“Elegy for an Age,” by John D. Rosenberg

Elegy for an Age, by John D. RosenbergElegy for an Age: The Presence of the Past in Victorian Literature, by John D. Rosenberg. Anthem Press, July 2005. 288 pp. $26.95 ISBN 1843311542

Reviewed by George J. Leonard, San Francisco State University

If I had to rest the case for the immortality of John D. Rosenberg’s prose on one paragraph, I could choose the paragraph in “Mr. Darwin Collects Himself”– unknown to me before I read Elegy for an Age— in which Rosenberg caps a series of perfect hammered sentences with the image of Darwin, the enthusiastic entomologist, “at the center of a worldwide network of researchers in a multitude of fields, all touching antennae at local scientific societies or through the penny post . . .” It takes a second for one to register the creepy appropriateness of that image for entomologists, and by then one has pictured them, tete-a-tete, feelers waving. Anyone interested in Darwin who reads that description will never willingly let it be forgotten.

Rosenberg is, of course, author of standard volumes on Carlyle (Carlyle and the Burden of History) and Tennyson (The Fall of Camelot) and of the classic biography of John Ruskin, The Darkening Glass and its companion anthology, The Genius of John Ruskin, both of which have been read continually for fifty years. Just as Rosenberg’s hero, Ruskin, made the point that even Milton’s wildest-seeming metaphors are never casual, so in Rosenberg’s prose too, every word, no matter how witty– or lovely– adds meaning. He was always one of the prose talents of the 20th Century (the sentence above about Darwin is only a hint. See below.)

It was a wonderful idea to assemble these brilliant, long-influential essays in one place. Each has changed the course of study in its field. “Classics of prose criticism,” Elizabeth Helsinger rightly calls them, in a blurb; Rosenberg’s “magnum opus,” Garry Wills adds. I can imagine the overwhelming effect on readers new to Victorian studies. The Swinburne, for instance, “Swinburne and the Ravages of Time,” the Modern Library made into its standard introduction to Swinburne for decades. “At times he is nearly a blind poet, all tongue and ear and touch.” It went completely against the critical grain, revising and reviving Swinburne’s work. “Edmund Wilson condemns Swinburne for his ‘generalizing visageless monosyllables’; I would praise him as the supreme master in English of the bleak beauty of little words.” Always a show-stopper on its own, the essay only gains in impressiveness when it simply seems to be just one of the chapters. The reader has scarcely recovered before being rushed on to another high moment in Rosenberg’s prose.

Yet– and this is extremely unfortunate– the very fame and familiarity of these essays has led most reviewers to mistake the book for an anthology. Not that it isn’t a fine one. Indeed, I’ve assigned it as my undergraduate textbook twice now. As the selections above suggest, Elegy for an Age’s eleven essays cover every major figure and intellectual current– poetically, succinctly, wittily, and always without jargon.

Those Victorianists who have taught Rosenberg’s essays for decades, however, will discover the many changes, revisions, new insights. Most important, the order itself will tip them off. Some of the first works written, appear last. Works one never saw before are pulled into prominent places. Rosenberg has been his own Redactor. And just as the Torah’s Redactor by combining J, E, P, and D created a new work through the resulting cinematic montage, so these works, in this new order, create a new truth. Rosenberg knows the power of montage very well, since he used it so masterfully in The Genius of John Ruskin, creating a new meaning (indeed, creating John Ruskin) from the montage of great pieces. He used to claim that the anthology was as important, for that reason, as his critical work on Ruskin.

Rosenberg has arranged this montage to uncover, in the nineteenth century, a central genre: the elegy. His title, “Elegy for an Age,” refers to his own book, but more importantly to the ceaseless elegy woven like an overall organizing pattern into the endlessly branching figures which cover the ornate carpet of Victorian literature. It isn’t as if he has been coy about what he is doing. The book’s first chapter, “The Age of Elegy,” makes the claim. Criticism has dropped the ball, inexplicably.

This new montage of his works then, aided by strategic changes, is designed to make a new assertion. It is an important one. Seventy years ago Jerome Buckley titled his influential work, The Victorian Temper; and Walter Houghton titled another famous work, The Victorian Frame of Mind. Yes, but the Victorian temper, the frame of mind– what was it? The titles intuited a unity, but what that unity was, has always remained unanswered.

Rosenberg’s career has been as long as Tennyson’s, and after fifty years of work, Rosenberg hazards an answer: consider the elegy as the Age’s “temper,” “frame of mind,” Weltanschauung, if the term “elegy” can be expanded to mean a complex response to their unprecedented experience of Time.

The elegy is the genre most concerned with time, and the Victorians, because of the unprecedented change in human life that was the Industrial Revolution, were the first society to experience time in a new way. The Industrial Revolution, it is often said, was the greatest change in human life since we stopped being hunter-gathers and settled down to grow things.

Rosenberg writes,

Waking daily to newness in all its forms– new sciences and intellectual disciplines, new and vastly more rapid modes of transportation, new political and social institutions, vast new acquisitions to the Empire, new relations between the classes and the sexes, sprawling new cities in which machines were housed with far more care than the ‘hands’ that worked them– the Victorians felt, in Matthew Arnold’s phrases, like wanderers “between two worlds, one dead/ the other powerless to be born.”

Faced by such a dizzying present, connecting with their past became for the Victorians a sort of survival strategy. For the present was both exhilarating and menacing, like the vertiginous landscapes that rushed past them at unprecedented speed outside their railway carriage windows.

Rosenberg’s opening meditation on elegy is too nuanced and subtle to reproduce fully here. Cut any part and it tips out of balance. It contains so many of his distilled sentences that I have to read very slowly, like those moments when my computer struggles to download too large an email file. “Elegy requires a fine equipoise between remembered joy and present regret. If the pleasure implicit in the recollection of loss becomes too predominant, elegy slips into the sentimentality of unresisted regret; if present pain wholly occludes recollected pleasure, elegy aborts itself in tears or breaks down into Lear’s thrice repeated ‘howl’ of pain over Cordelia’s corpse.”

Please re-read that sentence slowly, savoring with me the choices of ‘equipoise’ . . . ‘thrice,’ ‘occludes’ . . . ‘aborts’ . . ..” Not only les mots justes, but each time the perfect sound. One will turn over the thought in one’s mind for years; but already one can savor the sound. “If present pain wholly occludes recollected pleasure, elegy aborts itself in tears . . ..” Yet, tap that sentence anywhere you will with your hammer, and the meaning is rock-solid.

Later Rosenberg writes, “Grief is a ventriloquist who speaks in many voices.” Including John Rosenberg’s.

Rosenberg mentions Moliere’s Monsieur Jourdain (“who awakens one day to the realization that he has been speaking prose all his life,”) to comment that he himself has awakened to the knowledge that he has “written, all my adult life, without realizing it, elegies in the guise of literary criticism.” The statement is a veiled reference to his brother, Martin, an heroic American flier in World War Two, who– when John Rosenberg was just a boy– was shot down over Germany, and died. He was twenty years old. (That explains, after thirty-four years, the dedication to The Fall of Camelot: “To M.J.R 1924-1944 Frater ave Atque Vale”) Rosenberg couples his new awareness with another observation, that his personal affinity with the elegy as a genre, has given him “perhaps, a natural affinity,” with the Victorians.

It is not that Rosenberg projected his life upon the Victorians. Rather, the unexpected, accidental “natural affinity” between himself and them, equipped him to penetrate unusually into those kindred minds. Not just in the way that Martin’s loss obviously helped him penetrate into what Hallam’s sudden shocking absence meant to Tennyson, or how Tennyson translated Hallam into Arthur. (Rosenberg’s essay on In Memoriam, “Stopping for Death,” has a terrifying immediacy.) I noticed in a book some years ago that– of all the people I had studied the Victorians with– in conversation Steven Marcus, Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun always said, “The Victorians thought . . ..” While John Rosenberg always said, “The Victorians think . . ..” They were living presences to him, and now I can guess it was because he was emotionally their kin.

Kin not only to the writers. The whole culture, as Time accelerated around it, turned elegiac. “The Gothic Revival embodied this nostalgia in stone.” The Houses of Parliament, burnt in 1832 and rebuilt in English Gothic, were stone elegies. On the book’s cover Rosenberg has placed Turner’s elegy to the Fighting Temeraire, the gorgeous ghost of the heroic past, being dragged by a smoky little steamboat “to her last berth to be broken up,” as Turner inserted in the title, to be sure everybody got the picture.

So, fifty years after he began, rising to personal consciousness of one source of his identification with so many great Victorians, Rosenberg has tried in this new book to bring us to consciousness of the elegy’s centrality to Victorian culture as a whole. This was the Victorian Temper. This was the Victorian Frame of Mind. (Again, his nuanced explanation of “elegy” in the first essay is crucial to the claim, and already compressed so tight I cannot further synopsize it here.)

It will take scholars a long time, of course, to test out so large a claim against our readings of the works, our experiences of the pictures and monuments. Yet after thirty-six years of teaching the Victorians, when I tap the idea with my own hammer, something rings true. As one thinks it over– here comes Moliere again– one realizes that it is elegies one has been reading from the Victorians all one’s life. Even from that most positivistic character, Mill. What is the essay on the great English Utilitarian Bentham but a great English elegy? “He was a boy to the last.” And so, Mill continues under his breath, were we all, to believe that stuff? Is it really Bentham, or is it Margaret Mill mourns for? I never thought of it that way before. As with Rosenberg’s previous books, Victorianists will be scribbling notes in the margins of these dense, suggestive, musical paragraphs for years.

Trying out Rosenberg’s insight in another place, I find that a line that he doesn’t care for, “Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all,” reveals itself more fully, considered in relation to the elegy. Love and loss were the great Victorian themes, as Time, down the ringing grooves of Change, shoved the Victorians inexorably forward– but always looking backwards, ave atque vale, at all they loved vanishing into mist. “All that is solid melts into air,” two awed observers of Victorian London wrote– Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Graduate students to the contrary, Derrida did not invent the idea that there was no place solid left on which to stand. Tennyson’s great elegy is an ode on the death of human certainty– in memoriam. Tennyson’s great line, staled to dullest commonplace by generations of assent, makes a final judgment about human life even when all certainty is gone: Life is worth it. So, even with the retreating tides sucking every kind of solid ground from beneath his feet, Tennyson stayed sane. Ruskin didn’t. Carlyle drifted into rage; Hopkins and Newman, into the Church. Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites turned and fled back to the Past itself, and when it wouldn’t let them in, they sat at the door and made up dreams about it.

The book’s epigraph (“but now the whole Round Table is dissolved,”)– how apt it is for anyone who knew Columbia in the 1960s; or indeed, for anyone who knew the profession of teaching English then. George Stade asked me 15 years ago if he was just getting old by thinking that the glory had departed. I thought not. By now, it’s obvious, and being spoken of openly. “And I, the last, go forth companionless,” Rosenberg’s epigraph continues.

So it is a pleasure to receive one last book from Camelot. But– if only to point out parallels with Rosenberg’s earlier work, and to make the titles of his books more uniform– shouldn’t they have called this new work, The Genius of John Rosenberg?

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