Victorian Era Poetry
Literature is always the mirror of the age. This is borne out in no age so faithfully as in The Victorian Age. The literary history of this age bears out the influences of the social forces that were at work during that age. Science, rational thoughts, technological advancement, religious controversies and movements and industrialism are all found to have conspicuous effects on the literary aspiration as well as activities of the age. The Victorian Age and literature are found closely related.
Victorian literature is the literature produced during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901). England, during this time, was undergoing a tremendous cultural upheaval; the accepted forms of literature, Victorian art and music had undergone a radical change. The Romantic Movement, which preceded the Victorian Renaissance, had often portrayed the human pursuit of knowledge and power as a beautiful thing, for example in works of Wordsworth.
The Victorian era is additionally associated with an era of ideological conflict. It’s associated era within which the conflict between science and religion, rationality and mysticism, and technical progress and non-secular orthodoxy is found keen and clear. The writers of the age seem to have expressed their response to these diverse shades of conflict through their literary ideals and attitudes, thoughts and feelings.
Victorian poetry, just like the different branches of Victorian Literature, is found to be dominated by the social thoughts of the age. The age saw a variety of powerful poets-
1. Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892)
2. Robert Browning (1812-1889)
3. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)
4. Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)
5. Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861)
6. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)
7. William Morris (1834-1896)
8. Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894)
9. Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)
10. Coventry Kersey Dighton Patmore (1823-1896)
The poets of the age, save the Pre-Raphaelites, entered into the controversy of the age and tried to find out the road to the true ideal of literature in an environment of spiritual and ethical controversies and contentions and materialistic thrills and shocks.
Victorian Poetry mustn’t be taken as fully with the exception of Romantic poetry. It is a continuation, in its spirit as well as pattern, of the latter, with a good number of additions, deviations and transformations. Nature and her serenity, as noted in Wordsworth, as the poetic theme are replaced by man and his society in the Victorian World. But there is seen no new beginning. Shelleyan splendour, Byronic vigour and Keatsian sensuousness in the representation of the world of Nature are well perceived in Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites, who are found to bear no less the romantic craving for loveliness. The main interest only is shifted from Nature, as in Wordsworth, to man, as in Tennyson and Browning. This interest in man, however, is well perceived in later Romanticists, in Byron and Shelley.
Again, the Wordsworthian religious thought of pantheism has continuity, with a new interest, in Browning’s religious optimism and Tennyson’s rationalistic interpretation of God’s way-
“The old order chageth yielding place to the new,
And God fulfils Himself in many ways”
In the matter of the poetical technique and pattern, there is the similar continuity. The lyrical gifts of the romantic poets are found bequeathed of the Victorian poets. Tennyson, Swinburne, Rossetti, Mrs E. B. Browning, Clough, Matthew Arnold are all eminent lyricists. Like Romantic poetry, Victorian Poetry is more drawn to the stanza pattern. The musical element is Shelley and Keats is well preserved and continued in Tennyson, Swinburne, and many other Victorian masters.
Victorian Poetry Definition
Poetry written during the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901 is defined as Victorian poetry.
The defining characteristics of Victorian age poetry are its focus on sensory elements, its recurring themes of the religion/science conflict, and its interest in medieval fables and legends. Also, see features of Georgian poetry.
During the Victorian era, however, there was a lot of radical social change and as such, many poets of this time didn’t like the romanticized version of society. The Victorian poetry is, thus, divided into two main groups of poetry: The High Victorian Poetry and The Pre-Raphaelite Poetry.
Characteristics or Salient Features of Victorian poetry
Use of Sensory Elements
The most important and obvious characteristic of Victorian Poetry was the use of sensory elements. Most of the Victorian Poets used imagery and the senses to convey the scenes of struggles between Religion and Science, and ideas about Nature and Romance, which transport the readers into the minds and hearts of the people of the Victorian age, even today. Lord Alfred Tennyson lives up to this expected characteristic in most of his works. One notable example is the poem Mariana, in which Tennyson writes, The doors upon their hinges creaked; / The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse / Behind the mouldering wainscot shrieked. These images of the creaking door, the blue fly singing in the window, and the mouse with the mouldy wood panelling, all work together to create a very definite image of an active, yet lonely farmhouse.
Another characteristic of Victorian poetry was sentimentality. Victorian Poets wrote about Bohemian ideas and furthered the imaginings of the Romantic Poets. Poets like Emily Bronte, Lord Alfred Tennyson prominently used sentimentality in their poems.
The husband and wife poet duo, Elizabeth Barrett-Browning and Robert Browning conducted their love affair through verse and produced many tender and passionate poems. Most prominent of which are Elizabeth Barrett – Browning’s Sonnets from Portuguese, the most notably her If thou must love me and How do I love thee.Tennyson’s poetry style Lord Alfred Tennyson, arguably the most prominent of the Victorian Poets, held the title of Poet Laureate for over forty years. His poems were marked a wide range of topics from romance, to nature, to criticism of political and religious institutions; a pillar of the establishment not failing to attack the establishment.
His Charge of the Light Brigade was a fierce criticism of a famous military blunder; while the Princess dealt with pseudo-chivalry common among the royalty. The poems of In Memoriam dealt with Tennyson’s exploration of his feelings of love, loss, and desire.
The Victorian poets were more focused on the real socio-political issues and developments taking place in the nation and the world. Very often the poetry of this age reflects the historical issues and themes mentioned above, directly or indirectly.
The poetry of this age left the Romantic idealism of “Art for Art’s Sake” as its purpose for teaching people to be morally and ethically correct in conduct and thinking. This seems to be an antidote to the rapid and major socio-economic shifts taken place due to industrial reforms and other reforms, for example, changes in traditional life as an aftermath of intra and inter-national migration and of changing patterns of human labour.
Juxtaposition of Idealism and Practicality
While the Victorian poets could not afford to completely take an eye off the trials and tribulations taking place in society, politics and culture, they also understood well the basic function of poetry to be providing hope and relief. The use of medieval myths and folklore in the poetry of this age can be related to the poets’ realization of providing essential relief. So, their poems often juxtapose idealism and practicality. They foreground the tension and contradiction arising out of living in a strife-stricken society and also fostering the indomitable spirit for the welfare of the greater humanity.
Science versus God
A major theme of the poetry of this age is the tension between the empirically and rationally driven scientific attitude, and the age-old belief system coupled with the formal religious establishments, like the Church. This became more obvious after the publication of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Poetry of Urbanity
The development of the cities gradually as the metropolitan centres inspired the poets of this age to make them as the locales for their poetry. Major poets chiefly living in the big cities like London also made it a factor that they were writing more about cities.
Poetry of Masses
The Victorian poets were writing at a time when popular democracy was on the rise. The industrial revolution had already created a nouveau riche class (suddenly and newly emerged rich class as opposed to the traditional rich class represented by landlords, big farmers, farmhouse owners etc.), who started employing people on a mass scale in factories and in domestic spaces as ‘workers’. This new salaried working class gradually gave birth to the middle class and its spectrum of moral codes and conducts. They, along with the development of prose, became more and more the subjects of Victorian poetry.
Industrial revolution and advancement in science and technology, coupled with social-economic-political reforms also brought about a spike in the urban population resulting in poverty, unemployment, corruption, diseases and death, marriage, apart from deserted villages with aged people struggling to survive, environmental and existential crises. These factors brought pessimism in the poetry of this period, which was more or less focused on realism.