Encoding embodiment : poetry as a Victorian science




Rosen, Stephanie Suzanne

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This dissertation is a study of poetry by major nineteenth-century British writers--Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Algernon Charles Swinburne--in the context of major nineteenth-century scientific questions. I analyze how these poets were intellectually connected to contemporary discussions of scientific epistemology, human sensation, and species evolution, respectively, and how their innovations in poetic form constituted one mode of investigating such phenomena. My close readings of major poems--Browning's "An Essay on Mind," Rossetti's "Goblin Market," and Swinburne's "Hermaphroditus"--draw from formalist methods that are attentive to historical forces, and cultural studies methods that are attentive to materiality, thus developing a practice of reading poetry as the product of experimental making. This approach is extended in the companion digital project to this study: an online edition of Rossetti's "Goblin Market" in which users may explore the poem’s irregular rhyme in an interactive interface. This study offers new methods and new texts to scholarship of the mutual influence of Victorian science and literature. It furthermore traces connections between the scientific theories in Victorian poetry and those in more recent critical theory, including especially feminist materialisms, affect theory, and transgender studies. Chapter One reads Browning's understudied 1826 epic poem "An Essay on Mind" to reframe her career-long engagement with debates on scientific method and her particular critiques of scientific materialism. Chapter Two argues that Rossetti's 1861 "Goblin Market" uses irregular rhyming patterns to study the ways in which the relative orientations of its characters may affect each other's experience, a topic of interest to her as a religious educator. Chapter Three argues that Swinburne's poetry plays with words as historically evolved forms capable of unpredictable change and that his sonnet sequence "Hermaphroditus" recognizes the body as capable of similar transformations. Chapter Four examines the potential for poetic form to inform the coding practices used to translate print poetry into digital editions, providing theoretical context for my interactive edition of "Goblin Market."




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