English and American Poetry in the Nineteenth Century Analysis


The literary nineteenth century is commonly divided into periods or phases, more or less arbitrarily. There was clearly a Romantic period in England from about 1786 to 1832, followed by a more sedate Victorian reaction that itself began to disintegrate after 1860. American literature remained minor and derivative until about 1820, when William Cullen Bryant emerged. While the 1830’s were comparable on both sides of the Atlantic, with significant interaction, Romanticism lasted longer in America—to which it was more applicable. The traumatic American Civil War of 1861 to 1865, however, soon drew American letters toward the increasing pessimism already common in England. During the last third of the nineteenth century, British and American literature were widely separate, and the uniqueness of American writers was generally acknowledged. Nevertheless, the two literatures were deeply interdependent at the beginning of the century, with Britain’s dominating, as the young United States of America were less united than a collection of states with strong ties to Britain and the Continent.

Despite its geographical separation from England, the East Coast of what is now the United States was very strongly British during the eighteenth century, not only politically but also culturally. The American Revolution (1776-1783), which justified itself on grounds derived primarily from British thought, changed nothing in that respect, for though American writers such as John Trumbull, Timothy Dwight, and Philip Freneau soon turned toward American subjects, they continued to see them through British eyes and to imitate British literary models, which were still of the neoclassical type. Neoclassicism was appropriate to a society in which religious and social values were well assured and stability was more evident than change. However, this stability was vanishing rapidly throughout the latter eighteenth century, in both England and America.

Political, economic, and social revolutions

It was an era of revolutions, through which much that has since characterized the West came into being. Not all of these revolutions were sudden or dramatic, but their cumulative force was irresistible. For example, population increased enormously throughout the latter eighteenth century in England and the United States as better sanitation, nutrition, and medicine increased longevity and reduced infant mortality. This larger and healthier population strained available resources, pressured an outmoded economic system, and gave both countries unusually large numbers of the young, who used the increasing availability of books to effect political, agricultural, technological, scientific, and social revolutions on behalf of the abundance and freedom with which their own interests were identified.

Two of the most obvious revolutions were political, as the United States broke away from England in 1776 and France attempted to discard its outmoded monarchy and religious establishment in 1789. Less precipitously, agriculture was revolutionized by the development of improved plows, crop rotation schemes, selective breeding, and (in England) an improved network of canals and turnpikes that allowed farmers to market specialty crops over greater distances. The superior transportation of the latter eighteenth century was also broadly effective in extending the boundaries of urban culture beyond London to provincial and even rural centers, so that authorship (for example) was more widespread. As mail service improved, men of letters everywhere corresponded more meaningfully, and even American colonials such as Benjamin Franklin were effective participants in the European...

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Influence of the past

Nineteenth century minds never forgot their indebtedness to the past, and one of the most reliable characteristics of nineteenth century literature is its historicism. The science of archaeology, for example, arose during the 1740’s with systematic digging at Pompeii and Herculaneum, leading to a revival of visual classicism in architecture, sculpture, and painting. Then the nineteenth century began with French archaeological discoveries in Egypt, including the Rosetta stone. As a result, pyramids recur throughout nineteenth century arts as symbols of death, the sphinx and hieroglyphics appear as mysterious embodiments of knowledge denied to humanity, and Egypt itself becomes the new symbol (replacing Rome) of antiquarian grandeur. Incremental archaeological enthusiasm soon overwhelmed Europe and its more creative minds with statuary from the Parthenon, winged lions from Assyria, relics from Troy, many now-familiar classical masterpieces, and vast new sites, art forms, and religions from the Americas, Asia, and Africa. During the nineteenth century also, the concept of geological time was established, with all its vast duration and wondrous legacy of vanished giants. Thus, the nineteenth century past no longer began with Adam, but instead an immensely complex progression through incalculable time from uncertain beginnings to the illustrious present. No other century in the history of the West experienced such a readjustment of its time sense as did the nineteenth.

Although overwhelmingly Protestant, nineteenth century writers in England and the United States were often attracted to the Catholic Middle Ages. Gothic architecture was popularly revived in Britain, and there was a resurgence of medieval craftsmanship in the Pre-Raphaelite movement of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William...

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Religious doubt

Traditional religion was sorely pressed throughout the nineteenth century (its latter half particularly) to retain credibility in the face of pervasive doubts which arose on all sides—from biblical criticism, undermining the literal word; from Enlightenment objections to religious authority and intolerance; from the diversity of religious observance and the insipidity of orthodox spirituality; and from the currently popular philosophies of materialism and utilitarianism, neither of which found much use for the inanities of a debased theological tradition that, during the eighteenth century, had clearly become part of an oppressive church-and-state establishment. One of the most pervasive features of nineteenth century literature, therefore, is religious doubt, which frequently resolved itself in any of several ways: by regarding history as a manifestation of God, turning from God to humans, abandoning religion in favor of art, or returning to orthodox belief. Though there were also a number of alternative faiths, including spiritualism, the guiding light of the century was science.

British Romanticism

The century began with the English Romantics, who were influential in both England and America. Neoclassical literature, which dominated the first half of the eighteenth century in England, emphasized practical reason, social conformity, emotional restraint, and submission to the authority of classical literary techniques. It was generally allied to political and religious conservatism as well. As life in eighteenth century England was transformed by political, economic, social, and technological innovations, however, the old manner of literary expression seemed increasingly obsolete to younger and more audacious writers who had absorbed the Enlightenment philosophy of humanism and freedom.

Robert Burns

Among the first of these new men in literature was Robert Burns (1759-1796). Though he did not live quite long enough to experience the nineteenth century at first hand, Burns strikingly exemplified a number of its tendencies. Far from apologizing for either his Scottish burr or his rural origins, at a time when both were disparaged in polite society, he appealed to the 1780’s as a supposedly untutored genius, a natural poet whose verses arose not from the inkwell but from theheart. Beneath his colorful regionalism and earthy rural sensuality there remained a stubborn dignity, an antiaristocratic humanity, and a concentration upon his own emotions that favored meditative and lyric poetry. Burns’s carefree morality and religious satire signaled the approaching end of religious orthodoxy in British poetry (it would last longer in the United States) and effectively countered the turgid morbidity into which so many mid-century versifiers had fallen. In his egalitarian social attitudes (“A man’s a man for a’ that”), Burns portended the imminent French Revolution of 1789. His literary influence throughout the next century extended to Scott, Tennyson, John Greenleaf Whittier, Lowell, Hardy, and Rudyard Kipling, all of whom profited from Burns’s use of dialect in serious literature and from his revolutionary insistence that the right of an individual to worth and dignity is not dependent on the urbanity of his speech.

William Blake

If William Blake (1757-1827), of Burns’s generation, was not so obviously an outsider as the Scottish poet, he soon became one through the seeming incomprehensibility of his highly individualistic poetry and art. A firm supporter of the American and French Revolutions, Blake was also the first important author to sense the underlying dynamism of his times. No other poet, for example, perceived the historical importance of either the Industrial Revolution or the political upheaval in the United States so clearly. Similarly, no other poet has influenced twentieth century theories of literature so much. However, Blake was dismissed as a madman in his own times, and his influence on nineteenth century literature became important only toward the end, with Swinburne, Rossetti, James Thomson, and William Butler Yeats....

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American Transcendentalists

The Transcendentalist movement in the United States during the 1830’s and 1840’s, centering on Emerson (1803-1882)—who disassociated himself from the term—was an awakening of new literary possibilities comparable to, and in part derived from, the literary revolution initiated by Wordsworth and Coleridge. Whereas British Romanticism was often a rebellion against social oppression within the country itself, however, much of its American equivalent was pitted against the tyranny of British literary predominance and European snobbishness generally. William Ellery Channing concluded in 1830 (“Remarks on National Literature”) that a truly American literature did not yet exist, and there were many subsequent laments regarding...

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Attitudes toward nature

Attitudes toward nature remained benign in America well after they had become suspect in Britain, where a skeptical tradition among the unorthodox had been articulated by Shelley and soon reasserted itself through Tennyson (1809-1892), who was the official and most influential poet of Victorian England. However, just after Emerson had published his idealistic, Wordsworthian essay Nature (1836), he and Tennyson both read Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-1833), which emphasized the immensity of geological time and raised fundamental questions about the history of life. The book exhilarated Emerson, who regarded it as a demonstration of the pervasiveness of natural law, and hence of morality. Tennyson,...

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Victorian reforms and doubts

In general, the first third of the literary nineteenth century in England was preoccupied with political questions, as public concern responded in turn to the French Revolution and its failure; to the subsequent rise, threats, and necessary defeat of Napoleon; to the internal dislocations of the Regency; to the complicated international situation after Waterloo; and especially to needed reforms at home—for inequities between social classes were rife, and England seemed to be on the brink of insurrection. After 1832, however, when the first Reform Bill (enfranchising the middle class) was enacted, it became clear that social betterment would be achieved through legislation and education rather than revolution. Poets such as...

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Influence of natural selection

As for nature, history, and humanity, all three had become suspect by mid-century and all three coalesced in the theory of natural selection publicized by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), which transformed nineteenth century skepticism into disillusioned pessimism and savage exploitation. Darwin’s work inspired a major literary movement called naturalism and certainly ennobled the tragic sense of such powerful, effective poets as Hardy (1840-1928) and Stephen Crane (1871-1900). In both England and America, Darwin’s harsh view of nature was coupled with the reality of war (India, 1857; Charleston, 1861; Havana, 1898). Perhaps even more disillusioning, however, was the incremental...

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Allied with art

Throughout the nineteenth century, literature had been closely allied with art. Much of its descriptive poetry, for example, was based on painted forebears or similar contemporary work; thus, Wordsworth is often compared with John Constable, Shelley with J. M. W. Turner, Coleridge with German Romantic art, Byron with Eugène Delacroix, and Browning with the Impressionists. Several important writers, including Blake, Ruskin, Morris, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, were authentic artists in their own right; others combined their verbal work with others’ art to collaborate on illustrated editions. That poets were makers of pictures, as the Roman poet Horace had declared, was assumed throughout the century. They became interpreters of...

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Transition to a minor art

It is symptomatic of the times that poetry became more personal, less prestigious, and even private (Dickinson, Hardy, Hopkins) as public utterances turned instead to evaluation of the literary past. Thus, Arnold virtually abandoned poetry for criticism of various kinds, while Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lowell, Swinburne, and William Watson all reveal critical aspirations overtopping creative ones. Major anthologies of the time, edited by Edmund Clarence Stedman and Francis Palgrave, show that poetry appealed to the later nineteenth century more as conventional verbal prettiness than as original thought; a great deal of it was essentially decoration. Fanciful, but not imaginative (in the searching, Romantic sense), late Victorian...

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Armstrong, Isobel, Cath Sharrock, and Joseph Brigtow, eds. Nineteenth Century Women Poets: An Anthology. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Presents the work of more than one hundred women writers and achieves range and depth by reprinting poems by working-class, colonial, and political poets, in addition to very substantial selections from the work of major figures.

Axelrod, Steven Gould, Camille Roman, and Thomas Travisano, eds. Traditions and Revolutions, Beginnings to 1990. Vol. 1 in The New Anthology of American Poetry. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2003. The first volume of an...

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