The Victorians

High Verse, Fewer Drugs

After the second phase of the Romantics, the Victorian age brought a succession of more self-consciously public poets to the scene: centrally Robert Browning and Alfred Lord Tennyson. This new group was comprised of the academically gifted and the passionate. Both Browning and Tennyson are somewhat of an acquired taste now and often considered to be over formal and dated. They represent the very English tendency to litter poetry with bookish references to the classics of English, Latin and Greek poetry, and created a new form of almost elitist verse that requires substantial background knowledge to appreciate beyond the superficial. This was especially true of Browning who grew up with the benefit and influence of his father’s 6000-strong and extremely eclectic library. Despite his uncommon learning, he nonetheless enchants with the poems of Paracelsus (1835) - his first critical success - and his collection Men and Women (1855). Even less renowned collections such as Dramatic Romances contain some beautifully fatalistic love poetry (see "The Last Ride Together". His masterpiece, though, is widely considered to be The Ring and the Book (1868-9). This twelve-book poem in blank verse was inspired by a book the poet found in a Venetian market relating to a murder trial of the 17th century. Told by a succession of untrustworthy Roman citizens, the poem was as ambitious a poetic project as any since Milton. It was also a success critically, although it did not raise Browning to the popular level of poet laureate Tennyson.

Tennyson, like Browning, was an exponent of the ‘dramatic monologue’ form and is now known principally for his poems The Charge of the Light Brigade (1854), and In Memoriam (1850) which mourned the loss of his friend A H Hallam in 1833. His best early and shorter poems were published in his Poems volumes of 1833 and 1842, including The Lotos-Eaters, Ulysses and Locksley Hall. Working on a £200 a year civil list pension and the laureateship, he produced The Princess (1847), Maud, and other Poems (1855) and The Idylls of the King (1859-). Bleak in his outlook but ambitious in the variety of his subject matter, he was a favourite of Queen Victoria. However, though popular at the time, Tennyson is usually at his best in his lyrical poetry rather than the dramatic and epic forms that he employed so often in his later poetry. He was certainly influential but can now appear over-wrought and melancholic.

Unlike their contemporary, Matthew Arnold, who went on from poetry such as "Tristram and Iseult" (1852) and "Dover Beach" (1867) to express himself in pithy prose (notably Culture and Anarchy (1869)), neither Browning nor Tennyson seemed to see the value of brevity. The same could be said of Walt Whitman in America, who repeatedly enlarged his Leaves of Grass (1848-) from a slim twelve- poem book of Emerson-inspired verse into a comprehensive and vast expression of a disturbed self. Yet Whitman brought with Leaves of Grass a new freedom in verse that was almost chaotic in its rejection of tradition of poetic rules and traditions. Certainly, other poets would go further and deconstruct down to the word itself but Whitman began the trend and was a maverick figure unrivalled in the second half of the 19th century. Influential though he was in the United States, the effect and acceptance of Whitman’s free and personal verse took time to filter through to England where formal, traditional and majestic poetry still held sway.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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