English Prose of the Victorian Era

English Prose of the Victorian Era

English Prose of the Victorian Era

English Prose of the Victorian Era

Excerpt

Most of the great or distinguished prose published between the appearance of Macaulay's essay on Milton in 1825 and the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 reflects the tumult of a very eventful period. More than in any previous era, English literary prose during those years was intimately related to life and thought. It mirrored the rise and fall and vicissitudes of doctrines, ideals, political principles, religious conceptions, scientific theories, and cultural change. Merely to glance through the pages of Carlyle, Ruskin, or Arnold is to meet the surge and thunder of conflicting ideas; everywhere there are allusions to the advance of science, the revival of Anglicanism, the growth of democracy, the rapid spread of industrialism, the developing faith in 'progress' and the 'march of mind.' All of the great writers of 'non-fiction' prose were directly or indirectly involved in these conflicting forces. Some of the writers were largely in tune with their age: Macaulay, Mill, Huxley, and Spencer. Others were sharply opposed to some of the most distinctive tendencies of the time: they were self-dedicated 'prophets' and social critics; and each offered his own solution for the problems of his bewildered contemporaries. Carlyle's solution was a religious transcendentalism founded on German literature and philosophy; Newman's answer was a turning to the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church; Ruskin's early hope was in art, and later in social and economic doctrines derived to some extent from his master, Carlyle; Arnold's message was that of the harmonious and well-rounded culture of the individual and of society; and finally, at the end of the century, Pater counselled a retreat into the world of art and aesthetic sensibility.

Without continuing the list of writers who promoted or reacted against the main tendencies of the age, we can see that any true understanding of them requires some knowledge of the period which produced them. The effort to understand their economic, social, and intellectual background is not without its own rewards, for most of the problems which the Victorians attacked are with us still, and many of their suggested solutions have a relevance and a vitality in our own day. What they wrote constitutes a fascinating chapter in the history of the English mind, and also provides a perspective for viewing much that continues to perplex the world. Above all, a survey of their beliefs and assumptions will illuminate the richness of their prose, a prose which is often highly allusive, sometimes deceptively simple, and always susceptible to fresh and profitable interpretation as the symbol of their thought, and the eloquent expression of their convictions.

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THE NATURE OF THE AGE

The Victorian age refuses to come out neatly as a clearly marked, well-rounded historical epoch. We cannot apply to it any pat and helpful phrase, like 'the Age of Reason,' or 'the Great Awakening.' Misleading as such labels are at best, they . . .

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