Though many of us have a tendency to view Victorian society as quaint, repressed, and proper, and though there is some truth in this perception, the nineteenth-century world was similar to our own time in that it was dominated by the phenomenon of rapid technological change. A series of fabulous inventions were transforming the world: the steamboat, gas lighting, the railroad, photography, the telegraph, and—later in the century—the transatlantic cable, electric lighting, the telephone, the phonograph, and the automobile.
Writers, and people in the arts overall, viewed these developments with ambivalence. It had already become a tendency of the artistic temperament to view the past nostalgically and to long for a simpler time when people were more connected to the earth, to religion, and to traditional belief systems. All of this was coming apart in the modern age. There was also a feeling among intellectuals that the achievements of the previous generation—the Romantic poets—had been so great and so unprecedented that one could not equal them. Both modernity and a sense of completion led to an underlying feeling of living in a post-historical age, long before the term was used.
All of this was reflected by Tennyson, Browning, and others in widely different ways. Tennyson focused much of his work on England's distant past, on the seminal Arthurian legends. This was partly because the primal myth of the English people was a symbol of a past golden age that contrasted with the harsh, mechanized world of the present. But it was also because the legends were seen as a distant mirror of the modern era. The ideal Arthurian world had come apart through treachery and the inevitable failure of man to achieve or sustain perfection. In his Idylls of the King, Tennyson has the dying Arthur say,
The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfills himself in many ways.
Tennyson is referring to his own age as well. In Ulysses, the concept is similar; the Greek hero knows his time is past, but defiantly (though in a tone of ambiguous regret) asserts that
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Tennyson's poetry as a whole is dominated by a dreamlike melancholy. Even in "Locksley Hall," where the speaker looks forward to an age when man will fly and the world will be united, it is with a sense of undesired inevitability that the world is depicted as changing. Locksley Hall, the symbol of the past, will be destroyed, and the poet knows this, though he wishes this were not so even while he commands it to happen.
Browning expresses the spirit of the age in his own way, and his outward optimism may appear the opposite of Tennyson's manner. But he, too, writes in an escapist manner. His first major work, Sordello, is a mammoth epic about medieval Italy written in obscure phrasing that makes it practically unreadable. His most famous poems focus upon figures of the distant past such as Andrea del Sarto and Rabbi Ben Ezra. He has the latter declare,
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be.
Though this is stated in Browning's usually robust, forceful manner, it represents wishful thinking, a defiance of reality. The same holds true for Andrea del Sarto's observation:
Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?
Other writers of the period exemplify more directly the escapism and pessimism of the era. Swinburne, in his "The Garden of Proserpine," has his speaker quietly long for the eternal night of death. Matthew Arnold, in his "Philomela," merges the Greek myth with a symbol of modern suffering, asking the eponymous nightingale figure,
Dost thou to-night behold,
Here, through the moonlight on this English grass,
The unfriendly palace in the Thracian wild?
Finally, we should mention that the repression of sexual freedom in the Victorian age led to a veiled form of its expression in much of the fiction of the period. Works as diverse as Wuthering Heights, Tess of the d'Urbervilles , The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Dracula all deal with a covert but wild and even sadistic form of sexuality which is perhaps all the more disturbing because of the indirect way it is presented. Both the escapism of the poets and the underlying subversiveness in much fiction of the period were reactions to the deep-seated problems and concerns of the transforming Victorian world.