regarding the dramatic monologues by other poets. Despite Browning's protests to the contrary, Tennyson made no secret of wanting to express the workings of the human mind in some of his poems. Maud, he argued, dramatizes "the history of a morbid, poetic soul, under the blighting influence of a recklessly speculative age.... The peculiarity of this poem is that different phases of passion in one person take the place of different characters." Robert Buchanan, another, though minor practitioner of the genre, stated that his aim in writing such poems "was, while clearly conveying the caste of the speakers, to afford an artistic insight into their souls."

But does such endorsement by the poets really prove Victorian reviewers right in seeing the dramatic monologue as a basically psychological mode of poetry? After all, the critics might have been as wrong regarding say, Browning, as they may have been, relatively speaking, concerning Shakespeare with his allegedly "deep and accurate science in mental philosophy." But here the Victorians would have been the first to point out the appropriate distinctions. To most of them, the difference between the objective nature of Shakespeare's characters and the more heterogenous, not to say, subjective, cast of Browning's "men and women," for instance, was obvious. When George Bernard Shaw described the Victorian poet's Caliban as "a savage, with the introspective power of a Hamlet, and the theology of an evangelical Churchman," he only reiterated a critical commonplace. Central to Browning's dramatic monologues, in the words of one critic, was "a rare union of subjective reflectiveness with objective life and vigour, so that [the poet] can make his personae speak out his thoughts without prejudice to their own individual being."

Another way of characterizing this subjective objectiveness was to describe it as a fusion of dramatic, epic, and lyric elements. In one contemporary view, Browning's monologues in The Ring and the Book "are dramatic, because the speakers are placed in dramatic situations. ... They are narrative; for they set before us the history, not the actual development, of an event. But they are eminently lyric, because their chief interest is reflective, lying not in the deed or narrative itself, but in the psychological states of the speakers." To use more recent jargon, dramatic monologues offer us the speaker's psychoanalytic confessions plus his implied case history. Although the genre does not allow the poet to comment directly on the words of his persona, the reader feels that this process, as one Victorian critic put it, is "still going on underground."

Shakespeare, by contrast, remains aloof from his characters' soliloquies or, in other words, lets the surrounding plays do the commenting for him. Despite their shared psychological interests, Browning and Shakespeare, then, differ widely in their ways of embodying these concerns. Arthur Symons even ventured to identify the reasons for this difference. Both poets, in his view, have to be seen in the context of their age—Shakespeare in terms of the "vivid and adventurous England of the sixteenth century, full of youth and strength," Browning against the background of "this intensely subjective and analytic nineteenth century, with its ... ceaseless restless introspection": "How, under these conditions, could the same product ensue? Shakespeare, in his objective drama, summed up into himself the whole character of his age; am I rash in saying that Browning also, in his subjective drama, epitomises our age?"

In sum, it would be wrong to argue that Victorian reviewers, as the victims of some obsession, misinterpreted their dramatic monologues in the same way in which they overemphasized Shakespeare's psychological bias. Where they attributed similar intentions to the writers of dramatic monologues, they not only had these poets' approval, but carefully distinguished between the objective mode of Shakespeare's soliloquies and the subjective objectiveness of Victorian psychological monologues. Given the Shakespeare criticism current at that time, the temptation to trace the genealogy of these portraits in mental photography directly to the model of Shakespeare's soliloquies must have been strong. But the reviewers, for the most part, knew better. What is more, their critical understanding of the new genre gave them insights into its actual origins in Romantic poetry as more recently retraced by Robert Langbaum. Perhaps we have reason to listen to them after all.

The Dramatic Monologue and Its Precedents

As early as 1855, reviewers of Maud displayed most of these insights into the nature and origins of the genre. Of course, there were critics who, given the speaker's introspective morbidity, simply derided his Spasmodic effusions as those of the author. But others, especially in the trend-setting quarterlies, defended Tennyson against such critical malpractice. Even W. E. Aytoun, while finding Maud a "sore disappointment" as a whole, conceded that it was uttered by a "morbid and mis-anthropical" speaker. Critics were particularly alert to the poem's case-history nature. To one it was "a remarkable sketch of poetic mental psychology," to a second a subtle and accurate "delineation of the path to madness," to a third an "exposure of morbid self-investigation." "Where can this unprofessional psychologist have acquired his accurate insight into the phenomena of insanity," wondered a fourth.


Excerpted from Retreat into the Mind by Ekbert Faas. Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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