What are some similarities and differences between the Victorian and modernist eras as reflected in the works of D. H. Lawrence and Matthew Arnold?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Some of the differences usually assumed to exist between Victorian literature and modernist literature can be glimpsed by comparing and contrasting Matthew Arnold’s poem beginning “Come to me in my dreams” and D. H. Lawrence’s poem titled “Love on the Farm.” Both poems are spoken from the point of view of a woman anticipating the approach of a male loving, but the similarities are far less important than the differences.

Arnold’s poem might be seen as a typical Victorian work in a number of different ways, including the following:

  • It shows the influence of Romanticism, since it is Romantic both in style and in sentiment. Love is here presented in an idealized manner, as in the opening stanza:

Come to me in my dreams, and then
By day I shall be well again!
For then the night will more than pay
The hopeless longing of the day.

  • The poem is conventional in stanza structure, rhyme scheme, and use of meter. Notice, for instance, that lines 2-4 are all in obviously iambic meter, in which each odd syllable is unstressed and each even syllable is stressed.
  • The diction of the poem is also often a bit archaic or “poetic,” as in the use of such words as “thou,”  “cam’st,” and “sufferest.”
  • Nothing about the poem suggests anything but a pleasing, even merely pleasant encounter between the two lovers (if the male ever does indeed come to the female). The emotions of the poem are as tame, conventional, and restrained as its phrasing and form. This is true even when the speaker imagines how her lover will “part [her] hair, and kiss [her] brow.

In contrast, Lawrence’s poem might be termed a typically “modernist” work in a number of ways, including the following:

  • Although the poem does use rhyme, the rhyme scheme is unpredictable.
  • Just as the rhyme scheme of the poem is unpredictable, so are many of its line lengths.  For example, here are the line lengths of the first two stanzas, by number of syllables per line: 10, 7, 9, 5 // 9, 9, 7, 7.
  • Lawrence’s poem begins by seeming to be Romantic in its depiction of nature, but this charming atmosphere soon vanishes when the poem describes how a farmer kills a rabbit, which

Spurts from the terror of his oncoming;
To be choked back, the wire ring
Her frantic effort throttling:
Piteous brown ball of quivering fears!
Ah, soon in his large, hard hands she dies,
And swings all loose from the swing of his walk!

  •   Most significant, however, is the way the end of Lawrence’s poem becomes fairly explicitly sexual and erotic in a way one can’t imagine in a poem by Arnold.

In short, the poem by Lawrence seems in many ways much less unrestrained than the poem by Arnold.  In this respect, the two poems typify some of the important differences between Victorian and modern literature.