Victorian poetry

This will be the shortest section of the book; more an interchapter than a chapter. The Victorian poets, by which I mean those whose reputations were made and sustained between the 1830s and the 1890s, are often celebrated as the most skilled and meticulous stylists of post-Renaissance English verse, and it is for this reason that their work will be treated more economically than that of their predecessors and successors. The stylistic and formal paradigms that the Victorians inherited from three centuries of writing would be perfected, extended, even challenged, but they would not in any significant way be altered. The term Victorian poetry is a rather vague methodological convenience. Tennyson and Browning (born between 1809-12) and Arnold, Swinburne, Hardy and Hopkins (born 1822-44), are effectively the second and third generations of Romanticism. But they are also, in a less tangible way, the anxious and uneasy final stage in what is variously termed traditionalism or pre-modernism. These two elements—the Romantic affiliation to poetry as the supremely subjective medium for expression and poetry as a particular system of prescribed devices—are the unifying features of Victorian verse.

In terms of prosody and metrical patterning this period is one of eclecticism, bordering on but never fully entering the realm of experiment. Tennyson was the master of stanzaic and rhythmic precision; Browning adapted the more permissive elements of the poetic langue, particularly blank verse, to the contingencies of the speech act and circumstance; Patmore and Swinburne pressed the conventional line-syntax relation of the double pattern to its premodernist limit; and Hopkins, though occasionally celebrated as the precurser of modernist experiment, should more accurately be regarded as the final inheritor of Shelley's addiction to the foregrounding of acoustic material.

In what follows we will consider texts and extracts that embody this tension between enclosure within tradition, post-Romantic exuberance and pre-modernist innovation. Tension will be our keynote, because the Victorians, more than any other historical or generic school, exhibit a tangible consciousness of being prisoners of the double pattern, sometimes rebellious, sometimes stoical. We will begin with Tennyson, arguably the most stoical of them all.

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