Victorian Poetry

“Victorian poetry” is a term that does not quite coincide with the reign of Queen Victoria—a reign that began with the death of her uncle, William IV, in 1837 and lasted until her own death some 63 years later on January 22, 1901. The great poets who wrote most or all of their work while she was queen (and later, starting in 1876, empress of India) include Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, Matthew Arnold, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and A. E. Housman. Some of the poets we think of as major 20th-century figures began writing in the Victorian Age, most significantly, perhaps, William Butler Yeats, but also Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling. The measure and historical importance of the Victorian period in literary history can be marked by the fact that William Wordsworth, who had seen the French Revolution, was still writing a decade after Victoria became queen, while Yeats (who would live until the eve of the Second World War) had already published some of his most important books before she died.

Mention of Yeats and Kipling in the same sentence suggests a different way of defining the Victorian era: Kipling feels Victorian in a way that Yeats does not, and this is because Kipling’s great poetry accepted as a fact of history Britain’s Victorian-style preeminence in the world, whereas Yeats joined with the moderns to see how all that was solid melted into the air—in particular the air of World War I (1914–18), which changed everything. As a cultural phenomenon, the Victorian era might be said to have come to an end in August 1914. Indeed, at the end of the era thus defined, some of the most significant late Victorian writers, such as Alice Meynell, began leading pacifist movements against the resurgent militarism and international violence that so characterized Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

Violence on the mechanized and global scale of the 20th century was one of the results of the seismic scientific and technological shifts that gave rise to the Industrial Revolution, which began in the 18th century and spread throughout Europe and North America. If we put the end of the Victorian era at the beginning of World War I, we can say that it begins a little before Victoria’s accession, with the sudden and earthshaking discoveries of Victorian science. Tennyson and Browning, the two greatest Victorian poets, both took an intense interest in the revolutionary scientific discoveries of the day. The central and most revolutionary achievement of Victorian science was Charles Darwin’s (1809–82) discovery of the mechanism of evolution, the “Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life,” as the title page of the first edition of his book puts it. That book, generally known as On the Origin of the Species, appeared in 1859, the same year as Edward FitzGerald’s despairing celebration of the nothingness of human life in The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, written partly in answer to Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H. The first edition of In Memoriam had been completed 10 years earlier, so Darwin was not a shadow in Tennyson’s early world. But his gigantic shadow was, in fact, first cast by the discoveries and systematic exposition of Charles Lyell (1797–1875) in his Principles of Geology, published in three volumes between 1830 and 1833—the year that Arthur Henry Hallam (A.H.H.), Tennyson’s closest and most beloved friend, died at 22 of a cerebral hemorrhage. Lyell was one of the first to have an inkling of what has come to be called “deep time,” the shocking, almost infinite antiquity of the world—an antiquity that suggested an equally shocking future stretching uniformly ahead forever. Since it was really only in the 18th century that astronomers began to be aware of the vastness of space (no one knew that other stars were also suns until then), the scientific revolution that began with the Enlightenment and accelerated throughout the Victorian era was one that severely undercut human belief in transcendentalist idealism. The universe suddenly appeared too big to transcend, and as Tennyson put it, the muse of astronomy, Urania, rebuked the muse of elegy and tragedy, Melpomene, who replied, “A touch of shame upon her cheek; / ‘I am not worthy ev’n to speak / Of thy prevailing mysteries’” (f, section 37, ll. 10–12).

For Tennyson, the death of Hallam was a catastrophic experience of the overwhelming of the human soul by an indifferent universe. Romantic poetry (see romanticism) had found a way to idealize human subjectivity as against the trash of mere empirical externality, but the cascading discoveries of science represented a kind of revenge on the part of the material world. In theory—romantic theory—the mind could transcend any world, no matter how great, because the world’s greatness was only relative, and the mind traffics with absolutes (see, for example, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Mont Blanc). But for the Victorians, the discovery of unimagined abysses showed that the world far outvied the mind when it came to imagination—nature’s indifferent, inhuman imagination (personified in In Memoriam) made little of anything the human mind could offer from its own petty resources. In Memoriam and many other great Victorian poems struggled against this apprehension, but the struggle shows few of the transcendent and absolute victories to be found in the greatest romantic poets. (Browning’s essay on Shelley explicitly contrasts the objectivity of contemporary poetry—an objectivity he also ascribes to William Shakespeare—to romantic subjectivity.)

Accordingly, it might be more correct to say that the Victorian era is the era of perhaps the greatest minor poetry ever written in English. “Minor poetry” is not meant as a belittling term: The Victorians wrote in an age when for the first time, perhaps, poets were realizing that with respect to the world around it, poetry could only be minor. Tennyson, again, imagining a critic of the intense grief he displays in In Memoriam, asks: “Is this an hour / For private sorrow’s barren song, / When more and more the people throng / The chairs and thrones of civil power? / A time to quicken and to swoon, / When Science reaches forth her arms / To feel from world to world and charms / Her secret from the latest moon?” (section 21, ll. 13–20). Indeed, many still complain that Victorian literature marked the beginning of a general phenomenon of escapism which in the 20th century would become transmogrified into incessant television watching. (Victorian critics lambasted the widespread reading of novels in ways that the stern moralists of the second half of the 20th century lambasted the widespread failure to read novels instead of watching TV. These are really the same complaint.)

All of this means that Victorian literature in general and poetry in particular aimed at giving its readers pleasure. The Victorians could no longer quite believe—as Wordsworth had in the preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800)—that such pleasure could save the soul. The Victorians were the heirs of the romantics in many ways, not least in their sense that the pleasures of literature, difficult as they sometimes were, went as deep as the depth of the human soul. But for the Victorians, the human soul did not seem quite as deep as it did for their predecessors.

All of this is generalization, of course, but it is generalization that accounts for a range of Victorian reaction, from the insistence on the absolute accuracy to which human perception can attain, to be found in Arnold, to the counter-insistence on the primacy of subjective experience over any empirical accuracy, with which the essayist and critic Walter Horatio Pater countered Arnold, and which culminated in Wildean aestheticism. It also accounts for Yeats’s folkloric anachronizing on the one hand and the striking number of conversions to Catholicism, such as Hopkins’s, on the other, offering an account of the soul fiercely capable of the same minute severity as any faithchallenging science. Further, it accounts for the triumphal shrewdness of such a champion of ­English industrial and economic achievement as Kipling.

What these poets almost all share is a sense of poetry as giving pleasure. Once the burden is taken off literary pleasure as the royal road to transcendence, pleasure can be regarded as an end in itself, and the Victorians could write the kind of poetry that gave a purer pleasure than the strongly individualized poetic self-assertions to be found in the romantics. (John Keats is a partial exception and a high influence on the Victorians, especially on Tennyson.) If one thinks of the kind of poetry that we remember without remembering or caring who wrote it, then this is the kind of poetry that the Victorians wrote. This can be seen as much in the vogue for highly sophisticated dramatic monologues— as with Browning and Tennyson, who were inventing characters, not speaking for themselves—as in the nonsense verse of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. It is no accident that Francis Turner Palgrave’s great and wildly successful anthology Golden Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics was a product of the Victorian age and ended with a few contemporary poems (Palgrave thanked Tennyson in his introduction), and that almost all its selections, from whatever age, sound Victorian.

The character of Palgrave’s collection culled from various poets can be found in the kinds of collections that individual Victorian poets put together, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. Similarly, among Tennyson’s most popular works were songs from the longer narrative works, such as the songs from The Princess: A Medley, which themselves are contextless, songs sung by characters, not spoken by them. FitzGerald pointed out that the Rubáiyát was an anthology (published alphabetically in Persian), which he gave the form of an eclogue (pastoral poem)—so that even when placed into a consecutive form, it is the stanzas that had priority, not the story they told. Even Tennyson described In Memoriam as a collection of lyrics, not as a consecutive work (though it is that, too, of course). Swinburne was another impresario of the evocative (partly through his study of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience), and Yeats consistently described his poems as songs.

Idiosyncratic and unpredictable as so many of the Victorians were, they nevertheless wrote poems that people remember as poems rather than as the expressions of poets. They wrote poems that gave people pleasure as poems, and such pleasure is the most archaic and deeply rooted experience of poetry that any of us ever has. Thus, Melpomene, the muse of tragedy shamed by Urania’s rebuke in In Memoriam states that as an earthly muse, she owns “but a little art / To lull with song an aching heart, / And render human love his dues,” so that in the end her role is to intensify human experience, minor as it is compared to the transcendence where science and religion come together in the grandeur and immensity of the universe. She, on the other hand, ministering to purely human and earthly experience, has “darken’d sanctities with song” (section 37, l. 24).

None of this should suggest that Victorian poetry is cloying. Its intensity of grief and its apprehensions of despair rival those of any other poetic tradition or period. In fact, some of that intensity derives from a paradoxical acknowledgement of its uselessness. The idea that the human soul is minor, just as the poetry that soul expresses is minor, is a grim one—consonant with the Victorian insights of that greatest of analytic pessimists, Sigmund Freud. The Pre-Raphaelite poetry can have the last word here: The absolutely minor pleasures of decorative beauty—scorned as unworthy of poetry by too many grander aspirants—became for them the devastatingly precise detail which undercuts any notion of transcendence. (They are the forebears of such modern great poets as Elizabeth Bishop.) All there is, in the end, is the world of detail, without the saving importance that might turn loss into gain, as it did for the romantics, that might make pleasure any more than decorative. It is the success of Victorian poetry that it preserves the importance of the decorative, gives us something to hang onto on earth when there is nothing that poetry can communicate that will bring us into heaven.

Browning, Robert. Essay on Percy Bysshe Shelley. London: Reeves and Turner. 1888. Hough, Graham Goulden. The Last Romantics. London: Duckworth, 1949.
Houghton, Walter Edwards. Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830– 1870. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1957.
Trilling, Lionel, and Harold Bloom. Victorian Prose and Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
Ricks, Christopher, ed. The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

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