Spasmodic was a term applied by William Edmonstoune Aytoun to a group of British poets of the Victorian era, with some derogatory as well as humorous intention.


The epithet itself was originally applied by Thomas Carlyle to the poetry of Lord Byron.[1]

Spasmodic poets include George Gilfillan, the friend and inspiration of William McGonagall. Gilfillan worked for 30 years on a long poem, but he is best known for his encouragement of the young Spasmodics in his literary reviews written under the pseudonym Apollodorus.

Others associated were Sydney Dobell, Philip James Bailey, John Stanyan Bigg, Alexander Smith, and sometimes Gerald Massey.[1]

In 1854 an ostensible review of a forthcoming volume to be titled Firmilian aroused attention and curiosity in Blackwood's Magazine; and in the course of the year there was published Firmilian; or, The student of Badajoz: A spasmodic tragedy, by "T. Percy Jones". It was so good that Mr. Jones was at first accepted as a new bard, but it presently appeared that the work was a literary hoax by Prof. Aytoun, who satirised in Firmilian the extravagances of Bailey, Dobell, and Smith. "Spasmodic" was so happily descriptive of the peculiarities ridiculed that it instantly attained standard currency.(Theodore Martin, Memoir of Aytoun, p. 146)[2] Firmilian is credited with getting the verse of the Spasmodic school laughed at as bombast.[3]

The term "spasmodic" was also applied by contemporary reviewers to Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, Tennyson's Maud, Longfellow's Golden Legend, and the poetry of Arthur Hugh Clough. These poets are not generally included in the Spasmodic school by modern literary critics. Spasmodic poetry was extremely popular from the late-1840's through the 1850's when it abruptly fell out of fashion.

Spasmodic poetry frequently took the form of verse drama, the protagonist of which was often a poet. It was characterized by a number of features including lengthy introspective soliloquies by the protagonist, which led to the charge that the poetry was egotistical.

The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica says of the Spasmodic school that:

It was characterized by an under-current of discontent with the mystery of existence, by vain effort, unrewarded struggle, sceptical unrest, and an uneasy straining after the unattainable. It thus faithfully reflected a certain phase of 19th-century thought. The productions of the school are marked by an excess of metaphor and a general extravagance of language. On the other hand, they exhibit freshness and originality often lacking in more conventional writings.."[1]


  • Parsons, Nicholas, The Joy of Bad Verse, London: Collins, 1988. ISBN 000217863x
  • Special issue on the Spasmodics (edited by Jason R. Rudy), Victorian Poetry 42.4, West Virginia University Press, 2004.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "Dobell, Sydney Thompson," Encyclopædia Britannica 1911, Volume 8, 350. Wikisource, Web, Mar. 3, 2017.
  2. Thomas Wilson Bayne, "Smith, Alexander (1830-1867)," Dictionary of National Biography 53 (edited by Sidney Lee), London: Smith, Elder, 1898, 14. Wikisource, Web, Mar. 3, 2017.
  3. Parsons 1988, 165-166.

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