Victorian England


Word Count: 1023


The Victorian era, from the coronation of Queen Victoria in
1837 until her death in 1901, was an era of several
unsettling social developments that forced writers more
than ever before to take positions on the immediate issues
animating the rest of society. Thus, although romantic forms
of expression in poetry and prose continued to dominate
English literature throughout much of the century, the
attention of many writers was directed, sometimes
passionately, to such issues as the growth of English
democracy, the education of the masses, the progress of
industrial enterprise and the consequent rise of a
materialistic philosophy, and the plight of the newly
industrialized worker. In addition, the unsettling of religious
belief by new advances in science, particularly the theory of
evolution and the historical study of the Bible, drew other
writers away from the immemorial subjects of literature into
considerations of problems of faith and truth. Nonfiction
The historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, in his History
of England (5 volumes, 1848-1861) and even more in his
Critical and Historical Essays (1843), expressed the
complacency of the English middle classes over their new
prosperity and growing political power. The clarity and
balance of Macaulay\'s style, which reflects his practical
familiarity with parliamentary debate, stands in contrast to
the sensitivity and beauty of the prose of John Henry
Newman. Newman\'s main effort, unlike Macaulay\'s, was
to draw people away from the materialism and skepticism
of the age back to a purified Christian faith. His most
famous work, Apologia pro vita sua (Apology for His Life,
1864), describes with psychological subtlety and charm the
basis of his religious opinions and the reasons for his
change from the Anglican to the Roman Catholic church.
Similarly alienated by the materialism and commercialism of
the period, Thomas Carlyle, another of the great
Victorians, advanced a heroic philosophy of work,
courage, and the cultivation of the godlike in human beings,
by means of which life might recover its true worth and
nobility. This view, borrowed in part from German idealist
philosophy, Carlyle expressed in a vehement, idiosyncratic
style in such works as Sartor resartus (The Tailor
Retailored, 1833-1834) and On Heroes, Hero-Worship,
and the Heroic in History (1841). Other answers to social
problems were presented by two fine Victorian prose
writers of a different stamp. The social criticism of the art
critic John Ruskin looked to the curing of the ills of
industrial society and capitalism as the only path to beauty
and vitality in the national life. The escape from social
problems into aesthetic hedonism was the contribution of
the Oxford scholar Walter Pater. Poetry The three notable
poets of the Victorian age became similarly absorbed in
social issues. Beginning as a poet of pure romantic
escapism, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, soon moved on to
problems of religious faith, social change, and political
power, as in “Locksley Hall,” the elegy In Memoriam
(1850), and The Idylls of the King (1859). All the
characteristic moods of his poetry, from brooding splendor
to lyrical sweetness, are expressed with smooth technical
mastery. His style, as well as his peculiarly English
conservatism, stands in some contrast to the intellectuality
and bracing harshness of the poetry of Robert Browning.
Browning\'s most important short poems are collected in
Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1841-1846) and Men and
Women (1855). Matthew Arnold, the third of these
mid-Victorian poets, stands apart from them as a more
subtle and balanced thinker his literary criticism (Essays in
Criticism, 1865, 1888) is the most remarkable written in
Victorian times. His poetry displays a sorrowful,
disillusioned pessimism over the human plight in rapidly
changing times (for example, “Dover Beach,” 1867), a
pessimism countered, however, by a strong sense of duty.
Among a number of lesser poets, Algernon Charles
Swinburne showed an escapist aestheticism, somewhat
similar to Pater\'s, in sensuous verse rich in verbal music but
somewhat diffuse and pallid in its expression of emotion.
The poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the poet, artist, and
socialist reformer William Morris were associated with the
Pre-Raphaelite movement, the adherents of which hoped to
inaugurate a new period of honest craft and spiritual truth in
property and painting. Despite the otherworldly or archaic
character of their romantic poetry, Morris, at least, found a
social purpose in his designs for household objects, which
profoundly influenced contemporary taste. The Victorian
Novel The novel gradually became the dominant form in
literature during the Victorian age. A fairly constant
accompaniment of this development was the yielding of
romanticism to literary realism, the accurate observation of
individual problems and social relationships. The close
observation of a restricted social milieu in the novels of
Jane Austen early in the century (Pride and Prejudice,
1813 Emma, 1816) had been a harbinger of what was to
come. The romantic historical novels of Sir Walter Scott,
about the same time (Ivanhoe, 1820),