Lyric poetry is an ancient genre, enduring to the present day, but it is not continuous in its longevity. What happens to lyric poetry and how it changes during its numerous and sometimes lengthy periods of historical eclipse (such as the 18th century) may be as important to our understanding of lyric as an assessment of its periods of high achievement. For it is during these periods of relative obscurity that lyric enters into complex relations with other genres of poetry and prose, affirming the general thesis that all genres are relational and porous. The question of whether any particular properties of lyric poetry endure throughout its 2,700-year checkered history can be addressed by examining its basic powers: its forms; its figurative and narrative functions; and its styles and diction. The hierarchy of these functions is mutable, as one finds in today’s rift between a scholarly revival of formalist analysis and the increasing emphasis on diction in contemporary poetry. As a way of assessing lyric poetry’s basic operations, the present article surveys the ongoing tension between form and diction by sketching a critique of the tenets of New Formalism in literary studies, especially its presumptions about the relation of poetic form to the external world and its tendency to subject form to close analysis, as if it could yield, like style or diction, detailed knowledge of the world. Long overshadowed by the doctrinal tenets of modernist formalism, the expressive powers of diction occupy a central place in contemporary concerns about identity and social conflict, at the same time that diction (unlike form) is especially susceptible to the vocabularistic methods of “distant reading”—to the computational methods of the digital humanities. The indexical convergence of concreteness and abstraction, expression and rationalism, proximity and distance, in these poetic and scholarly experiments with diction points to precedents in the 18th century, when the emergence of Anglophone poetries in the context of colonialism and the incorporation of vernacular languages into poetic diction (via the ballad revival) intersected with the development of modern lexicography and the establishment of Standard English. The nascent transactions of poetics and positivism through the ontology of diction in the 21st century remind us that poetic diction is always changing but also that the hierarchy of form, figuration, and diction in lyric poetry inevitably shifts over time—a reconfiguration of lyric priorities that helps to shape the premises and methods of literary studies.
In 1833 a reforming government seemed to threaten the disestablishment of the Church of England. This provoked a small number of clergy associated with Oxford University to address Tracts for the Times (1833–1841) to fellow Anglican clerics. Reminding them that they derived their spiritual authority not from the state, but by virtue of ordination into a church which traced its direct descent from the body instituted by Christ and his apostles, the tracts ranged from scholarly argument to templates for the renewal of spiritual life. The tract writers included John Henry Newman, John Keble, Richard Hurrell Froude, Isaac Williams, and Edward Bouverie Pusey. Determined to reinterpret the Church of England to itself as the true Catholic church in England, they sought to counteract the perceived Protestant bias of the Book of Common Prayer by appealing to the early Fathers of the undivided church of antiquity, and by emphasizing the via media (middle way) favored by many 17th-century theologians.
The series that gave the movement its alternative name, Tractarianism, came to an abrupt end when in Tract XC (1841), Newman, the influential vicar of the University church, argued that the Prayer Book’s Thirty-Nine Articles, to which all ordained clergy and all Oxford students were then obliged to subscribe, could be interpreted as compatible with Roman Catholic theology. For many, Newman’s founding of a semi-monastic community to which he retreated in 1843, and his reception into the Roman Catholic Church in 1845, where he was followed by a number of other Tractarians, marked the end of the movement. This impression was lent continued currency both by Newman’s own account, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864), and by subsequent 19th-century historians. However, the movement’s influence continued to be felt throughout the wider Anglican communion in renewed attention to sacramental worship, in church building, and in the founding of Anglican communities. The movement’s appeal to pre-Reformation theology led to its being associated with the revival of Gothic architecture, while Tractarian sacramental fervor later translated into obsessive observance of Prayer Book rubrics by the so-called Ritualists.
Admiration for the Lake Poets fed into a Tractarian aesthetic which saw poetic language as religion’s natural mode of expression, half revealing, half concealing heavenly truths, and poetic rhythm and structure as devices for controlling thoughts and emotions. As its title indicates, Keble’s The Christian Year (1827) was designed to accompany the liturgy: immensely popular, it carried the movement’s principles well beyond Anglo-Catholic circles. It was supplemented by further collections of Tractarian poetry. Institutionally male in origin, the movement nevertheless legitimated women’s work through sisterhoods, in education and as writers. Charlotte Yonge and Christina Rossetti are the two most notable exemplars of this impulse.
The movement provoked polemical fiction both from its ardent disciples and from disenchanted followers. In the popular press, Anglo-Catholicism quickly translated into Roman Catholicism, thus presenting a potential threat to English values. The revival of confession, sisterhoods, and the notion of celibacy seemed to undermine the Victorian domestic order, while priestly attention to liturgical vestments was attacked as unmanly. If Anglo-Catholicism’s long-term legacy was spiritual, its short-term effect was to politicize Victorian religion.
Prosody refers, most broadly, to versification and pronunciation. Historically, prosody referred to the branch of grammar that contained versification as a subsection, but since the late 19th century literary scholars and poets have interchanged versification and prosody, while linguists use prosody to refer to pronunciation. Since the beginning of the 20th century scholars have also referred to prosody as a “poetics,” or a system of meaning-making, and do not directly engage in analysis of meter but rather use the term prosody to signify any aspect of literary style or figurative language that might contribute to the affective register of verse-form. The philological register of prosody may use versification in order to make a claim about how a verse-form reflects a national, historical, or even ethnic character, a practice that began in earnest during the mid-18th century and persists into the 21st century, though with some critical distance. Because the measure of verse is subjective and historically contingent, debates and discussions about prosody are a constant and tend to repeat. There is no one progress narrative of prosody, writ large, but the progress narrative of poetry within prosodic discourse is one of its main tropes. That is, while there are theories of prosody that posit progression, there is little agreement about the evolution or even naming of prosodic systems. Each history of prosody therefore posits a new theory. Thus, the theory of prosody might always be seen as the proliferation of conflicting theories about prosody, in no way limited to one national language; in fact, theories of prosody from other languages applied to English are much older and more robust than theories of prosody that derive from only English—for instance, measuring English by Latin prosody, or French, or German, and so on. Despite the proliferation of conflicting theories, scholars who work on prosody nevertheless agree broadly that, like the subject of grammar under which prosody was historically a subset, prosody is a set of interrelated features in language that, according to how you measure these features, either appear to adhere to a particular system or do not. Also, scholars agree that, like grammar, prosody as an interpretive system often hovers between the prescriptive and the descriptive. In the conflicts over theories of prosody, adherents to one system attempt to convince adherents to another that theirs is superior, and these debates and conflicts continue unabated in linguistic prosodic criticism. Those who practice literary prosodic criticism in the 21st century tend to adopt a system of verse-measure with little interest in its history, or even with what linguistic prosodic critics might call a sharp disregard for its inaccuracy. Linguistic prosodists—who have made significant advances in the field—are sidelined by the momentum of a literary history that has rendered their ongoing work too specialized for general use. There are also those who believe that prosody—or, rather, specific paralinguistic features of prosody—exists, like grammar, in particular bodies, to be awakened or cultivated by a particular kind of reading or hearing ear or a particular kind of feeling body. Trends in cognitive science have influenced one strain of theorizing about prosody as a form of subconscious knowledge in no way dependent on the cultural formations that may have organized sonic features into recognizable systems. Historical prosodists, those who study the history of thinking about prosodic form but also practice prosodic reading, posit that prosody is culturally contingent and, along with phenomenology, might be better considered as a part of cultural criticism rather than a privileged key to poetic meaning. Finally, where prosodic theory happens is a live question. Whether discourse about prosody (or meta-metrical discourse, as in Gascoigne or the various grammars discussed here) is prosodic theory or whether poets writing in a variety of prosodic forms (whether interpreted by critics or not) posit prosodic theories in their practice is at the heart of what many mischaracterize as a divide between historical prosody and other theories of reading. This divide is artificial, but the fact is that disagreements about what and how prosody means have led to a variety of approaches to the study of prosody in poetry, and despite this disagreement prosody is nevertheless taught in most academic settings as if it has an agreed upon past, present, and future.