Professor Herbert Tucker: Scansion and Victorian Seaside Poetry

Professor Herbert Tucker (1)

Today, I woke up feeling extremely productive, and two coffees later, I sat down at my laptop, and began to work on two different essay plans, and a presentation on Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale”. And then the time was four in the afternoon, and I realised, I had somewhere to be. However, this was not a standard university lecture. This was a lecture presented by Professor Herbert Tucker, of the University of Virginia, and I think there was a collective sense of awe in the lecture theatre that someone of such stature in the field of Victorian poetry, would come to our little campus, just to talk to us.

Professor Tucker began his lecture with a comprehensive overview of the nature of scansion. Scansion is the idea of reading poetry, and simultaneously identifying metre, metric feet, and emphasises the importance of the stressed syllable among other things. He has even created a tutorial website, http://prosody.lib.virginia.edu/, which guides the student through the different elements of scansion, and even uses poems which are built around software that enables you to go through and mark out the elements of scansion, and have them instantaneously marked. Upon realising that my scansion abilities are mediocre at best, I resolved to go through the website and do my best to learn everything I can on scansion.

However, the truly mind expanding part of the lecture was the second half, and it focussed on Victorian seaside poetry. Interestingly, Victorian poets were extremely reluctant to associate the concept of holiday fun and the seaside; instead, they preferred to use the seaside as a metaphor for the melancholy of life, and the natural connection of ebbing and flowing to that of the human mind. Enjoyment of the sun then was sacrificed on the altar of “serious” poetic contemplation. This depressing perception of the ocean led to deep contemplation of the natural world, and reflected very serious scientific values of the period, for example those concerned with evolution. Dwelling on the sea however also presents an element of self-absorption; consider for instance, Chaucer’s “Franklin’s Tale”.

Given Milton’s paradise declines, it is important to recognise the significance of the sea in earlier literature. The significance of water, for example in Hamlet is that Ophelia finally drowns herself in Act Five; water is often associated with rebirth, and with the cleansing of the soul (for example, Christian baptism) however to the Victorian poets it represented the inevitability of the world around them; everything, bar nothing, would continue, even if they ceased to be. It is this that perhaps shapes some of the more melancholy poetry of the period. Maddening levels of sadness is central even as early as the Romantic period; the seaside is fundamentally “the edge” of solidity, and could be construed as a metaphor for the mental state of a person also.

Isolation was a national affliction in Victorian England; individualism provided the ideological reinforcement for this. Separation from love, and from the things that a person loves played a significant part in the isolation found on the seafront; the prominence of the navy, and the industrial revolution which lead to the importance of the merchant navy, meant husbands and wives were often separated and occasionally, never returned to land. To this end, the ocean was ominous and temperamental, as well as deeply threatening.

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Poetry on the Victorian shore presents homecoming to elemental truths; in light of these, society felt alienating to the individual because it is disconnected from the natural world that the ocean presents, and it becomes almost artificial in itself. Poetry however experienced a change within Victorian poetry from the visual idea of the sea to the aural effect the sea has on the psyche.

“Poetry in organic and inorganic being.”

Poetry aspires to fuse sensuality and emotion; that is its central aim. This can be deeply connected to the seaside because of its profound spirituality and physicality. This fusion represents the aspiration of the poet in his own right, to his own ends. The return of elements from the sea, for example water, in the form of waves, and stone, in the form of sands, suggests a repetitive theme in finite body however this ‘resurrection’ happens an infinite number of times.

One of the poets discussed is Christina Rossetti. Her poetry was rarely cheerful, however her pentameter’s idiosyncrasies allow the reader to follow a degree a plainness that is deeply endearing and yet incredibly sad. She crosses into an allegorical representation of time and hope because she keeps faith with continual natural elements that exist in perfect time. Rossetti’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was very much connected to similar imagery. He often uses the metaphysical accompaniments based on the lapse of time and its inevitability. The poem, “The Sea-Limits”, considers aurally the period of breaking waves with its rhyme scheme. Visually it also presents the pattern of waves coming and going up the beach and back.

The poetry of the sea and the melancholy themes suggest the brevity of life, and the difficulties that life itself presents. Many of the poems are geographically specific; many of the poems are based at certain points around the country and it would be extremely interesting to map these locations perhaps as part of a thesis. The differences in tidal effects and the way they were written suggests that the pattern of the tide may have physically impacted their literature.

“The bodily solicitations of poetry.”

In conclusion, I found the lecture extremely engaging; Professor Herbert Tucker truly changed my perception of attitudes within Victorian England and Victorian seaside; the depth of the human mind can be compared to the depth of the sea, and the use of the metaphor of the sea for the turbulence of the psyche is an extremely insightful view of sadness and the human mind. I look forwards to reading his book, Epic, when I next venture out of my flat towards the library.

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1. http://www.engl.virginia.edu/_images/faculty/chip_tucker.jpg

2. http://www.victorian-era.co.uk/images/victorian-shop/BRIT209.jpg

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