Victorian Writers Protest Against The Conventions

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      One dominant tendency of the Victorian age was an extreme deference to convention. With the rise of a Puritan middle class into power and wealth the need of an accepted standard of morality-sincere or conventional was insistently felt and accepted by common consent. "The voice of authority was accepted in religion, politics, literature, family life, etc." To question and reject this conventional morality was regarded as a crime that calls for punishment. Tennyson in his poetry and Dickens in his novels were the champions of this conventional morality.

One dominant tendency of the Victorian age was an extreme deference to convention. With the rise of a Puritan middle class into power and wealth the need of an accepted standard of morality-sincere or conventional was insistently felt and accepted by common consent.
Victorian Convention

      The Victorians had thought that they had set their house in order and whatever they have done bade fair to be permanent and immortal. This is what is called the Victorian self-complacency and spirit of compromise. But, this state of things was not to continue for long. In the middle of the age science came with its tremendous impact on the thinking minds of the age and the needs of a revaluation of all traditional faiths and customs were increasingly felt by them. Many of the Victorian writers like Carlyle, Arnold, Ruskin, Swinburne and Hardy raised their voice of protest against this conventionality and intellectual sluggishness of their generation, what has been characterised as "Philistinism by Matthew Arnold.

      Thus Carlyle like a prophet denounced the whole of the materialistic civilization of the age in his Sartor Resartus and Heroes and Hero-Worship. In his opinion the whole of the modern society is diseased; the 'Romanticists' disease of the soul is a sign of inner corruption. Industry is no doubt a force for good but industrialists are blind of anything else save their own interest. It crushes humanity and reduces the masses to extreme poverty and misery. "The tone of his voice becomes more and more bitter with the middle years of the century. His prophetic countenance hardens in its irritation. He reproves everything of his epoch - the lives, the cowardice, the self satisfied endeavours of a mean, half-created courage. Democracy, progress, the reign of mechanism, all whet his ire; Darwinism scandalizes him. The life of the society remains restless; the inner life is still being eaten into by doubt; and from the last rags of a worn-out Hebraism; a young faith, Christian and free has not yet been strong enough to disengage itself (Cazamian). His doctrine of hero-worship lays down the remedy for the ills of the age; in this, mankind will find a key to its spiritual rebirth, according to him. Carlyle's influence was not fruitless, it had contributed much to restoring the vitality of the age. The style in which he writes is distinct and individualistic in its virtues. It has been named 'Carlyle-ese'.

      Arnold too, in his poems and essays denounced the disease of the age and suggested an anodyne. Life in his age had become a highly complicated affair. There was a bewildering mass of facts and problems that faced every thinking mind and called for intelligent comprehension and proper solution. But the task seemed to him a hopeless one; the result was irritation, perplexity, pessimism and confusion. He would fain find a shore in the sea of doubts and disbeliefs of the age but found none. In Dover Beach, he lamented the loss of faith in the age of materialism and science.

      In The Scholar Gipsy he speaks of the "sick hurry and divided aims" of the age. Men have lost their souls. This drove him to a sceptical melancholy and spiritual gloom. What according to him seemed to be prime necessity of the age is a calm and balanced mind that can contemplate such a complex spectacle of life and interpret it to his age. He found in Goethe the physician of the iron age, of Europe's dying hours. He insisted on the study of Geothe. He insisted on what he called 'intellectual deliverance', the elements of which are a tolerant spirit which is in itself the result of enlarged knowledge, an intellectual maturity which enables man to look upon life with a critical and scientific spirit, and to judge things, rationally and dispassionately, without giving way to impulse, prejudice or caprice. This is only possible by the study of the classics and of all that has been best said and done in the past. In short, the need of 'culture' and 'Hellenism', as he called it, is what he inculcated on his perplexed generation.

      Ruskin in his way attempted to mitigate the complacence and self-righteous-ness of the age, which had become hard, gross and impervious to criticism. In this he was a wholehearted follower of Carlyle, though he excelled the master in his sharp insight into the complex conditions of modem life. He is as emphatic as Carlyle in his gospel of work. He is no enemy to the manufacturing life of the industrial society. He contends that the life of the workers is not, necessarily mean and ugly. He would have an industrial city as beautiful as a mediaeval town. It is the art of wise and noble living that he inculcates. He over-emphasis the correspondence between art and morality. Beauty, to him is the concrete and final expression of rightness. He is no advocate of 'art for art's sake' but for him 'art is for God's sake'. Thus the voice of protest against the gross materialism of the age rings through all his works art, criticism, social criticism, etc. In his books Modern Painters, Seven Lamps of Architecture, he proclaimed his admiration for Gothic art and in his social studies, Unto the Last, he pleaded for purification of social system.

      Swinburne's eroticism represents the reverse side of Victorian Puritanism and strictness of morals. Possessed of a vehement and passionate nature he sang of love with the rich sensuousness of Keats. The convention of the age made sex a taboo. Swinburne gave status to the body and sensuous enjoyment of life and beauty. Thus it touches the very centre of morals, which in the next age were explored by D. H. Lawrence. His eroticism leads to the sensual abandon of the decadent poets.

      Lastly, Thomas Hardy, born in the full tide of Victorianism is 'at once a child and rebel against age'. His Wessex novels are a strong protest against the sentimental self-complacency and optimism of the Victorian poets and writers. In his Tess he amended the famous lines of Browning as "God is not in Heaven; All's wrong with the world." The sham and hypocrisy of the civilization excited his strongest anger and hatred. Progress of knowledge lay uneasily upon him and he condemns the whole of this civilization in emphatic terms. As Prof. Cazamian has rightly observed of him: "In some respects there is in him a Rousseau, as extreme in his revolt but different in his self-mastery, his massive dignity, his admixture of calm and bitterness. Not only does he deny the hope of happiness founded upon the progress of critical reason ; it is the whole of modern civilization that he condemns, and his sore heart seeks as a wounded animal would, the shelter of the most primitive and untouched earth." In all his novels, he depicts; the disintegration of the rural civilisation as a result of the invasion of industrial culture. His Clym Yeobright, Henchard, Jude with their rustic robustness struggle hard against the disease of thought, which is the main symptom of modern civilization and are engulfed in ruin.

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