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Reflecting on Victorian Poets: Doubts and Faith

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Readers associate Victorianism with extremes of doubt and faith. Major Victorian poets certainly reflect these extremes, ideas which continue to circulate in our own century. Indeed, one may argue that the Victorians covered most of the bases with which we find ourselves preoccupied today. As the essay itself points out, "Belief, skepticism, neo-paganism, and atheism all emerge in the writings of the Victorian poets." The reader will find a discussion of several poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Thomas Hardy, and Christina Rossetti which may be useful in a variety of college literature courses.

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Religious beliefs never really disappear. Even those who renounce faith find that it lingers stubbornly in thought, behavior, and emotion. In some instances, vestiges of religious belief appear in the most unlikely of places. Communism substitutes an earthy "worker's paradise" for a heavenly Jerusalem, complete with apocalyptic paroxysms and saviors. Psychoanalysis provides a substitute for the priest, an analyst-confessor who urges the patient-penitent to plumb the murky waters of the unconscious in order to bring hidden neuroses-sins to the light. Interestingly, both of these movements developed in the nineteenth century, when Darwin and Lyell propounded scientific theories which seemed to undermine the certainties of faith. Of course, these certainties never really existed; adherents of faith could never agree about matters of doctrine and so, historically, resorted to meticulous theological argument, church pronouncements, or violence to establish the particulars of the truth. Nonetheless, a social consensus of sorts existed until approximately the nineteenth century; few atheists, and only the occasional deist, challenged the notion that a God who interests himself in human affairs does exist. When this consensus began to dissolve, poets too experienced the resultant spiritual displacement. Victorian poets, especially, grappled with the problems of faith and its absence. The mixture of attitudes and tentative conclusions that crystallize in the works of these poets characterize, more or less, the ones that circulate throughout the twentieth century and persist into the twenty-first. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Thomas Hardy, and Christina Rossetti express just a fraction of the range of Victorian, and consequently modern, reaction to religious matters. Belief, skepticism, neo-paganism, and atheism all emerge in the writings of the Victorian poets.

Without Tennyson, the nineteenth century would still have been known for religious struggle, but Tennyson's poems give an articulation to religious anxiety that few other poets capture. Tennyson's monument to religious agony and grief, In Memoriam, reveals the tension resultant from the philosophical threats to Christian dogma. Tennyson, like other latitudinarian Anglicans, apparently did not wish to abandon the idea of a benevolent deity, but the pressures of an increasingly naturalistic scientific outlook made such a belief more and more difficult for some thinkers to maintain. These countervailing ideas clash with one another even in the Prologue of In Memoriam. The speaker invokes the "Strong Son of God, immortal love" (1), who can be perceived by "faith alone" (3) "where we cannot prove" (4). Though these lines express an orthodoxy as they pertain to the necessity of faith, they also suggest the feebleness of that expression, acknowledging the fact that concrete evidence of God simply does not exist (2). The disturbing cruelty of existence, ...

Solution Summary

The paper explores selected poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Thomas Hardy, and Christina Rossetti in the context of their religious implications and stances.

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American Literature Before the Civil War

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Part I: When Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" was published, society treated it as a horror story. Reflect on the short story and apply what you know about the elements of Gothic fiction. What element(s) do you believe justify its place in the gothic lit genre? Provide several examples to support your point. The story can also be viewed as an early feminist piece that examines the role of women in the late nineteenth century, also serving to highlight Gilman's own unhappy experience of being medically treated with a "resting cure" following a severe bout of post-partum depression. Compare the "resting cure" with today's more advanced (and more sympathetic) treatments of post-partum depression.

Part II: Crane's "Open Boat" and London's "To Build A Fire" imply that humans do not have free will. They are, in fact, powerless to shape their external environment and control events. "When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples" (Crane 107 ). Such is the nature of Naturalistic literature, in which authors from this time period conceived of man as controlled by his instincts and unable to free himself from his place in the social and economic circumstances in which he finds himself.

The external environment in these two short stories is an indifferent universe where men suffer. Was there a point at which you began to feel their pain or relate to their situations? What does "The Open Boat" say about the perceptions and observations of men in a crisis (men facing death)? What does "To Build a Fire" say about man's relationship to Nature? Can you find places in the stories where the authors communicate an overall message of despair or indifference about man's condition?

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