Generations: Poetry and the Novel in the Long Eighteenth Century
The plot to this book is straightforward: eighteenth-century poetry and prose have traditionally been dealt with separately, but in fact they are closely tied. The rise of the novel, argues Starr, is strongly influenced by the lyric poetry which preceded it, while at the other end of the century romantic poetry owes much, in turn, to the rise of the novel.
Chapter One deals with Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, and shows how the novel owes much to lyric, firstly from the Bible, and in particular, from the Book of Job. In an age when “poetry about one’s own emotions was not common,” we are told, “Hebrew poetry like Job offers to reveal the self denuded, moving, so that its language (of hastiness, disruption, distress) becomes part of a complex of shared emotion, a lyric model of the experience of reading and writing” [p. 20].
A second lyrical influence to be found in Clarissa derives from Donne’s Songs and Sonets. Apparently, the “pattern of confrontation and the specificity of address in Clarissa’s memorial scene parallel those of the (amatory) self-elegy” [p. 34]. In other words, Donne’s obsession with not dying, or with somehow remaining in communication with the world after death, as revealed in poems such as “The Canonization” or “The Relique,” is shared by Clarissa. Starr insists that she is “not arguing for direct influence—even though this is possible—so much as for patterns of representation, an imaginative condition and set of conventions linked to the lyric mode” [p. 34]. This is wise, since the desire to speak to the living once one is dead is hardly unusual, either in literature or, one assumes, in “real life,” and is most certainly not restricted to the lyric. In John Donne: Life, Mind and Art, John Carey considers Donne’s fixation on death at some length, as is acknowledged by Starr [p. 39], and she includes the book as a secondary source in her bibliography; yet her determination to view lyric as a primary influence on Richardson leads her to downplay the importance of prose. She refers, indeed, to Izaak Walton’s celebrated biography of Donne, in which his preparations for his imminent death are described in fascinating detail, but she does not refer to Biathanatos, Donne’s prose treatise on suicide or, more importantly, his sermon “Death’s Duel” in which the rotting bodies of family members lie heaving in “miserable incest.” By mainly restricting her examples to lyric, Starr underplays the possible influence of prose on Clarissa. Donne’s fame rested largely on his prose during the eighteenth century, and Starr’s assumption that it was his lyrics which were instrumental in establishing an “imaginative condition” for Clarissa is questionable.
In Chapter Two, “Modes of Absorption: Lyric and Letter in Behn, Haywood, and Pope,” Starr analyses the “substantial history of inter-relation between letter and lyric” [p. 47]. Based largely on the prose of Aphra Behn and Eliza Haywood, Alexander Pope is shown to be the lyrical influence which led to the transformation of the epistle from verse to prose. Taking the three authors as examples of how such a process occurred, Starr is undoubtedly right in arguing that for literary purposes at least, the epistle does make just such a journey, although it is also, surely, quite possible that letter writing in its non-literary form provided another model. Letters in prose have after all existed for millennia and the novel, as a predominantly prose form, easily adapts to it. This emphasis on the closed world of literary texts, so typical of critics such as Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, is characteristic of Lyric Generations. Indeed, as an assistant professor in the department of English at New York University, Starr is a colleague of the former, while in her acknowledgements she gives “thanks to some of the best teachers [she] could have wished for,” [p. ix] among whom the latter is listed. This is one of the major criticisms I have for this book: its insularity. Starr claims, in the final pages of the book, that by “focusing simultaneously on poetry and prose as complex, interrelated, formal structures, I write against the division between the two often maintained on both sides in the methodological wars between formalists and historicists” [p. 199]. In fact, there is almost nothing historicist, new or otherwise, about Lyric Generations except where literary texts have a (possible) influence on each other. Thus letter writing can only emerge in novels as a result of an earlier genre of verse epistle, and not because people actually write letters to each other. Similarly, in Chapter Four, “Rhetorical Realisms: Chiasmus, Convention, and Lyric,” epithalamia, it is argued, provide the model for the weddings in Richardson’s Pamela and Sir Charles Grandison. The basic poetic model is Spenser’s Epithalamion, “the British-Irish archetype for the lyric version of the genre” [p. 114], and we are given a brief review of what to expect:
This is interesting, not least because it had not occurred to me that weddings in novels were so directly descended from epithalamia, and the description of events as listed by Starr is convincing. But then I began to wonder about the innumerable weddings I had seen in drama, films, soap operas. They also seem, to a greater or lesser extent—depending on the individual work—to follow this model: interesting that epithalamia should have so far-reaching an influence. Indeed, do not many real life weddings themselves, even in the twenty-first century, appear rather like this, at least when the best man’s speech, the observations of family members, the bride and groom and the retailing of the whole day by a favourite aunt are all taken into consideration? Once again, with the possible exception (though not necessarily) of refrains (Whitney Houston singing “I Will Always Love You” again and again and again) and attendant nymphs (the bride’s best friends dressed to kill), literary models are not the only models available to novelists. Is it so unreasonable to consider that successful genres owe their longevity precisely to their credibility; to the fact that readers feel that they, too, have had similar experiences?
Epithalamia are given as an example of what Starr describes as “chiastic” sites [p. 107]. Fortunately, for those readers who, like myself, thought that chiasmus occurs when “the terms in the second of two parallel phrases reverse the order of those in the first to which they correspond” (H.W. Fowler), as in phrases such as Oscar Wilde’s “When we are happy we are always good, but when we are good we are not always happy,” Starr explains what she means. “Chiastic sites,” she says,
Well, this goes halfway to justifying the importance of literary convention, as opposed to reality itself, as a model for fiction, but is the term “chiasmus” useful here, or horribly confusing? I suspect the influence of Helen Vendler, who also makes peculiar, though slightly different, use of the term in her recent publication Coming of Age as a Poet. Again, the question of insularity arises. Mimesis, along with all the various refined and complicated ways in which narrative displays itself, has long been the province of narratology. Apart from a bare handful of references to Bakhtin, there is little suggestion in Lyric Generations that Starr knows very much about narratology at all, hence her need to coin phrases such as “chiastic sites.”
This is not, however, to suggest that G. Gabrielle Starr is not well-read, at least in literary texts. Indeed, her learning is not worn lightly, and I was impressed (sometimes depressed) at the extraordinary number of poems and novels that she discusses with such evident familiarity. She is also very earnest, which results in a very dry academic style. A livelier style would, of course, make Lyric Generations much more readable, but the thesis of the book itself does not inspire enormous excitement. Naturally, anyone interested in the ways poetry and the novel exercised a mutual, formal influence on each other in the eighteenth century should rush out and buy this book, even if only to disagree with the arguments therein expressed. Those with a broader interest in the eighteenth century, whether literary, political, sociological or historical, might find it somewhat limited in scope.