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Studies in Early Victorian Literature

Studies in Early Victorian Literature
Title: Studies in Early Victorian Literature
Release Date: 2006-05-12
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
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The Project Gutenberg eBook, Studies in Early Victorian Literature, byFrederic Harrison

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Title: Studies in Early Victorian Literature

Author: Frederic Harrison

Release Date: May 12, 2006 [eBook #18384]

Language: English


E-text prepared by Al Haines




Edward Arnold
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The following essays appeared in the Forum of New York, andsimultaneously in London, during the years 1894-95. They have beencarefully revised and partly re-written, after due consideration ofvarious suggestions and criticisms both in England and in America. Theaim of the writer was to attempt a mature estimate of the permanentinfluence and artistic achievement of some of the principal prosewriters in the earlier half of the reign of our Queen. The work ofliving authors has not been touched upon, nor any book of poetry,philosophy, or science.




That which in England is conveniently described as the Victorian Age ofliterature has a character of its own, at once brilliant, diverse, andcomplex. It is an age peculiarly difficult to label in a phrase; butits copious and versatile gifts will make it memorable in the historyof modern civilisation. The Victorian Age, it is true, has noShakespeare or Milton, no Bacon or Hume, no Fielding or Scott—nosupreme master in poetry, philosophy, or romance, whose work isincorporated with the thought of the world, who is destined to formepochs and to endure for centuries. Its genius is more scientific thanliterary, more historical than dramatic, greater in discovery than inabstract thought.

In lyric poetry and in romance our age has names second only to thegreatest; its researches into nature and history are at least equal tothose of any previous epoch; and, if it has not many greatphilosophers, it has developed the latest, most arduous, most importantof all the sciences. This is the age of Sociology: its centralachievement has been the revelation of social laws. This social aspectof thought colours the poetry, the romance, the literature, the art,and the philosophy of the Victorian Age. Literature has been thegainer thereby in originality and in force. It has been the loser insymmetry, in dignity, in grace.

The Victorian Age is a convenient term in English literature todescribe the period from 1837 to 1895: not that we assign anysacramental efficacy to a reign, or assume that the Queen has given anyspecial impulse to the writers of her time. Neither reigns, nor years,nor centuries, nor any arbitrary measure of time in the gradualevolution of thought can be exactly applied, or have any formativeinfluence. A period of so many years, having some well-known name bywhich it can be labelled, is a mere artifice of classification. And ofcourse an Englishman will not venture to include in his survey theAmerican writers, or to bring them within his national era. The date,1837, is an arbitrary point, and a purely English point. Yet it iscurious how different a colour may be seen in the main current of theEnglish literature produced before and after that year. In the year ofthe Queen's accession to the throne, the great writers of the earlypart of this century were either dead or silent. Scott, Byron,Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, Lamb, Sheridan, Hazlitt, Mackintosh, Crabbe,and Cobbett, were gone. There were still living in 1837, Wordsworth,Southey, Campbell, Moore, Jeffrey, Sydney Smith, De Quincey, MissEdgeworth, Miss Mitford, Leigh Hunt, Brougham, Samuel Rogers:—living,it is true, but they had all produced their important work at someearlier date. Carlyle, Dickens, Thackeray, Macaulay, Tennyson,Browning, had begun to write, but were not generally known. Theprincipal English authors who belong equally to the Georgian and to theVictorian Age are Landor, Bulwer, Disraeli, Hallam, and Milman, andthey are not quite in the very first rank in either age. It is asignificant fact that the reign of the Queen has produced, withtrifling exceptions, the whole work of Tennyson, the Brownings,Thackeray, Dickens, the Brontës, George Eliot, Kingsley, Trollope,Spencer, Mill, Darwin, Ruskin, Grote, Macaulay, Freeman, Froude, Lecky,Milman, Green, Maine, Matthew Arnold, Symonds, Rossetti, Swinburne,Morris, John Morley, to say nothing of younger men who are still intheir prime and promise.

Widely as these differ among themselves, they have characters whichdifferentiate them from all men of the eighteenth century, and alsofrom the men of the era of Goethe and Scott. Can we imagine SartorResartus being published in the age of Johnson, or In Memoriam inthat of Byron? How different a land is the Italy which Ruskin seesfrom the Italy that Rogers knew! What a new world is that of theBrontës and George Eliot beside that which was painted by MissEdgeworth and Miss Austen! In what things would Southey and JohnMorley agree, except about books and pure English? Place Burke On theSublime and Beautiful beside Ruskin's Modern Painters; compare theStones of Venice with Eustace's Classical Tour; compare Carlyle'sFrench Revolution with Gibbon's Decline and Fall; compare the Bookof Snobs with Addison's Spectator; contrast The Ring and the Bookwith Gray's Elegy or Cowper's Task. What wholly different types,ideas, aims! The age of Pope and Addison, of Johnson and Gibbon, clungto symmetry, "the grand air," the "best models"; it cared much more forbooks than for social reforms, and in the world of letters a classicalmanner was valued far more than originality of ideas. And when we cometo a later age, what an irrepressible and stormy imagination do wefind! Byron, Shelley, Scott, Coleridge, Campbell, Southey, Landor,revelled in romance and colour, in battle and phantasmagoria, intragedy, mystery, and legend. They boiled over with excitement, andtheir visions were full of fight. The roar and fire of the greatrevolutionary struggle filled men's brains with fierce and strangedreams.

Our Victorian Age is as different from the Virgilian and Ciceronianstyle of the age of Gray and Johnson, as it is from the resoundingtorrent which was poured forth by Byron and Scott. The socialearnestness of our time colours our literature, and almost distorts ourliterature; while, on the other hand, our practical and scientificgenius scorns the melodramatic imagery with which our grandfathers weredelighted. Gibbon would have smiled a cruel epigram, if he had beenexpected to thrust a Latter-Day Pamphlet on the social question intoone of his chapters on the Fall of Rome. But Carlyle's FrenchRevolution is as much political rhapsody and invective as it ishistory. Dickens made a series of novels serve as onslaughts onvarious social abuses; and George Eliot's heart is ever with Darwin,Spencer, and Comte, as much as it is with Miss Austen. Ruskin wouldsacrifice all the pictures in the world, if society would transformitself into a Brotherhood of St. George. Tennyson has tried to put thedilemmas of theological controversy into lyric poetry, and Psychologyis now to be studied, not in metaphysical ethics, but in popularnovels. The aim of the modern historian is to compile a Timesnewspaper of events which happened three or four, eight or tencenturies ago. The aim of the modern philosopher is to tabulatemountains of research, and to prune away with agnostic non possumusthe ancient oracles of hypothesis and imagination.

Our literature to-day has many characteristics: but its central note isthe dominant influence of Sociology—enthusiasm for social truths as aninstrument of social reform. It is scientific, subjective,introspective, historical, archaeological:—full of vitality,versatility, and diligence:—intensely personal, defiant of all law, ofstandards, of convention:—laborious, exact, but often indifferent tograce, symmetry, or colour:—it is learned, critical, cultured:—withall its ambition and its fine feeling, it is unsympathetic to thehighest forms of the imagination, and quite alien to the drama ofaction.

It would be a difficult problem in social dynamics to fix anything likea true date for this change in the tone of literature, and to trace itback to its real social causes. The historian of English literaturewill perhaps take the death of Walter Scott, in 1832, as a typicaldate. By a curious coincidence, Goethe died in the same year. Twoyears later Coleridge and Lamb died. Within a few years more most ofthose who belonged to the era of Byron, Shelley, Scott, and Sheridanwere departed or had sung their last effective note. The exceptionswere Wordsworth and his immediate Lakist followers, Landor and Bulwer,of whom the latter two continued to produce. The death of Scotthappened in the year of the Reform Act of 1832; and here we reach apolitical and social cause of the great change. The reformeddemocratic Parliament of 1832 was itself the reaction after the furiousupheaval caused by the Revolution of 1789, and it heralded the socialand legislative revolution of the last sixty years. It was the erawhen the steam-power and railway system was founded, and the vastindustrial development which went with it. The last sixty years havewitnessed a profound material revolution in English life; and thereaction on our literature has been deep and wide.

The most obvious and superficial change in literature is the extremediversity of its form. There is no standard now, no conventional type,no good "model." It is an age of "Go-as-you-please," and of tous lesgenres sont bons, surtout le genre ennuyeux. In almost any age ofEnglish literature, or indeed of any other literature, an experiencedcritic can detect the tone of the epoch at once in prose or verse.There is in them an unmistakeable Zeit-Geist in phraseology and form.The Elizabethan drama, essay, or philosophy could not be mistaken forthe drama, essay, or philosophy of the Restoration; the heroic coupletreigned from Dryden to Byron; Ciceronian diction reigned from Addisonto Burke; and then the Quarterlies, with Southey, Lamb, Scott, DeQuincey, Coleridge, Sydney Smith, and Leigh Hunt, introduced a simpler,easier tone of the well-bred causeur, as free from classicalmannerism as it was free from subtle mechanism or epigrammaticbrilliance. Down to about the death of Scott and Coleridge, almost anypage of English prose or verse could be certainly attributed to itsproper generation by the mark of its style alone.

The Victorian literature presents a dozen styles, every man speakingout what is in him, in the phrases he likes best. Our Zeit-Geistflashes all across the heavens at once. Let us place a page fromSartor Resartus beside a page from Macaulay's History of England,or either beside a page from Arnold's Literature and Dogma or onefrom the Stones of Venice. Here are four typical styles in prose,each of which has been much admired and imitated; yet they differ aswidely as Shelley from Ovid, or Tennyson from Pope. Again, for verse,contrast Paracelsus with The Princess—poems written about the sametime by friends and colleagues. Compare a poem of William Morris withone by Lewis Morris. Compare Swinburne's Songs and Sonnets withMatthew Arnold's Obermann; Rudyard Kipling's Ballads with TheLight of Asia. Have they any common standard of form, any type ofmetre? The purists doubt as to the style of Carlyle as a "model," butno one denies that the French Revolution and Hero-Worship, at leastin certain passages, display a mastery over language as splendid asanything in our prose literature. Exactly the same might be said alsoof Esmond, and again of Silas Marner, and again of the Seven Lampsof Architecture. Yet all of these differ as widely as one style candiffer from another. Fifine at the

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