Topics so far –
18. The Victorian Age: Part – I
Victorian Age – I [Poetry]
THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
1. An Era of Peace: The few colonial wars that broke out during the Victorian epoch did not seriously disturb the national life. There was one Continental war that directly affected Britain--the Crimean War--and one that affected her indirectly though strongly –the Franco-German struggle; yet neither of these caused any profound changes. In America the great civil struggle left scars that were soon to be obliterated by the wise statesmanship of her rulers.
The whole age may be not unfairly described as one of peaceful activity. In the earlier stages the lessening surges of the French Revolution were still felt; but by the middle of the century they had almost completely died down, and other hopes and ideals, largely pacific, were gradually taking their place.
2. Material Developments: It was an age alive with new activities. There was a revolution in commercial enterprise, due to the great increase of available markets, and, as a result of this, an immense advance in the use of mechanical devices. (The new commercial energy was reflected in the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was greeted as the inauguration of a new era of prosperity. On the other side of this picture of commercial expansion we see the appalling social conditions of the new industrial cities, the squalid slums, and the exploitation of cheap labour (often of children), the painful fight by the enlightened few to introduce social legislation and the slow extension of the franchise.) The evils of the Industrial Revolution were vividly painted by such writers as Dickens and MrsGaskell, and they called forth the missionary efforts of men like Kingsley.
3. Intellectual Developments: There can be little doubt that in many cases material wealth produced a hardness of temper and an impatience of projects and ideas that brought no return in hard cash; yet it is to,the credit of this age that intellectual activities were so numerous. (There was quite a revolution in scientific thought following upon the works of Darwin and his school, and an immense outburst of social and political theorizing which was represented in this country by the writings of men like Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill) In addition, popular education became a practical thing. This in its turn produced a new hunger for intellectual food, and resulted in a great increase in the productions of the Press and of other more durable species of literature.
The sixty years (1830-90) commonly included under the name of the Victorian age present many dissimilar features; yet in several respects we can safely generalize.
1. Its Morality: Nearly all observers of the Victorian age are struck by its extreme deference to the conventions. To a later age these seem ludicrous. It was thought indecorous for a man to smoke in public and (much later in the century) for a lady to ride a bicycle. (To a great extent the new morality was a natural revolt against the grossness of the earlier Regency, and the influence of the Victorian Court was all in its favour. In literature it is amply reflected.., Tennyson is the most conspicuous example in poetry, creating the priggishly complacent Sir Galahad and King Arthur, Dickens, perhaps the most representative of the Victorian novelists, took for his model the old picaresque novel; but it is almost laughable to observe his anxiety to be 'moral.' This type of writing is quite blameless, but it produced the kind of public that denounced the innocuous Jane Eyre as wicked because it dealt with the harmless affection of a girl for a married man.
2. The Revolt: (Many writers protested against the deadening effects of the conventions. Carlyle and Matthew Arnold, in their different accents, were loud in their denunciations; Thackeray never tired of satirizing the snobbishness of the age; and Browning's cobbly mannerisms were an indirect challenge to the velvety diction and the smooth self-satisfaction of the Tennysonian school. As the age proceeded the reaction strengthened. In poetry the Pre-Raphaelites, led by Swinburne and William Morris, proclaimed no morality but that of the artist's regard for his art. By the vigour of his methods Swinburne horrified the timorous, and made himself rather ridiculous in the eyes of sensible people. It remained for Thomas Hardy (whom we reserve for the next chapter) to pull aside the Victorian veils and shutters and with the large tolerance of the master to regard men's actions with open gaze.
3. Intellectual Developments: The literary product was inevitably affected by the new ideas in science, religion, and politics. On the Origin of Species (1859) of Darwin shook to its foundations scientific thought. We can perceive the influence of such a work in Tennyson's In Memoriam, in Matthew Arnold's meditative poetry, and in the works of Carlyle. In religious and ethical thought the 'Oxford Movement,' as it was called, was the most noteworthy advance. This movement had its source among the young and eager thinkers of the old university, and was headed by the great Newman, who ultimately (1845) joined the Church of Rome. As a religious portent it marked the widespread discontent with the existing beliefs of the Church of England; as a literary influence it affected many writers of note, including Newman himself, Froude, Maurice, Kingsley, and Gladstone.
4. The New Education: The Education Acts, making a certain measure of education compulsory, rapidly produced an enormous reading public. The cheapening of printing and paper increased the demand for books, so that the production was multiplied. The most popular form of literature was the novel, and the novelists responded with a will. Much of their work was of a high standard, so much 'So that it has been asserted by competent critics that the middle years of the nineteenth century were the richest in the whole history of the novel.
5. International Influences: During the nineteenth century the interaction among American and European writers was remarkably fresh and strong. In Britain the influence of the great German writers was continuous, and it was championed by Carlyle and Matthew Arnold. Subject nations, in particular the Italians, were a sympathetic theme for prose and verse. The Brownings, Swinburne, Morris, and Meredith were deeply absorbed in the long struggle of the followers of Garibaldi and Cavour; and when Italian freedom was gained the rejoicings were genuine.
6. The Achievement of the Age: With all its immense production, the age produced no supreme writer. It revealed no Shakespeare, no Shelley, nor (in the international sense) a Byron or a Scott. The general literary level was, however, very high; and it was an age, moreover, of spacious intellectual horizons, noble endeavour, and bright aspirations.
If the poetry of the Victorian era had to be grouped under two central figures, one of these would be Tennyson, and the other Browning.
Alfred Lord Tennyson
Launched Writing Career In 1827, when he was almost eighteen years old, Tennyson’s first volume of poetry, Poems by Two Brothers was published. Later that year, Tennyson enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he won the chancellor’s gold medal for his poem ‘‘Timbuctoo’’ in 1829. Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, published in 1830, was well received and marked the beginning of Tennyson’s literary career.
Another collection, Poems, appeared in 1832 but was less favorably reviewed, many critics praising Tennyson’s artistry but objecting to what they considered an absence of intellectual substance. The latter volume was published at the urging of Arthur Hallam, a brilliant Cambridge undergraduate who had become Tennyson’s closest friend and was an ardent admirer of his poetry. But Hallam’s untimely death in 1833, which prompted the series of elegies later comprising In Memoriam, contributed greatly to Tennyson’s despair.
Contributing to his financial stability, the first edition of his narrative poem The Princess: A Medley, published in 1847, sold out within two months. Tennyson resumed his courtship of Sellwood in 1849, and they were married the following year. The timely success of In Memoriam, published in 1850, ensured Tennyson’s appointment as poet laureate, succeeding William Wordsworth. The success of In Memoriam and his appointment as poet laureate assured Tennyson the opportunity to become the poetic voice of his generation, and in his ceremonial position he composed such poems as ‘‘Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington’’ and ‘‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’’, each of which is a celebration of heroism and public duty. Idylls of the King (1859), considered by Tennyson’s contemporaries
to be his masterpiece, and Enoch Arden (1864), which sold more than forty thousand copies upon publication, increased both his popularity and his wealth and earned him the designation ‘‘the people’s poet.’’
Poet Laureate: Although the dramatic works written later in his career like Queen Mary (1875) and The Foresters (1892) were largely unsuccessful, Tennyson completed several additional collections of poems in the last decade of his life, all of which were well received. They included: Ballads and Other Poems (1880), Tiresias, and Other Poems (1885), and Demeter, and Other Poems (1889). In 1883 he accepted a peerage, the first poet to be so honored strictly on the basis of literary achievement. Ill for the last two years of his life, Tennyson died on October 6, 1892, at his home and was interred in Westminster Abbey.
Tennyson had nearly a lifelong interest in the legends of King Arthur, which ultimately resulted in Idylls of the King (1889). Yet many critics believe that his most characteristic lyrics are unique and individual, marked by a Tennysonian ‘‘something’’ that had no precedent in English verse.
Idylls of the King and the British Empire: Tennyson’s epic poem Idylls of the King followed the controversial Maud by examining the rise and fall of idealism in society. ‘‘I tried in my Idylls,’’ Tennyson wrote, ‘‘to teach men the need of an ideal.’’ F. E. L. Priestley has observed that Tennyson used the ‘‘Arthurian cycle as a medium for discussion of problems which [were] both contemporary and perennial,’’ and concludes that the Idylls ‘‘represent one of Tennyson’s most earnest and important efforts to deal with the major problems of his time.’’ Tennyson was concerned with what he considered to be a growing tendency toward hedonism in society and an attendant rejection of spiritual values. Idylls of the King expresses his ideal of the British empire as an exemplar of moral and social order: the ‘‘Table Round / A glorious company’’ would ‘‘serve as a model for the mighty world.’’ However, when individual acts of betrayal and corruption result from adultery committed by Arthur’s wife and Lancelot, the ensuing disorder destroys the Round Table, symbolizing the effects of moral decay that were Tennyson’s chief concern about the society of his day.
Tennyson was just one of many authors to tackle the legends of King Arthur. Each work focuses on different aspects of the mythology, demonstrating the mutability and enduring popularity of the stories.
Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), a novel by Sir Thomas Malory. Perhaps the best-known version of the Arthurian saga, Malory drew upon a multitude of sources to construct the story of Arthur’s life and reign, from the ‘‘sword in the stone’’ to Arthur’s death at the hands of his son Mordred.
The Once and Future King (1958), a novel by T. H. White. In a modernized take on the Arthurian legends, the mythological figures are updated with real-life emotions, the events of a far-off time given contemporary relevance.
Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976), a novel by John Steinbeck. This updated, ‘‘living’’ translation of Malory is by the noted American author, long an admirer of the Arthurian cycle.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), a novel by Mark Twain. A comedic take on King Arthur’s Camelot, this novel features a time-traveling American who introduces modern concepts and inventions to his new medieval world.
The Mists of Avalon (1983), a novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley. The Arthurian cycle is retold from the perspective of the women, chiefly the Ladies of the Lake in this novel. The Knights of the Round Table and Arthur become the supporting characters, much as the women are in conventional tales.
Today, Tennyson is considered one of the greatest poets in the English language. This critical reputation began in his lifetime when many of his poems were universally acclaimed. By the end of his lifetime, however, there were the beginnings of an anti-Victorian movement, as new styles of poetry and criticism emerged. Tennyson was so closely identified with his era that his critics began dismissing him with disillusionment for his Romantic stylistic and language choices, which were considered Victorian. Many early twentieth-century readers found his stylistic and subjective choices to be dated. By mid-century, Tennyson’s importance was again recognized, and he continued to be appreciated into the twenty-first century.
Victorian poet Robert Browning is chiefly remembered for his mastery of the dramatic monologue and for the remarkable diversity and range of his works. By vividly portraying a central character against a social background, his poems probe complex human motives in a variety of historical periods. As a highly individual force in the history of English poetry, Browning made significant innovations in language and versification and had a profound influence on numerous twentieth-century poets, including such key figures as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.
Browning began to write verses at the age of six. His first published work was Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession (1833), which was issued anonymously. The hero of the poem is a young poet, obviously Browning himself, who bares his soul to a patient heroine. Although his next poem, Paracelsus (1835), did not satisfy Browning, it brought favorable reviews and important friendships with fellow poets William Wordsworth and Thomas Carlyle.
Browning also became acquainted with the actor William C. Macready. Encouraged, Browning turned to writing drama. Unfortunately, Browning’s first play, Strafford (1837), closed after only five performances. During the next ten years, Browning wrote six other plays, none of which were successfully produced.
In 1838, Browning traveled to northern Italy to acquire firsthand knowledge of its setting and atmosphere for his next long poem, Sordello (1840), but it, too, was panned by critics who called it obscure and unreadable.
Despite their overall lack of favorable attention, Browning’s works had famous admirers, including Elizabeth Barrett, who was a respected and popular poet when in 1844 she praised Browning in one of her works and received a grateful letter from him in response. The two met the following year, fell in love, and in 1846, ignoring the disapproval of her father, eloped to Italy, where—except for brief intervals—they spent all of their time together. It was there that their son, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, was born in 1849. The Brownings lived in Italy during the climax of the Risorgimento, or the movement toward Italian unification, which culminated in the establishment of the unified kingdom of Italy in 1861.
Dramatic Monologues and Mature Poetry: In 1855, Browning published Men and Women, a collection of fifty-one poems. Though the volume contained many of the dramatic monologues that are best known and loved by modern readers, it was not popular with Browning’s contemporaries. After gradually declining in health for several years, Elizabeth Barrett Browning died on June 29, 1861. Browning found that he could no longer remain in Florence because of the memories it held for him. He resolved to ‘‘go to England, and live and work and write.’’ In 1864 he published Dramatis Personae. Though some of the dramatic monologues in the collection are complex, difficult, and too long, this was the first of Browning’s works to be popular with the general reading public. His popularity increased with the publication of The Ring and the Book (1869). Enthusiastically received by the public, this long poem, composed of twelve dramatic monologues in which the major characters give their interpretations of a crime, resulted in Browning’s becoming a prominent figure in London society.
Browning is best known for the dramatic monologue form in which a single speaker, who is not the poet, speaks to someone within the context of the poem. That audience remains silent during the monologue, creating a tension between what the speaker is saying and what that audience may be thinking. Here are other works that use the dramatic monologue form:
‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ (1843), a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s famous short story is narrated by a mentally unstable murderer.
‘‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’’ (1917), a poem by T.S. Eliot. The insecure, aging Prufrock ponders his place in the universe.
“Lady Lazarus’’ (1962), a poem by Sylvia Plath. Plath explores the legacy of the Holocaust in this dark poem.
Fires in the Mirror (1992), a play by Anna Deavere Smith. Smith weaves multiple monologues into this powerful work that examines the various points of view surrounding the 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn, New York.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Browning is recognized as a powerful voice of social criticism, as well as an innovative poet whose experiments with rhyme and diction have influenced movements in poetry throughout the years.
Although Barrett Browning is best remembered today for Sonnets from the Portuguese, a collection of love poems, she also wrote about social oppression with the same depth of emotion.
Even with her physical problems, Barrett continued to study and write, and she anonymously published An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems in 1826. The volume established what would become a theme in contemporary criticism—Barrett’s unusual, even ‘‘unwomanly,’’ scholarly knowledge. Barrett published Prometheus Bound: Translated from the Greek of Aeschylus, and Miscellaneous Poems in 1833, again anonymously, followed by The Seraphim, and Other Poems, the first book published under her own name, in 1838. The collection attracted much favorable attention.
Publication of her 1844 two-volume collection Poems established Barrett as one of the major poets of her day. The most important work of her life, however, turned out to be a single poem. Barrett admired the work of Robert Browning, a little-known poet six years her junior, and she expressed her appreciation of him in a poem of her own. Browning responded in a letter to Barrett, the first of 574 that they exchanged over the next twenty months. The letter began abruptly: ‘‘I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett.’’ He continued, ‘‘I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart—and I love you too.’’
Browning became a frequent visitor, not only inspiring Barrett’s poetry but also encouraging her to exercise outdoors to improve her health.
Sonnets from the Portuguese: The courtship of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning inspired Barrett Browning’s series of forty-four Petrarchan sonnets, recognized as one of the finest sonnet sequences in English. Written during their 1845–1846 correspondence, Sonnets
from the Portuguese remained Barrett Browning’s secret until 1849, when she presented the collection to her husband. Despite his conviction that a writer’s private life should remain sealed from the public, he felt the quality of these works demanded publication. They appeared in Barrett Browning’s 1850 edition of Poems, her personal history thinly concealed by a title that implies the poems are translations.
Barrett Browning’s subject matter became increasingly bold. ‘‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,’’ a dramatic monologue, powerfully criticizes institutionalized slavery, showing herself to be in full sympathy with the abolitionist movement in the United States. Casa Guidi Windows (1851) records Barrett Browning’s reactions to the Italian struggle for unity. The unification of the various Italian states into one country in 1861 was the culmination of a movement known as the Risorgimento, which was made up of a series of regional revolutions and struggles in Italy. These were seen as a continuation of the American and French revolutions decades earlier. Barrett Browning was in sympathy with the Italian revolutionaries. The volume showed her increasing conviction that poetry should be actively involved in life and, perhaps more importantly, her confidence that a female poet should speak out about political and social issues. In this respect, Barrett Browning differed from such English writers as Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte or Emily Bronte, all of whom seemed to avoid any mention of world politics in their novels.
Her Aurora Leigh (1856) is an ambitious novel in blank verse that embodies both Barrett Browning’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer. It bluntly argues that the topic of ambitious poetry should not be the remote chivalry of a distant past but the present day as
experienced by ordinary people. Aurora Leigh achieves this goal of societal relevance, for it deals with an array of pressing Victorian social problems such as the exploitation of seamstresses, limited employment opportunities for women, sexual double standards, drunkenness, domestic violence, schisms between economic and social classes, and various plans for reform. Nothing stirred up more controversy than Barrett Browning’s candid treatment of the situation of the ‘‘fallen woman’’—a subject that was considered by the Victorian public to be outside the sight or understanding of a serious novelist or poet.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s work argued, in part, that women were as capable as men. Here are some other works that argue for equality between the sexes:
A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1791), a nonfiction work by Mary Wollstonecraft. This text argues that women should receive an education and similar rights to men.
The Woman in Her House (1881), a nonfiction work by Concepcio n Arenal. In this book, the Spanish feminist argues that women should aim to be more than simply wives and mothers.
Story of an African Farm (1973), a novel by Mary Daly. The South African writer’s first novel tells of three white children growing up in South Africa.
‘‘Ain’t I a Woman?’’ (1851), by Sojourner Truth. This speech, given at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention by a political activist and former slave, argues against the myth of the delicate woman.
Matthew Arnold’s work deals with the difficulty of preserving personal values in a world drastically transformed by industrialism, science, and democracy. His poetry often expresses a sense of unease with modernity. He asserted his greatest influence through his prose writings as a social critic, calling for a renewal of art and culture. His forceful literary criticism, based on his humanistic belief in the value of balance and clarity in literature, significantly shaped modern theory.
Arnold’s poetic landscapes also are indebted to the region around Oxford University, which Arnold attended after being offered a scholarship in 1840. At Oxford he met Arthur Hugh Clough, who became his close friend and correspondent. After leaving Oxford, Arnold took a
temporary post as assistant master at Rugby for one term before accepting a position in London as private secretary to the politician Lord Lansdowne.
While holding this position, Arnold wrote some of his finest poems. He published them, signed with the initial A., in two separate volumes: The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems (1849) and Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems (1852). Arnold published the bulk of his poetry, including Poems in 1853, in the eight years following the publication of The Strayed Reveller. However, his best-known poem, ‘‘Dover Beach,’’ was not published until 1867. The poem, often viewed as a meditation on the importance of love, describes a locale on the coast of England that Arnold is said to have visited in 1851.
Oxford Lectures: At the age of thirty-four, Arnold was elected to the poetry chair at Oxford University, an appointment that required him to deliver several lectures each year. Traditionally, the lectures had been read in Latin, but Arnold decided to present his in English. He used the occasion of his first lecture in 1857 to discuss his views about the worth of classical literature. In the first lecture, entitled ‘‘On the Modern Element in Literature,’’ later published in Macmillan’s magazine (1869), Arnold advocates a liberal education that features wide-ranging knowledge and the use of the comparative method to build knowledge and to shape understanding. Arnold’s next major prose work, On Translating Homer, was a series of three lectures given at Oxford in 1860 and 1861. In these essays, he evaluates selected translations of Homer, noting the strengths and weaknesses of each in an attempt to establish the characteristics of a well-written translation. They are lively introductions to classical poetry and urge English writers to imitate Homer’s ‘‘grand style.’’
Of the several books that Arnold wrote on politics and sociology, the most important is Culture and Anarchy (1869). He criticizes nineteenth-century English politicians for their lack of purpose and their excessive concern with the machinery of society. The English people—
and the narrow-minded middle class in particular—lack ‘‘sweetness and light,’’ a phrase that Arnold borrowed from Jonathan Swift. England can only be saved by the development of ‘‘culture,’’ which for Arnold means the free play of critical intelligence and a willingness to question all authority and to make judgments in a leisurely and disinterested way.
The subject of four of Arnold’s books was the threat to religion posed by science and historical scholarship. The most important of these is Literature and Dogma (1873). He argues that the Bible has the importance of a supremely great literary work, and as such it cannot be discredited by charges of historical inaccuracy. And the Church, like any other time-honored social institution, must be reformed with care and with a sense of its historical importance to English culture. Arnold focused on social and literary topics during the last ten to twelve years of his life, offering more elaborate or definitive statements of his views on matters that had long interested him. In 1883 and 1886 he toured the United States and gave lectures in which he tried to win Americans to the cause of culture.
Emptiness: One of the dominant themes of Arnold’s poems is that of the intellectual and spiritual void he believed to be characteristic of nineteenth-century life. Looking about him, he witnessed the weakening of traditional areas of authority, namely the dwindling power of the upper classes and the diminishing authority of the Church. He believed man had no firm base to cling to, nothing to believe in, nothing to be sustained by. Arnold’s early poetry, such as Alaric at Rome (1840), had the brooding tone that would become characteristic of his mature work. In ‘‘To Marguerite—Continued,’’ he concludes that the individual is essentially isolated. The theme of man’s alienation and longing for refuge is echoed in later
poems such as ‘‘Rugby Chapel’’ and ‘‘Dover Beach.’’
Influences: For Arnold, the German poet Heinrich Heine truly possessed the critical spirit. Heine cherished the French spirit of enlightenment and waged ‘‘a life and death battle with Philistinism,’’ the narrowness Arnold saw typified in the British. Arnold felt that the English
romantics had failed to reinstitute the critical spirit. The German romantic Heine, however, he believed, was able to accomplish what the English romantics could not. Despite his criticism, however, the two romantics Arnold held in highest esteem were Lord Byron and William Wordsworth. He praised Byron at length for his stand on social injustice, and ranked Wordsworth only after William Shakespeare, Moliere, John Milton, and Johann von Goethe in his list of the premier poets of ‘‘the last two or three centuries.’’
Poetry: As E. D. H. Johnson has pointed out, Arnold tried ‘‘to reaffirm the traditional sovereignty of poetry as a civilizing agent.’’ Arnold believed that great art, functioning as a civilizing agent to enrich the intellectual and spiritual life of man, had universal application. But his views were not the same as those of his contemporaries, who felt that art should have immediate, practical application to everyday experience.
Charles Kingsley’s comments in 1849 are representative: ‘‘The man who cannot . . . sing the present age, and transfigure it into melody, or who cannot, in writing of past ages, draw from them some eternal lesson about this one, has no ight to be versifying at all.’’
Poems (1853) included works from the two earlier collections as well as new ones, notably ‘‘Sohrab and Rustum’’ and ‘‘The Scholar Gypsy.’’ That volume contains his famous preface outlining why he did not include the title poem from Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems. Arnold declared that it did not fulfill the requirements of a good poem and therefore did not qualify as meaningful art. Alba Warren explains that ‘‘great poetry for Arnold is not lyric, subjective, personal; it is above all objective and impersonal.’’ H. F. Lowry says of Arnold that ‘‘[t]he deepest passion of his life was for what is permanent in the human mind and the human heart,’’ and that he found this in classical literature. Because, perhaps, of the mournful tone of his verse, Arnold was not a popular poet in his day. However, many of his poems—most notably ‘‘The Scholar-Gypsy,’’ ‘‘Empedocles on Etna,’’ ‘‘Thyrsis,’’ and ‘‘Dover Beach’’— are still studied and respected as some of the best verse of the Victorian period. T. S. Eliot stated that ‘‘the valuation of the Romantic poets, in academic circles, is still very largely that which Arnold made.’’
‘‘Culture and Its Enemies:’’ In ‘‘Culture and Its Enemies,’’ published in the Cornhill Magazine in 1867 and later included in Culture and Anarchy, Arnold continues to wage war against complacency. However, his views were met with considerable scorn. Readers claimed that he was an elitist, a snob, and they labeled his ideas inadequately developed and impractical. Henry Sidgwick found the essay ‘‘over-ambitious, because it treats of the most profound and difficult problems of individual and social life with an airy dogmatism that ignores their depth and difficulty.’’
Arnold responded to his critics in a series of five essays published in 1868, entitled ‘‘Anarchy and Authority.’’ In the essay series Arnold continues his championship of culture by stressing the present need for it.
Arnold also championed religion as a profound cultural force. However, Ruth Roberts shows that Arnold is guilty of ‘‘over-ingenuity’’ in his religious works. His argument is not as disinterested as he claims, and he often glosses over biblical passages inconsistent with his position. For Arnold, the Bible was literature and must be read as such. J. C. Shairp, a contemporary of Arnold’s, argued, ‘‘They who seek religion for culture-sake are aesthetic, not religious.’’ The same charge was later echoed by T. S. Eliot, who found that Arnold had confused ‘‘poetry and morals in the attempt to find a substitute for religious faith.’’
Basil Willey summarized Arnold’s view in Literature and Dogma as being a ‘‘false approach to the Bible which seeks to extract dogma from poetry.’’ Unsurprisingly, Literature and Dogma stirred even more controversy than his previous religious works.
‘‘The Study of Poetry:’’ One of Arnold’s most important later essays, ‘‘The Study of Poetry,’’ first appeared in 1880 as the introduction to The English Poets, an anthology edited by T. Humphry Ward. R. H. Super reminds that the essay was intended ‘‘to give some guidance to a middle-class public not sophisticated in the reading of poetry.’’ ‘‘The Study of Poetry’’ no more remained unchallenged than had any of Arnold’s other works. Many, including contemporary critics, have disagreed with Arnold’s choice of touchstone passages, and many have taken offense at Arnold’s pronouncements about the merits of individual authors. Despite such objections, the essay remains an historically important piece of criticism and an important guide to Arnold’s own tastes.
Anxiety about the rapidly changing world characterized much of Victorian literature and is a theme echoed in Arnold’s poetry. He evokes feelings of isolation, loneliness, and fear of the future. Recent scientific discoveries made people question religion’s place in their lives, but without religion, people are essentially alone. Here are some other works that examine feelings of isolation and emptiness:
Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. Three days in the life of an alienated teenage boy, who rebels against the smug adult world.
Lament for the Dorsets by Al Purdy. Elegy for a civilization that died out because it was unable to survive in changing conditions.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. A middle-class woman struggles to find fulfillment through a realization of her romantic fantasies of love and wealth.
Shizuko’s Daughter by Kyoko Mori. Growing up in Japan, a girl is lonely, partly because she does not relate to others who accept their status in life without questioning it.
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. A wealthy yet spiritually empty Hindu goes on a quest to explore the deepest meaning of life and the self.
Like Thomas Gray, he lives in general literature by one poem. Edward FitzGerald translated the Persian manuscript of Khayyam’s verse into English in 1859 did the Western world discover Khayyam’s lyrics.
Today, Khayyam’s Ruba iyat, a collection of quatrains composed in the traditional Persian rubai style, is recognized throughout the West. Both sensual and spiritual, the Rubaiyat has remained powerfully poignant because it appeals to humankind’s deepest passions and most profound philosophical concerns.
Fitzgerald also wrote a prose dialogue of much beauty called Euphranor: a Dialogue on Youth (1851); and his surviving letters testify to his quiet and caustic humour.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The most important of his works are Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage beyond the Sea (1834-35), based upon his earliest travels; Voices of the Night (1839), a collection that includes some of his best shorter poems; Evangeline (1847), a tragical story of the early colonial days, written in smooth and melodious hexameters; The Song of Hiawatha (1855), a collection of Indian folk-tales, written in unrhymed octosyllabic verse; The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858); and Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863).
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Equally renowned as a painter and a poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was the leader of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of artists and writers who sought to emulate the purity and simplicity of the medieval period. Both his painting and writing are characterized by mysticism, filled with rich, sensuous imagery and vivid detail.
Although the subjects of his verse are often considered narrow, Rossetti is an acknowledged master of the ballad and sonnet forms.
He was born in London, the son of an Italian refugee who was professor of Italian at King's
College, where Rossetti received his early education. He began to compose poetry by the time he was six, and later studied drawing at the Royal Academy School (1846). In 1848, Rossetti joined John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt in founding the Pre-Raphaelite
Brotherhood. Their name honored Carlo Lasinio’s engravings of paintings by Benozzo Gozzoli (an Italian Renaissance painter from Florence) and others who decorated Pisa’s Campo Santo (originally used as a cemetery for Pisa’s illustrious citizens). The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood sought to introduce new forms of thematic seriousness, high coloration, and attention to detail into contemporary British art. They were opposed to the stale conventions of contemporary academy art, which drew on classical poses and the compositions of the Italian High Renaissance painter Raphael.
Ruskin, Swinburne and William Morris were among his later friends, and Ruskin was of considerable financial assistance to him.
Success as a Poet Rossetti first received recognition as a poet in 1850, when he published ‘‘The Blessed Damozel,’’ in the Pre-Raphaelite journal the Germ. Written when he was only eighteen, this poem is characteristic of much of Rossetti’s later poetry, with its sensuous detail and theme of lovers, parted by death, who long for reunion. That same year, Rossetti met Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, who modeled for many of Rossetti’s drawings and paintings and became his wife in 1860.
Following the publication of Poems, numerous reviews appeared praising Rossetti as the greatest poet since Shakespeare. However, in 1871, critic Robert Buchanan pseudonymously published a venomous attack against Rossetti, in which he claimed that Rossetti’s only artistic aim was ‘‘to extol fleshliness as the distinct and supreme end of poetic and pictorial art; to aver that poetic expression is greater than poetic thought, and by inference that the body is greater than the soul, and sound superior to sense.’’
Rossetti published a convincing reply called ‘‘The Stealthy School of Criticism.’’ Buchanan then expanded his views in The Fleshly School of Poetry and Other Phenomena of the Day. In this work, he added a lengthy attack on ‘‘The House of Life’’ as a ‘‘hotbed’’ of ‘‘nasty phrases,’’ which virtually ‘‘wheel[ed]’’ the poet’s ‘‘nuptial couch into the public streets.’’
He continued to paint and write even after a personal change and mental breakdown caused by an attack on his poetry by Robert Buchanan in The Fleshly School of Poetry and Other Phenomena of the Day (1872). Rossetti’s poetry collection, Ballads and Sonnets, appeared in 1881, and he died the following year at the age of fifty-four.
Rossetti’s poetry is characterized by its mysticism, its rich and sensuous imagery, and its vivid detail. Here are some other works which have similar themes:
Idylls of the King (1856–1885), poems by Alfred Tennyson. This cycle of twelve narrative poems retells the legend of King Arthur with vibrant descriptions of nature derived from the author’s own observations of his surroundings.
The Eve of St. Agnes (1820), by John Keats. This long poem tells the story of Madeline and Porphyro, whose romance ‘‘falls’’ from innocence to experience.
American Primitive (1984), poems by Mary Oliver. This Pulitzer Prize–winning collection allows the reader to devour luscious objects and substances through powerful recurring images of ingestion.
The Burning Alphabet (2005), poems by Barry Dempster. This collection combines a sense of humor with sensuous writing.
Christina Rossetti was a younger sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. One of the English language’s best-known female poets, British author Christina Rossetti is remembered for her literary inheritance as much as for her literary contributions. Rossetti, whose work gained renewed interest with the dawn of feminist criticism, was an important member of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, an artistic and literary group that aspired to recapture the aesthetics of Italian religious painting before the Renaissance painter Raphael.
In her exploration of themes including death, female creativity, sisterhood, and unrequited love, Rossetti became the voice of Victorian womanhood. Her work is now celebrated as much for its innovation and beauty as for its feminine perspective.
First Publications: Rossetti had collected over fifty poems by the age of sixteen, thirty-nine of which were privately printed as Verses in 1847. Encouraged by her brothers, Rossetti sought wider publication and began to experiment with a blend of allegory and fantasy.
Preoccupied with religious questions, Rossetti continued to write poetry, even venturing into prose for her 1850 novel Maude: A Story for Girls, which was published after her death. Meanwhile, her family’s fortunes continued to suffer. By the time her father died in April 1854, she was dependent on her brother William for support.
Around this time, Rossetti volunteered at an institution for fallen women (such as prostitutes, unmarried mothers, and homeless women), where she became interested in the fates of women with compromised morals, a subject she explored in her later poetry. The Victorian era in England, so named because of its long-serving monarch, Queen Victoria, was marked by a spirit of reform and social justice. Reform laws of the period enfranchised the new middle class and the working class, while humanitarian legislation did away with some of the more outrageous abuses of the poor and improved conditions forthose who worked in factories. The reformation of fallen women was part of such concerns.
Literary Fame: Though some of her poems were published in magazines during the 1850s, most of Rossetti’s work was not commercially published until 1862, when her most famous work, Goblin Market, and Other Poems, appeared. The book’s namesake, ‘‘Goblin Market,’’ is a long poem that depicts two sisters’ struggle with teasing goblins who drive them mad with forbidden fruit. The poem has become Rossetti’s most famous, drawing feminist, Marxist, social, and psychoanalytic analyses from various critics. Other poems in the collection grapple with questions of vulnerability, femininity, and sisterhood. Goblin Market, and Other Poems gained Rossetti fame and praise and has remained popular due to its skill and subject matter. It is hence her most famous work. Featuring a nursery-rhyme style and a ghoulish story of temptation, seduction, and salvation, the poem has gained attention for its exploration of sisterhood (feminist critiques), its sexual content (psychological critiques), its exploration of fallen women (social and cultural critiques), and even its vision of women as goods in a marketplace (Marxist critiques). It appeared to general praise, garnering a reputation as a work of literary genius and receiving wide attention in the newspapers and literary journals of its time. Its publication did not interrupt Rossetti’s life. In the years following the publication of Goblin Market, and Other Poems, she turned down her second marriage proposal on religious grounds, recovered from a lung disease later thought to be tuberculosis (a contagious lung disease that was often fatal at that time), and began work on her next collection. The Prince’s Progress, and Other Poems appeared in 1866 with illustrations provided by her brother Dante Gabriel. Her next work, Commonplace, and Other Short Stories (1870), marked her first experiments with short fiction. Though the book of sophisticated literary fairy tales failed commercially, critics still find stories like ‘‘Nick’’ and ‘‘Hero’’ notable.
Popular Books for Children: After battling Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disease that causes overactivity of the thyroid gland, Rossetti was weak and exhausted. Nevertheless, she kept writing, this time producing a book of children’s poetry called Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872). The book, which was accompanied by Pre-Raphaelite illustrations by Arthur Hughes, is considered one of the most significant works of nineteenth century children’s verse. Spurred on by the book’s popularity, Rossetti next published Speaking Likenesses (1874), a collection of warped, terrifying fairy tales. Though many critics dismiss A Pageant, and Other Poems (1881) as one of Rossetti’s weakest works, the book represented a break for Rossetti. In her ‘‘Monna Innominata’’ love sonnets, Rossetti explored love with a sense of regret and sadness that some consider to be characteristic of Victorian womanhood. (During the Victorian era, there were many pressures placed on women to live up to an impossible ideal.) As a woman writing in a field dominated by men, Rossetti explored love in unconventional ways, combining questions about romance with speculation about a romantic union with God.
Rossetti has long been considered one of the Victorian era’s most important female poets. She drew inspiration from the religious writing of such poets as Dante and Milton, as well as influenced writers as diverse as Algernon Charles Swinburne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Charlotte Mew, Virginia Woolf, and e. e. cummings. Aligned with the Pre-Raphaelite movement during her lifetime, Rossetti was considered to be one of her age’s greatest poets and was praised as England’s new female laureate when Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in the 1860s. While readers have generally judged Rossetti’s poetry to be less political and intellectual than that of Barrett Browning, they do recognize Rossetti as the more talented lyricist, her poetry displaying precision in diction, form, and tone.
Rossetti’s writings for children retold popular fairy tales in imaginatively different ways. Here is a list of other fairy tales, legends, and children’s stories that have been reworked from diverse perspectives:
The Penelopiad (2005), a novella by Margaret Atwood. Atwood retells the events of the Greek epic the Odyssey from the point of view of Odysseus’s wife Penelope.
Grendel (1971), a novel by John Gardner. In this novel, Gardner retells the Anglo-Saxon story of Beowulf the warrior from the point of view of Grendel, one of the ‘‘monsters’’ that Beowulf fights.
Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995), a novel by Gregory Maguire. This novel presents the story of the early life of the Wicked Witch of the West of The Wizard of Oz (1900).
Enchanted (2007), a film directed by Kevin Lima. Through the story about a modern-day princess’s search for love in New York City, this movie satirizes traditional ‘‘beautiful princess’’ interpretations of fairy tales.
The Stinky Cheese Man, and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (1992), a collection of stories by Jon Scieszka. This assortment of fractured fairy tales is filled with sarcastic humor.
Morris, an English artist and writer, founded the British arts and crafts movement, which originated as a reaction against the mass production made possible by the Industrial Revolution.The bulk of Morris's poetry was written during the first forty-five years of his life.
The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems (1858) shows his love of beauty of colour, sound, and scenery, and his passion for the medieval. In construction the poems of this volume are often faulty, and in style they have an abrupt roughness which is not seen in his later work.
The Life and Death of Jason (1867), a heroic poem on a familiar theme, is told in smooth, easy couplets, and has the melancholy tone so common in Morris.
The Earthly Paradise (1868-70) is a collection of tales, some classical, some medieval. In language and the predominance of the couplet they show the influence of Chaucer, though the languid harmony of Morris contrasts strongly with the racy vitality of his model. The best poetry in this work is to be found in the interspersed lyrics. His finest long narrative poem, The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs (1877), is based on the Norse sagas, and has great vigour of language and rhythm, combined with fine descriptive passages. Poems by the Way (1891) contains some good miscellaneous pieces.
The literary production of the second part of Morris's life consisted mainly of prose romances, lectures, and articles. The best of his lectures are to be found in Hopes and Fears for Art (1882) and Signs of Change (1888), and his socialist political hopes for the regeneration of English life find their fullest expression in A Dream of John Ball (1888) and News from Nowhere (1891). These same aspirations are always felt in the prose romances to which he devoted the last years of his life. Among them are A Tale of the House of the Wolfings (1889), The Roots of the Mountains (1890), The Story of the Glittering Plain (1891), and The Sundering Flood (1898).
Morris's work reflects several strong influences: the interest in the medieval which drew him into the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood; his reverence for Chaucer; his love of Icelandic saga, which combined with Chaucer to give his style an archaic flavour; and his socialist idealism. Like Rossetti, he had the artist's passion for beauty, which finds its best expression in his fine English landscapes and the rich, tapestried descriptions of his narrative poems.
Swinburne was one of the most accomplished lyric poets of the Victorian era and was a preeminent symbol of rebellion against the conservative values of his time. The explicit and often pathological sexual themes of his most important collection of poetry, Poems and Ballads (1866), delighted some, shocked many, and became the dominant feature of Swinburne’s image as both an artist and an individual.
He achieved his first literary success in 1865 with Atalanta in Calydon, which was written in the form of classical Greek tragedy. The following year the appearance of Poems and Ballads brought Swinburne instant notoriety. He became identified with the ‘‘indecent’’ themes and the precept of ‘‘art for art’s sake’’ that characterized many of the poems in the volume. He subsequently wrote poetry of many different kinds, including the militantly republican Song of Italy (1867) and Songs Before Sunrise (1871) in support of the Risorgimento, the movement for Italian political unity. Although individual volumes of Swinburne’s poetry were occasionally well received, in general his popularity and critical reputation declined following the initial sensation of Poems and Ballads.
Swinburne is regarded as a Victorian poet profoundly at odds with his age and as one of the most daring, innovative, and brilliant lyricists to ever write in English. Certainly, he shocked and outraged Victorian sensibility, introducing into the pious, stolid age a world of fierce atheism, strange passions, fiery paganism, and a magnificent new lyrical voice the likes of which had never before been heard. His radical republicanism, a worship of the best instincts of man, pushed Victorian humanism well beyond the ‘‘respectable’’ limits of Matthew Arnold’s writings. Additionally, his critical writings on art and literature greatly influenced the aesthetic climate of his age, and his extraordinary imitative facility made him a brilliant, unrivaled parodist. But most important, the expression of his eroticism in many poems about nature, particularly about the sea, wind, and sun, make him the Victorian period’s greatest heir of the Romantic poets.
A Novelist: One of Swinburne’s most significant prose works is the satiric epistolary novel of 1862, A Year’s Letters (pseudonymously serialized in Tatler in 1877). A Year’s Letters is a masterful, more or less autobiographical account of the aristocratic Victorian world that shaped Swinburne’s character, ‘‘a world,’’ writes Edmund Wilson in The Novels of A. C. Swinburne (1962), ‘‘in which the eager enjoyment of a glorious out-of-door life of riding and swimming and boating is combined with adultery, incest, enthusiastic flagellation and quiet homosexuality.’’
Literary Critic: Throughout his career, Swinburne also published literary criticism of great acuity. His familiarity with a wide range of world literatures contributed to a critical style rich in quotation, allusion, and comparison. He is particularly noted for discerning studies of Elizabethan dramatists and of many English and French poets and novelists. In response to criticism of his own works, Swinburne wrote essays, including Notes on Poems and Reviews (1866) and Under the Microscope (1872), that are celebrated for their wit and insight. Swinburne also left a second novel, Lesbia Brandon, unfinished at his death. Some critics have theorized that Lesbia Brandon was intended as thinly disguised autobiography; however, its fragmentary form resists conclusive interpretation.
‘‘On the Cliffs:’’ One of Swinburne’s finest poems, ‘‘On the Cliffs,’’ was written at Holmwood in 1879, shortly after Watts-Dunton had rescued Swinburne from his rooms on Guildford Street. The poem approaches spiritual autobiography, which expresses the themes of Poems and Ballads, Second Series (1885) in a richly complex and precise syntax. The setting, as in ‘‘The Forsaken Garden’’ and later ‘‘By the North Sea,’’ is a crumbling cliff that is being slowly eaten away by the sea—Swinburne’s favorite image for his belief that all earthly life, even the Earth itself, is destined for oblivion. Some critics in the early twentieth century dismissed Swinburne’s nature poetry as ornamental and obscure, even verbose. They remarked, as noted in a Swinburne study by scholar David Riede, on the difficulty of Swinburne’s ‘‘syntactical maze of modifying clauses and phrases’’ as well as his complicated literary allusion. Riede also suggests some critics dismissed Swinburne’s ‘‘On the Cliffs’’ due to its meaning: the reader seems to always be in ‘‘continual doubt.’’
Bothwell: In 1874 an anonymous reviewer in Macmillan’s Magazine, writing on Swinburne’s Bothwell, praised the dramatist’s ‘‘strength and sweep of imagination’’ and suggested the play succeeds because Swinburne is ‘‘as much scholar as poet.’’ The reviewer goes on to laud Swinburne’s attention to history and his seriousness regarding the play’s subject. George Saintsbury, in an 1874 issue of The Academy, also appreciated Bothwell, cheering its lyrical power and elevating its author to ‘‘the heights of the English Parnassus.’’ Much more grounded in their analysis, twentieth-century critics like Curtis Dahl looked to Bothwell and the rest of Swinburne’s trilogy on Mary, Queen of Scots as an autobiographical/ biographical study. They believed the trilogy sheds new insight into how Swinburne saw himself at the time of publication.
Poems and Ballads and A Year’s Letters are seen by many as obscene and offensive, though they are also acknowledged classics. Here are a few more examples of significant literary classics that were considered immoral when first published:
Aeropagitica (1644), a nonfiction work by John Milton. This treatise condemning censorship makes the case—coming from one of literature’s most passionate defenders of Christian theology—that morality is only possible as a choice for those who have some minimal, albeit accidental, sense (even an imaginary sense) of immorality. It should be noted, however, that Milton was making the case for freedom of speech with the explicit goal of working toward a fuller understanding of the Christian God.
Tropic of Cancer (1961), a novel by Henry Miller. The publication of this novel led to a series of obscenity trials that tested American laws on pornography. The U.S. Supreme Court overruled state court findings of obscenity and declared the book a work of literature. The Modern Library named it the fiftieth-best book of the twentieth century.
Lady Chatterly’s Lover (1928), a novel by D. H. Lawrence. This novel was originally to be called ‘‘Tenderness,’’ and met with scandal on account of its explicit sex scenes, which included previously banned words. A portion of the outrage with which the novel’s publication met may also have derived from the fact that the lovers were a working-class male and an aristocratic female. It is generally considered a classic of English literature.
The Victorian Age - II
English Literature by Edward Albert [Revised by J. A. Stone]
History of English Literature, by Legouis and Cazamian
The Routledge History of Literature in English: Britain and Ireland, by Ronald Carter and John McRae
Gale’s Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature
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