Victorian Poetry was an important period in the history of poetry, providing the link between the Romantic Movement and the modernist movement of the 20th Century, as a result some of the most considered influential poets in the Victorian legacy include; Alfred Lord Tennyson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Matthew Arnold, and Robert Browning. This is just to name a handful of significant poets. Although these poets often vary in style and themes, what can be found common amongst their poetry is the sense and reflection of a conflicted self. For instance, throughout both Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry, and also within Robert Browning's poetry we acquire a sense of yearning towards the Romantic period of literature, but it seems that they are constricted by the new use of language, the developing economy and even the shift in views of religion. One more subject that is often constant within Victorian poetry, although it may not necessarily be obvious, is that of gender, masculinity and femininity and the relationship between these and the author itself. Typically the interpretations of the female personalities within Victorian poetry are often considered to follow that of the passive personality who does not act but rather acted upon.
However I believe that it is fair to say that not all Victorian poetry portrays the female personality in this superficial way. If we look deeper into Alfred Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "Aurora Leigh" we may be able to look past the stereotypical views of Victorian women that some of us may hold. Upon initial reading Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" we begin to believe that she is almost completely passive. This beautiful, yet inaccessible, lady's days pass away as she remains trapped on the highest level of a tower on the "silent isle" (Tennyson, 17-18) of Shalott weaving "a magic web with colours gay". (Tennyson, 38-39). The Lady views the world through a mirror hanging infront of her window, and yet all she may see are the "Shadows of the world" (Tennyson, 48-49) for if she gazes out upon Camelot her curse will take effect, but she does not know what that effect may be. "To look down to Camelot. She knows not what the curse may be." (Tennyson, 41-42). Much of this poem I believe to be about that of the conflict between art and life. I believe that we can assume the Lady as the role of an artist, isolated in her own work, away from the real world, and the moment that she takes her mind's eye, and her own, off her art and gazes upon the real world death befalls her. The poem captures the artists desire for social status, but yet the artist may become lost within the social circle and lose sight their artistic creation and thus resulting in the death of the artist. Apart from this may have also been a personal battle for Tennyson. It may be a record of Tennyson's dilemma and struggle into divulging in other aspects of literature, but yet he feared in doing so as this may have affected the magic of his poetry. We also cannot overlook the fact that the Lady of Shalott is a Lady. We can only assume that she is being restricted by her social constraints, Tennyson portrays this by the height of the tower she is in and the water surrounding it. The tower may also be a representation of a typical Victorian home, and the woman bound within it. Just as the story of the poem deduces, any woman who strayed from the social normalities were cast out from society, much like non-fictional women of Tennyson's time. Not only is the Lady of Shalott trapped within the "Four gray walls" (Tennyson, 15-16) but she is also not allowed to express herself freely. Furthermore, as we see within "The Lady of Shalott" the result in breaking these social boundaries has severe consequences. However something that i think worth noting within this poem is that, as I said earlier, although the Lady of Shalott seems to be a suppressed personality, she does take her own fate inter her own hands. However, another counter argument to that point is the fact that the Lady falls for the dominant masculine figure within the poem, Sir Lancelot, representing masculinity within the play and another repressive factor for femininity. However, I believe that the Lady falls in love with the idea of love rather than falling in love with Lancelot himself.
Nevertheless it is here where Tennyson twists the roles of gender within the poem and takes a look at how his own society and their views on gender. From the beginning of the poem the images surrounding the Lady are that of mystery, colour, beauty, and in general feminine by nature, indicating that the Lady is a typical Victorian lady:
"Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro' the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river" (Tennyson, 10-13)
This in conjunction with masculinity, which is associated with light throughout the poem, when Lancelot is being described bright images are found in almost every line, also conjures a typical portrait of a characteristic Victorian male:
"As he rode down to Camelot.
As often thro' the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
Â Â Â Â Â Â Moves over still Shalott." (Tennyson, 95-100)
However, what is different here is the fact that it is the male personality that is lacking depth rather than the female character. Upon the Lady meeting Lancelot, all of her expectations of him were crushed when Lancelot commented on the Lady's face, "She has a lovely face" (Tennyson, 169-170). Lancelot sees nothing past her complexion, nothing about her life or personality or even the fact that she gave his life for him, for he only sees her face. Therefore what would have been, or maybe even should have been, the poems most powerful figure is reduced to a shallow and often disliked character. Whereas it is the female character, the Lady, that seems to hold power, as I said earlier on, she is the one who takes matters into her own hands and causes her own destruction by entering into the 'real' male dominated world.
We can see a similar set of patterns developing throughout Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem "Aurora Leigh". In the contrast of these two epic poems we can see both of the main female personalities are restricted by the rules and regulations of their society, roles and gender. In comparison to "The Lady of Shalott" the representation of women throughout "Aurora Leigh" reinforces our expectations of Victorian women as passive, controlled and restricted entities within the Victorian society. Also in both poems we can see the consequences of certain actions that result in the pushing or even breaking of these social boundaries. For example in "Aurora Leigh", Browning address the very serious problem of prostitution faced by Victorian society through the characters of Rose Bell and Marian Erle. The story of Rose is told in brief by Marian about an orphaned girl who, through poverty, grew up to be a prostitute. A similar fate loomed for Marian for although she does not become a prostitute and in her was once thought to be of a virtuous nature, due to dire circumstances she becomes a single mother. Both of these characters must bear the consequences of not being able to follow the social expectations of a woman in the Victorian era and as a result cast out from society "Girls blush, sometimes, because they are alive, Half wishing they were dead to save the shame." (Browning, bk. II, 732). Although these are just two examples of some of the many women that we meet throughout the poem and one of the many ways in which we can interpret the roles of women throughout the poem, one of the more important interpretations, in my opinion, is that of the connection between the poet and Aurora herself. Throughout the play Aurora faces many trials in typical the female lifestyle of a Victorian woman, but the choices that she makes all reflect on her commitment to her art. Aurora rejects her suitor as she believes that once she is married her partner will assume the role of partner in her work and also she shows resentment for any person that reject the idea of a woman artist or intellectual. This is a quality that can be related to Browning herself, for she was adamant on projecting the ability of a female artist and this is portrayed through the character of Aurora. Much like Tennyson portrays in the story of "The Lady of Shalott", Browning also believes that an artist remains isolated for the social world, and their art instead becomes their life.
I believe that Aurora's commitment to her poetry and her obligation to be a recognised poet is one of Browning's most important and powerful themes throughout the poem. Throughout the Victorian era female writers protested against gender discrimination and demeaned to be criticised as authors rather than as female. As a result many female authors created pseudonyms. Although Browning tackles this predicament through a separate means, she embodies her character of Aurora and through her astounding ability to write she attempted to prove that women authors could and should be recognised by their talent alone. Another common theme between "The Lady of Shalott" and "Aurora Leigh", and yet another powerful one, is that of the reversal of roles. Similar to the Lady in Tennyson's work, Aurora is portrayed as a submissive and passive character.
It is a common theme throughout Victorian poetry for the female characters to be represented as passive, controlled and restricted personalities and have no choice but to accept the role that has been assigned to the by society and to follow those social boundaries and failure to do so would result in extreme ramifications. This is portrayed through what we know of Victorian society, and the literature of that era can often reflect the social structures of that era, and can even affect how the author writes their work. Here we are presented with two very different works of art by Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and yet in both poems, "The Lady of Shallot" and "Aurora Leigh" there seem to be common themes. Throughout both poems we can see the passive representation of Victorian women within their society, but more importantly what I believe to be worth taking note of is the actual portrayal of both poems key female characters. Bothe the Lady in "The Lady of Shallot" and Aurora in "Aurora Leigh" seem to embody the author somehow. Throughout Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" we can gather a sense of frustration that the Lady herself feels being isolated from the social world, and yet she knows that divulging into such a world will only result in her death. It is here that we can identify Tennyson himself with the Lady, he too seems to feel frustrated at the fact he is isolated within his artistic world, and drifting into a separate literature styles may result in the loss of the magic he captures with his poetry. We can find a similar connection between Browning and her key female character, Aurora. All through the poem Aurora strives to be recognised as an author rather than to be criticized as woman, as passion that deduced directly from the author herself. It is with this that we realize that both of poets seem to have taken on the role of the feminine personality and acted out against the male dominated world that they live in, and it is with this that both poets mange to twist the role of gender throughout their poem, and take a look at how their own society views the roles of gender.