The Victorian Literature by Charles Leonard Moore 1907
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A rush of Maanads across the scene; Furies darting here and there with fiery torches and hissing tresses; Bacchanals dancing tipsily in, escorting a hero’s catafalque; in front, orgies over a grave; in the background the blaze of battle sunsets and the wreaths of snow-clad heights: — by some such picture as this one might image forth the Georgian times in England. Then England was at the storm centre of the world. In the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, it was either protagonist or antagonist. And its literature was coincident and coequal with its deeds, which is more than could be said of France at that time. Burns preached the revolt of the natural man and the political man. Burke grappled single-handed with the French Revolution. Byron launched himself on a lonely crusade against the powers of reaction. Scott created a nation and revealed the past of Europe. Wordsworth, like a Druid seer, stood upon his rocky heights and laid his commands on Nature itself. Coleridge unlocked the door where the Supernatural was sealed away. Shelley sang the strains of an impossible perfection, and Keats bodied forth the last charm of sensuous life. All was daring, original, vivid, and alive. This age in England seems to me on the whole the greatest literary epoch of the last two hundred and fifty years. No other recent period has lifted so blazing a torch or shook its sparks so far abroad to kindle conflagrations in distant lands. Goethe and his compeers did work quite as solid and enduring, but, as they realized themselves, something of natural power, of daemonic inspiration, was wanting to them. Man for man, the Frenchmen of 1830 were inferior to their English predecessors.
Turn now to the succeeding age in England. If we shut our eyes and try to conjure up a generalized picture of it, the scene would be something like this: A gentle valley bedded deep with the green of trees and grass. On one side, a village with houses of old-time charm from which look forth or emerge girls of graceful loveliness and tranquil mien. In the middle, a field where lithe young athletes contend in various games. Toward the rear, an inn the very air about which is redolent of good cheer. And in the background manor-houses and mansions, each one looking down upon the world from its own seclusion. All is peace and rest and content.
It would be an error, of course, to say that during Victoria’s long reign
“No drum with beaten sound
Was heard the whole world round,”
but in comparison with most ages in the history of the world, it was a time of calm, of prosperity, of material development. And its literature was like unto it. It was a literature of the idyllic and the lyric in poetry, of humor and light comedy in the novel.
The predominant note of the Victorian literature is, I think, its virginal purity. Never before, except in the Greek poets and in Shakespeare, was the young girl drawn with such tender respect and admiration. And, without exception, she was never before so permitted to stamp herself upon a literature. and stamp out all that might offend her instincts or interest. By the side of Homer's chivalrous portraits of women and girls there is Hesiod with his rather low judgment of the lovelier sex. By the side of Sophocles and Euripides, with their lofty heroines, is Aristophanes with his utter irreverence and world-upsetting indecency. And in Chaucer and Shakespeare, women of the coarsest and basest type jostle their fair and fragrant sisters.
But the Victorian poets and novelists are the slaves of the young girl and the virtuous matron. They draw their chariots. Tennyson’s poetry is a gallery of fair women; they dominate his books almost to the exclusion of any male interest. Coventry Patmore instituted a new religion of the Virgin. In Browning, man is merely the attendant planet which revolves around a female sun. It is the same with the novelists. They treat their heroines with adoring worship, as something more than human. When Thackeray wished to draw the picture of a thoroughly bad woman, he hardly dared to hint that in some matters she was not quite all she ought to be.
This chivalry, characteristic of the Celtic temperament, is not characteristic of the Saxon mind. There is a vast region of English literature, extending from Dryden and Wycherley down through Fielding and Smollett and Sterne, where it is not in evidence at all. Perhaps the comparative peacefulness of the Victorian age is the reason why the feminine influence became so powerful. Not only laws, but women, are silent amid the clash of arms.
A second feature of the Victorian literature is its domesticity— its concern for the narrow things of the household. It is the literature of the home; and the home may be either a shrine or a prison. It makes for goodness, but it does not make for freedom. There is a spirit of adventure, a carelessness of consequence, in all older literatures, which is largely wanting in the books of this age. Generally in the plays and poems and novels of the past, the mere fact of getting a living, the mere furniture and surroundings of life, are taken for granted, relegated to the background, or treated as a joke. But money, property, position, these are the serious things to the Victorian writers. The reward of virtue with them is a coach-and-four, a country house with pleasant grounds, the being on calling terms with the best families. It was not for nothing that the “Book of Snobs” was written in this age. Nearly everyone, from Tennyson down, was tainted with the worship of caste. Perhaps it came out most strongly in Bulwer, a man of genius to whom bad taste clung like a Nessus shirt. Carlyle blew the trumpet of revolt against this worship, and one can measure the work he had to do by the effort he had to make.
The understanding of the power of money and the comforts of home is the beginning of realism. Idealism is possible to a poet who, like Horace, could go singing through a wood filled with robbers; it is possible to a hermit like Wordsworth or Thoreau. But a writer who likes to have everything comfortable about him must unconsciously picture man as he is, not man as he ought to be. He must fail of sympathy with the great ideas, the great ambitions, the heroic actions of life.
Notwithstanding its snobbery, the Victorian age saw, if not the beginning, an immense development of sympathy for the poor and lowly. The short and simple annals of the poor were found capable of infinite illustration. Low-life has always been the haunt of humor; but Dickens discovered that the poor have not only more fun among them, but more freedom and happiness than their superiors. Joy is the thing that makes literature permanent—not the vulgar joy which can only see happiness in pink and white colors, in a succession of sugar-plums, in the negation of pain, but the joy which springs from keen and lofty effort, whether foredoomed to failure or success. Dick Swiveller barricading himself round by a circle of unpaid scores for “the rosy,” Micawber strenuously waiting for something to turn up, doubtless felt, when either of them did raise the wind by some lucky expedient, the same exalted joy that filled the stadium runner of Greece when he touched the post; and they communicate this joy to us. It is by reason of his discovery of the immense resources of happiness among the poor that Dickens’s work is the great literary creation of the age. Squalid and gloomy and horrible, you say his pictures are. Yes; but out of this squalor and gloom and horror spring the most beautiful flowers of life-—self-sacrifice, heroism, patient kindness, and sparkling wit. The relations of tragedy to joy in literature are universally mistaken. We sympathize with the effort rather than with the end. Who would not accept Achilles’ early death, if he could deck himself in the splendor of that hero? Who would not go through Hamlet's troubles, if he could do it with the kingly mien, the intellectual dominance of the Dane? We do not love death or pain or poverty, but we love the great spirits which can react against these dark, hard things, and strike out light for the centuries.
Mild religious doubt was a great preoccupation of the Victorian writers. The day of defiance was past. Byron and Shelley had been Titans hurling mountains at Zeus; but Tennyson, Arnold, Browning. Newman, were simply disillusioned clergymen, timidly picking flaws in the plan of the universe, or falling back upon faith and authority. England had to go to a not very distinguished Persian poet of the past to get its most thorough-going statement of the eternal problems.
The Scientific spirit, and the rise of the Evolutionary theory, which last had its home in England, have been accused of or praised for great influence on modern literature and life. But it seems to me that their power has been vastly overrated. The general conceptions of the creed of Evolution, which are all the world takes note of, are at least as old as Greek philosophy, and there have been no great doings from them in the past. At the most, they can but alter the special forms of religious belief. They cannot shake the basis of faith. Men will go on believing in God, and the immortality of the soul, and redemption for sin, in the future as they always have in the past. If the old theologies fail to satisfy, they will frame new ones.
There remains to be said something about the technical qualities of the Victorian literature. In style - which, in its limited sense, I take to mean concentration, vividness and freshness of speech - the age must stand or fall with its leader, Tennyson. Now it seems to me that in most of the great excellences of style, he is inferior not only to Shakespeare and Milton but to Gray and Collins, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Keats. His best work brought into juxtaposition with theirs already shows a little faded. It has not the final simplicity, the jewel-like sparkle, the lasting memorable weight, of theirs. In prose, it may be said at once that the age had no original technical gift. All the weapons of English prose were forged long before and used with more effect. In simple prose it did not beat Swift or Defoe; in eloquent prose it did not reach the heights of Jeremy Taylor, Milton, or Burke; and in perfect prose it has nothing which can compare with that of Shakespeare, Congreve, or Goldsmith.
One technical quality, however, the age did revive, resuscitate, and carry to great triumphs. This is the almost invaluable quality of tone, by which a. piece of literature is projected forth all of one piece, with its own special atmosphere and light. The supreme examples of this excellence in art are the best plays of Shakespeare. “Macbeth” and “King Lear,” "Cymbeline," “Twelfth Night,” “A Merchant of Venice,” “As You Like It,” “The Midsummer Night’s Dream,” were thrown out by Shakespeare’s creating mind, each flawless in its unity of color, like the red and blue and green and mauve and yellow stars which dance in the tangles of the Pleiades. After Shakespeare this virtue in literature fell into abeyance - for Milton's elevation and majesty are quite different things. The wits and novel-writers who succeeded thought that all that went to the making of a book was a vast amount of human incident and a great bundle of brilliant sayings. In Gray's “Elegy” the thing was born again; and in the best pieces of Collins - the “Ode to Evening” and the “Highland Ode” - it attained a high perfection. Four or five poems by Coleridge and as many by Keats show the virtue to the full. And by a special miracle, Scott in one story, “The Bride of Lammermoor," attains a truth of tone which makes that novel rank above all his others. Now the gift of tone was habitual with Tennyson. Not only in his shorter and earlier pieces - like “The Dying Swan,” “The Two Sisters,” “Mariana” — but in his more ambitious works - “Maud,” “The Princess,” “The Idylls” - is this excellence innate and of imperative appeal. Tone was, if not Rossetti’s sole stock in trade, at least his most valuable asset. It is implicit, though not overwhelmingly apparent, in Arnold. James Thomson's “City of Dreadful Night” is a remarkable example of it. The novel writers, too, possess the gift. Three such varying tales as “Barnaby Rudge,” "Wuthering Heights," and “Armadale” are fulfilled with it almost in extreme measure. And in a different kind, "Pickwick,” “Cranford," and “Silas Marner” are perfect in atmosphere. The cultivation of tone is, I should say, the most valuable technical achievement of modern English literature.
On the whole, however, the Victorian literature is deficient in greatness, originality, daring, soul. For strife it substituted comfort, for splendor it substituted charm, for fierce satire or soul-shattering tragedy it substituted gentle irony and light humor. There are to-day, and there always will he, innumerable readers to whom these secondary qualities appeal most. But every age can supply them for itself. I am inclined to think that future generations will prefer to light their torches at the battle-beacons of the Georgian epoch rather than at the modest hearth-fires of the Victorian age.
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