Victorian Poetry



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EN227 EJM/2013

Victorian Poetry
Lecture overview


  1. Print culture

  2. ‘Double’ poems

  3. ‘Dramatic monologue’

  4. Experimentation

  5. Sensation not reflection

  6. Religion

  7. Spasmodic poetry

Wandering between two worlds, one dead,

The other powerless to be born,

With nowhere yet to rest my head,

Like these, on earth I wait forlorn.

Their faith, my tears, the world deride --

I come to shed them at their side. –Arnold, ‘Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse’ (1855)

‘Hence the melancholy, which so evidently characterises the spirit of modern poetry; hence that return of the mind upon itself, and the habit of seeking relief in idiosyncrasies rather than community of interest. In the old times the poetic impulse went along with the general impulse of the nation; in these, it is a reaction against it, a check acting for conservation against a propulsion towards change.’ – Arthur Hallam, ‘On Some of the Characteristics of Modern Poetry’ (1831)


Break, break, break,


On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me. – Tennyson, ‘Break, break, break’ (1834)

‘Let us therefore deem the glorious art of Poetry a kind of medicine divinely bestowed upon man: which gives healing relief to secret mental emotion, yet without detriment to modest reserve: and, while giving scope to enthusiasm, yet rules it with order and due control.’ –John Keble, Lectures on Poetry (1832ff)


‘The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. [ . . . ] But for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion to-day is its unconscious poetry. – Matthew Arnold, ‘The Study of Poetry’ in Essays in Criticism (1888)


Ah! ah! ah!

Ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! ah!
Sydney Dobell, ‘Balder’ (1854), scene xxxviii

‘What in prose would be shrieks and hyperbole, is transmuted by metre into graceful and impressive song. This effect of metre has often been alluded to . . . “Wordsworth regards it as a mark of order, and so an assurance of reality needed in such an unusual state of mind as he takes poetry to be; and Coleridge would trace it to the balance struck between our passions and spontaneous efforts to hold them in check” . . . metre ought not only to exist as the becoming garment of poetic passion, but, furthermore, it should continually make its existence recognized . . . The language should always seem to feel, though not to suffer from the bonds of verse.’ – Coventry Patmore, ‘Prefatory Essay on English Metrical Law’ (1878)




Further reading
Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics (1993)

Thomas Carlyle, ‘Signs of the Times’ (1829)

Richard Cronin et al, ed. A Companion to Victorian Poetry (2002)

Charles Darwin, The Origin of the Species (1859)

Robin Gilmour, The Victorian Period (1993)

Eric Griffiths, The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry (1989)

Linda Hughes, The Cambridge Introduction to Victorian Poetry (2010)

Coventry Patmore, ‘Prefatory Essay on English Metrical Law’ (1878)



John Ruskin, ‘The Work of Iron’ (1858)


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