Is Victorian poetry definable in terms of form, rhyme, rhythm, length and kinds of language?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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It is difficult, if not impossible, to define Victorian poetry in specific terms since the Victorian poets varied greatly in their styles, forms, and subject matter. Nevertheless, many of their works are characterized by a tone of unrest, and more ordered interior consciousness. Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold perfected techniques which came to be viewed as the Victorian ideal, although there is still variety in their poetic techniques of form, rhyme, rhythm, and length.

  • Alfred Lord Tennyson

Tennyson, who was named the poet laureate of the Victorian Age, strove to express the dominant ideas and attitudes of his period. Still, there is an ambivalence in his form as he varies from classic poetry to lyric to dramatic monologue. His early poems are melancholy in tone, and his later poems express a despair that grows from this melancholy.

Tennyson wrote poems about classic tales. One such poem is "The Lady Of Shalott," a tale that perhaps suggests the problems of the present day. In this poem Tennyson adapts an ancient stanza form that has six lines per stanza, four feet in lines 1, 2, 4, and 5; three feet in lines 3 and 6; and the rhyme scheme aabccb. By changing this rhyme scheme, Tennyson adds to the poem's chant-like effect. His poem "Tears, Idle Tears," is very lyrical with a refrain at the end of each stanza. The rhyme in the "Choric Song" of Tennyson's The Lotus-Eaters is lyrical, although it is very varied, also. For example, the first stanza's rhyme scheme is ababcccdddd while the second stanza has the rhyme scheme aaabcccddefef. The third stanza's rhyme scheme is abccdecfefghii. So, there is not the strict adherence to form, but, rather, to the music of the language.
Like Browning, Tennyson wrote dramatic monologues, poems in which one character speaks to one or more silent listeners at a critical point in the character's life. 

  • Robert Browning

Browning, like Tennyson, wrote lyrical poetry such as his "Home-Thoughts, from Abroad" that has alternating lines that rhyme and some rhyming couplets. His poem "Love Among the Ruins" does also what Tennyson accomplishes in his classic tales: it presents the contrast between past and present, and uses rhyming couplets with a tone of melancholy. However, Browning's poems contain much more structural variety of form than any other Victorian poet. For the most part, Browning expresses the energy and the acquisitive spirit of his age, although many of his poems also display Romantic ideas. In addition, a penchant for external drama provided him the means for psychological analysis as in his "My Last Duchess" and "Love Among the Ruins."
Browning also draws upon the classics as in "One Word One," where he alludes to Raphael and Moses. 

  • Matthew Arnold

In a letter to his mother, Arnold once wrote,

I have less poetical sentiment than Tennyson and less intellectual vigour and abundance than Browning; yet because I have perhaps more of a fusion of the two than either of them, and have more regularly applied that fusion to the main line of modern development, I am likely enough to have my turn as they have had theirs.

Like the others, Matthew Arnold used much imagery; also, like the others of his age, his poetry is at times melancholy, and often lengthy. Arnold was truly a poet of his time, expressing the mood created by the effects of industrialization and science. While not a lengthy poem like many of his are, "Dover Beach" conveys this melancholy:

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight.
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

In this poem Arnold varies the length of lines and uses an irregular rhyme scheme, just as Tennyson does at times, in order to convey a despondent, thoughtful mood and imitate the ebb and flow of the sea.

The Sea of Faith...
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, 
Retreating, to the breath...

Often his poems are a dialogue of the mind; for example, his "To Marguerite--Continued" contains the image of an island as a vehicle for suggesting a mood of loneliness, and a commentary on human isolation. Also, Arnold breaks with poetic tradition and employs free verse in this poem.

Arnold was the forerunner of the more pessimistic Naturalist writers.

  • Other Victorian Poets

This Naturalism found its strongest voice in Thomas Hardy, known as "the good gray poet," whose poetry focuses on farmers and workers who are overwhelmed by the forces of nature and society. Another Victorian poet, A.E. Houseman, wrote of life's disappointments. In the latter part of the age, Gerard Manley Hopkins came along, but his poetry was not published during his lifetime. Later, his innovative poetry with a rhythmic pattern, called sprung rhythm, abandoned traditional metric feet.

While the Victorians maintained some of the Romantic qualities of interest in the mysterious, distrust of formalized religion, and a certain skepticism, they moved forward with their time and broke from traditional rhythms and rhyme, writing lengthy poetic works and examining closely the interior of man's heart, initiating the dramatic monologues, uneven lines of poetry, and varied rhymes and rhythms.

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wordprof's profile pic

wordprof | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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No.  Victorian poetry is a broad term referring to an historical period (basically the reign of Queen Victoria, but more generally the latter half of the 19th century), not to a style of poetry.  Some "Victorian" poems are long (notably those of Tennyson) and some are sonnet length.  The real differentiation is in subject matter and attitude toward the function of poetry.  Contrasted with Romantic poetry or the rational poetry of, say, Alexander Pope, Victorian poetry acknowledges the advance of "secular" philosophy and technological advances reflected in social change.  If a stylistic change can be noted, it is a disregard of the connotation of words, and a more cynical use of metaphor and imagery, together with what might be called a "dramatic" scenario (Browning is a good example).

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