It was a period of great illumination in the life of humanity. It was a revival of the cult of Beauty, “the beauty of woman, the beauty of nature, and the beauty of art and literature.” It began in Italy as early as the 14th century with the works of Petrarch and others and was greatly stimulated by the fall of Constantinople in 1453, by the invention of printing in Germany about this very time, and the great discoveries of scientists and navigators which followed. Its influence reached England as late as the last years of the 15th century and the opening years of the 16th.
(A) THE RENAISSANCE
The Renaissance is a French word which means re-birth, revival or re-awakening. The Renaissance was both a revival of ancient classical mythology, literature and culture as well as a re-awakening of the human mind, after the long sleep of the dark Middle Ages, to the wonder, the glory and the beauty of the human body and the world of nature. It was as if mankind were awakened from a long sleep and looked at the glory of nature with astonishment. “It was a re-discovery by mankind of himself and of the world.”
As Compton-Rickett puts it, “while Italy was afire with the new sunrise, it was still for England merely a streak of light upon the horizon.”
The Medieval world was curiously limited and narrow. It was limited spiritually, intellectually and physically. Geographically, its boundaries were narrow; to the North it was bound by frozen seas, to the West by the Atlantic, and to the South and the East by the Mediterranean. Astronomically, its boundaries were fixed by the closed system of Ptolemy, with the earth at its centre, and with the heavenly bodies revolving in a fixed circle. Intellectually, it was limited by the fact that all books were written by hand so literary culture was confined to a few. Spiritually it was confined within the bounds of Catholic Orthodoxy, which nobody could question, and by scholastic philosophy.
However, even as early as the 14th century, this limited, narrow world had begun to decay. It was specially so in Italy where the study of Greek literature had been revived and keen interest was being taken in the humanistic culture of ancient Greece and Rome. There was an attempt to rebuild medieval culture according to the ancient Greeco-Roman pattern of life. The study of humanity or humanism (The study of ancient Greek and Roman literature and thought is called “humanity” because of its emphasis on things human and secular as opposed to the divine studies of medieval scholars) received a great stimulus from the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. While ancient literature had been practically lost to the Western world, it still flourished in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire with its capital at Constantinople. At the fall of this city, countless Greek scholars poured into Italy, and sought its shelter. They brought with them the precious manuscripts of the ancient writers. The classical masterpieces fired the imagination of the Italian scholars and it was felt that the ancient Greeco-Roman culture was more modern than their own and that their own culture should be reconstructed according to this ideal. The invention of the printing press multiplied books and carried the fruits of classical renaissance to the people at large, in the various countries of Europe.
In Italy the Renaissance was not merely a literary revival, it was also a scientific and artistic revival. It not only produced splendid poetry but also splendid painting and sculpture. It gave man a new idea of life and morals as is exemplified in The Prince of Machiavelli and the Courtier of Castiglione. Both the books advocated a vigorous life of action and worldly success, even by the use of questionable means. The geographical and astronomical methods of the ancients were also revived and in this way there was a break-down of the closed universe of the Middle Ages, Astronomers- Copernicus and Galileo – rediscovered the spherical shape of the earth and that it moved round the sun, and further that it was not the centre of the universe. The warped and narrow medieval cosmology suffered a blow that in shaking it shook also religious faith. Man was spiritually liberated and free-thinking was stimulated.
The discoveries of astronomy suggested to explorers and merchants the possibility of reaching the fabulous wealth of East by sailing into the unknown West. It was in the last decade of the 15th century (1492) that Columbus reached America and Vasco De Gama reached India by sailing round the Cape of Good Hope. These epoch-making discoveries were the result not so much of intellectual curiosity as of the lust for the fabulous wealth of the East. The imagination of Europe was fired by the accounts of travellers, of the sight and scenes they had seen, and of the wealth that could be had in the East. The romance and mystery of the untried seas could not but have a profound influence on the thought and literature of the period.
Thus the immense widening of man’s intellectual, spiritual and physical horizons, which we term as the Renaissance, was the result of two impulses: (1) the inspiration derived from the re-birth of classical learning, and (2) the stirring of men’s imagination by the great voyages of discovery. These twin threads run through all Renaissance literature.
A number of works of the great writers of ancient Greece and Rome were soon translated into English. In the Elizabethan age, there was a spurt of translations. As Legouis put it, “The rich soil was fertilised by a deep layer of translations”. The printing press swiftly placed these rich spoils within the easy reach of the common man. These translations opened for the English people, “a window on the enchanted world of classical antiquity, which appeared with all the freshness of a new discovery, the world of the gods and goddesses of Greece, and great soldiers and statesmen of the Roman Empire.” The great works of dramatists like Marlowe and Shakespeare, and of poets like Spenser were inspired by the Renaissance spirit.
It this way was prepared the audience which could understand and appreciate the allusions and references to ancient literature and mythology with which Renaissance drama is heavily over-loaded. It was the classical drama which gave to English drama its divisions into scenes and Acts, and unities of time, place and action, its rules of artistic composition. These translations and borrowings provided the dramatists with an endless variety of themes. The Elizabethan dramatist does not invent his own plot, for there is no need for him to do so, Plagiarism was the order of the day because the temptation was too great. It is the Renaissance impulse which accounts for the Roman or Mediterranean setting of Elizabethan drama, and for the extensive use of blank verse. Plutarch’s Lives translated by Thomas North, Montaigne’s Essays translated by Florio, and Chapman’s Homer, became the everyday reading of many and had considerable influence on Elizabethan literature. The language was enriched with new words and the translators learned the art of using words with power and dignity. English Style and prosody were formed by these countless translations. They provided the English writers with the necessary discipline and training.
To study the classic, English scholars had to go to Italy and this contact with Italy, for a second time, inspired English writers. Close on the heels of the men of learning went the men of fashion. The classical learning and art of Italy, its rich sensuousness, and its splendour, dazzled their eyes and corrupted their morals. The young gallants imported not only the books of light reading of Italy—its novella or short story, often licentious or sensational, which had such profound influence on English drama and novel—but also its morals, and its ways of living and dressing. This wholesale assimilation of Italian manners and vices was deplored by such sober scholars and educationists as Roger Aschem, Sir John Checke and Thomas Wilson. These Italianate gentlemen became the chief part of the stock-in-trade of the satirists and moralists of the day. Satirical references to the fashion, and extravagance of these youngmen are frequent in the plays of Shakespeare. The licentiousness of Italy is reflected in such poems as Marlowe’s Hero and Leander and Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. However, the censure of the scholars and the reformists held the evil in check and as Mairs puts it, “Italian vice stopped short of real life; poisoning and hired ruffianism flourished only on the stage.” The literature of England was enriched by an immense looting of Italian treasures, but the faults of Italy could not infect English life to any great extent.
The revival of ancient Greco-Roman culture had a profound impact on the ideals of life. The ascetic ideal of the Middle Ages was replaced by the new ideal of the enjoyment of life. Man had again grown conscious of the glory and wonder of the Creation and the beauty of human life and human body. This new ideal found reflection everywhere in Renaissance literature. The zest for life instinctively and naturally found its expression in song. England was transformed into a veritable nest of singing birds. Every one sang, down from the flowery courtier to the man in the street. Men craved for entertainment and in response to this demand, there came the drama and the novella—stories of love, bloodshed and violence, often licentious. Consequently, the lyric, the drama and the short story are the characteristic modes of expression in the Elizabethan era.
Not enjoyment alone but also action was the new ideal. Energetic men of action were admired and not the ascetic or the poet leading retired, secluded life. A perfect gentleman was a man of all accomplishment. To fashion such a gentleman is the aim of Spenser’s Fairy Queen. Hence the close connection between life and letters that we find running through all Elizabethan literature. The noted Elizabethan writers are also energetic men of action. They are not only well versed in the classics but are also accomplished courtiers, soldiers and statesmen. Sir Philip Sydney is the best representative of the Renaissance ideal of a perfect gentleman. Literature is either ran expression of their life and activity or the necessary escape from life: this latter fact account for the popularity of the pastoral romance and poetry—the Arcadias of Sir Philip Sydney and others.
(B) THE METAPHYSICAL SCHOOL OF POETRY
The Metaphysical school of poetry arose as a revolt and reaction against the romantic exuberance and excesses of the Elizabethans, and the great English poet John Donne was the leader of this revolt. His poetry is remarkable for its concentrated passion, intellectual agility and dramatic power. He is given to introspection and self-analysis; he writes of no imaginary shepherds and shepherdesses but of his own intellectual, spiritual and love experiences.
John Donne is the founder of the so-called “Metaphysical school” of poetry, of which Richard Crashaw, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and Abraham Cowley are the other leading poets. Literarily “Meta” means “beyond” and “physics” means “physical nature.” It was Dryden who first used the word. “Metaphysical” in connection with Donne’s poetry and wrote, “Donne affects the metaphysics”, and Dr. Johnson confirmed the judgment of Dryden. Ever since the word “Metaphysical” has been used for Donne and his followers. However, the term is an unfortunate one for it implies a process of dry reasoning, a speculation about the nature of the universe, the problem of life and death, etc. Donne’s poetry is not metaphysical in the true sense of the word. His poetry does not expound any philosophical system of the universe, rather it is as much concerned with his emotions and personal experience as any other poetry. No doubt, there is much intellectual analysis of “emotion” and “experience” but this by itself cannot be called metaphysical. The poetry of the school of Donne is not metaphysical as far as its content is concerned.
Donne’s poetry may be called “metaphysical”, only in as far as its technique or style is concerned. It is heavily overloaded with “conceits”, which may be defined as the excessive use of over-elaborated similes and metaphors, drawn from the most farfetched, remote and unfamiliar sources. Poets have always perceived similarity between dissimilar objects and used similes and metaphors to convey their perception of that similarity. The peculiarity of the metaphysicals lies in the fact that: (1) They use figures of speech excessively, (2) Their similes and metaphors are far-fetched and are often drawn from the most unfamiliar sources, (3) Their similes are elaborated to the farthest limit. (4) The relationships they perceive are not obvious. They are difficult to understand, (5) Their images are logical and intellectual, rather than sensuous or emotional. In their “conceits” Donne and his followers constantly bring together the abstract and the concrete, remote and the near, the spiritual and the material, the finite and the infinite, the sublime and the commonplace. His mind moves with great agility from one such concept to another, and it requires an equal agility on the part of the readers to follow him. Hence the difficult nature of his poetry, and hence the charge of obscurity that has been brought against him. The difficulty of the readers is further increased by the extreme condensation and density of metaphysical poetry.
The chief characteristics of metaphysical poetry may be summarised as follows:
1. It is complex and difficult. Most varied concepts are brought together.
2. It is intellectual in tone. There is an analysis of the most delicate shades of psychological experiences.
3. There is a fusion of emotion and intellect, as there is intellectual analysis of emotions personally experienced by the poet.
4. It is full of conceits which are learned, intellectual and over-elaborated.
5. It is argumentative. There is subtle evolution of thought as the poet advances arguments after arguments to prove his point. He is often like a lawyer choosing the fittest arguments for the case.
6. Originality is achieved by the use of a new vocabulary drawn from the world of trade and commerce, the arts, and the sciences.
7. In order to arrest attention often a poem begins abruptly and colloquially, and unusual rhythms are used. Unusual, compound words are also used for the same purpose.
8. It is often dramatic in form. As has been well said, his poetry presents “a drama of ideas”. Metaphysical lyrics are dramatic.
(C) THE CLASSIC AND THE ROMANTIC
‘The Classic’, Defined and Explained
In the history of English literature, the period of over one hundred years from 1660 to 1789 is variously called to Augustan Age, the classical age or the Pseudo-classical age or the age of Neoclassicism. It is called the Augustan age because the writers of the period supposed that their age was an age of brilliant writers like the age of King Augustus of ancient Rome. Further, they supposed that their poetry had the same qualities as the poetry of ancient Greece and Rome, and that they were really and correctly following the rules laid down by the ancients. But in reality the poetry of the period does not have the qualities of ‘classical’ poetry, nor do the poets really follow the rules of the ancients. Rather, the so-called rules are much misunderstood and misinterpreted. In the classical poetry a harmonious balance was maintained between poetic expression and poetic substance. But in the poetry of this age too much attention is given to expression at the cost of substance. Hence the age is not really classical and is rightly called Pseudo-classical or Neo-classical.
Pseudo-classicism is the result of a number of factors working together. Reaction against the fantastic excesses of the metaphysicals, the influence of the French writers and critics, the study of the ancients and great admiration for them, and the scientific rationalism of the age, all contributed to the growth of Pseudo-classicism.
Its Chief Characteristics
The Chief characteristics of this school are best represented by its poetry. They may be summarised as follows:
1. It is characterised by formal perfection. The poets care more for the perfection of their language than for their subject-matter. They revise and re-revise what they write, and try to say what they have to say in the fewest possible as well as the best possible words. The poet must be correct above everything else. Every word which is considered coarse, vulgar and low is carefully avoided, and in this way loftiness and grandeur are imparted to the language of poetry. This result in the growth of an artificial poetic diction, and the language of poetry is cut off from the language of every day use.
2. The poetry is deficient in emotion and imagination. There is much reasoning and argumentation and this has a deadening effect on imagination and emotion which are the true substance of poetry. The poetry of the period has a hard intellectual tone. In this age of ‘prose and reason’, even poetry has grown prosaic.
3. It is exclusively a poetry of the city. It deals with the life of the court and the courtly circles i.e. with the life of the fashionable upper classes of the city of London. It is as artificial and trivial as the artificial and frivolous life it deals with. It has no love for the humble humanity and for the lower creatures.
4. It has no love for the beauties of nature; the poets rarely take us out of the suffocating atmosphere of the city into the refreshing atmosphere of the countryside. Dryden has no love at all for external nature, and in the hands of Pope even ‘nature’ becomes unnatural and artificial.
5. Imitation of the ancients is the general rule. The poets try to write according to certain ‘rules’ supposed to have been laid down by the ancients. They look down upon the great English poets with indifference, even contempt. They insist that the rules laid down by the ancient writers and interpreted by the French critics of the day should be followed correctly and strictly. This writing by ‘rules’ results in the repression of emotion and imagination and in correctness and elegance of expression. Instead of spontaneity, we get an artificial poetry ‘correct’ in its diction and versification. Indeed, ‘correctness’ is regarded as the supreme virtue of a poet.
It should also be noted that the observance of the rules is flexible in the beginning but it grows more and more rigid with the passing of time. Thus Dryden is ‘flexible’ in his diction and versification, while Pope is much more rigid. Pope follows the rules more strictly than does Dryden.
6. In this poetry, there is much reflection and philosophical comment on man and his life. Generally, their moralising is much superficial, lacking entirely in depth and originality. The poets moralise on life, but they rarely have anything new or significant to say. That is why Hudson remarks that the poetry of the Augustan age is in the main, “the product of the intelligence playing upon the surface of life.”
7. With a few exceptions, the poetry of the age is written in only one metre, the Heroic couplet i.e. two Iambic Pentametre lines rhyming together. The pseudo-classical couplet is a ‘closed couplet’ in which the sense ends with each couplet, rather than the ‘run on’ couplet in which the sense runs on from one couplet to another. This kind of couplet was perfected by the poets Edmunal Waller and John Denham. Dryden praised these poets highly for their handling of the couplet.
8. It is a great age of (a) satiric, (b) argumentative and reflective poetry. Hardly any lyric and sonnet worth-mentioning belongs to the period.
The Rise of Romanticism: Brief Historical Survey
It is generally supposed that the English romantic movement began in 1798, with the publication of The Lyrical Ballads. But it is a mistake to assign any definite date to it. It was not a sudden outburst but the result of long and gradual growth and development. The poets of the romantic school—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, etc—were not even the first romantics of England, for the Elizabethan literature is essentially romantic in spirit. It is also full of that sense of wonder and mystery, that love of daring and adventure, that curiosity and restlessness, which we associate with the poets of the early 19th century.
However it may be, the romantic spirit suffered a total decline and eclipse during the Augustan or the Pseudo classical age. The Augustan literature was mainly intellectual and rational, deficient in emotion and imagination. It dealt exclusively with the artificial life of the upper classes of the city of London, and its form and diction was as artificial as its theme. It had no feeling for nature and no feeling for those who lived outside the narrow confines of fashionable London society. The romantic movement began as a reaction against the dry intellectuality and artificiality of the Pseudo classics.
‘Return to Nature’ played a very prominent part in the revival of romanticism. Suffocated with the cramped and crowded city atmosphere, people longed for the freshness of Nature. They wanted to return to the free and invigorating life of the world of leaves and flowers. It was in The Seasons (1730) of James Thomson that nature came to her own for the first time. This is the first really important poem in which nature, instead of remaining subordinate to man, is made the central theme. The seed sown by Thomson grew and flourished in the poetry of such poets as Gray, Collins, Burns, Cowper and Crabbe.
The Middle Ages were essentially romantic, full of colour and pageantry, magic and mystery, and love and adventure. They stirred the imagination of the romantics who turned back to these ages for theme and inspiration. Hence a very important phase of the romantic movement was the medieval revival. Not only were the ancient masters studied, but old English metres and poetic forms were revived. Bishop Percy’s Keliques of Ancient English Poetry, Chatterton’s Rowley Poems, and James Macpherson’s Ossian are important landmarks in the history of English romanticism. They explain the medievalism of romantics like Coleridge, Scott and Keats.
A long step forward in the history of romanticism was taken with the publication of “the Lyrical Ballads” in 1798. Uptill now the movement had no unity, no fixed programme, and no aim. It was not a conscious movement at all. It was now for the first time that the two friends—Wordsworth and Coleridge—emphasised the aims and objectives of the new poetry. Coleridge pointed out that he would treat of objects and incidents supernatural, but in such a way as to make them look real and convincing; Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to deal with subjects taken from ordinary and commonplace life but so as to cast over them by the magic power of his imagination the charm of novelty. The former would make the unfamiliar, look familiar, and the latter would make the familiar look unfamiliar. In this way they enunciated the theory and methods of the new poetry, gave a new consciousness and purpose to the movement, and thus opened a new chapter in the history of English Romanticism.
No account of the development of English romanticism can be considered complete without a mention of the impact on it of the French Revolution and German Idealistic philosophy. More specially, the French Revolution and the writings of the makers of the Revolution, fired the imagination of the English romantics. A re-awakening of the love of real and wild nature and of the simple humanity living in her lap, had been there even before the revolution. But now it acquired a philosophical basis and gained a fresh stimulus. ‘The Return to Nature’ and the democratic spirit were nourished and fostered by the Revolution. It also fed and strengthened the revolutionary idealism of poets like Byron and Shelley.
Keats is a unique phenomenon in the history of English romanticism, in more ways than one. For one thing, he represents a unique balance of classicism and romanticism. Highly imaginative and emotional matter is enclosed in forms of perfect beauty. The music and melody of the romantics is combined with the well-chiselled and highly finished expression of the classics.
Romanticism: Its Nature and Definitions
The term “Romanticism” has been variously defined by various writers. Pater, for example, calls it the “addition of strangeness to beauty” and Watts Dunton defines it as, “the renaissance of wonder”, Abercrombie, on the other hand, stresses the subjective element of romanticism and writes, “Romanticism is a withdrawal from outer experience to concentrate upon inner experience.” He points out that vagueness, indefiniteness, and a tendency to disregard reality are essential elements of the Romantic. Legouis and Cazamian emphasise both the emotional and imaginative aspect of romanticism and call it, “accentuated predominance of emotional life, provoked and directed by the exercise of imaginative vision”. All such definitions are, however, unsatisfactory and partial, for they emphasise one or the other element of this type of literature instead of giving a composite view. It would, therefore, be more profitable to consider the salient features of Romanticism instead of wasting time in defining it.
The chief characteristics of romantic poetry are:
(a) All romantic literature is subjective. It is an expression of the inner urges of the soul of the artist. The poet does not care for rules and regulations, but gives free expression to his emotions. Emphasis is laid on inspiration and intuition rather than on the observance of set rules. The poet writes according to his own fancy, and is often guilty of wild excesses. Romantic poetry is fanciful, introspective and is often marked by extravagance. Hence it has been criticised as irregular and wild. As the poet is free to write on any theme, and in any form he likes, we have the immense variety of romantic poetry.
(b) Romantic poetry is spontaneous overflow of powerful passions. The romantic poet is gifted with a strong “organic sensibility”, he feels more than there is to feel and sees more than there is to see. Carried away by his powerful passions and excited imagination, the poet does not care for the perfection of form or clarity of expression. The result is much vagueness and obscurity. Substance is more important for him than the form.
(c) The romantic is extraordinarily alive to the wonder, mystery and beauty of the universe. He feels the presence of unseen powers in nature. This unseen, transcendental world is more real for him than the world of the senses. The supernatural has a special charm for him; he is attracted by the stories of fairies, ghosts and witchcraft. His poetry is an expression of his wonder at the magic and mystery of the universe. Supernaturalism is an important element in romantic inspiration.
(d) A romantic is a dissatisfied individual. He may be dissatisfied with the circumstances of his own life, with his age, with literary conventions and traditions of the day, or with the general fate of humanity. Romantic poetry is, therefore, often pessimistic in tone. A romantic may revolt against the existing conditions and may seek to reform them, or he may try to escape into an imaginative world of his own creation. Often he escapes into the past. The Middle Ages have a special fascination for him, for they not only provide him with an escape from the sordid realities of the present but also delight his heart by their colour, pageantry and magic. The remote, the distant and the unknown delight him for this very reason.
While some may escape into the past, (the world of classical antiquity or the Middle Ages) others may dream of a better and happier world to come and build “utopias” of the future. They may see vision of a golden age, and sing of it in their poetry. In short, the romantics look before and after and pine for what is not.
(e) Zest for the beauties of the external world characterises all romantic poetry. Romantic poetry carries us away from the suffocating atmosphere of critics into the fresh and invigorating company of the out-of-door world. It not only sings of the sensuous beauty of nature, but also sees into the “heart of things” and reveals the soul that lies behind.
(f) Love of Nature leads, by an easy transition, to the love of those who live in her lap. The romantics have an instinct for the elemental simplicities of life. Their hearts overflow with sympathy for the poor and the down-trodden. They glorify the innocence and simplicity of the common man. They try to see into the heart of man and understand human nature. They find the divine in man, plead for his emancipation from all bondage, and claim equal rights and liberties for the humblest. The romantic poetry is democratic.
(g) Not only do the Romantics treat of the common man, they also use his language for their purposes. Thus Wordsworth raised his voice against the inane and artificial diction of the 18th century classics, and advocated the use of the language of the common man for purposes of poetry. Indeed, he went to the extent of remarking that there is no essential difference between the language of poetry and that of prose.
(h) Their interest in the past leads the romantics to experiment with old metres and poetic forms. The 18th century had confined itself to the use only of one metre i.e. the Heroic Couplet. With the coming of the romantics there is a revival of a number of ancient metres. The Spenserian stanza, the ballad metre, the blank verse, the lyric, the ode and the sonnet are all revived and soon attain wide popularity.
The revival in ancient metres is accompanied with a renewed interest in ancient English masters. Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, etc, who had suffered an eclipse during the 18th century, now again come to their own. They, and not Pope or Dryden, now become the chosen literary models of the poets.
English romanticism is thus both a revolt and a revival; it is a revolt against 18th century traditions and convention; it is a revival of old English masters of poetry.
(D) TRENDS IN THE VICTORIAN NOVEL
A study of the Victorian novel reveals that it has certain common features, which may be summarised as follows:
The Victorian novel continues to be largely in the Fielding tradition. The plot is generally loose and ill-constructed. The main outline is the same. The story consists of a large variety of character and incident clustering round the figure of the hero. These characters and incidents are connected together rather loosely by an intrigue, and the story ends with the ringing of wedding bells.
Secondly, the Victorian novel is an extra-ordinary mixture of sentiment, melodrama and lifeless characters. There is much that is improbable and artificial in character and incident. Speaking generally, the Victorians fail to construct an organic plot in which every incident and character forms an integral part of the whole. Still, it makes interesting reading. The novelists may not construct their plots well but they tell the story so well. They are so entertaining that children still love to read and enjoy a novel of Dickens or Thackeray.
The Victorian novelists give us comprehensive pictures of contemporary life. The Victorian novel is panoramic. Novels like Vanity Fair, David Copperfield, etc., are not, like most modern novels, concentrated wholly on the life and fortunes of a few principal characters: they also provide panoramas of whole societies.
The Victorian novelist is a man of varied moods. His range of mood is as wide as his range of subject. Just as he deals with all aspects of society, so also he renders human moods in all their manifold variety. He is not a specialist in any one mood or temper. The novelists of the age cannot be categorised. A book like David Copperfield is a sort of vast school boy hamper of fiction with sweets and sandwiches, pots of jam with their greased paper caps, cream and nuts and glossy apples, all packed together in a heterogeneous deliciousness.
Not only have the Victorian novelists width and range of subject and mood, not only are they entertaining story-tellers, they have also creative imagination in ample measure. Their imagination works on their personal experiences and transforms and transmutes them. Their renderings of the real world are not photographs, but pictures, coloured by their individual idiosyncrasies, vivid and vital. Often the picture is fanciful and romantic. At other times, it sticks close to the facts of actual existence, but these facts are always fired and coloured by the writer’s individuality. “Dickens is the romancer of London streets”. The creative imagination of the Victorian novelist works on the setting of his story and transforms it.
This creative imagination is also seen in the humour of the Victorian novelists. Each of the great Victorian novelists is a humorist, and each is a humorist in a style of his own. They have created a number of immortal figures of fun, each comic in his own different way. There are hundreds of fine jokes and witty remarks spread all over the Victorian novel.
The most important expression of this creative imagination is to be seen in the most important part of the novel i.e. in the characterisation. “The Victorians are all able to make their characters live.” Their characters may not always be real, there may be much in them that is improbable and false, but they are amazingly and indomitably alive. They are wonderfully energetic and vital. They are all individuals living their own existence, and lingering long in the memory once we have formed an acquaintance with them. A Victorian novel has a crowded canvas, crowded with living, breathing individuals.
The Victorian novel lacks uniformity. It is extremely unequal; it is an extra-ordinary mixture of strength and weakness. It is technically faulty. This is so because it is still in its infancy, it is still considered as a light entertainment, and not a serious work of art, and the laws of its being have not yet evolved. This artistic weakness also arises from the fact that the great Victorian novels were not published in book-form, but as serial stories in magazines and periodicals.
Then again the Victorian prudery comes in the way of a free and frank treatment of sex-relation. Free and uninhibited treatment of the animal side of life is lacking. The Victorian novel presents only a partial, one-sided view of life.
For these reasons, the Victorian novelists cannot be ranked with the very greatest, yet they have greatness in them. They have their imperfections. Their plots are improbable and melodramatic, their endings are conventional, and their construction is loose. They do not have any high artistic standards. But their merits also are many. They are very entertaining, they can capture and hold the attention, they have creative imagination, and they have the incomparable gift of humour. And these are qualities which only the great have.
(E) TRENDS IN GEORGIAN POETRY
Georgian poetry is the poetry of the period from 1910 to 1935 when King George V ruled over England. It is an easy simple poetry, largely in the romantic vein, having certain marked characteristics of its own. Says A.S. Collins, “The Georgians had, of course, a positive aim; it was to treat natural things in a clear, natural and beautiful way, neither too modern, nor too like Tennyson. In their treatment of nature and social life they discarded the use of archaic diction such as ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, and eschewed such poetical constructions as ‘winter drear’, and ‘host on armed host’. They dropped all georgeous and grandiloquent expressions in thought and expression. In reaction to Victorian didacticism their verse avoided “all formally religious, philosophic or improving themes”, and in reaction to the decadents or Aesthetes of the nineties they avoided all subjects that smacked of, “sadness, weakness and escapism”. They were neither imperialistic nor pantheistic but “as simple as a child’s reading book”. Their themes are “Nature, love, leisure, old age, childhood, animals, sleep, unemotional subjects.” They write simply, clearly and melodiously about sheep, bulls and other domestic or wild animals. It is a poetry for the many, and not for the scholarly few alone. It can be enjoyed even by the unlearned. Georgian poetry has been subjected to severe criticism, by critics like T.S. Eliot. It has been said that the Georgians were merely writing nice poetry for nice people, “and that they were too inclined to indulge in mutual praise” (A.S. Collins), and that it is a poetry lacking in depth and originality, and so unfit for the thoughtful reader in the modern complex age.
These characteristics are best illustrated by the poetry of John Masefield, Walter De La Mare, W.H. Davies, John Drinkwater, etc.
(F) TRENDS IN MODERN DRAMA
The Rise of Modern Drama: Historical Survey
“From the dramatic point of view, the first half of the nineteenth century was almost completely barren. Many of the major poets had tried drama, but none of them had achieved any success. The greater part of their work never saw the stage”—(Albert). The professional theatre of the period was in a low state. Among the respectable middle classes it was despised as a place of vice. Audiences did nothing to raise the standard which remained deplorably low. The popular forms of drama of the day were melodrama, farces, and sentimental comedies, which had no literary qualities whatever, were poor in dialogue and negligible in characterization, and relied for their success upon sensation, rapid action, and spectacle.
Toward the middle of the century, there can be traced a significant development from romantic and historical themes to more realistic themes, and this movement toward realism received considerable impetus from the work of T.W. Robertson (1829-71), a writer of comedies, who introduced in his plays the idea of a serious theme underlying the humour, and characters and dialogue of a more natural kind. He is inseparably connected with the modern revival of English drama. Robertson, however, did little more than point the way, and he never entirely freed himself from the melodrama and sentimentalism prevalent at the time. His chief plays were Society, Caste and School. The same limitations affected the more serious work of Henry Arthur Jones and, to a less extent, the plays of Sir A.W. Pinero. These dramatists did much to introduce naturalism into the English drama. Their names are also associated with the rise of the new Comedy of Manners, a genre which had languished since the days of Sheridan.
It was not until the nineties, when the influence of Ibsen was making itself strongly felt, and Shaw produced his first plays, that the necessary impetus was there to use the serious drama for a consideration of social, domestic, or personal problems. A period so keenly aware of social problems was an admirable time for the rise of the drama of ideas “and the themes of drama became the problems of religion, of youth and age, of labour and capital, and above all, now that Ibsen had torn down the veil which had kept the subject in safe obscurity, of sex”—(E. Albert). In the history of the naturalistic drama, Ibsen and then Shaw, Galsworthy, and Granville Barker were of paramount importance, and they did much to create a tradition of natural dialogue. New psychological investigations increased the interest in character as distinct from plot, and the realistic drama of our period aimed at the impartial presentation of real life, contemporary rather than historical. To begin with, its concern was primarily with the upper classes, and its problems, except in Shaw were handled discreetly, but gradually it turned to other social levels and became more daring in its theme. The weakness of the new realistic, “drama of ideas” was its lack of anything to fire the imagination. It lacked poetry in the true sense, and its greatest danger was that it might degenerate into mere social photography. The greatest dramatists like Shaw and Galsworthy, could rise above these limitations. The dramatists of the new school of drama were, however, a small minority, and while they struggled for recognition, melodrama and musical comedy continued to hold the day. It was Ibsen’s influence which established the drama of ideas as the popular drama of the early twentieth century. It was clear that the future lay with this type of drama.
Theatrical activity was not confined to London alone. The most important of the theatrical developments outside London was the creation of the Irish National Theatre in Dublin. The idea of a national drama was born in the minds of W.B. Yeats and some of his contemporaries. In 1904, the generosity of Miss Horniman constructed for them the Abbey Theatre, in Dublin, of which Yeats, Synge and Lady Gregory were directors. Of the dramatists who wrote for this theatre, Yeats and Synge looked on the drama as a thing of the emotions, and reacting against realism, sought their themes among the legends, folklore and peasantry of Ireland. In their drama we have poetry in the truest sense, though Yeats’ dramatic gifts were limited. In the hands of Synge and Lady Gregory there developed a new comedy. Lady Gregory cultivated a peculiarly Irish drama. Her plays were published as Seven Short Plays, Irish Folk History Plays, New Comedies, Three Wonder Plays, and Three Last Plays. A third stream in the Irish drama is represented by the work of Lenox Robinson who following the more realistic trends of the day, wrote realistic plays like The Crossroads, The Lost Leader, etc.
The Rise of Poetic Drama
Despite the efforts of the major Victorian poets there was no tradition of poetic drama at the beginning of the 20th century. By 1920, there were signs of a rebirth but the atmosphere in which realistic, naturalistic drama throve was uncongenial to poetic drama. At the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, Yeats attempted to revive poetry on the stage but he lacked the essential qualities of the dramatist. Stephen Phillips (1864-1915) is a more important figure in the history of poetic drama. He wrote a number of blank-verse plays, including Herod, Ulysses, The Son of David, and Nero, but he had little popular appeal. Masefield, too, experimented in poetic drama but had only a limited success, while Gordon Bottomley (1874-1948) wrote a number of quite powerful poetical plays, saw hope for this form only in the amateur theatre. It was also during his period that John Drinkwater (1882-1937) began his career with poetic dramas, and achieved popularity with such plays as The Storm, The God of Quiet, and X = O; A Night of the Trojan War. But the true poetic drama was that of J.M. Svege, which though not in verse, had all the qualities which the others lacked. At this point, we may mention the work of Lord Dunsonv, whose career as a dramatist began in 1909 with the staging of The Glittering Gate. One of the best exponents of the One-Act play, he merits inclusion in our consideration of poetic drama (although he writes in prose) by virtue of the romance on which his plays are built and his ability to create a most powerful atmosphere, often of the East. T.S. Eliot, both through his theory and practice, has provided a powerful stimulus to English Poetic Drama, and Christopher Fry has contributed to it the “theatre of words” and the “comedy of moods.”
A number of foreign influences did much to bring about a revival of drama in the 20th century. Most important of these influences, was that of the Norwegian dramatist, Henrik Ibsen, whose work became known in England about 1890 and gave an enormous impetus to the realist movement, to the deeper study of character, and to a subtler conception of plot and character presentation. More than any other, Ibsen may claim credit for extending the scope of the modern dramatist. No doubt, Ibsen’s influence was rather late in coming to England, but with the passing of time his treatment of themes and his technical methods come to be fully accepted, and a new spirit and a new enthusiasm overtook the English drama in the early years of the present century.
It was under Ibsen’s influence that serious drama from 1890 onward ceased to deal with themes remote in time or place. Ibsen had taught men that drama, if it was to live a true life of its own, must deal with human emotions, with things near and dear to ordinary men and women. Hence melodramatic romanticism and the treatment of remote historic themes alike disappeared in favour of a treatment of actual English life, first of aristocratic life, then of middleclass lives, and finally of labouring conditions. So far as choice of subject-matter is concerned the break between the drama of the romantic period and the naturalistic drama of the 20th century is complete.
But difference in subject-matter is not all. With the treatment of actual life, the drama became more and more a drama of ideas, which are sometimes veiled in the main action, and are sometimes didactically set forth. These ideas were for the most part revolutionary, so that the drama came to form an advanced battleground for a rising school of young thinkers. Revolt took the form of reaction to past literary models, to current social convention, and to the prevailing morality of Victorian England. We thus find that sex occupies by far the greatest place in the new drama: it stands next in importance only to the problems of labour and the problems of youth. ‘For the new dramatists, parental authority represented the sentimentalism which they were fighting against; capitalism represented the social state which they were bent on altering”—(A. Nicholl). The spirit of youth, liberated, eager to strike out on new paths, inspires many of these plays. Young men struggle to throw off the trammels of Victorian prejudice; young women join eagerly the Feminist movement and glory in a new-found liberty. “Constantly questing, constantly restless and dissatisfied, seem the character of these plays especially when they are placed by the side of their predecessors, the placid heroes and clinging heroines of romantic drama”—(Nicholl).
Romantic love, too, came in for its particular onslaughts. New investigations into the meaning of sex, which gave to the nineteenth century the philosophy of Schopenhauer and to the twentieth that of Freud brought men to believe no more in love as it was expressed by their forefathers, but in what Mr. Bernard Shaw has styled the Life Force. With the tearing off of those veils of prudery with which the Victorians had covered the facts of sex, the new dramatists came to take a definitely scientific view of life. Social convention, common standards of existence, seemed as nothing compared with this tremendous fact; Ann tracks down the father of her children in Man and Superman; and her sister, Ann Leete, in Mr. Granville Barker’s play, throws over Lord John Carp for the plebeian John Abud.
Increasingly, the dramatists loved to make Life and Nature play their great parts on the stage. The desire for liberty in domestic and in moral circles was paralleled by the desire for liberty in social life. Suddenly, the play-wrights became aware of the depressing circumstances in which the poor are fated to dwell; they viewed the squalor and the misery of the cities; they looked around and saw the terror of modern civilization. ‘The class-war, which has found its expression in actual life, was freely dealt with by the newer school, cynically, yet profoundly, by men such as Mr. Bernard Shaw, seriously by men such as ‘Mr. Galsworthy’—(A. Nicholl).
“Being a drama of ideas, the modern theatre tended to become more static.” The necessity of expressing in the three hours’ traffic of the stage a multitude of diverse theories and points of view seriously interfered with the action of many plays. Inner conflict was substituted for outer conflict, and drama became quieter than had been the melodramatic, romantic theatre of previous years. This development, as has been hinted above, was a normal one. It only betokens the gradual progress by which the drama kept abreast of changing conditions. This inner quality of the modern theatre was intensified greatly by the recent investigations of psychologists. The new study of the ‘soul’ interested many, and none more than the dramatists. In their plays, therefore, they sought ever more subtly and delicately to depict the most intricate aspects of the human spirit.
In many ways, this inwardness is connected with another marked development in twentieth-century dramatic art. To express these almost inexpressible ideas, emotions, instincts, which the psychologists have defined for us, the new writers found that ordinary direct words were insufficient. This accounts for the extensive use of symbolism in modern drama. The dramatists found precisely the same difficulty which faced the mystics of countless centuries before, and they came to employ the same methods for the explaining of their purposes. “Where direct enunciation was impossible or unsatisfactory they had recourse to symbolism. This symbolism in itself aided in raising the dark and even sordid themes chosen by the dramatists to artistic levels they otherwise could not have reached.” The white horses in Rosmersholm, the roaring waters in Mr. Masefield’s Nan, the waves dashing in ceaseless fury through Synge’s Riders on the Sea, all give unity and universality to the various tragedies in which they appear. “Perhaps the dramatists are not fully conscious of the end at which they would aim in introducing these things; but consciously or unconsciously they are employing one of the surest means of raising apparently sordid subject-matter on to a higher and truly tragic plane” (Nicholl).
With the increased inwardness must be accounted, too, a tendency on the part of some of our living dramatists to make their protagonists not men, but unseen forces. Social forces are used as dramatic personages for the purpose of making wide and larger the sphere of drama. This tendency is most pronounced in the plays of Mr. Galsworthy. It is one of the chief tendencies which separates the earlier romantic theatre from the later naturalistic play.
Turning from the drama and tragedy proper to the world of comedy, we find many marked developments in these years. “Perhaps that which deserves most attention is the Revival of the Comedy of Manners. In many ways, we seem now to be approaching a new Augustan period, when reason rather than imagination, commonsense rather than romantic nonsense, will dominate life and literature” (Nicholl). It cannot be denied that a definite return is being made to the witty, satirical comedy which rose to full flourish with Congreve in 1700. Oscar Wilde, Henry Arthur Jones, and a number of others aided in the revival of this form of comedy; the successful revivals of The Beggar’s Opera and They Way of the World seem to mark a certain correspondence in the tastes of the public. At times, this new comedy of manners is almost purely fanciful and dependent upon wit for its being, but more frequently it assumes a cynical and bitter tone which corresponds, in its own way, to the social purpose of more serious playwrights.
It is perfectly natural that the age should be satiric. Satire will always flourish in a society which has become over-civilized, where the artificial life rendered necessary by city existence has driven men, emotionally and morally, to be cut off from elemental conditions and primitive impulses. All signs indicate that this satire will continue to be a marked feature of modern drama.
(G) TRENDS IN THE MODERN NOVEL
The one thing which stands out prominently in the history of the English novel, is its immense popularity at the turn of the 19th century. It has eclipsed the poetry and the drama, it is the only literary form which has competed successfully with the radio and the cinema, and it is in this genre that work of the greatest merit is being produced. Myriads of novels pour out of the press practically every day and are received by the public with enthusiasm. This immense popularity may be accounted for by the fact that while compression is the characteristic feature both of the poetry and the drama, the modern man, under the influence of science, requires discussion, clarification and analysis. This is possible only in the novel, and hence the preference for it.
Another prominent feature of the modern English novel is its immense variety and complexity. Novels are being written practically on all possible themes and subjects. A number of different trends are to be noticed. There are the traditionalists, like H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett and Galsworthy, who, while they propound new ideas and open out new vistas to the human mind, still follow the Victorian tradition as far as the technique of the novel is concerned. On the other hand, there are innovators, like Henry James, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, who have revolutionised the technique of the novel with their probings into the sub-conscious. While H.G. Wells fully exploits modern science in his scientific romances, novelists of social reform, like Galsworthy, make the novel-form a vehicle for the discussion of the baffling socio-economic problems of the day. Biographical novels, regional novels, satirical novels, sea novels, detective novels, war-novels and novels of humour, like those of P.G. Woodhouse, continue to flood the market and the list is by no means exhaustive.
The modern novel is realistic. It deals with all the facts of contemporary life, the pleasant as well as the unpleasant, the beautiful as well as the ugly, and does not present merely a one-sided view of life. Life is presented with detached accuracy, regardless of morals or ideological considerations. The woes and sufferings of the poor, their misery and wretchedness, as well as the good in them, their sense of social solidarity, their fellow feeling and sympathy, are realistically presented. Joseph Conrad makes realism the basis even of his romantic tales. The modern age is an era of disintegration and interrogation. Old values have been discarded and they have not been replaced by new ones. Man is to-day caught between “two worlds, the one dying, the other seeking to be born.” The choice between capitalism and communism, science and religion, God and the Atom Bomb, is a difficult one, and the result is that man is baffled and confused. The modern novel presents realistically the doubts, the conflicts and the frustrations of the modern world. It is, therefore, pessimistic in tone. There is large scale criticism, even condemnation, of contemporary values and civilisation. E.M. Forster is undisguised in his attack on the business mind and the worship of bigness in industrialised England of the post-war generation. Aldous Huxley analyses the disease of modern civilisation and searches for a cure, and Conrad’s novels are all pessimistic and tragic.
The realism of the modern novel is nowhere seen to better advantage than in the treatment of sex. The novel has entirely broken free from the Victorian inhibition of sex. There is a frank and free treatment of the problems of love, sex and marriage. Sex both within marriage and outside marriage is a common theme of the novelist today. The theories of psychologists, like Freud and Havelock Ellis, new biological theories and methods of birth control, and the boredom, frustration and brutality caused by the war, go far to explain the pre-occupation of the contemporary novel with sex-themes.
The modern novel is not merely an entertainment, not merely a light story meant for after-dinner reading. It has evolved as a serious art form. It is compact in body and integrated in form and everything superfluous is carefully avoided. It is like a well-cut garden rather than a tropical jungle, which the Victorian novel was. The modern novel is very well constructed having nothing loose or rambling about it. As Albert points out, “Henry James and Conrad evolved techniques which revolutionised the form of the novel. Basically they amount to an abandonment of the direct and rather loose biographical method in favour of considerations of pattern and composition, and a new conception of characterisation, built upon the study of the inner consciousness.” Disproportionate attention is being given to theories of fiction; the novel is now judged by severely aesthetic considerations. Narration, description and style must satisfy high and exacting technical standards. Moreover, it also embodies the writer’s philosophy of life, his message, his view of the human scene.
The Stream of Consciousness Novel
Decay of Plot: Edwin Mure is right in pointing out that plot seems to have died out of the 20th century, “Stream of consciousness novel.” For the Victorian novelist, life easily fell into the mould of a story; but for the novelist of today it refuses to do so. “The great modern novels, like Ulysses, are still stories, but they are stories without an ending.” The modern novel is like an incomplete sentence, and, “its incompleteness is a reflection of the incompleteness of a whole region of thought and belief.” Under the influence of new psychological theories, life is not regarded as a continuous flow, but as a series of separate and successive moments. Hence a novelist, like James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, concentrates on a particular psychological moment or experience; instead of telling a story with an eye on the clock and the calendar, he probes deeper and deeper into the human consciousness and moves freely backward and forward in time. The unities of time and place have no meaning or significance for him.
Just as the story, so also the character, has decayed in the modern novel. Previously, two different methods were adopted for the delineation of character: the method of direct narration and dramatic method. More often than not, there was a combination of both these methods. The externals of personality—the habits, manners, Physical appearance, etc.—were vividly and graphically described and further light was thrown on the nature of a character by his own words and actions and by what others said of him. But the modern novelist rejects such characterisation as superficial. He has realised that it is impossible to give a psychologically true account of character by such means. He probes deep into the sub-conscious, even the unconscious, and loses himself in the complexities and subtleties of inner life; instead of depicting a conflict between different personalities, he depicts the individual at war with himself. He is not concerned with any overt strife, but with the conflict that goes on in the sub-conscious regions of the human mind. A character is sketched not by extension but by probing the depths. Character is thus presented outside time and space. Not only are we given the ‘past’ of a character, but also the possibilities of his nature for the future are revealed. This psychological probing into the depths of human nature has been the death of both the hero and the villain in the traditional sense. Just as no man is a hero to his own personal attendant so also no man can be a hero to a “Psychoanalyst.” The heroism of a man dissolves when we come too close to him. And this is equally true of the villainy of the villain. However, we may here add that in novelists like Conrad much that is largely traditional, both in plot and characterisation, persists side by side with much that is new and unconventional.
As the foregoing discussion has already indicated, the modern novel is predominantly psychological. It was in the early years of the 20th century that Freud and Jung shook the foundations of human thought by their revolutionary discoveries in the field of Psychology. They revealed that human consciousness has very deep layers and, buried under the conscious, are the subconscious and the unconscious. Thoughts buried deep in the unconscious and the subconscious constantly keep coming to the surface and an account of human personality cannot be complete and satisfactory, unless these hidden elements are given their due weight. Novelists, like Henry James, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson, Elizabeth Bowen, have made the English novel extremely psychological in nature.
The impact of the new psychology on plot and character has already been noticed above. Its impact has been equally far-reaching on the theme of the novel. The traditional novel was largely social, its aim being to uphold and recognise social values. But in the modern age there are no such universally acknowledged values of social conduct which the individual must uphold and cherish. Hence it is that there is a shift in the theme of the modern novelist. The individual is more important for him than society. The psychological probings into the sub-conscious reveal that every individual has a separate personality peculiar to him, and that one particular personality can never merge or become one with another. Each individual is a lonely soul, and as David Daiches puts it, the theme of the modern novelist is not the relationship between gentility and morality but, “the relation between loneliness and love”. The novelist to-day is not concerned with “the great society” i.e. society at large – but with the achievement of a “little society which can be achieved, if at all, only through great patience and care. Both Lawrence and Forster consider “the great society” as the enemy of the individual and want it to be reformed. Conrad’s chief personages are all lonely souls and betrayal of one’s own self or of others is the major theme of his novels.
Such are the current and cross-currents in the Modern English novel. It is an extremely vital and living form of art, and we can safely predict a bright and glorious future for it. New influences, specially the Russian and the American, are daily widening its horizons and renewing its vigour and vitality. New experiments are being conducted, some temporary and fleeting, others of a more permanent significance. The caravan of the English novel goes on, ever-changing, becoming and growing.