Not all 19th-century writers were attracted to the novel. Walter Savage Landor, besides writing one or two unforgettable lyrics, poured out his views of the past and present in a series of literary dialogues, Imaginary Conversations. Charles Lamb became an accomplished essayist in the Addisonian style, while William Hazlitt was a more penetrating essayist and critic. Thomas De Quincey, a victim of the opium habit, published Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), an account of his lonely youth and of the sublime dreams and appalling nightmares that had haunted his existence.
Thomas Carlyle is an example of the Victorian historian, both at his best and at his worst. A prejudiced theorist and an inveterate sermonist, he developed a half-biblical, half-Germanic style. He made his mark with Sartor Resartus (1833-35), in which he proclaimed his personal despair but enunciated a gospel of the “Everlasting Yea. ” He then embarked on The French Revolution (1837), in which he exercised his dramatic talents to the full, although his historical conclusions were often strangely biased.
His later studies, Cromwell and Frederick the Great, are sadly ponderous and ill-digested works. Thomas Babington Macaulay, on the other hand, strove to make history simple and pleasant reading. He believed in modern progress, the supremacy of Whig ideals, and the virtues of parliamentary government. His History of England, which reached an enormous public, reflected a temperate optimism that possessed a strong appeal for the cultivated middle classes.
John Ruskin, one of the most eloquent of the Victorian prophets, combined a passionate interest in art with a no less passionate determination to reform society. His first book, Modern Painters, was an enthusiastic tribute to the genius of his favorite artist J. M. W. Turner. Seven Lamps of Architecture, devoted to the Gothic cathedrals, and The Stones of Venice, followed it. Unto This Last (1862) was a fierce attack on the Victorian doctrine of laissez-faire as applied to the relations between the employer and his workers, and it aroused widespread indignation.
From that moment the tone of his writings became more and more prophetic and increasingly diffuse, until his autobiography, Praeterita (1885-89), which showed all his former mastery of words. Later 19th-century poets carried on the tradition of their romantic predecessors; in 1846, Elizabeth Barrett and the relatively obscure poet Robert Browning formed their celebrated partnership. Today, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s fame has declined, and “the man who married Elizabeth Barrett” has completely overshadowed her. His two-volume work Men and Women (1855) reveals his talents at their highest point.
An intellectual, speculative, and discursive poet who showed a novelist’s preoccupation with the complexities of human character, he was also a fine lyric poet. Both his shorter poems and his lengthy verse novels reveal a wondrous range of gifts. Alfred Tennyson succeeded Wordsworth as poet laureate in 1850, but by that time his finest work had been done. The spirit of pagan melancholy that breathes through his early poems, for example “The Lotos-Eaters” (1832), had largely disappeared, and the feelings of poignant personal sorrow that inspired In Memoriam had eventually been stilled.
Tennyson’s verses remained as musical as ever, but their imaginative content slowly dwindled. With Matthew Arnold and the Pre-Raphaelite poets Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his sister Christina Rossetti, William Morris, and Algernon Charles Swinburne the English Romantic Movement reached a not inglorious close. Arnold had a distinguished career as a poet, during which he produced Dover Beach and “The Scholar Gypsy,” poignant lamentations over the plight of the faithless modern world; later, he became an influential modern critic.
Culture and Anarchy is a brave defense of the standards he valued beauty and reason, “sweetness and light” against a new barbarian invasion. All the Pre-Raphaelite artists and Rossetti was himself a painter took their subjects from an imaginative vision of the Middle Ages, which Morris, an ardent socialist reformer, compared favorably with the modern industrial civilization. Of this group, however, only Christina Rossetti and Swinburne made any lasting contribution to the art of English verse. Christina Rossetti was the finest religious poet to appear in England since the 17th century.
Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads (1866), a succession of wild, erotic dithyrambs, offended conventional piety with its outspoken sensuality and atheism. The most original poet of the late Victorian period, the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins remained almost completely unknown until the second decade of the 20th century. He broke with the traditions of the past both in his vocabulary and in his peculiar rhythmic methods. Like a modern poet he sought to rarify and condense rather than diffuse and explicate his meaning.
Although a deeply religious man, he was always tormented by doubt, and the background of many of his poems is “the Dark Night of the Soul. ” French literature was now exerting an important influence upon English literary circles. Ernest Dowson and Arthur Symons were both followers of the “pote maudit” Paul Verlaine. Oscar Wilde, who was almost as much at home in Paris as in London, preached the gospel of aestheticism, which he had absorbed from Walter Pater. Of Wilde’s fashionable comedies, the most brilliant was The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).