Victorian literature referred to the literature written during the reign of Queen Victoria of England (Baugh 1967). This was from 1837-1901. This type of literature mainly focused on strict social, political, and sexual conservatism of the time. During this period, England experienced a series of changes and upheavals unseen before in the earlier eras. Every institution was undergoing an unpredictable change that swept throughout England. There were improvements in steam engine technology, which resulted in greater factory production (Fletcher, 1987). The economies of Europe were growing at an accelerated rate, and, as a result, there was the creation of large amounts of wealth (Fletcher, 1987).
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However, this newly created wealth could only benefit the “middle class.” The sacred and indisputable truth propagated by the church was seriously challenged by scientific advancement. It was at this period that Charles Darwin came up with his theory of natural selection, where life got reduced to a bloody struggle for one to survive. Furthermore, the new market economy, which favored industrial development discouraged agriculture and, as a result, large numbers of farmers and peasants lost their livelihoods and had to move to the cities in search of employment. This resulted in congestion in towns and cities and saw them coming up of slums and shantytowns, where the majority of the working class lived (Maidment 1987). These rapid changes appeared as a source of hope and optimism by other writers, but many of the literary writers of that period were against this and spoke out in opposition to the unfair treatment of the masses.
One of the most prominent traits of Victorian poetry was that most poems portrayed the themes of isolation, alienation, and the distinction between love and life. The poem ‘Ulysses’ by Tennyson is a monologue which reflects on his isolation and hunger to explore the world. His poem talks about a range of issues from political to historical and even scientific matters.
Another feature of Victorian poetry was that most of the literary writings had a moral purpose. The poems intended to oppose and speak against the unfair social and political systems in England during the Victorian era. Through his poems, Tennyson tackled issues that were of social and political concern to the Victorian society. He gave voice to the poor and reforms on the society in which he lived. His university life exposed him to the policies faced by the masses and he became part of the most important issue in the Victorian society at that time, namely enactment of parliamentary reform.
Another important characteristic of the Victorian poetry was that it was highly idealistic and tackled issues of truth, love and justice. Many of the poems of this era dealt with problems like women repression in the society and corruption by those in authority. The poem “Goblin Market” by Christina Rosetta reflects the role of women in the society and especially their role in building the economy. In the poem “An Artist Studio”, the writer talks about the tendency of Victorian poets to objectify women and experiment on them as, if they were objects of beauty in the poem, the artists views his female subject as an objects without any emotions which he can hardly manage and which he does not know what to do with for her to fit his plans and thoughts as for the matter.
The poem “Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti is a poem that talks about the feminist glorification of “sisterhood”. There are many terms in the poem that work as the features of portraying the Victorian era, such as commerce, trade and exchange (Dolin 1999). They allude to the Victorian economy and capitalism together with the role of women within the society.
In literature, the modernist period referred to the period shortly after the beginning of the 20th century. Most of the writers got inspired by the horrors and atrocities of the First World War. The literature of this era focused more on modern Western ideas, religion, social conventions, and morality. In this period, experimentation and individualism set modernism into motion (Dolin 1999). The difference between the modernist literature and the Victorian literature was that in modernism the focus was on the western ideas and the future while the Victorian literature focused on the culture that existed in England at that time.
The two world wars set the world and especially Europe in a state of cultural shock. In modernism, there was a strong sense of similarity in all genres. The modernist culture was a reaction to the Victorian way of life which had dominated most in the 19th century.
The modernist literature was greatly stimulated by the new radical developments and a new way of looking at life. One of the most distinct features of modernism was that it had a strong and intentional break with tradition. There was a strong reaction against the established norms in the society, that were religious, political and social views. Modernism literature completely departed from the conventionalities of the 19th century and experimented in a way it has never been seen before. This included literary works like T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land and Joyce’s Ulysses. This kind of literature broke from the literary tradition that they inherited and came up with a completely different form from the Victorian literature
In modernism, there was also the belief that the world was what people perceived it to be. Another feature of modernism was the belief that there is no such thing as absolute truth since all things are relative. In modernism, there is also no link with history or institutions instead most of their experiences exhibit alienation, loss and despair. In James Joyce “The Dead”, the central themes are that of mortality and isolation. The story has the mixture of happiness with sadness. The author joins the themes of mortality and solitude and the separation brought about by dead signifies the isolation faced by those who are still living (McCordick, 1996).
In modernism, life is one of disorganization and disorder and the championship of the personal and celebration of inner strength. Its concern is more with the sub-conscious parts of the mind. In teats poem,”The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” the last line expresses the need for the persona to stay true and follow the desires of his ‘deep heart’s core.’
The poem ‘The lake isle of innisfree’ by Yeats reflects the frustrations brought about by the industrial revolution. He longs to break away from noisy urban life and goes to a place where he will experience peace. Most of modernist literature dealt with the themes of mortality, isolation and old age.
Baugh, Albert Croll. A literary history of England. 2nd ed. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1967.Print
Dolin, Kieran. Fiction and the Law: Legal Discourse in Victorian and Modernist Literature. Cambridge. UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print
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Fletcher, Ian. British Poetry and Prose, 1870-1905. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Print
Maidment, Brian. The Poorhouse Fugitives: Self-Taught Poets and Poetry in Victorian Britain. New York: Carconet, 1987. Print
McCordick, David. Scottish Literature: An Anthology, 2. NY: Lang, 1996. Print