Characteristics of Victorian Poetry
“Victorian poetry is characterized by its intense self-consciousness, its exploration of the inner depths of the human psyche, and its obsession with moral and social dilemmas.”
– Terry Eagleton
Victorian poetry refers to the poetry written during the Victorian era, which spanned from 1837 to 1901, corresponding to the reign of Queen Victoria in Britain. Victorian poetry is known for its diverse range of themes, styles and poets but there are several key aspects that are commonly associated with this period. Some of the prominent characteristics of Victorian poetry are:
Moral and Social Concerns
Victorian poets often grappled with the moral and social issues of their time. They explored themes such as industrialization, urbanization, poverty, social inequality and the impact of rapid societal changes. Poets like Alfred Lord Tennyson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning used their works to comment on these issues. Tennyson, in his poem, “The Princess”, says:
“For women is not undeveloped man,
But diverse: could we make her as the man,
Sweet love were slain: his dearest bond is this,
Not like to like, but in difference,”
These lines reflect Tennyson’s exploration of gender roles and challenge the notion that women are inferior to men.
Similarly, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in her poem, “The Cry of the Children”, addresses the issues of child labour and the mistreatment of children in the industrialised society of Victorian England.
“Do you hear the children weeping
O my brothers,
Ere the sorrow comes with years?”
The lines emphasize the plight of young workers and call for compassion and action to protect them.
Nature and Romanticism
While the Victorian era was marked by scientific advancements and industrialisation, many Victorian poets maintained connection to nature and incorporated elements of romanticism into their works. They celebrated the beauty of the natural world, used vivid natural imagery and explored the relationship between human and nature. Examples include, G. M. Hopkins whose exploration of nature goes beyond a mere celebration of its beauty, as he sees the natural world as a reflection of God’s glory. Poets like Christina Rossetti who described nature as a bountiful and joyful presence in her poem, “The Birthday”:
“My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea”
These lines capture the Romantic notion of finding delight and inspiration in the natural world.
Formalism and Poetic Techniques
Victorian poets often adhered to strict poetic forms and structures. They used techniques such as rhyme, meter, and elaborate imagery to create formal and polished compositions. The sonnet and the dramatic monologue were particularly favoured forms during this period. Poets like Robert Browning and Alfred Lord Tennyson showcased their mastery of these forms.
Historical and Medieval Influences
Victorian poets often drew inspiration from history and the medieval period. They romanticized the past and incorporated historical events, figures, and settings into their poetry. One of the most prominent Victorian poets who drew inspiration from historical and medieval sources was Alfred Lord Tennyson. In his collection of poems titled “Idylls of the King,” Tennyson reimagined the Arthurian legends, presenting them as an allegory for Victorian society and exploring themes of honour, love and the decline of chivalry.
Love and Romance
Love and romantic relationships were popular themes in Victorian poetry. Poets explored the complexities of love, courtship, marriage, and gender roles within relationships. An example of Victorian poetry that captures the essence of love is “How Do I Love Thee?” (Sonnet 43) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
“How do I love thee?
Let me count the ways.
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.”
In this sonnet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning expresses her deep and all-encompassing love for her partner.
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