Victorian Poetry, Parallels for the 21st Century

    Students who study the Victorian novel, the most important literary form to emerge from the period, will find a mood of despair, loss, sadness, and a personal vision of suffering that was not obvious in the literature of the Romantic period.21st Century Journal While the poetry of Byron, Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth defined the dominant literary form of that day, the poets of the Victorian era were nonetheless as important in their honest reflections as the social-minded novels of that time, especially in the work of Dickens, the Brontes, George Eliot, Thackeray, Trollope, and Hardy.

    The poets of Queen Victoria’s age were perhaps often guided by a kind of despair, much of which resulted from the rapid changes taking place, that daily reminded them of their close proximity with suffering and death and the concomitant hopelessness of it. When Victoria’s Albert died in 1861, Tennyson became her favorite poet, and his tribute of loss and regret to Arthur Hallam in the poem “In Memoriam” became her favorite text. It was not only Victoria who identified with Tennyson’s loss; it was all of Britain and possibly the entire English-speaking world who had read Tennyson’s work and recognized their own suffering through his.

    Imagery and Tone of Poetry

    Today the voices of Victorian poets such as Tennyson, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Matthew Arnold, and Emily Bronte continue to project to modern readers that same message of loss and sadness, a wistful remembrance of what was and what will never be again, and too little hope for more. Because the language of poetry often pierces the reader’s heart with its vivid imagery and tone, the poems of the Victorian period may dispatch a swifter interpretation of the general condition of the masses than its more popular and well-known nineteenth century novel.

    Two Centuries Full of Contradictions

    It is easy to imagine a society in which upheaval might deserve to be its mark of identification. Consider this. A composite landscape spans significant changes that take place in every institution while deregulation of business practices creates huge amounts of wealth, the poor conversely finding their lot in life even worse than it was. Farmers are suffering while the cost of feeding families, urban or otherwise, is ever-increasing. Technology reduces the meaning of life for many to a struggle for survival. Depredation becomes the mantra for the chronic poverty of much of the working class. Yes, one might indeed imagine life as it is in the twenty-first century, full of contradictions, but this particular picture is Victorian Britain.

    A Modern Look at Victorian Poets

    A.S. Byatt, winner of England’s Booker Prize, compares Nathaniel Hawthorne’s preface in The House of the Seven Gables to her novel of the search for truth about the lives of fictional Victorian poets, Possession, published in 1990. There is in both, as Hawthorne observes about his own writing, “… an attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us.” What makes this comparison possible, of course, is the notion that history repeats itself. Byatt, who, like Hawthorne, calls her novel a romance, delivers a brilliantly told tale of a modern couple, Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey, obsessed with discovering the secrets of a celebrated Victorian poet and his lover, also a poet. Concurrently, the pair of scholars has their own unhappy history with love that makes them too cautious and wary of opening their hearts to any possibility of love between them, sufficiently mimicking the sense of regret echoed brilliantly in much of Victorian poetry.

    Love, Loss and Regret

    As the reader follows Byatt’s path of parallel stories set in two different centuries, she finds that both couples fear “burning in the flames” of love. It is through following all the clues in the newly uncovered letters and journals that unravel the truth about the nineteenth century poets that they discover not only their own willingness to give love another chance, with each other, but also the personal connections to the nineteenth century poets, especially for Maud who discovers that she is the descendant of both Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash. While Christabel and Ash accept the inevitable loss in their love relationship that is doomed from the start, the modern Roland and Maud choose to begin, despite their own complex and unfulfilled history with relationships, a different path.

    Viewing Life through Victorian Eyes

    The parallels between the Victorian sentiments of loss and sadness and modern concerns slip past the boundaries of literature, and perform as literature always does, to illuminate and reflect the mistakes and agonies as well as the triumphs of real life. The Victorian poets could not act on the human possibilities available in this current century. Though the growth achieved through the onrush of the Industrial Revolution created many positive changes, the ability to control the effect on the masses was not yet realized, and until that time, writers penned verses that adequately expressed their sentiments.

    In Tennyson’s “Sonnet,” the poet describes a young woman with the trophies of a hunt, limp and flecked with blood, as they “Made quiet Death so beautiful to see” and “Death lent grace to Life and Life to Death.”

    In his “Break, Break, Break,” Tennyson seems to be watching the sea break on cold gray stones. He concludes, “But the tender grace of a day that is dead will never come back to me.”

    In Tennyson’s narrative poem “The Lady of Shalott,” the lady of Camelot knows that “The curse is come upon me,” and she gives in to her fate and lets the stream bear her away, “Lying, robed in snowy white… And as the boat-head wound along, They heard her singing her last song, The Lady of Shalott.”

    Finally, in Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” based on the actual historical event of the Crimean War, a battalion of 600 men sent into battle with impossible odds can only respond, “Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die: Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.”

    Christina Rossetti’s poems also illustrate the same tone of pain and hopelessness and regret. In “Song,” she writes, “When I am dead, my dearest, Sing no sad songs for me.” In “After Death,” the narrator describes her own death, “He did not love me living; but once dead He pitied me.”

    In “Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold reflects on the current tone of Victorian life. He suggests that the world “hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

    The 19th Century, Casting Light on the 21st

    Each era of poetry finds new ways to express the temperament of the time, and the Victorians were certainly no exception. With every renaissance-and this was indeed one for American literature if not British-there comes an unleashing of emotional responses to experiencing every moment life had to offer. The daily news in this 21st century often puts us moderns squarely on the darkling plain, sounding at times as if history is once more predictably repeating itself.


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