The Victorian period was a significant era in English literature. The Victorian period is associated with the English monarch, Queen Victoria. Several features characterized this period. Perhaps most important was the shift from a way of life based on ownership of land to a modern urban economy based on trade and manufacturing. By the beginning of the Victorian period, the Industrial Revolution had created profound economic and social changes, including a mass migration of workers to industrial towns where they lived in new urban slums. We shall see how various poets reacted to this in the main content.
Given the dramatic changes that occurred throughout the reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901), it is fitting that 1832, the year that the first Reform Act passed, is often taken to mark the beginning of the period. Although the French Revolution was long over the time before the Victorian era began, the revolution still influenced the period. Confidence in the Tories abated as frustration with their ability to ensure economic prosperity increased. The alternative party, the Whigs, was able to unite various groups dissatisfied with the status quo.
There were various calls for reform of an electoral system that had been in place since the 1680s. While industrial cities such as Manchester, now home to the factories on which the British economy increasingly depended, had no political representation, small towns with few inhabitants might benefit from the representation of two MPs in the House of Commons. Only landowners who comprised about 5 percent of the population could vote.
First presented in March 1831, the Reform Bill was defeated in the House of Commons. After a general election increased the Whigs majority, a revised bill was submitted to and passed by the House of Commons in October of the same year. Its defeat in the House of Lords spawned riots throughout the country. A further revised bill was passed in March of the following year and, after a series of dramatic measures that included Earl Grey resigning, the Great Reform Act became Law in 1832. The Reform Act successfully eliminated small constituencies and gave more appropriate representation to a variety of countries and cities that represented national strengths and interests. The number of men eligible to vote doubled to include many more of the middle class. More significantly, the passage of the Act seemed to demonstrate the capacity of the House of Commons and of voting people generally to take precedence over the desire of the House of Lords and even the sovereign. Aristocrats lost politically and economically, and the Whigs retained a majority in the House of Commons for most of the elections held until 1874.
Religion played a key role in many of the reform initiatives undertaken in Victorian Britain. An Evangelical wing within the Church of England supported such organizations as the society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge and the society for the propagation of the Gospel in Foreign lands. Bible, religious tracts and missionary societies prospered under the influence of an Evangelical revival inherited from the eighteenth century. One noteworthy leader was Lord Ashley, the Earl of Shaftburg, a vocal critic of slavery in the colonies who also worked to improve conditions of factory work, to provide education for poor children, and to treat the mentally incompetent humanely.
Victorian literary history provides many examples of innovative appropriation of both forms and themes inherited from the eighteenth century and the Romantic era. In her introduction to Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics, Isobel Armstrong warns of the danger of seeing Victorian poetry as “on the way to somewhere”. “Whether on the way from Romantic poetry, or on the way to modernism”, she writes, “it is situated between two kinds of excitement, in which it appears not to participate”. Armstrong may be right, for Victorian poets engaged in complicated and innovative ways with the same issues of subjectivity and individuality that preoccupied generations both before and after them.
Tennyson’s poetry is instructive in this regard. His poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830) attracted the attention of Henry Hallam. Hallam recognized Tennyson’s striking ability to convey intense emotion and to render the distinctive character of various poetic personas. At the same time, he warned the poet against indulgence in melancholic mood, against too-ready acceptance of Romantic poetry of sensation. Certainly, Tennyson’s early poetry justified Hallam’s critique. Poems like ‘Mariana’ and ‘The Lotos – Eaters’ seem positively antithetical to the embrace of work and the duties of the everyday that by mid-century would seem central to the ethos of Victorian culture. Ernest Jone’s “The Silent Cell”. For example, strongly endorses commitment to everyday struggle:
But never a wish for base retreat
Or thought of a recreant part,
While yet in a single pulse shall beat
Proud marches in my heart.
During the course of his career, Tennyson garnered a reputation and audience comparable to that of Dickens, and his poetry offers special insight into the complicated and sometimes paradoxical tastes and sensibilities of the Victorian reading public. In Memoriam, a poem that Queen Victoria compared to the Bible in its consolatory powers, is actually far more expressive of doubt than of faith. In its relentless representation of emotional and intellectual ambiguity, it offers our best evidence of Tennyson’s appeal.
Almost all Victorian literature concerns itself with the troubled relationship of the public and the private and in this too, Tennyson’s poetry is representative. The long, almost novel-length narrative poems of the Victorian Age evidence the era’s prosperity especially after mid-century, to experiment with poetic form. Three prominent examples of this sub-genre of Victorian poetry can be found in Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book (1869), Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1862) and Elizabeth Barret Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856).
Browning’s more crucial legacy lies with the dramatic monologue, though he did not invent the form. Writing of the Victorian love affair with the dramatic monologue, E. Warwick Slinn notes that “from its inception in the 1830s and 1840s, its use spread rapidly, flooding the literary market and requiring puzzled reviewers to learn to describe its idiosyncrasies and implications” (‘Poetry’ in Tucker, Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture, p. 313). The form is especially interesting in the way it reflects an emerging understanding of the nature of identity. Browning gravitated to disturbed psyches and in poems included in Dramatic Lyrics (1842) and Men and Women (1855) readers are invited to reckon with their hidden histories, sordid secrets and immoral thoughts.
Where Browning’s poetry conveys energy and enthusiasm, Matthew Arnold’s projects what he called in “The Study of Poetry” a “high seriousness”. Arnold was well known for his emphasis on “the dialogue of the mind with itself”. Arnold would seem to share with Browning, and, indeed with almost every other Victorian poet, an interest in exploring and representing subjective states of mind.