The Columbia History of British Poetry

By Carl Woodring; James Shapiro | Go to book overview
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Victorian Religious Poetry

W HAT is not religious poetry? Representing the Platonic tradition, Shelley maintained in the Defence of Poetry that poetry is itself "something divine." Yet Helen Gardner is surely right to dismiss as meaninglessly broad the position that poetry in which "'man broods upon himself and his history . . . as a spiritual and self-conscious being'" deserves to be called "religious."

Fascinating for the contradictory movements and ideas it harbored, the Victorian era saw both the coining of the term agnostic and a proliferation of religious sects or associations, which by 1895 had grown to 293 in number according to Whitaker's Almanack ( 1896). Religious conformity, piety, and fervor were matched by religious doubt, pained questioning, and a sense of loss. Religious ideas and institutions were in turmoil; and those who could no longer believe often sought surrogates for the spiritual dimension they nevertheless could not live without. It is therefore not obvious where to close the circle around Victorian religious poetry. For practical purposes, however, religious poetry will here be construed narrowly to mean poetry whose object is a transcendent personal God who is the foundation and final cause of a recognized body of faith.

Even by this narrow definition, the field of Victorian religious poetry is unmanageably vast; for Victorians produced religious poetry in industrial quantities. This was a fertile age for hymnody and other forms of liturgical verse not treated here, in which the quality of the verse mattered less than the quality of the piety. To exclude liturgical poetry from the present account does not however settle the deeper

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