Thomas Hardy’s Fourth Dimension

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m currently researching the final chapter of Poetical Matter, my book on nineteenth-century poetry and the physical sciences. One of the aims of this blog is to test out ideas and to reflect on the process of research, and so I’m going to be honest and admit that, already, my work on this chapter isn’t going as planned. That’s not necessarily a problem, but it is forcing me to rethink my approach to the chapter, so in this post I’m going to focus on the difficulties I’ve experienced so far and the questions they’ve raised, rather than on any solutions I’ve reached or any arguments I’ve developed (mainly because I haven’t yet).

The issue is this: my final chapter is on Thomas Hardy’s poetry, and was supposed to be titled ‘Hardy’s Numbers’. Counting is a common device in Hardy’s poems, and I had an intuitive hunch that his habit of counting was connected in some way to his observations and interpretations of the material world. But my hunch was wrong. After a more attentive reading of Hardy’s poems, I’ve realised that when he uses numbers in his verse, he typically uses them to represent the passage of time, either with reference to clocks (as Jeffrey Blevins has pointed out, Hardy’s poems are full of minutes, hours, and ticking timepieces), or with reference to the passing of years and decades (memory and ageing are, of course, recurring preoccupations of Hardy’s poetry). There are some poems in which numbers are cited in the observation of material things (for example, ‘A Wet August’), but not many.

This realisation is linked to another feature of Hardy’s writing, one which he shares with several of the poets I’m writing about in Poetical Matter. I’d assumed that nineteenth-century poets (and poets writing in the nineteenth-century tradition, like Hardy) were obsessed with the detailed (and therefore arguably sort-of-scientific) description of particular material things in the natural world (a rock, a tree, a flower, a cloud, a stream etc). And they are. But they also, often, write about matter in a more speculative or theoretical way, putting forward arguments about (and not observations of) matter in general (rather than specific material things). There are several Hardy poems that discuss matter in this way, and I’m now thinking that this is what my Hardy chapter is going to need to focus on. To give you an example, here is ‘A Dream Question’, from Hardy’s 1909 volume Time’s Laughingstocks. The poem is one of Hardy’s several dialogues with (or disapproving interrogations of) the God that he isn’t sure exists.

I asked the Lord: 'Sire, is this true
Which hosts of theologians hold,
That when we creatures censure you
For shaping griefs and ails untold
(Deeming them punishments undue)
You rage, as Moses wrote of old?

'When we exclaim: "Beneficent
He is not, for he orders pain,
Or, if so, not omnipotent:
To a mere child the thing is plain!"
Those who profess to represent
You, cry out: "Impious and profane!"'

He: 'Save me from my friends, who deem
That I care what my creatures say!
Mouth as you list: sneer, rail, blaspheme,
O manikin, the livelong day,
Not one grief-groan or pleasure-gleam
Will you increase or take away.

'Why things are thus, whoso derides,
May well remain my secret still....
A fourth dimension, say the guides,
To matter is conceivable.
Think some such mystery resides
Within the ethic of my will.'

This isn’t one of Hardy’s better-known poems, but I’m a fan. It’s funny in a typically Hardyesque way: I particularly like its use of ‘derides’ instead of the expected ‘decides’ in the final stanza, as the hoped-for explanation is replaced with an insult. For my purpose, though, the most interesting part of the final stanza, and of the whole poem, is the analogy between God’s ‘will’ and the constitution of matter. At the moment, I have three broad questions about this poem, which I’m going to need to answer if it’s to form part of the chapter’s argument

First, the source-hunting question. When and where did Hardy read or hear about the fourth dimension? This question is complicated by the fact that the poem is undated. In Robert Schweik’s essay on science, philosophy, and religion in Hardy’s work, ‘A Dream Question’ is cited as evidence of Hardy’s interest in Einstein’s theories of relativity, and their elaboration of a four-dimensional model of space-time. This argument would be very helpful to me, as it would allow me to connect the material number of this poem (matter’s fourth dimension) to the temporal numbers of Hardy’s other poems. But there’s a snag: as far I’m aware, Hardy didn’t read anything about Einstein until the first big wave of popularisation of his theories in Britain, which took place in 1919-20. This poem, published in 1909, is at least 10 years too early to register Einstein’s influence. More generally, the language of time as the fourth dimension wasn’t fully developed until 1907-8, by the Lithuanian mathematician Hermann Minkowski (although H. G. Wells speculates about time as the fourth dimension in The Time Machine [1895]). It seems unlikely (although it’s possible, I suppose) that Hardy would have read Minkowski’s specialist account of four-dimensional space-time.

The reference to ‘matter’ suggests that Hardy’s source for this analogy is more likely to have been one or more of the Victorian theories that defined the fourth dimension in spatial rather than temporal terms (there’s a useful introduction to Victorian theories of the fourth dimension in Rosemary Jann’s introduction to Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland [1884]). My next task is to delve into letters, notebooks, and biographies in order to find out where Hardy might have read about the fourth dimension: from literary writers like Wells, Abbott, or Oscar Wilde (in ‘The Canterville Ghost’); from mathematicians such as Charles Howard Hinton (who wrote ‘What is the Fourth Dimension?’ in 1880), or from physicists like Balfour Stewart and Peter Guthrie Tait, who speculate about the fourth dimension in their entertainingly weird book The Unseen Universe (1875).

four-dimensional space

A four-dimensional shape (source – BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History)

The second question is going to be trickier to answer: what is the significance of Hardy’s analogy between the fourth dimension and the will of God? What is its effect on possible interpretations of the poem? To some extent, the fourth dimension appears to be a convenient metaphor for a recurring theme in Hardy’s poetry: the impossibility of understanding the meaning or purpose of the universe (if, of course, there is one). But it’s a central tenet of literature-and-science research that scientific metaphors, even when used in seemingly offhand ways, are not inert. Instead, they act as catalysts for new interpretative possibilities, transforming both the vehicle of the metaphor (the scientific concept) and its tenor. So what is Hardy doing with the fourth dimension here?

In a way, his reference to ‘matter’ is unusual. As Deanna Kreisel explains in her comprehensive introduction to Victorian theories of ‘hyperspace’, debates about the fourth dimension in the nineteenth century tended to be mathematical in orientation; they typically discussed the fourth dimension in terms of abstract space and geometrical figures. Hardy’s identification of the fourth dimension as a property of matter suggests something more, well, material, more tangible and physical. It possibly aligns him with the smaller number of Victorian writers (e.g. Stewart and Tait) who presented the fourth dimension as an empirically unknowable aspect of matter. For these writers, spiritual and moral properties were inherent in matter (or at least in some forms of matter), but unlike the three spatial dimensions these properties could not be apprehended via the senses. The fourth dimension, therefore, was a bridge that connected physical science, religion, and spiritualism. If Hardy has this sort of argument in mind in ‘A Dream Question’, then the fourth dimension is not just a rhetorical metaphor. Instead, there is a direct correspondence between this mysterious aspect of matter and the ‘ethic’ of God’s ‘will’; the two might even be the same thing. This doesn’t sound like a very Hardyesque argument to me, so it’s also possible that, in his usual grimly humorous way, Hardy is satirising that theory, or pointing out the futility of all such speculations.

The third question is about the form of the poem. One of the reasons I wanted to call this chapter ‘Hardy’s Numbers’ was that this title would give me the opportunity for a clever pun, linking Hardy’s counting of material objects with the ‘numbers’ of poetic metre (and specifically with the often complex and variable metres of Hardy’s verse). I guess I’ll have to give up on that pun now: the chapter’s going to need a new title. Besides, the metre of this poem isn’t particularly complex. It’s written in a kind of extended long-measure stanza – lines of iambic tetrameter rhyming ababab – and the rhythms of most of its lines stick fairly closely to the metre. I suppose there is a kind of formal irony going on throughout the poem, as an intellectually subversive claim is expressed in a relatively conventional form, but that feels like a fairly obvious (and not hugely interesting) point. I’ve a lot of work still to do, I think, on the relation between Hardy’s ideas about matter and the forms of his verse.

To close, I’d like to apologise for the rambling and meandering style of this post. My only excuse is that I’m still in the early stages of this research, so, if any Hardy specialists read this, I can only apologise if I’ve missed something blindingly obvious or said anything embarrassingly facile. If you’ve had the patience to read this to the end, I’d welcome your thoughts on it.


Nineteenth-Century Poetry and the Physical Sciences

I’ve tried a few times to get into the habit of regular blogging, but my success so far has been, well, limited. This post is the start of another concerted effort. And this time it’ll be different. I’m working on three projects at the moment. I’ve written an article and an entry for the Dictionary of National Biography on the Victorian poet, novelist, and social worker May Kendall, both of which will (hopefully) be published soon. I’m editing a volume of the poetry and prose of another Victorian, Arthur Hugh Clough, for Oxford University Press’s 21st-Century Oxford Authors series. And I’m writing a book titled Poetical Matter, which studies the exchange of methods, language, and concepts between poetry and the physical sciences in nineteenth-century Britain. I’ll be blogging about all three projects as I work on them, because hopefully the posts will be of interest to some people, and also because I want to see if blogging can form part of the process of research, if it can be a means of testing and developing ideas before I have to take the permanently daunting step of writing them down as part of a book or article. If other researchers use blogging as part of their process, I’d be very interested to hear how it works for you.

My main focus in my posts will be on Poetical Matter, a project which I’ll be finishing in 2017-18, and for which I currently hold a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship. The purpose of the book is to explore the connections between poetic and scientific writing about material things in the nineteenth century (its focus is exclusively on the things of nature – atoms, rocks, stars, planets – rather than manufactured objects). Its argument is that poetry and the physical sciences (primarily physics and chemistry, but the book also looks at geology and astronomy) were both considered to be simultaneously empiricist and speculative in orientation: they both used the observation and manipulation of material things as the basis of inductive theorisations of natural phenomena. This shared methodology meant that poets could incorporate the most up-to-date developments in scientific theory into their verse, and that science writers could (and did) write and quote poetry in support of their scientific arguments. But it also prompted a dilemma that was felt by poets and by science writers: they were attracted, to some extent, by the explanatory power of philosophical materialism, but they were also troubled by its reductive stance and by the threat that it seemed to pose to morality and religion. The effort to reconcile a methodological focus on matter with religious, metaphysical, or ethical beliefs was a concern shared by most poets and science writers.

I’m trying in this book to give a wide view of intellectual trends in nineteenth-century Britain, and so it looks at poems and scientific texts written across the century, from the 1790s to the 1910s. In an effort to make this broad chronological sweep more manageable, and my argument more focused, the book’s chapters present a series of case studies, starting with Wordsworth and ending with Hardy. In between, it will also consider the poetry of Tennyson and Mathilde Blind, poems about science that were published in the Victorian periodical press, and the scientific writing of (among others) Humphry Davy, William Whewell, Mary Somerville, John Tyndall, James Clerk Maxwell, and Oliver Lodge.

V0005942 John Tyndall. Colour lithograph by A. Cecioni, 1872.

Vanity Fair‘s 1872 caricature of physicist, poetry fan, and enthusiastic amateur poet John Tyndall (source:

Each of Poetical Matter‘s chapters focuses on a particular word or phrase that was used in overlapping but distinct ways by nineteenth-century poets and science writers: for example, ‘form’, ‘sound’, and ‘rhythm’. This particular focus on language may seem counterintuitive in a book about matter, but it makes sense, I think, because poets and science writers were both preoccupied with the question of whether and how it was possible to record in words the experience of directly interacting with matter, whether through visual observation, touch, or experimental manipulation. One of the book’s conclusions, I think, is going to be that poets and science writers alike emphasised the strangeness of matter: it was in an important sense the foundation of their work, and of subjective experience in general, but it was also extremely difficult to explain or define in any straightforward way. To demonstrate this strangeness, poets and science writers discussed several different kinds of ‘poetical matter’:

  1. Tangible material things, such as rocks and rivers, which were observed in detail but which were also used as the inductive foundation of more-or-less speculative scientific and metaphysical theories.
  2. Forms of matter that were not directly accessible to the senses, and that therefore had to be theorised and described in abstract and imaginative terms. The atom, which throughout most of the long nineteenth century was understood as the basic constituent of matter, is the best example of this.
  3. Forms of matter that were entirely hypothetical. For example, nineteenth-century physicists were almost unanimous in positing the existence of a material ether that pervaded space and that acted as the medium through which light, heat, electricity, magnetism (and, for some, gravity) moved. Because these forms of energy were understood as waves, vibrations, or undulations, the ether model imagined space as both material and rhythmic, and this scientific construction of a rhythmic universe had an important influence on some nineteenth-century poets.
  4. Material phenomena that appeared to be, and were often still understood as, immaterial. Sound, and particularly the human voice, is a good example of this. Science writers frequently used poetry to illustrate the argument that sound was transmitted as wave motions in the particles of the air and of other kinds of matter; poets tried to reconcile this materialist explanation of sound with the notion that the voice, and particularly the poetic voice, was a spiritual signifier of personal identity.

I think that gives a reasonable indication of what Poetical Matter is about. I’m currently writing the book’s final chapter, ‘Hardy’s Numbers’, on Thomas Hardy’s listing, counting, and detailed observation of material things in his poetry. These habits demonstrate Hardy’s adherence to a nineteenth-century tradition of minute observation and descriptive cataloguing in the study of nature. But Hardy’s insistent use of numbers also conveys a concern, shaped by his interest in twentieth-century scientific developments such as Einstein’s theories of relativity, that objective measurement of the material universe may be impossible. I’ll be blogging about Hardy’s poetry as I work on this chapter over the next couple of months.

Observing Keats

I’m still thinking about John Keats and medicine. I’ve recently written a couple of articles – one on Jane Austen’s ‘Sanditon’ and one on Keats’s ‘Ode to Psyche’ – which consider how professional medicine might have provided nineteenth-century writers with a model for effective literary practice (in the description of characters, for instance, or in the communication of humane knowledge). But I think (or I hope) that, in the case of Keats, there’s still more to say, specifically about how his time as a medical student and dresser in London in 1815-17 trained him in a diagnostic method, and in a particular approach to working with patients, that also informed his poetry.

British medicine in the early nineteenth century was engaged in an ambitious (if uneven) process of professionalisation, exemplified in the 1815 Apothecaries’ Act, which for the first time mandated a (roughly) standardised curriculum of instruction and examination for trainee apothecaries. Keats was one of the first students to enrol at Guy’s and St Thomas’s hospitals after the passing of the act, and, as John Barnard has shown, in 1815-16 he attended the eminent surgeon Astley Cooper’s lectures on anatomy and on surgery. Cooper was an important contributor to the professionalisation of medicine, and especially to the development of a scientific approach to diagnosis and surgical treatment, which rejected systematic theorising and relied instead on empirical data and on detailed anatomical knowledge.

Descriptions of this approach are everywhere in notes taken by students who attended Cooper’s lectures at the same time as Keats (notes that are now held in the archives of King’s College London and of the Royal College of Surgeons). One student, Joshua Waddington, recorded Cooper as saying that the ‘principles’ of surgery ‘are founded upon observation of diseased living, and the examination of diseased dead Animals, and on experiments made on the living’. Another, George Ray, noted down the same maxim: surgical principles ‘are derived from three sources. 1st from the observation of the symptoms of Disease during life. 2ndly from the examination of the appearance of the body after Death. 3rd by experiments on living animals.’ For Cooper, it seems, observation, examination, and experimentation formed a kind of scientific trivium that underpinned surgical practice, and that viewed the living and the dead as the data of medical science.


St Thomas’s hospital, where Keats attended Astley Cooper’s lectures.

How might this approach have informed Keats’s poetry? To give one example: in ‘The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream’ (1819), Keats uses the Greek myth of the war between the Titans and the Olympians as the narrative framework around which he constructs his definitions of poetry and of the poet. Moneta, the goddess of memory, gifts the poem’s speaker with ‘A power […] of enormous ken / To see as a God sees’ (1:303-4), which enables him to witness the sufferings of the defeated Titans Saturn and Thea:

                     A long awful time
I looked upon them: still they were the same;
The frozen God still bending to the earth,
And the sad Goddess weeping at his feet;
Moneta silent. Without stay or prop,
But my own weak mortality, I bore
The load of this eternal quietude,
The unchanging gloom, and the three fixèd shapes
Ponderous upon my senses a whole moon. (1:384-92)

The critical consensus about these lines (most recently set out by Brittany Pladek) is that they describe an instance of imaginative identification with suffering, of sympathy or (to use an anachronistic word, not coined until the early twentieth century) empathy. The most important words here, in this interpretation, are ‘I bore / the load’. But what load is the speaker bearing? I’m not convinced that he is sympathetically experiencing the Titans’ grief and humiliation. Instead, the feeling he describes appears to be a kind of boredom, or a detached (and therefore, perhaps, professional) indifference. The difficulty that faces him in these lines is not that of surviving the superhuman pain of the Titans, but that of maintaining his disciplined, monotonous observation throughout the ‘long awful time’ of their stillness (it’s a difficulty that’s articulated in the sound of Keats’s blank verse, and specifically in the acoustic repetition of ‘ponderous upon my senses’). In his efforts to understand the Titans, the speaker first and foremost looks at them rather than feeling for them, an approach that agrees with Astley Cooper’s insistence on the centrality of observation and examination to diagnosis.

This is not scientific objectivity, which Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison define as ‘knowledge that bears no trace of the knower’; the speaker’s observation of Saturn and Thea is filtered through his ‘own weak mortality’. But it is knowledge in which the subjectivity of the observer is distanced from those he observes: he characterises the Titans not as living and suffering persons but as visual ‘shapes’. Rather than describing a process of imaginative identification, these lines suggest that, in poetry as in scientific medicine, fellow feeling perhaps needs to be subordinated to observational accuracy. And, to put forward the kind of speculative hypothesis of which Cooper disapproved, I also think that the speaker’s observation of the Titans indicates that there is a place in poetry for ‘experiments made on the living’. ‘The Fall of Hyperion’ may be interpreted as an experiment that tests what happens when a poet tries to observe, diagnose, and describe suffering magnified to eternal, immortal proportions.

‘Condensed Sensibility’: Keats, Medicine, and Sympathy

I’ve just published an essay on John Keats in a special issue of the journal Romanticism. The essay builds on the work of several critics, particularly Nicholas Roe, James Allard, and R.S. White, in arguing that Keats’s poetry was informed by his time as a medical student and dresser at Guy’s Hospital (1815-17). It tries to bring something new to the study of the connections between Romantic poetry and medicine by focusing on the concept of sympathy. Throughout his writing, Keats champions sympathetic feeling for others as one of poetry’s central concerns, but he also imposes limits on the exercise of sympathy, seeking to preserve an objectifying distance between the poet and the emotions that his poetry examines. This model of restrained sympathy was influenced, I think, by Keats’s medical training, and particularly by The Hospital Pupil’s Guide, a volume first published in London in 1816 and ‘addressed to students of the medical profession’, and which Keats is likely to have read. Even if he didn’t, he would have been introduced to a similar understanding of sympathy through his attendance at the lectures of the renowned surgeon Astley cooper, whom White identifies as the lead author of the guide.

The Hospital Pupil’s Guide insistently presents medicine as an objective and scientific practice, a stance designed to reinforce the growing professionalisation and intellectual authority of medical work and medical practitioners in the early nineteenth century. But while the guide celebrates the ‘rational exercise of the mental faculties’, it also highlights the important but ambiguous role of sympathetic feeling in professional medicine. It advises its student readers that ‘in the practice of the Profession, benevolence of disposition’ is ‘imperiously demanded.’ This argument betrays a fear that, as medicine becomes professionalised, its practitioners may act as, or be viewed as, unfeeling specialists rather than gentlemanly benefactors.

However, the guide also warns that correct professional action depends on the capacity to mediate between sympathy and professional expertise: ‘genuine sensibility, while it enters into the sufferings of others, is yet a principled feeling, and its first emotion is to relieve that suffering. In his prosecution of the line of conduct dictated by his judgment, the surgeon is deaf to the pains of his patient’. The Hospital Pupil’s Guide characterises this as a ‘condensed sensibility’, and concludes that ‘a man who has not obtained this self-control, is unfit for the practice of his profession’.

How does this model of ‘condensed sensibility’ influence Keats’s thinking about poetry? There is evidence for its importance to him throughout his letters, even when he is arguing that poets have a particular capacity for unmediated and unrestrained sympathy. In November 1817 his claim that ‘if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existince [sic] and pick about the Gravel’ is followed by his admission that ‘I sometimes feel not the influence of a Passion or Affection during a whole week—and so long this sometimes continues I begin to suspect myself and the genuiness [sic] of my feelings at other times—thinking them a few barren Tragedy-tears’. This insusceptibility, he claims, is not ‘heartlessness but abstraction’. Like the self-control advocated in his medical training, Keats’s abstraction distances him from other people, but it also enables him to develop self-knowledge through an objectifying examination of his feelings.

John Keats

John Keats, 1819

Throughout 1819, worried about his financial prospects, Keats frequently considered the possibility of resuming his medical career. Writing in a letter about the possibility of taking a position as a surgeon on a merchant ship, he applauds the clinical stance of such work, its emphasis on the impartial analysis of, rather than the sympathetic identification with, other people: ‘To be thrown among people who care not for you, with whom you have no sympathies forces the Mind upon its own resourses [sic], and leaves it free to make its speculations of the differences of human character and to class them with the calmness of a Botanist’. The removal of sympathy has two related effects: it turns the mind away from others and towards self-knowledge, and it enables the scientific observation and classification of other people’s personalities. Although Keats decided not to re-enlist in the medical profession, his poetry makes consistent use of these objectifying strategies of internalisation and systematic observation. It also asks how these strategies might work in co-operation with the exercise of the sympathetic imagination.

Keats’s ‘Ode to Psyche’, for example, reveals several similarities between the methods of medicine and poetry. If the ode as a form aims for synthesis, then this particular ode aspires to a synthesis between sympathy and self-possessed impartiality. Keats presents a number of different approaches to poetic creativity over the course of the poem, and the movement between them constitutes, among other things, an effort to withdraw from or delimit sympathy. First, there is the intimate apostrophe of the opening lines:

O Goddess! hear these tuneless numbers, wrung

By sweet enforcement and remembrance dear,

And pardon that thy secrets should be sung

Even into thine own soft-conched ear: (ll. 1-4)

This apostrophe implies communication and relationship, but it also distances the poet from other people by figuring the human soul as a generalised abstraction, which is personified in and addressed through the figure of Psyche: Keats’s deployment of apostrophe, like the model of medicine set out in his hospital training, simultaneously involves connection with others and detached observation.

There is a comparable ambiguity in the poet’s relation to Psyche in the ode’s final stanza:

Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane

In some untrodden region of my mind,

Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain,

Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind: (ll. 50-53)

In these lines Keats internalises his observations of Psyche, worshipping her within his subjectivity. This process encapsulates the ambivalence towards sympathy shared by Keats’s poetics and the medical profession. The affective ramifications of the poet’s thoughts, ‘new grown with pleasant pain’, might suggest that his worship is an expansive process of imaginative sympathy with the feelings of humanity, encapsulated in the figure of Psyche. As in medicine, however, this sympathy is simultaneously an objectification, a conversion of other people’s circumstances and sensations into a cognitive assessment of symptoms, and that objectification is realised through Keats’s internalisation of the Psyche myth in his mind. The ode stages a poetic method which is founded on strategies of internalisation, self-examination, and observation. As in nineteenth-century medicine, sympathy in this poem is informed by, and to some extent dependent on, a disciplined resistance to feeling.

The Victorians, Paris, and Europe

As I’ve written in previous posts, the Victorians often used Paris as a synecdoche for Europe as a whole, and specifically for a European approach to politics and culture that was the opposite of Britishness (which they often identified, narrowly and exclusively, with Englishness). But as the examples below hopefully show, even those Victorians who tried to impose a firm boundary between British and European culture also recognised how closely their national identities were shaped by understandings of and responses to Europe. It’s hard to be nostalgic for Victorian models of Englishness (primarily, of course, because of their ideological dependence on imperialism), but, living in a post-Brexit world, I think it’s sobering to consider that the Victorian stance towards Europe was, in some ways, more open and cosmopolitan than current British attitudes.

In 1851, three years after the revolution that created the Second French Republic, the president of the republic and nephew of Napoleon I, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, dissolved the National Assembly and arrested his political opponents (a year later, after the establishment of the Second Empire, he renamed himself Napoleon III). Two Victorian poets who witnessed the coup d’état while staying in Paris in December 1851 strongly disagreed with each other in their assessments of it. Napoleon III was one of two things that Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning argued about (the other was spiritualism): ‘Robert & I’, wrote Elizabeth, ‘have had some domestic émeutes on this question.’ While Robert interpreted the coup as the repressive act of an autocratic executive, Elizabeth, emphasising the support for Bonaparte in Paris, characterised it as an expression of popular sovereignty, another manifestation of the revolutionary tradition of 1789. The speaker of her 1856 verse-novel Aurora Leigh summarised her view of the new imperial regime: ‘This Head has all the people for a heart; / This purple’s lined with the democracy.’

Barrett Browning agreed with Tennyson that the dramatic upheavals of recent Parisian history were at odds with the conventions of English political culture, but her preference (as is clear throughout her poetry) was for a European rather than an English model of literary and political identity. Writing a week after the coup, she dismissed criticisms that the action was illegal: ‘Constitutional forms & essential principles of liberty are so associated in England that they are apt to be confounded & are, in fact, constantly confounded.’ Later, it’s worth noting, Napoleon III’s suppression of the republic and resurrection of the empire were ratified through the ‘constitutional forms’ of two plebiscites, the preferred tools of Bonapartist autocracy throughout the nineteenth century (not that I’m casting any aspersions on the democratic legitimacy of plebiscites and referenda).

Barrett Browning’s confidence that Bonaparte was a champion of liberty enabled her to enjoy his coup as a kind of triumphant parade or tourist spectacle: ‘We have had magnificent advantages of situation here, & I have scarcely left the window these two days, watching the pouring in of the troops, to music, trumpets, & shouting.’ But her letters also register the usual Victorian ambivalence towards Paris. As the army systematically suppressed the limited opposition to the coup throughout the city, she was troubled by the tangible proximity of political violence: ‘one shrank from going quietly to sleep while human beings were dying in heaps, perhaps within ear-shot.’


Paris, 1851

Cavalry on the streets of Paris, 2 December 1851

In the 1850s Napoleon III, working with his Prefect of the Seine Georges-Eugène Haussmann, launched a wholesale remodelling of central Paris, demolishing several working-class neighbourhoods and replacing them with wider and less easily barricaded boulevards. As Elisabeth Jay argues, this redesign of the city, intended both to modernise the imperial capital and to hamper any future insurrections, was a source of alienation for British writers, who were often ‘bowled over’ by ‘the French state’s powers to bring about rapid, visible change in Paris.’ The history of the city was being obliterated with dizzying enthusiasm, in a way that contrasted sharply with the slower pace of change in Victorian Britain. Dickens, however, who had started visiting Paris shortly before 1848, was impressed with the changes made by Napoleon III. In 1853 he wrote that the city was ‘wonderfully improving. Thousands of houses must have been pulled down for the construction of an immense street’ which when finished, he thought, ‘will be the finest thing in Europe. The quays are Macademized and as clean as Regent Street.’ For him, Paris in the 1850s was improving because it was starting to resemble Victorian London.

He suggests something similar in A Tale of Two Cities (1859). This novel seems to be structured around an opposition between London and the alien and volatile Paris of the 1780s and 90s, but it attends as much to the similarities as to the differences between the two. It famously ends with Sydney Carton, in the seconds before he is guillotined during the Terror, prophesying a bright future for Paris: ‘I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss.’ Carton’s peroration represents a peculiarly Victorian effort to make sense of Parisian history, to subsume the city’s bewildering cycles of violent transformation within a safely liberal narrative of cumulative progress. Yet the novel’s conclusion is at odds with its considerable imaginative investment in sustained descriptions not just of the ‘wild beasts’ of the revolutionary Parisian mob but of a London mob that is also capable of furious violence. Dickens’s interpretation of Paris hovers nervously between admiration and fear, between a sense of its disconcerting foreignness and a conviction of its worrying similarity to home. For him, as for other Victorian writers, the city is an emblem of the contradictions inherent in Britain’s relation to Europe.

Those contradictions are summed up, aptly, in Queen Victoria’s responses to the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the collapse of Napoleon III’s regime, and the insurrection of the Paris Commune. In April 1871, as troops loyal to the recently formed Third Republic besieged the Commune, the queen wrote to her daughter Vicky, crown princess of Germany, to share her satisfaction: ‘How dreadful the state of Paris is! Surely that Sodom and Gomorrah as Papa called it deserves to be crushed.’ Months earlier, though, when it had been German forces surrounding Paris, she had been more circumspect. She warned Vicky that the feelings of the British public, which had been solidly pro-German at the start of the war, were changing in response to the scale of the French defeat and the danger posed to the capital: ‘The fact is people are so fond of Paris – so accustomed to go there that the threatened ruin of it makes them furious and unreasonable.’ For all her chauvinism, Victoria recognised that the exchange of people and ideas inescapably linked Britain to Paris, and to Europe more generally. It’s worrying, to say the least, that so many people in Britain today don’t agree with her.

English Literature and French Revolutions

As I wrote in my previous post, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the ways in which nineteenth-century writers defined British national identity, and about how Englishness fitted into (and often dominated) those definitions. Elisabeth Jay’s recent book British Writers and Paris 1830-1875 has helped me to realise how often Englishness and Britishness were imagined in opposition to representations of Europe, and especially of the city that was viewed, throughout the nineteenth century, as the epitome of European culture.

For British writers, the changing appearance of nineteenth-century Paris embodied the troubling fluctuations of French and European politics. Even after they had been swept away, though, the city’s streets and buildings, and the events that had taken place in and on them, continued to exert an obstinate pull on the memory and the imagination. British writers frequently tried to construct a historical narrative that might make sense of the city’s successive revolutions, but they also acknowledged the ways in which Paris resisted any comfortingly straightforward interpretation. In his autobiographical poem The Prelude, Wordsworth recalled his brief stay in Paris in October 1792, just after the September massacres:

I crossed (a black and empty area then)

The Square of the Carrousel, few weeks back

Heaped up with dead and dying – upon these

And other sights looking as doth a man

Upon a volume whose contents he knows

Are memorable but from him locked up,

Being written in a tongue he cannot read.

These lines, written in 1805 but not published until after Wordsworth’s death in 1850, encapsulate the difficulties that British writers struggled with when they tried to explain recent Parisian history. Wordsworth presents himself both as a sightseer and as an interpreter or translator, but he is at a loss to make sense of Paris’s uncanny transformation, in the space of a few weeks, from a slaughterhouse to a mundane urban scene. Despite Wordsworth’s best efforts, the city remains intractably foreign and alien, and his sense of alienation intensified as the years and decades passed. Visiting again in 1837, he wrote to a friend:

‘What shall I say of Paris? Many splendid edifices and some fine streets have been added since I first saw it at the close of the year ­-91. But I have had little feeling to spare for novelties, my heart and mind having been awakened everywhere to sad and strange recollections of what was then passing and of subsequent events, which have either occurred in this vast City, or which have flowed from it as their source.’

Although struck by the changes imposed on Paris by successive regimes – the imperial government of Napoleon I, the restored Bourbon monarchy, the July monarchy of Louis Philippe – Wordsworth professes himself to be unmoved by these ‘novelties’. Juxtaposing the city’s physical transformation with his dormant but ineradicable memories of its history, his letter summarises the prevailing British view of Paris as a place that simultaneously enforced the obliteration and the recollection of the past.

Elisabeth Jay points out that the city was a perfect setting for the nostalgic Romanticism of much Victorian writing. British authors took its transformations personally, responding with ‘bouts of reflection on earlier selves from which they now seemed irretrievably estranged by the wholesale destruction of the buildings, streets, and enclaves where they had formerly wandered.’ But there was also an important political dimension to these reflections. When Wordsworth wrote in The Prelude that, after the violence of September 1792, ‘The fear gone by / Pressed on me almost like a fear to come’, he was using his recollection of personal dread to allude to the political Terror that commenced soon after he left Paris. The ‘fear to come’ haunted British writers throughout the nineteenth century, because the city’s political disturbances were at the same time dangerously chaotic and worryingly predictable. There was never too long to wait until the next revolution.

Some Victorians saw the funny side of what Jay describes as the ‘cyclical inevitability’ of Parisian revolution. After the insurrection of June 1848 (the second of that year), the satirical magazine Punch accused a popular newspaper, the Illustrated London News, of fabricating its pictures of the barricades. They had been published so promptly, Punch suggested, that they must have been prepared in advance of the uprising:

‘Any one might have foreseen for weeks previous that there would shortly be another Revolution in Paris. It required no great prophet to guess such a very common event as that. We should not at all wonder if our spirited contemporary has not already on hand half-a-dozen more Revolutions, so as to meet the pressure of the times.’

Horace Vernet Barricade Rue Soufflot

Horace Vernet, On the Barricades on the Rue Soufflot, Paris, 25 June 1848

Other writers were deadly serious about the threat posed by Paris’s habitual volatility. In his 1850 elegy for his friend Arthur Hallam, In Memoriam, Tennyson connected the personal to the political by imagining his coming to terms with grief as one part of a global, teleological progress towards peace and security:

And all is well, though faith and form

Be sundered in the night of fear;

Well roars the storm to those that hear

A deeper voice across the storm,

Proclaiming social truth shall spread,

And justice, ev’n though thrice again

The red fool-fury of the Seine

Should pile her barricades with dead.

In Memoriam is a famously cyclical poem, its abba rhyme scheme embodying the difficulty Tennyson finds in moving on from his grief. The recurring ‘fool-fury of the Seine’ is presented here as emblematic of the kind of pathological stagnation from which Tennyson (and, the poem implies, the whole world) must struggle to break free. When they were drafted prior to the 1848 revolution, these lines warned of the danger of the Parisian people ‘once again’ taking to the barricades; the revision to ‘thrice again’ indicates just how anxious some British writers were about the repetitive pattern of revolutionary activity in 1789, 1830, and 1848. And these stanzas also highlight a problem with the word ‘British’ in relation to Victorian opinions about Paris. In this poem Tennyson contrasts a specifically English ‘love of freedom’ (liberal, measured, reformist) not just with the fury of the Parisian mob but also with ‘The blind hysterics of the Celt’. For some Victorians, the alien political culture represented by Paris was defined in opposition not to an inclusive British national identity, but to an exclusive model of Englishness that linked Scotland, Wales, and especially Ireland to the chaotic irrationality of European politics.

I wanted to resist making any kind of facile comparison between these nineteenth-century examples and the current debate about Brexit. But I don’t think I can. British writers’ interpretations of Paris in the nineteenth century show that, however much they tried to define British national identity in opposition to European culture, the two were inescapably connected through the physical travels of people and through a reciprocal exchange of cultural traditions and political beliefs. And the example of Tennyson’s poem also suggests that a rejection of Europe tends to highlight the internal tensions within (an inherently composite) British national identity, and threatens to undermine the cultural multiplicity that arguably defines Britishness.

Review of Elisabeth Jay, British Writers and Paris 1830-1875

My research focuses primarily on the intersections between literature and science in the nineteenth century. Recently, though, I’ve been getting more and more interested in another aspect of nineteenth-century culture: the relation between definitions of Englishness and Britishness, and the ways in which literary writing might have helped to construct these mismatched but overlapping national identities. I started thinking about this a few years ago when I read and reviewed Robert J. C. Young’s book The Idea of English Ethnicity. Moving to Scotland in 2015, though, without question sharpened my awareness that my understanding of ‘English Literature’ in the nineteenth century was too firmly and parochially English, that I hadn’t thought seriously enough about the ways in which Irish, Scottish, and Welsh cultures were subsumed within or marginalised by the prevailing Englishness of Victorian national identity.

The Brexit debate, too, has made me think about how Englishness and Britishness were defined in relation to Europe in the nineteenth century, and I’ve just finished reading a book which explores that issue. For the Victorians, Paris was a synecdoche not just for France but for Europe more generally, and Elisabeth Jay’s British Writers and Paris 1830-1875 persuasively shows that British authors were consistently ambivalent about the city. Many were happy to meet the demand for cautionary tales of Paris as a hub of scandal and immorality. This sensationalist view has retained its currency in the twenty-first century: in the 2008 film Taken, for instance, a wholesome American teenager travels to the city, is promptly kidnapped, and narrowly escapes being sold into prostitution by evil European gangsters. Mary Clarke Mohl, who hosted a popular salon in Paris, told a nineteenth-century version of the same story, warning that ‘it is a horrible fact that there are people who catch handsome young English girls in London and send them over here for vice.’ Horrible yet titillating, ‘facts’ such as these helped to cement Paris’s status as the epitome of the nineteenth-century city, a more extreme version of the ‘modern Babylon’ that the journalist W.T. Stead described in his writings about Victorian London.

This was also, of course, one of the reasons why the Victorians were so fond of Paris, either as a place to visit or as a more permanent home. Many British writers based themselves there, and perhaps the most impressive feature of Jay’s book is its detailed consideration of the various enticements that brought them to the city. In addition to its attractive reputation for hedonism, there was also its cosmopolitan and international cultural life; a sizeable expatriate community willing to pay for English-language publications; a plethora of European literary genres ready to be adapted or plagiarised; and a thriving print trade which gave to writers, and especially to journalists, a degree of social prestige that was rarely attainable in Britain. As Jay points out, authors ranging from Dickens, Thackeray, and Walter Bagehot to the radical novelist and journalist George Reynolds used stints in Paris, often writing for newspapers and periodicals, as a means of launching or consolidating their literary careers. Nearly as much as London, Manchester, or Edinburgh, the French capital in the mid-nineteenth century was a centre of British intellectual culture.

But the Victorians’ cosmopolitan embrace of Paris was checked by other, more nationalistic and nervous, responses to the city. Effectively closed to the British during the wars with France between 1793 and 1815, it remained an alien and alarming place, and reflections on the upheavals of the 1789 revolution were an omnipresent feature of British writing about the city. After 1815, lingering fears about French anarchy and militarism were assuaged (but also heightened) by a national habit of historical tourism, as British travellers flocked to the Parisian locations connected with the defeated revolution. For the majority of these travellers, Jay suggests, ‘Paris embodied not only France’s history but its quintessence.’ Another, less polite, way of putting this might be to say that Paris was all that many British tourists knew of France, and that descriptions of the city were often used, in the work of British writers, to encapsulate a set of sweeping assumptions and stereotypes about French culture. And especially after the Europe-wide revolutions of 1848 and the internationalist radicalism of the 1871 Commune, Paris was identified as a symbol not just of France but of a general European approach to politics, violent and chaotic, that was inimical to British interests and sensibilities.

Jay’s arguments about British attitudes to the city’s revolutionary history aren’t wholly consistent. On the one hand, she claims that the radicalism of the Commune, and the brutality of its suppression by the French army, fundamentally altered Victorian opinion on the city, bringing about ‘a deep rupture between past and present not only for Paris itself but for the relationship the British maintained with Paris.’ On the other hand, and more convincingly, she suggests that such ruptures shaped British attitudes throughout the nineteenth century. With each successive revolution and restoration (the July Revolution of 1830, the 1848 revolution, Napoleon III’s coup d’état in 1851), the topography of Paris was transformed along with its social and political structures. Streets were renamed, monuments erected or demolished, and these recurring breaks with the past bothered the majority of British writers who shared, however critically, the Victorian commitment to a slow and steady kind of progress, an ideology of political reform dependent on the gradual development of traditions and institutions. Jay comments that the Parisian ‘practice of erasure, of everything from political leaders to buildings and street names, evoked in the British consciousness a fear of the loss of memory’s moral function, and reinforced a commensurately strong commitment to tracing origins and lines of descent.’

This is a tantalising claim, but Jay’s book doesn’t really examine how this conservative reaction to Parisian revolution contributed to nineteenth-century constructions of British national identity, or of the distinctions within that identity between the politics and culture of England, Ireland, and Scotland. I’ll discuss that question in my next post.