A Brief Primer to Victorian Poetry
The vast and unprecedented volume of change during the long nineteenth century is what, in my eyes, drives Victorian literature, including its poetry, to explore new directions with both content and form. These changes force poets to move in new directions with content and form in order to reflect on and cope with a world whose undercurrent is that of increasing doubt and uncertainty. Unlike the Romantics that preceded them—who often used snapshots from natural landscapes to trigger philosophical reflection—Victorian poets like Tennyson, Arnold, and the Brownings attempt to elucidate the social, cultural, and theological problems of the present (at times using the past to do so). Though certainly not an exhaustive list by any means, following are some of the major shifts that drive the spiritual undertow leading to feelings of doubt, uncertainty, and fin de siècle fear along with how some poets have attempted to illuminate and respond to these shifts.
One of the markers that some critics and historians use to distinguish the Victorian period from that which precedes it is the First Reform Bill of 1832 which, among other things, substantially increased voting rights and participation in Parliament to those who were outside of the elite aristocracy (the other marker, of course, is the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1837). This creates a cultural climate where a vastly larger number of people have a stake in the nation’s growing pains, and the added political and cultural power from non-noble-born and non-aristocratic people challenges the once prevailing sense of the divine’s appointment for certain people to be gentlemen and certain people to work in the service of the gentry. The British Industrial Revolution enables texts to be reproduced extremely cheaply, so anyone who was literate had easy access to all of the poetry being produced, and this wider audience certainly had reciprocal effects on the writers producing the poetry. Poetry was no longer only for the educated elite but for the educated masses. The Industrial Revolution also creates the strongest sense of a “middle class” that Britain had ever seen —along with a separation between workers and factory owners where the problems and horrors of the former, including child labor, were virtually invisible to the latter. Elizabeth Barrett Browning attempts to speak for these invisible children in her poem “The Cry of the Children” when she writes of “their pale and sunken faces” with looks that are “dread to see,” asking “‘How long, O cruel nation / Will you stand, to move the world, on a child’s heart” (149-50, 153-54).
Furthering the problems on the shores of Victorian England’s spiritual side, Charles Darwin published his seminal work On the Origin of Species in 1859, challenging Wordsworth’s sense of how “Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her” with nature’s indifference toward man (“Tintern Abbey” 122-23). Tennyson, in one of his most widely quoted passages, best anticipates this shift in one’s position relative to nature in 1849 when he writes in In Memoriam: “Who trusted God was love indeed / And love Creation’s final law / Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw / With ravine, shriek’d against his creed” (56.13-16). Matthew Arnold also reflects on the spiritual waning of the Victorians in his poem “Dover Beach” in 1851 when he writes, “The Sea of Faith / Was once, too, at the full… / But now I only hear / Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” (21-22, 24-25). While Tennyson’s poem is strict tetrameter quatrains with an ABBA rhyme scheme, Dover’s poem is lyrical and blank verse whose stanzas vary in length. It is also an early example of what becomes known as the dramatic monologue, a type of poem I would characterize as one that with an implied or explicit audience attempts to capture a single moment in time along with the psychological resonances that lead up the moment being captured. Of course the true forerunner to the dramatic monologue poetc form is Robert Browning. Through the dramatic monologue form in his poem “Porphyria’s Lover,” he similarly reflects on the waning sense of the divine that Tennyson and Dover explore. He writes—after having strangled his lover with her own hair in an attempt to freeze and immortalize her present state of what the narrator considers female perfection—“And thus we sit together now, / And all night long we have not stirred, / And yet God has not said a word!” (58-60). So while exploring the psychology and logic of a character on the margins of sanity, Browning is able to explore a fresh form of poetry that also anticipates Victorian conversations of spiritual doubt and crisis.
Though my particular focus hitherto has been on the spiritual side of Victorian culture, I would be mistaken to say that spiritual crisis is the only wave that runs through the literature. A variety of poets also attempt to illuminate issues of social class along constructs of femininity, gender, and “The Woman Question,” all issues which are strikingly relevant to our own time. A surprising amount of problems that are the present challenges of our own time were born in the age of Queen Victoria’s reign. This makes the study of Victorian literature and its poetry all the more intriguing, revealing, and poignant.