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Reflecting on Victorian Poets: Doubts and Faith

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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