Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics

By Isobel Armstrong | Go to book overview

POSTSCRIPT

Browning died in 1889, Tennyson in 1892. Did Victorian poetry die with them? Perhaps the deaths of these colossus-like and prolific writers effectively terminate what we think of as Victorian poetry. They may have seemed old-fashioned and outmoded to younger poets, but they continued to write on questions central to the later part of the century until the end of their writing lives. In Idylls of the King Tennyson adumbrated the fatal soul/matter split, the dualism which so preoccupied Swinburne and which presages the new aesthetic of symbolism. Browning, still exceptionally responsive to his culture in the last twenty years of his life, was capable of moving from the exploration of violence and the problems around representation relevant to the 1867 Reform Bill in The Ring and the Book (1868) to the brilliant colonial critique, ‘Clive’, a poem about the damaging and contradictory codes of masculinity and honour in the closed world of Anglo-India, in the second series of Dramatic Idylls (1880).

But the deaths of Tennyson and Browning might well seem to complete a phase. While these poets were writing their late work, the conditions of twentieth-century poetry were forming - the increasing marginalisation of the poet, the fragmentation of cultural and literary life into coteries (of which the symptom is the little magazine), the formation of a European and Euro-American avant-garde, the growing aestheticisation of literature strangely concurrent with an increasing exploitation of it as commodity, the growing depoliticisation of poetry through a theory of the symbol which was thought to supersede the positivist and ethical discourses of nineteenth-century poetry, the final breakdown of the idea of a coherent bourgeois audience for literature. The prescient Swinburne anticipated something of this, as he anticipated the bitterness of class conflict and the crisis of imperialism, which ‘Conquered and annexed and Englished!’ as Browning put it in ‘Clive’, but was forced at the same time to compete avidly for markets. 1 It is perhaps appropriate to allow Swinburne to speak for the later part of the century: he was a formative poet for later writers, but the history of the 1890s and fin-de-siècle poetry seems to belong rather to the history of modernism than to that of Victorian poetry. This is particularly

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