The Age of Tennyson in English Literature

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      To the decade which lies between 1830 and 1840 may be traced the beginning of a new age in English literature and society. In this decade the literary currents of the century underwent changes of direction and character.

Political Conditions

      The political life of Victorian England showed a marked trend towards democracy. The spirit for reform filled all minds. The Reform Bill of 1832 put an end to the Englishmen's reaction against revolution. Political unrest pervaded the country. Then there was a widespread misery brought about by the Industrial Revolution. All these currents helped to arouse among the people a social consciousness and a spirit of helping one another. In the beginning all efforts at political reform were disorganized and confused. With the repeal of the Corn Laws about the middle of the 19th century the political condition improved appreciably. Political efforts became regulated and systematised. The claims of the masses were recognized in all reforms thereafter made in the body politic of England. This fostered mutual sympathy among men of all classes. These political and social reforms of the time are adequately represented in the Victorian Literature, to which the chief contributor is Tennyson.

Scientific Discoveries and Industrial Expansion

      The most important as well as the most alarming current in the life of Victorian England was the progress of science, industry and materialism. Steam-power and the first railway train were introduced. Industries were multiplying and expanding. The new industrialists and business men were earning and amassing huge amounts of wealth. There was more or less general prosperity, and the entire society, with some exceptions had grown materialistic in its outlook. There was unprecedented curiosity and craving for knowledge. Education became more popular and expanded. Belief in tradition was eroded and in its place the spirit of doubt and inquiry, of criticism, of want of faith in God and religion and the consequent spiritual struggle was brought about by the progress of science. The sceptical and critical attitude of the Age is amply reflected in its literature.

      Age of Tennyson was a period of multifarious activities - literary, scientific, social, economic, political, religious, etc. The salient features of the Victorian Era are discussed below.

The Growth and Progress of the Democratic Spirit

      Two great dominant movements, or "main currents" affected Victorian life and thought - the steady advance of democratic ideals and the rapid development of scientific ideas. In 1832 the Reforms Bill had been passed, which meant the triumph of democracy and the final overthrow of the last vestige of personal rule. In the wake of democracy appeared an unprecedented interest in social service, in the betterment of social conditions of all kinds (popular education, abolition of slavery, factory laws etc.)

The Rapid Development of Scientific Ideas

      Manifold scientific theories and inventions profoundly influenced the literature of this age. Moreover, beyond any other preceding period in the history of England, the Victorian Age or the Age of Tennyson was an age of social interests and practical ideals, and it was by these that much of its literature was inspired and fed. For proof of this assertion we need only turn to the works of such writers as Carlyle, Ruskin, Dickens, Kingsley and Mrs. Browning.

      The discoveries of science threw into the world a multitude of conceptions of the most revolutionary kind, upsetting many of the old bases of religious belief, and affecting literature in numberless ways. The doctrine of evolution, which we specially associate with the names of Darwin, Wallace and Herbert Spencer completely revolutionized all current ideas about nature, man, and society.

      The publication of Darwin's Origin of the Species started a new era. Poetry and fiction were infected by the new spirit - the spirit of scientific observation and philosophic analysis. This is observable in the works of George Eliot, Arnold, Clough, Huxley, Browning, Tennyson and others. "Tennyson treats nature as an imaginative man of science; Robert Browning is often more like an analytical chemist than an artist." "Science, dismissed by Wordsworth, derided by Keats," says Prof Herford, "was respected and studied by Tennyson, and Browning defined his own poetry, in effect, as a branch of psychology — the study of souls." "Matthew Arnold and Arthur Clough are largely occupied with the discrepancies between scientific discovery and religious faith; and although the Pre-Raphaelite School rose in protest against this intellectual invasion of the world of poesy, not even they can quite escape its influence. Among the novelists of the age to voice the scientific spirit, the names of George Eliot, George Meredith, and Thomas Hardy readily occur."

Teeming Economic Activities-Growth of Industry and Trade

      New discoveries were daily added to the inventions which had given rise to modern machinery. The application of steam in sea and land transport, the improvement in tools, the mobility of capital, the tremendous strides in production and trade which were made in Great Britain, during the middle years of the nineteenth century, the wealthiest of the powers and the very type of an industrial and commercial nation-all confirmed and intensified one central impulse; and the English mind was thus led to reason-out habits, positive attention, and cautious methods in action and thought. And so, the basic principle of teeming economic activity, favoured in literature the return to precision in form, to beauty within the limits of reason, and to values which had received the stamp of universal approval.

The Diffusion of Literature

      Age of Tennyson was the first in which the lower middle classes, and the greater part of the general public, really had access to culture. With the realization of democratic ideas, education was now more widely distributed. Newspapers, magazines and cheap books multiplied in large numbers. The change in the reading public, from a more leisured and better cultured one, to one that was more strenuous in its activities, with comparatively less culture and less money, had its effect upon the English poets, novelists and essayists.

Conflict between Theology and Science

      The dogma of Christianity collapsed one after another before the ruthless logic of science, and philosophy based on the foundations of science. When Darwin's Origin of Species appeared in 1859, Bishop Wilberforce truly said "that the principle of Natural Selection was incompatible with the word of God." Morals were shown to be relative, and to have had an evolution, like the idea of God itself. One irrefragable conclusion emerged: that all human beliefs could be explained in terms of human history, psychology and environment. The result was that creative minds of the age found themselves flung on the high seas of doubt. While many writers were prepared to find steady harbourage in some form of agnosticism, there were many others to whom a just and merciful Providence was an inner necessity. They sought for a faith compatible with reason and science. While their rationalism jettisoned doctrines repugnant to science, their mind shrank from absolute spiritual negation. Tennyson's poetry reflects this conflict in many of its phases and facets.

The Oxford Movement

      It was an important stream in the spiritual reaction against scientific agnosticism and political secularism, even though its influence on literature is not very wide. It was a movement for the revival of the Catholic creed in the Church of England, with its emphasis on the ritualistic form of worship, the supreme authority of the Church and Clergy in the spiritual sphere and freedom of ecclesiastical life from state interference.

Victorian Compromise

      In The Age of Tennyson middle class, composed mainly of the prosperous merchants and industrialists, was naturally eager for balance and stability in a world where things were moving too fast and the social horizon was overcast with threatening clouds of unrest and confusion. The result was a spirit of compromise, a readiness to meet the opposition half way and reconcile the conflicting claims and points of view. In politics, for example, the compromise with the revolutionary spirit was the gradual evolution of democracy or the conferring of right and power upon the common men and women, a slow broadening of freedom effected by so many, reform bills. In the economic field, Benthamism was a compromise between the capitalists and the labourers and its concrete manifestations were the steps taken by the Parliament to protect women and children and ameliorate the living conditions of the hard-pressed workers. In literature we have demand to adjust romantic emotionalism and imaginative freedom with intellectual discipline and moral decorum, the love of beauty with the sense of duty, the potency of the poetic language with the necessity of practical conduct. Indeed, it has been argued with convincing cogency that the Victorian poets of the early phase, Tennyson, Browning and Arnold, tried their best to reconcile the private desire of their soul and the social claim which was opposed to it.

      But the greatest hurdle in the way of compromise was presented by the conflict between the old religious values, dogmas and the new outlook developed by capitalism and science-how to reconcile the worship of Mammon with the worship of God, the agnosticism of science and the theism of Christianity.

      Thus, the Victorian compromise was an aspect of complacency and the belief that 'all was well with the world' because the stark reality beyond the magic circle of comfortable homes is kept out of sight and out of mind. But it was not acceptable to enlightened observers who made short work of it. Even Tennyson was sunk into a spiritual abyss and stretched his lame hand of faith for strength to get out of it and later on made bold to expose the hollowness of prosperity and boast of progress when countless men, women and children were shut up in the dark slums, hungry, begrimed and hag-ridden with want and disease. Compromise was, thus, a precarious and short-lived contrivance.

Morality, Avoidance of Extremes

      Morality and respectability were the cornerstones of Victorianism. This emphasis on conventionalism was partly a reaction against the corruption of Regency society, scandals of Byron and the radicalism of Shelley who did not hesitate in depicting even incest. The early Victorians expected the poets not only to amuse but also to instruct.

      In literary expression, decency and restraint were insisted upon. The Victorians disliked extremes of feeling or passion or even language. There was a tacit understanding as to what was to be depicted on the stage and what was to be left to the imagination.

      Another result of the Victorian desire to avoid "extremes", was the tendency to substitute a "certain more or less satisfied seriousness for the extremes of tragedy and comedy." The Victorians demanded grave literary themes. Poetry could no longer continue to exalt pure emotion, as with the Romantics. The poets of the era felt that they had a mission and ought to impart a message. The readers of poetry too looked for "a doctrine, a revelation or an interpretation." It is a poetry overweighed with thought. The Victorians were determined to be so moral that they closed their eyes to the ugly and unpleasant aspects of life.


      Age of Tennyson was never a sedate and peaceful period. It was a dynamic period with bewildering and restless forces struggling towards a synthesis. It saw the gradual rise of democracy and passage of political power from the few great families that had always exercised it, to the middle class. It was a period of Parliamentary reform and the emergence of Press as a powerful political force. The abolition of Paper Tax and Stamp Duty helped literacy and increased the reading public. It was also a period of great intellectual stir caused by the new scientific researches. It is reflected in "In Memoriam, Easter Day, Dream of Gerontlus, Hertha, Scholar Gipsy, City of Dreadful Nights, Dipsychus, etc." Both in life and art, says H.I.A. Fausset, "the age accumulated a great material empire; its primary impulse was acquisitive. It possessed itself alike of trade and knowledge and provinces with almost mechanical greed. And without questioning the essential value of these things, it named the tenure of them 'progress'. But beneath the Veneer of middle-class cultivation, the smoke-veiled world of industry spread further and further its tentacles over the green land, nourishing as never before the germs of those two fatal diseases of modern civilisation, Industrialism and Militarism. Both these scourges represent surrenders to that licentious nature to which in his private morals and culture the gracious Victorian professed to be so superior."

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