What are the similarities between Romantic literature and early Victorian literature?

An important similarity between Romantic and early Victorian literature is that both were reactions to rapid changes as industrialization and science transformed the economy and society. Romantic literature emphasizing natural beauty contrasted with man-made disruptions rebels against this "progress." Although Victorian literature is characterized by less floral and emotional language, it is similar in that it was also a response to changing times, with writers exploring challenges that "progress" produced.

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Both the Romantics and the early Victorians shared an interest in the gothic. Gothic literature was first established during the Romantic period, stressing the supernatural and the power of evil to corrupt the virtuous. Gothic literature was largely rejected by respectable and more literary writers for much of the late eighteenth century, but some major Romantic writers did turn out gothic works such as Matthew Lewis' The Monk and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Focused on more than bumps in the night, these Romantic works examined human failings and the dark depths of the human heart.

Early Victorian writers also used gothic tropes and imagery for more literary purposes as well as social commentary. Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop both indulge in gothic tropes such as a lecherous villain, an innocent menaced by evil, and shadowy imagery, while Emily Bronte uses gothic character types to comment on class divisions and gender inequalities in Wuthering Heights.

Romantic and early Victorian gothic literature both emphasized nature over the industrial world. In the poems of William Blake, for instance, the city is viewed as a hotbed of pollution and moral corruption while gardens and the wilderness are associated with an original goodness untainted by society. William Wordsworth largely puts the same message across in The Prelude, and Mary Shelley's abandoned monster finds solace in nature, where he is not judged unfairly for his appearance.

The early Victorians were similarly critical of industrialization and looked back at the pre-industrial world with longing. The Old Curiosity Shop shows urban spaces as dirty and teeming with moral corruption in the form of criminals (most prominently the arch-villain Quilp), while Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, not unlike Shelley's Creature, finds solace in nature when she is on the run from the corrupted Mr. Rochester.

Finally, both Romantic and early Victorian literature were critical of organized religion, though not necessarily faith itself. Some of the most prominent Romantics were indeed atheists and agnostics, such as Percy Shelley, but others such as William Blake simply had an unconventional view of God. Organized religion was perceived as often hypocritical: Blake's poetry often criticized religion for restricting natural desires such as sexuality (as in "The Garden of Love") or ignoring the plight of the poor (as in "Holy Thursday"). God was to be found in nature rather than in a church, such as in The Prelude or Samuel Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

While the early Victorians were a little more conventional about religion, there was still the same sense among them that most Christians did not treat the socially marginalized with the proper charity their faith demanded. Using Jane Eyre as an example again, Jane finds solace in nature and her faith in God, but when she turns to a human community for charity, she is ignored, mocked, and even assumed to be a criminal solely on the basis of her ragged clothes and lack of familial connections. The ultra-pious tend to be the most judgmental, seeing the poor as inherently fallen and more prone to vice, and then using this excuse to deny them kindness.

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An important similarity between Romantic literature and early Victorian literature is that both movements were reactions to rapid changes occurring at the time, as the Industrial Revolution and science transformed the way the economy and society functioned.

As the eighteenth century began to wind down, European literature moved into what is considered the Romantic period. Romantic literature is seen as a rebellion against the growing changes that the Industrial Revolution produced, as people moved away from agrarian lifestyles and into cities where factories and offices started to become the norm. Romantic literature is characterized by frequent emphasis on the beauty of nature in contrast to the mechanical backdrop that was quickly occurring as urbanization began to change peoples’ lives. Natural beauty is praised in contrast to man-made disruptions. For example, when Jane Austen describes the setting of Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice, she writes that

Elizabeth ... had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste.

Romantic literature is full of emotion and passion and often includes elaborate praise of nature, as well as of the agrarian and pastoral lifestyle that writers feared was disappearing as the Industrial Revolution progressed.

Although Victorian literature is characterized by less floral and emotional language, it is similar to Romantic literature in that it was also a response to changing times. As urbanization continued, the focus of Victorian writers shifted from the idyllic rural life and odes to nature to the social challenges that urbanization presented. Charles Dickens is a good example of this. Dickens wrote about poverty, economic disparities, and difficult living conditions that were becoming a growing challenge.

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In his authoritative study, The Victorian Frame of Mind, Walter Houghton contends “to look into the Victorian mind is to see the primary sources of the modern mind.”   With Victorian literature there was a calling of all that preceded it into doubt as Romanticism revolted against rationalism.

  • In both Victorian and Romantic poetry there is a preoccupation with the problem of Isolation. Appearing in Tennyson's early as well as late poetry are situations of betrayal, alienation, separation from love and life. Likewise, Browning's and Arnold's poetry is concerned with sadness and alienation. The Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, declares "I wandered lonely as a cloud" while Victorian poet Matthew Arnold writes,

Yes! in the sea of life.../We mortal millions live alone

  • Both the poetry of the Victorians and the Romantics confirmed the power of the imagination; however, the view of the imagination differs. With the Victorians there is a power of visualization, while for the Romantics, the imagination provides the avenue for intuition which can read nature and be provided insights.
  • Both Victorian and Romantic literature examine the complexity and modernity of their age as the writings contain serious attempts to reflect upon the many social, moral, and spirituals ills of the time. Thomas Harding's poetry and novels both are studies of his age.  His "The Darkling Thrush" reflects upon the turn of the century and

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.

 As one of the leading English Romantics, Wordsworth’s poetry praises the value of the individual, the child, the downtrodden, and the natural man. His "The Solitary Reaper" examines the "melancholy strain" of the music that the woman sings.

  • Both Victorian and Romantic literature question the relevancy of formal religion. Thomas Carlyle, albeit a Calvinist, wrote that all religious orthodoxies were insufficient and outmoded regarding the needs of the new Industrial Age. Romantics embraced a pantheism, perceiving God as a part of the universe, rather than a separate Entity. 
  • Both the Victorians and the Romantics rejected the concept of the heroic.  Instead, the characters of these periods reach their fullest scope of action simply by surviving in a chaotic world.  Arnold's poetry, for example, finds a striking figure in Empedocles is an example of the poetic hero who fails. Similarly, the protagonists of Romantic poetry represent neither the accepted values of a community, nor the claims of good sense, at times.
  • Like the Victorian Matthew Arnold, the Romantics also felt that great literature expressed

deep and everlasting truths about the human condition which would be able to direct culture toward intellectual, moral and spiritual perfection. [Enotes]

Unlike those who had preceded them, the Victorians and the Romantics became involved with their societies, conveying the relevance and irrelevance of their ages, the significance of the the individual and his relation to the world. 

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