Alexander Smith and the bisexual poetics of a life-drama.
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble
Our pulses beat together, and our beings Mixed like two voices in one perfect tune, And his the richest voice. Alexander Smith, A Life-Drama (1)
MOST COMMENTATORS ON ALEXANDER SMITH'S A LIFE-DRAMA, FIRST PUBLISHED in biweekly installments in the Critic from March 1, 1852-January 15, 1853 before becoming the lead poem in Smith's debut volume of Poems (1853), (2) make two points: the poem seems to exist more for the sake of the images that constantly disrupt its narrative than for the story itself, and the narrative shifts from transgression to redemption when, abruptly, the poet Walter pledges himself at the end to union with the woman he formerly wronged and to "go[ing] forth 'mong men .../... in the armour of a pure intent. / Great duties are before me and great songs" (Smith, p. 211). In other words, the poem culminates in chivalric masculinity and heterosexual union--compensatory assurance after earlier solecisms against form, taste, and moral decorum. Rarely do nineteenth-century reviewers or recent scholars direct attention to another feature of the text, the origin of Walter's love of image-making, and of his poetic vocation, in an intimate friendship with an unnamed male poet. His achievement of a poem, in contrast--publicly acknowledged work--is tied to a narrative of heterosexual transgression recuperated by heterosexual union. I want to suggest that the two most notable features of Smith's Life-Drama--its preoccupations with image-making and with erotic transgression--are founded on bisexual poetics, the embedding of male-male desire within an unconventional courtship narrative. I here use "poetics" in the broadest sense to indicate a poet's implied principles. Bisexuality, I argue, is the medium through which Smith imagines the action or plot of his verse drama and also an authorizing principle that allows poet and poem (including its proliferating imagery) to emerge.
Bisexuality, defined by its instability and unpredictable sequence of erotic objects, (3) is also associated with a distinctive world view. As Maria Pramaggiore observes,
Bisexual epistemologies--ways of apprehending, organizing, and intervening in the world that refuse one-to-one correspondences between sex acts and identity, between erotic objects and sexualities, between identification and desire--acknowledge fluid desires and their continual construction and deconstruction of the desiring subject. (4)
However conventionally the poem ends, the epistemology of A Life-Drama is bisexual in the terms Pramaggiore identifies. Indeed, the culmination of the closet drama's bisexual narrative in marriage and armored masculinity exemplifies Judith Butler's arguments about Freud's distinction between infantile bisexuality and subsequent ego development, a distinction that in Freud's work underwrites the interdependence of culture and gender binaries. In A Life-Drama, as in the scenario Butler identifies in her critique of Freud, (5) the very swerve into compulsory heterosexuality at the poem's end is the medium through which the poem's prior investment in bisexuality and bisexual poetics becomes legible. In this essay, accordingly, I trace the bisexual plot of the verse drama, its interweaving of same-sex desire with heterosexual romance, of effeminate men with assertively desiring women. Ultimately the poem's bisexual poetics do more than trouble gender norms, however: they enable Smith to perform Byronism and thereby to mediate a more threatening scandal, the suggestion that a "great" poet is not born but made by a sponsoring editor and literary critic.
Several traces of discomfort with the orientation of A Life-Drama among Smith's sympathetic critics suggest the difficulties his narrative posed for contemporaries. Finding much to commend in A Life-Drama in the North American Review, Arthur Hugh Clough nonetheless remarked that "of the first four or five scenes, perhaps the less said the better.... It is really discouraging to turn page upon page, while Walter is quoting the poems of his lost friend, and wooing the unknown lady of the wood with a story of another lady and an Indian page. We could almost recommend the reader to begin with the close of scene IV., where the hero's first love-disappointment is decided." (6) Clough, evidently, wished readers to dismiss the opening scenes and begin within the context of Anglo-Saxon heterosexual romance.
A far more telling indication of discomfort comes from Smith's friend and biographer Thomas Brisbane, who literally rewrote the publishing history of A Life-Drama so that he could associate its creation with frenetic composition and, above all, an "abnormal state" "of mind" that left the poem but not Smith's poetic gifts tainted. (7) Brisbane dates Smith's acquaintance with critic George Gilfillan to 1851, when Gilfillan first reviewed Smith's poems in the October Eclectic Review after receiving a manuscript the prior June (pp. 112-113, 121). Then, "in the following spring"--i.e., spring 1852--Gilfillan "wrote a long article in the Critic, on 'A New Poet in Glasgow,' in which he not only gave copious extracts from several of the MSS. before him, but published some of the poems entire" (p. 123). After public interest quickened in Smith, Gilfillan suggested that "the select literary world would be best satisfied with some longer poem than any he had yet written," and Smith, to whom "no subject for such an effort had yet occurred," reworked "A Life Fragment," which "was to become, when thus expanded, 'A Life Drama'" (p. 131). Brisbane seems to allocate this process of expansion to the summer of 1852: "He immediately proceeded with the work of detaching, transposing, piecing, uniting, and supplementing," and "summer, too, had come and gone before his task was done" (pp. 132-133). Brisbane goes on to claim that "the real truth is, when Gilfillan wrote in these magazines heralding a new poet, he had never either seen or heard of 'A Life Drama,' and could not consequently write about it. That work had not then been written; nay, as a work, the chaos of its creation had not come in the poet's mind" (p. 134). When Brisbane opens the following chapter by observing that "at length, at the close of the year 1852, his first book, dated 1853, appeared and created a wide and profound sensation" (p. 140), the clear implication is that the poem was hurriedly transformed from "A Life Fragment" in manuscript to the complete Life-Drama without intermediate appearance in print. This scenario enables Brisbane to explain away the poem's unsettling qualities as "the too rapid product of a sensitive mind under the heat of unnatural and unhealthy excitement" (p. 142)--a condition exacerbated by the contaminating effects of the Chartist movement (pp. 142-143), Smith's "uncongenial" employment as an industrial pattern designer (p. 144), Gilfillan's immoderate praise, and the influence of Philip Bailey's Festus (p. 145).
This narrative of composition has had surprising longevity. William C. Henry's 1942 study follows Brisbane's account even though Henry carefully examined the Critic; Henry likewise reports that "the poems had been sent to the press without revision, because the public was waiting for them." (8) Yet a full year elapsed between the time A Life-Drama began its serial run and its publication in volume form, which Henry dates to March 1853 (p. 55). Though Smith had no contract for a volume until October 1852 (Henry, p. 55), the five-month span before Poems appeared gave him ample time to rework the early sections of A Life-Drama had he wished to do so. Smith's readers had ten months to assess the poem before it appeared as a book; indeed, Herbert Spencer not only wrote in a September 10, 1852 letter that Smith was "'unquestionably the poet of the age" but also publicly cited Smith in the October 1852 Westminster Review to illustrate effective imagery. (9) Both privately and publicly, Spencer was responding to the serialized Life-Drama, not (to adapt Brisbane's words about Gilfillan), writing about a "work [that] had not then been written."
W. E. Aytoun's Firmilian and the ridicule it launched against the Spasmodic School is the most obvious reason why Brisbane had become anxious in 1869 to concoct a publication schedule that explained away Smith's excesses. But Brisbane's attribution of the poem's composition not merely to haste but to an "abnormal" state of mind suggests some additional anxieties. Gilfillan himself, who moderated his praise of A Life-Drama in a November 1853 Eclectic Review notice of the second edition--well before Firmilian was ever thought of--may give one hint. Responding to charges that Smith's poem was too sensuous and even bordered on obscenity (Henry, pp. 57,235), Gilfillan insisted that henceforward Smith "must become less sensuous.... He must think and sing less about 'ringlets' and 'waists' and 'passion-panting breast,' &c. &c.... A boy Anacreon may be borne with, but a middle-aged or old Anacreon is a nuisance, especially when he might have been something far higher." (10) As anyone proficient in Greek would have known--and as monolingual readers of Byron's Hours of Idleness or the Odes of Anacreon translated by Byron's friend and biographer Thomas Moore would have known likewise--Anacreon's libertine lyrics included praise of beautiful boys and same-sex desire amidst its celebration of heterosexual pleasures. (11) Gilfillan may have discerned more about the bisexual poetics of A Life-Drama than he customarily acknowledged in print.
A Life-Drama opens with Walter declaring love for poetry as his paramount passion, in an extended simile that compares his passion to that of a desiring woman (a female version of Shelley's Alastor):
As a wild maiden, with love-drinking eyes, Sees in sweet dreams a beaming Youth of Glory, And wakes to weep, and ever after, sighs For that bright vision till her hair is hoary; Ev'n so, alas! is my life's-passion story. For Poesy my heart and pulses beat, For Poesy my blood runs red and fleet. (p. 9)
Walter's second avowal of passion is for the unnamed Lady who finds him sleeping by a woodland fountain, book in hand (p. 23). With these vocational and heterosexual frames in place, the poem then turns to a prior, and founding, force in Walter's life, a "departed bard ... born too late into this world" (p. 32), whose book, "When first we met, ... was six months old, / And eagerly his name was buzzed abroad" (p. 33); "I dwelt with him for years" (p. 33). The friend who inspired Walter's passion for poetry may be introduced in a context of heterosexual romance, but Walter devotes far more energy to recalling his friend's words than to courting the lady at hand. This friend, he explains, viewed poetry as "The grandest chariot wherein king-thoughts ride" and prophesied the coming of a truly great poet:
"One, who shall hallow Poetry to God .... A mighty Poet, whom this age shall choose To be its spokesman to all coming times. In the ripe full-blown season of his soul, He shall go forward, in his spirit's strength, And grapple with the questions of all time, And wring from them their meanings. As King Saul Called up the buried prophet from his grave To speak his doom, so shall this Poet-king Call up the dead Past from its awful grave To tell him of our future." ... .... His words set me on fire; I cried aloud, "Gods! what a portion to forerun this Soul!" (pp. 34-35)
This annunciation of a poetic vocation chimes so forcefully with the opening declaration of passion for poetry that readers may easily overlook what precedes and follows, two homoerotic passages in which Walter throbs in response to his friend (who metaphorically impregnates his protege) until the friend is in turn inflamed by Walter:
I was to him but Labrador to Ind; His pearls were plentier than my pebble-stones. He was the sun, I was that squab--the earth, And basked me in his light until he drew Flowers from my barren sides. Oh! He was rich, And I rejoiced upon his shore of pearls, A weak enamoured sea. (p. 34) (12) He grasped my hand,--I looked upon his face,-- A thought struck all the blood into his cheeks, Like a strong buffet. His great flashing eyes Burned on mine own. (pp. 35-36)
The courtship plot of A Life-Drama's early scenes, then, proceeds in tandem with male-male desire. Indeed, one of the ways the Lady finds her way into Walter's heart in Scene II is by her ready willingness to let Walter talk about his beloved friend. When they meet again in Scene IV, the Lady is once more the recipient of Walter's glowing remembrances of his intimate friend; only when these are concluded does he read aloud "The Lady and the Page," a new tale he has written for her. Walter's fervent praise of his male friend is at the least an unconventional mode of foreplay. As he tells the Lady,
I and that friend, the feeder of my soul, Did wander up and down these banks for years, Talking of blessed hopes and holy faiths, How sin and weeping all should pass away In the calm sunshine of the earth's old age. .... ... Here for hours we hung O'er the fine pants and trembles of a line. Oft, standing on a hill's green head, we felt Breezes of love, and joy, and melody, Blow through us, as the winds blow through the sky. Oft with our souls in our eyes all day we fed On summer landscapes. (pp. 62-63)
The rest of the scene is given over to Walter's recitation of an Indian page's love for his aristocratic English lady, to Walter's subsequent confession that "I am the sun-tanned Page; the Lady, thou!" (p. 88), and to Walter's heartbreak on learning that the Lady he loves is pledged to a loveless marriage in a month's time. Heterosexual courtship is at once pursued and occluded; meantime the friend continues to haunt the narrative, since Walter identifies himself with an amorous Indian page as he had earlier associated the beloved friend with India ("I was to him but Labrador to Ind" [p. 34]). (13)
Walter's transference of affection from the unnamed Lady to Violet, to whom he is introduced by an associate named Edward, is also interwoven with passages devoted to his most intimate friend. Edward barely enters the drama before Walter finds occasion to laud his prior comrade:
I love thee much, But thou art all unlike the glorious guide Of my proud boyhood. Oh, he led me up, As Hesper, large and brilliant, leads the night! Our pulses beat together, and our beings Mixed like two voices in one perfect tune, And his the richest voice. (p. 114)
Edward gradually coaxes Walter away from grief over the Lady's early death to interest in Violet, the daughter of a wealthy landowner. To see Violet is to love her, Walter discovers: "She grows on me like moonrise on the night"; "O God! I'd be the very floor that bears / Such a majestic thing!" (Scene VIII, pp. 132-133). Walter again courts a woman by telling her a tale in verse, this time about a city-born poet (like the Glaswegian working-class poet Smith himself (14)) who taught himself from books, longed for poetic fame amidst his poverty, and, thwarted in his aims, lost faith in God and committed suicide. Violet has the empathic insight to read the tale as a form of autobiography: "you shine through each disguise; / You are a masker in a mask of glass" (p. 155). For such sympathy she is rewarded with Walter's account of his love for the Lady and its mournful denouement. When their intimacy deepens, Walter tells her about an older love still, as we see from the opening of Scene IX:
Violet You loved, then, very much, this friend of thine? Walter The sound of his voice did warm my heart like wine. He's long since dead; but if there is a heaven, He's in its heart of bliss. Violet How did you live? Walter We read and wrote together, slept together; We dwelt on slopes against the morning sun, We dwelt in crowded streets, and loved to walk While Labour slept.... .... Sometimes we sat whole afternoons and watched The sunset build a city frail as dream, .... ... But our chief joy Was to draw images from everything; And images lay thick upon our talk, As shells on ocean sands. (pp. 160-161)
The last lines I have quoted are often cited as a (self-evident) key to the poetics of A Life-Drama. (15) What is less rarely noted is the lines' bisexual context: they are spoken by the male poet to the woman he loves, but they recount the origin of his poetics in male-male desire and intimacy ("We read and wrote together, slept together"). The plot and poetics of A Life-Drama are thus fundamentally bisexual, with male-male desire preceding, then serving as the bond between, Walter and his female loves. Rather than the scenario familiar from Sedgwick's Between Men, whereby women serve as the exchange medium between men, A Life-Drama presents a deeply beloved male friend as the means by which Walter finds his poetic vocation and solidifies his erotic ties to women.
Another recurring pattern in keeping with the poem's bisexual imagination--feminized men and masculinized women--likewise troubles gender binaries. The opening lines of the poem, as noted earlier, present a woman ravaged by desire as a trope for Walter's prime passion, lf Walter is an active agent of desire at the outset, he is active only in his quest for poetry. In erotic encounters with women he is customarily passive, as when he becomes the object of the Lady's gaze when she discovers him sleeping by the fountain. She is immediately struck by Walter's beauty and by his girlishness:
Ha! what is this? A bright and wandered youth, Thick in the light of his own beauty, sleeps Like young Apollo, in his golden curls! At the oak-roots I've seen full many a flower, But never one so fair. A lovely youth, With dainty cheeks and ringlets like a girl, And slumber-parted lips 't were sweet to kiss! (p. 17) (16)
When, in response to the Lady's request that he write a poem for her, Walter first spins out a tale in Scene III, it is of a "lovely youth, in manhood's very edge," "bright in golden hair" (p. 54), who falls in love with the sound of a singing maiden's voice, and who asks her to fill the empty vessel of his soul, thereby ceding masculine agency to her, feminine receptivity to the male:
My soul is like a wide and empty fane, Sit thou in't like a god, O maid divine! With worship and religion 't will be filled. My soul is empty, lorn, and hungry space; Leap thou into it like a new-born star. (p. 58)
Similarly, Violet appropriates erotic agency late in the drama. It is she who first declares love for Walter ("I love thee very much;... / Do you not love me, Walter?" [p. 172]). And if Walter responds passionately to her, his masculine ardor and gaze are again intertwined with passivity: "I love thee as my own immortal soul..../ Bend over me, my Beautiful, my Own. / Oh, I could lie with face upturned for ever, / And on thy beauty feed as on a star!" (p. 173). (17)
The most important episode featuring passive men and desiring women, however, is "The Lady and the Page," a tale of interracial romance that (as noted above) enables Walter to inscribe his friend into the very midst of heterosexual courtship. Since the passage is important to the undoing of gender binaries and hence to the bisexual poetics of A Life-Drama, I want to analyze it in some detail. The "Lady" of the inset tale anticipates the phallic women of the fin de siecle in her sensuousness ("A lady half-reclined amid the light,.../... sank luxurious in her couch,... / And stretched her white arms on the warmed air"), ennui ("'Oh, what a weariness of life is mine!'"), and imperiousness. Thus, after she induces the page to declare his passion for her, she turns cruel aggressor:
"Thou!" and the Lady, with a cruel laugh, (Each silver throb went through him like a sword,) Flung herself back upon her fringed couch. From which she rose upon him like a queen, She rose and stabbed him with her angry eyes. (p. 84)
Yet she remains a desiring woman despite her aggression, sustaining while baffling the page's erotic attraction to her. One moment she tells him that her father the earl would have the page killed for daring to love her, the next she addresses him as "My Hero! My Heart-god! / My dusk Hyperion, Bacchus of the Inds!" (p. 85). And if she coldly dismisses the page from her presence she offers him the prospect of erotic fulfillment:
"I pr'ythee, come to-morrow And I will pasture you upon my lips Until thy beard be grown. Go now, sire, go." As thence she waved him with arm-sweep superb. The light of scorn was cold within her eyes, And withered his bloomed heart, which, like a rose, Had opened, timid, to the noon of love. (p. 85)
The page is himself a poet who sings verses to the lady and glares fiercely when laughed at. Yet he must play the part of feminized male to her phallic female both as a servant and an Orientalized male. (18)
The inset tale complicates the Orientalism which it also enacts, just as A Life-Drama privileges gender binaries at its conclusion yet contests them in its poetics. If the inset tale depends on racial othering, it also presents interracial romance as an imaginable alternative to British identity. As the earl's daughter remarks after the page exits,
"His eyes half-won me. Tush! I am a fool; The blood that purples in these azure veins Riched with its long course through a hundred earls, Were fouled and mudded if I stooped to him. My father loves him for his free wild wit; I for his beauty and sun-lighted eyes. To bring him to my feet, to kiss my hand, Had I it in my gift, I'd give the world, Its panting fire-heart, diamonds, veins of gold. .... But whether I might lance him through the brain With a proud look,--or whether sternly kill Him with a single deadly word of scorn,-- Or whether yield me up, And sink all tears and weakness in his arms, And strike him blind with a strong shock of joy-- Alas! I feel I could do each and all. I will be kind when next he brings me flowers, .... And thrill him to the heart's core with a touch; Smile him to Paradise at close of even, To hang upon my lips in silver dreams." (pp. 86-87)
The inset tale ends on this note of suspended possibility; as Walter says to his own Lady, "close the tale thyself," for "I am the sun-tanned Page" (p. 88). In thus speaking of himself, Walter aligns himself with his beloved friend ("Ind"), with interracial desire, and with biracial identity. Nor is this link between biracialism and bisexuality mere coincidence, as a figure like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights might suggest; as Martha Nussbaum points out, "The dark-skinned gypsy Heathcliff is both male and, as double of Cathy, female." (19) Walter's Lady does not, and cannot, offer Walter the "Paradise" he seeks by means of reciting this tale, yet her refusal only confirms the identity between her and the inset tale's lady, who likewise invites yet frustrates desire. Refusal of heterosexual union, notably, is also the means by which the bisexual poetics of A Life-Drama can be sustained in the second half of the poem.
Walter's identification with India and the Indian page is also intrinsic to the literary ambitions of A Life-Drama. For in having the inset tale's lady address the poet-page as "My dusk Hyperion, Bacchus of the Inds," Smith reminds his audience of the association of Bacchus with poetic inspiration and India alike, since according to legend Bacchus conquered India. After the Lady spurns his love, Walter thus retreats to India (p. 106), making a journey to his poetic origins--a site associated with his friend and the inspiration provided by Bacchus--before resuming his poetic and erotic quests.
William Aytoun's crudely racist parody of "The Lady and the Page" in Firmilian indicates how threatening the tale's gender and racial politics could be. Aytoun took care to revise Smith even while parodying him by reallocating agency to the white male poet. The poet recalled by Firmilian is black only in his soul and his aesthetic tastes, not his skin:
I knew a poet once; and he was young, And intermingled with such fierce desires As made pale Eros veil his face with grief .... He had a soul beyond the vulgar reach, Sun-ripened, swarthy. He was not the fool To pluck the feeble lily from its shade When the black hyacinth stood in fragrance by. The lady of his love was dusk as Ind, Her lips as plenteous as the Sphinx's are, And her short hair crisp with Numidian curl. She was a negress.... .... But, would you know what noontide ardour is, .... That shall you gather from the fiery song Which that young poet framed, before he dared Invade the vastness of his lady's lips. (20)
If, as Richard Cronin suggests, the poems of Smith and other Spasmodists "attempt to force themselves on the public attention most obviously by challenging conventional orthodoxies; ethical, religious, sexual and political," Smith certainly succeeded with "The Lady and the Page." (21)
More to the point, the larger pattern of bisexual poetics conferred literary importance--symbolic capital--upon the author of A Life-Drama by linking Smith to Byron, the precursor poet whose work and career created a space for the Spasmodic school. (22) And Smith knew his Byron very well. As a youth he immersed himself in the poetry of Byron, and he was still in his teens when he undertook systematic study of the poet. As Brisbane observes, "For a considerable time, he read all he could lay his hands on of the works of Byron, with critiques on these, or whatever had been written by others relating to the life and writings of that extraordinary genius" (p. 27). He would have gleaned from such systematic reading what Andrew Elfenbein asserts: "'Performing' Byron was respectable and scandalous at once," a result of Byron's immense fame, continuing prestige, and shocking improprieties (both recorded and rumored). (23) Invoking Byron was thus a further means of announcing Smith's poetic ambitions.
Presumably Smith's study of Byron included familiarity with the most authoritative biography of Byron in the nineteenth century, Thomas Moore's multivolume edition, published from 1832-1836. According to Elfenbein, Moore "described in greater detail than any other biographer Byron's relations with other men, although he employed the anxious vocabulary of 'romantic friendships.' His biography mystified Byron's sexuality enough that it earned Byron posthumous admiration as a paragon of masculine devotion" (pp. 85, 223). In Moore's first volume Smith would have read that Byron claimed, "'My school-friendships were with me passions, (for I was always violent)'"; that Byron "had taken offence at his young friend's addressing him 'my dear Byron,' instead of 'my dearest'"; that Byron's Cambridge friendship with choirboy John Eddleston "exceeded in warmth and romance all his schoolboy attachments"; and that Byron himself asserted that "'His [Eddleston's] friendship, and a violent, though pure, love and passion ... were the then romance of the most romantic period of my life.'" (24) A line can readily be drawn from these images of Byron's years of poetic development to Smith's representation of Walter and his "romantic friendship" with the beloved friend who nurtured his own poetic formation.
Moore also attributed to Byron "'a feminine cast of character'" in "'his caprices, fits of weeping, sudden affections and dislikes.'" One marker of this feminine cast was his luxuriant curls; as Byron was reputed to have said to Scrope Davies, "'I am as vain about my curls as a girl of sixteen'" (Elfenbein, p. 209). In A Life-Drama Walter's effeminate curls and momentary atheism look back to Byron's sacrilege, temperament, and appearance, while Walter's unsanctioned sexual consummation of passion with Violet recalls Byron's libertinism. The inset tale of "The Lady and the Page" not only expands the transgressive bisexual erotics of A Life-Drama but itself is also a crucial signifier of the poem's performance of Byronism. Just as Byron donned Albanian costume and appropriated Orientalism for his verse tales, the inset tale allows Walter to robe himself in Oriental garb as part of his poetic performance. More specifically, the inset tale and Smith's motif of effeminate men recall Byron's Sardanapalus, the verse drama of 1821 that was much in the air when Smith was writing A Life-Drama, since Austen H. Layard's The Remains of Nineveh was published to wide acclaim (and generous excerptation) in 1849. Reviewers' interest in the historical underpinnings of Nimrod, Semiramis, and Sardanapalus inevitably brought Byron's play to mind, leading to a London revival of Sardanapalus in 1853, the same year that Smith's Poems appeared. (25) In Scene I of Byron's drama the title character is described by Salemenes (the king's brother-in-law) as "femininely garb'd, and scarce less female," and Byron's stage directions in the same scene underscore the point: "Enter SARDANAPALUS effeminately dressed, his Head crowned with Flowers, and his Robe negligently flowing, attended by a Train of Women and young Slaves." Additionally, the opening scene links Semiramis, the masculinized granddame who counterpoints her effeminate grandson, with Bacchus and India (compare the inset tale of A Life-Drama, in which the Lady addresses her Page as "My dusk Hyperion, Bacchus of the Inds!"). When Salemenes reminds Sardanapalus that Queen Semiramis once invaded India, her grandson replies, "There was a certain Bacchus, was there not? / I've heard my Greek girls speak of such--they say / He was a God, ... / Who conquered this same golden realm of Ind / Thou prat'st of, where Semiramis was vanquished." (26) As this context suggests, the inset tale of A Life-Drama was saturated in Byronic associations, and Smith's larger adoption of bisexual poetics and Orientalism enabled him to perform Byronism as a means of enhancing his notoriety and prestige.
Byronism also cloaked a potential scandal that threatened a factory pattern-designer with scant formal education who was suddenly paraded before the world as the era's new poet: the possibility that Smith's poetic vocation and reputation were a product, not a process, of print culture. In introducing Smith to the public in the October 1851 Eclectic Review five months before A Life-Drama began serialization in the Critic, Gilfillan compared the new poet to Keats, emphasized their shared disadvantages in social position, and characterized Smith as "just twenty-one, [one who], from the age of ten, has been employed ten hours a-day in a commercial employment in Glasgow, and has only had the spare hours rescued from daily drudgery for cultivating his mind and muse." (27) Two months later--still three months in advance of the serialization of A Life-Drama--Gilfillan took full credit for discovering the poet and again underscored Smith's social disadvantages: "We--we first--we alone, claim the merit of discovering a new Poet ... who in genius, circumstances, and present position, is not unlike JOHN KEATS.... We have met with no more promising aspirant [though he] has not YENDYS' intellect, nor art, nor culture" (28) According to Brisbane, the rapturous passage in which Walter's intimate friend foretells the arrival of a great poet was inspired by one of the men in the literary society to which Smith belonged, and from which he derived support prior to embarking on his poetic career (p. 42). But Smith's representation of the romantic friendship between Walter and his male friend who brings Walter into a state of poetic fruition and foretells his poetic greatness ("'Like [a] herald, / Walter, I'd rush across this waiting world / And cry, "He comes!'"" [p. 36]) is also consistent with the pronouncements of Smith's mentor-muse Gilfillan. In this context, the key event of the poem is precisely Walter's shift from the discovery of his poetic gift in an intimate relationship with a male friend to heterosexual romance and an achieved poem; only slightly less important is the fact that Smith kills off the beloved friend prior to the action of A Life-Drama ("The sound of his voice did warm my heart like wine. / He's long since dead" [p. 160]). Both in killing off the friend who is identified with the origins of the protagonist's poetry and in blatantly performing Byronism, A Life-Drama at once acknowledges and displaces its own awkward genealogy, associating the achieved poem with a great poet rather than an influential critic. (29)
But of course once Firmilian leveled the claims of Smith and of Gilfillan's critical authority, Smith's transgressive performance of Byronism exploded, giving way to the more scandalous implication that Smith was indeed a mere product of critical manufacture in the literary marketplace. By gathering up the shards of that exploded Byronism in this essay, I have sought to redirect attention to the poem's bisexual poetics. Though the astonishing digressiveness of A Life-Drama will always pose obstacles to attracting a wide audience, the poem merits revisiting on the grounds of its unconventional narrative of gender and sexuality. As Donald E. Hall proposes, "BISEXUALITY = POSTMODERNISM EMBODIED." (30) In its anticipation of postmodern concepts of gender, sexuality, and interracial romance, A Life-Drama might just survive Firmilian after all.
(1) Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 54; Alexander Smith, Poems, 4th ed. (London, 1856), p. 114. Subsequent citations of A Life-Drama are given in the text.
(2) This initial appearance has been suppressed in most accounts of the poem (a matter discussed below). I have found few significant variants between the initial serialization and volume publication, even in the fourth edition which I have relied on for citations. For example, the title above the inset tale in the Critic, "The Lady and the Page," was removed in the volume edition, but the substance of that tale was unchanged.
(3) As Fred Klein observes in The Bisexual Option: A Concept of One-Hundred Percent Intimacy (New York: Arbor House, 1978), "Historical bisexuality is demonstrated by the person who lives a predominantly hetero- or homosexual life but in whose history there are either bisexual experiences and/or fantasies. Sometimes the bisexual history is extensive, sometimes minimal." Klein also asserts that "sequential bisexuality is quite common" and that "the ability to fantasize erotically using both male and female objects is another dimension of bisexuality" (pp. 17-18).
(4) Maria Pramaggiore, "BI-Introduction I: Epistemologies of the Fence," RePresenting Bisexualities: Subjects and Cultures of Fluid Desire, ed. Donald E. Hall and Maria Pramaggiore (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1996), p. 3.
(5) Butler, p. 54. See my first epigraph.
(6) [Arthur Hugh Clough], "Recent English Poetry," North American Review 77 (July 1853): 6.
(7) Rev. T. Brisbane, The Early Years of Alexander Smith, Poet and Essayist. A Study for Young Men (London, 1869), p. 146. Subsequent references to Brisbane are given as in-text citations.
(8) William Claud Henry, "A Study of Alexander Smith and His Reputation as a Spasmodic Writer," Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University, 1942, pp. 52-54, 89. Subsequent references to Henry's study will be given as in-text citations.
(9) Henry, p. 54. Spencer's essay, "The Philosophy of Style," appeared in Westminster Review 58 (October 1852): 435-459; the essay was later revised and published in book form in 1871.
(10) [George Gilfillan], review of Poems by Alexander Smith, 2nd ed., Eclectic Review 98 (November 1853): 552. Henry confirms Gilfillan's authorship of the review (p. 290).
(11) See Louis Crompton, Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th-Century England (1985; repr. Swaffham, England: Gay Men's Press, 1998), pp. 92-97. Crompton refers to Anacreon's "bisexuality" (p. 92) and remarks that even though Moore toned down such elements in his translation, Ode 17, "To Bathyllus," drew an attack from Coleridge in Biographia Literaria on the grounds of the ode's immorality (p. 93).
(12) The erotic overtones of these lines are confirmed by the Lady's asking Walter near the end of Scene II,
Wilt write of some young wanton of an isle Whose beauty so enamoured hath the sea, It clasps it ever in its summer arms And wastes itself away on it in kisses? Or the hot Indes, on whose teeming plains The seasons four knit in one flowery band Are dancing ever? (Smith, pp. 47-48)
Yet again, an expression of same-sex desire is appropriated and refashioned into heterosexual desire.
(13) I return to Smith's appropriating and refashioning of Orientalism and his narrative of interracial romance below.
(14) See Richard Cronin, "Alexander Smith and the Poetry of Displacement," VP 28 (1990): 135. Brisbane asserts that most of Smith's poetry is autobiographical (p. 128).
(15) See W. C. Roscoe's 1854 review in Victorian Scrutinies: Reviews of Poetry 1830-1870, ed. Isobel Armstrong (London: Athlone Press, 1972), p. 198; Mark A. Weinstein, William Edmondstoune Aytoun and the Spasmodic Controversy (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1968), p. 92; Cronin, "Alexander Smith," p. 139; and Cronin, "The Spasmodics," A Companion to Victorian Poetry, ed. Cronin, Alison Chapman, and Anthony H. Harrison (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), p. 300.
A case could also be made that the repeated disruption of the text by image-making enacts bisexual poetics. Linearity has typically been associated with masculinity (and masculine sexuality), whereas amorphous, disrupted, meandering writing has been deemed a female mode--e.g., by Helene Cixous in "The Laugh of the Medusa" (1975, repr. in The Routledge Language and Cultural Theory Reader, ed. Lucy Burke, Tony Crowley, Alan Girvin [London: Routledge, 2000], pp. 161-166) or Susan Winnett, in "Coming Unstrung: Women, Men, Narrative, and Principles of Pleasure," PMLA 105, no. 3 (1990): 505-518. A Life-Drama is characterized both by linearity and disruption.
(16) Compare Moore's "To Bathyllus" (Odes of Anacreon XVII):
And now, with all thy pencil's truth, Portray Bathyllus, lovely youth! Let his hair, in lapses bright, Fall like streaming rays of light; And there the raven's dye confuse With the yellow sunbeam's hues. .... Now from the sunny apple seek The velvet down that spreads his cheek! And there let Beauty's rosy ray In flying blushes richly play;-- Blushes of that celestial flame Which lights the cheek of virgin shame. Then for his lips, that ripely gem-- But let thy mind imagine them!
From The Poetical Works of Thomas Moore (Philadelphia, 1849), pp. 244-245.
(17) Similarly, a few pages later, he asks Violet to unloosen her hair, an act that leaves her sexually open to him, but he also requests, "Imprison me with those white arms of thine" (p. 176).
Violet's erotic agency is yet another reason that I concur with Henry (p. 65) and with Florence Boos that Walter does not rape Violet (as Richard Cronin contends in "Alexander Smith" [p. 133]). Rather than seeing the final word of Scene IX--"Walter!" (p. 177)--as a shriek at her violation, I read the exclamation as one of passionate desire, in keeping with other representations of desiring women in the poem. In insisting on this desire, Smith posits a more threatening, transgressive representation of women than would a conventional rape victim, just as Smith reverses convention by having Walter, nearly mad from remorse over his sin with Violet, ask a prostitute to pray for him (rather than the reverse) (p. 181). If Walter is riven with remorse and guilt at the opening of Scene X, he implies mutual ("our sin"), not sole, guilt for his and Violet's unlawful consummation of love: "We sat in dreadful silence with our sin, / Looking each other wildly in the eyes: ... / She flung herself against me, burst in tears" (p. 185). When Walter adds, "She clung to me / With piteous arms, and shook me with her sobs, / For she had lost her world, her heaven, her God, / And now had nought but me and her great wrong" (p. 185), he does not describe the expected response of a rape victim.
(18) See Edward W. Said, Orientalism (1978; repr. New York: Vintage Books, 1994), pp. 40, 207.
(19) Martha Nussbaum, "Wuthering Heights: The Romantic Ascent," Philosophy and Literature 20, no. 2 (October 1996): 365. Compare June Jordan: "'the analogy for bisexuality is a multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial world view'" (cited by Michael du Plessis, "Blatantly Bisexual: or, Unthinking Queery Theory," in RePresenting Bisexualities: Subjects and Cultures of Fluid Desire, p. 42).
(20) T. Percy Jones [W. E. Aytoun], Firmilian: or The Student of Badajoz. A Spasmodic Tragedy (Edinburgh, 1854), pp. 35-37.
(21) Cronin, "The Spasmodics," p. 296.
(22) "Spasmodic" and "Byronism" became interchangeable terms thanks to Thomas Carlyle's essay "On Sir Walter Scott" in the 1837 London and Westminster Review: "So bounteous was Nature to us; in the sickliest of recorded ages, when British Literature lay all puking and sprawling in Werterism, Byronism, and other Sentimentalism tearful or spasmodic (fruit of internal wind)" (London and Westminster Review 28 [1837-38], repr. in Scottish and Other Miscellanies [London: J. M. Dent, 1915], p. 69). See also Weinstein, p. 65.
(23) Andrew Elfenbein, Byron and the Victorians (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995), p. 206. Compare Dino Felluga in "Novel Poetry: Transgressing the Law of Genre": "The ability of poetry to question the ideologies of the status quo is precisely the threat that many nineteenth-century critics saw in Byron and in the most romantic of the Victorian poetry movements (from the Spasmodics of the early- to the Aesthetics of the mid- to the Decadents of the late-Victorian period)" (VP 41 [Winter 2003]: 491).
(24) Thomas Moore, The Works of Lord Byron: with His Letters and Journals, and His Life (London, 1835), 1:63, 75, 93, 95.
(25) Margaret J. Howell, Byron Tonight: A Poet's Plays on the Nineteenth Century Stage (Windlesham, Surrey: Springwood Books, 1982), p. 72.
(26) Moore, The Works of Lord Byron (London, 1837), 13:67-68, 75. Byron's source, Diodorus Sicculus, vouched for the king's effeminacy but also provided a warrant for the king's conversion to heroic masculinity: "He resolved, however, to die in such a manner as, according to his opinion, should cover the infamy of his scandalous and effeminate life" (Byron's prefatory note, p. 64). In other words, as Susan Wolfson argues, Sardanapalus shifts from effeminacy to chivalric manhood (just as Smith's own Life-Drama does). See '"A Problem Few Dare Imitate': Sardanapalus and 'Effeminate Character,'" ELH 58, no. 4 (1991): 892.
(27) "Recent Poetry," Eclectic Review 94 (October 1851): 458.
(28) The Critic (December 1, 1851): 567; cited in Henry, p. 46. Yendys was the penname of Sydney Dobell, another protege of Gilfillan.
(29) Dino Felluga asserts that critics downplayed Byron's radical politics by associating Byronism with sexual excess and perversity instead. If in performing Byronism Smith likewise distanced himself from Byron's radical politics, he found Byronism an asset rather than a disturbance in the literary marketplace (in contrast to critics who feared that the solitary Victorian poet might destabilize a self-regulating literary market, according to Felluga). Tellingly, however, once A Life-Drama was ridiculed by Firmilian, Smith's biographer Brisbane inserted a reference to radical politics (Smith's witnessing of Chartism) into his explanation of Smith's "abnormal" state of mind when he composed the poem, thus reconnecting radical politics and sexual transgressions. See Felluga, "The Fetish-Logic of Bourgeois Subjectivity, or, the Truth the Romantic Poet Reveals about the Victorian Novel," European Romantic Review 14 (2003): 252-254.
(30) Donald E. Hall, "BI-ntroduction II: Epistemologies of the Fence," in RePresenting Bisexualities: Subjects and Cultures of Fluid Desire, p. 9. In keeping with the indeterminacy of bisexuality, Hall later revises his proposition: "REALITY CHECK: BISEXUALITY [approximately not equal to] POSTMODERNISM EMBODIED + OK AUTHORIZE YOURSELF" (p. 11).
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|Author:||Hughes, Linda K.|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2004|
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