The most important poets during the early Victorian period were Tennyson and Browning, with Arnold occupying a somewhat lower position. After the passing away of Keats, Shelley and Byron in the early eighteen twenties, for about fifteen years the fine frenzy of the high romantics subsided and a quieter mood ensued. With the abatement of the revolutionary fervour, Wordsworth’s inspiration had deserted him and all that he wrote in his later years was dull and insipid.
There appeared a host of writers of moderate talent like John Clare, Thomas Love Peacock, Walter Savage Landor and Thomas Hood. The result was that from 1820 till the publication of Tennyson’s first important work in 1833 English poetry had fallen into the hands of mediocrities. It was in fact by the publication of his two volumes in 1842 that Tennyson’s position was assured as, in Wordsworth’s language, “decidedly the greatest of our living poets.” Browning’s recognition by the public came about the same time, with the appearance of Dramatic Lyrics (1842), although Paracelsus and Sordello had already been published. The early Victorian poetry which started in 1833, therefore, came to its own, in the year 1842.
The early poetry of both Tennyson and Browning was imbued with the spirit of romanticism, but it was romanticism with a difference. Tennyson recognised an affinity with Byron and Keats; Browning with Shelley, but their romanticism no longer implied an attitude of revolt against conventional modes. It had itself become a convention. The revolutionary fervour which inspired the poetry of the great Romantic poets had now given place to an evolutionary conception of progress propagated by the writings of Darwin, Bentham and their followers. Though the writers of the new age still persisted in deriving inspiration from the past ages, yet under the spell of the marvels of science, they looked forward rather than backward. The dominant note of the early Victorian period was therefore, contained in Browning’s memorable lines: “The best is yet to be.” Tennyson found spiritual consolation in contemplating the
One far off divine event
To which the whole creation moves.
Faith in the reality of progress was thus the main characteristic of the early Victorian Age. Doubt, scepticism and questioning became the main characteristic of the later Victorian Age.
(a) Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892)
Tennyson is the most representative poet of the Victorian Age. His poetry is a record of the intellectual and spiritual life of the time. Being a careful student of science and philosophy he was deeply impressed by the new discoveries and speculations which were undermining the orthodox religion and giving rise to all sorts of doubts and difficulties. Darwin’s theory of Evolution which believed in the “struggle for existence” and “the survival of the fittest” specially upset and shook the foundations of religious faith. Thus there was a conflict between science and religion, doubt and faith, materialism and spirituality. These two voices of the Victorian age are perpetually heard in Tennyson’s work. In In Memoriam, more than in any other contemporary literary work, we read of the great conflict between faith and doubt. Though he is greatly disturbed by the constant struggle going on in Nature which is “red in tooth and claw”, his belief in evolution steadies and encourages him, and helps him to look beyond the struggle towards the “one far off divine event to which the whole creation moves.”
Tennyson’s poetry is so much representative of his age that a chronological study of it can help us to write its history. Thus his Lockslay Hall of 1842 reflects the restless spirit of ‘young England’ and its faith in science, commerce and the progress of mankind. In Lockslay Hall Sixty Years After (1866) the poet gives expression to the feeling of revulsion aroused against the new scientific discoveries which threatened the very foundations of religion, and against commerce and industry which had given rise of some very ugly problems as a result of the sordid greed of gain. In The Princess, Tennyson dealt with an important problem of the day—that of the higher education of women and their place in the fast changing conditions of modern society. In Maud, he gave expression to the patriotic passion aroused on account of the Crimean War. In Idylls of Kings, in spite of its medieval machinery, contemporary problems were dealt with by the poet. Thus in all these poems the changing moods of the Victorian Age are successively represented—doubts, misgivings, hopefulness etc.
Taking Tennyson’s poetry as a whole, we find that in spite of varieties of moods, it is an exposition of the cautions spirit of Victorian liberalism. He was essentially the poet of law and order as well as of progress. He was a great admirer of English traditions, and though he believed in divine evolution of things:
The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfills himself in many ways
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world,
he was, like a true Englishman, against anything that smacked of revolution.
But the real greatness of Tennyson as a poet lies in his being a supreme artist. The ideas contained in his poems are often condemned by his critics as commonplace, and he is berated as a shallow thinker. But no one can deny his greatness as an artist. He is, perhaps, after Milton, the most conscientious and accomplished poetic artist in English literature. He is noteworthy for the even perfection of his style and his wonderful mastery of language which is at once simple and ornate. Moreover, there is an exquisite and varied music in his verse. In poetic style he has shown a uniform mastery which is not surpassed by any other English poet except Shakespeare. As an artist, Tennyson has an imagination less dramatic than lyrical, and he is usually at his best when he is kindled by personal emotion, personal experience. It is his fine talent for lyric which gives him a high place among the masters of English verse. Some of his shorter pieces, such as Break, break, break; Tear, idle tears; Crossing the Bar are among the finest English songs on account of their distinction of music and imagery.
Tennyson is a master of imaginative description, which is seen at its best in The Lotos Eaters. Words can hardly be more beautiful or more expressive than in such a stanza as this:
A land of stream! some, like a downward smoke,
Slow-dropping, veils of thinnest lawn did go;
And some thro’ wavering lights and shadows broke,
Rolling a slumberous sheet of foam below.
They saw the gleaming river seaward flow
From the inner land; for off, three mountain tops,
Three silent pinnacles of aged snow,
Stood sunset flush’d and dew’d with showery drops.
Up clomb the shadowy pine above the woven copse.
During his lifetime Tennyson was considered as the greatest poet of his age, but after his death a reaction started against him, and he was given a much lower rank among the English poets. But with the passage of time Tennyson’s poetry regained its lost position, and at present his place as one of the greatest poets of England is secure mainly on account of the artistic perfection of his verse.
(b) Robert Browning (1812-1889)
During his lifetime Browning was not considered as great a poet as Tennyson, but after that the opinion of the critics has changed in favour of Browning, who, on account of his depth and originality of thoughts, is ranked superior to Tennyson. Browning and Tennyson were contemporaries and their poetic careers ran almost parallel to each other, but as poets they presented a glaring contrast. Whereas Tennyson is first the artist and then the teacher, with Browning the message is always the important thing, and he is very careless of the form in which it is expressed. Tennyson always writes about subjects which are dainty and comely; Browning, on the other hand, deals with subjects which are rough and ugly, and he aims to show that truth lies hidden in both the evil and the good. In their respective messages the two poets differed widely. Tennyson’s message reflects the growing order of the age, and is summed up in the word ‘law’. He believes in disciplining the individual will and subordinating it to the universal law. There is a note of resignation struck in his poetry, which amounts to fatalism. Browning, on the other hand, advocates the triumph of the individual will over the obstacles. In his opinion self is not subordinate but supreme. There is a robust optimism reflected in all his poetry. It is in fact because of his invincible will and optimism that Browning is given preference over Tennyson whose poetry betrays weakness and helpless pessimism. Browning’s boundless energy, his cheerful courage, his faith in life and in the development that awaits beyond the portals of death, give a strange vitality to his poetry. It is his firm belief in the immortality of the soul which forms the basis of his generous optimism, beautifully expressed in the following lines of Pippa Passes:
The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill side’s dew pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snails on the thorn,
God’s in his heaven—
All’s right with the world.
Thus is an age when the minds of men were assailed by doubt, Browning spoke the strongest words of hope and faith:
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be.
The last of life, for which the first was made.
(Rabbi Ben Ezra)
In another way also Browning presents a contrast to Tennyson. Whereas Tennyson’s genius is mainly lyrical. Browning’s is predominantly dramatic, and his greatest poems are written in the form of the dramatic monologue. Being chiefly interested in the study of the human soul, he discusses in poem after poem, in the form of monologue or dialogue, the problems of life and conscience. And in all of them Browning himself is the central character, and he uses the hero as his own mouthpiece. His first poem Pauline (1833) which is a monologue addressed to Pauline, on “the incidents in the development of a soul’, is autobiographical—a fragment of personal confession under a thin dramatic disguise. His Paracelsus (1835) which is in form a drama with four characters, is also a story of ‘incidents in the development of a soul’, of a Renaissance physician in whom true science and charlatanism’ were combined. Paracelsus has the ambition of attaining truth and transforming the life of man. For this purpose he discards emotion and love, and fails on account of this mistake. Browning in this poem also uses the hero as a mouthpiece of his own ideas and aspiration. Paracelsus was followed by Sordello, (1840) which is again ‘the study of a soul’. It narrates in heroic verse the life of a little-known Italian poet. On account of its involved expression its obscurity has become proverbial. In Pipa Passes (1841) Browning produced a drama partly lyrical and consisting of isolated scenes. Here he imagined the effect of the songs of a little working girl, strolling about during a holiday, on the destiny of the very different persons who hear them in turn.
It was with the publication of a series of collections of disconnected studies, chiefly monologues, that Browning’s reputation as a great poet was firmly established. These volumes were—Dramatic Lyrics (1842), Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845), Men and Women (1855), Dramatis Personae (1864), Dramatic Idylls (1879-80). The dramatic lyrics in these collections were a poetry of a new kind in England. In them Browning brings the most varied personages to make their confessions to us. Some of them are historical, while others are the product of Browning’s imagination, but all of them while unravelling the tangled web of their emotions and thoughts give expression to the optimistic philosophy of the poet. Some of the important dramatic lyrics are Bishop Blougram’s Apology, Two in a Gondola, Porphyria’s Lover, Fra Lippo Lippi, The last Ride Together, Childe Roland to a Dark Tower Came, A Grammarian’s Funeral, Rabbi Ben Ezra, Prospice and My Last Duchess. All of them have won for Browning the applause of readers who value “thought” in poetry. In (1868-69) Browning brought out four successive volumes of The Ring and the Book, which is his masterpiece. Here different persons concerned in a peculiarly brutal set of murders, and many witnesses give their own versions of the same events, varying them according to their different interests and prejudices. The lawyers also have their say, and at the end the Pope sums up the case. The ten long successive monologues contain the finest psychological studies of characters ever attempted by a poet.
During the last twenty years of his life Browning wrote a number of poems. Though they do not have much poetic merit, yet they all give expression to his resolute courage and faith. In fact Browning is mainly remembered for the astonishing vigour and hope that characterise all his work. He is the poet of love, of life, and of the will to live, here and beyond the grave, as he says in the song of David in his poem Soul:
How good is man’s life, the mere living! how fit to employ
All the heart and the soul and the senses for ever in joy.
The chief fault of Browning’s poetry is obscurity. This is mainly due to the fact that his thought is often so obscure or subtle that language cannot express it perfectly. Being interested in the study of the individual soul, never exactly alike in any two men, he seeks to express the hidden motives and principles which govern individual action. Thus in order to understand his poems, the reader has always to be mentally alret; otherwise he fails to understand his fine shades of psychological study. To a certain extent, Browning himself is to be blamed for his obscurity, because he is careless as an artist. But in spite of his obscurity, Browning is the most stimulating poet, in the English language. His influence on the reader who is prepared to sit up, and think and remain alert when he reads his poetry, is positive and tremendous. His strength, his joy of life, his robust faith and his invincible optimism enter into the life of a serious reader of his poetry, and make him a different man. That is why, after thirty years of continuous work, his merit was finally recognised, and he was placed beside Tennyson and even considered greater. In the opinion of some critics he is the greatest poet in English literature since Shakespeare.
(c) Matthew Arnold (1822-88)
Another great poet of the early Victorian period is Matthew Arnold, though he is not so great as Tennyson and Browning. Unlike Tennyson and Browning who came under the influence of Romantic poets, Arnold, though a great admirer of Wordsworth, reacted against the ornate and fluent Romanticism of Shelley and Keats. He strove to set up a neo-classical ideal as against the Romantic. He gave emphasis on ‘correctness’ in poetry, which meant a scheme of literature which picks and chooses according to standards, precedents and systems, as against one which gives preference to an abundant stream of original music and representation. Besides being a poet, Arnold was a great critic of poetry, perhaps the greatest critics during the Victorian period, and he belongs to that rare category of the critic who is a poet also.
Though Arnold’s poetry does not possess the merit of the poetry of Tennyson and Browning, when it is at its best, it has wonderful charm. This is especially the case with his early poetry when his thought and style had not become stereotyped. Among his early poems the sonnet on Shakespeare deserves the highest place. It is the most magnificent epigraph and introduction to the works of Shakespeare. Another poem of great charm and beauty is Requiescat, which is an exquisite dirge. In his longer poems—Strayed Reveller, Empedocles on Etna, Sohrab and Rustum, The Scholar Gipsy, Thyrsis (an elegy on Clough, which is considered of the same rank as Milton’s Lycidas and Shelley’s Adonais)—it is the lyrical strain into which the poet breaks now and then, which gives them a peculiar charm. It is the same lyrical note in the poems—The Forsaken Morman, which is a piece of exquisite and restrained but melodious passionate music; Dover Beach which gives expression to Arnold’s peculiar religious attitude in an age of doubt; the fine Summer Night, the Memorial Verses which immediately appeals to the reader.
Most of the poetry of Arnold gives expression to the conflict of the age—between spontaneity and discipline, emotion and reason, faith and scepticism. Being distressed by the unfaith, disintegration, complexity and melancholy of his times, Arnold longed for primitive faith, wholeness, simplicity, and happiness. This melancholy note is present throughout his poetry. Even in his nature poems, though he was influenced by the ‘healing power’ of Wordsworth, in his sterner moods he looks upon Nature as a cosmic force indifferent to, or as a lawless and insidious foe of man’s integrity. In his most characteristic poem Empedocles on Etna Arnold deals with the life of a philosopher who is driven to suicide because he cannot achieve unity and wholeness; his sceptical intellect has dried up the springs of simple, natural feeling. His attitude to life is very much in contrast with the positive optimism of Browning whose Ben Ezra grows old on the belief that “The best is yet to be!”
As a critic Arnold wants poetry to be plain, and severe. Though poetry is an art which must give aesthetic pleasure, according to Arnold, it is also a criticism of life. He looks for ‘high seriousness’ in poetry, which means the combination of the finest art with the fullest and deepest insight, such as is found in the poetry of Homer, Dante and Shakespeare. Arnold’s own poetry was greatly affected by his critical theories, and we find that whereas Tennyson’s poetry is ornate and Browning’s grotesque, Arnold’s poetry on the whole is plain and prosaic. In setting forth his spiritual troubles Arnold seeks first of all to achieve a true and adequate statement, devoid of all non-essential decorations. The reader gets the impression that the writing is neither inspired nor spontaneous. It is the result of intellectual effort and hard labour. But there are occasions in the course of his otherwise prosaic poems, when Arnold suddenly rises from the ground of analysis and diagnosis into sensuous emotion and intuitions, and then language, imagery, and rhythm fuse into something which has an incomparable charm and beauty.
(d) Some Minor Poets
Besides Tennyson, Browning and Arnold there were a number of minor poets during the early Victorian period. Of these Mrs. Browning and Clough are well-known. Elizabeth Berrett (1806-61) became Mrs. Browning in 1846. Before her marriage she had won fame by writing poems about the Middle Ages in imitation of Coleridge. She also gave voice to sensitive pity in Cowper’s Grave and to passionate indignation in The Cry of Children which is an eloquent protest against the employment of children in factories. But she produced her best work after she came in contact with Browning. Her Sonnets from the Portuguese, which were written before her marriage with Browning, tell in a most delicate and tender manner her deep love for, and passionate gratitude to Browning who brought her, who was sick and lonely, back to health of life. The rigid limit of the sonnet form helped her to keep the exuberance of her passion under the discipline of art. Her other great work, Aurora Leigh (1857), is written in the form of an epic on a romantic theme. Written in blank verse which is of unequal quality, the poem is full of long stretches of dry, uninteresting verse, but here and there it contains passages of rare beauty, where sentiment and style are alike admirable.
Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861), a friend of Arnold, came under the influence of Wordsworth in his early years, but later he cut himself off from Wordsworthian narrow piety, and moved towards a religious faith free from all dogma. He searched for a moral law which was in consonance with the intellectual development of the age. In his Dipsychus, ‘the double-sould’ (1850), he attempted to reconcile the special and the idealistic tendencies of the soul. His best known work, however, is The Bothie of Toberna Vuolich, in which he has given a lively account of an excursion of Oxford students in the Highlands. Here he, like Wordsworth, emphasises the spiritualising and purifying power of Nature. The importance of Clough as a poet lies mainly in the quality of his thought and the frank nobility of his character which is beautifully expressed in the following memorable lines:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll:
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul!