01 Victorian Poetry in a Nutshell?
03 Religion and Doubt
05 Catholicism High and Low, Now and Then
07 Arnold and his Sidekick
09 War and the Army (I)
10 War and the Army (II)
11 Light Verse
13 The Industrial Muse
14 Music Hall
16 Famous Last Words
Stephanie Lipka 6. Fachsemester
LA Sekundarstufe II/I
Victorian Poetry High and Low
“Victorian Poetry in a Nutshell?”
1. Who is this woman?
- Browning, Robert, “My Last Duchess“ (1842)
In this poem, we are confronted with an almost traditional catalogue of beauties. There is a man – presenting the listener/reader his love. He speaks of her charming smile, her naïve attitude towards gestures and presents; but in his words there is also a hint of jealousy.
In this respect, the poem appears cruel. The speaker does not accept his wife or mistress the way she is – but he mentions her disposition to smile with a bitter note of regret and mistrust. This mistrust even seems to have lead to severe measures: “I gave commands,” he says, with the result that “all smiles stopped together”.
We do not know what he means by these “commands”. He might have begged her to stop smiling at other men or he might actually have given orders to kill the woman.
From an amateur psychologist’s point of view, the phrase “looking as if she were alive” leads to the conclusion of manslaughter or murder. The same can be said about the proud way in which the speaker presents the picture of the dead duchess. The speaker seems still captured by her charms. He appears sad about her death, but the way in which he tells her story makes the reader/listener grow more and more uncomfortable. The idea of murder out of jealousy or some other strong passion, formed before, gains substance. As far as people are concerned, it would be interesting to have a closer look at the two characters mentioned in the poem: “Fra’ Pandolf and Claus of Innsbruck. Who are they? What is their connection with the duchess? When did they live?
It would also be interesting to find out what the speaker means when he says, “we’ll go down together”.
All in all, the poem appears realistic and makes the reader (or at least me, personally) want to know more about this duchess.
2. The Great Scheme of Things
- Arnold, Matthew, “Dover Beach” (1867)
“Dover Beach” appears as a piece of natural poetry. It is written in a more ‘modern’ way than “My Last Duchess” because it focuses (methaphorically) on a natural event rather than on a human being. And still, it is a love poem, a poem full of feeling and emotion.
“Only, from the long line of spray where the sea meets the moon-blanch’ed land, Listen! You hear the grating roar of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, at their return, up the high strand, begin, and cease, and then again begin, with tremulous cadence slow, and bring the eternal note of sadness in.”
He who ever heard the clicking sound of pebbles being washed away and turned over and over again by the tide, will understand the meaning of these words. It is a sound most unique – on the one hand seemingly peaceful where the pebbles click against each other under water, on the other hand most violent where the sea clashes and bursts against the shoreline, cliff-like where she has washed away the stones. It is a natural show that makes you feel small, and at the same time (strangely enough) free. It makes you think about a struggle of pebbles – an army of stone – against the sea, a fight without a winner. The sea will turn the pebbles over and over again. And it makes you think of a force leading mankind. No matter what we do, something or someone will be guiding all our deeds, and in the great scheme of things it does not matter what we do, how hard we struggle because we are all like the pebbles.
The speaker must feel similar as he addresses his girlfriend or wife (“love”): “Let us be true”. He feels that he is powerless when it comes to emotion: she might change. Something might change her – and he tries to keep her, struggling for words, but only saying that things are not what they seem.
It would be interesting to look at other poems by Arnold to see of they deal with other natural forces and to compare them. One could also choose other poems of this kind – by female poets to compare different perceptions of nature.
3. An Empire Song
- Tennyson, Alfred Lord, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854)
Here, it would be interesting to look at war songs and folklore of the time as this poem appears song-like (choruses like “half a league” or “cannon to right of them, cannon to left of them, cannon in front of them” and permanent repetition of “the six hundred”).
In German folklore, there is a similar song about six hundred soldiers going to war (“Sechshundert Mann zogen ins Manöver”), yet it is a jolly usually song sung by scouts sitting around the camp-fire.
In this case, Tennyson has chosen a serious context and enumerates metaphors of death like the “valley of death” or the “jaws of death” or the “mouth of hell” - Death is thus personified as a terrible enemy.
In the last stanza, Tennyson points out that only few soldiers came back from the war against Russia and that one must honour them. As “Cossack and Russian” are mentioned in the poem, it would only be fair to look at the historical background of this poem. What can be said about this war? Which effects did it have on British foreign policies? Are there similar poems to this one? One could have a closer look at Queen Victoria’s reign, the British Empire and the poem/hymn/ode “Rule Britannia” to try and understand imperialism. A comparison of this attitude towards the emotional one presented in “Dover Beach” would be of considerable epochal interest, too.
“Victorian Poetry High and Low“
1. The Promised Land
- Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”
In Keats’ ode, we come across the opposition of the beauty of nature and the fascination of death. In the first stanza, the speaker focusses on a bird singing. The listener gets the impression that it is dusk. There are “shadows“ mentioned, and the feeling of decline and playing with the thought of dying make the listener think of the end of a day rather than of its beginning. In the fourth stanza, he finally says that night has fallen (“tender is the night“). Thinking about death leads to the idea that the speaker must be a desperate person; and desperation or rather inner conflict also become obvious in the form of the poem. Enjambements are followed by end-stopped lines followed by enjambements. The two rhymes per stanza are embracing rhymes, embracing in a way the enjambements.
One can say that it is a very artistic form and rhyme scheme. And imagery is artistic, too. “Lethe“ and “Dryad“ are taken from mythology rather than from standard English. “Flora“ and “Hippocrene“ in stanza 2, “Bacchus“ and “Poesy“ in stanza 4 call for a mythological world full of Ancient Greek characters. One could say, one is brought to think of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream characters. The world described here is a surreal one evoked by alcohol or drugs.
The speaker wishes to “leave the world unseen“ (stanza 2) and “fade far away“ (stanza 3). He longs for a better place, paradise-like, and criticises his society: “where men sit and hear each other groan“, “where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies“ (stanza 3). He prefers to “fly away“ with the nightingale. “I have been half in love with easeful Death“, he says musing about ways of dying. To him, death seems the only way to achieve personal happiness.
However, in the last stanza, uncertainty grows as the nightingale’s song dies. The speaker is not sure if he has been dreaming the bird’s melody or he has really sunk into this decadent mood. At this point, the poem reminds me of “A Madman’s Tale” by Carlisle Phillips. In that poem, the speaker feels as if he is going mad, but he is not sure. “Am I mad? Or am I only dreaming?“, he asks - just as Keats’ speaker asks, “Do I wake or sleep?“ (stanza 8). In this
other poem, the speaker concludes with, “A walk in the graveyard to see how lucky I am, maybe for me this is the promised land“.
To me, this mood seems to be a fin-de-siècle-fashion, flirting with death as an easy way out of life and therefore out of all problems. It would be interesting to see for whom this kind of poem was written as it is in no way amusing or appealing. It is dark and frightening, and I could imagine a group of ‘modern’ish poets, writers and all sorts of artists (a literary circle like the ones that became popular in France after the Revolution and that came into fashion by Oscar Wilde and his ‘wild’ friends) reading them together while smoking fags and consuming lots of French wine. It is an obscure emotion that is roused by this poem, so I should think it written for an obscure circle of readers.
2. “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for“ (U2) - Arnold, The Scholar-Gipsy
In this ballad, a young man (He must be young as he can lie around in the fields doing the shepherd’s work. An older man like a farmer would have his own work to do.) tells the story of an Oxford student who left university to live among gypsies and to get to the essence of life. He wants to learn the gypsies’ art of “rul[ing]“ “men’s brains“(stanza 5). The speaker gets so captured in this story by “Glanvil“ (stanza 4) that he imagines the ex-student walk about the county appearing and mysteriously disappearing again.
It is only in stanza 14 that he realizes that this student is a character from a book written “two hundred years“ earlier. He even wonders if this character had existed back then (stanza 16). But from that stanza on, the speaker tries to make the listener understand why he has been so captured by the story. He speaks about the student’s aims. He addresses the student as if he were alive saying, “Thou hadst one aim, one business, one desire“ (stanza 16), yet in his days, people lack aims. In stanza 18, he even calls them “half-believers“ “who hesitate and falter life away, and lose to-morrow the ground won to-day“.
“[N]one has hope like thine“ (stanza 20) - is what the speaker admires about the student. And he is caught by a feeling of nostalgia going on, “O born in days when wits were fresh and clear, and life ran gaily as the sparkling Thames; before this strange disease of modern life, with its sick hurry, its divided aims, its heads o’ertax’d, its palsied hearts, was rife“(stanza 21). The speaker seems to be unhappy in his time and tells the imaginary student to “fly“ (stanza 21 ff.). Then, in describing the action of flying, he switches to another subject and describes fishermen (stanza 24 and 25) coming into the harbours and leaving soon afterwards. As far as the length of the ballad (25 stanzas) is concerned, one could compare it to a short story or novel. There is an introduction (stanza 1-3) about the first person speaker, then a narrative part (stanza 4-7) about the student leaving university. In the following, the speaker addresses the student in a strange kind of inner monologue (for the student is only imaginary). As far as the form is concerned, there is a regular rhyme scheme of two common cross rhymes within one embracing four lines, followed by an embraced embracing one. The metre is the iambic pentameter (as in the preceding poem).
About this poem, there is to say, that it deals with several interesting facts about Victorian life. First of all, we get to know the speaker. He is not working, he merely looks after a shepherd’s sheep while he has gone to lunch or whatever. While doing this, he reads a book. This, plus the information about a student story really capturing the speaker’s attention, makes you draw the conclusion that he must be a student as well. Literate, but not at all occupied, wasting his time by lying around in the fields - what else can he be but a student? Farmers or peasants - assuming they could read- would not have taken such an interest in a story about a university drop-out hanging out with a bunch of gypsies.
Then, there is the aspect of criticism. The speaker underlines his dislike of “modern life“ (stanza 21) and becomes all philosophical. He misses aims to people’s lives, and he admires the fictitious student in his story for having had an aim and for having persued it.
This makes you think that he, too, is still looking for an aim in his life. Thus, he must be young, i.e. a student. He also tends to mystify the past as “o [ ] the days when wits were fresh and clear“ (stanza 21). This is only typical for elderly people looking back at their youth or for people looking back at a period they have not been born in. They let their imagination flow. The last aspect is the unbent idealism in this poem. The speaker appears full of rage against the system, the rat-race, society and the lack of aims. He is not like Keat’s admirer of a nightingale who would rather be dead than live on. This speaker is a rebel chasing the rainbows of a fictitious fellow-student from a book. But, he has a positive outlook on life because he still feels the need to change things. In criticising things, the speaker actively starts to make them better. And this is extremely different from Keats’ speaker’s attitude.
“Victorian Poetry High and Low“
“Religion and Doubt“
1. La Dame aux Camélies
- Christina Rosetti, “When I am dead, my dearest”
“Dead before Death”
My title goes back to a purely personal impression of a beautiful young woman - suffering from some sort of disease, wearing black satin or silk, carrying flowers (not a lively plant in a pot, but cut, dead flowers). Rosetti’s poems evoke that gloomy picture. And my question would be: where’s the connection with religion?
In the poem, “Dead before Death,” Rosetti merely describes a dead person - bereft of life and all its advantages. The poem conveys incertain disbelief (“Changed, yet the same“) about the person’s death. The speaker seems not to know how to react; he/she appears helpless and powerless. At the beginning, the speaker tries to present a catalogue of beauties (“With stiffened smiling lips and cold calm eyes“), but breaks off and speaks about regret instead.
In “After Death,” it is the dead person speaking. She (assuming she is a she, as she mentions a man having hurt her) tells the listener that she could see a man bending over her while she is lying on her bed with the curtains only half-drawn(!). So far, one could think of two lovers. But in the following, she explains that he cries (which he would not necessarily do if he were her lover) and does not uncover her body. Her face is wrapped in a “shroud“. Only then, the listener gets to know that she is dead. And the man must be a close acquaintance, for he would not be there to pity her otherwise. However, she says that he did not love her in life which adds a bitter tone to the poem. This tone is only topped by the last two lines, “he is still warm though I am cold“. “Warm“ could mean that he is still alive - while she is “cold“/dead. Or it might as well mean that he still feels for her, in a warm kind of way (not like a lover, we had that before), but that her feelings are dead. She does not care about him anymore.
Again, there does not seem to be a religious aspect to the poem. “When I am dead, my dearest“ seems to me to be the only one of these three touching on this subject. The speaker addresses a person that is going to live on when he/she is dead. But he/she is not afraid of dying. On the contrary, the speaker tries to console the listener by telling him/her not to cry and mourn.
The speaker feels that death is going to bring a positive change to his/her life:
“I shall not see the shadows, /I shall not feel the rain; /I shall not hear the nightingale“ - all dark and gloomy aspects fade away once dead. Dead people do not have to worry anymore. This positive outlook might go back to religion and an image of paradise. The speaker is sure to go to a better place and feels safe in this knowledge.
2. “Sooner or later it’s over“ (Goo Goo Dolls, “Iris”)
- Swinburne, “Hymn to Proserpine”
Darwin, The Origin of Species
In these two texts, we are confronted with the idea that humankind ‘made’ the world because man is the only creating species trying to grasp the secrets of life and nature - as Darwin does when he compares all kinds of species belonging to a certain chain of being and resembling each other.
In Swinburne’s hymn, death is the central topic, but he mentions that “new Gods are crowned in the city“ - which might mean that mankind calls itself divine. However, the hymn ends with the conclusion that even the clever man has to die one day - therefore seems death to be the only and most powerful God. Thinking this over, man, too, is able to take lives, as he has always done. Man is able to create and to spread disease, to cure it or to let other people die from it. Yet, he has not found a means to stop man from aging and dying of old age. In this respect, Swinburne is right when he says that a personified Death must be a powerful God.
Science, however, produces doubt. And I think, from these two texts, one can conclude that a growing knowledge of nature and science destroys the basic Christian (or whatever) ideas. Belief is not anymore blind belief, but people like Swinburne start to be critical about religion. They reflect about the logic and possible about religion; and this leads to the idea that man may be God-like, and God indeed reduced to an idea man has not yet been able to copy.
3. “Even in the darkest night a candle glows“ (Robson and Jerome, “I believe”)
- Tennyson, “Doubt and Prayer”
Arnold, “East London”
Tennyson’s poem seems rather interesting, for it is called a prayer -thus addressed to God- but the speaker says that he is in doubt whether he believes in God or not. The form leads to the idea that he changes his attitude in the course of the prayer, for at the beginning, we have embracing rhymes that change into cross rhymes in the second stanza. These crosses might be a hint to Jesus and the cross.
In Arnold’s poem, the speaker tells the listener about meeting a priest. This priest is convinced about having a “home“ in “heaven“ once he gets there. The speaker mocks him by putting it this way: “Thou mak’st the heaven thou hop’st indeed thy home“. This refers to the fact that the speaker himself does not believe in heaven or paradise and that the priest who is paid for telling his parish about Christian values each and every Sunday constructs his own heaven. The last line can therefore be called cynic because assuming that there is no life after death, no paradise or heaven, the speaker seems quite happy to think that the priest’s hopes will be destroyed one day.
I think it would be interesting to have a look at the Victorian educational system and the ideas that were taught at university in those days. To my mind, there must have been some vital changes in philosophy and ideology moving away from naive Christian ideas. What brought about this change? Was is technology, industry, science?