The Influence of Science on Victorian Literature

According to Compton-Rickett, the two most important features of the Victorian era were:  (i)  the progress of democracy, and  (ii)  the development of science.
While not denying the fact that the Victorian age was a very complex age defying neat labelling, we can still maintain that the two above-mentioned tendencies were then the most powerfully operative. Physical science has always remained progressive.

Every new sun brings in some new addition to the stock of scientific knowledge. However, it was around the middle of the nineteenth century that the progress of science was tremendously accelerated, to continue as such till our own times. Victorian Columbuses discovered many new Americas in the realm of science. While the unprecedented development of science made for material prosperity, it also brought about a revolution in the habits of thought as also the traditions of Christian faith. This revolution in thinking could not but score a deep impression upon contemporary literature. Literature is the record of the consciousness of a nation, and, therefore, goes on changing itself with the changes in national consciousness. The Victorian age was an age of sharp flux generated mainly by the development of science, and the literature of this age mirrors this flux quite authentically.

In the Victorian age science expanded in all its departments such as geology, anthropology, chemistry, botany, astronomy, and zoology. Natural phenomena were no longer viewed with the sense of wonder of the primitive man of the smugness of an all-believing Christian but with the searching eyes of a scientist bent upon knowing the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The change in the temper of the times can be illustrated by an example. Wordsworth, the pioneer of the Romantic Movement and the “archpriest of Nature,” had complained against the physical analyst’s tendency to dissect everything to get at the truth of its structure, nature, and existence. He had lamented that “we murder to dissect.” In the Victorian age, however, Ruskin, who himself was a sensitive aesthete critical of the passion for dissection, had to admit that to dissect a flower could sometimes be as proper as to dream over it. The Royal Society was established as early as 1662, but even in the eighteenth century it was a popular pastime with writers (particularly the Tory satirists like Pope and Swift) to laugh at the pretensions of scientists known contemptuously as “the virtuosi.” Swift’s satire on the experiments of scientists in the kingdom of Laputa is too well-known to need any mention. In the Victorian age the time was fit for laughing at the conservating ignoramuses like Swift rather than the experimental scientists who were working real wonders.
The Direct Influence:
The unprecedented development of science in the Victorian era influenced literature both directly and indirectly. Much of the literature of the age is permeated with the Spirit of science which influenced it more indirectly than directly. Our intention here is not to trace the development of scientific literature or even any other department of non-creative literature. However, it is of interest to note that the Victorian age saw the appearance of a large number of books which were literary as well as scientific. The rigorous differentiation between science and literature, which our modern age of excessive specialisation makes, persistently, was not much known to the Victorian age. Quite a few writers of the age seem to be standing on the no-man’s-land between the territories of science and literature. Most of these writers had taken upon themselves the role of the “popularisers” of science. T. H. Huxley was the most outstanding of such nodescript writers as could be classified both as scientists and as literati. He was pleased to call himself “the bull-dog of Darwin.” He propagated the teachings of Darwin as enshrined in his epoch-making work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859). Huxley with his lucid style and amazing combative powers did very good work for defending Darwin in particular and science and freedom of thought and expression in general. Huxley, as Samuel C. Chew says, “possessed gifts of style which could popularize science by lucid and readily intelligible presentation, as in the renowned lecture On a Piece of Chalk. He did useful work in advancing the cause of popular education, though as Arnold argued, he laid too much emphasis upon the value of the natural sciences as a discipline as the expense of the older humane curriculum.” It is of interest to note that another scientist of the age-John Tyndall-gave equal importance to science and literature in his proposed curriculum.
Another direct influence of the development of science is discernible in the vast polemical literature which appeared in the age either to defend or to attack the principles of Darwin. All important men of letters were divided into the Gnostics and the Agnostics. Tennyson suggested the formation of a society to counteract the heresies of Darwinian Agnostics. He said: “Something must be done to put down these agnostics.” However, ultimately both the Gnostics and the Agnostics were admitted to a learned society, known as the Metaphysical Society, which discussed the spiritual disturbance engendered by Darwin and others. People of such diverse interests as Tyndall, Huxley, Tennyson, Leslie Stephen, Ruskin, Mark Pattison, Gladstone, Browning and the Duke of Argyll were associated with the Society.
The Indirect Influence:
More important than such direct influence was the indirect and -almost ubiquitous influence which the development of physical science exerted on the literature and literati of the Victorian era.’The advancement of science”, observes Compton-Rickett, “has transformed man’s outlook upon life and has affected every channel of intellectual activity.” How and in what respects, we propose to discuss now. In doing so we will mostly confine ourselves to creative literature.
Materialism and Anti-materialism:
The development of science, naturally enough, led the people of the age to adopt a materialistic creed. The “other-worldi ness” gave place to “this-worldliness.” In spite of the desperate efforts of some intellectuals to reconcile religion and morality with science, the two drifted inevitably apart. Materialism and commercialism led the people to hectic activity and restlessness. The “busy hum of men”, in Milton’s words, was alien to all spiritual repose, and well could have another Wordsworth lamented:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours.
Contemporary scientists “saw'” much in Nature, but not in the Wordsworthian sense. To them Nature was as non-human as spider or a weed which is so nonchalantly cut up for reading lectures upon.
This rising wave of materialism which came in the wake of the development of science dismayed a number of sensitive writers such as Carlyle, Arnold and Ruskin, who directed their strokes at the very foundations of the superstructure of Victorian materialistic values. Literature is nothing if it does not make a man aware of the higher values of life and turn him away from the blind cult of Mammon-worship. Thackeray in his magnum opus, Vanity Fair, attacked the rank materialism and insufferable snobbery which characterised the age of Queen Victoria. Matthew Arnold called the English aristocracy and nobility “barbarians,” the middle classes “Philistines”, and the common people “populace.” He showed how all these classes suffered from spiritual narrow-mindedness and insensitiveness. He campaigned for making them pervious to the higher values of life and the much-needed enlightenment which would wean them from the craving for gold. His force was mostly exerted against “Philistinism.” Carlyle raised a prophet-like voice against the brutality of the age of the machine. He upheld vigorously the human values which were then fast disintegrating. Even the scientist John Tyndall, in his essay mentioned above, praised Carlyle for his message of action. Ruskin reserved the vials of his wrath for all the so-called blessings of science and the Industrial Revolution. Among other things he condemned his contemporaries’ tendency to make money by hook or crook, not for any laudable purpose, but just for the sake of making more money. A man making money was compared by him to a cricketer making runs which in themselves meant nothing at all. Dickens in his own peculiar way took the Grandgrind-like materialists to task.
The Growth of the Scientific Temper:
The development of science was also instrumental in nurturing in Victorian writers the peculiar scientific temper. Under its influence some of them had a recourse to scientific methods in their literary works. Tennyson, for instance, followed as a poet the scientific method of description which puts a premium upon the accuracy of detail. His nature poetry is, according to Compton-Rickett, “like the work of an inspired scientist.” In the historical literature of the age also the cientific temper seems to be at work. Carlyle, who was bitterly opposed to science in many ways, Buckle, and many others adopted as historians the scientific method of discovering ascertaining and orientating accurate facts and relating them to the psyche of an age. The method of rigorous research, rational discussion, unimpassioned examination, and induction was essentially scientific. The desire for rational truth became the guiding-star of not only the historians but also the “fictitious historians,” namely, the novelists. The English novel had at its back a pretty long tradition of realism starting with Defoe. In the later Victorian age the stress on realism was not only reinforced but many other scientific tendencies also started operating upon the novel. Compton-Rickett avers in this connexion: “In fiction the scientific spirit is no less discernible: the problems of heredity and environment preoccupying the attention of the novelists. The social problems of the earlier Victorians, of Charlotte Bronte, Dickens, Kingsley and Reade give place to points in biology, psychology, pathology. The influence of Herbert Spencer and of Comte meets us in the pages of George Eliot; while the analytical methods are even more subtly followed in the fiction of George Eliot, the early writings of Mrs. Humphrey Ward, and the intimate Wessex studies of Mr. Thomas Hardy.” Among the major Victorian poets who adopted”the methods of science may be mentioned Robert Browning who used the psychoanalytic approach for his task of the exploration of the human soul, which he did with the intellectual curiosity of a Darwin or Newton. According to a critic, “Browning is the greatest English poet who wrote by a rational impulse.”
Spiritual Disturbance:
The development of science in the Victorian era also caused a marked spiritual disturbance which took quite often the shape of scepticism and sometimes of patent agnosticism and even downright free thinking. Mid-Victorian poetry is particularly shot with the tincture of this spiritual disturbance caused by the sudden collapse of the age-old edifice of Christian values. Illustrating this point, Compton-Rickett observes: “The questioning note in Clough, the pessimism of James Thomson, the wistful melancholy of Matthew Arnold, the fatalism of Fitzgerald, all testify to the sceptical tendencies evoked by scientific research. It did not kill poetry, but it stifled for a while the lyric impulse and overweighted verse with speculative thought.” The last sentence is overtrue and should be considered with reference to the poetry of the Romantic Age to see the striking difference which the development of science created in the general complexion of Victorian poetry. Only a handful of writers, such as Browning, remained undisturbed and could still say:
God’s in His heaven All’s right with the world.
But the rest became victims of growing doubts regarding the ultimate values of life. Darwin and others had knocked the bottom out of the concept of the divine origin of the universe, and had “proved” that human beings were the descendants of not Adam and Eve, but apes who themselves had descended from other forms of life. Christianity was destroyed, but nothing could fill the vaccuum. The doubts and the consequent spiritual restlessness caused by science were shared by all the poets, but the answers they gave were different. Even the normally complacent Tennyson struck an inquisitive note in In Memoriam. Arnold expressed his plaintive doubtfulness in numerous of his poems and groped about in search of a spiritual stance. His mournful pessimism finds good expression in Dover Beach where he says that the world,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
or 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.
Fitzgerald struck the note of fatalism-epicureanism. If you are here just for a while to be swept into nothingness by the relentless hand of time, why not them drink and be merry?
The moving finger writes and having writ
Moves on, not all thy piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line;
Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.
Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough,
A cup of wine, a book of verse and thou
Singing beside me in the wilderness,
And wilderness is paradise enow!
Hardy adopts the Schopenhaurean philosophy of pessimism. He has a deterministic attitude towards life and bears the ironies of fate as the mechanistic workings of an insensitive power. And so forth.
Some Exceptions:
Some of the Victorian writers-including a few major ones-remained unaffected by the development of science and the forging of the scientific temper. The Pre-Rephaelite Movement as also the ‘Tractarian Movement show no influence of science at all. The former as concerned chiefly with painting. Its protagonists like Rossetti, Swinburne and Morris favoured art for the sake of art and envisaged poetry as a branch of aesthetics. Their main concern was with the appreciation and creation of beauty and not with breaking their heads or hearts on dialectic activity. The Tractarian Movement, which involved such important writers as Newman, was religious in nature and had nothing to do with science.

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