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The Victorian Age lasted roughly the lifetime of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). It was a time of great change, industrialisation and forward progress. England was becoming the dominant nation of the world, industry was booming, and inventions such as the steam ship brought sea trade to soaring new heights. Jobs became more competitive, as the economy grew to be largely mechanized, and multitudes of jobs would be replaced with just a single invention. It was the time of the rise of the lower class, and a mercantile middle class was formed from the aristocracy who found their funds dwindling.
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This was a great time of scientific discovery, with Charles Darwin’s ‘Theory of Evolution’ causing a ripple of controversy throughout the civilised world, and medical science improving by leaps and bounds. Technology was at soaring new heights, and magical superstition was dismissed and frowned upon. However, accompanying the breakthrough in scientific discoveries was a crisis of faith, as much of the new information seemed to directly oppose the long held religious beliefs. Many started to doubt their religion, and this had a rather large influence on the literature of the time. Educated men were dividing themselves into two groups, of utilitarians, and firm believers in the faith. Utilitarians based their beliefs on the utility of objects, and scientific facts. The firm believers were those who resisted the crisis of the faith.
Obviously in such a time of upheaval, forward progress and controversy would have a profound effect on the writers of the day. The Victorian Era was known as the age of the novel, with the invention of the modern novel and many classic pieces of literature. “The Jungle Book” by Rudyard Kipling and “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte are some of the still famous novels of the time. However, this was still an age of marvellous poetry. Some of the most famous poets in history were writing their works during the Victorian Era. The poetry reflected the events, scientific advances and crisis of the faith which confronted Victorians.
(Paqui Doménech Martínez. “The Victorian Age”)
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was quite a popular poet of the time. Her husband, Robert Browning’s work would only become more popular after his death. Elizabeth Browning’s sonnet, “How Do I Love Thee?” is from probably her most enduring work, Sonnets From The Portuguese. This is a collection of love poems and songs, some very intimate, dedicated to the single greatest love in her life; her husband. Elizabeth was stating quite clearly that she loved her husband more than God, and this fact in itself reflects a major issue of the time, the crisis of faith.
This very deliberate affront to God was displayed in her sonnet “How Do I Love Thee?”.
“I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach, when feeling out of sight for the ends of Being and ideal Grace.”
These first four lines show how her love for her husband exceeds that of the furthest distance she could reach towards in a search for God. As with any Petrarchan sonnet, the octave is used to develop an idea, or a hypothesis, and in this case Browning is stating how she loves her husband more than any other being. She uses analogies to describe her feelings for Robert;
“I love thee to the level of everyday’s most quiet need,”
Here she compares her deep feelings for him to political, spiritual and religious beliefs. The repeated use of “I love thee” served to reinforce the strength of her undying love toward her husband.
The sestet is a confirmation of everything that she said in the octave, and also alludes to the possibility that the love she lost from her childhood, as her belief in the faith started to wane, is now directed at her husband. She states that she will continue to love her husband more every day, even after death;
“I love thee with the breath, Smiles, tears, of all my life! And, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.”
Other sonnets from her collection Sonnets From The Portuguese, such as “I Thought How Once”, develop this same theme. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s works are an excellent example of the questioning of faith during the Victorian Era.
(Gray, J. “Poetry analysis: Sonnet 43, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning”), (InspiredWritingResearch. “Poetry analysis: Sonnet 43, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning”)
Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson, favoured writing about modern issues and events. His poem Charge of the Light Brigade dealt with the events of the Crimean War.
The audience of the time were familiar with the events in the war, so they knew that in this case the cavalry were charging to their doom. However, Tennyson does not use the poem to place blame on the commander, or any other individual, but rather writes about courage and intense patriotism displayed by the men of the Light Brigade.
In only one place in the poem does he mention the “he” who gave to order to charge:
“‘Forward, the Light Brigade! Charge for the guns’ he said.”
Even thought the soldiers knew it was folly to follow the insane order, they bravely continued on.
“Was there a man dismay’d? Not tho’ the soldiers knew some one had blunder’d: Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.”
These men most certainly knew they were riding to their deaths, but they valiantly continued, with not a single soldier disobeying. This shows their undying loyalty to their country.
“Volley’d and thunder’d; storm’d at with shot and shell, boldly they rode and well, into the jaws of Death, into the mouth of Hell rode the six hundred.”
They rode courageously onwards, fully aware of their plight, whilst assaulted on all fronts by cannon fire and shooting. Tennyson uses a strong repetitive meter and used the same rhyme and words several times. This created a sense of battle, and unrelenting assault.
“Cannon to the right of them, Cannon to the left of them, Cannon in front of them”
The courage, valour, and bravery shown by these soldiers was marvelled at by the rest of the world, and will forever be remembered. The poem stated that the glory of these six hundred soldiers is undying, and is still worthy of honour and tribute today.
“When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
â€ƒ All the world wonder’d.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
â€ƒ Noble six hundred!”
This poem was written by Tennyson in a few minutes, after he read an article in the London Times. It is not about bad luck, or foolishness, but rather courage and bravery, and shows how in a time of such grand expansion of the British Empire that patriotism was as high as it has ever been.
(Marie Rose Napierkowski. “The Charge of the Light Brigade: Introduction”), (SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Tennyson’s Poetry”)
Gerard Manly Hopkins was a devoutly religious man, and resisted the wave of loss in faith that swept England during the Victorian era. His poetry is devotional poetry, with dense layers of imagery and metaphors; as can be seen in his poem ‘As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame’, where he explores some quite detailed imagery about the phenomenon of iridescence concerning the wings of kingfishers and dragonflies.
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His devotion to the Lord is seen quite obviously in the first line of his poem, The Windhover, where he dedicates it “To Christ our Lord”. ‘Windhover’ is an accepted name for a kestrel, or falcon, and Hopkins describes the sheer majesty of the falcon in flight. Hopkins’ style is unusual, with a sprung rhythm and a heavy reliance on rhyme and alliteration. He designed the poem to be listened to, rather than read silently.
Examples of his imagery and poetic devices can be seen throughout The Windhover.
“I caught this morning morning’s minion, king
-dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding…”
Hopkins uses quite descriptive language to make the reader feel and see the colour of the morning and movement of the falcon as it glides and soars in the air.
“As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding rebuffed the big wind.”
Earthly phenomena were viewed by Hopkins as symbols of Christ, and he honoured Christ through his writing. The falcon is used as a symbol of Christ. Hopkins himself declared that this was the best poem he’d ever written.
(Ouellette, J. “On butterfly’s wings”), (Landow, G. P. “A Reading of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Windover””)
Matthew Arnold was seen as a representative of Victorian intellectual concerns, and his writings characterised many Victorian beliefs towards religious faith. Much of his poetry shares his own inner feelings with great clarity, and his questioning of faith. His works, such as Dover Beach, portray the feeling of isolation of a man without faith.
Dover Beach reflects religious doubts of the age, and there is a coldness and sadness in the verses. He uses several analogies to portray man’s waning faith in God.
“The Sea of Faith Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.”
Arnold is using a metaphor, where the “earth’s shore” is the irreligious world, and the sea is man’s religious faith. He shows that man’s religious faith is receding, just as the tide recedes from the shore.
“But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.”
Arnold then continues to say how religious faith has become a dream;
“For the world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams,”
He says how humanity is caught in a figurative no-man’s land, where people are caught between religious faith and non-religion in this age of enlightenment and confusion;
“And we are here as on a darkling plain, Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,”
Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach is fairly similar to John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, in that they both contrast the present, and the ancient past.
(Lancashire, I. “Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) Dover Beach”)
The literature of the Victorian Age was influenced by the expansion of the British Empire, new scientific discoveries, and the loss in faith associated with those scientific discoveries. Elizabeth Browning’s ‘How Do I Love Thee?’ and Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach both deal with humanity’s loss in faith, while Gerard Manly Hopkins’ The Windhover is devoted to Christ, in an effort to try to keep faith strong. Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade dealt with other affairs of the Victorian Era, namely an event in the Crimean War, and concentrated on the courage and patriotism of the British Soldiers. It was an age of remarkable prose, with many notable writers. The selected poets highlight the political and social trends of the Victorian Era.
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