A LTHOUGH the 1890s have often been called the "Decadent Nineties," the continuities of Victorianism were predominant in late-nineteenth-century poetry. And although fiction had become more widely read in Victorian households, a poem was still regarded as the noble expression of moral vision, an inspiring and comforting depiction of nature's wonders, and a source of insight into the social, political, and religious preoccupations of the age. The monarch's appointment of the poet laureate was, after all, an acknowledgment of the traditional idea that the poet, as sage and visionary, expressed the conscience and mission of the nation.
Many Victorians had been witness to two of the greatest laureates in the history of British poetry--Wordsworth and Tennyson--whose prominence during the early years of Victoria's reign reinforced earlier Romantic self-exploration as the means of discovering universal truths. Increasingly, however, Victorian social and religious values modified such subjectivity. The evangelistic fervor that permeated the age justified a divinely sanctioned view of Britain's destiny as civilizer of the world. Moreover, scientific discovery and the new, rationalistic approach to biblical study questioned religious dogma, increasingly undermined by doubt and pessimism as the century progressed.
At the threshold of the 1890s, when Tennyson's health became a major concern, William Watson emerged as a formidable contender for the laureateship. A critic at the time who later urged his appointment remarked that Watson was "all for orthodoxy, patriotism, England,