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The Poetry of Indifference

The Poetry of Indifference: From the Romantics to the Rubaiyat

Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 168
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  • Book Info
    The Poetry of Indifference
    Book Description:

    Indifference is a common, even indispensable element of human experience. But it is rare in poetry, which is traditionally defined by its direct opposition to indifference—by its heightened emotion, consciousness, and effort. This definition applies especially to English poets of the nineteenth century, heirs to an age that predicated aesthetics on moral sentiment or feeling. Yet it was in this period, Erik Gray argues, that a concentrated strain of poetic indifference began to emerge. The Poetry of Indifference analyzes nineteenthcentury works by Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Edward FitzGerald, among others—works that do not merely declare themselves to be indifferent but formally enact the indifference they describe. Each poem consciously disregards some aspect of poetry that is usually considered to be crucial or definitive, even at the risk of seeming "indifferent" in the sense of "mediocre." Such gestures discourage critical attention, since the poetry of indifference refuses to make claims for itself. This is particularly true of FitzGerald's Rubáiyát, one of the most popular poems of the nineteenth century, but one that recent critics have almost entirely ignored. In concentrating on this underexplored mode of poetry, Gray not only traces a major shift in recent literary history, from a Romantic poetics of sympathy to a Modernist poetics of alienation, but also considers how this literature can help us understand the sometimes embarrassing but unavoidable presence of indifference in our lives.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-097-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION The Poetry of Indifference
    (pp. 1-26)

    The first great English poem of indifference is Milton’sParadise Regained, which involves indifference at every level. The poem as a whole is based upon the “doctrine of things indifferent,” which holds that nothing is either good or bad except according to how it is used.¹ In a brilliant essay, “Things and Actions Indifferent: The Temptation of Plot inParadise Regained,” Stanley Fish argues that just as the Son must be utterly indifferent to Satan’s proposals, recognizing them to be neither necessarily good nor (which is trickier) necessarily evil, so the reader must resist the temptation to consider any of...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Indifference and Epistolarity in The Eve of St. Agnes
    (pp. 27-46)

    There is a self-contradictory quality about Keats’sThe Eve of St. Agnesthat has struck readers from the very first. Richard Woodhouse, who recorded his thoughts about the poem while it was still in manuscript, admired it in general, but was shocked, even repulsed, by a few of the stanzas (LK2: 161–65). Above all he objected to Porphyro’s stratagem for seducing Madeline in her sleep. Yet as Woodhouse admits, there are “no improper expressions” used, and it seems surprisingly prudish of Woodhouse to disapprove of Keats’s account of the seduction. Betrayal, rape, murder, and other horrors are stock...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Don Juan and the Poetics of Tourism
    (pp. 47-71)

    In the last chapter I suggested that indifference constitutes an inherent part of letter writing. Both in his correspondence and on those occasions when he deployed epistolary tactics in his verse, Keats took advantage of those qualities of mail that permit a certain superficiality and apparent failure of sympathy. But “mail” can refer not only to correspondence but to the swift vehicle that carries it; and the mail coach, according to its encomiast De Quincey, can be a great curber of sentiment:

    Most truly I loved this beautiful and ingenuous girl, and had it not been for the Bath mail,...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Tennyson, Christmas, and Poetic Ambition
    (pp. 72-92)

    Tennyson was acutely conscious of his own poetic development. He sedulously reworked his early poetry in response to reviewers’ criticisms, and even at the end of his career he continued to compose poems that revised his work from many decades before (“The Death of Oenone,” “To Ulysses,” “Locksley Hall Sixty Years After”). Yet Tennyson’s greatest poem begins by denying the importance of self-improvement. In the opening section ofIn Memoriamhe explains his indifference to the call to “rise . . . to higher things”: to feel intensely, he declares, is more important than to capitalize on intense feeling for...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Forgetting FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát
    (pp. 93-112)

    A year before his death, Edward FitzGerald speculated that the reason for the success of hisRubáiyátwas that Omar “sang, in an acceptable way it seems, of what all men feel in their hearts, but had not exprest in verse before” (LF4:487). It would be difficult to find a more succinct explanation for the poem’s enormous popularity, and equally difficult to put a name to the quality that FitzGerald describes: what is this word that all men know? He might be referring to the poem’s hedonism or its resigned fatalism, but such sentiments were not entirely unfamiliar to...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE FitzGerald, Browning, and the Limits of Indifference
    (pp. 113-132)

    One of the few major disagreements to break out between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning during their courtship concerned indifference. In February 1846 Barrett sent Browning a letter from her friend, the writer Harriet Martineau, which she found “delightful . . . & interesting for Wordsworth’s sake & her own” (Kintner 1:447). Part of the section of Martineau’s letter to which she directs Browning’s attention reads as follows:

    The Wordsworths are [i]n affliction just now. His only brother [Christopher] died a few days ago; & a nephew here is dying & they have had accounts from their sick daughter-in-law in...

  10. Epilogue
    (pp. 133-140)

    In 1949 John Abbot Clark noticed that the opening lines of T. S. Eliot’s “Gerontion”—“Here I am, an old man in a dry month,/Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain”—come almost verbatim from A. C. Benson’s biography of FitzGerald. Clark went on to assert “that T. S. Eliot, especially in his early years, was greatly influenced” by FitzGerald’s life and writings (Clark 344–45). And indeed “Gerontion” reads almost like a cento of sentiments and devices of indifference that we have observed in both Fitz-Gerald and others. An old man who has lost “closer contact” with...

    (pp. 141-148)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 149-151)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 152-153)