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Two of the most successful poets of the 19th century, particularly between 1830 and 1900, were Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Alfred Lord Tennyson. The poems being studied throughout this essay are Aurora Leigh and ‘The Cry of the Children’ by Elizabeth Browning, and ‘The Lady of Shallot’, ‘In Memoriam’ and ‘The Lotus-Eaters’ by Alfred Tennyson. All of these poems show how poets of the Victorian era dealt with the concept of morality in their own modern worlds. In detail, this essay will focus on ‘Elizabeth Browning’s feminist nature in her poems. Browning also writes about the contemporary issues during her lifetime, like the conflicts women faced as regards their home and work lives. This is shown on ‘Aurora Leigh’ in great detail. She also writes about the struggle of young children and this is evident in the poem ‘The Cry of the Children’. This essay will also discuss Alfred Lord Tennyson and the different themes that he used throughout his writings, such as loss, romance and loneliness. His poetry is based a lot on emotions. It is sometimes suggested that he based his poetry on his own life and his emotional state at different times in his life. Both of these poets give opportunities to the reader to see deeper into the life of society back in the 19th century.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of the most famous poets in England in the Victorian era for several reasons. Her feminine status aided her poems in getting noticed and in getting read. In most of her poems she shows an interest or at least a glimpse into the world around at the time. Her poem ‘Aurora Leigh’ (1857) is written in the form of a novel – poem. At the time that she wrote this it wasn’t know for women to write novel or epic poems, if they were to write it would only be short verses, or in some cases like Browning they would also write sonnets. The poem has a contemporary setting and it shows issues of the modern society, especially in relation to the conflict between gender and genre in poetry. In Victorian society, there was a lot more emphasis put on the purity of women and also there was the sense that women would be looked down upon if they didn’t uphold these ideals. Elizabeth Browning wrote in a way, against society, so to a point she was a typical Victorian poet. She was, in a sense, feeding into modernism, moving away from your typical society ways. We can see this too in her poem ‘Aurora Leigh’ when she says “Their sole work is to represent the age, their age, not Charlemagne’s, – this live, throbbing age” (ll. 202-203). In an article by Joyce Zanona on Elizabeth Browning there is a lot of discussion around the feminist nature of ‘Aurora Leigh’. She goes through how Aurora talks of the treatment of women, and hoe women to Aurora were being treated as “offal”. In The Norton Anthology of English literature it tells us of how there were many contemporary artists at this time, such as Emily Dickinson or John Ruskin that admired her work for her “moral and emotional ardour and her energetic engagement with the issues of her day”. Her poetry is noted to have a general sense of morality running through, in both her early works and her later works after her marriage to Robert Browning, in poems like ‘The Cry of the Children’ and in her sonnets.
In ‘The Cry of the Children’ Elizabeth Browning gives an insight into gender roles in society in the 1800s, the industrial revolution and also into the system of morality that some say failed during the Victorian period. In the poem, Browning describes the life of little children in the 1800s, during the time of the Industrial Revolution. In the lower classes they were made to work from a very young age, whether it was in the workhouses or on farms or anywhere. A lot of Victorian writers wrote for the cause that was the life of these little kids, and the social life mainly of the poorer classes and the social struggles. In ‘The Cry of the Children’ Browning say “They are weeping bitterly! They are weeping in the playtime of others, in the country of the free” (ll. 10-12). A lot of poets felt like it was the lives of the kids that needed to be protected during the hard times of the revolution and the 19th century in general. Her poem, even from the first line, suggests the sorrow of the children in the 19th century and they sad times that they were faced with. She paints the picture of a nice picturesque place to live with “The young lambs are bleating in the meadows, the young birds are chirping in the nest” (ll.5-6). She also wonders if the young children wonder why they cry so much. The images of the lifeless trees and dying hope also suggests that at the time that Browning wrote the poem there was a lot of troubles and hardships in society. The damaged images may represent the damaged society that was around then, in that they had a lot of rules and ideals which Browning and other poets felt needed to be forgotten.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was mostly known for his short poems, a lot of which had themes of a mythological nature, like ‘Ulysses’. Separate to these however was ‘In Memoriam’, which was written in memory of his fellow poet and best friend Arthur Hallam, written in 1850 and being one of the biggest successes he produced throughout his career. In his poetry Tennyson can be seen to have reflected on a common concern that was also evident among other poets of that era, the conflict that was occurring between the expansion of knowledge in the scientific world and the religious faith. In his poem ‘In Memoriam’ he doesn’t really put emphasis on one way of thinking or a particular religion, however in his poem ‘Ulysses’ Tennyson writes about how it is better to live in the present than dwell on the past, how you need to look forward to the future and move forward with knowledge and experience. In the poem he says that the mind acts “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” (l. 70), so he is leaning towards the side of science, that if you have wisdom you can move forward and be happy, faith isn’t a necessity. In ‘In Memoriam’ Tennyson struggles a little because of his faith, how it started to disappear after the death of his friend. As the poem goes on, the tone changes to a brighter, more pleasant feeling because it seems he has come to the conclusion that his faith cannot be destroyed, especially not by knowledge or science.
‘The Lady of Shallot’ was originally written in 1832 but it was later revised by Tennyson and finally it was published a decade later, in 1842. ‘The Lady of Shallot’ can be viewed as being similar to the story of the Maid of Astolat, however Tennyson always said that it was actually based on a personal experience, on an old Italian Romantic encounter. In Flavia Alaya’s book it says “Interpretations of ‘The Lady of Shallot’ represent it as one of Tennyson’s many unresolved expressions of his peculiar dilemma: artistic dedication vs. Social responsibility, failing to make an essential distinction between disposition and activity whereby his meaning becomes less paradoxical”. He struggled with trying to decide whether or not writing about things that mattered to him, like politics history and general humanitarian issues would take away from his poetry what he worked so hard to put into it, magic.
‘The Lotus-Eaters’ is a poem which describes a couple of mariners who after eating lotus’ are isolated from the world. In ‘The Lotus-Eaters’ there is the theme of whether or not a poet should create work to celebrate the world, or whether they should just enjoy the world simply by living in it. The poem suggests that by giving in to the power that the flower conveys, the mariners are misleading themselves. In the poem Tennyson says “meadow, set with slender galingale; a land where all things always seemed the same!” (ll.23-24). It is almost as if by eating the lotus’s that the mariners were leaving reality and they instead were entering a world where thing seemed to be different than they actually were. The poem ‘The Lotus Eaters’ considers the differences between living in a community and living on one’s own in isolation.
Unlike in ‘The Lotus Eaters’, in his poem ‘The Lady of Shallot’, the woman is isolated but in a different way than the mariners. The difference in their isolation being that she doesn’t really have a choice in the situation, she cannot leave whereas the mariners could leave the island. She has no choice in her isolated state. The Lady is lured away and there is also a curse involved. One could make the argument that Tennyson was writing about his own life, the struggle from being isolated and torn between it and the public eye because of his poetry.
In both Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s writings, the issue of women’s sexuality and their place in the Victorian era is evident. The societal status of women in the Victorian era showed problems in the national power of England with appalling social conditions. Difficulties grew more and more for women because there was this idea where there was the ‘ideal woman’. This was at the time when there was gender inequality in both politics and society. Women were seen to have a domestic purpose and to maybe do work in the workhouses if they were poor, but in the poem ‘Aurora Leigh’, Elizabeth Browning writes about Aurora’s success in both her professional and home lives, and this too poses the question of what the role was for women in the Victorian era was. Browning seems to of put some of her own experiences as a woman writer in this era into Aurora Leigh, almost as if she is completely writing about herself under a disguised name, her problems as a woman.
This essay has shown how in their own different ways, both of these poets dealt with the issue of morality and society in their own way and in their own lives. It also showed the different ways that poets and writers in the Victorian era tried to deal with social issues, like Elizabeth Browning and child labour and feminist activity or Alfred Lord Tennyson and the emotions people had to deal with along with problems et cetera. It showed clearly how there was an awful lot of problems facing writers in the 19th century and it showed the different emotional states which they all went through and how they portrayed these in their poetry. It showed their way of dealing with the moral function of poetry in the modern world.
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