Problems of the Victorian Age as reflected in the poetry of Matthew Arnold, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Alfred Tennyson

Examination Thesis, 2003

106 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. High Hopes? – The Ambivalence of Victorian Optimism
2.1 The New Queen
2.2 Trade and Industry – Roads to Utopia?
2.3 An Imperial Vision
2.4 “To Strive, to Seek,…and not to Yield”?

3. Dangers to the Nation
3.1 Dangers from Within
3.1.1 The Social Disease People in Their Place Capitalist Jungles
3.1.2 Searching for a Cure Raising Bodies and Souls – The Message of “Aurora Leigh” “Not Swift nor Slow to Change, but Firm” – Tennyson’s Policy of Gradation
3.2 Dangers from Without

4. Fears of the Individual
4.1 The Religious Crisis
4.1.1 The Advancement of Victorian Science
4.1.2 Between Faith and Doubt
4.2 “Wandering Between Two Worlds” – Patterns of Nostalgia and Retreat
4.2.1 Nostalgia
4.2.2 Retreat
4.3 The Identity Crisis
4.3.1 The Buried Self
4.3.2 Breakdown of Communications
4.3.3 Disintegration of the Individual

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

A “period of most wonderful transition”[1] - that was how Prince Albert once euphorically characterised the Victorian age. He was right in at least one regard: His was a time of change, and of a change as far-reaching and comprehensive as it had hardly ever been encountered before. This change rang in Britain’s heyday, and it led the country straight into modernity. Thus, the Industrial Revolution transformed a predominantly rural nation into the highly urbanised world centre of trade and industry within decades; a capitalist system was quickly gaining ground, and imperialist expansion created an empire of unprecedented size and might. Moreover, parliamentary reform bills kicked off a shift of political power to the middle and working classes, thus paving the way for a truly democratic system, and new scientific discoveries led to an increase in knowledge virtually unparalleled in the course of history.

Looking at all of this by and large, Prince Albert’s optimistic evaluation appears justified, and there seems to be little evidence of the existence of any kind of fundamental problems. However, it is a well-known fact that interesting times – and the Victorian era was a highly interesting time – usually tend to be rather more difficult and problematic than one might assume at first glance. The Victorian age was certainly no exception to this rule. Indeed, it is frequently regarded not only as an era of progress, but also as one of “bewildering complexity,”[2] with the Victorians themselves being characterised as an extremely ambivalent generation, torn between an over-optimistic belief in their achievements and the fear of the dangers arising out of them.

So, how should later generations approach best the apparently split nature of this time? One possibility – and not the worst one, to say the least – is to study its poetry. Poetry is by its very nature a highly individualised mode of expression and usually over-sensitive to the mood of the time in which it is written. Therefore, it can often provide a deeper and more truthful insight into the disposition of a people and an age than many historical documents are able to, for it tends to cover both what is on the surface of events and what lies beneath. The works of the three Victorian poets to be discussed in the following essay – namely those of Matthew Arnold, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and of the spokesman of his age and most famous poet laureate of all, Alfred (Lord) Tennyson – undoubtedly testify to this assumption. Taken together, they offer a kaleidoscopic view over the developments of a complex epoch, approaching topics from diverging perspectives and treating the problems of the age overtly as well as covertly.

This essay will therefore have to examine a wide range of issues with sometimes only one thing in common: They all affect Victorian Britain in one way or another. An interdisciplinary approach will be taken where it seems appropriate, although generally, it should be the poems themselves that provide the basis for comment and analysis. The proceedings of this analysis are planned as follows:

Since the way the Victorians saw themselves, or rather wanted themselves to be seen, is vital for understanding their Zeitgeist, chapter two will deal with poems voicing what was on the surface of the contemporary consciousness, that is, the spirit of hope and optimism upheld by the leading figures of the day. Naturally, the focus here will be mostly on Tennyson, who, as poet laureate, was obliged to promote the official doctrine of his age. Chapter three, then, will be dedicated to the study of poems taking up and discussing socio-economic and political issues prevalent at the time, using material from Barrett Browning and Tennyson and taking into account both internal and external threats to the stability of the nation. Finally, chapter four will ask whether and in what way the inner consciousness of the individual human being was affected by the developments of the age. Their impact on religious faith will have to be discussed as well as possible changes in the perception of the world, the self, and interhuman relations. Here, the emphasis will be laid on poems by Tennyson and Arnold.

Naturally, this essay will not and cannot be a compendium of all the difficulties of Victorian Britain. What it can do, however, is to trace the predominant predicaments of the time and examine the ways in which the three poets dealt with them. Their poems are individual, but also exemplary reactions to the historical environment from which they emerged, and as such, they can contribute to a better understanding of both this environment and the interrelation between man and the forces of history in general.

2. High Hopes? – The Ambivalence of Victorian Optimism

To modern eyes, the high-flying optimism exhibited by nearly all Victorian thinkers and doers alike might often seem a little naïve at best. It was, however, a – if not the – central characteristic of the age, and to a large degree, it constituted the ideological framework of a nation that by its enormous scientific, technological, commercial, and political achievements was almost inevitably led to believe that anything might indeed be possible.

Having left behind the old feudal order and the volatile times of its violent destruction, the Victorians genuinely felt to be on the road of progress, and they promoted that belief with whatever means they found at their disposal. The following chapter will therefore examine the grounds on which Victorian optimism was laid and the ways it was presented by the poets under discussion. It will also have to deal with what may be called undercurrents of doubt, since even for the Victorians themselves, the notion of optimism seems not to have been wholly unambiguous.

2.1 The New Queen

When Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, at the age of eighteen, the historical situation of her country did not really seem to justify any excessive outbursts of optimism at first sight. The loss of the USA in 1776 had meant the beginning of the end of the old mercantile system, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars had profoundly shaken the social and political landscape in Europe, and revolutionary forces remained a constant threat. Moreover, Britain had become the leading nation with regard to the Industrial Revolution, which rapidly transformed the old social order into a capitalist society with all its positive and negative consequences. Those were not the natural preconditions for an age of stability, prosperity, and progress. However, it is for qualities such as these that the 64-year long reign of Queen Victoria is commonly remembered (if the memory is not still suppressed altogether, that is). In her, all the hopes and expectations of the age seem to have found an adequate expression. Her youth and apparent human kindness immediately appealed to the people, who put their trust in her and soon came to regard her as the “icon[…] of an idealised myth of English national character.”[3] She was looked upon as the figurehead of a bright future soon to come and contributed considerably to the creation of a nation unified in its values and beliefs. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poems on the subject of Queen Victoria, though deemed to be “among the worst and most embarrassing of all her poems”[4] by Hayter, nonetheless illuminate the feelings of her contemporaries. After all, they were so popular with the Victorians that they probably led the Athenaeum to propose Barrett Browning as Wordsworth’s successor for the post of poet laureate.[5] Thus, “The Young Queen”[6] gives an emotional account of 20 June 1837, the day when King William IV died and Victoria, his niece, acknowledged her “duty of administering the government of this empire”[7] in the Council Chamber. The first three stanzas of the poem characterise the mood of grief and sadness felt throughout the nation after King William’s death. The atmosphere is altogether gloomy. Images of death set the tone in the first stanza, while the following two stanzas are devoted to the depiction of courtiers and common people grieving alike. The whole of London seems almost petrified with universal mourning; the “king-dirging note” (l. 7) of the bells of St. Paul’s reinforces the sombre, almost ghostlike mood. The nation is deeply affected by this sudden loss of its leader; the people’s tears “confus[e] in a shapeless blot the sepulchre and throne” (l. 12) with the effect that all of them are left in a state of utter helplessness and uncertainty. With the king already far removed in eternity (l. 18), there are now neither glory nor guidance at hand. It is this desperate scene that Barrett Browning has the young Victoria enter. “Firm” (l. 21) she is, and calm (ll. 24, 42), full of dignity, natural nobility and an “exemplary faith in God’s will.”[8] Her “trusting face” (ll. 24, 42), a symbol for both confidence and humility, in turn inspires the nation’s trust in her and makes her the carrier of its hopes: “A nation looks to thee/ For steadfast sympathy” (ll. 46/47). In contrast to her uncle, whose brows were only made “serene” (l. 4) by death, Victoria appears “meek” (l. 52) and benign from the beginning, empathising with her people and giving expression to “all its gathered tears” (l. 48) by means of her own body.

It is exactly this quality that is again taken up in “Victoria’s Tears” (II, pp. 108-110), a poem based on an incident at St. James’s Palace, where Victoria appeared at the window, was cheered enthusiastically by the crowd, and suddenly started weeping.[9] Here, once more, her weeping becomes the outward expression of the inner feelings of her people, those “mourners God had stricken deep” (l. 17). Consequently, her eyes “can be read as transparent surfaces by her subjects communicating a promise of a benign, non-tyrannical reign:”[10] “The tyrant’s sceptre cannot move,/ As those pure tears have moved! The nature in thine eyes we see,/ That tyrants cannot own -/ The love that guardeth liberties!” (ll. 33-37). Thus, the public image of a Queen is created who is most of all a human being, who loves her people, is intuitively aware of her duties and willing to fulfil them, and who therefore can be trusted without reservation.

Although written fifty years later, Alfred Tennyson’s “On the Jubilee of Queen Victoria”[11] still emphasises similar qualities when writing on her “kindliness/ Rare in Fable or History” (ll. 4/5) and praising her as “gracious, gentle, great and Queenly” (l. 14), having “[n]othing of the lawless, of the Despot/ Nothing of the vulgar, or vainglorious” (ll. 12/13).

The cheering crowd in “Victoria’s Tears“ exemplifies the effect Victoria’s demeanour must have had on her contemporaries. Millions have gathered to hail the new Queen, “[h]er name has stirred the mountain’s sleep” (l. 15), and she obviously succeeds in waking up her nation for a new beginning and in unifying it in a commonly felt sense of hope for and trust in a promising future. She is, in fact, apotheosised into an almost angelic figure, endowed with a divine blessing (l. 42) and thus laying the foundations for a myth that would form the basis of the official Victorian ideology for the next 64 years. The poet herself must be regarded as a part of the crowd – if not physically, then at least in mind and spirit. Therefore, the poem “both describes and perpetuates the [Victorian] myth.”[12]

Victoria’s coronation, as it is presented by Barrett Browning in “Crowned and Wedded” (III, pp. 59-62), again underlines the exceptional status of the new Queen. Surrounded by all the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony in Westminster Abbey and placed within a historical tradition as authoritative as it is frightening (ll. 20-26), she maintains her humble dignity and is more than ever transformed into a divine entity, vowing a “very godlike vow – to rule in right and righteousness” (l. 7). The scene of her wedding, set against the solemn coronation ceremony, reinforces the image of a benign queen, capable of giving and receiving love and remaining true to her own humanity. She thus comes to encompass within herself “the borders of heaven’s light and earth’s humanity” (l. 62) – a position that accounts for much of the national pride, boundless self-trust, and unwavering belief in progress that dominated the Victorian frame of mind, but was never wholly unambiguous either. Thus, in Barrett Browning’s poems, it is her very humanity that makes Victoria vulnerable to grief and anxieties. Though conceived of by any outward spectator as firm, balanced, composed, and guided steadily by her trust in God’s will, she is constantly stirred by inner struggles that reveal her actual insecurity. Her personal grief, first indicated in “The Young Queen” and culminating in the act of weeping in “Victoria’s Tears,” her nostalgic yearning for a lost childhood, and her half-hidden desire to withdraw from the public sphere altogether in “The Young Queen” (“Her thoughts are deep within her:/ No outward pageants win her” (ll. 25/26)) – they all contribute to what Groth calls “a neurotic edge to the image of Victoria.”[13] If she is regarded as an essential basis of Victorian optimism, as she obviously was by her contemporaries, the whole notion of this optimism already becomes somewhat questionable. Barrett Browning’s poems, surely intended as a positive account of the icon of the age, thus transcend their superficial meaning and lay bare the inner conflicts of a nation excessively confident on the surface. It may be a “[s]trange blessing” (“Victoria’s Tears,” l. 38) indeed that lies on that nation.

2.2 Trade and Industry – Roads to Utopia?

“Progress had almost deceived them into believing that theirs was an end rather than a way-station. They had swallowed progress and were puffed up thereby.”[14] Thus, Baum comments on the Victorians’ belief to live in a time and a country constantly moving towards some higher state. This creed, so uniquely intertwined with the Zeitgeist, was actually founded on real and visible achievements and developments.

Victorian Britain was essentially the Britain of the Industrial Revolution. Starting off in the country’s textile industry, it soon affected the steel and mining industries as well, transforming entirely the old forms of production and processing. A combination of technological innovation, mass production, and increasingly effective transport facilities (the enormous significance of the railway can hardly be underestimated in this context) soon placed Britain in a truly unique position. Its industrial and technological development was years or even decades ahead of the rest of the world, enabling it to export its industrial goods almost without limitations and to attract an equal amount of raw materials for processing from all over the world. Within a comparatively short period of time, the country thus turned into what came to be known as “the workshop of the world,” unrivalled in its industrial potential and therefore rapidly acquiring the status of the world’s first and foremost trading nation as well. Technological progress and commercial activity obviously worked hand in hand in creating a newly organised society (shifting from the predominance of agrarian interests as represented by the old aristocracy to the demands of a rising industrial middle class), whose members could not help feeling to be rushing towards a man-made utopia.

This attitude is most clearly expressed in some of Alfred Tennyson’s poems. Being poet laureate from 1850 till his death in 1892, he both described and prescribed the creed of his age, often functioning as what might today be deemed a spin doctor of Victorian society and thus holding aloft the banner of what his contemporaries claimed to believe in. Though sometimes rather reluctantly, he was certainly what Richardson calls him: “one of the makers of the Victorian age.”[15] His role as the public voice of his time obliged him every now and then to write poems for special occasions, an example of which is his “Ode Sung at the Opening of the International Exhibition” (II, pp. 622-25). Written for the second international exhibition in 1862, it praises the innovations of the age and draws the utopian vision of a prosperous brotherhood of men. The event of an international exhibition alone represented a powerful reminder of Britain’s wealth and progress, as the first World Exhibition in 1851, originating in an idea of the Prince Consort Albert, had been a triumph of national achievement and had shown the world the superiority of industrialised Britain. Tennyson’s ode first of all re-enacts the excitement at this Victorian boom. Praising Prince Albert, who had just died, for his “world-compelling plan” (l.10), the poet hails the considerable advancement of “Science, Art and Labour” (l.5), the idols of his age, as they are presented at the exhibition. All “earth’s invention” (l.2), he sees stored in the huge exhibition hall, whose size alone is a symbol for the “world-compelling” quality of the event. In the following lines, the “giant aisles” (l. 12) of the hall are transformed into places of worship for the achievements of trade and industry. Accordingly, the products praised are industrial ones such as loom, wheel, enginery, and mining equipment (ll. 15/16), but also those important for a nation built on trade and commerce: steel, gold, corn, wine, and fabric (ll. 17/18). However, Tennyson’s account of these goods is not so much a mere enumeration of products on a material level as an invocation of treasures that assume quasi-mythical qualities. “Secrets” (l. 16) they are called, “marvels” (l. 20), and “wonder[s]” (l. 21) that are the products of an “Art divine” (l. 22) and even appear “fairy-fine” (l. 18) to the stunned spectator. It is as Pitt remarks: “Victorian commerce is made to take on a borrowed glamour, and its ordinary materials are coerced by the diction into a ritual of industry.”[16] What in the retrospect view of Tennyson’s “Ode on the Jubilee of Queen Victoria” (III, pp. 159-62) is hailed as “Fifty years of ever-broadening Commerce!/ Fifty years of ever-brightening science!” (ll. 52/53) astonished no one as much as those responsible for it. The Victorians’ own utter amazement at the progress achieved by means of commerce and technological advances tempted them all too often to regard those forces as the ultimate means to create their utopia. That is the vision Tennyson unfolds in the final stanza of his ode as well.

Before analysing this vision in detail, however, it seems necessary to discuss briefly the significance of what the poet alludes to when demanding of the nation’s leaders: “From growing commerce loose her latest chain” (l. 33). Free trade, for that is what is meant by this remark, was an important issue of the time. In 1815, Corn Laws had been introduced to protect the British corn market from foreign imports. This was particularly in the interest of landowners, who still dominated the British Parliament. In the late 1830s, resistance against the Corn Laws was growing. Liberals and industrialists argued that they hindered economic growth and ran counter to the existing demands for a world-wide free trade in favour of British products; the working classes made them responsible for the rising price of bread (which was also the target of Barrett Browning’s fierce attack on this form of protectionism, when she wrote in “The Cry of the Human” (III, pp. 84-89): “The rich preach ‘rights’ and ‘future days,’/ And hear no angel scoffing,/ The poor die mute, with starving gaze/ On corn ships in the offing” (ll. 50-53)). An Anti-Corn-Law League was founded in 1839, and finally, the Tory Prime Minister Robert Peel gave in, against the wishes of many of his land-owning party colleagues, and repealed the Corn Laws in 1846, thus starting decades of a policy based on free trade.[17] Just as Barrett Browning, Tennyson was obviously in favour of this policy, taking the side of the industrialists and the poor against the landed and agricultural interests, quite as one would expect from the spokesman of a commercial age.

Free trade as a means to establish commercial relations with countries all over the world was right at the core of all Victorian visions of utopia. Tennyson’s is no exception in this respect. His dream is one of universal peace and prosperity, with “all men work[ing] in noble brotherhood” (l. 38) and living in harmony with nature. It reflects to the full the slightly naïve, but highly popular Victorian belief that a globalisation of the markets combined with scientific advances enabling men to control nature to the benefit of all would “bring about an international collaboration resulting in a common concern for peace and liberal reform and uniting the enlightened groups of disparate communities.”[18]

Virtually the same vision can be found in Tennyson’s poems “The Golden Year” (II, pp. 149-52) and “Locksley Hall” (II, pp. 118-30). In the former, the song of the old poet Leonard propagates a world where wealth and knowledge are distributed equally, and where free trade between all nations provides – once again – the basis of universal peace.

Similarly, the speaker of “Locksley Hall” - struggling to come to terms with the loss of the girl he loves, who has left him to marry the man her father told her to - finally finds comfort in the optimistic belief in a promising world-future resulting from the commercial and technological progress already to be seen. His “wondrous Mother-Age” (l. 108) allows him to hope for a coming utopia; his gaze into the future reveals “all the wonders that would be” (l. 120): “heavens fill[ing] with commerce” (l. 121), a “Parliament of man” (l. 128), a “Federation of the world” (l. 128), and a “kindly earth [...] lapt in universal law” (l.130) – or, in other words, free trade, a mankind united in peace, and harmony with nature. All this is brought about by an incessantly proceeding human race, “ever reaping something new” (l. 117), and in the end, the speaker, too, succumbs to the optimism of his age, declaring himself for progress without reservation: “Forward, forward let us range,/ Let the great world spin forever down the ringing grooves of change” (ll. 181/82). The railway, which Tennyson mistakenly thought to run in grooves when going by the first train ever from Liverpool to Manchester in 1830,[19] serves as a more than appropriate symbol for progress here. It both exemplifies contemporary technological innovations and their amazing consequences (for the railway was one of the main causes of the rapid changes sweeping the country) and indicates the proper direction to take: forward in the name of progress. Accordingly, the final line of “Locksley Hall” has its speaker move in precisely this direction, leaving the sad memories of his past behind and heading for the earthly paradise the achievements of his age predict.

Or so it seems, for the dream of a utopia soon to come, though indeed widely accepted by most Victorians,[20] is never wholeheartedly endorsed by Tennyson. Thus, his vision of the “white-winged peacemaker” (l. 34) in the “Ode Sung at the Opening of the International Exhibition” is undermined by the fact that the exhibition itself, otherwise praised so highly, still mixes “[t]he works of peace with works of war” (l. 28). And the three lines introducing the vision cast further doubt on its truthfulness. Acknowledging first that the goal is still “far away [...]/ Far, how far no tongue can say” (ll. 29/30), the speaker then goes on by calling the whole vision a dream – a choice of words which, according to the Duke of Argyll, “implies that the ‘goal’ besides being ‘far away’ is altogether visionary.”[21] Going one step further, one could even be led to conclude that the line: “Let us dream our dream today” (l. 31), sounds slightly fatalistic, expressing the wish to escape to an optimistic dream world, although it has already become abundantly clear that this dream will never be realised. If read like this, the attitude the speaker promotes here comes quite close to the principle of “after us the deluge.”

Anyway, the ambiguities continue in “The Golden Year.” In this poem, the visionary is an old poet, living “shut up within himself” (l. 9) and feeling to be “born too late“ (l. 15). He seems altogether unsuited for and estranged from his “fevorous” (l. 10) time and its undeniable materialism (l. 11), which does not make him the natural choice for voicing its optimistic doctrine of progress. The vision he draws is not completely straightforward in its message either. Starting off with the image of a “dark Earth” (l. 24), it ends in a rather melancholy question, sighs included: “Ah! When shall all men’s good/ Be each man’s rule, and universal Peace/ Lie like a shaft of light across the land” (ll. 47-49; my italics). The hope for utopia is thus thwarted even more profoundly than in the “Exhibition Ode;” the final part of the poem – with the energetic James denouncing Leonard as a “dreamer” (l. 66) and his song as “folly” (ll. 53, 54) – leaves hardly any doubt about that. The golden year will not be realised, “[n]ot in our time, nor in our children’s time” (l. 55), James claims, pleading instead for making good use of the present and concentrating on the work to be done in the here and now. There is no other way to ever gain fulfilment, and nothing more can be hoped for. The repercussions of James’s words along the hills serve as a cruel reminder of who is probably in the right in this conflict of attitudes. James’s angry rebuke proves to be more durable than Leonard’s poetic song, after all.

“Locksley Hall” is perhaps the most obvious case of a hidden agenda subverting the official Victorian creed. In spite of his ardent confessions, its speaker never seems all too certain about the outcome of continuing progress. Worried by the capitalist tendencies of the society he lives in (“Every door is barred with gold, and opens but to golden keys” (l. 100)) and its social defects (“Slowly comes a hungry people, as a lion creeping nigher” (l. 135)), he asks himself if the growth of knowledge alone is sufficient to prompt a progress of society as a whole: “Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers” (l. 141). Equally, the commercial heaven of his vision is at first still filled with “the nation’s airy navies grappling in the central blue” (l. 124), indicating that the peaceful “Federation of the world” (l. 128) is indeed very far away. Though still maintaining that “through the ages one increasing purpose runs,/ And the thoughts of men are widened with the process of the suns” (ll. 137/38), the belief in progress is merely a last straw for him to cling to in order to overcome his personal problems. Even worse, it is only one escape route out of many, with the others (life in a tropical wilderness (ll. 153f), mating with a “savage woman” (l. 168)) promising “enjoyment more than in this march of mind,/ In the steamship, in the railway, in the thoughts that shake mankind” (ll. 165/66). The speaker, in the end, finds himself in the absurd situation of trying to flee into the optimistic ideology of his age in order to escape from the very conditions this ideology has created all around him. Thus, his urge to go forward – if such there is, for his need to “mix with action” (l. 98) is never once realised in the course of the poem, because he “cannot imagine what form such action could take”[22] – is tainted by doubts about its success from the very beginning, and his feeling that “all things here are out of joint” (l. 133) is reflected and intensified by his final apocalyptic farewell to Locksley Hall (ll. 189-93). Without the comfort of any credible vision, he is left running on empty (l. 194). The forceful wind carries him along, but at this point, it has become somewhat difficult to imagine this wind to be the wind of progress towards a Victorian utopia. As Kozicki writes, the hero is “never sure whether he wants to be part of a wondrously evolving ‘Mother-Age’ or to blow it up in revolution,”[23] which is probably what Tennyson did in “Locksley Hall Sixty Years After” (III, pp. 148-59), a poem that brutally settles the score with all the idols of the age and smashes the notions of hope and optimism to very small pieces indeed. The angry reaction of his readers, however, is sufficient proof that they had anything but abandoned their creed, though the preceding analysis has clearly revealed its highly ambivalent character.

2.3 An Imperial Vision

“There is no land like England/ Where’er the light of day be” (ll. 1/2). That is how Tennyson expresses his attitude towards his country in his “National Song” (I, pp. 275-76), a minor patriotic poem written in 1830. His can be regarded as an early account of an ideology soon to get hold of the whole nation. Though the concept of empire had not yet been developed in the 1830s, the enormous advances observable in industry, technology, and commerce, and the exceptional status Britain had gained through them already started to exert their influence on the general Victorian consciousness. People increasingly felt to live in the greatest country of the world, and “pride in the power of man to conquer nature [gradually] passed into pride in the power of the English man to subdue the earth.”[24] Perceiving themselves as the spearhead of a wondrous progress towards some higher end, and more often than not identifying this progress with the spirit of God, the Victorians began to develop the idea of being obliged to spread their achievements throughout the world – wholly to the benefit of the recipients, of course. The consequences of this missionary zeal are well known. During Victoria’s reign, imperial expansion created an empire in which the sun literally never set, encompassing around 400 million people from all over the five continents and thus reinforcing the British belief to be the righteous leader of the world.

Tennyson, as the “pre-eminent Victorian,”[25] naturally fully succumbed to this idealised vision of empire. Traces of imperial ideology are implicitly contained in his “Ode Sung at the Opening of the International Exhibition,” in which the “universal Lord” (l. 3) is praised for enabling the exhibition to take place. Since the deceased Prince Albert is afterwards hailed for virtually the same reason, the distinction between divine providence and national achievement becomes rather blurred, indicating that God is on the side of the mighty British people, whose actions – extraordinary as they are – in turn appear to be ordained by God’s wish. The quasi-religious tone of parts of the ode, already discussed above, serves to underline the notion of a country guided by divine inspiration.

The implications of this creed are elaborated further in Tennyson’s “Opening of the Indian and Colonial Exhibition by the Queen” (III, pp. 147-48). In this poem, written at the request of the Prince of Wales for an Exhibition opening on 4 May 1886, the Laureate explicitly emphasises the unity and strength of the empire. He leaves no doubt that Britain’s wealth lies with the prosperity of its colonies: “In your welfare we rejoice” (l. 2). At the same time, Britain is described as the mighty and caring mother which all colonies should take as an ideal role model in their further development, thus keeping the British spirit alive throughout the world and through the ages:

May we find, as ages run,

The mother featured in the son;

And may yours forever be

That old strength and constancy

Which has made your fathers great

In our ancient island State. (ll. 11-16)

The image of a harmoniously unified family prevails throughout the poem. The colonies are alternately called “sons” (ll. 3, 12, 21, 36) or “brothers” (ll. 3, 32), supposed to entertain forever a loving and grateful relationship with their mighty “mother” (ll. 12, 27) Britain. Those who fought and lost the USA a century ago are criticised for having been “careless” (l. 23) and unprophetic” (l. 26), and the USA, “that young eagle of the West” (l. 28), is pitied for having been driven “from out the mother’s nest” (l. 27) and being forced to “forage for herself alone” (l. 29) - an attitude that may just bear a touch of irony today. National pride and imperialist ardour reach their height in the exaggerated and highly emotional tone of the last stanza of the poem:

Britain’s myriad voices call,

‘Sons, be welded each and all,

Into one imperial whole,

One with Britain, heart and soul!

One life, one flag, one fleet, one Throne!

Britons, hold your own! (ll. 35-40)

Particularly the recurring line “Britons, hold your own!” serves to underline the poet’s message. It implies, first, that the colonies are Britain’s rightful property, and second, that this must remain so by all means. Imperialist expansion is regarded as one form of progress, and progress there must be. That was the creed of an age whose optimistic outlook was based not least on the almost sentimental idea that “a commonwealth of English-speaking nations, with the stabilising power of the Pax Britannica, could only be a force for good in the world.”[26] In other words, it was one element in the myth of the utopian world order already mentioned in the previous chapter. And it was Tennyson’s own genuinely felt conviction, if one is to believe his son Hallam, who wrote about the poet:

One of the deepest desires of his life was to help the realisation of the ideal of an Empire by the most intimate union of every part of our British Empire. He believed that every different member so united would, with a heightening of individuality to each member, give such strength and greatness and stability to the whole as would make our Empire a faithful and fearless leader in all that is good throughout all the world.[27]

Tennyson developed this theme in a range of poems, such as “O Mother Britain Lift Thou up” (II, pp. 46-47), “Hands All Round [1882]” (III, pp. 98-99), and “On the Jubilee of Queen Victoria” (III, pp. 159-62), all of which are characteristically ambivalent to a certain degree. To begin with, “O Mother Britain Lift Thou up” starts off once more with a typical invocation of Britain’s greatness (“There lies not in the circled seas/ A land so great as thou” (ll. 3/4)), taking up the image of “mother Britain” (l. 1) already encountered before. While the second stanza is apparently devoted to a celebration of the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies,[28] the rest of the poem is essentially a hymn of praise of the empire, which has “taught the peoples right” (l. 12), behaved extraordinarily just (ll. 15/16), and therefore should spread its “good deed” (l. 21) “for evermore” (l. 24) through time and space. Just the usual patriotism, one might think. This time, however, things are slightly more complex, for the poem includes the apocalyptic vision of a future when Britain is no more: “A time may come. Forgotten Thames/ May curve his dreary rounds/ By ruined hearths and heaps of brick/ And Babylonian mounds” (ll. 17-20). This is not exactly the prosperous and harmonious paradise assumed to be the outcome of imperialist expansion, and it belies the idea – expressed further down in the poem – of Britain’s benign influence spreading eternally “from shore to shore” (l. 22). Instead, it seems to sound a warning note, foreshadowing a time when national hubris will condemn Britain to a fate similar to that of Babylon, ultimately leading to the decay and destruction of its values and virtues.

“Hands All Round [1882]” works in a similar way. Written for Queen Victoria’s birthday in 1882 and sung all over England and the colonies on that day,[29] it once more conjures up the patriotic spirit appropriate for a land of freedom and for a “glorious empire” (l. 24) founding “many a mighty state” (l. 30) to the benefit of “all [its] noble sons” (l. 15). The refrain “Hands all round!” (ll. 9, 21, 33) symbolises unity and underlines the poem’s appeal to British statesmen to preserve the empire in its entirety and not to abandon her colonies for financial reasons, as some politicians obviously contemplated. Tennyson regards them as “traitors” acting against the will of God (ll. 10, 22, 34). His fear of their plans apparently is the immediate cause of his prophetic warning, which, however, transcends its original meaning and comes to assume a deeper significance: “Pray God our greatness may not fail/ Through craven fears of being great” (ll. 31/32). These two lines bear witness to a feeling of fear and insecurity not entirely to be explained by the political argument over the preservation of certain colonies. Just as the vision of Babylonian destruction, they strike a very gloomy chord wholly at odds with the all too jingoistic tone of the rest of the poem – a tone, by the way, that tempted several journalists of the day to write quite cynical parodies on “Hands All Round.”[30]

Gloomy is perhaps also the term to describe best the lasting impression of “On the Jubilee of Queen Victoria.” Its pattern should be familiar by now: First hailing the integrity, nobility, and greatness of the Queen, whose Golden Jubilee was the occasion for which the ode was written, the poet continues by arousing the masses to celebrate this jubilee in an appropriate manner. Moreover, he calls for a “stately memorial” (l. 44) to be raised, “which may speak to the centuries” (l. 48). This time, then, Britain’s lesson to the future is made of stone. In terms of the positive spin of the age (“Fifty years of ever-broadening Commerce!/ Fifty years of ever-brightening Science!/ Fifty years of ever-widening Empire!” (ll. 52-54)), Tennyson then turns to lay out the imperial vision presented in all the poems analysed above: All the “[m]ighty and [f]ortunate” (l. 55) “children of Albion” (l. 59), including Canadians, Indians, Australasians, and Africans, are unified harmoniously in their praise for that very icon of empire, Queen Victoria. The last stanza of the poem, however – allegedly added at the Queen’s own suggestion[31] - again shows the double awareness[32] so typical of Tennyson. Though the impeding victory of light over darkness is praised euphorically, the questions: “Are there thunders moaning in the distance?/ Are there spectres moving in the darkness?” (ll. 66/67) cast a shadow of doubt on the optimistic outlook presented before and after these lines. The fact that Tennyson inserted them anyway – in a work by its very nature devoted to blue-skies thinking, and moreover against the explicit warning of Prime Minister Gladstone, who wrote in a review of “Locksley Hall Sixty Years After:” “Justice does not require, nay, rather she forbids, that the Jubilee of the Queen be marred by tragic tones”[33] - this fact, then, says a lot about his actual state of mind. Like so many of his contemporaries, he genuinely believed in and admired the achievements of his age and his nation – whether they deserved it or not. Yet something (a heightened sensitivity to all the signs of the times, not just a few of them, perhaps) kept telling him, half unconsciously, it would seem, that there might be dangers looming behind the mask of the optimistic Victorian consensus. His poems are a living proof of this internal dialectic, which probably finds its clearest expression in his less topical and more allegorical works, as we will see in the following chapter.

2.4 “To Strive, to Seek,... and not to Yield”?

The Tennyson poem which captures the ambiguous Victorian Zeitgeist perhaps to the fullest degree is actually set in an age long since gone: Based on Homer’s Odyssey and Dante’s Inferno,[34] “Ulysses” (I, pp. 613-20) introduces a strong-willed hero facing the uncertainties of the future and at the same time clinging to the memory of his glorious past.[35] This aged Ulysses embodies the Victorian era in many respects. Intended by Tennyson to “g[i]ve [his] feeling about the need of going forward, and braving the struggle of life,”[36] the poem seems bound to be symptomatic of the Victorian self-presentation. And indeed, its hero exhibits the spirit of progress so typical of the age in an almost extreme form. Not content to be “an idle king” (l. 1), trapped in the stagnation of Ithaca’s backward society, he yearns for new action and activity and craves for yet another journey on the seas of the world. His restlessness and perpetual movement – expressed in statements such as: “I cannot rest from travel: I will drink life to the lees” (ll. 6/7), and: “How dull it is to pause, to make an end” (l. 22) – “reflect the Victorian fascination with motion in the era of the railroad and steamship.”[37] His worship of knowledge (“yearning in desire/ To follow knowledge like a sinking star,/ Beyond the utmost band of human thought” (ll. 30-32)) and of usefulness (“How dull [...] not to shine in use!” (ll. 22/23)) mirrors the attitudes of an age that idolised its scientific and technological innovations and developed a distinctly utilitarian creed. The “untravelled world” (l. 20) whose gleam Ulysses incessantly follows resembles the vision of utopia touched upon in so many of Tennyson’s works; and the “Happy Isles” (l. 63) hold the same sense of promise as did all the Victorian versions of a paradise created by technological and commercial progress. Furthermore, Ulysses’s self-assured demeanour speaks a language much in line with that of the expanding British Empire. Over and over again, he emphasises his own greatness; he “[is] become a name” (l. 11), “honoured” (l. 15) of all he met, and a man “that strove with Gods” (l. 53). With his “heroic heart” (l. 68) and “strong [...] will” (l. 69), he has close affinities with the heroic paradigm of the Victorian era – so close, in fact, that Dramin sees in him the “poetic analogue of Victorian empire builders”[38] such as the explorers David Livingstone, Sir Thomas Stanford Raffles, and Sir John Franklin, and the military heroes Cecil Rhodes, Viscount Hugh Gough, and Sir Charles Napier. Dramin succeeds in uncovering astonishing parallels between the lives of those heroes and that of Tennyson’s Ulysses,[39] with the latter contributing to this interpretation by sounding quite imperial-minded from time to time. Thus, his all-pervading desire “to seek a newer world” (l. 57) could in itself be understood as a metaphor for imperialist expansion, and his utterance: “I am a part of all that I have met” (l. 18), as well as his intention to do “[s]ome work of noble note” (l. 52) might refer to the missionary zeal of a nation casting itself in the role of international benefactor, spreading the good, the true, and the just around the world. This notion seems to be confirmed by the findings of Rowlinson, who reports that “Ulysses” was often read as a poem keeping the spirit of a united British Empire alive in its various commonwealth states.[40] He even goes so far as to say that Ulysses “sounds like a colonial administrator turning over the reins to a successor just before stepping on the boat to go home”[41] - a comparison underlined by the fact that Tennyson’s hero has to preside over “a savage race” (l. 4).

Bearing all those facts in mind, it is hard not to recognise a Victorian ideal in Ulysses and his unconquerable will to rise ever-improvingly above the present state of limited knowledge, experience, and power. His passionate creed “[t]o strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” (l. 70) seems to sum up the Zeitgeist perfectly.

And yet, the effect of the poem as a whole is not as elevating as its progressive tone might suggest, for the positive message is constantly undermined by a range of ambiguities and inconsistencies. To begin with, the Ulysses speaking here is an old man, “not now that strength which in old days/ Moved earth and heaven” (ll. 66/67) and “made weak by time and fate” (l. 69). His renewed attempt to seek out new worlds will inevitably end in his death (“To sail beyond the sunset [...] until I die” (l. 61)), which prompts the fundamental question whether progress should really be regarded as desirable under those conditions, or whether it might not even be dangerous. After all, the sea is gloomy (l. 45), the landscape darkens noticeably when Ulysses sets sail, and he himself admits that “[i]t may be that the gulfs will wash us down” (l. 62) in the end. The motive of his drive is not entirely clear either. Is he really that brave man of action who wants to enhance knowledge and spread its light to newer worlds? Or is he not rather following his own self-interest, seeking personal satisfaction and trying to regain some of the glory of his past, which in reality is long since gone?[42] His pouring scorn on his people, because they “know not [him]” (l. 5), and his continuous allusions to his heroic achievements seem to confirm the latter position, and Dramin is not entirely wrong in calling him a narcissistic personality, addicted to fame and adventure.[43] In any case, Ulysses’s ultimate goal is more than vague. Its “margin fades/ For ever and for ever when [he] move[s]” (ll. 20/21), making it appear elusive and unreachable and thus indicating that the hero’s whole quest is based on an illusion, while his life “has become a compulsion for movement for its own sake without real progress.”[44] And indeed, the whole rhetoric of Ulysses’s speech is devoted to hammering home the need to go forward, whereas we do not even see him leave the port in the end. This paradox even affects the language of the poem. As Matthew Arnold poignantly observed, reading a few lines of “Ulysses” “take[s] up nearly as much time as a whole book of the Iliad.”[45] Long lines and dark vowels slow down the advancement of the poem, and the strange reluctance to use the future tense – as pointed out by Ricks[46] - betrays its overt intention. Ulysses’s deceptive rhetoric – prompting Peters to regard him as a Homeric siren luring his mariners from safety to destruction[47] - may in fact be the symptom of a self-deception whose function it is to hide underlying fears. Thus, his fear of death shines through his determination to treasure “every hour [that] is saved/ From that eternal silence” (ll. 26/27). His avoidance of looking too closely at his own self for fear of being forced to admit that he is really not so sure of what his identity is, is equally covered up by restless activity and limitless striving, which thereby assume an air of escapism.[48] Viewed in this light, his repeated claims that “something ere the end/ [...] may yet be done” (ll. 51/52), and that “[t]is not too late to seek a newer world” (l. 57), meant to arouse the spirits of his mariners, gain a somewhat desperate quality; and one wonders whether they are not wishful thinking rather than deep-felt conviction. At least, the likelihood that Ulysses’s will “to find” (l. 70; my italics) will ever be realised, is cast into serious doubt by the ambiguity of his speech. His son Telemachus, characterised by his “slow prudence” (l. 36), his sense of duty and responsibility, and his ability to subdue his people “through soft degrees/ [...] to the useful and the good” (ll. 37/38) – all qualities that Ulysses totally lacks – might well represent the actual ideal of the poem. It would then favour a gradual development to the better rather than that sweeping change through a process most actively and forcefully pursued, as it is promoted by Ulysses and, to a certain degree, by Victorian ideology.

Although Tennyson chose Ulysses as the hero of his poem, it was most certainly Telemachus’s ideal which he himself favoured throughout most of his life; and though he was doing more than merely paying lip-service to his nation’s beliefs when hailing its spirit of progress, he was nonetheless aware of its dangers. In “The Voyage” (II, pp. 81-85), he caricatures this spirit to the utmost extreme. The tale of a band of mariners incessantly sailing after a mysterious, ever-receding “fair Vision” (l. 57), that comes to embody “Virtue,” “Knowledge,” “Heavenly Hope,” and “liberty” (ll. 68-72) in turn, has more than an edge of madness to it. The mariners’ optimistic and passionate striving for some higher end is finally exposed to be utterly ridiculous and futile. “We know the merry world is round,/ And we may sail for evermore” (ll. 95/96), they say and do not even at this point realise that their forward movement is in fact a circular one, leading ultimately to their destruction. Already, “mate is blind and captain lame,/ And half the crew are sick or dead” (ll. 91/92), and the one sceptic on board to see the truth has committed suicide much to the delight of his comrades (ll. 73-80). Being far too blinded by “the glories of the world” (l. 83) and their shining promises, theirs is not a community paying heed to warning voices, let alone to the “laws of nature” (l. 84). To regard it therefore as a metaphor for the Victorian society, lured into believing it could achieve anything by the all-transforming powers of progress observable in every area of life, seems not too far-fetched.

Tennyson is so outstanding a poet in this poem and in others as well, because he did voice a warning to his contemporaries, however unconsciously, but never opted out of their beliefs, as that suicidal shipmate does. His poetry sounds truly sincere precisely because “he receives and expresses the subconscious fears and doubts of his generation, but [...] also feels and presents their sense of vast achievement and their obstinate and sometimes irritating optimism.”[49]

3. Dangers to the Nation

In the course of the previous analysis, it has become more and more obvious that expressions of underlying doubts and fears can even be found in some of the age’s most optimistic poems. Now, it is therefore only logical to try and examine the actual causes leading to those concerns, which surely must have had some basis in the reality the Victorians lived in. The following chapter, then, will look at some of the most easily observable problems of the age – the socio-economic and political ones, that is – and at the dangers they posed to the stability of the nation. It will do so, of course, on the basis of selected poems, which is slightly problematic in so far as Victorian poets – unlike their novel-writing counterparts – tended to avoid dealing with what Collins calls the “material texture”[50] of the age. Nevertheless, the texts chosen for discussion should suffice to illuminate the matters of concern and the poets’ reaction towards them.

3.1 Dangers from Within

3.1.1 The Social Disease People in Their Place

Although the fabric of society was subject to considerable changes during the Victorian age, the old order based on the feudal system remained influential for quite a long time. The privileged status of the landowning classes and their pride in inherited wealth and noble ancestry, though on the decline, could not so easily be abolished altogether and continued to create social tensions that had been familiar for decades and centuries. Now, however, the unjust and discriminatory nature of this system came to be perceived more clearly than before, because the French Revolution and its aftermath as well as the changing conditions in industrialised Britain increasingly challenged its validity. The fact that the traditional system with its attitude of “people in their place,” formerly accepted unquestioned by everyone, was more and more scrutinised in the nineteenth century is sufficiently proven by a number of poems by Barrett Browning and Tennyson, who both tried to expose the weak points of an outdated social order and its consequences on the individual.

Tennyson’s “Aylmer’s Field” (II, pp. 657-682) is a case in point. Though set back to 1793, the criticism implied in this tragic tale of two lovers driven to death by the rigid boundaries of class is just as well applicable to contemporary circumstances, and it is meant to be.

Sir Aylmer Aylmer, as portrayed by Tennyson, is the very embodiment of the wealthy landed aristocracy in all its might and pride. In rather exaggerated terms, he is characterised as a “county God” (l. 14) who “[s]aw from his windows nothing save his own” (l. 21). His “pyramidal head” (l. 20) indicates ancient power, and the emblem of his noble lineage, a wyvern, is displayed all around his property, penetrating his personality to the core: “[H]is pride/ Lay deeper than to wear it as a ring” (l. 122). The principles of the social order into which he has been born determine his whole being and reduce even his relationship to his daughter Edith to a functional one. He loves her not as a human being, but as an heiress who guarantees the survival of his family and is thus instrumental in maintaining the old order shaping his identity. His wife has been subdued to his absolute dominance, being merely his weak shadow without a mind of her own. Such a thing would not be of much use, anyway, since he is so “self-involved” (l. 118) and obsessed with what Tennyson ironically calls his “Aylmerism” (l. 123) that he takes hardly any notice of his fellowmen, least of all his inferiors - and, frankly, nearly everyone is his inferior. Mirroring its master, his land is deeply conservative and stuck in the traditions of the past: “A sleepy land, where under the same wheel/ The same old rut would deepen year by year” (ll. 33/34). It appears almost unreal, rendering the idea of change an utterly unthinkable one. This is a land not subject to the laws of God or nature, but solely to those of a fixed social order, as the poet indicates when writing of Aylmer’s horror of a marriage not befitting his family’s rank as opposed to his comparative calmness toward the eventuality of a priest preaching “an inverted scripture” (l. 44).

This world, then, forms the background of the human drama unfolding between Aylmer’s daughter Edith and her friend-turned-lover Leolin, the well-born but poor brother of the rector of the village. By establishing the link between Rectory and Hall, Tennyson creates a counter-world to Aylmer’s outdated concept of society. Averill, the rector, leans “not on his fathers but himself” (l. 56), and the fact that he and his brother are orphans makes them the ideal representatives of a world free of inherited names, wealth, and power. There is no hint of class-consciousness in Leolin’s open, youthful face and no hidden purpose in his feelings for Edith. His charming “phosphorescence” (l. 116) contrasts positively with the “dull sameness” (l. 115) of the Hall, and in his love for Aylmer’s daughter, he is as true, natural, and innocent as she is in hers. “[A] couple, fair/ As ever painter painted, poet sang,/ Or heaven in lavish beauty moulded” (ll. 105-07), they seem to be meant for one another, living out the natural law in their relationship, paying no heed to the unnatural principles of social conventions, and thus symbolising a new beginning replacing the outdated social fabric of the past. Edith’s completely unpretentious and truly sympathetic caring for Aylmer’s tenants points in the same direction, both showing her moral superiority to her cold-hearted father and uncovering his misled understanding of his rank. After all, the landlord was traditionally deemed responsible for his tenants’ well-being, but little of this spirit is left in Sir Aylmer’s self-assured, condescending pride.[51] His admiration for the visiting Indian’s boastful rhetoric reveals his own essential superficiality, and he is further degraded by his unsympathetic reaction to Edith’s decision to pass on the dagger given to her to the jealous Leolin. Although she has been blinded by the pomp and wealth of the foreign visitor herself, she soon realises that true feelings are more important than symbolic material property, and she acts accordingly.

The fact that Sir Aylmer will never put feeling before social standing is exemplified fully by the way he behaves after realising, or rather being made to realise, that his daughter and Leolin are in love. In a scene dominated by violent imagery, likening his class-ridden, oppressive dominance to the forces of nature and himself to a devil and a beast (ll. 290/91), he bitterly accuses Leolin of breaking the iron laws of society and denies him any further contact to Edith. The latter is once more regarded as his and his wife’s property rather than as their daughter, fulfilling the role of “sole succeeder to their wealth, their lands,/ The last remaining pillar of their house,/ The one transmitter of their ancient name” (ll. 294-96). She is supposed to do her duty by her family and her class without being granted a will of her own. In his self-pompous deception, Sir Aylmer does not even consider that Leolin truly loves her, but immediately assumes that he is merely after her wealth. The very idea of someone of lower social standing falling in love with his daughter is completely alien to him (“[i]mpossible, prodigious” (l. 315)), because it would question the system he has subscribed to. How this system should be judged is made unmistakably clear by Tennyson’s depiction of the old man’s face, which is “[v]ext with unworthy madness, and deformed” (l. 335). It is also indicated by the judgement of Averill, who argues with all the moral authority of his profession that truth and love must in the end prevail over outdated social conventions.

Leolin’s furious but futile rebellion against the “filthy marriage-hindering Mammon” (l. 374) that perverts natural law and against “[t]hese old pheasant-lords” (l. 381), whose wealth and power is based on no achievement of their own, reveals that he has understood the flaws of the old system. However, he is paradoxically forced to play by its rules if he wants to beat it. In order to prove worthy of Edith, he must acquire fame and fortune himself. The class war he propagates is therefore not only undermined by his love to what is supposed to be his enemy, but also by his willingness to act according to the principles of those above him. Thus, it is hardly surprising that he does not succeed in breaking free from the limitations of the system. Quite the contrary is the case. When Edith dies after having become the helpless victim of her parents’ dictatorial efforts to keep her contained (revealed in all their cruel absurdity by the surveillance put in place, which had her “[w]atched even [in the garden]; and one was set to watch/ The watcher, and Sir Aylmer watched them all” (ll. 351-52)), Leolin senses her death, arises in a state of madness and kills himself with one of the very symbols of the world that has crushed him and his lover: the pompous dagger Edith had given him earlier.

Averill’s merciless reckoning up with the inhuman nature of the rigid and destructive old social order may be taken as the voice of the poet. In an altogether gloomy atmosphere (“Darkly that day rose:/ Autumn’s mock sunshine of the faded woods/ Was all the light of it” (ll. 609-11)), the rector “dashe[s] his angry heart/ Against the desolations of the world” (ll. 633/34), comparing the evil causing the deluge to the vanity of those modern men who worship not God, but “princely halls, and farms, and flowing lawns,/ And heaps of living gold that daily grows,/ And title-scrolls and gorgeous heraldries” (ll. 654-56), and who sacrifice the souls of their children for the sake of those idols. In painting an almost angelic picture of Edith, whose human sympathy, caring, and true feeling had made her a perfect embodiment of the divine principle of love, he emphasises all the more clearly the misled social principles of her parents and their class, which have left the world in a desolate state. Realising that they, too, were in the end only victims of the “narrow world” (l. 774) they were born into and could never escape, Averill accepts the loss of their daughter as sufficient punishment. And indeed, it seems to have an effect. Bereft of their idols and of their daughter, Sir Aylmer and his wife may still try to keep up the pretence – by standing “tall and erect” (l. 818), for example – but the fainting of Aylmer’s wife’s and his own stumbling forward half blind and “[a]lways about to fall” (l. 822) indicate that the bell is finally tolling for them and their world. Haunted by the dead, cursing eyes of his “painted ancestors” (l. 832), the “last descendant” (l. 834) of the mighty Aylmer family dies lonely and desolate shortly after his wife. Then, “the great Hall [is] wholly broken down,/ And the broad woodland parcelled into farms” (ll. 846/47), leaving the land to the animals. This is nothing less than the depiction of, or perhaps the wishful call for, the complete breakdown of a social system based on heritage, privilege, and property and destructive to human relationships and individuality. A more liberal order replacing the old one holds the promise of a new beginning, hopefully providing more equality and opportunity for everyone: “[A]nd all is open field” (l. 853).

Tennyson’s position was hardly surprising for a man whose love to Rosa Baring, the daughter of a wealthy banking family, had been thwarted by their different social standing, who had been forced to work hard to gain the respectability allowing him to marry Emily Sellwood, and who had had to endure the social snobbery of the nouveaux riche family of his father’s brother, the Tennyson d’Eyncourts. It was for these experiences that he never cared much for hereditary honours and titles, twice rejecting an offer of a baronetcy before finally accepting, in 1883, Gladstone’s offer of a peerage with the words: “I shall regret my simple name all my life.”[52]

“Marriage-hindering Mammon” and class snobbery are a recurring theme in his work, taken up in the “Locksley Hall” poems as well as in “Maud” (II, pp. 513-84). Thus, the hero of “Locksley Hall” loses his beloved cousin Amy to a man of higher social and financial standing and, like Averill in “Aylmer’s Field,” blames “the social lies that warp us from the living truth” (l. 60) and “the sickly forms that err from honest Nature’s rule” (l. 61). The desperation, scorn, and sarcasm sounding through his words are living proof of the destructive nature of the principles of class society, and the ambiguity in his adopting the optimistic ideology of the age and mixing with its action – as already analysed above – shows how near they have brought him to the edge of insanity. Sixty years later, his hatred of society has only deepened; and in spite of his marriage to another woman, Edith, his love for Amy seems not to have died down, while Amy’s arranged marriage has ended in her and her child’s premature death. The system responsible for all of that thus appears all the more vile and inhuman. Unfortunately, it seems not to have changed much in the speaker’s lifetime. Still, he has reason to state in “Locksley Hall Sixty Years After: “Equal-born? O yes, if yonder hill be level with the flat.” (l. 111). His ordeal even repeats itself in the fate of his grandson, who has been “jilted for a wealthier” (l. 11) as well. In the end, the speaker responds with resignation and bowing to the seemingly unalterable. Rejoicing to see the Locksley shield as the symbol of the old order (l. 247), he mourns the passing of “[p]oor old Heraldry, poor old History” (l. 249), and readily accepts that his grandson should continue the traditions he himself once desperately sought to escape from, leaving him “Lord and Master, latest Lord of Locksley Hall” (l. 282). All resistance has obviously turned out to be futile, and progress, though working wonders in all other areas of life, has done nothing to improve the structure of society.

The argument that the old social order was anything but dying out in Victorian Britain is resumed in “Maud.” The inhabitants of the Hall - Maud and her family, that is - are not members of the old landed aristocracy; they have acquired wealth and reputation only recently. Nonetheless, they have already adopted the morals and manners of county Gods such as Sir Aylmer, thus continuing a tradition without ever questioning it. Their privileged status defines their behaviour throughout, and for the speaker, looking at them from below (“I am nameless and poor” (I, l. 119)), there is a lot to criticise: the seemingly unfeeling “[c]old perfection” (I, l. 93) and “foolish pride” (I, l. 117) of Maud; the arrogance of “that dandy-despot” (I, l. 231), her brother, who looks down on him “[w]ith a stony British stare” (I, l. 465); the “new-made” (I, l. 332), “babe-faced” (II, l. 13) lord wooing Maud; and, most of all, the attempts of her “Sultan” (I, l. 790) brother to maintain class discipline by excluding him from life at the Hall and keeping him away from Maud, even against her own wishes (cf. I, ll. 740-49). However, although the speaker attacks the social order represented by the Hall, he cannot escape its fascination and, half consciously, longs to join it, even adopting some of its principles. Unable to enter the grounds of the manor, he repeatedly dwells on its margins, yearning to be a part of this world. When first meeting Maud’s brother, he longs “so heartily then and there/ To give him the grasp of fellowship” (I, ll. 458/59), and in his own home, he “replicates the master-servant structure of the Hall”[53] by employing “a man and a maid” (I, l. 120), though the fact that they are criminals in itself functions as a means of questioning the system. He also subscribes fully to the notion of heredity, one of the pillars of a social order that discriminates him on exactly these grounds. Thus, he assumes that Maud has inherited only her mother’s sweetness, while “the whole inherited sin” (I, l. 484) was passed on from her father to her brother. Equally, he insists emphatically on what he regards as his birthright, namely to marry Maud (cf. I, ll. 720-26). And in killing Maud’s brother, he might even be said to avenge the sin her father committed against his own father,[54] for he imagines the former seeing the corpses of the latter and of his own murdered son lying together “in the pit” (II, l. 236). Finally, and most importantly, he is haunted from the very beginning by the idea that he could have inherited his father’s madness, which would ultimately lead him to destruction: “What! am I raging alone as my father raged in his mood?/ Must I too creep to the hollow and dash myself down and die?” (I, ll. 53/54). This is in tune with the fact that Tennyson, who suffered from similar fears, by the way, called his hero an “heir of madness.”[55] And it is through the principles defining the social order that this hero has acquired his poor mental and psychological condition, which makes inheritance synonymous with degeneracy[56] in this poem and questions the validity of a system based on such a notion. Armstrong is certainly correct when writing: “[B]y making the speaker a madman […], the arrangements of privilege come to seem no longer natural or inevitable. They begin to seem the product of madness.”[57] By having a madman describing the way of life at the Hall, this life must appear increasingly insane itself, and even more so when this madman then tries to imitate it. The inequality of the system does in fact leave the speaker little choice but to long for access to its upper strata. At the same time, however, it denies him this access, so that he is trapped in an inescapable vicious circle. The ideology of keeping people in their place – though there are other factors to be considered, as we will see in the following chapter – is not the speaker’s doom alone. When Maud’s brother says: “The fault was mine” (II, l. 30), shortly before he dies of the consequences of class pride, he reveals that he, too, is the victim of an order that allows only for madness, murder, war, and death as exit strategies. The only character who remains principally unimpaired by the madness around her is Maud. She is both ready to love someone of lower social standing and able to defend her misled brother and see the good in him. That may be the reason why in the speaker’s mind, she is transformed into both an angelic guiding figure and a constant reminder of his wrongs; but it also leads to her death, since she most certainly cannot live in a world that ridicules the genuinely human values she represents.


[1] Quoted in: Walter E. Houghton. The Victorian Frame of Mind 1830-1870. New Haven/ London: Yale University Press, 1957, p. 43.

[2] Jerome H. Buckley. “Victorianism.” British Victorian Literature. Recent Revaluations. Ed. Shiv K. Kumar. London: University of London Press, 1969, p. 10.

[3] Helen Groth. “Island Queens: Nationalism, Queenliness and Women’s Poetry 1837-1861.” Essays and Studies, 49 (1996), p. 44.

[4] Alethea Hayter. Mrs. Browning. A Poet’s Work and Its Setting. London: Faber and Faber, 1962, p. 125.

[5] Laura L. Hinkley. Ladies of Literature. Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1970 (= reprint of the 1946 edition), p. 267.

[6] Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke (eds.). The Complete Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 6 vols. New York: AMS Press, 1973 (= reprint of the 1900 edition), vol. II, pp. 106-108. All further poems by Barrett Browning are taken from this edition and will be documented in the text.

[7] Quoted in: Porter/ Clarke (1973), vol. II, p. 360.

[8] Groth (1996), p. 42.

[9] Cf. Porter/ Clarke (1973), vol. II, p. 361.

[10] Groth (1973), p. 54.

[11] Christopher Ricks (ed.). The Poems of Tennyson in Three Volumes. Harlow, Essex: Longman, 21987 (= Longman Annotated English Poets), vol. III, pp. 159-62.
All further poems by Tennyson are taken from this edition and will be documented in the text.

[12] Groth (1996), p. 54.

[13] Groth (1996), p. 53.

[14] Paul F. Baum. Tennyson Sixty Years After. New York: Octagon Books, 1975, p. 232.

[15] Joanna Richardson. The Pre-Eminent Victorian. A Study of Tennyson. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1973 (= reprint of the 1962 edition), p. 290.

[16] Valerie Pitt. Tennyson Laureate. London: Barrie and Rockliff, 21969, p. 198.

[17] Historical developments: cf. Michael Maurer. Geschichte Englands. Stuttgart: Reclam, 2000, pp. 276/77.

[18] Susan Shatto. “The Strange Charm of ‘Far, Far Away.’ Tennyson, the Continent, and the Empire.” Creditable Warriors. Ed. Michael Cotsell. London/ Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: The Ashfield Press, 1990 (= English Literature and the Wider World; vol. 3), p. 127.

[19] Cf. Hallam Tennyson. Alfred Lord Tennyson. A Memoir. 4 vols. London: Macmillan, 1898 (= The Life and Works of Alfred Lord Tennyson; vols. I-IV), vol. I, p. 252.

[20] Cf. Houghton (1957), p. 35.

[21] Quoted in: Ricks (21987), vol. II, p. 624n.

[22] Christopher Ricks. Tennyson. New York: Macmillan, 1972 (= Masters of World Literature Series), p. 72.

[23] Henry Kozicki. Tennyson and Clio. History in the Major Poems. Baltimore/ London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979, p. 71.

[24] Houghton (1957), p. 44.

[25] Cf. the title of Richardson (1973).

[26] Philip Henderson. Tennyson. Poet and Prophet. London/ Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978, p. 184.

[27] Tennyson (1898), vol. III, p. 288.

[28] Cf. Ricks (21987), vol. III, p. 46n.

[29] Cf. Tennyson (1898), vol. IV, p. 5.

[30] Cf. Michael Thorn. Tennyson. London: Little, Brown and Company, 1992, p. 474.

[31] Cf. Ricks (21987), vol. III, p. 160.

[32] Cf. Pitt (21969), p. 155.

[33] Quoted in: Richardson (1973), p. 235.

[34] Cf. Ricks (21987), vol. I, p. 613.

[35] Cf. Armin Geraths and Kurt Herget (eds.). Viktorianische Lyrik. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1985, p. 478.

[36] Tennyson (1898), vol. I, p. 253.

[37] Edward Dramin. “’Work of Noble Note.’ Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ and Victorian Heroic Ideals.” Victorian Literature and Culture, 20 (1992), p. 125.

[38] Dramin (1992), p. 117.

[39] Cf. Dramin (1992), pp. 118-121.

[40] Cf. Matthew Rowlinson. “The Ideological Moment of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses.’” Victorian Poetry, 30 (1992), pp. 265f.

[41] Rowlinson (1992), p. 267.

[42] Cf. John Pettigrew. Tennyson. The Early Poems. London: Edward Arnold, 1970 (= Studies in English Literature; no. 41), p. 57.

[43] Cf. Dramin (1992), pp. 124-127.

[44] Dramin (1992), p. 126.

[45] Matthew Arnold. “On Translating Homer.” Matthew Arnold: On the Classical Tradition. Ed. R.H. Super. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1960 (= The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold; vol. I), p. 147.

[46] Christopher Ricks. “Poems from Hallam’s Death Till the End of 1834.” Tennyson. A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Elizabeth A. Francis. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1980, p. 60.

[47] Cf. John G. Peters. “’To Strive, to Seek, to Find, and Not to Yield.’ Ulysses as Siren in Tennyson’s Poem.” Victorian Review, 20 (1994), pp. 134-41.

[48] Cf. Dramin (1992), p. 131.

[49] Pitt (21969), p. 153.

[50] Philip Collins. “Tennyson In and Out of Time.” Studies in Tennyson. Ed. Hallam Tennyson. London/ Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1981, p. 139.

[51] Cf. Pitt (21969), p. 182.

[52] Tennyson (1898), vol. IV, p. 52.

[53] Isobel Armstrong. “Tennyson in the 1850s: From Geology to Pathology – In Memoriam (1850) to Maud (1855).” Tennyson. Seven Essays. Ed. Philip Collins. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992, p. 130.

[54] Cf. Elaine Jordan. Alfred Tennyson. Cambridge et. al.: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 152.

[55] Tennyson (1898), vol. II, p. 221.

[56] Cf. Armstrong (1992), pp. 130f.

[57] Armstrong (1992), p. 126.

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Problems of the Victorian Age as reflected in the poetry of Matthew Arnold, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Alfred Tennyson
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Problems, Poetry, Matthew, Arnold, Elizabeth, Barrett, Browning, Alfred, Tennyson, Victorian, Industrial Revolution
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Antje Wulff (Author), 2003, Problems of the Victorian Age as reflected in the poetry of Matthew Arnold, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Alfred Tennyson, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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