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The treatment of faith in the writing of the Victorian period

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The profound atmosphere and reality of change during the Victorian period both prompted, and allowed the public emergence of, an unprecedented diversity of opinion and belief, which in turn could not but influence the poets of the day, whether they were simply reacting to the spirit of the age or adding their own views to the public debate. The diversification of religious respectability and the rapid progress of scientific discovery led to widespread spiritual destabilisation, particularly amongst the intellectual classes privy to every new development and debate. These personal doubts and a wider sense of public unease and uncertainty where once there had been complacent certainty are reflected in the work of many of the great poets of the period

The present generation which has grown up in an open spiritual ocean…will never know what it was like to find the lights all drifting, the compasses all awry, and nothing left to steer by except the stars.1

The beginnings of religious change were signalled by the Catholic Emancipation of 1829 and the equally contentious Reform Act of 1832, both of which represented the start of the breakdown of the Anglican monopoly of power, influence and higher education which had dominated the country for so long. This wrought a startling change upon the life of the country as it, theoretically anyway, liberated Catholics, Jews, Dissenters and even non-believers from the stigma of their position and allowed them to take a full part in society.

It was not only non-Anglican groups that underwent change in the nineteenth century, for the Church of England itself was deeply influenced by the broad spectrum of religious life in Victorian England and separated into three main groups -the High Church, supported by the Oxford Movement, the Low, Evangelical Church and the middle ground of the Broad Church which sought to maintain Anglicanism as an intellectual force and source of national unity.

John Keble, one of the central figures in the Oxford Movement, was also Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 1832 to 1841 and a strong advocate of poetry as a ‘handmaid’ of the Christian faith, seeing it as a vital theological tool that helped bring Anglicans closer to God. He published a book of poetry based on the Anglican liturgical cycle entitled The Christian Year, designed to encourage devotional practice, was perhaps the single most popular verse publication of the age, suggesting that the established Church was still a powerful force in the lives of much of the population.

However, Keble does not seem to have been typical of the reaction to this religious change amongst the major Victorian poets -much of the work of the time could be described as poetry of doubt; the agonisings of Tennyson and Arnold over a world without a god for example, or Browning’s questioning of the very nature and purpose of humanity. Many eminent Victorians underwent years of inner conflict and uncertainty as they attempted to reconcile radical ideas with the beliefs they had grown up with, in order to achieve a unity of vision and a decisive moral standpoint from which to view this new world; struggling to discern what Matthew Arnold called the spirit of the whole.2

Tennyson was thrown into tortured scepticism by the early death of his beloved friend Arthur Hallam in 1833, yet even before this he confided in a fellow Apostle, Richard Milnes, his fears of going mad and turning atheist, and this doubt ridden despondency is reflected in his 1830 collection Poems, Chiefly Lyrical. Supposed Confessions of a Second-Rate Sensitive Mind not in Unity with Itself is the most directly personal, yet it is only intermittently candid about the religious doubts plaguing the mind; the first two stanzas frankly admit the fear and loneliness of the doubter, but this is then followed by some unconvincing lines about Christian hope, which Tennyson cut out when the poem was next reprinted in 1884, suggesting he himself knew that they were not true to the spirit of the poem

The joy I had in my freewill

All cold, and dead, and corpse-like grown?

And what is left to me, but Thou,

And faith in Thee? (16-19).

‘These little motes and graves shall be

Clothed on with immortality

More glorious than the noon of day.’ (47-49).3

The poem ends with a desperate prayer for faith, implying that there really is no happy and fulfilled alternative to a Christian existence.

Tennyson then, was already disillusioned before Hallam’s death, with the suicidal poem The Two Voices, which describes the inner conflict between faith and scepticism, apparently in existence some three months before the event. The news corroborated

…all that he had ever feared. The death of Hallam struck deeply not because he has supposed life to be good, but because he had long known that it was no such thing. The love of Hallam was the last in a series of profound disillusionments.4

Tennyson did not publish his dedicated response until 1850, when he collected together the various fragments he had written into In Memoriam A.H.H., a title which directs the reader to a personal interpretation, despite Tennyson’s protestation that ‘it must be remembered that this is a poem, not an actual biography’5. The lack of unity within the poem not only reflects the circumstances in which it was written but the mind of the author, shattered by grief and loss (of both Arthur and the last residues of faith), and allows Tennyson to discuss not only his own private tragedy

Be near me when my light is low,

When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick

And tingle; and the heart is sick,

And all the wheels of Being slow.’

but also the depressing futility of our very existence, which is often symbolised by the greater metaphysical picture, or within the huge belittling scope of geological time

‘So careful of the type?’ but no.

From scarped cliff and quarried stone

She cries ‘A thousand types are gone:

I care for nothing, all shall go.’

Tennyson is desperate to believe that the death of Arthur is not final, but he accepts that as we cannot know God, or prove him scientifically as we can evolution, we must reach out to him through faith ‘Believing what we cannot prove’. This seems a half hearted and unconvincing compromise with the tortured grief that suggested that ‘He who trusted God was love indeed’ would ultimately be reduced to dust and nothingness in the same way as the ‘thousand types’ who had gone before at the mercy of an indifferent Nature, and one born out of this desperation.

He reconciles the theory of man in the divine image with the evolution theory by seeing humanity as constantly evolving into a being closer to God with every generation, contemplating the future offspring of his sister as bringing a ‘closer link Betwixt us and the crowning race’, yet this again can be linked to his passionate desire to be closer to Arthur who, if in heaven, could be also said to be part of a ‘crowning race’.

Matthew Arnold’s critical mind led him to define the feelings of doubt and alienation that are less directly addressed in the work of other contemporary authors. In 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition that celebrated the new age of machinery and industrialisation he visited the seven hundred year old Grande Chartreuse monastery, providing us with an interesting illustration of the clash between his priorities and those of the age. There he wrote a poem, ‘Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse’ which expresses the affinity that he felt with the monks, despite his profound lack of faith for he feels that, like him, their beliefs separate them from the modern world and ultimately doom them to irrelevance and extinction

But -if you cannot give us ease-

Last of the race of them who grieve

Here leave us to die out with these

Last of the people who believe! (109-112)6

Arnold saw Christianity as a relic of a dead world, and he himself as an emissary of a world of the future where culture was to replace it as the unifying and civilising influence on society. Both he and the Church, he felt, were out of place in this materialistic and Philistinic age. He suggested in his essay The Study of Poetry (1888) that poetry might become the best replacement for religion in an increasingly secular age, ‘the strongest part of our religion to-day is its unconscious poetry’. ‘Dover Beach’ encapsulates the lonely vastness of a world without the traditional refuge of faith, and the failure of religion as an informing principle for modern life

…for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams…

…Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight

Where ignorant armies clash by night…(30-37)

The image at the end of this extract, with its resonance of Milton’s Paradise Lost, represents the disorder of a generation who had been cast out, so to speak, from the security of the Christian faith that had underpinned life for sixteen hundred years. This raised questions about what, if anything, we can be certain of, yet at the time the shock was such that any answers seemed unconvincing replacements for unquestioning faith.

Science had undermined Christianity but, like Tennyson, Britain was not yet able to fully accept and fill the chasm it had left in society and ideas. Arnold was not able to compensate, as others such as Swinburne, and later Hardy, did, by elevating nature to a position of control and interaction with mankind, for he saw a sharp division between humanity and the natural world. Nature functions without any human intervention and to try and connect us to it is to confuse two separate planes of existence.

Man must begin to know this, where Nature ends;

Nature and man can never be fast friends (‘In Harmony with Nature, 12-13).

Although Gerard Manley Hopkins has often been seen as unrepresentative of the age, both in the innovative style of his poetry and in his religion, he was affected by many of the same concerns and personal crises as his contemporaries and this is reflected in his work, albeit dealt with in a rather different way. He too was greatly influenced by a spiritual crisis and a radical change to his religious belief, but he moved contrary to the general tide, reacting to his increasing theological and emotional dissatisfaction with the Anglican church by seeking spiritual fulfilment in Catholicism rather than rejecting the notion of a god altogether. Thus his poetry is not that of doubt, but of intense and burning faith. He saw nature as an embodiment of God’s beauty and bounty and his nature poems are often intensely spiritual, such as ‘Hurrahing in Harvest’, where the description in the first verse prompts the poet to notice God in the landscape

And the azurous hung hills are his world wielding shoulder

Majestic -as a stallion stalwart, very violet-sweet!.

In ‘The Windhover’, dedicated ‘To Christ our Lord’, he captures the beautiful inscape (a subject’s unique distinguishing characteristics) of the bird and its movement, marvelling at the mastery of God in its creation of it, suggesting that any object or feeling is an expression of the almighty will and cannot really be seen in its true entirety unless the beholder is aware of this

I caught this morning morning’s minion king-

dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon.(1-2)

The last stanza proposes that the bird, or indeed anything, will only reach the height of perfection when it has been crushed and subordinated to God as Hopkins himself had done, taking on the will of God over his own and sacrificing his whole life for his faith


Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion

Times told lovelier, (9-11)

Upon his ordination Hopkins abandoned poetry for seven years, feeling that this self-indulgent aestheticism was not compatible with a life devoted to God, and it was only on the urging of church officials that he began to write again, seeing it as a new way of devoting his life to God and praising Him. His first poem after this hiatus was an outpouring of the development of his vision and poetic ideas, and shows how he was able to reconcile his work with his religion through his innovative ideas about art.

‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ celebrates not only the martyrdom of five Franciscan nuns but the poet’s own religious vocation and, most importantly, the almighty power and greatness of God, from the terrible power exhibited initially to the redemptive liberation of the Holy Spirit later, the storm seeming to represent the personal spiritual struggles of sinful man, suggesting perhaps that the human self must be wrecked in order to truly be fit to be received by God.

Hopkins was influenced by his religion in his radical ideas about art and found the work of his immediate predecessors and contemporaries old-fashioned, their language archaic and their style tired and thus inadequate in the representation of the glories of God. His own view was that ‘a perfect style should be of its age’7 meaning that in the Victorian period it ought to be new and quite different from anything that had been used before, to have the ability to startle the reader and represent fully the diversity of the period. Although he wrote most often in the sonnet form, he constantly sought to test its limitations by experimenting with language, syntax and most obviously, metre, with his invention of sprung rhythm.

His notions of inscape and instress also serve to explain his views on aestheticism and art in general in relation to his service of God. Inscape, roughly, is the unified complex of characteristics that give each thing its uniqueness and serve to differentiate it from other things. For Hopkins it was a fundamentally religious concept as it shows us why God created something, and His beauty within it. Instress seems both to have described the force of being which holds the inscape together and the impulse from the inscape that carries it whole into the mind of the beholder. He felt that others, even other poets, were not alive to this concept, writing in his journal ‘I thought how sadly beauty of inscape was unknown and buried away from simple people’, and saw poetry as a vehicle for the instress

Some matter or meaning is essential to [poetry] but only as an element necessary to support and employ the shape which is contemplated for its own sake (Poetry is in fact speech employed to carry the inscape of speech for the inscape’s sake -and therefore the inscape must be dwelt on).8

The shifting religious views of Robert Browning typify the problems that many encountered during this period of challenge to established Christianity. He was brought up by Evangelical parents and, influenced by Shelley, seems to have become an atheist for a brief time in his youth yet it seems clear from his poetry that he did not retain this position, although it is questionable whether he ever completely rid himself of the scepticism that went with it.

Many of his poems address the problem of faith and the nature of human religious aspirations but whenever a resolution seems to be offered it is undermined by a second reading as in ‘Bishop Blougram’s Apology’. Initially the Bishop seems to be a domineering, worldly cruel man with interested only in crushing the argument of the journalist, as is suggested by the appendix which Browning seems to have added for fear the Bishop’s argument would be found intolerable. For a bishop it may be, but for a poet it is an honest confession of the weakness of the human spirit and its fear of the brevity and futility of life in a world without God

And now what are we? unbelievers both,

Calm and complete, determinately fixed

To-day, tomorrow and for ever, pray?

You’ll guarantee me that? Not so I think…

…Just when we are safest, there’s a sunset-touch

…and that’s enough for fifty hopes and fears

As old and new at once as Nature’s self,

To rap and knock and enter in our soul, (174-188)9

It is difficult to discover a system of faith of which he consistently approves. Religious extremists such as Johannes Agricole consistently discredit themselves in his poetry, which may explain Browning’s fondness for the dramatic monologue form as it allows him to express and undermine viewpoints without exposing his own beliefs, and it seems possible that it also enabled him to remain permanently in the vacillating state described in the passage from ‘Bishop Blougram’s Apology’ above. His interest in the nature of human perception led him to develop a theory of the imperfection of human knowledge which held that one could be certain of nothing except one’s own existence and thus so-called knowledge of anything else was dependent on individual faith, which ought to come from the heart as the intellect is unable to prove it. The deceased of ‘The Grammarian’s Funeral’ must believe that he will be rewarded by God for his heroic endeavours because he will never achieve his goal in his lifetime

Was it not great? did not he throw on God,

(he loves the burthen)-

God’s task to make the heavenly period

Perfect the earthen? (101-104)

Browning believed in the necessity for a loving God, and saw the human capacity for love as a sign of his love for us and although he experienced the bleak loneliness of doubt he seems to have developed a highly individual faith, quite different from that of his Evangelical upbringing.

Algernon Charles Swinburne grew up in a conservative Anglican family and received an orthodox upper-class education at Eton and Oxford. A generation younger than Tennyson, Arnold and Browning he was perfectly placed for the full impact of Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species, the logical implications of which seriously undermined the validity of religion. He was attracted by the poetry of the Romantics, particularly Shelley, and the tradition of political radicalism and atheism that were often associated with it.

He was only spared expulsion from Oxford because of his religious views by the Broad Churchman Jowett, who argued that he did not want ‘Oxford to sin twice against poetry’ (the expulsion of Shelley being the first instance). He had a detailed knowledge of the scriptures and the standard interpretative approaches to them and, like Tennyson and Browning, he often used language with biblical associations, though many of his Victorian readers, recognising this, would have been unlikely to appreciate the context. He rejected all religion and the Christian establishment in particular as an instrument of oppression, although he does seem to have harboured vague romantic pagan longings

Thou has conquered, O pale Galilean, the world has grown grey from Thy breath…

Though before thee the throned Cytherean be fallen, and hidden her head,

Yet thy kingdom shall pass, Galilean, thy dead shall go down to thee dead. (‘Hymn of Prosephine’)

Religion in nineteenth century Britain was problematic as it had never been before, riven by schisms both within the Anglican Church and between it and the increasing number of other Christian denominations fighting for the intellectual and spiritual faith of the country. Many, such as Hopkins, found respite from this instability and variation in other branches of Christianity now that the way was open to them. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, further complicating the situation by encouraging questioning of the very validity of religion. Personal spiritual crises, and the perception of a wider public unease inspired many to express their anxieties through their poetry and their doubt is often reflected in the contradictions, disunity and a nostalgic historic setting that are particularly common in the early and mid Victorian poetry of Tennyson, Arnold and Browning.

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