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Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible (Victorian Literature and Culture Series)
Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible (Victorian Literature and Culture Series)
Charles LaPorte
University of Virginia Press, 2011
304 pp., 49.0

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Timothy Larsen

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Victorian Poetry and biblical criticism.

Victorian Studies is a thriving academic subfield complete with a healthy selection of its own learned societies and journals. It is primarily made up of literary scholars and historians. Charles LaPorte, the author of Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible, is from the former guild, while I am from the latter. As a sort of historical fool at the literary feast, therefore, I would like to use this review to explore what is currently going on in English Departments—at least amongst their Victorian Studies members whom I have been observing and reading for quite a few years now. (I suspect some of my complaints might not apply as much to, for example, scholars of early modern English literature.)

LaPorte's book offers close readings of some Victorian long poems: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, Alfred Tennyson's The Idylls of the King, Arthur Hugh Clough's Dipychus and the Spirit, Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book and Red Cotton Night-Cap Country, and George Eliot's The Spanish Gypsy and The Legend of Jubal. These are presented as, first, responses to modern biblical criticism and, second, as representative of the expectation held by some Victorians that English literature might be able to augment or even replace the Bible. (Matthew Arnold famously pronounced that poetry was the future of religion.)

What strikes me from the outside is that with the exception of certain very small academic niches, where they might function as a sort of Gnostic rite of initiation, by and large people do not read these poems anymore. Moreover, the disciplina arcanum of mystery cults notwithstanding, I would even wager my lovingly acquired collection of 19th-century first editions that quite a few members of the North American Victorian Studies Association have not read most of these poems.

I cannot help but wonder whether or not we should count this a loss. Do these poems have substantial, intrinsic literary worth? Do they illuminate the human condition in sufficiently powerful ways that we ought to continue to attend to them? LaPorte does not offer a hint either way, nor does he seem to be concerned by the question. One might argue that he is writing for fellow literary scholars who can assume the answer, but my point is that whatever their answer is, it is such a guarded secret that even a fellow member of the Victorian Studies fraternity is not in on it.

At least some English professors in this subfield simply no longer make such calls. A literary studies friend of mine tells me that the canon wars are now over, but, if that is true, then as far as I can tell the terms of the truce often appear to be that one should insist that students still read a work without any longer actually commending it to them.

If specific works of literature are not being drawn to our attention by English professors because of their excellence, why then are they? The answer sometimes is that certain literary scholars have reinvented themselves as historians. (To wit, LaPorte's book is published in the Victorian Literature and Culture Series by the University of Virginia Press, and in the list for this series in the back, the first volume is On Exhibit: Victorians and Their Museums by Barbara J. Black, who teaches in an English Department.)

The first problem with this approach is that colleges and universities generally already have a History Department, so even if the work of these scholars now has a rationale it still does not provide a raison d'être for having an English Department. The more fundamental reason, in my experience, is that all too often English professors in the field of Victorian Studies are not very good historians.

Alas, Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible is a case in point. LaPorte has not done his historical homework adequately. None of the key histories of the Victorian encounter with biblical criticism are in his bibliography. His unfamiliarity with the terrain is repeatedly on display. For example, whenever he discusses the Revised Version of the Bible (which was first published in the 1880s), he refers to it as the "New Revised Version" or the "NRV." There are around a dozen English translations which are identified with the word "New," including—most closely approximating LaPorte's coinage—the 1989 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), but the RV is not one of them. It is hard to imagine anyone reading much in either the germane primary or secondary sources and not noticing this error: it might serve as a synecdoche (to use playfully a LaPorte construction) for a general inability to bring precision to the historical situation.

To take a more substantive point, LaPorte does not understand what is meant by sola scriptura and thus he erroneously imagines that devout Victorian Protestants found extra-biblical knowledge unsettling. For instance, he avers, "The sola scriptura line … is not a theology designed to accommodate itself to the findings of Lyell or Darwin." The work of these men of science certainly had import for questions of biblical interpretation and, if one's hermeneutics proved unable to reconcile their findings to biblical teaching, then possibly for scriptural authority as well, but not for sola scriptura. This might sound like a quibble until one sees this misconception put to work:

Before producing her mature work, Barrett struggled to emerge from the theological paradox of those who, by legend, burned the ancient library of Alexandria upon reasoning that the library either replicated the ideas of the holy scriptures (making it superfluous) or else advanced alternative views (making it blasphemous). Poetry cannot be meaningfully inspired in a world where the scriptures are sufficient, complete, and uniquely revealed.

This analysis is breathtakingly ahistorical. It creates a fantasy Christianity which believes that all knowledge and insight must be contained in Scripture. It appears wholly innocent of the real, historic Christianity which wove Platonic thought into its intellectual reflections while it was still under Roman persecution, which energetically took up during the medieval period insights from Aristotle, and so on. Barrett is presented not as a Christian securing standing in an English literary tradition that includes Donne, Milton, Cowper, Wordsworth, and Coleridge (that is, within her actual historical context), but rather as if she were anxiously deciding whether or not to be the first person to try to clone a human being.

Nor even is the general historical context always grasped. LaPorte expounds:

Barrett's condemnation of secular poetics becomes less curious when considered as part of a Protestant religious backlash from secularist triumphs of the late 1820s, such as the foundation of the University of London (the "Godless Institution of Gower Street") and Catholic Emancipation.

Barrett, however, was a Congregationalist, and her faith community actively and heartily campaigned for these outcomes, viewing them as Dissenting not secularist triumphs: Catholic Emancipation was a victory for their principle of religious liberty before the law; the University of London was especially designed for their needs, and having one of its degrees was the ambition of energetic aspirants to the Congregational ministry. One could go on in this way.

And so, disappointed in our search for a wider historical contribution from this monograph, we are driven back to the poetry. Here, in my view, LaPorte's self-imposed task—in welcome contrast to some work that is now being done by English professors in Victorian Studies—is eminently defensible. Literary scholars are meant to be historians in the sense of studying the history of English literature, and all the authors under consideration were influential in the past, as were some of these particular poems. This makes them fully worthy of study as part of that literary history irrespective of whether the better judgment is that past generations praised these poems unwarrantedly or that today's readers have neglected them to their own loss.

Furthermore, LaPorte does have insightful things to say about these poems and their authors. He astutely teases out, for instance, how Clough lost faith, each in turn, both in Christianity and its poetic substitute. It was also fascinating to see how thoroughly George Eliot had internalized the Victorian hierarchy of genre and therefore how deeply she longed to succeed as a poet as well as a novelist. While the Elizabeth Barrett Browning chapter is the least convincing, the Tennyson chapter is the best of the lot. D. F. Strauss' Leben Jesu did indeed rattle some Victorians' confidence that Jesus of Nazareth was the King of Kings. Keeping this in mind does add poignancy to reading this passage from The Idylls of the King:

Sweet son, for there be many who deem him not,
Or will not deem him, wholly proven King—
Albeit in mine own heart I knew him King,
When I was frequent with him in my youth,
And heard him Kingly speak, and doubted him
No more than he, himself; but felt him mine,
Of closest kin to me: yet—wilt thou leave
Thine easeful biding here, and risk thine all,
Life, limbs, for one that is not proven King?

Nevertheless, too many of LaPorte's readings are unconvincing—more of an imposition than an explication. Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible abounds in claims that these poems are about the higher criticism of the Bible "by analogy," and in weasel constructions such as "suggests a kinship with," "generates curious affinities with," "has everything in common with," "haunted by," "parallel," "echo," "ironically mirror" (my personal favorite), and "seem calculated to." Also present is that verb beloved of literary scholars, "interrogate"—which ironically mirrors (choose your own favorite phrase from the preceding list; any will do) how rogue officials elicit false confessions. Even in this best of chapters, LaPorte overplays his hand in a section on "Armageddon" / "Timbuctoo." Tennyson's reworking of a biblically themed poem into the context of African traditions which have an uncertain boundary between the historical and the legendary is presented as putting "him in conversation with higher criticism" and as a poetical effort that "anticipates Strauss." This revising happened in 1829, when Tennyson was 19 years old. It was done because the Chancellor's Prize at Cambridge University had announced that its theme was "Timbuctoo," and the ambitious teenager wanted to submit an entry. Sorry to be so prosaic, but taking material to hand and adapting it to fit the stipulations of a competition seems to account adequately for the move from the biblical to the possibly mythical, making an explanation regarding subterranean wrestling with Straussian theory before Strauss, if not farfetched, at the very least, unpersuasive.

LaPorte is aware of how unlikely and wrongheaded was the Arnoldian expectation that modern poetry could supplant the Bible. English professors, however, although vaguely aware of it, have failed to grapple sufficiently with the irony that their discipline seems to need Arnold to have been right to justify its own practices. (A laudable exception is Suzy Anger's Victorian Interpretation, which carefully maps how derivative their ways are from biblical studies.) The very notion of a dispute about the "canon" is parasitic upon the biblical conversation. The kind of close readings and painstaking commentaries that literary scholars write find their model and zenith in the tradition of scriptural interpretation.

A further irony is that it would seem that at least some literary scholars in Victorian Studies have not yet absorbed the higher criticism. Instead, like medieval exegetes, they are committed to the belief that their texts are mystically inexhaustible, containing hidden insights on innumerable themes far afield from their ostensible subject matter. The impact of biblical criticism was unquestionably real in mid-Victorian British intellectual life—and highly important for a figure such as George Eliot—so I fear that my past encounters with irresponsible or unlikely readings of texts by Victorian Studies literary scholars have rather predisposed me to be suspicious and skeptical in a way that is unfair to LaPorte and his eminently reasonable theme. In other words, it would increase my confidence in the thesis that the poems under discussion might implicitly be exploring a conversation about the higher criticism of the Bible if I did not suspect that on another occasion a literary scholar might just as well tell me that they are covertly addressing issues of empire or sexuality or class or gender or race or whatever else might happen to be of interest.

Speaking of race, I should also mention that some of my best friends are literary scholars. Not a few of them are even in the subfield of Victorian Studies. It should be duly noted therefore that this jeremiad is aimed at a specific patch of the discipline in an if-the-shoe-fits sort of way. I teach at Wheaton, a Christian college in Illinois, and I am very impressed with my colleagues in the English Department (not least those in Victorian Studies) in terms of both what they teach and what they write.

Last year I was asked to speak at the Southwestern Regional Conference on Christianity and Literature at Hardin Simmons University, a Baptist school in Abilene, Texas. It would be safe to say that this gathering is not one of the more prestigious venues in the field of literary studies. Unsurprisingly, most of the presenters were English professors with high teaching loads and scant resources at humble, confessional institutions of higher education. Most of them would heartily affirm sola scriptura. I found them to be deeply attentive to literature and unabashed, passionate champions of particular authors and texts from past centuries as worthy of our attention today because of their enduring capacity to illuminate human experience. Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and The Idylls of the King can be added unto you as well.

Matt Arnold, how wrong you were! Not only is the Bible immeasurably more popular than Victorian poetry in the 21st century, but far from the works of Tennyson or Browning becoming a substitute for those who are Scripture-averse, the most likely place today to find an English Department that still treats the best Victorian poems as literary classics worth commending to undergraduates for their pleasure and edification is at your nearest Christian college. As to the culture at large, in a complete inversion of the prophecies of these 19th-century sages, God is not dead, but rather Victorian long poems are. As a historian, I think I know what many of the Victorians would probably say if they could hear about this ironic and dramatic reversal: we made an idol of our poetry and the Almighty, in the fierceness of his jealousy, struck it down.

Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought, Wheaton College, and a visiting fellow at All Souls College, Oxford University. He is the author most recently of A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians (Oxford Univ. Press).

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