We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Reference group
Spasmodic school of poetry (act. 1830–1854) was a loosely affiliated collection of young poets, with shared peculiarities of style and subject matter, who were hailed as the harbingers of a new movement in British poetry, and enjoyed both critical and popular success. While this success was to prove short-lived and many of these poets are now effectively forgotten outside specialist critical studies, spasmodic poetry retains its importance as a literary movement because of its influence on contemporary Victorian poetry and criticism. Later works by Alfred Tennyson, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Algernon Swinburne, among others, can all be classed as containing spasmodic tendencies, while influential criticism such as Matthew Arnold's preface to his Poems (1853) was clearly positioned as a reaction against spasmodic poetics.

The term ‘spasmodic’ is usually traced to 1854 and William Edmonstoune Aytoun's parody of the genre, Firmilian, which had the subtitle ‘A spasmodic tragedy’. It is also found slightly earlier in Charles Kingsley's ‘Thoughts on Shelley and Byron’, published in Fraser's Magazine in November 1853 (vol. 48). Kingsley associated ‘spasmodic’ poetics with weakness, effeminacy, and misdirected power, and the term as used in Victorian criticism usually builds on his negative perception of powerful but uncontrolled energies—including sexual energy—emotional excess, and a lack of coherence or objectivity. ‘Thoughts on Shelley and Byron’ was deliberately aimed at the poets—Kingsley's ‘vague, extravagant, effeminate, school of poetry’—soon to be classed as spasmodic, all of whom were heavily influenced by Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. The so-called spasmodic poems tended to feature a disaffected Byronic hero with grandiose ambitions and a strong sense of his own importance, and deployed the extravagant, often highly sensuous imagery and elaborate style that they took as representative of Keats. Spasmodic poems were usually long, often book-length, and frequently cast in dramatic form, though with a strong emphasis on the protagonist's ‘reveries’, meditations on his life, purpose, and future ambitions. One of their most important features—and a significant addition to the Byronic model—was that this protagonist was almost always a dedicated poet himself, sometimes, indeed, the purported author of the work in which he appeared. Hence spasmodic poetry typically includes substantial quotation from or recitation of the hero's purported productions, giving it an intriguingly self-reflexive and self-conscious air.

The progenitor of the spasmodic school is generally taken as Philip James Bailey, whose Festus, first published in 1830 and then in successive, ever-expanding editions, was enormously popular and a significant influence on ambitious young poets. Heavily influenced by Goethe and Byron, Bailey's eponymous Festus is alienated from his fellow men and convinced of his own superiority; he views himself as an inspired poet, and, importantly for later spasmodic heroes, as above conventional morality and sexual morality in particular. Yet Festus is also a deeply moral and religious poem, with settings including heaven and hell and a conclusion in which the hero achieves salvation. Among those inspired by Bailey was John Westland Marston, who met Bailey through the group of English transcendentalists associated with James Pierrepont Greaves and John Abraham Heraud and was an ardent champion of his work. In 1842 Marston produced Gerald, another long dramatic poem with a despairing poet–hero. In this work Gerald leaves his father and his fiancée, Edith, to become a poet in London, but his ideals are out of place in a world of materialism and commerce, and he sinks into poverty and despair. Rescued from suicide by the convenient entrance of two ardent aristocratic fans, he is restored to Edith but soon after dies of a wasting illness. In its contemporary British setting, its emphasis on the poet's alienation from the modern world, and its inclusion of many of Gerald's own poems as spoken or read by himself and other characters, Marston's work was an important forerunner of the key spasmodic poems of the early 1850s. He himself turned his main focus to drama and became a considerable playwright and literary figure in mid-century London, a close friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, among others.

It was in the early 1850s that the spasmodic school began to be defined as a movement, largely due to the efforts of the Scottish critic and clergyman George Gilfillan. Gilfillan, who also greatly admired Festus, was responsible for championing two young poets who would become the key exemplars of the school, Sydney Dobell and Alexander Smith. In 1849 Gilfillan published extracts from Dobell's The Roman in Tait's Magazine and hailed him as a new star in Hogg's Instructor, and in 1851 he did the same for Smith—then a pattern-designer in industrial Glasgow—in articles in the Eclectic Review and The Critic, explicitly comparing Smith to Dobell. Both poets, who later became associates in Edinburgh, were encouraged by Gilfillan's lavish praise to concentrate their efforts on long dramatic works, hastily produced to capitalize on this positive publicity and, in Smith's case, pieced together out of assorted poems in different genres. Smith's A Life-Drama, which appeared in 1853, marks the high point of spasmodic fame and was greatly praised on publication. Among other accolades, Arthur Hugh Clough compared Smith favourably to Matthew Arnold in an article in the North American Review in 1853. A Life-Drama centres on an aristocratic poet–hero, Walter, who goes through several unhappy love affairs and waxes lyrical on his ambition and despair before eventually producing a poem and returning (like Gerald) to domesticity with the woman he had previously abandoned, a clergyman's daughter, Violet. The poem is notable for its various inset narratives and its lavish use of sensuous imagery, heavily and explicitly influenced by Shakespeare, Keats, and Tennyson. It also flirted with ambiguous gender roles and courted accusations of sexual immorality in a scene in which Walter possibly seduces, or indeed rapes, Violet before fleeing in self-disgust. To its admirers, A Life-Drama seemed innovative, exciting, and highly inventive in its use of language, heralding a new kind of poetics. To detractors, Smith's allusiveness bordered on plagiarism and the poem offered only self-indulgence in emotion and a total lack of moral message.

The potential sins of Smith paled, however, by comparison with Sydney Dobell's major spasmodic production, Balder (1853). After Festus, Balder is the most extreme of poet–heroes. Yearning to experience the utmost heights of emotion to further his poetic ends, he murders his baby daughter, whereupon his wife descends into insanity: the poem ends as he is about to kill her and put her out of her misery. Dobell argued that Balder was only part one of a proposed two-part epic, and that the second part would demonstrate the error of Balder's ways. This seems probable, as spasmodic poems invariably end with the hero chastened and returned to a domestic setting. John Stanyan Bigg's Night and the Soul (1854), for instance, another poem championed by Gilfillan, and somewhat unjustly neglected in comparison with Smith and Dobell, features a poet–hero who is driven into religious doubt and insanity by the intervention of evil spirits, but recovers faith in God and himself in time to be reunited with his beloved. Dobell never had the chance to produce a similar ending for his protagonist because shortly after Balder appeared the Edinburgh critic and poet W. E. Aytoun decided to take action to quash the nascent spasmodic movement.

Aytoun's conservatism made him a natural opponent of Gilfillan and the potential radical energies of the spasmodic poets, who tended to come from lower-class, self-educated, dissenting backgrounds: Bailey, for example, had studied with the intention of becoming a presbyterian minister; Bigg had worked for the family business before becoming a local newspaper editor; Dobell, the grandson of the founder of the Freethinking Christians, was educated at home; while Smith left school at eleven to join his father as an apprentice pattern-cutter. In May 1854 Aytoun satirized the fashionable new poems in a spoof review of a non-existent poem by ‘T. Percy Jones’, Firmilian, or, The Student of Badajoz, published in Blackwood's Magazine. Finding to his delight that some readers took the review as genuine, Aytoun extended his parody by hastily writing and publishing Firmilian later the same year. In the guise of Percy Jones, Aytoun prefaced his satire with a mock dismissal of the concept of a school of poets, followed by an affirmation of its principles:
It has been said, on the strength of the internal evidence afforded by some passages in my play, that I have joined the ranks … of those who belong to ‘the Spasmodic School’. I deny the allegation altogether. I belong to no school, except that of nature. But lest it should be thought that I stand in terror of a nick-name—the general bugbear to young authors—I have deliberately adopted the title of ‘Spasmodic’ in the title of my tragedy. It is my firm opinion that all high poetry is and must be spasmodic. (preface, iv–v)
Firmilian then proceeded to satirize brilliantly the chief characteristics of spasmodic poetics, with particular hits at Bailey, Smith, and Dobell, as well as other leading Victorian authorities (notably John Ruskin). It demonstrated the extent to which the language and themes of these poets already bordered on the ridiculous, and also showed how easy it was to produce reams of similar verse.

The success of Firmilian ensured that the fall of spasmodic poetry was as rapid as its rise, and further parodies were forthcoming in such works as Kingsley's novel Two Years Ago, containing the spasmodic anti-hero Elsley Vavasour, or Algernon Swinburne's undergraduate imitation of Aytoun in a mock-review of ‘Ernest Wheldrake’, author of ‘The Monomaniac's Tragedy’, published in 1858 in Undergraduate Papers. The leading practitioners and supporters of spasmodic poetry went on to disavow their youthful enterprise. Bailey repudiated the title of ‘father of the Spasmodic School’ in a letter cited in Literary Anecdotes of the Nineteenth Century (ed. W. R. Nicoll and T. J. Wise, 1896); he defended Festus, but he never produced similar work after Firmilian. Bigg likewise abandoned poetry for the novel after Firmilian had discredited Night and the Soul. Gilfillan later described Balder as a ‘hideous spasm of a true poet’ (G. Gilfillan, A Gallery of Literary Portraits, ed. W. R. Nicoll, 1927, xii) and recognized the faults of other spasmodic poems. Smith and Dobell both abandoned their early style in favour of a more sober poetics. Dobell had moved to Edinburgh in 1854, where he and Smith became friends and collaborated on a series of Crimean War poems, Sonnets on the War (1855). Dobell later published another collection on the Crimean War and some interesting critical essays, while Smith, now employed by the University of Edinburgh, produced a fine collection, City Poems, and a long epic, before turning to prose. In effect being defined as members of an imagined spasmodic school damaged the careers of all these poets.

Yet their spasmodic works continued to have a significant impact on Victorian poetics. Tennyson's Maud (1855) has much in common with spasmodic poems in its focus on a disaffected hero, unhappy in love, who descends into insanity, and in its varied verse forms and feverish meditations on society's ills. Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh (1856), the most important Victorian depiction of a poet–hero, abandons the dramatic form characteristic of spasmodic long poems but otherwise presents a central narrator who conforms to many spasmodic characteristics, while reflecting on them from the perspective of a female poet. Swinburne's works, particularly Poems and Ballads (1866), were also associated by some observers with spasmodic tendencies, and Swinburne was soon after identified by a critic as a member of the fleshly school of poets, negatively defined for their interest in enervating sensuality, and including in their number John Weston Marston's son, Philip. In addition to those of Swinburne, other works with links to earlier spasmodic forms include Arthur Clough's Amours de voyage (1858) and Dipsychus, Robert Browning's Men and Women (1855) and, in a transatlantic context, Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855). The term ‘spasmodic’, though invariably used in a pejorative sense, can also be found in criticism of sensation fiction from the 1860s and beyond. Aytoun might have discredited the poetic genre, but he helped to ensure that ‘spasmodic’ became one of the key terms of Victorian critical discussion.

Kirstie Blair

Sources  

J. H. Buckley, The Victorian temper (1952) · R. Cronin, ‘The Spasmodics’, A companion to Victorian poetry, ed. R. Cronin, A. Chapman, and A. H. Harrison (2002) · C. LaPorte and J. Rudy, eds., ‘Special issue: spasmodic poetry and poets’, Victorian Poetry, 42 (2004) · M. A. Weinstein, William Edmonstoune Aytoun and the spasmodic controversy (1968)