Shared Depths: Eighteenth-Century Fiction and Lyric

James Noggle
Wellesley College

G. Gabrielle Starr presents an original and convincing account of the interactions between lyric poetry and the novel from the Restoration period to the rise of Romanticism in Lyric Generations: Poetry and the Novel in the Long Eighteenth Century (Johns Hopkins, 2004). The shape of the history Starr sketches is elegantly chiastic: at the end of the seventeenth century, lyric poetry helps call the novel into being, and the conventions achieved by the Richardsonian novel help Romantic poetry discover itself. Much of what is distinctive and thought-provoking about this study derives from Starr’s deployment of the idea of genre, the word she uses to designate the sort of thing the lyric and the novel both are (she also calls them “modes”). For Starr, each of them has a character deeper than merely its typical formal, stylistic, or thematic features. Genres are distinguished by their “structures, strategies, and spaces” (1), which notably entail rhetorical patterns, techniques of representation, and figurations of the relation of self to other and to the community. In making genres what they are, these elements also render each genre inherently permeable, enabling it to influence, and be influenced and even transformed by, the other. For instance, the lyric’s manner of expressing the unique emotions of an isolated subject shapes comparable expressions definitive of the epistolary novel, which in turn introduces new representational techniques to the lyric’s repertory. Starr’s commitment to looking deep into the evolving natures of these genres ensures that this is a fundamentally literary history: while drawing on cultural studies and other context-based analysis, the book is mostly concerned with the history created by the dialectical interplay between the genres themselves.

This story begins by demonstrating the presence of lyric patterns, especially from Donne, Herbert, and the Bible, in Clarissa (chapter 1), then goes back to look for traces of the romance lyric in Behn’s Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, Haywood’s Love in Excess, and Pope’s poetic epistle Eloisa to Abelard (chapter 2). Starr then advances to describe the intensifying frustrations constraining lyric expression by mid-century, exemplified by the poems of Thomson, Collins, and Gray (chapter 3). At around the same time, according to Starr, the novel was developing its own, more productive versions of rhetorical and representational strategies formerly centered in lyric: her examples include Richardson’s Pamela and Sir Charles Grandison, and a range of subsequent novels such as Lady Julia Mandeville by Frances Brooke, and Charlotte Smith’s Desmond and Emmeline (chapters 4 and 5). The history closes with considerations of the debt Wordsworth’s poetry—especially his Poems on the Naming of Places—owes to prose fiction (chapter 6).

Much of what makes this account satisfying lies in the way it at once fulfills and transforms an established method of telling the story of eighteenth-century literature. For well over thirty years, scholars have been demonstrating how novels emerged from a range of non-novelistic prose forms: spiritual autobiographies, news, sentimental comedies, true crime stories, scandalous memoirs, travelers’ tales, conduct books, and so on. Starr’s idea that the novel also develops from a kind of writing often seen as its antithesis—the short, often high-brow, elegant, concentrated lyric—confirms our sense of the novel’s large capacities in a surprising way. The provocative force of this idea softens a bit as Starr insists that the differences, even the competition, long noted between lyric and novel define each of them as much as what they have in common does: she consistently argues that “[t]he problems that the breaks in one genre pose can be answered by another” (5). But as the argument grows more complex and dialectical, its true substance emerges.

The evidence Starr uses to reveal these substantial generic relationships very often comes from below the surface. She does examine, for example, the direct appearances of actual lyrics in novels, as when Mr. B celebrates Pamela’s beauty in a poem, and the quoted or invented verse fragments that frequently pop up in the period’s fiction. She also glances at contemporary criticism that brings the two genres together, as well as points of biographical contact between authors and the genres they did not write in themselves—Richardson’s publication of Sidney’s sonnets, for instance, and the novels Wordsworth is known to have read. But the dominant flavor of her evidentiary style is well captured in what she says about the relation of Clarissa to Donne’s lyrics: “I am not arguing for direct influence—even though this is possible—so much as for patterns of representation, an imaginative condition and set of conventions linked to the lyric mode” (34). Often she describes passages in novels that emerge as lyric-like set pieces, detached from the thrust of narrative, as when she notes how a prose description of a meditative excursion at night in Frances Brooke’s Lady Julia “is resonant with” (137) lyric conventions in Finch’s “Nocturnal Reverie”—as is a night-scene from Charlotte Smith’s novel Desmond (154). Starr even breaks up a prose passage she finds especially lyrical from Behn’s Love-Letters into lines to point out the “strangeness, the unprosaic nature of this writing” (52). Sometimes the reader must squint a bit to recognize what Starr says is the presence of one genre in another: when she quotes elevated language from Love in Excess (65), for instance, it is easy to agree that it is “poetic” in some sense, but harder to feel sure a generic boundary has been crossed. But her suggestions of this kind are not merely impressionistic: they are driven by a deep sense of what novels and lyrics do.

Such deep generic functions must resist simple definition. For one thing, as Starr reminds us throughout, lyric comprises many kinds: the passionate Pindaric ode, the stately, community-oriented epithalamium, the hymn, the elegy, the ballad, the pastoral song, the Anacreontic, the sonnet. But despite this multiplicity, and despite the exceptions to which any definition of lyric is subject, it is hard (for me anyway) to disagree with Starr’s idea that lyric embodies a definable range, however elastic, of representational tendencies: many express passion, often love (but also grief, glee, reverence, abjection, belligerence, etc.), and many are written in the first-person singular and addressed to an other or group of others. Hence, lyric is “a mode deeply implicated by subjective relations” (7),“a site for creating emotional consensus” (52). When novels share similar impulses, a resonance between the genres emerges even more potent than one achieved, say, by Clarissa’s local allusions to Job (whose laments, as Starr also points out, were recognized as poetry). It makes sense then to postulate that lyric and novel both draw on a liquid fund of conventions of representing selfhood and inter-subjective communication even as the results on the surface, for historical reasons, markedly differ.
The nature of the novel is also, famously, very hard to nail down, and Starr’s contribution to the endeavor also exemplifies her characteristic way of linking it with lyric. As many critics have done, she turns away from defining the novel by its investment in formal realism and instead focuses on the ways novelistic fiction absorbs readers’ attention, elicits their sympathies, and so on. She designates one such technique, the novel’s offers of dates, names, an “editor” who has “found” the papers being read, etc., with the rhetorical term chiasmus, because such gestures enable the reader to cross from the real into a fictional world. Poetic conventions invoked in novels also facilitate such crossings: for instance, Richardson deploys conventions of epithalamium (most notably exemplified by Spenser) to structure his description of Pamela’s wedding day—both candidly, to reveal the factitious nature of the narrative, and ironically, to set the “reality” of the story off against poetry’s artificiality. Such arguments indicate something of the complexity of the interactions Starr finds between the two genres.

While these conceptual tools could be used to explain any number of exchanges between novels and poems, Starr deploys them to address a familiar transaction of preeminent significance in literary history: the recession in importance of lyric poetry as the novel rises, and the reassertion of poetry’s prestige with Romanticism. Many non-canonical or quasi-canonical works by Behn, Finch, Brooke, Smith, and others add detail to the progression, but the landmarks are the great Renaissance poets, Richardson, and Wordsworth—with Thomson, Collins, and Gray in their usual transitional role. A different sort of study would have compared lyric effects in novels to now obscure popular poems of the period (of the sort that fill Roger Lonsdale’s two Oxford anthologies), or folk or political ballads, or the airs and recitative of popular opera, or church hymns (“the most common lyric genre during the eighteenth century” [83], Starr says, though she is less interested in actual hymns than in hymn-like passages in prose). It seems Starr uses the familiar touchstones, especially from poetry, because they best express the deep potency of genres to drive literary history. Of a passage of Haywood’s Love in Excess, she remarks, “[t]he flavor of courtly address from Astrophil and Stella or Amoretti waits behind these lines, even altered by the effects of epistolary intimacy” (62). Such references to Sidney or Spenser are less claims of direct influence than testimony to the way effects mastered by great Renaissance poetry percolate through all kinds of literary language.

The study’s focus on the long history of generic structures puts it in an interesting relationship to other kinds of historical criticism. Starr consistently says that the history of genres is not insulated from political and social developments: for instance, the lyric’s anxieties about community attain historical urgency “in the wake of the Civil Wars, and in the time surrounding the Act of Union” (80); and “the political and social critiques of novelistic discourse” (124) help to establish it as a genre for Starr. The criticism she uses to frame her discussion, moreover, firmly pegs literary to cultural and ideological history, from accounts of the rise of the novel by critics such as Michael McKeon, William Warner, and J. Paul Hunter, to analyses of the literary marketplace by Catherine Gallagher, Deidre Lynch, and many others. It is a testament to the broad general acceptance of such context-based criticism that Starr can use it to fill in her profile of each genre without losing her essentially literary focus. Not long ago, the stress on novel’s contribution to a wider ideology of domesticity had seemed to de-center the literary object: here such ideological contexts are presumed to elaborate a discussion of generic change. Literary history in Starr’s hands thus reads not so much as a rejection of cultural studies as a testament to the capacity of genres to absorb a range of critical approaches into their depths.