History of English Literature is a comprehensive, eight-volume survey of English literature from the Middle Ages to the early twenty-first century. This reference work provides insightful and often revisionary readings of core texts in the English literary canon. Richly informative analyses are framed by the biographical, historical and intellectual context for each author.
Volume 4 begins with a focus on the pivotal function of religion in the mid-nineteenth century and explores the resulting oscillation between Romantic escape, sceptical solipsism and social responsibility in the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Tennyson, Browning, Clough and Matthew Arnold. The aegis of religion was only broken by the advent of Pre-Raphaelitism. This trajectory is reflected in a series of well-known enigmatic masterworks by the Rossettis.
In addition to these key works, space is also devoted to often neglected poets and poetry such as Patmore and Adelaide Procter, nonsense verse and Lear’s limericks, the dialect poet William Barnes, and the Victorian ‘poetesses’. Finally, the author rescues from critical oblivion the Spasmodics, honours the minor prose masterpiece Dreamthorp by Alexander Smith, and registers the revival of drama with Taylor, Boucicault and Robertson.
Table Of Contents
- About the author(s)/editor(s)
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- List of abbreviations
- § 1. The identity of the English writer after 1832
- § 2. Art as mediation
- § 3. Victorian poetry: Post-Romantic, Biedermeier, Spasmodic and proto-Decadent
- § 4. The hegemony of the novel
- § 5. Victorian psychoses
- § 6. Fluctuations in taste and criticism
- § 7. Social and political chronology of the Victorian Age up to 1870
- Part I The Scaffoldings of Victorian Thought
- § 8. Thomas Arnold of Rugby I: The educational system
- § 9. Thomas Arnold of Rugby II: The Rugbeian forge
- § 10. Carlyle I: Chaos into cosmos
- § 11. Carlyle II: The debate over de-Christianized religion
- § 12. Carlyle III: Hitler’s tears
- § 13. Carlyle IV: Biography
- § 14. Carlyle V: The transcendental essays
- § 15. Carlyle VI: ‘Sartor Resartus’ I. The autobiographical pastiche
- § 16. Carlyle VII: ‘Sartor Resartus’ II. The paleosemiotics of clothing
- § 17. Carlyle VIII: The French Revolution
- § 18. Carlyle IX: On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History
- § 19. Carlyle X: Past and Present
- § 20. Carlyle XI: Cromwell
- § 21. Carlyle XII: Latter-Day Pamphlets
- § 22. Carlyle XIII: The Life of John Sterling
- § 23. Carlyle XIV: Frederick the Great. Carlyle’s seven years’ war
- § 24. Carlyle XV: Reminiscences
- § 25. Carlyle XVI: Last works
- § 26. Newman I: The charismatic defector
- § 27. Newman II: ‘Apologia pro Vita Sua’ I. Occasion, background and objectives of the intellectual autobiography
- § 28. Newman III: ‘Apologia pro Vita Sua’ II. Drifting to the shore
- § 29. Newman IV: The poetry. The Dream of Gerontius
- § 30. Newman V: The novels
- § 31. Newman VI: The Idea of a University
- § 32. Newman VII: The Grammar of Assent
- § 33. Froude
- § 34. Macaulay I: The ‘great apostle of the Philistines’
- § 35. Macaulay II: Biography
- § 36. Macaulay III: The essays I. The organic idea of historico-literary culture
- § 37. Macaulay IV: The essays II. The struggle against intolerance, and the evolution of progress
- § 38. Macaulay V: Lays of Ancient Rome
- § 39. Macaulay VI: The History of England. A romanticized polyptych of the Glorious Revolution
- § 40. Mill I: The theorist of humanized utilitarianism
- § 41. Mill II: The mental phases up to the ‘crisis’
- § 42. Mill III: The philosophical essays and treatises
- § 43. Mill IV: The defence of individual freedom
- § 44. Ruskin up to 1869 I: The myth-maker
- § 45. Ruskin up to 1869 II: The arbiter of taste
- § 46. Ruskin up to 1869 III: Biography up to 1869
- § 47. Ruskin up to 1869 IV: ‘Modern Painters’ I. An anomalous treatise of painting
- § 48. Ruskin up to 1869 V: ‘Modern Painters’ II. The interdependence of truth and beauty
- § 49. Ruskin up to 1869 VI: ‘Modern Painters’ III. The general theory of the development of art
- § 50. Ruskin up to 1869 VII: ‘Modern Painters’ IV. The painter as mountaineer
- § 51. Ruskin up to 1869 VIII: The Seven Lamps of Architecture
- § 52. Ruskin up to 1869 IX: ‘The Stones of Venice’ I. The romance of a buried civilization
- § 53. Ruskin up to 1869 X: ‘The Stones of Venice’ II. The effulgence of the Venetian Gothic
- § 54. Ruskin up to 1869 XI: ‘The Stones of Venice’ III. The corrupt Renaissance
- § 55. Ruskin up to 1869 XII: Other works of art criticism
- § 56. Ruskin up to 1869 XIII: Moral fables for the young
- § 57. Ruskin up to 1869 XIV: Palingenetic dreams of a tribune
- § 58. Darwin and Darwinism
- § 59. Spencer
- Part II The Poetry of the ‘Defectors’ from Oxford and Cambridge
- § 60. Barrett Browning I: The deputy Poet Laureate
- § 61. Barrett Browning II: Beyond romance
- § 62. Barrett Browning III: Biography
- § 63. Barrett Browning IV: Scholarly and Homeric poetry until 1833
- § 64. Barrett Browning V: The Seraphim and the Arthurian ballads of 1838
- § 65. Barrett Browning VI: A Drama of Exile
- § 66. Barrett Browning VII: Ballads of medieval frustration
- § 67. Barrett Browning VIII: Towards an aesthetics of the constructive word
- § 68. Barrett Browning IX: ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’ I. Browning courted in verse
- § 69. Barrett Browning X: ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’ II. Sonnets on Eros disguised
- § 70. Barrett Browning XI: Casa Guidi Windows. A homage to the Risorgimento
- § 71. Barrett Browning XII: ‘Aurora Leigh’ I. The failed masterpiece
- § 72. Barrett Browning XIII: ‘Aurora Leigh’ II. The reconciliation of poetry and philanthropy
- § 73. Barrett Browning XIV: Final poems
- § 74. Tennyson up to 1874 I: An exile from the palace of art
- § 75. Tennyson up to 1874 II: The two voices
- § 76. Tennyson up to 1874 III: The ‘stupid’ Tennyson
- § 77. Tennyson up to 1874 IV: Posthumous fame
- § 78. Tennyson up to 1874 V: Biography
- § 79. Tennyson up to 1874 VI: Criteria for discussion
- § 80. Tennyson up to 1874 VII: Tennyson’s precocity
- § 81. Tennyson up to 1874 VIII: ‘Poems, Chiefly Lyrical’ I. A poetry of musical lyricism
- § 82. Tennyson up to 1874 IX: ‘Poems, Chiefly Lyrical’ II. Metaphysical quests and imaginary escapes
- § 83. Tennyson up to 1874 X: The 1832 poems I. The socializing of the Romantic demiurge
- § 84. Tennyson up to 1874 XI: The 1832 poems II. ‘The Lady of Shalott’ and repressed eroticism
- § 85. Tennyson up to 1874 XII: The 1832 poems III. Idylls and political poems
- § 86. Tennyson up to 1874 XIII: The 1842 poems I. ‘The Two Voices’
- § 87. Tennyson up to 1874 XIV: The 1842 poems II. Action and asceticism
- § 88. Tennyson up to 1874 XV: The 1842 poems III. ‘Locksley Hall’ and other poems about crossed lovers
- § 89. Tennyson up to 1874 XVI: ‘The Princess’ I. Reformist mediation and chauvinistic feminism
- § 90. Tennyson up to 1874 XVII: ‘The Princess’ II. The lyrical interludes and the intercalary songs
- § 91. Tennyson up to 1874 XVIII: ‘In Memoriam’ I. Genesis and organization
- § 92. Tennyson up to 1874 XIX: ‘In Memoriam’ II. The therapy of pain
- § 93. Tennyson up to 1874 XX: ‘In Memoriam’ III. The Deus absconditus and blind evolutionism
- § 94. Tennyson up to 1874 XXI: ‘In Memoriam’ IV. Cosmic finalism regained
- § 95. Tennyson up to 1874 XXII: Poems after In Memoriam from 1850 to 1855
- § 96. Tennyson up to 1874 XXIII: ‘Maud’ I. The ‘monodramatic’ rewriting of the trauma of first love
- § 97. Tennyson up to 1874 XXIV: ‘Maud’ II. Amour fou healed by war
- § 98. Tennyson up to 1874 XXV: Poems from 1855 to 1864. The poet of the people
- § 99. Tennyson up to 1874 XXVI: Poems from 1869 to 1874. Lucretius
- § 100. FitzGerald I: From the would-be creator to the orientalist forger
- § 101. FitzGerald II: The dialogue Euphranor
- § 102. FitzGerald III: ‘The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’ I. Omar reborn in the sceptical nineteenth century
- § 103. FitzGerald IV: ‘The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’ II. The conceptual arabesque
- § 104. Browning up to 1869 I: A defector on the loose, Spasmodic and politicized
- § 105. Browning up to 1869 II: The ‘white light’ and the ‘prismatic hues’
- § 106. Browning up to 1869 III: Mechanisms and horizons of Browning’s dramatic monologue
- § 107. Browning up to 1869 IV: Foreshadowings and influences of Browning’s art
- § 108. Browning up to 1869 V: Biography
- § 109. Browning up to 1869 VI: Pauline and the essays on Chatterton and Shelley
- § 110. Browning up to 1869 VII: Paracelsus. The failed search for absolute knowledge
- § 111. Browning up to 1869 VIII: ‘Sordello’ I. The travails of a Romantic soul in the Italian Middle Ages
- § 112. Browning up to 1869 IX: ‘Sordello’ II. The double defeat of the poet and politician
- § 113. Browning up to 1869 X: The theatre
- § 114. Browning up to 1869 XI: Pippa Passes. Asolo’s naïve spinner
- § 115. Browning up to 1869 XII: Dramatic Lyrics. Psychic unbalance
- § 116. Browning up to 1869 XIII: ‘Dramatic Romances and Lyrics’ I. Scenes from Renaissance and contemporary Italy
- § 117. Browning up to 1869 XIV: ‘Dramatic Romances and Lyrics’ II. Other lyrics with love-related themes
- § 118. Browning up to 1869 XV: ‘Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day’ I. The Christian confessions under scrutiny
- § 119. Browning up to 1869 XVI: ‘Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day’ II. The temptations of ascetic life
- § 120. Browning up to 1869 XVII: ‘Men and Women’ I. Monologues and poems on conjugal love
- § 121. Browning up to 1869 XVIII: ‘Men and Women’ II. Monologues and poems on pictorial, musical and literary art
- § 122. Browning up to 1869 XIX: ‘Men and Women’ III. Monologues and poems on religion and theology
- § 123. Browning up to 1869 XXI: ‘Men and Women’ IV. ‘Bishop Blougram’s Apology’
- § 124. Browning up to 1869 XXII: ‘Dramatis Personae’ I. Faith threatened by evolutionism
- § 125. Browning up to 1869 XXIII: ‘Dramatis Personae’ II. Autobiographical and occasional poems
- § 126. Browning up to 1869 XXIV: ‘The Ring and the Book’ I. Materials, sources, structural organization and conceptual framework
- § 127. Browning up to 1869 XXV: ‘The Ring and the Book’ II. The fresco of seventeenth-century Italy
- § 128. Browning up to 1869 XXVI: ‘The Ring and the Book’ III. The two ‘Half-Romes’ and the Tertium Quid
- § 129. Browning up to 1869 XXVII: ‘The Ring and the Book’ IV. The two monologues of Guido Franceschini
- § 130. Browning up to 1869 XXVIII: ‘The Ring and the Book’ V. Giuseppe Caponsacchi and Pompilia
- § 131. Browning up to 1869 XXIX: ‘The Ring and the Book’ VI. The lawyers
- § 132. Browning up to 1869 XXX: ‘The Ring and the Book’ VII. A resolution or a re-opening of relativism?
- § 133. Clough I: A ‘submerged’ poet, fathoming psychic division
- § 134. Clough II: Biography
- § 135. Clough III: University poems
- § 136. Clough IV: Ambarvalia. Early signs of bivocal poetry
- § 137. Clough V: Adam and Eve
- § 138. Clough VI: ‘The Bothie of Tober-na-vuolich’ I. The joyful parody of academia
- § 139. Clough VII: ‘The Bothie of Tober-na-vuolich’ II. The bothie, an exportable microcosmos
- § 140. Clough VIII: ‘Amours de Voyage’ I. The withdrawal from action and the epistolary game
- § 141. Clough IX: ‘Amours de Voyage’ II. The personal debacle reflected in the fall of the Roman Republic
- § 142. Clough X: The poems of ‘juxtaposition’
- § 143. Clough XI: ‘Dipsychus’ I. The staging of the conflict between conscience and the world
- § 144. Clough XII: ‘Dipsychus’ II. The ‘double-minded man’ and the tempting Spirit
- § 145. Clough XIII: ‘Dipsychus’ III. The final scenes. Dipsychus continued
- § 146. Clough XIV: Completed and unfinished poems from 1850–1853
- § 147. Clough XV: Mari Magno
- § 148. Matthew Arnold up to 1870 I: Subdued Romanticism and classical aspirations
- § 149. Matthew Arnold up to 1870 II: From the poet to the essayist and to the theorist of integrated literature
- § 150. Matthew Arnold up to 1870 III: Range and argumentative strategies of Arnold’s essays
- § 151. Matthew Arnold up to 1870 IV: Biography
- § 152. Matthew Arnold up to 1870 V: The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems. The triad of poems on controlled empathy and the ‘wide’ vision
- § 153. Matthew Arnold up to 1870 VI: The stateless cosmos and the philosophy of active stoicism
- § 154. Matthew Arnold up to 1870 VII: Poems of the ‘ebb tide’
- § 155. Matthew Arnold up to 1870 VIII: ‘Empedocles on Etna’ and the tragedy of self-devouring thought
- § 156. Matthew Arnold up to 1870 IX: Arnold as Tristram, and the two Iseults
- § 157. Matthew Arnold up to 1870 X: Post-Tractarian disorientation and the temptations of communitarian salvation
- § 158. Matthew Arnold up to 1870 XI: Balder Dead and Merope. Reworkings and updates of myth
- § 159. Matthew Arnold up to 1870 XII: The epicedia of the 1860s
- § 160. Matthew Arnold up to 1870 XIII: Further poems of the 1860s. The conquest of the euphoric word and the vision of a new world order
- § 161. Matthew Arnold up to 1870 XIV: The essays on the Homeric translations
- § 162. Matthew Arnold up to 1870 XV: The first series of Essays in Criticism I. Implications and applications of Arnold’s ‘criticism’
- § 163. Matthew Arnold up to 1870 XVI: The first series of Essays in Criticism II. The historical and literary perspective
- § 164. Matthew Arnold up to 1870 XVII: The first series of Essays in Criticism III. The essays on religion
- § 165. Matthew Arnold up to 1870 XVIII: On the Study of Celtic Literature. Political separatism cured by philology
- § 166. Matthew Arnold up to 1870 XIX: Friendship’s Garland. The first, satirical and parodic work of the political writer
- § 167. Matthew Arnold up to 1870 XX: ‘Culture and Anarchy’ I. The synthesis of Arnold’s neo-humanism
- § 168. Matthew Arnold up to 1870 XXI: ‘Culture and Anarchy’ II. Waiting for a re-Hellenization
- § 169. Matthew Arnold up to 1870 XXII: Educational writings
- § 170. Matthew Arnold up to 1870 XXIII: Secondary and university education in Europe and in England
- Part III The Pre-Raphaelites
- § 171. Patmore I: The singer of hearth and home
- § 172. Patmore II: The second, mid-Victorian outsider
- § 173. Patmore III: Biography
- § 174. Patmore IV: Youthful poems of frustrated love
- § 175. Patmore V: ‘The Angel in the House’ I. Scenes of domestic happiness
- § 176. Patmore VI: ‘The Angel in the House’ II. Angelic catechesis and ironic distancing
- § 177. Patmore VII: The Victories of Love. The polyphonic, reversed rewriting of The Angel in the House
- § 178. Patmore VIII: The Unknown Eros. The Eroica Symphony of virginal love
- § 179. Patmore IX: Final idylls of senile love
- § 180. Patmore X: Essays and aphorisms
- § 181. The Rossetti family
- § 182. Dante Gabriel Rossetti I: An Anglo-Italian Janus
- § 183. Dante Gabriel Rossetti II: Painting into literature and non-figurative poetry
- § 184. Dante Gabriel Rossetti III: Biography
- § 185. Dante Gabriel Rossetti IV: ‘The Blessed Damozel’ and other poems in the sensual Stilnovo style
- § 186. Dante Gabriel Rossetti V: Rhapsodies on disappointed waiting
- § 187. Dante Gabriel Rossetti VI: From Christian to diabolical art …
- § 188. Dante Gabriel Rossetti VII: … and on to the phenomenology of the real
- § 189. Dante Gabriel Rossetti VIII: The prose stories
- § 190. Dante Gabriel Rossetti IX: Painting up to 1865
- § 191. Dante Gabriel Rossetti X: Rossetti the Dante scholar, translator and critic
- § 192. Dante Gabriel Rossetti XI: ‘The House of Life’ I. Stylistic contamination and structural unity
- § 193. Dante Gabriel Rossetti XII: ‘The House of Life’ II. The esoteric and Dantesque texture
- § 194. Dante Gabriel Rossetti XIII: The final ballads
- § 195. Dante Gabriel Rossetti XIV: Development and influence of Rossetti’s portraits
- § 196. Christina Rossetti I: Dante’s ‘sister’
- § 197. Christina Rossetti II: Culmination, decline and revival of Rossetti’s poetry
- § 198. Christina Rossetti III: Aporias under scrutiny
- § 199. Christina Rossetti IV: Biography
- § 200. Christina Rossetti V: Poems on unrequited love
- § 201. Christina Rossetti VI: Poems with a rural background on pairs of sisters
- § 202. Christina Rossetti VII: ‘Goblin Market’ I. The allegory of rewarded expectation and intermediary experience
- § 203. Christina Rossetti VIII: ‘Goblin Market’ II. Further symbolic implications
- § 204. Christina Rossetti IX: Fairy-tale ballads and dream fantasies
- § 205. Christina Rossetti X: Apocalyptic visions and religious self-probings
- § 206. Christina Rossetti XI: Narrative and devotional prose
- § 207. Pictorial Pre-Raphaelitism
- § 208. Minor Pre-Raphaelite literature
- § 209. Woolner
- § 210. William Bell Scott
- § 211. Allingham
- § 212. Procter
- Part IV Other Poets and Poetic Movements
- § 213. Barnes. The minor ‘classic’
- § 214. Cook
- § 215. Ingelow, Greenwell
- § 216. Victorian women poets
- § 217. Victorian nonsense
- § 218. Lear I: Genesis and morphology of Lear’s limericks
- § 219. Lear II: The individual versus society
- § 220. Lear III: Further nonsense poems and prose
- § 221. Lear IV: The landscape designer, painter and diarist
- § 222. Humourists
- § 223. Chartist poetry
- § 224. The Spasmodics
- § 225. Bailey. Festus and vulgarised Faustism
- § 226. Dobell. The second Titan
- § 227. Smith I: A Life-Drama
- § 228. Smith II: Dreamthorp
- § 229. Ebenezer Jones
- § 230. Taylor
- § 231. The reawakening of drama. Boucicault, Robertson
- Index of names
- Thematic index
AVP I. Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics, London 1993.
BAUGH A Literary History of England, ed. A. C. Baugh, 4 vols, London 1967.
CRHE The Critical Heritage of individual authors, London, with editors and publication years indicated in the bibliographies.
GGM S. M. Gilbert and S. Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, New Haven, CT and London 1984.
GSM H. J. C. Grierson and J. C. Smith, A Critical History of English Poetry, London 1956.
HWP B. Russell, History of Western Philosophy, London 1964 (1st edn 1946).
MVO F. Marucci, ‘A Victorian Oxymoron: The “Mastering” and “Merciful God”’, in Hopkins: Tradition and Innovation, ed. P. Bottalla, G. Marra and F. Marucci, Ravenna 1991, 191–206.
NCF Nineteenth-Century Fiction.
OCE G. Orwell, Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, ed. S. Orwell and I. Angus, 4 vols, Harmondsworth 1970.
PGU The Pelican Guide to English Literature, ed. B. Ford, 7 vols, Harmondsworth 1968.
PHE M. Praz, The Hero in Eclipse in Victorian Fiction, Eng. trans., London 1969 (1st Italian edn La crisi dell’eroe nel romanzo vittoriano, Firenze 1952).
PIO M. Praz, Poeti inglesi dell’Ottocento, Firenze 1925.
PMLA Publications of the Modern Language Association of America.
PSL M. Praz, Storia della letteratura inglese, Firenze 1968.
SAI G. Saintsbury, A Short History of English Literature, London 1948 (1st edn 1898).
SSI M. Praz, Studi e svaghi inglesi, 2 vols, Milano 1983 (1st edn 1937).
TCR V. Woolf, The Common Reader, First Series, Harmondsworth 1938 (1st edn London 1925), and Second Series, London 1935 (1st edn London 1932).
TLS The Times Literary Supplement.
TNE K. Tillotson, Novels of the Eighteen-Forties, London 1954.
VAL G. K. Chesterton, The Victorian Age in Literature, London 1913.
VP Victorian Poetry.
WOL R. L. Wolff, Gains and Losses: Novels of Faith and Doubt in Victorian England, London 1977.
Volumes of the present work will be cited as follows:
Volume 1 F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 1, Oxford 2018.
Volume 2 F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 2, Oxford 2018.
Volume 3 F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 3, Oxford 2018.
Volume 5 F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 5, Oxford 2019.
Volume 6 F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 6, Oxford 2019.
Volume 7 F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 7, Oxford 2019.
Volume 8 F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 8, Oxford 2019.
Note. Except for the above abbreviations, full publication information of cited works will be found in the bibliography for each author.
All attempts normally made to pinpoint specific years as the beginning and the end of literary movements are inevitably arbitrary or compromise solutions, and as such to be avoided. One such is the convention of locating the beginning of the Victorian Age at 1837 and making it end in 1901, in exact coincidence with the reign of Queen Victoria. Unlike the many -isms that crowd the history of artistic and literary movements, Victorianism has in fact no intrinsic historical-literary reference points, whether concerning time-space or tied to conceptual categories (such as Classicism, Modernism, Futurism, or even Romanticism), nor does it give rise to colourful metaphorical associations (such as Vorticism, Dadaism, etc.), since it derives its name – coined in 1851, perhaps on the lines of ‘Elizabethan’ – from a monarch who was its symbol and emblem by definition. It has often been noted, though, that Victorianism existed before Victoria came to the throne, and that the period stretched beyond her death. Hence, many have pinpointed an event that took place before the coming of Victoria, and marked more tangibly and concretely a turning point in the sphere of culture and literature: the First Reform Bill of 1832. In that year, a limited democratic renewal took place in England, which led in turn to a vigorous reforming zeal that clearly influenced the fate of the arts, or at least those aspects of history shaping their destiny. The periodization of Victorianism after 1832 is more controversial. Instead of its bi-partitioning, from 1832 to 1870, and from 1870 to the end of the century, which is also followed here, many opt for a tri-partitioning into early, middle and late Victorianism. The cusp years have been viewed variously as 1848 or 1851 or 1855 – between the early and middle periods – and as 1867, 1868, and 1870, between the middle and late. Some have even considered dividing the late period still further into two half-periods turning on the year 1890. The political event symmetrical to the First Reform Bill, and no less important in its social repercussions, is the Second Reform Bill of 1867. This was a ‘leap into the dark’, according to Disraeli, while Carlyle saw it as being the end of ‘poor old England’. Gladstone’s first ministry began in 1868, France’s defeat by Prussia was in 1870, when the first signs marking the end of English hegemony in Europe began to appear. Added to all this, there was the great economic depression of 1870. A break at 1870, ← 3/I | 4/I → with the division of the whole into two thirty-five-year periods, has the further advantage of being natural, and has a more specific literary-historic significance, because by 1870 a number of important writers were dead; it also signals the mutation in technique and style of others, and marks a perceptible change in horizons and ideologies. In fact, around this date cluster pointers to a new poetic sensibility, that of aestheticism – from the poetry of Rossetti to that of Swinburne and to the poetic manifestos of Austin and Buchanan, not to mention the reactions of their predecessors, from Browning to Tennyson and Arnold – that will form one, or rather, chronologically the first, of the lines of development in late nineteenth-century English literature. Not all Victorian writers can be fitted completely into the arc 1832 to 1870. In fact, after 1832, Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Southey were still writing, and after 1870 Tennyson and Browning, and others, like Meredith, had much of their literary career still to come. If, apart from Wordsworth and Coleridge, or Blake, the Romantic poets were dead before they reached the age of thirty or forty, leaving in their wake a highly concentrated production, many Victorians were quite long-lived and left behind them many volumes of work. Such longevity meant, on the artistic plane at least, that they were slow in updating the forms and contents of their art. In this, they were very different from the few who had, paradoxically, the good fortune to die young and who were, therefore, authors of an explosive poetic output that could be defined as synchronic, and whose epitome might be Hopkins. The chronological criterion followed in this History requires an explanation of the apparent anomalies inherent in such a method. The production published by the Romantic poets after 1832 has been treated in Volume 3 of this work; writers born after 1800 and up to 1830 belong here, while those born afterwards find their place in Volume 6. There are, of course, the odd exceptions. If it is true that in 1870, or round about that date, a further change in sensibility can be discerned, which was as strongly felt as it was resisted by the writers then living and active, it seems indispensable that the above-mentioned major endurers are dealt with at two separate times, both before and after that date, and appear in part in this and in part in Volume 6 of this opus.
2. The repercussions of the First Reform Bill on post-1832 literature were, generally speaking, twofold: firstly, the modest euphoria of writers, ← 4/I | 5/I → some of whom initially sided with a political cause only to cool down later and take up more conservative positions; secondly, a substantial revision of the modes of literary transmission. In order to understand Victorian literature in its complexity it is necessary, although insufficient in itself, to examine the role played by the writer before and after 1832.1 We need to start from the unprecedented rise in literacy. Mass schooling was one of the reforms promised by Victorian governments and promoted by private initiatives and religious charities. From this joint propulsion, various ventures got underway, such as the widespread proliferation of debating clubs, of evening courses for workers, and lectures – often held by famous names in the scientific and literary worlds – stimulating a desire for further knowledge. The newly literate reader was seen as a possible consumer once the working day in the factories and mines was regulated and reduced, affording workers moments of leisure. The publishing industry quickened into a new life owing to the common reader being stimulated to read, as many books, magazines and newspapers were present on the market and priced as cheaply as possible. The lowering of prices, in turn, was due to improved printing technology and to the creation of open-access, or circulating libraries. These libraries lent out books fairly cheaply, thereby making them accessible to a growing number of readers. Thus, in a short while, unscrupulous publishing houses, fuelled by greed, published works to satisfy all tastes, even the most reactionary – including pocket editions, cheap journals, and horror stories – and attracted a huge variety of readers. The Victorians were the first to sell literary works in pamphlet form and in weekly instalments, and to transform an elite literature into one for the masses. Furthermore, it was in this period that the term bestseller, later overused and abused, was coined. The main problem facing political power during the first fifty years of the century was how to promote schooling while at the same time keeping it harmless. If, at the end of the eighteenth century, the greatest impediment to the expansion of ← 5/I | 6/I → education in England had been the fearsome spectre of the French Revolution, and terror at the possible spread and influence of Paine’s pamphlets – so much so that Sunday Schools for the children of workers were commonly thought of as nurseries of Jacobinism – in the nineteenth century the educational objective became that of moulding the ‘intelligent artisan’, the mild, virtuous and obedient worker. The burgeoning importance of the Victorian writer was recognized officially in the growing prestige of the Poet Laureate, an honour that led to a blunting of the genius of famous poets like Wordsworth, or that incurably broke the spirit of others who held it, like Tennyson. It meant – except in Wordsworth’s case, who, in accepting it, asked to be exempted from such obligations – that the poet was expected to contribute lines for the birthdays of the royal persons and other celebratory events, such as, in wartime, victories, inspiring episodes and acts of heroism. The Poet Laureate was the prime cultural intermediary and agent of consensus for the Crown; but, at the same time, other well-known writers became beneficiaries of pensions, life endowments, and honorary appointments.
3. The greater part of Victorian publishing will not be examined here, in so far as it belongs either to the anonymity of consumer literature aimed at exploiting the schooling of the masses, or to the sphere of edification and popularization, which, the statistics show, reached astronomical circulation figures. Many writers and their works, in fact, were ready to serve the new objectives of social integration, or were persuaded to take advantage of the new opportunities offered by the market. Hence the weakness of the boundary between the original and the stereotyped in low and medium low level Victorian literature.2 However, even the most limited range of texts with an overt aesthetic end reveals dependence on the prevailing social situation. Arnold, using the German word Zeitgeist, sketched the outlines of ← 6/I | 7/I → the historical-cultural juncture in a time that seemed to him to be an age of ‘expansion,’ on account of its materialistic, economic and scientific progress – of which he certainly did not unconditionally approve – as against the preceding age that had been one of unmoving and stagnant ‘concentration’. Nor would he have had difficulty in recognizing himself as the most significant of the reformist writers, intent on correcting the socio-political model. Not even the Victorian poets could escape the laws of the market, because they had to be saleable if they wanted to publish, and they had to publish if they wanted to make themselves known. Some could not resist the temptation of imitating, or even outdoing, the novelists in trying to gain popular success and make money. The writing of poetry was widespread in the early decades of the nineteenth century. It was a popular hobby that could be cultivated in various ways, and that was, at an amateurish level, taken up by many young ladies of good family. The first circle for experimenting with the writing of poetry was the family; then came the schools where young adolescent poets could spread their wings; and, finally, the launching pad came with manuscripts that circulated among a homogeneous and like-minded group of friends and university companions. The public schools and the colleges of the two major English universities organized competitions in recitation and the reading of poetic excerpts as well as sponsoring prizes for poetry. A further, almost obligatory requirement for the would-be poet seeking an imprimatur was to be awarded the Newdigate Prize, even though this was not in itself a guarantee of success. This competition had been held at Oxford since 1806 and was named after a local politician.3 The competition was won by Arnold, Hopkins and Wilde, while Clough was a narrow runner-up. The difficulties would arise when the would-be poet left the university circle and took flight towards printed publication. Here, he had to face the tricky problem of the homogeneity of his readers. The Victorian poets who wanted to break through had recourse to a practice ← 7/I | 8/I → every bit as pragmatic as that of the successful novelists. In the career of the two paradigmatic poets, Browning and Tennyson, the formula of a miscellany of medium-length and short poems prevailed with a peculiar coincidence and synchrony of dates (in Browning’s case everything is relative and a question of scale). They avoided writing single, extended poems, risky simply because they had perforce to conform to a specific genre or to a certain register, and, in so doing, they inevitably pleased one section of the public while dissatisfying another. The criterion behind the many collections of poems published by Browning and Tennyson right up to the 1850s was to offer a variety of poems that bordered on cacophony. Both Tennyson and Browning indicated in the titles of their works the composite nature of the collections and the genre groupings, if not the theme itself: dramatic poems, lyrics and romances. The most authentic and fraught or, as it may be, enigmatic voice of the poet was limited in each collection to no more than four or five compositions, while the many remaining poems touched on an ample range of options and voices, and slavishly followed current tastes.4 According to Elizabeth Barrett Browning the poet was forced ‘To work with one hand for the booksellers, / While working with the other for [him- or herself] / And art’.5
4. For the Victorians, Tennyson’s In Memoriam represented, par excellence, a test of the reader’s sensitivity and of his or her acquired critical ← 8/I | 9/I → capacity, as well as of the role they expected poetry to play. It was with reference to this poem that the critic F. W. Robertson6 fixed as a norm the limited accessibility of poetry, which ‘requires a study as severe as that of mathematics’, and should not be taken up by those who ‘feel it as a mere form of distraction or amusement to fill in a lazy hour’. Even Browning distinguished poetry from ‘smoking a cigar,’ while Arnold asserted that poetry was a genre that called for a greater awareness and a wider knowledge than any other, both on the part of the writer and of the reader. The novelists were still, or perhaps especially, considered to be writers who by implication ‘knew’ little. Many poets continued to address the erudite reader, and this meant that they could put into their poems the whole curriculum of classical studies undertaken at the university. Classicism, and especially Hellenism, practised as a simple transfusion of cultured references, unites Tennyson, Browning and Arnold, and a minor poet like William Johnson Cory. Except for Browning, all had read for a degree at Cambridge or Oxford, where Jowett’s school of classical studies flourished.7
1 I am here indebted to R. D. Altick, The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800–1900, Chicago 1983, the best-documented and most authoritative work on this subject.
2 Some of the greatest Victorian novels – Jane Eyre and Hard Times, for instance – begin in a school, or reflect the spreading of literacy in its early uncertain steps, with its utilitarian and scientific leanings, not always viewed in a positive light. Much Victorian prose has an educational bent, and especially that of Matthew Arnold who, for many years, held a post with the Ministry of Education as an inspector of schools.
3 The prize was set up by Sir Roger Newdigate, represented under the name of Sir Christopher Cheverel in George Eliot’s short story ‘Mr Gilfil’s Love-Story’ (see Volume 5, § 186.5). The Newdigates were landowners in the Nuneaton area where Eliot’s father worked as farm manager. The length of the poem was limited to a maximum of 50 lines, and from 1806–1826 the subject were the plastic arts.
4 ‘sing thou low or loud or sweet, / All at all points thou canst not meet, / Some will pass and some will pause’, as Tennyson wrote in 1833. Even Arnold in 1852 planned heterogeneous collections in which long dramatic poems alternated with short lyrics, following the criteria of the miscellany. The poet’s conditioning is noted by Aurora Leigh, in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s eponymous poem, when she moves her first steps as a freelance writer in London: ‘My critic Hammond flatters prettily, / And wants another volume like the last. / My critic Belfair wants another book / Entirely different’. This underlines the dilemma between originality and repetitiveness, the latter being almost a sure guarantee of success. In fact, the poet notes, immediately after, that ‘The public blames originalities’. A well-known recipe for success was apparently to avoid ‘abstract thoughts’.
5 The crisis as to the destination of poems in the nineteenth century would peak in Hopkins, who had by his own personal choice no more than three readers, and not at the same time.
6 See Tennyson: In Memoriam: A Casebook, ed. J. D. Hunt, London 1970, 114.
7 See § 149.3 n. 24.
Right up to the coming of Rossetti, post-Romantic aesthetic ideologies and pseudo-ideologies wavered between an absolute concept of poetry and its supposed dependence on the movement of history. Macaulay, in an essay on Milton in 1825, outlined a pseudo-Viconian literary theory where poetry was seen as a variable in the development of civilization, and a variable without a future since its language was highly imaginative. He felt that poetry was bound to succumb in a civilization that had been progressing from perception to abstraction.8 It is a framework that can be traced in The Four Ages of Poetry by Peacock, in an essay on poetry – in other respects notably modern and wholly centred on technical and structural problems – by Leigh Hunt, and – as will be shown more clearly later – in the two essays ← 9/I | 10/I → on poetry by Mill,9 as well as in Heroes and Hero-Worship by Carlyle. The decade 1820–1830 was a dark age for poetry, a period of literary blight, as an unprecedented battle was waged against the imagination. Right up to the 1840s two schools of thought coalesced in this crusade, evangelicalism and utilitarianism, a hybrid union that shared an objective, even though setting out from very different positions. The evangelical publishers concentrated on religious tracts, sermons, and books of devotion; and numerically these made up the lion’s share of published matter. Such propaganda attempted in vain to ostracise the novel, and highbrow literature generally, on account of the immoral and corrupt ideas that these purportedly spread;10 but its intolerance of poetry was no less harsh, in that poetry was regarded as a surrogate for religious faith and, therefore, included in the range of secular distractions. Only the Bible and literature of a religious bent were to be allowed.11 Likewise, poetry was belittled by the Utilitarians who saw it as an innocent amusement on the level the a child’s game of push-pin, although more often it was rejected as being a ‘mystification’ of reality.
2. However, not even after the weakening of evangelical and utilitarian prejudices did conditions become more favourable for an authentic literary renewal. The lack of any leading arbiters resulted in debates taking place in the numerous magazines and periodicals now on the market. The success and the large popular following of Victorian magazines was attested by their ubiquity not only in aristocratic clubs but in middle-class homes too, where, like three-volume novels, the monthly issue passed from hand to hand and was read by all the members of the family. Aesthetic theory could do little else than uphold the taste that these magazines contributed to ← 10/I | 11/I → create. It tended therefore to the conservative and was hostile to innovation, and two of the greatest poets of the age fell victim to it as a consequence. Targets of a cruel belittlement, both Tennyson and Browning were blocked by a paralysis that seemed irreversible. The reviewers used their influence in a prescriptive and corrective manner, but, lacking any firm aesthetic basis on which to lean, theirs was simply a series of subjective exclusions. Taken as a whole, the Victorian artes poeticae, even the best known, fell short of the breadth and foresight that had happily characterized the age of Romanticism, simply because a climate of marked dilettantism had come to the fore, that was against any over-subtle speculations, except perhaps for the abstruse studies – with their precocious psychological criticism – of a E. S. Dallas. Matthew Arnold’s subsequent, powerful theoretical system belied his own most creative and personal poetry, and began from the middle of the century to establish canonical requirements for a simple, imaginative and objective poetry of universal breadth. He did this partly by sketching a kind of identikit of the non-poet or the bad poet, the poetaster – the poet who was abstruse, a rationalist (being satirical and non-lyrical), or subjective, mannered and eccentric. Arnold was a committed supporter of simplicity of style, of the need for poetry to be readily understood, and of an imagination tempered by reason, and therefore of ‘imaginative reason’. Though convinced of the essential primacy of the emotions, he was intolerant of their possible excesses, and tellingly his criticism was directed at the morbid stances and the ‘allegories of mental states’ which in his view made up much of modern-age poetry. His paradox lies in the exaltation of poetry as an expression of the universal, a poetry which is greater in inverse proportion to the echo of personal experience. The supremacy of ideas as the prevailing norm of the late-Victorian aesthetic creed derived from this, as did the criteria of critical evaluation. It was due to its lack of ideas, of an ‘intellectual atmosphere,’ that Arnold downgraded Romanticism to no more than an episode, a minor current in European literature. At the same time, he consolidated the almost unanimous consensus of his age on the didactic function of literature. Already for Carlyle – as will later be the case for his declared disciple, Ruskin – the poet was required to play the role of the spiritual guide, of the sage, of the prophet, of a seer partaking ← 11/I | 12/I → the divine Idea, if unaware of the processes by which genius worked. He was the preacher and commentator of the Infinite, the one able to capture the eternal essence hiding behind appearances, and he puts this down in a material form. Carlyle defined poetry and literature in general as nothing more than ‘a branch of religion,’ and Ruskin placed religion before all aesthetic absolutes. Arnold argued by contrast that it was poetry that had now to embody, and become a substitute for, religion. He openly espoused an aesthetics of the contingent, emerging from the crises of the times. In an age when religious dogmas were wavering and doubt creeping in, poetry was given the task of consoling and heartening mankind.
3. Victorian criticism gradually broke down the inferiority complex of the novel towards poetry. But the leading critics took no part in the debates which were conducted in magazines from the 1840s onwards, aimed at vindicating the artistic dignity of the narrative genre.12 Arnold, in particular, wrote not a single line on contemporary English novels, and Carlyle and Ruskin only the odd few. Mill had asserted years before that much of the most beautiful poetry was written in the form of the novel, and that almost all good novels contained authentic poetry, even if pure poetry’s higher position was, in theory at least, unassailable. All the great Victorian poets and novelists dreamt of becoming the dramatic genius of their age, from Tennyson to Browning, from Arnold to Dickens and on to Hopkins, but it was a dream that they never realized. It is for this reason that there is no important dramatic theory before Oscar Wilde. The nineteenth century was in fact an age of great dramatic actors, rather than authors, from Kean to Macready, Irving and Fanny Kemble. Yet drama and the dramatic element emerge and are recouped in Victorian poetry and fiction in a degree of genre hybridization, so that the principal poetic form of a temperament like that of the Victorians, inimical to lyrical effusion, becomes the dramatic monologue. On the other hand, the decline of drama favoured the rise of the novel, and many potential dramatists, Dickens among them, opted for this genre even though they ‘would have enjoyed being dramatists had the conditions of the theatre, financial or ← 12/I | 13/I → otherwise, been more favourable’.13 This explains why curious and witty dramatic or melodramatic solutions can often be found in Victorian novels, their running gags and lively road scenes, as also the frequency of street players and improvised actors and of references parodying Shakespeare, or even of actual rewritings of Shakespeare’s plays.
8 § 37.2.
9 § 41.4.
10 A Victorian non-evangelical prudery in an age still chronologically Romantic may be seen in the purging of Shakespeare, in 1818, by Doctor Bowdler, hence the verb to bowdlerize.
11 The bibliolatry of the Victorians was due to the widespread and obstinate penetration of evangelicalism, and led to an injection of biblical language easily seen in almost all the writers. Carlyle, Arnold and Ruskin abound with biblical echoes, rhythms, allusions, cadences and moulds that an attuned ear can easily catch.
12 See R. Stang, The Theory of the Novel in England, 1850–1870, London 1959.
13 TNE, 14.
Victorian poetry began under the guidance, accepted with deliberate caution, of the protagonists of Romanticism. From the viewpoint of social history and of mores, Romanticism stretched into the early 1820s with the last glows of the Regency period, when the parade of vice, dissipation, Byronism and Shelley’s fame, together with a light-hearted, carefree life, and the so-called ‘Regency fashion’, continued to triumph. The dandy survived well into the 1830s, and Browning at the time of writing Paracelsus still loved to appear at receptions in flashy yellow gloves. Bulwer Lytton was known as Byron’s double, and Carlyle thought of him and of the ‘dandiacal body’ in Sartor Resartus, to criticize the soullessness of contemporary society. A witness to this was duelling, which remained the usual way to solve quarrels. The rethinking of Romanticism began when Byron, who, having been saluted at his death by nearly all the young Victorian poets with loud dirges, fell under Carlyle’s blows and became the fixed target for all the mid-term aesthetics, from that of Newman to that of Mill, until he finally reached his lowest ebb in Arnold’s essays in the 1850s. Shelley, on account of his atheism and his political radicalism, was taboo, except for Browning, who had become infatuated with him when still young. Of the great Romantics only Wordsworth, who had taken shelter in the Lake District, survived well into the age of Victoria, venerated but also maligned. It was due to the high death rate during Romanticism that an empty space was slowly formed and was filled by minor writers. It was only in the early 1840s that Tennyson gained public recognition and prestige, while Browning had to wait until the 1850s. This empty space was seen as ← 13/I | 14/I → the last chance for poetry and duly lamented, or welcomed according to the point of view taken. It was therefore characterized by the emergence of an English Biedermeier clearly visible in the relaxation of the remaining few survivors – in Wordsworth himself and in Coleridge – and, as we have already seen, at a slightly higher level in the essays of Lamb, De Quincey, Hazlitt, and Peacock, as well as in the novels of Austen and Scott.14 The Biedermeier hovers impalpably not only over early post-Romanticism but it stretches right through the later, mature Victorianism. It can be seen in the manifestations and well-known categories of the picturesque and in the rural idylls, in the devotion to common things – needles, pins, feathers, matches, objects of loving collections – in the nicknames and pet names that were regularly given to members of the family, and in the cult of domestic pets – cats, dogs and canaries – often monumentalized in elegies and funeral laments. This contrasts so greatly with the Romantic representations, suspended and spasmodic, of the winged and rebellious bird of prey. The eclipse of the heroic spirit of Romanticism, examined so matchlessly by Mario Praz, led as a consequence to the celebration, not of the femme fatale and of free and extramarital relationships, but of marriage and of the hearth, of which the ‘angel in the house’ was an emblem – though partly misunderstood, as we shall see – in a very popular poem by Coventry Patmore. However, the sudden narrowing and lowering of the perspective was almost never peacefully accepted, and up until 1850 at least many poets tried to keep alive the solipsism and the Titanic stance of Romanticism under conditions of dramatic contention. A minor school of poets made this spasmodic impetuosity, and Romantic hubris, its standard and aesthetic hallmark. Between the two well-distinguished genealogical lines in Romanticism, that of Wordsworth and Coleridge and that of Keats, the Victorian poet chose the latter, aware that Byron’s miraculous equation between the absolute poet and the poet dedicated to a cause – between the poet of self-worship and the poet of action – or even Shelley’s, mediator between a poetry committed to civil rights and the estrangement ← 14/I | 15/I → from the world into the kingdom of beauty, was no longer possible.15 Up to 1850, Victorian poetry could be considered proto-Decadent. The critic and reader of Victorian poetry is in fact often led astray by the propaganda of Carlyle who, by demolishing Byron, had become the champion of a spiritual literature intent on regaining a transcendental dimension. However, almost no one followed Carlyle, who patronizingly advised poets not to write poetry, because he held it dangerous and definitely contrary to the ideals that he defended. Ruskin rediscovered beauty though never disjoined from metaphysical teleology, and he preached it as being the new way to salvation for the people. Novelists were in close contact with reality, as they had to cater for a public that wanted it reflected – and even emphasized and caricatured – in their works. This public judged it inadmissible to cultivate impalpable and sophisticated metaphysical questions. For the whole of the first half of the century, poetry instead tried to avoid any public involvement and to contemplate isles of purified sensations, ecstasies veined with meditations and dappled with feelings of slight unease. Where should he take refuge? Every poet had a different reply to this question once it was decided that the actual world was not his natural habitat. Flights into a dreamland, simply imagined, alternate with real flights away from England and often leading into Italy. Others instead looked to find an anchor in an authentic and absolute faith – often discovered in Catholicism – capable of exorcising the innate crudeness of the world. In the former case the momentary ephemeral escape gave back desperate, broken, defeated poets, no longer lucid masters of themselves. It is enough to think Tennyson’s ‘palace of art’, of the lotus-eaters, of the lady of Shalott, to perceive a widespread desire to escape and to reach a paradise of irresponsibility and of apathy. In one of the few cases where the inertia described by Tennyson is overcome – Ulysses – the encounter with ← 15/I | 16/I → the world is destructive and leads to death. Then there is Arnold, a poet that ardently desired to discover a way of exorcising the reigning vulgarity that he sought not to face, and from which he mentally exiled himself in an area of quiet peacefulness. However, it was the Hellenic peace of the layman, that of the wise and the Stoics, and that of all the great aphorists. When he realized he could not change the world he decided to change himself and from 1850 on he transmuted a heavy-hearted poet into a sage and an essay-writer, ready to face life.16
2. We shall however need to get used to see in Victorian literature, even only up to 1870, multiple genealogies and parallel developments that will reveal its richness and its complexity. Having already noticed the ontological, pragmatic division between poetry and the novel, in the field of poetry itself there is a basic, even chronological gap between two schools of thought that constitute inevitable points of aggregation, with signs and aims that cannot be ignored. One is the ‘school’, though never officially recognized as such, of Thomas Arnold of Rugby, and another is that – for some time fully working – of the Pre-Raphaelites. A third, very small literary forum, already touched on, is that of the Spasmodics. Two of the great Victorian poets, Arnold and Clough, studied at Rugby under the personal guide of the legendary headmaster, and continued their studies at Oxford, the natural outlet for those coming from Rugby. They entered a university into which other poets had flowed, coming from the public schools, though not necessarily from Rugby, where they had absorbed the precepts of Arnold’s pedagogy. Except for Browning, who had studied privately and then for one single year went to London University, the great Victorian poets born before 1825 all came from the public schools or from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. They may be called ‘defectors’ from Oxford and Cambridge for the very reason that, having entered the universities in the 1830s as pupils of the public schools, and impregnated with Dr Arnold’s pedagogical ideals and with a fanatical and fighting Protestantism, they were first torn by the fervid Tractarian propaganda and then, already ← 16/I | 17/I → wounded, fell prey to the new biblical criticism that reached England from Germany. This crisis indelibly left its mark.17 They deserve this appellation – defectors – for the supplementary reason that, as poets and writers, they left the university where they might have undertaken an academic career loaded with honours, if only they had been prepared to underwrite the Thirty-Nine Articles, and instead went on to embrace the existence of the restless traveller, of an exile from home and of a nomad, like that mythical figure of the ‘scholar-gipsy’, a term that Arnold applied to Clough. This latter poet never escaped from the quick sands of Rugby’s Arnoldian teachings, and even Matthew Arnold only just managed to exorcise the figure of the father by fleeing from his orbit under the strength of his own ideas, or by riskily conciliating his father’s Hebraism with Hellenism. Tennyson himself is not far from this matrix: he was educated at home and studied later at Cambridge where the Tractarian echo was weaker, but he experienced with the same anxiety the religious dilemmas raised by biblical and lay science. We come full circle only in 1849 when the Rossetti family, and with it Pre-Raphaelitism, appeared on the scene. D. G. Rossetti entered the poetic arena from an opposite starting point – he was imbued with ← 17/I | 18/I → the esotericism and mystical spiritualism of his father, a scholar of Dante, with the world of the refined and decorative art of the early Italian painters, with the dark, Gothic tradition – and due to his studies, undertaken in London and in schools of art, he was almost completely insensitive to the Tractarian diatribes. Immune against all influence stemming from Rugby, Rossetti deviated the course of English poetry towards the true and official aestheticism of the 1870s and beyond. He was its real father and originator because, over and against the heaviness of content, he aimed at the self-enclosed form; and he taught a soberer and more self-contained art, and put an end to the tradition of the ‘rumination’.18 Needless to say, the Rugby model was slow to die even in the heyday of Decadentism, and in that English branch headed by Rossetti, and those small fry who seemingly escaped its net – like Pater and Wilde – prove how easy it was to reconcile it surreptitiously with the new aestheticism.
14 See V. Nemoianu, The Taming of Romanticism: European Literature and the Age of Biedermeier, Cambridge, MA 1984, and my discussions in Volume 3.
15 Some key Victorian poetic texts will be examined in this volume as discussion and reception in parabolic form of the transition from Romanticism to Victorianism. Deconstruction takes for granted that the whole of the Victorian period is nothing but a protracted Romanticism, or one of its tails, and, on the basis of revisionism, anxiety of influence and misreading, reintegrates every single Victorian poet into such a paradigm.
16 An epigraph of the whole of Victorian poetry is in the XXIV of the ‘Stanzas’ to Obermann by Arnold: ‘Ah! Two desires toss about / The poet’s feverish blood. / One drives him to the world without, / And one to solitude’.
17 Whether the ‘defectors’ came from Oxford or Cambridge makes very little difference because students left university bearing the same hallmarks. Thackeray ingeniously used two palindromes to earmark the interchangeability, Oxbridge and Camford. A proper section of Victorian literature is that of the ‘university man’. During and after the 1830s he is a torn doubter like Clough, but before, and sometimes even after, he is a vicious young man, a gambler, a drunkard and a lady-killer, a Don Juan with no scruples, and a rake. In poetry we have the dynasty of the Hewsons after a poem by Clough §§ 138–9); in Dickens’s novels there are after all very few university students, except perhaps for Steerforth. The great portraitist is Thackeray. According to Thackeray, it was easy to become a snob at Oxford; one got into debt, drank, then went on the grand tour, picking up on the way the vices of other European capitals. The two universities were little ‘worlds in miniature’, separated from the real world, and into which the students were thrown with no preparation or with a mistaken idea of life: they formed, in reality, schools of selfishness and perversion. A slight knowledge of the classics and of mathematics, and the now evident failure of the ambition to become a gentleman, was the high price to pay. However, Trollope, who had never been to university, painted a university student who turned his back on vice in Frank Gresham in Dr Thorne.
18 The term was coined by T. S. Eliot in his essay on the Metaphysical poets, when speaking of the lengthiness and verbosity of Tennyson and Browning.
The statisticians and the archivists of nineteenth-century Victorian literature tell us that more than 40,000 novels were printed over the whole period. This enormous estimation can be reduced by 99 per cent more or less by pinpointing the novels that are really lasting, excluding all the ‘silly novels’19 long swallowed by oblivion. Trollope, for instance, openly admitted the short-lived nature of the novel, and humbly recognized the hope that a few of his better novels might be read perhaps for another quarter of a century, thereby postulating the obsolescence of the genre compared to the eternity of poetry. Thus both the greatest novelists and the lesser ones felt the danger that lay in waiting, that is, that their novels could be drowned in ephemerality. They worked for a double system, for the market that had its rules and consumed ruthlessly title after title, and for the future audience and an implicitly ideal reader. On close reading, it is now apparent that most novels, far from amorphous, were marked by an internal order meant to impress a distinct coherence on them. Dickens, a storyteller who ← 18/I | 19/I → acted haphazardly, was guided by intuition, and collected en route suggestions and extempore stimuli, cannot be synthesized. There is in him a conceptual and symbolic coherence in the form of a variegated paradigm or a leitmotif, such as the struggle against profit or the fractured identity. In other great novelists there is a connective thread that can be followed; in some others, like Thackeray and Trollope, the necessity for order was responded to with the contrivance of the cyclical novel. When we come to George Eliot, we face the author of the most coherent and most intimately interwoven novel of the entire age. Not one of Eliot’s protagonists returns on the scene in a subsequent novel – there are no rebirths, the times of the novels are not progressive, and the settings are changeable; yet, in spite of this formal absence of any cyclical organization, George Eliot wrote a single novel – a universe, a compact macrotext.
2. The heterogeneous canon of the Victorian novel may be classified by making use of a few generalized criteria that are almost self-evident: gender, style, technique, time, place, invariants. Gender covers both the male novel and the women’s and feminist novel, the latter characterized by an agonizing and often courageous spirit of enquiry into the material, spiritual and marital conditions of the woman. A fairly large group of female writers ensures that the canon of the Victorian novel is at least sexually mixed. Stylistically, side by side with the unofficial ‘new Baroque’ or romantic school of Dickens, and Meredith’s manneristic novel, lies the dry and Austen-like fiction of Elizabeth Gaskell and Anne Brontë; alongside the new Gothic of both Dickens and Charlotte Brontë comes the naturalistic realism of Thackeray and Trollope. The narrative voice is in nine cases out of ten that of the omniscient novelist, a supremacy that flings into relief the rare cases of first-person narration, or of that of ‘re-transmission’, as in Wuthering Heights. On the other hand, the Victorian serial novel has by definition a complex plot and is therefore multiplot and multifocal.20 Time and place are two complementary functions. The very first Victorian novels, or rather, it might be said, pre-Victorian, by Bulwer ← 19/I | 20/I → Lytton and Disraeli, have London for their backdrop and were classified by contemporaries as ‘fashionable’ or ‘silver fork’ novels. As Dickens narrates in Nicholas Nickleby, the circulating libraries wrote the titles of this kind of novels in cubital letters on the glass window of their vehicle, and they lent the books out weekly or even on a daily basis. Dickens even inserts a small touch of parody of his own invention to recreate the atmosphere typical to this kind of novel. It was one that delighted the young ladies and those of the lower middle class that affected a refinement of taste, inasmuch as it was stuffed with words in French and revolved around vaporous and impalpable plots, delicate idylls, the etiquette and the rituals of the balls, the aristocratic banquets, hunting scenes, the life in the clubs, the Opera, the drawing-room skirmishes, and the gossip about everyday events.21 The young Dickens lifted the curtain on a London world that, whether known or only partially known by the protagonists, who were often hangers on in the outskirts, was shown to be all made up of malefactors: it was a world of speculation and ambition, a vortex that crushed the pure yokels or the country dwellers. In London round about 1830 there had been a sudden quickening in the rhythm of life, beautifully described in the prelude to Felix Holt by George Eliot in 1866, in the form of an imaginary journey by coach by the alter ego of the narrator in the company of a loquacious coach driver, from the south of England up to the offshoots of Scotland. Whosoever tried to narrate the epoch around 1830 recalled the dusty paths furrowed by the wheels of carriages, the inns where horses were changed, the mugs foaming with beer, the smiles of the plump and malicious servants, ← 20/I | 21/I → and the unmissable figure of the efficient and busy inn-keeper – some of the fixed elements of Dickens’s picaresque at its very beginnings. The mail-coach transported post and passengers, and its arrival was announced by the sounding of the horn that was a signal for merriment and a sudden shock for the sleepy routine of the village, where the old people lamented that life had become so hurried. They were unaware that another type of acceleration would soon be impressed on their lives by the systems of transport. The picaresque novel suffered a crisis, was emptied of its realism, or got imprisoned in nostalgia, by the railway network that spread throughout England from the early 1830s (the first line was inaugurated in 1827). The geographical centre of the eighteenth-century English fiction shifted to the countryside and to the south and central districts, and the novel became a novel of the industrial areas also due to the fact that five of the greatest Victorian women novelists were born and lived for many years in counties like Warwickshire and Yorkshire. The clerical and religious novel came to the fore largely due to the fact that the writers themselves belonged originally to the evangelical movement or to the Dissenters. In the south and in rural England time was relatively slower, the daily discussions concerned the poor harvests and the agricultural problems. Nature was wild, harsh and ‘barbarous in beauty’, and the squires on their estates looked scornfully on the world of commerce, for nothing was admitted to exist outside the limits of their visual perspective. This pastoral plain was a Protestant one, while Dissent had put down roots from the beginning in the central mining district and in that of the weaving industry. In the industrial novel, the compactness of the rural community breaks, and the very countryside presents violent contrasts as open fields and nature, green and fresh, stretch out near the mines and the factories.
3. The religious, the ecclesiastical and the clerical novel are not really coincidental categories. They could actually be considered to be the opposite, especially if we mean the narrative of introspection and of religious enquiry into the existential, or the purely objective representation, humoristic and comic or even satirical as it may be, of the laity or of the worldly and secularized clergy. In English fiction of the nineteenth century, the religious novel is on the whole less represented than the ecclesiastical – and less represented, and artistically less significant, than that in the ← 21/I | 22/I → European narrative tradition of the same period. In the above sense, Disraeli kept it on a high level of writing using the form of a spiritual journey to the springs of an authentic Christian faith and to its Jewish foundations. The direct repercussion of the Tractarian movement in the early 1830s was the autobiographical novel of Newman’s conversion. In the following years and decades, there emerged a narrative – often of a lower if not poor value, and often by women – where usually an Anglican priest, or a serious young man about to take orders, yields to the temptation of the Church of Rome, but such temptation is nearly always refused at the very last minute. Another class of the Victorian historical novel looked back to the early days of Christianity, or was set in other anticipatory epochs of the past, shaken by very modern dilemmas concerning the authentic faith and the conflict of confessions. Canons and priests, who were also novelists such as Kingsley and the Catholic cardinals, Newman and Wiseman, were authors of romantic plots inhabited by imaginary historical figures of women martyrs, like Hypatia, Callista and Fabiola. English historians of Christianity had been interested in Girolamo Savonarola, and his Italian biography by Pasquale Villari (1862) was translated in record time. The most famous Savonarolian novel of the nineteenth century is George Eliot’s Romola, but the most subjective and autobiographical religious novels written by women demystified the accepted Calvinism by advocating the New Testament law of pardon; and the paradigm governing Wuthering Heights, Mary Barton, Sylvia’s Lovers and Adam Bede is the transition from revenge to pardon. The ecclesiastical novel is distinguished instead by the frequency with which curates, pastors, rectors, deacons, archdeacons, and Anglican bishops, fill the scenes. A realistic novel ought by definition to represent a life in which the figure of the priest was an integral part of society, as against that of the Catholic countries where such a figure is marginal to the social texture. While the Catholic priest was unmarried and, therefore, had no family, the Anglican minister and the Dissenter is frequently seen with a plotting and jealous wife, and children to bestow in marriage. Trollope had the brilliant idea of weaving a cycle of novels not too far from the truth, around the marriage plots and the ambitions of ecclesiastical dignitaries in an imaginary small southern town with a cathedral rising in the centre. They concerned worldly clerics and ministers who were in competition for ← 22/I | 23/I → livings of a variable income, the concessions of which were in the hands of families of high social standing in the county, or of bishops, titleholders of the dioceses. Thus there were ecclesiastical sinecures available, and a hierarchy of appointments avidly sought after. The squalid goings on of absenteeism marked Eliot’s and Trollope’s curates, who enjoyed a good life and were not active in charity or even in their liturgical offices. But there were two other figures, one of the curate coming from a Tractarian past, who had returned to the Anglican fold after spasms of conscience, and the other the upright, virtuous curate, often with numerous children, who, on account of a pride typical of poverty, did not run after the richer benefices and got by somehow though not very well. The widest and most realistic representation of the Anglican cleric in its variety can been seen in Trollope and George Eliot. Trollope alone in his early Irish novels contemplated the various aspects of the Catholic ecclesiastic, often carefree even though bitterly anti-English. Dickens tacitly never aimed at the Anglican minister as such; his hunting ground was the hypocritical evangelical Dissenter, but wholly Anglican is the dark world of the city of Rochester, all around its cathedral in Edwin Drood.
4. The temporal criterion is valid both for the historical time of the plot and for the date or the decade of publication.22 In the first case, it is easier to reconstruct a grid that connects the most calamitous historical events of the immediate past. The two historical novels by Dickens were dedicated, one to the French Revolution and the other to the anti-Catholic riots headed in 1780 by the lunatic Lord Gordon; another, covering the Glorious Revolution of 1688 with its aftermath and offshoots, was narrated by Thackeray, the major author of novels set ‘one hundred years earlier’. A large number of the novels set in the year 1799 and at the beginning of the new century, 1800 or 1801, stand out, like Wuthering Heights, Adam Bede and Sylvia’s Lovers. Vanity Fair is the greatest and perhaps the only Victorian novel to introduce Napoleon – therefore, necessarily, of the events of the year 1815. But the great symbolic and most frequented date in the Victorian novel is 1832, implicitly confirming its value in the temporal scansion, both ← 23/I | 24/I → historical and cultural. The novels set in times after 1832 offer only vague indications of the exact dating: they are never exactly contemporary, and each novel is always, except for Hard Times, imperceptibly backdated. A complementary classification is no longer one of theme and setting referring to a definite historical moment, but of great novels written over the years and having only blurred homogeneity. Some of these appeared in the golden years 1847–1849, or in the year 1859, dates which were especially remarkable and rich in masterworks. Sensational novels and detective stories flourished and reached their peak in the decade 1860–1870, and Collins, Reade, Le Fanu, Braddon and Mrs Wood, are all followers of this genre. In a certain sense many others, and even those of Trollope himself as he admitted, possessed an undercurrent of mystery and intrigue, with the ingredients of murder and adultery, of bigamy and blackmailing, and of deceit and fraud, while the structural qualities were set once again along the lines of the serial, with the prominence of the plot that captivated and held the attention, creating suspense, and a mixture of Gothic realism and romance.23 The preceding link for the sensational novel was the Newgate novel, a prison story fashionable in the 1830s that had come into existence due to a changing urban context and to the necessity, invoked by the new middle-classes, for a greater surveillance needed to face an increased crime rate. In both narrative genres a new character is outlined, that of the detective, at first an untrained amateur and then later a professional.24 An intrinsic countersign of western middle-class fiction, cutting through all genres, is the unvarying theme of a marriage – or rather, since the Victorian novel was weighty, of more marriage plots than one, in the guise of a connecting framework, or as an indication of the primary content of the story. Writers flocked to this theme, and it ran throughout the whole canon of ← 24/I | 25/I → Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope, and even of George Eliot. Hence the result is a narrative that, on the whole, has little variety and whose plots are rather monotonous and show a certain similarity. The realist novels of Dickens and Thackeray repeated time after time the theme of fallen aristocracy, a class of people now reduced to poverty, and wishing to marry into the middle classes with no rank but moneyed. Dickens in particular closes his acrobatic marriage alliances between classes that should never mix, and that usually never did mix. Next to a mean and cynical calculation, and impeded by the pride of the nobility or by the middle-class family only looking for money, the marriages of unsophisticated youngsters are crowned with the help of disinterested beneficial forces, for example with the unforeseen philanthropic gesture of a distant relative. Hence the ever present last will and testament of the now converted old miser, someone who had money but no children, and often left his fortune to the one who merited it most. Trollope, in his well balanced novels, favoured the equation between love and interest, for it was not always right to divide them but rather it was better not to separate them; and he emphasized the necessity for self-determination in those of a marriageable age who were subject to a certain amount of pressure and interference from their relatives.
5. Lengthy novels in three volumes were the standard Victorian size right up to the early 1870s. This was, in fact, the usual format chosen by all the great novelists of the period. They were often read as serials more than a century and half ago by a public who warmly welcomed them, but the later common reader definitely found and finds them today less to his and her taste, both because of the quicker pace of modern life and because from the end of the nineteenth century on a new aesthetic horizon came to the fore, one of briefness, of lightning quickness, of a single plot circumscribed in time, and of a narrating voice no longer so markedly omniscient. Contemporary sensibility is recalcitrant in coming to grips with the less well-known serial novels by Dickens and Thackeray, and prefers on the whole those sober short novels that some novelists wrote in spite of themselves, and ignoring the rules of the market, and that publishers either refused or published as exceptions, like The Professor by Charlotte Brontë, or Agnes Grey by her sister Anne, or The Warden by Trollope. Rather than the long and big novel, it has appreciated and revaluated the more fleeting ← 25/I | 26/I → and occasional long short story, perhaps never part of a collection, notably the Christmas stories, to which belong small and exquisite masterpieces by Dickens, Thackeray and Mrs Gaskell. In conclusion, an attempt must be made to answer a question: why does the Victorian novel, that in terms of quantity overreaches all other European fiction – let us just try to conflate Thackeray, Dickens and Trollope to see the result – and that is at the centre of a very intense attention by academic criticism in the English-speaking world – not enjoy an equal popularity in Europe, even among the generally well read? Why is War and Peace a timeless classic and a milestone by definition; why do The Red and the Black, or the novels by Balzac or Madame Bovary, or psychological novels like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov enjoy universal fame? Only Vanity Fair – or Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, but they have been reduced to classics for the young – have a more ample and widely spread fame among the English novels. But who knows and would be willing to call the novels by Trollope classics, which they are for the English? A certain international circulation began only with the novels of two English writers, one half English and the other less than half, Henry James and Conrad; or with the first early translations of works authored by the Decadents, such as Wilde. The first answer that comes to mind is that the nineteenth-century Victorian novel is – as more than one critic has noted – a novel circumscribed both by time and space. It is a heavily insular and provincial period piece that is unable to go beyond those limits and those boundaries and reach an absolute dimension.25 The English socio-political setting in the nineteenth century has nothing about it that is epic, heroic, and libertarian: the battle for widening the franchise had petered out in a tepid revolutionary spirit that had little to compare with the movements of 1821 and 1848 in a Europe trodden on and redesigned by the Holy Alliance. Only in England, as I mentioned, was the clergy socially integrated, and the ambition to make a career mixed roles in a society that tried, regardless, to keep the props of class differences. A couple of English novels have entered the group of the major European social novels, Mary ← 26/I | 27/I → Barton and Hard Times, both as documents of social agitation by workers; but little is said in them of real politics. The parameters of the Victorian religious novel are difficult to understand by those who know little of the history of the English Protestant sects, because they are formed around internecine diatribes and positions as vague and as evanescent as are the misty boundaries of Dissent itself. On the other hand, as I mentioned, the English clerics were always more noble and less vulgar than the weak Don Abbondio in Manzoni’s The Betrothed, but undoubtedly meaner than the sublime spiritualists represented by Fra Cristoforo or Cardinal Borromeo, not to mention the torment of the Innominato – who however was not a priest – or of Julien Sorel. These are all isolated figures, whereas in Trollope, just to give one example, a choral dimension is set up and every cleric is a part of a compact social fabric – though not a precisely harmonious one. The literary sensibilities that took place in Europe and in England itself following the great vogue of the novel from 1830 to 1870 and beyond were in the end impervious to the comic and satiric novel. In the period between the two World Wars, it was logically expected that the rising Marxism would have little use – even among the rather feeble English Marxists like Orwell – for satirical novels, which were completely reformist in character.26
19 So defined and discussed by George Eliot (Volume 5, § 185.4).
20 B. Hardy, The Novels of George Eliot, London 1959, 89, observes that such a technique had an influence on Griffith’s film Intolerance. Griffith pointed out that he had been inspired by Dickens’s ‘cross-cutting’, or by his violent contrasts and antitheses. The American director has also to his credit a 1908 film remake based on ‘Enoch Arden’ by Tennyson.
21 See M. W. Rosa, The Silver Fork School: Novels of Fashion Preceding ‘Vanity Fair’, London 1930, repr. Port Washington 1964, especially 14–54. This vogue, which derived from the eighteenth-century novel of manners by Burney and Edgeworth, with ingredients from the picaresque and from the German ‘apprenticeship novel’, stretched from 1825 to 1850. Rosa argues that the apex of the fashionable novel comes with Vanity Fair, and that, therefore, Thackeray is the continuator of the novelists that he so disliked. See also, on the fashionable novel by Bulwer Lytton, M. Sadler, Bulwer and His Wife: A Panorama, London 1933, 115–27.
22 As is done in the classic TNE, for the novels of the 1840s.
23 One of the most informative essays on this is by P. Brantlinger, ‘What is “Sensational” about the “Sensation Novel”’, NCF, XXXVI (1982), 1–28.
24 K. Hollingsworth, The Newgate Novel 1830–1847, Detroit, MI 1963, 15, lists only eight or nine titles by Bulwer, Ainsworth, Dickens, and Thackeray, as having the right to belong to this genre. In the preface to Uncle Silas Le Fanu finds the term ‘sensation’ too vague: even Scott was sensational for Le Fanu, since there is not one of his stories without deaths, crimes, and in a certain sense mystery.
25 W. Allen, George Eliot, London 1965, 184, admits that George Eliot may be compared with Tolstoy but not inversely, and that Middlemarch is not only much smaller but much narrower than War and Peace.
26 The theory put forward by the Yale deconstructionists is that the Victorians are our contemporaries and that, therefore, modern sensibility began with them.
Matthew Arnold’s cleverness and skill lay not in the therapy, which failed, so much as in the diagnosis, incontestable and precise, that he applied to the ‘spasmodic’ element that fluctuated freely and continued to fluctuate in Victorian poetry. Spasmodism crossed over the boundaries of the little school that had been given that epithet, and whose accepted founder was Philip James Bailey, the author of Festus, and whose two official associates were Dobell and Smith.27 Arnold’s 1853 Preface, which did not mention them, aimed specifically not so much at the historical Spasmodics and at some of their recently published poems, as at that larger Spasmodism that he called by a different name, the poetry of ‘mental states’. Far from being ← 27/I | 28/I → the conqueror and the teacher of an Olympian calm like that of Sophocles (as preached by Arnold), and of the absolute dominion over one’s psyche and one’s own impulses, each one of the major Victorian poets will appear to us in complete subjugation to these impulses, and a psychotic and schizophrenic personality, affected by what Chesterton colourfully defined as ‘a splitting headache’.28 The Victorians were only superficially devoted to compunction and morally irreproachable; they led, in fact, a daily battle to hold at bay the most obscure and the most morbid sides of their natures, and even more so in a society that called for strong and severe codes of self-control, in which the whip was used to call to their senses all deviators from the general norms of mental cleanliness and responsibility, which, it was hypocritically believed, everyone should follow. This is the reason why writers were so eager to empathize with, and find an identification in, officially condemned sensibilities and psychologies, like those investigated and explored through the innocuous, neutral expressive vehicle of the dramatic monologue. Or why the writer analysed the irregular forms of social life and chose as protagonists thieves, murderers, and adulterers, and studied in the most subtle and radical manner possible since the Elizabethan drama, that endemic lunacy with which, in reality, at least one of the children in the Victorian family was frequently affected. Victorian literature not only consecrated and bequeathed to its descendants the dramatic monologue, but in practice refounded ex novo the literature of the double that had come to light with Hogg, was consolidated by Tennyson and Arnold, and flared up in its most well-known and memorable form in Dickens and in Stevenson. It is a kind of literature that reveals a pathological dissociation as much in the character as in the author. Dickens, in particular, offers a divided psyche and the symptomatology of this division – one face is shown the world, and another conceals brooding inner passions – in the amazing figures of his doubles. One of the evident problems that the characters in Thackeray fight against is the lack of communication. This is, in the end, the reason why the Victorian writer is often symbolically projected towards symbolic doors that open towards the abyss of the unknown; and, therefore, ← 28/I | 29/I → why his works become the exploration of the unknown. This door is always suddenly closed, but only to be reopened: hence the inconclusive repetitions found in many Victorian poems that morbidly open and reopen within their own formal boundaries what has already been closed. Now, this abyss that is explored represents many things at the same time and has many different sides to it. It is the abyss of impulses and of instincts, it is the abyss of escaped responsibility, it is the free life of the senses no longer suffocated and repressed, it is the abyss of evil and the diabolical, it is the abyss of the night and of Tristram’s nothingness, it is the abyss of moral transgression, and finally it is the abyss of chaos before all teleological order. This evasiveness is voluptuous but disturbed by the pricks of conscience, and the writer is ideally, to quote Arnold, in utrumque paratus. When the vision fades re-entry into normality overhangs all inexorably. This is the case in ‘The Two Voices’ by Tennyson, where the sinuous night-time meditations end with the first signs of daylight, almost sarcastically placing God and the family as deterrents to such morbid fancies. It happens in ‘Goblin Market’ by Christina Rossetti, the epilogue of which deflates a mysteriously restless ‘Christabel’ to the level of an edifying Victorian morality; and the same happens in Arnold’s ‘Resignation’, where the transition to the hypostasis of a God that calms and solves the enigmas raised by the poem is far too easy and abrupt. The three major Victorian poets of the first generation, Tennyson, Browning and Arnold, until about thirty or forty years of age, were not only sceptics that wanted to verify continually their impaired faith, but were also neurotics. Some of the other more meaningful Victorian poems prior to 1850 are ‘thoughts of a suicide’, which was in fact the original subtitle of Tennyson’s ‘The Two Voices’. Tennyson lived through a decade of silence, from 1833 to 1842, in the state of mind of a potential approach to suicide, from which he escaped with In Memoriam. ‘Empedocles on Etna’ by Arnold was conceived in 1849, or perhaps even before, and concerns instead a real suicide seen while taking place, a decision made after a lucid analysis of the inanity of every other way of escape. It was an analysis – as the manuscripts point out – that Arnold himself had gone through. Not to mention Arnold’s other, contemporary alter ego, Tristram, who lets himself die because of the impossibility of an absolute and eternal passion. ← 29/I | 30/I →
2. The Victorian poet29 was unable to find an ubi consistam in a society given over to the material, and he aspired, if at all, to a utopian reconstitution of a community of wise men. All the ‘defectors’ had a solitary childhood and an adolescence just as closed and irksome, and remained largely unmodified even at the university. Tennyson associated only every now and then with the Cambridge ‘Apostles’ and more often than not deserted their meetings. Arnold, as a student, masked his unease by taking on the airs of the dandy, and like Clough fruitlessly probed the various currents of thought that in the 1830s were battling at Oxford. Normally no community was formed but at most a couple. And it was a symbiotic and often hierarchical relationship, even though strongly dialectical and, in some cases, fanatical: Tennyson and Hallam, Arnold and Clough, and later Hopkins and Bridges. Passionate aesthetic debates, dissertations on the essence of poetry, clashes in interpretation and taste, and sudden and shared enthusiasms, often led to the birth of a poem, a culmination reached, more frequently, by the apparently weaker member of the couple of friends (Hallam was more gifted than Tennyson, and Clough than Arnold). Such solitude was objectivized in the deliberate choice of a decentred home – as with Tennyson’s on the Isle of Wight – or of exile, as in the case of Browning. This alienation was only slightly hidden from the group of acquaintances that both frequented, and actually confirmed by the extremely cold tone of the sketchy short letters sent to them. The schizophrenia of the Victorian poets was not just psychic but intellectual and ideological. One of the epistemic tracks of the age is that of the conflict between an absolute but weary dogmatism and a relativism that was almost always the winner, and was the true philosophy of the century – an evolutionist philosophy of flux ← 30/I | 31/I → that unhinged all the theories based on ‘fixed points’, originally learned from Heraclitus by the university classicists. The ideological fluctuations of the Victorians were fed, before the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859, by two books that raised scandal and clamour, Principles of Geology by Lyell and Vestiges of Creation by Chambers. Victorian science was a boomerang because those three books together, to which one must add the vast production of T. H. Huxley, contributed to shatter into fragments the widespread and triumphal ideology of progress and to put forward serious doubts as to the finalism of the cosmos.30 The feeling of decadence and decline is expressed in a negative, apocalyptic and demoralized vein that stems directly from Arnold the poet. Not only did evolutionism, geology and biology, sweep God off his throne, but they received support from biblical exegesis. Anxiety, the main characteristic of the early twentieth century, was announced, circumscribing the hegemony of evangelicalism and overturning the image of an age of great believers and great converts, with a desperate scepticism and a morbid interest in systematizations and layman readings of the Christian faith. These had been inaugurated by Das Leben Jesu by Strauss, translated by George Eliot in 1846, but preceded by the very similar speculations of English theologians. Religious doubt is indeed the stigma of the Victorian writer as is the smug possession of an orthodox faith, and there is perhaps no other age that has questioned itself with such dramatic insistence on the silence or the hidden presence of God. Even the divine image, judging from the apprehensions of the divine by the poetic ‘I’ and its manifestations in the poetry of Keble, Newman, Browning, and even Clough, becomes a double, two-faced God, successively and oxymoronically inflexible and piteous, ← 31/I | 32/I → punishing and loving. The ‘disappearance of God’ is, in turn, the premise to the Victorian infatuation with esotericism, Spiritualism and mesmerism, which attracted not only sincere and fanatical adepts but raised an ambiguous and amphibian curiosity even in apparently ferocious mockers like Browning, and perhaps George Eliot.
3. Victorian schizophrenia found a tangible expression in three images and two structural devices that recur with symptomatic frequency in both the poetry and the novel.31 In ‘Dover Beach’ by Arnold – in the wake of Vico and of one of the most read Graeco-Roman philosophers in Arnold’s time, Marcus Aurelius – the poet offers a key to his understanding of the position taken by the Victorian intellectual when faced with the questions of faith and of the human condition, such as found fertile soil among a small number of the sceptical intelligentsia, rather than among the middle-class masses that fattened the novelists’ purses. Such a key may be found in the theory and image of the tides: with inconsolable clarity Arnold places a temporal groove and bewails the inertness that seems to have interrupted the cyclical rhythm of time and the advent of an age of stable low tide. He asks doubtfully if a high tide can ever follow,32 and answers in extremis that faith, like history, has always been regulated by a ‘good’ cycle and by an alternance which is just as sinusoidal. The second recurrent image is that of the veil that covers things and makes them unknowable and ← 32/I | 33/I → incomprehensible, and envelopes God and the beyond. In Tennyson’s poetry and in the Rubáiyát of FitzGerald, the veil darkens what lies behind and will be torn aside only on the moment of death, when it will offer a blinding view of future things.33 Finally, the image of the prism and its facets that deviate, break and distort the light that passes through it, an image used by Browning in 1845 in a letter to his future wife, Elizabeth Barrett. The refraction of a changing, mutable reality that cannot be recomposed in a unified version and vision offers a key to the reading of Browning’s works, though it is not circumscribed to them alone. In Browning’s masterpiece, The Ring and the Book, the cognitive inquiry starts from an absolute relativism that cannot be recomposed in the totality of its contrapositions and reaches a dogmatic stance offered anyway – as in Arnold – in extremis.34 Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë looks towards Browning and then to Conrad in a technique that morbidly encapsulates the narrators and the plots and then expounds the story through the filter of a vicarious narrator. The ideological and spiritual loss of bearings was reflected, or more exactly refracted, not only in Browning’s dramatic monologues, but also in the alignment of settings and perspectives that informs the rich narrative subgenre of the backdated novels, which corroborate the theory of an unchanging and unresolved metaphysical and religious quest. The poetic and narrative relativism is an open profession of the not only strictly literary but also, as it were, of the cognitive limits of realism.35
27 See below, §§ 224–8.
28 VAL, 63.
29 If the group of the Victorian writers being referred to is not clearly specified – poets or novelists – surprising misunderstandings arise concerning the definition of the relationship between the writer and society, as in the historical clash of positions between E. D. H. Johnson, The Alien Vision of Victorian Poetry, Princeton, NJ 1952, for whom all the Victorian poets were more or less alienated and in conflict with society, and R. D. Altick, Victorian People and Ideas, New York 1973, according to whom the Victorian writer was fairly at ease in the times in which he lived and criticised his society severely at times, but was not a misfit or an outcast, rather in some cases he bowed to the strength of conventional pressures.
30 Actually very few writers, and an even lower number of poets, believed that after 1832 the new period that was opening was one of progress: the hardened and obsessed hymnists and panegyrists of an unstoppable progress were simply the philosophers and the utilitarian pseudo-philosophers like Macaulay and Mill, or the evolutionists like Darwin and Spencer. Thomas Arnold of Rugby, with whom this Volume will open, was among the first to perceive around about 1832 that his was a time marked out, unknown and unforeseen, and one heralding a ‘revolution’, which he described in terms almost exactly like those of Ruskin’s ‘storm cloud’ many years later § 8.3).
31 Armstrong (AVP, 1–21) justly points out the dangers inherent in any reading that does not take into account phenomenology – and Bakhtinian polyphony – and the margins of textual ambiguity, as much formal as linguistic and cultural. Her less convincing construction of a composite reading practice is a curious updating of the Empsonian concept of poetry as ambiguity in the light of selective, too eclectic and heterogeneous loans from poststructuralist and twentieth-century epistemology.
32 The elegiac theme of the end of whole historical cycles is found, for example, in the following thoughts of Marcus Aurelius, on whom Arnold wrote an essay: ‘In like manner view also the other epochs of time and of whole nations, and see how many after great efforts soon fell and were resolved into the elements’ (IV, 32); ‘Think continually […] how many cities are entirely dead […] Helice and Pompeii and Herculaneum, and others innumerable […] always observe how ephemeral and worthless human things are’ (IV, 48); ‘some part of the universe’ is ‘administered according to definite periods’, or cycles (V, 13).
33 A Schopenhauerian image, almost oriental, but already found in Marcus Aurelius (V, 10).
34 See on this L. Stevenson, ‘The Relativity of Truth in Victorian Fiction’, in Victorian Essays: A Symposium, ed. W. D. Anderson and T. D. Clareson, Kent 1967, 72–86.
35 See my own ‘La scrittura prismatica. Istanze antirealistiche nel romanzo vittoriano’, in Realismo ed effetti di realtà nel romanzo dell’Ottocento, ed. F. Fiorentino, Roma 1993, 111–25, on Victorian relativism and on the encapsulation of the narrators in Emily Brontë, in Browning, and in the novels of Wilkie Collins and Stevenson, where use is made of the analogies found in the polyphonic novel of Dostoevsky, as studied by Bakhtin in his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Eng. trans., Ann Arbor, MI 1973.
- ISBN (PDF)
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- Publication date
- 2019 (August)
- English Literature Poetry Prose Victorian
- Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2019. XXVI, 1462 pp.