(a) Pre-Raphaelite Poets
In the later Victorian period a movement took place in English poetry, which resembled something like a new Romantic Revival. It was called the Pre-Raphaelite Movement and was dominated by a new set of poets-Rossetti, Swinburne and Morris, who were interested simply in beauty. They were quite satisfied with the beauty of diction, beauty of rhythm, and the beauty of imagery in poetry.
They were not interested in the contemporary movements of thought which formed the substance of Arnold’s poetry, and had influenced Tennyson a good deal. They made use of the legends of the Middle Ages not as a vehicle for moral teaching or as allegories of modern life, as Tennyson had done, but simply as stories, the intrinsic beauty of which was their sufficient justification. There was no conscious theory underlying their work as there was in the case of Arnold’s poetry.
It was in 1847 that a young artist named Holman Hunt came under the influence of Ruskin’s first volume of Modern Painters. He along with his friends, Millais and D.G. Rossetti, who were also painters, determined to find a club or brotherhood which should be styled Pre-Raphaelite, and whose members should bind themselves to study Nature attentively with the object of expressing genuine ideas in an unconventional manner, in sympathy with what was ‘direct and serious and heart-felt’ in early Italian painting before the artificial style of Raphael. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood lasted for a very short time, but its effect upon the plastic arts was far-reaching and revolutionary. D.G. Rossetti who was a painter as well as poet, introduced these principles in the field of poetry also. As early as 1848, in his twentieth year, Rossetti began to write the sonnets long afterwards collected as The House of Life, in the opening of which he urges the poets not to be satisfied with a repetition of the worn-out forms of current literature, but to turn back to the earliest masters:
Unto the lights of the great-past, new-lit
Fair for the Future’s track.
Rossetti displayed in those earliest pieces the passion for material beauty, and the love of rich language, magnificent even in simplicity, which were always to characterise his poetry. He also showed a complete detachment from ethical curiosity, from that desire to mend the world, which occupied almost all his Victorian contemporaries, and was to obsess his successors. Being a painter he was able to express his poetic genius more exclusively concentrated on the hues and forms of phenomena, than any other English poet. He withdrew poetry from its wide field, and concentrated it on the intensity of passion, and the richness of light on an isolated object. His earliest volume of Poems (1870), which spread thrills of aesthetic excitement far and wide, attracted a number of young enthusiasts, in spite of some faint protests by the older generation against the ‘Fleshly School’ of English poetry. Other poets who followed him and belong to the Pre-Raphaelite group of poets are—Christiana Rossetti, William Morris, and Swinburne.
The Pre-Raphaelite school of poetry did not regard poetry as being prophetic, or as being mainly philosophical. Their poetry did not concern itself with intellectual complications after the manner of Browning, nor with social conditions. Thus it divided itself sharply from the great writers of the time—Tennyson, Browning and Arnold. It was not an intellectual movement at all, but it brought back the idea that poetry deals with modes of thought and feeling that cannot be expressed in prose. Moreover, it gave greater importance to personal feeling over thought. It also introduced symbolism which was so far rare in English poetry, and insisted on simplicity of expression and directness of sensation. The fleshly images used by the Pre-Raphaelite poets were full of mysticism, but the Victorians who considered them as merely sensuous were shocked by them.
(i) Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)
Rossetti was the chief force behind the Pre-Raphaelite movement. He was the son of Gabriel Rossetti, an Italian refugee, who was a poet himself and a man of sterling character. D.G. Rossetti studied drawing, and as a young man became one of the most enthusiastic members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which was at the middle of the century to convert England from conventional art. His own form of painting never admitted reconciliation with convention, and possessed far greater charm than that of the other members of pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—Millais and Holman Hunt. Though his drawings were severely criticised, no one with eyes could doubt the magnificence of his colour. The same pictorial quality became the chief characteristic of his poetry, which lies apart from the main current of contemporary verse, both in its highly specialised quality of thought and language and in the condition and circumstances of its production, Rossetti openly followed the profession of a painter, pursuing poetry, for the most past, as a recreative rather than a principal study.
In his poetry Rossetti assumes for ever the reality and immanence of spiritual and moral world. But he is not a consciously didactic poet. On the other hand, the form and substance of his utterance are so perfected in truth and virility of thought, in majesty and grace of speech, that the reader is unconsciously affected by them. Rossetti’s poetry can be roughly divided into two groups—the personal and the impersonal poems. In the House of Life sonnets, Dante at Verona, The Streams Secret, The Portrait, and many of the shorter lyrics, the personal note of love or grief, of memory or hope, is wholly dominant. The poet’s soul is absorbed with its individual being, and sees in all the life around him the illustration and interpretation of his own. In the second group, in the great romantic ballads, in Rose Mary, and The Blessed Damozel, in The White Ship and The King’s Tragedy, in The Bride’s Pleasure and Sister Helen, the imagination takes a higher and larger range. Here the art becomes impersonal in this sense only that the thought of self is merged in the full and immense life of humanity laying hold of the universal consciousness through its own experience.
Rossetti was a supreme master of rhythm and music. He cast his great historical lyrics in the highest narrative—that is to say, the ballad from; and chose the sonnet—the most chastened and exclusive vehicle for the meditative and yet sensuous, self-delineative love poetry. But whether written in the form of ballad or sonnet, Rossetti’s verse remains fully charged with the very essence of romance. As a poet, he is neither less nor more pre-Raphaelite than as painter. The vivid and intense simplicity of his diction, the verbal flashes of his ballad style, seem to correspond with the tone and method of his water-colour painting, and the more laboured splendour of the sonnets with the qualities of his oil paintings.
(ii) Christiana Rossetti
Though Christiana Rossetti naturally displayed a temperament akin to her brother’s and sometimes undoubtedly wrote to some extent under his inspiration, large parts, and some of the best parts, of her poetical accomplishments, are quite distinct from anything of his. Her sonnet sequences have the same Italian form and the same characteristics of colour, music, and meditation, as those of Rossetti, because the sonnet form exercised its strong restraint. But her a lyrics have lighter, more bird-like movement and voice than the stately lyrics of Rossetti. Her range was distinctly wide. She had, unlike Mrs. Browning, and perhaps unlike the majority of her sex, a very distinct sense of humour. Moreover, her pathos has never been surpassed except in the great single strokes of Shakespeare. But her most characteristic strain is where this pathos blends with or passes into, the utterance of religious awe, unstained and un-weakened by any fear. The great devotional poets of the seventeenth century, Crashaw, Vaughan, Herbert are more artificial than she is in their expression of this.
Christiana Rossetti began with Goblin Market and Other Poems in 1861, followed it with another volume, The Prince’s Progress in 1866 and after a much longer interval with A Pageant and Other Poems in 1881. Later her verse was collected more than once, and it was supplemented by a posthumous volume after her death. But a good deal of it remains in two books of devotion, entitled Time Flies (1885) and The Face of the Deep (1892).
(iii) William Morris (1834-96)
William Morris who was an eminent designer and decorator besides being a poet, was chiefly interested in the Middle Ages. His first volume of poems—The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems (1858)—gives expression to his enthusiasm for the Middle Ages. His object of writing poetry was to revive the true Gothic spirit, and these poems interpreted ardours and mysteries of the Middle Ages which the Victorians had forgotten. Though Tennyson also drew inspiration for his ‘Idylls’ from medieval sources, he used medieval stories as a vehicle for contemporary moralising. Morris, on the other hand tried to bring back to life the true spirit of the Middle Ages.
For nine years after The Defence of Guenevere, Morris did not write anything, as Rossetti under whose influence he had come, wanted him to be a painter. When he did resume his literary work, his style had entirely changed. The Life and Death of Jason is the first of a long series of narrative poems which forms the bulk of his contribution to literature. In it he followed Chaucer whom he knew and loved best. In 1868-1870 were published the greatest collection of his stories in Earthly Paradise. These stories which are in Medieval setting, are written in an easy and simple style, and their diction is always graceful and suited to the subject.
In the later parts of Earthly Paradise there is an indication of a change in Morris’s interests and methods. Tales such as the ‘Lover of Gudrun’ which are derived from the mythologies of northern Europe are treated in a different manner. This new interest was intensified by his visits to Iceland in 1871 and 1873, and the greater part of Morris’s subsequent work is based on the study of the sagas, and has a spirit of Epic poetry. He translated the ‘Grettis and Volsunga’ Sagas; but the new spirit is found at its best in the poems Sigured the Volsung.
Morris is a pre-Raphaelite in the sense that he wrote poetry mainly with the object of creating beauty. He is a past master in producing languorous effects bathed in an atmosphere of serenity and majesty. He, therefore, belongs to the lineage of Spenser in combining virile strength with the greatest refinement of touch. His poems have a harmonious and musical flow, the variety and suppleness of which recall at once the styles of Chaucer and Spenser. In whatever form he writes—blank verse, rhymed verse, the complicated or the simple stanza—he can produce exquisite music which casts its fascinating spell on the readers. In all his poetry the love of adventure, the attraction of an imaginary world, where beautiful human lives bloom out in open nature and unrestricted liberty, where unhappiness, suffering and death have themselves a dignity unknown in the real world made ugly by industrialisation, inspired Morris. The charm of his poems lies mainly in their indefiniteness and their remote atmosphere which soothe the aching of a mind disturbed and tortured by the tyranny of a vulgar present. His poetry is the result of the reaction of a wounded sensibility against the sordidness and ugliness of the real world.
(iv) Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)
Besides Rossetti and Morris, Swinburne was another Victorian poet who is reckoned with the pre-Raphaelites, though his association with them was personal rather than literary, and he belonged to the later styles of the movement. Unlike the other members of the group, Swinburne was a musician rather than a painter. The poetry of Rossetti and Morris, however musical it may be, is primarily pictorial. Swinburne’s poetry lacks the firms contours and sure outlines of the poetry of Rossetti and Morris, but it has the sonority of the rhymes which links the verses together. From his youth Swinburne displayed an extraordinary skill in versification and a gift of imitating widely different rhythms, not only those of English poets, but also those of the Latin, the Greeks, and the French. It is in fact in the music of verse that Swinburne is pre-eminent. When once asked at an Oxford gathering, which English poet had the best ear, he answered, “Shakespeare, without doubt; then Milton;’ then Shelley; then, I do not know what other people would do, but ‘I should put myself.” This claim, though made in all simplicity, is quite justified, and there is no doubt that Swinburne is one of the great masters in metrical technique. He handled the familiar forms, of verse with such freedom that he revealed their latent melody for the first time.
Swinburne’s poetry deals with great romantic themes—like Shelley’s revolt against society, the hatred of kings and priests and the struggle against conventional morality. He was also inspired by the French romantics, Victor Hugo and Baudelaire. The appearance of his Poems and Ballads in 1866 created great excitement. The Victorians who had accepted Tennyson as the great poet of the age, resented the audacity of this upstart who, though possessing high technical skill, cared nothing for restraint and dignity. Arnold found many of his lines meaningless, and called him “a young pseudo-Shelly”. Serious persons were perturbed by his downright heterodoxy. His violent paganism was the first far-heard signal of revolt that was to become general till a generation later. The young, however, were carried away by the passion of his verse, his intoxicating rhythms, and the new prospects of beauty which seemed to be opening in English poetry.
Swinburne first became known by his Atalanta in Calydon (1865), a poetic drama, distinguished by some great choruses, especially the one that opens, ‘Before the beginning of the years’. Swinburne was essentially lyrical even when he attempted drama, and the success of Atalanta in Calydon was due to the choral passages possessing great lyrical quality. Dramatic movement and the creation of characters were outside Swinburne’s range. He wrote other dramas—Bothwell (1874), and Mary Stuart (1881) both on a period of history in which he was passionately interested. But, above all, Swinburne is a lyrical poet and he never surpassed or equalled the Poems and Ballads, (1886). In his later poems—Laus Veneris, The Garden of Proserpine, The Tymn to Proserpine, The Triumph of Time, Ltylus and Dolores, there is a repetition of images and ideas already familiar. These songs of love were succeeded by poems dedicated to national liberty, especially that of Italy, for Swinburne was an ardent admirer of Mazzini. In A Song of Italy (1867) and Songs before Sunrise (1871) he gave lyrical expression to his passion for freedom. Two other volumes of Poems and Ballads appeared in 1878 and 1889. His later poems—Studies in Song (1880). A Century of Roundels (1883) and Tristram of Lyonesse (1882) show more of metrical skill than lyrical power.
Though much of Swinburne’s poetry, especially that of his later years, seems unsubstantial and almost empty of meaning, he is not merely a technician in verse. His love of liberty, hatred of tyranny in all forms and voluptuous paganism were quite genuine impulses which inspired much of his poetry. At his best, when he sings in Hertha of the birth and destiny of man, no one can deny him the title of a great-poet.
(b) The Decadent or Aesthetic Movement
The Pre-Raphaelite Movement in English poetry was followed by Decadent or Aesthetic Movement, though it is not so well defined. In the later part of the nineteenth century (1890-1900) there was a tendency among the literary artists to lay greater emphasis on the idea of Art for Art’s sake. They were obviously influenced by Walter Pater and the French authors like Baudelaire and Verlaine, who tried to break with conventional values. They believed that all themes must be excluded from poetry except the record of the few deeply moving movements of passion or sadness of emotional exaltation or distress. They sought themes from pleasures which the virtuous forbid, and inflicted agonies upon themselves to achieve perfection of form. These they conveyed for their own sake with exquisite brevity. They found this conception not only in the study of French models but in the critical work of Walter Pater, and their adherence to these self-imposed limitations separates them from earlier English romanticism and from pre-Raphaelite verse. Swinburne had already been subjected to similar influence, but he had wider interests—enthusiasm for medieval legends, for Elizabethan drama and his love of liberty and hatred for tyranny. The Decadents, on the other hand, were not interested in any great subject, theme or idea. They showed anxiety about the right word and were fussy about vowel and consonant patterns. Moreover, they emphasised the passion rather than the intellect. Pater, in his essay on the pre-Raphaelites, and above all in his Conclusions to Studies in the Renaissance, had given a double suggestion which greatly affected this group of poets. First, there accompanies life an inevitable mortality, “the undefinable taint of death is upon all things”; and, secondly, “out of life may be seized some few moments of deep passion or high intellectual endeavour.” The poets belonging to the Aesthetic Movement attempted to express in a most beautiful manner such evanescent moods of pleasure and pain for their own sake without any extraneous motive of conveying any moral. In fact they were pitted against all conventional morality and rebelled against established social and moral laws. They knew neither philosophy nor religion but were the worshippers of Beauty for its own sake. Their object was to afford the readers merely aesthetic pleasure.
(i) Oscar Wilde (1856-1900)
Oscar Wilde was the first to come under the influence of Walter Pater. Though in his early poems he had dealt with religious and spiritual experiences, in New Helen he declared himself as the votary of Beauty.
Of heaven or hell I have no thought or fear
Seeing I know no other god but thee.
In The Garden of Eros he reaffirmed his belief that the pursuit of beauty is the only desirable form of human activity. Like the pre-Raphaelites he also pointed out that modern civilisation opposes this ideal:
Spirit of beauty, tarry yet awhile
Although the cheating merchants of the mart
With iron rods profane our lovely isle,
And break on whirling wheels the limbs of art.
In the short poem, Panthea, Wilde almost gives a paraphrase of Pater’s aesthetic creed:
Nay, let us walk from fire to fire,
From passionate pain to deadlier delight.
I am too young to live without desire,
Too young art thou to waste this summer night
Asking those idle questions which of old
Man sought to see and oracle made no reply.
(ii) Ernest Dowson (1867-1900)
Ernest Dowson symbolises in his work the Aesthetic Movement of the eighteen nineties. He came under the influence of Rossetti, Swinburne and the French romanticists who believed in the doctrine of Art for Art’s sake. Following Pater’s artistic principles the recorded in his poetry moments of sensations to the utter exclusion of all moral and philosophical comment. He dealt mainly with the theme of the brevity of life and the fading of things that once were beautiful:
They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate;
I think they have no portions in us after we pass the gate.
Dowson possessed a love of words for their very shape and appearance on the page, apart from their values of sound and association. He also possessed an unusual prosodic skill. His Cynara holds a pre-eminent place in his work mainly on account of the sweet melody of its verse. His central poetic theme is most profoundly treated in Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration knowing that the ‘world is wild and passionate; and that the rose of the world would fade’, the poet views with sad admiration those whose ascetism allows them to stand aside and make their nights and days, ‘Into a long returning rosary’:
Calm, sad, secure; behind high convent walls,
These watch the sacred lamp, these watch and pray;
And it is one with them when evening falls,
And one with them the cold return of day.
(iii) Lionel Pigot Johnson (1867-1902)
Lionel Johnson was an associate of Oscar Wilde and Dowson who created the aesthetic poetry of the eighteen nineties. Though he was greatly influenced by old Christianity and wrote a good deal of religious verse, yet along with passages of religious enthusiasm can be found paragraphs marked by aestheticism.
(iv) Arthur Symons
Next to Dowson the most consistent follower of the Aesthetic Movement was Arthur Symons. Though he did not possess the unfaltering artistic perfection of Dowson’s poetry where the images burn clearly and steadily, yet his poetic range was wider, and he was a great critic.
(c) Other Important Poets
Other important poets of the Later Victorian Period were Patmore, Meredith and Hardy, though the last two are better known as novelists. Coventry Patmore was a pre-Raphaelite in the sense that he believed in ‘the simplicity of art’ theory, but much of his poetry expresses his own individuality rather than any literary or aesthetic doctrine. His most popular poem is The Angel in the House which contains some very fine things. His great Odes covered by the title The Unknown Eros convey in beautiful, controlled free verse, the mysticism of love combined with an intense religious feeling as no other poems in the English language do.
Though Geroge Meredith was associated with Rossetti and Swinburne, as a poet he had nothing in common with the pre-Raphaelite group except his belief that art should not be the handmaid of morality. He looked upon life as glorious, increasingly exciting and always worth while. The tremendous vigour and metrical skill of his long lyrics—The Lark Ascending and Love in the Valley remind one of Swinburne. His greatest poetical work, Modern Love written in sonnets of sixteen lines, is a novel in verse, and is of its own kind in English literature. It is no doubt the most successful long poem written during the later Victorian period.
Thomas Hardy, though a novelist, expressed himself, like Meredith, in verse also. His greatest work, The Dynasts, is written in the form of an epic in which the immense Napoleonic struggle unrolls itself as drama, novel, tragedy, and comedy. In his verse sometimes he is as prosaic as Wordsworth in his later poetry, but at times his poems like ‘Only a man harrowing clods’ he gives expression to his pessimistic philosophy, but in others he gives a true picture of human experience with a queer sense of super reality. Moments of Vision, the title of one of his volume, in an apt description of his poems as a whole, because most of them give us visions of emotional moments charged with the inheritance of past ages of emotions, combined with irrational half-conscious feelings which are recognized by the contemplative mind as being part of every-day experience.