In the middle of the 19th century, Sydney Dobell wrote a poem that contained the following line: “Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!” This excursion into the absurd c. 1850 is readily recognized by readers of American poems or novels c. 1950 as a cry of the soul in torment. The sources of the putative torment, qualitatively speaking, were as multifarious as they are irrelevant to the present discussion, ranging from Capitalism to Autocracy, from Woman to Machine, from Vivisection to Sapphism.
The relevant reading, which perforce places Dobell’s decalogue of histrionic exclamation in an historical context, is the quantitative one. The literary epoch that had made him a writer was the habitat of the periodic sentence, as illustrated by a classic passage, c. 1800, from Ann Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest:
While he was declaring the ardour of his passion in such terms, as but too often make vehemence pass for sincerity, Adeline, to whom this declaration, if honourable, was distressing, and if dishonourable, was shocking, interrupted him and thanked him for the offer of a distinction, which, with a modest, but determined air, she said she must refuse.
Against this background of ratiocination, Dobell’s bleating lapse into absurdity must be viewed as a rare event, roughly equivalent to an indecent misprint in a national...