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Romantic and Victorian Literature - Critical analyses of poems and its significant features

Updated: Oct 19, 2022

The Victorian Era was a period when Queen Victoria reigned during a long period 1837 to 1901. Therefore and because of it the poetry that was written during this period was called Victorian poetry. "Throughout this era poetry addressed issues such as patriotism, religious faith, science, sexuality, and social reform, that often-aroused critical debate.

The Victorian poetry divided into main group of poetry the high Victorian poetry and the Pre Raphaelites. Dealing with first group the major high Victorian poets were Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Bennett (Browning), Matthew Arnold and Gerard Manley Hopkins. 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 had already published some of his most important books before her death.

Victorian era does not have a topic in the poems about love and worship of nature as the Romantics had in their poetry. It is because the Romantics loved nature it was shown through their poems adoring and blessing her as if she were God. But in the Victorian poetry we have not found themes related to the love and what shape or characteristics of nature because the Victorians does not talk about it in their poetry. Therefore, we will not relate this topic with the Victorians poets refer to in the descriptions of places in the poem the love and worship of God, in comparison with love and worship of nature. Nature understood as part of God created by him maybe as a personification of God himself in the earth.

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 bit before Victoria’s accession, with it brought a sudden and astonishing discoveries of Victorian science. Tennyson and Browning, the two greatest Victorian poets, both took an immense interest in the revolutionary scientific discoveries of the day.

Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1893) is by far the most representative poet of the Victorian era. In1832 appeared Poems by Alfred Tennyson which at once established his reputation as a poet. His Poems include The Lady of Shalott, The Palace of Art, The Lotos-Eaters. Poems (1842) contain his famous poems like Ulysses, Locksley Hall, Sir Galahad etc. The death of his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam was a stunning blow to Tennyson and he wrote In Memoriam (1850) which starting as an elegy for his friend, soon became a "long philosophic poem dealing with universal questions of life, death and hereafter". His other works include The Princess (1847), Maud (1855), Idylls of King (1859-1865), Tethonus (1868) and Enoch A'rden (1864). In 1850, he accepted the Poet Laureateship on the death of Wordsworth. He was often called the poet of Victorian compromise.

While other writers and thinkers such as Carlyle, Ruskin, Arnold, Dickens and Thackeray made idealistic and realistic reactions against the commercialism and loss of faith in the Victorian era, Tennyson in his poetry tried to strike a compromise between the differing loyalties of the age - science and faith, religion and industrial civilization and moralistic preacher, urging the age not to fall away from its strong beliefs. It came to no surprise that the reaction against Tennyson set in, and today among the young men of letters to care for Tennyson's poetry is to be old-fashioned, and to belittle it is to be in the movement. The chief cause for the decline in his reputation was his advocacy of Victorian orthodoxy and the bourgeois ethos and the moral preaching which predominated in his poetry. He was largely credited with having given the English people their flattering image of the Prince Consort the

German husband of Queen Victoria. For Tennyson, the death of his friend Hallam was a catastrophic experience and the extremely overwhelming sense aroused in the human soul by an indifferent universe. Romantic poetry had found a way to idealize human subjectivity as against the trash of mere empirical externality, but the indefinite flowing discoveries of science represented a kind of revenge on the part of the material world. In theory—romantic theory—the mind could surpass any world, no matter how great, because the world’s greatness was only relative, and the mind traffics with absolutes this can be seen and explore in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Mont Blanc.

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 faith challenging science. Further, it accounts for the triumphal astuteness 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 removed, the 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 introduce a purer pleasure than the strongly individualized poetic self-assertions to be found in the romantics. Let’s note that 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 no matter of which age it belonged to this fall under Victorian era.

None of this should suggest that Victorian poetry is becoming tedious and lack good taste. 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 and is grim in nature. This falls under the agreement 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 connect and be belonged on the earth and there is nothing that poetry can communicate that will bring us into heaven.




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