What are the characteristics of Victorian poetry?

Victorian poetry was very diverse, from the hearty public school spirit of Kipling to the aestheticism of Wilde. Some of the major poets who were most influential were Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold. All three shared an interest in myths and legends. Other common subjects included the decline of religion, about which both Tennyson and Arnold wrote in a lyrical, elegiac manner which borders on sentimentality.

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One of the most notable characteristics of Victorian poetry is its use of sensory elements. The Victorian era was one in which advances in the natural sciences—most notably Charles Darwin's ground-breaking theory of evolution by natural selection—challenged certain features of the predominant religious world-view. The struggle between religion and science generated by these scientific discoveries manifested itself in the sensuousness of much Victorian poetry, much of which explored the material quality of the natural world.

For instance, in Tennyson's "Mariana" we have this wonderfully vivid description of a lonely farmhouse:

The doors upon their hinges creaked;

The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse

Behind the moldering wainscot shrieked.

In the Romantic era, the sheer materiality of nature had been somewhat downplayed. The natural world tended to be presented by the Romantics as spiritual rather than material, a living force in its own right. But in Victorian England, the emphasis shifted to the natural world as fundamentally material in its constitution.

An example of this new conception of nature is provided, once more, by Tennyson in Canto 56 of his long poem "In Memoriam A.H.H.," where he refers to "nature red in tooth and claw". Though Tennyson was profoundly uneasy about the prevalence of a more materialistic worldview he nonetheless felt it important enough to discuss in what is undoubtedly one of his most celebrated works.

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The Victorian era is often neglected in comparison with the Romantic and modernist movements which preceded and succeeded it. This is not because the period lacked major poets, but more probably because it had no obvious ethos. Romanticism and Modernism were movements, with manifestoes and aims, whereas Victorianism refers merely to a period of time.

Another way of saying this is that Victorian poetry is diverse, and its characteristics are hard to pin down. There was a strong strain of populism, Stoicism, and public school spirit in the works of Rudyard Kipling, W.E. Henley, and Henry Newbolt, and an opposing atmosphere of rarefied aestheticism in the work of Oscar Wilde, Algernon Swinburne, Ernest Dowson, and Richard Le Gallienne. None of these, however, were among the really major Victorian poets. The three finest and most influential poets (considered as poets, since Wilde and Kipling were also major writers in other genres) were Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold.

In Tennyson and Arnold, there are certainly several characteristics in common, which influenced poetry during the period. Both took the Victorian religious unsettlement and the dangers of nihilism as themes. Both were melancholy and lyrical, often sentimental, in tone. Arnold also shared with Browning a love of subjects drawn from an eclectic education, and all three wrote about myths and legends, from Tennyson's Arthurian poems to Arnold's "Sohrab and Rustum."

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The term “Victorian poetry” refers to poetry written primarily during 1832–1901, most of which was during Queen Victoria’s reign. Victorian poems utilize imagery, relying on the senses to get the poet’s message across. The poets naturally depict a great deal of emotion and passion about their subjects. Poets were interested in Medieval legends, which frequently became their topics of discussion. The Victorian poets also show the struggle between religion and science, often revealing their own skeptical feelings about the Church in opposition to the theory of evolution. This type of poetry is known as being realistic, rather than showing an idealistic, perfect world which cannot truly exist.

Realistic themes were important to Victorian poets. For instance, Elizabeth Barrett Browning frequently wrote of women’s role in society. Her epic Aurora Leigh tells the story of a woman fighting to be accepted as a female poet. She says “My soul/ Let go conventions and sprang up surprised.” Poets found ways to make strong statements to their audiences, while still entertaining them. Alfred, Lord Tennyson is one of the best-known poets, famous for such poems as “Ulysses,” which tells the story of the legendary king (aka Odysseus) after he has given up adventure and settled down to rule his kingdom. In this poem, we learn there is a difference between living life and just breathing.

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The Victorian period is defined as the span of years that Queen Victoria reigned, 1837–1901. Prominent British Victorian poets include Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Oscar Wilde, and Americans Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Poetry of this period continued in the Romantic tradition that immediately preceded it, with themes focused on the veneration of nature (though it considered nature more realistically), doubts regarding religious beliefs, enthusiasm for the growing advances of science, and deep interest and praise for the sensibilities of artists. An interest in the past remained of interest to Victorian poets.

Aside from the subject matter, Victorian poetry is characterized by an evolution of form and technique. Sensory imagery received emphasis, and paradoxically, there are both humorous and whimsical tones alongside pessimism and isolation. Narrative poetry became more popular, and the lyric and dramatic traditions combined to produce new hybrid forms.

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Victorian Poetry- while coming on the heels of the Romantic Era- is characterized by much different subject matter and tone than that of the Romantics. Where the Romantic poets are famous for their emotional attentiveness to the glory of nature and God's creation, Victorians are far more in touch with human struggle and skepticism. For instance, one would be likely to find a Victorian writer depicting the struggle between science and religion. Victorians also used their language to create imagery that would engage all of the senses; describing smell, taste, touch, and sound, in addition to visual images. Additionally, Victorian poets were preoccupied with a sense of sentimentality. The Victorian Era is characterized by scientific progress, industrialization, and the true beginning of our modern age. That being so, Victorian writers felt keenly the way in which the world around them was breaking away from the old ways of the world- the world that the Romantics knew and loved and wrote about. 

For examples of Victorian poetry, you may want to look at some works by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, George Bernard Shaw, and Oscar Wilde. 

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