My last post called for a return to the study of some of the major authors in Victorian literature, so I didn’t think it would be appropriate to follow up with a post on the details of my current research in Victorian medical and popular discourses about stuttering and stammering. My stuttering project addresses far too many archival materials and has virtually no discussion of any of the major figures in Victorian literature, give or take a few anecdotal observations here and there. So how about Tennyson, then, for this post? He’s a big deal, and deserves a little love in the Floating Academy.I’m more of a fiction expert, but I’ve read and taught my fair share of the Victorian poets, and especially Tennyson. I absolutely love In Memoriam for its melancholic structure and thoroughly strange poetic attempts to reconcile the realms of knowledge and belief. There’s some stuttering in his poetry, but not much at all for a sustained analysis. Well, at least that’s what I thought before I came across “What Thor Said to the Bard Before Dinner.” The poem has an intriguing reference to stammering that I simply don’t know what to do with, so my hope is that our faithful readers can help me out a little bit.

I don’t mind revealing that I had never heard of this poem until a week or so ago, and I still don’t know very much about its history, other than that it’s a minor poem written as a repost to critics of his Poems (1832), and that it simply does not sound like anything else I’ve read in Tennyson’s complete works. Here’s the poem (it’s nice and short):

Wherever evil customs thicken
Break through the hammer of iron rhyme,
Till priest-craft and king-craft sicken,
But pap-meat-pamper not the time
With the flock of the thunder-stricken.
If the world caterwaul, lay harder upon her
Till she clapperclaw no longer,
Bang thy stithy stronger and stronger,
Thy rhyme-hammer shall have honour.

Be not fair-spoken neither stammer,
Nail her, knuckle her, thou swinge-buckler!
Spare not: ribroast gaffer and gammer.
Be no shuffler, wear no muffler,
But on thine anvil hammer and hammer!
If she call out lay harder upon her,
This way and that, nail
Tagrag and bobtail,
Thy rhyme-hammer shall have honour.

On squire and parson, broker and banker,
Down let fall thine iron spanker,
Spare not king or duke or critic,
Dealing out cross-buttock and flanker
With thy clanging analytic!
If she call out lay harder upon her,
Stun her, stagger her,
Care not for swaggerer,
Thy rhyme-hammer shall have honour.

The poem obviously borders on the misogynistic in Thor’s violent suggestion that the Bard swing his rhyme-hammer aggressively and “nail” and “knuckle” the World, personified in the feminine. This is the first aspect of the poem that troubles me, and I’m not really prepared to talk about it, yet, other than to say that I do sense some anticipation of Nietzsche in Thor’s advice to the Bard.

The other aspect comes from the declaration, “Be not fair-spoken neither stammer.” Tennyson’s bombastic metrical patterns and rhyming verge on the noisy, as Valentine Cunningham has suggested (93). This line gets to me because of its demand that the Bard speak a kind of fluent disfluency embodied by the violence of a persistent series of swings of the rhyme-hammer to the social system of day. Intriguingly, the violent warrior Thor demands that the poet put into practice Gilles Deleuze’s argument in his well-known essay, “He Stuttered,” that good writers make language itself stutter while bad writers are content with merely describing the stuttering of characters through dialogic voice markers.

The problem is that, clearly, “What Thor Said to the Bard” is not good poetry. Or is it? Does it not just perpetuate, despite its claims to the contrary, that stuttering and stammering are still elocutionary sins to be avoided, that there is something ugly and wretched about actual stammering, that blocked or hesitant speech has no place in the poetic assault on the “evil customs” of Victorian society? The Bard, it seems, must be manly and powerful in his speech.  Here we see a strange ideological contradiction in Thor’s advice, for it reinforces fundamentally the tenets of Victorian elocutionary thought: above all, don’t stammer or stutter. The Bard is nothing without fluency, even when his language resists the social demands of fair-spoken rhetoric. Does this not suggest that even in its most supposedly violent forms, poetry is not a genre for people who stutter? I wonder what Tennyson, or Thor, would have thought about Canadian poet Jordan Scott and his brilliant Blert (2008), which challenges this normative requirement of traditional poetics?

After learning of Tennyson’s poem last week, my thinking about my book project on Victorian stuttering has undergone some changes. My mind has been blown, essentially, by Thor’s advice and I’m now struggling with what to do with the call for sexual violence at the heart of Thor’s conversation with the Bard. It reminds me of some of the early twentieth-century psychoanalytic theories of stuttering by Coriat and Fenichel that view stutter events as narcissistic speech violence directed at listeners. I’m wondering now what Thor would say to the Freudian analyst.

What should I do with this poem? Help me out, dear readers. No need to be fair-spoken in your suggestions.

Works Cited

Cunningham, Valentine. Victorian Poetry Now: Poets, Poems and Poetics. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

2 thoughts on ““What Thor Said to the Bard Before Dinner”

  1. Great post, Daniel! I’ll return when I have the time to think this through in Victorian terms, but my immediate thought was how much your analysis of this poem (which I’ve never read before either) reminds me of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, specifically in the way that novel links sex (and certainly violence against women) as the antidote to male stuttering. In both the book and the film, Billy is finally cured of his stutter when he has sex with Candy (also: when Nurse Ratched hobbles his sexual power with the spectre of his mother’s disapproval, McMurphy brings down Thor’s hammer on her in a gesture that’s both violent and sexual, choking and stripping her at once). Anyway, just a quick thought, but I’m interested in thinking through precisely where Tennyson positions himself in response to this very aggressively masculine voice.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Gregory. It’s interesting that you mention One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, because I had a similar comparison in my head when I was writing this post. Chris Eagle has a great essay on stuttering in Melville, Kesey, and Mishima that discusses these issues, if I remember correctly. The essay’s called “Organic Hesitancies” in Comparative Literature Studies (2011). Given the ratio of male to female stutterers (approx. 5 to 1), questions of masculinity are always going to be a central topic in representations of disfluency. There are so many misconceptions out there in popular culture representations of stuttering that it’s difficult to begin thinking about these issues without first doing the work that never seems to end — reminding readers (and viewers) of what it actually means to have a stutter. Essentially, I’m struggling in my research because I don’t want to do advocacy work in my book project. Yet, there is so little out there in humanities scholarship on stuttering, and so much that completely misunderstands the very nature of disfluency, that I feel I have to do some some of this work. It’s so crazy, but I recently came across a published work of Victorian scholarship in 2012 that actually refers to stuttering as a degenerate symptom of repressed homosexuality. This is such garbage, and so problematic that I don’t even know what to do with these kinds of misconceptions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s