Victorian Poetry

The work of the English poets during the years between 1837 and 1901 is known as Victorian poetry. The 19th century saw the publication of innovative poetic works by Robert Browning (1812-1889), Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), and Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909). Among other distinguished poets were Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861), Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) and William Morris (1834-1896).

The Victorian Age was also marked by the work of a number of women poets, with Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) the most studied by scholars of literature. Other examples of women poets from the period include Felicia Hemans (1793-1835), Dora Greenwell (1821-1882) and Jean Ingelow (1820-1897). The Bronte sisters - Charlotte (1816-1855), Emily (1818-1848) and Ann (1820-1849), also published a collection of their verses in Poems (1846). Since the sisters were the daughters of a clergyman, they thought it be appropriate to sign the book using the pseudonyms of Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Ann) Bell. Poems, however, went unnoticed by the public.

Victorian poetry marks a bridge between Romanticism and Modernism. Poets in the Victorian period felt the influence of Romantic poets such as John Keats (1795-1821), William Blake (1757-1827), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) and William Wordsworth (1770-1850). Wordsworth is often seen as a link between the Romantic period and the Victorian period. He was Poet Laureate until 1850 and was succeeded by Lord Tennyson, the favorite poet of Queen Victoria (1819-1901).

It was from the Romantic poets that the Victorians inherited the passion for mythological heroes, people and events from Ancient Greece and the Renaissance. For example, Arnold used the character of Greek philosopher Empedocles (490 BCE-430 BCE) in his poem Empedocles on Etna (1852). An interest in this period of history can also be seen in other activities of the Victorian poets, with Arnold writing an essay on translating Homer. Other major themes for Victorian poets were love, friendship and problems related to gender and sexuality. Swinburne discussed his homosexuality and inclination towards masochism. Researchers doubt, however, the extent to which these claims corresponded to reality.

Love prompted Elizabeth Barrett Browning to write Sonnets from the Portuguese, while she was uncertain that Robert Browning could really love her. Another major topic of Victorian poetry was faith in God and the existence of divinity. This theme was also inherited from the Romantic poetry, which had shown distrust of organized religion, skepticism and interest in the mysterious. The religious views of Victorian poets were largely affected by science. As a result, Victorians were more likely to look for a scientific conviction of God's existence or absence. An example of this view is Dover Beach by Arnold.

Political issues penetrated largely the thought of Victorian poets, with the fight of Italy for its independence among the key sources of inspiration. Elizabeth Barrett Browning's interest in the topic is evident in Casa Guidi Windows (1851) and Poems before Congress (1860). Swinburne's meeting in 1867 with Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872), the Italian patriot who was living in England in exile, spurred him to write politically-charged Songs before Sunrise. Another example of political poetry is Tennyson's The Idylls of the King dedicated to the memory of Prince Albert (1819-1861).

Victorian poets displayed a unique sense of social responsibility. Tennyson not only went to help the insurgents in Spain but also highlighted the necessity of education of the poor and deprived. Arnold refused an offer to for the reprint of his poem Empedocles on Etna, in which the pre-Socratic philosopher throws himself into the volcano, since this would set a bad example. Elizabeth Barrett Browning also addressed social problems in some works, like her novel-poem Aurora Leigh. This dealt with social injustice, with its focus being the subjugation of women to men. In her poem, Elizabeth Barrett Browning commented on the role of a woman as a poet. Aurora Leigh was remarkable for its novel form, combining features of a verse buildungsroman (spiritual epic) and a treatise on poetics. This creation of new literary forms was a landmark for the Victorian Age. Swinburne invented a new literary form - the roundel, a circular structure that returns to a provisional imaginative center again and again. Robert Browning developed the dramatic monologue, combining drama and lyric, a form that did not imply that the first-person speaker was the author or an ideal personification of the author.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics
Isobel Armstrong.
Routledge, 1993
Victorian Poetry and the Culture of the Heart
Kirstie Blair.
Oxford University Press, 2006
Rhythm and Will in Victorian Poetry
Matthew Campbell.
Cambridge University Press, 1999
The Dialogue of the Mind with Itself: Early Victorian Poetry and Poetics
Lawrence J. Starzyk.
University of Calgary Press, 1992
Victorian Poetry as Victorian Studies
Kuduk, Stephanie.
Victorian Poetry, Vol. 41, No. 4, Winter 2003
A Bounded Field: Situating Victorian Poetry in the Literary Landscape
Gray, Erik.
Victorian Poetry, Vol. 41, No. 4, Winter 2003
A Linguistic History of English Poetry
Richard Bradford.
Routledge, 1993
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Victorian Poetry"
Conjuring the Spirit: Victorian Poetry, Culture, and Technology
Linley, Margaret.
Victorian Poetry, Vol. 41, No. 4, Winter 2003
The Victorian Sonnet, from George Meredith to Gerard Manley Hopkins
Regan, Stephen.
Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 36, No. 2, Annual 2006
Women's Poetry and Religion in Victorian England: Jewish Identity and Christian Culture
Cynthia Scheinberg.
Cambridge University Press, 2002
Encyclopedia of Literature and Criticism
Martin Coyle; Peter Garside; Malcolm Kelsall; John Peck.
Routledge, 1990
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 19 "Victorian Poetry"
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