Dr Stacey McDowell is a CRASSH Early Career Fellow and will be at CRASSH in Lent Term 2018.
The Poetry of Regret 1830-1913
Tennyson spoke of being ‘wild with all regret’ in a poem in which the lament for ‘the days that are no more’ is repeated over and over again. This presents a familiar view of regret as an impulse to return to the past that can be maddeningly recurrent; it also typifies a familiar view of Victorian poetry as preoccupied with nostalgia and the themes of elegy and loss that relate to the older sense of the word ‘regret’. But such views show literary studies to be out of step with current thinking about regret in other fields, such as philosophy and experimental psychology. A more positive model has been put forward recently which, countering the well-known ‘no regrets’ mantra, embraces the emotion’s beneficial impact on future action and reformed moral behaviour, for example, or stresses the importance of anticipated regret in economic models when it comes to decision making and risk taking. Rather than seeking to reclassify as positive something which Victorian poetry depicts in overwhelmingly negative terms, though, I wish to think about how the poems to emerge from that experience are productive, even if the experience itself is not. How does the act of writing poetry shape regret in a form which is responsive to that emotion’s concern with the workings of time and perspective, as well as its peculiar irony?
Victorian poetry might seem to display an obvious – almost too obvious – preoccupation with regret. Beyond the stereotype of nostalgic pessimism, I wish to provide a historical basis for what is meant by regret in the period (from theological arguments that see it as blasphemous to the evolutionary ethics of Darwin’s Descent of Man, in which it is said to play a vital role in social behaviour). Milder than remorse, guilt or shame, regret occupies an odd status, particularly since, unlike other emotions commonly displayed through gesture (weeping or laughter, for example), regret shies away from public disclosure. It is seen to be a more private nursing of the consequences of moral slippages, mistakes or changes of heart. The public voicing of regret in published poetry, therefore, can look potentially suspect. And yet those poems which confront the emotion often consider as well how and why that act of expression is important. For Hardy, regret was wakened by such ‘undervoicings’ of loss, while for Augusta Webster writing poetry about regret entailed a wish to ‘sing time asleep’. I describe how in lyric, narrative, dramatic and elegiac forms, Victorian poets express regret through modes especially able to analyse motive in light of the ironies of retrospect. The project aims to give an account of how poetry’s thematic preoccupation with regret finds a formal embodiment in deliberations over time and rhythm, action or inaction, and the repetitive impulse to return.
Stacey McDowell is a lecturer in English and Fellow of St John’s College. Her research focuses on the literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Early Career Fellow 2017-18
September 2017 - July 2018