19C English Literature
19. Jahrhundert Englisch Literaturen
19C English Literature

The 19th century, like the 17th, was a period of change and conflict. Especially in 1848, the year of European revolutions, violent clashes between "the two nations," as Benjamin Disraeli had called the rich and the poor, frequently seemed close at hand.  Industrial progress had altered the face of the country, and parliamentary reform shifted the balance of power; but new social problems had replaced the old. In literature a series of eloquent prophets, notably John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle, raged against the blatant materialism of the cash-rich, Industrial Age.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Fig. 1 Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 - 1894)

The Romantic Movement
Meanwhile, romanticism, already in evidence before the century began, had transfigured English literature.  In 1798, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth had issued a joint volume, Lyrical Ballads. Coleridge contributed The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Wordsworth wrote a series of poems on subjects "chosen from ordinary life," using the "real language" of ordinary people.  Both rejected the pompous idiom of earlier 18th-century verse.  As a young man, Wordsworth had been deeply stirred by a visit (1791-92) to revolutionary France. Human nature, he felt, had been reborn; to be young was "very Heaven."  Although he became quickly disillusioned, it had proved a seminal experience.  The keynotes of romantic poetry were its cult of youth and freedom, its reliance on the sovereign force of love, and its sense of a close relationship with nature, which the Augustans had tended to regard as merely a decorative background designed to set off the activities of man.  For romantics, nature had a mysterious message that only a true poet could interpret and convey. Wordsworth and Coleridge were long lived, but their imaginative genius gradually declined. Wordsworth's Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood appeared in 1807; however, after The White Doe of Rylstone (1815), his verses lost their youthful fire.  His masterpiece, The Prelude, the story of his poetic education, was never published in his lifetime.  Coleridge's best-known poems, including Kubla Khan, were written before he had reached the age of 30.

With the emergence of George Gordon, Lord Byron, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, English romantic poetry regained its youthful zest.  The triumphant publication in March 1812 of the first two cantos of Childe Harold established the 24-year-old Byron as the most dazzling poet of his era, and he remained an international celebrity until his death.  The effects of his poetic qualities are difficult to separate from the aura of his personal legend.  He certainly derived something of his fascination from the legend and from his readers' belief that in the melancholy, guilt-ridden Childe Harold they recognized a portrait of the artist.  Byron had many faces, however.  His favorite master was Pope.  Besides the exuberant strength of feeling that characterized his earlier poems and that rose to a superb height in Childe Harold III and IV, he possessed a vein of satirical and cynical humor that irradiated Don Juan, his long seriocomic narrative of a young man's life and loves.  Whatever he wrote, it was his stormy flow of words and his vital energy that counted.

Neither Shelley nor Keats lived long enough to enjoy the fame that they deserved. Shelley was ecstatic and visionary; Keats, who took little interest in public affairs, was a quiet, steadily creative spirit. Undeterred by the failure of his first volume, Poems (1817), and of Endymion (1818), Keats painfully practiced his art until he could publish (1820) his third volume, which contains the famous odes "The Eve of St. Agnes" and his unfinished masterpiece, "Hyperion."

Shelley's most productive period was confined to the last three years of his life. In 1819 he wrote the verse tragedy The Cenci and the lyric drama Prometheus Unbound, in which the heroic giant represents the human soul victimized by tyranny and superstition.  Although many of Shelley's passages display his soaring lyrical gifts, in others his stream of luminous imagery lacks true poetic form.

The English romantic writers cannot be called a school. Byron, for example, liked Shelley as a man but had a low opinion of his writings.  A poet he respected, however, was George Crabbe, "Nature's sternest painter, yet the best." Crabbe, a poet and storyteller combined, was a realistic, but unexpectedly romantic, chronicler of the bleak East Anglian landscapes where he had been born and raised.

The 19th-Century Novel
During the 18th century the novel had not ranked high as a form of literary expression; during the 19th century, thanks to the spread of circulating libraries and the growth of popular education, it became immensely powerful. Sir Walter Scott, who had begun his career in verse in 1805 with The Lay of the Last Minstrel, occupied himself between 1814 and 1823 with the Waverley novels, a series of historical romances that continued from Waverley to Quentin Durward. His success was equaled only by Byron's.  Besides having an imaginative sense of the past, Scott was a powerful storyteller; and the past, particularly the Gothic past, fascinated the early-19th-century reading public.

Jane Austen appealed to very different tastes.  Fanny Burney's Evelina had shown what a woman novelist could do; but Jane Austen's acuteness of observation and delicacy of literary delineation left her predecessor far behind.  Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey had all been written and put aside before the 18th century ended.  Sense and Sensibility appeared only in 1811; Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park were published in 1813 and 1814; and Emma, which many critics consider her most accomplished work, appeared in 1816. Persuasion, the last of her completed novels, was published posthumously in 1818. Jane Austen's range of subjects was limited, but she made a virtue of her limitations. She confined her scope to the stratum of society that she had known and studied, the world of the minor landed gentry and their associates and dependents, exercising her critical acumen and a sparkling, though unobtrusive, wit.

Jane Austen was largely unconcerned with the events and social problems of her day, but the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli won distinction as a socially concerned writer.  Although his first novel, Vivian Grey (1826), was an outrageously romantic tale, he produced a series of political narratives Coningsby (1824), Sybil (1845), and Tancred (1847) in which he set forth an ambitious program of reform and exposed the evils and dangers of the contemporary social system.

The constellation of great Victorian novelists, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Anthony Trollope, were all, to some extent, committed writers and had a sense of grave responsibility for the welfare of their fellow human beings.  Mrs. Gaskell, the wife of a Unitarian minister, undertook such themes as the condition of the modern industrial towns and the plight of unmarried mothers.  Thackeray's more general attack on society satirized the selfishness of moneyed society.  He remained primarily an artist or, at his worst, a clever journalist.  Of his four major novels Vanity Fair, Pendennis, Henry Esmond, and The Newcomes ; Vanity Fair, the skillfully executed portrait of a thoroughly amoral woman, is certainly the most enduring.

Thackeray, always a less esteemed artist than his rival Dickens, used a comparatively plain and direct style.  Dickens's method of storytelling, as in the opening passages of Bleak House, has a baroque extravagance.  The London he describes is a haunted labyrinth through which fantastic personages wander.  He had a moral purpose, and many of the evils to which he drew attention were ultimately swept away.  In his descriptive poems and astonishing command of words and imagery, however, we feel the full force of his genius.  Dickens was a prodigious worker. His most important novels, beginning with Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby and ending with Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, and the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood, were written in the space of 27 years.

Anthony Trollope was the least pretentious, and apparently the most prosaic, of all the great Victorian novelists. He treated storytelling not as an art but as a craft, and, unlike Dickens, he never beautified or grossly sentimentalized his characters.  His object was merely to chronicle his age.  This he did, first in the Barsetshire novels, which portrayed the busy inhabitants of an English cathedral city, and then in a series of political narratives that took his readers behind the scenes of aristocratic and government life.  Although he deals with weighty public issues, Trollope's style is plain and free from dogmatic emphasis; his chief virtue, as Henry James said, was his acute "appreciation of the usual."

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Fig. 2  Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, (1797 - 1851)
Mary Shelley, is famous as the author of Frankenstein (1818), a novel, conceived and developed after a conversation one evening, with Lord Byron, in Europe, whilst accompanying her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.  Frankenstein's popularity as a horror tale, has eclipsed its original philosophical content.  In his "Preface," Shelley warned against interpreting his wife's book as an attack on romantic philosophy; rather, it attacks romantic isolation.

Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope were Londoners. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte, sprang from a lonely Yorkshire parsonage.  A deep devotion united the whole family - Charlotte, Emily and Anne's talent was comparatively meager, no doubt helped to quicken one another's genius. Charlotte's Jane Eyre is a bewildering blend of maturity and rawness.  Villette, based on an unhappy love affair Charlotte had herself experienced, is a wholly satisfactory book.  It falls far short, however, of Emily's Wuthering Heights, one of the most remarkable novels and wildest love stories ever written by an Englishwoman.  Even Charlotte found Emily's fantastic tale of "perverted passion and passionate perversity" disturbing.  Over its pages, she declared, there brooded a "horror of great darkness."

Charlotte and Emily Bronte were solitary figures, whereas Mary Ann Evans, who adopted the pseudonym George Eliot, played an active part in the London intellectual world.  She was concerned with political and moral questions and with the oppressive effect of the established social system on the men and women she described.  After Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss, she produced her boldest work, Middlemarch, a panoramic view of England in a period of rapid change.  It does not lack absorbing characters, but among the subjects discussed are parliamentary reform, the growth of railways, female emancipation, marriage, economics, and the state of medicine.  Again and again idealism is thwarted and good intentions are laid low.

Other typical Victorian novelists were Charles Kingsley, whose brand of Christian Socialism ruffled many 19th-century critics; George Meredith, author of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, his first success, and the originator of a writing style that endeavored to give modern prose the lyrical quality of great verse; and Robert Louis Stevenson, storyteller par excellence, equally at home in Kidnapped, a rousing tale of adventure, and in Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, his imaginative analysis of a split personality.  One of the most memorable of his heroic novels, is the medieval Black Arrow, which due to it's 'just and highly moral' central character, has enjoyed distinctly broad appeal, since it's first publication.  The Victorian novelists include two rebels, Samuel Butler and George Robert Gissing. Butler's utopian Erewhon, a revolutionary vision of the world as it ought to be, attracted little notice when it appeared in 1872.  His posthumously published autobiographical novel, The Way of All Flesh, is more interesting from a sociological than from a literary point of view.  Each novelist was recording his own experience; Butler, his early struggle against a tyrannical domestic background; Gissing, the grinding effects of poverty, as he recorded them in New Grub Street (1891) and The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903).

Victorian Essays
Not all 19th-century writers were attracted to the novel. Walter Savage Landor, besides writing one or two unforgettable lyrics, poured out his views of the past and present in a series of literary dialogues, Imaginary ConversationsCharles Lamb became an accomplished essayist in the Addisonian style, while William Hazlitt was a more penetrating essayist and critic.  Thomas De Quincey, a victim of the opium habit, published Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), an account of his lonely youth and of the sublime dreams and appalling nightmares that had haunted his existence.

Thomas Carlyle is an example of the Victorian historian, both at his best and at his worst.  A prejudiced theorist and an inveterate sermonist, he developed a half-biblical, half-Germanic style.  He made his mark with Sartor Resartus (1833-35), in which he proclaimed his personal despair but enunciated a gospel of the "Everlasting Yea." He then embarked on The French Revolution (1837), in which he exercised his dramatic talents to the full, although his historical conclusions were often strangely biased.  His later studies, Cromwell and Frederick the Great, are sadly ponderous and poor developed works.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, on the other hand, strove to make history simple and pleasant reading.  He believed in modern progress, the supremacy of Whig ideals, and the virtues of parliamentary government.  His History of England, which reached an enormous public, reflected a temperate optimism that possessed a strong appeal for the cultivated middle classes.

John Ruskin, one of the most eloquent of the Victorian prophets, combined a passionate interest in art with a no less passionate determination to reform society.  His first book, Modern Painters, was an enthusiastic tribute to the genius of his favorite artist J. M. W. Turner.  It was followed by Seven Lamps of Architecture, devoted to the Gothic cathedrals, and The Stones of VeniceUnto This Last (1862) was a fierce attack on the Victorian doctrine of laissez-faire as applied to the relations between the employer and his workers, and it aroused widespread indignation.  From that moment the tone of his writings became more and more prophetic and increasingly diffuse, until his autobiography, Praeterita (1885-89), which showed all his former mastery of words.

Victorian Poetry
Later 19th-century poets carried on the tradition of their romantic predecessors; in 1846, Elizabeth Barrett and the relatively obscure poet Robert Browning formed their celebrated partnership.  Today, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's fame has declined, and "the man who married Elizabeth Barrett" has completely overshadowed her.  His two-volume work Men and Women (1855) reveals his talents at their highest point.  An intellectual, speculative, and discursive poet who showed a novelist's preoccupation with the complexities of human character, he was also a fine lyric poet.  His shorter poems as well as his lengthy verse novels reveal a diverse talent.

Alfred Tennyson succeeded Wordsworth as poet laureate in 1850, but by that time his finest work had been done.  The spirit of pagan melancholy that breathes through his early poems, for example "The Lotus-Eaters" (1832), had largely disappeared, and the feelings of poignant personal sorrow that inspired In Memoriam had eventually been stilled. Tennyson's verses remained as musical as ever, but their imaginative content slowly dwindled.

With Matthew Arnold and the Pre-Raphaelite poets Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his sister Christina Rossetti, William Morris, and Algernon Charles Swinburne the English romantic movement reached its zenith.  Arnold had a distinguished career as a poet, during which he produced Dover Beach and "The Scholar Gypsy," poignant lamentations over the plight of the faithless modern world; later, he became an influential modern critic.  Culture and Anarchy is a brave defense of the standards he valued beauty and reason, "sweetness and light" against a new barbarian invasion.

All the Pre-Raphaelite artists and Rossetti was himself a painter, took their subjects from an imaginative vision of the Middle Ages, which Morris, an ardent socialist reformer, compared favorably with the modern industrial civilization. Of this group, however, only Christina Rossetti and Swinburne made any lasting contribution to the art of English verse. Christina Rossetti was the finest religious poet to appear in England since the 17th century. Swinburne's Poems and Ballads (1866), a succession of wild, erotic dithyrambs, offended conventional piety with its outspoken sensuality and atheism.

Oscar Wilde
Fig. 3  Oscar Wilde (1854 - 1900)

The most original poet of the late Victorian period, the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins remained almost completely unknown until the second decade of the 20th century.  He broke with the traditions of the past both in his vocabulary and in his peculiar rhythmic methods.  Like a modern poet he sought to rarify and condense rather than diffuse and explicate his meaning.  Although a deeply religious man, he was always tormented by doubt, and the background of many of his poems is "the Dark Night of the Soul."

French literature was now exerting an important influence upon English literary circles. Ernest Dowson and Arthur Symons were both followers of the "poete maudit" Paul VerlaineOscar Wilde, who was almost as much at home in Paris as in London, preached the gospel of aestheticism, which he had absorbed from Walter Pater. Of Wilde's fashionable comedies, the most brilliant was The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)  Wilde's most scathing treatise on the Victorian pre-occupation with "the arts" and vanity was The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which Wilde concludes the preface, with the oft-quoted remark, that "All art is useless."

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