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Poetry and the Thought of Song in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Elizabeth K. Helsinger

BUY Cloth · 256 pp. · 6.125 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813938004 · $45.00 · Sep 2015
BUY Ebook · 256 pp. · ISBN 9780813938011 · $45.00 · Sep 2015

In arguing for the crucial importance of song for poets in the long nineteenth century, Elizabeth Helsinger focuses on both the effects of song on lyric forms and the mythopoetics through which poets explored the affinities of poetry with song. Looking in particular at individual poets and poems, Helsinger puts extensive close readings into productive conversation with nineteenth-century German philosophic and British scientific aesthetics. While she considers poets long described as "musical"—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Emily Brontë, and Algernon Charles Swinburne—Helsinger also examines the more surprising importance of song for those poets who rethought poetry through the medium of visual art: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, and Christina Rossetti. In imitating song’s forms and sound textures through lyric’s rhythm, rhyme, and repetition, these poets were pursuing song’s "thought" in a double sense. They not only asked readers to think of particular kinds of song as musical sound in social performance (ballads, national airs, political songs, plainchant) but also invited readers to think like song: to listen to the sounds of a poem as it moves minds in a different way from philosophy or science. By attending to the formal practices of these poets, the music to which the poets were listening, and the stories and myths out of which each forged a poetics that aspired to the condition of music, Helsinger suggests new ways to think about the nature and form of the lyric in the nineteenth century.


The result of Elizabeth Helsinger’s lifelong engagement with the ‘sister arts’ of the nineteenth century, Poetry and the Thought of Song in Nineteenth-Century Britain is at once a profound meditation on the essence and origins of poetry and an exploration of how the meaning of ‘song’ evolved throughout the nineteenth century and beyond. Through its subtle and philosophically tinged readings in the history of the Victorian lyric, Helsinger’s work reclaims an underappreciated part of the literary tradition and provides an inspiring model for readers and critics of Victorian poetry.

Florence Boos, University of Iowa, editor of the William Morris Archive

Song emerges from Elizabeth Helsinger’s masterly text as an abiding preoccupation, and an essential modality, of Victorian poetry. Helsinger reserves her most eloquent prose for strikingly original readings of works by Tennyson, both Rossettis, Swinburne, and William Morris, from the lyrical utterances of the dying Lady of Shalott to Morris’s adoption of the jaunty inflections of popular song in Chants for Socialists. This contribution to Victorian studies reaches far beyond the literary, and historians of music and art, as well as lovers of Victorian poetry, will find many moments of illumination in these pages.

Tim Barringer, Yale University, author of Men at Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain

This is a fascinating book. In focusing upon the significance of song for a range of nineteenth-century poets, Helsinger's study extends her previous interdisciplinary work (Poetry and the Pre-Raphaelite Arts, 2007), but also develops, modifies, or reapplies work done by several other scholars:

Given the range and thought-provoking nature of this book, it will surely encourage--as Helsinger hopes--further scrutiny of verse practices within other song-related poetry such as "the ballad, the national air, or the revived anacreontic" (18). But since interdisciplinarity is a two-way street, her work also offers potential for musicologists to investigate further the function and nature of song.

In conclusion, therefore, I can highly recommend this book as one that will engage readers with literary or musical backgrounds, as well as those interested in the fascinating potential that such interdisciplinary studies can offer.

Michael Allis · Review 19

[A]n absorbing study of poetry’s affinities with song. Helsinger, Professor Emerita of English, Art History, and Visual Arts at the University of Chicago, shows here that her astutely perceptive eye is complemented by a sensitive ear, adept at registering the subtle particularities of rhythm and rhyme in Tennyson, Emily Brontë, Morris, Dante Rossetti and Christina Rossetti, Swinburne, and Hopkins, all of whom imply or indeed insist on their poetry’s intimate relationship with song.

Pre-Raphaelite Studies

About the Author(s): 

Elizabeth K. Helsinger, author of Poetry and the Pre-Raphaelite Arts: Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris, is John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor Emerita of English, Art History, and Visual Arts at the University of Chicago.

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