Victorian Critical Theory Introduction - Essay


Victorian Critical Theory

Victorian critical theory reflected the ideological upheaval that was present within society as a whole. New advances in empirical sciences such as biology and geology gave rise to questions about the nature of reality and previous ideas about religion and truth were called into question. Increased overcrowding, poverty, and disease, in addition to a climate of materialism and mechanization resulted in a generalized cultural feeling of anxiety. Given this milieu, the proper function of literature and of criticism became a subject of widespread debate. Critics of the day examined literature in relationship to other modes of discourse, such as science, religion, and art. According to Alba H. Warren, Jr., the post-Romantic critics “recognized few common aims.” Terry Eagleton explains that Victorian literary critics were conflicted with respect to their role in the culture of the time, stating that “either criticism strives to justify itself at the bar of public opinion by maintaining a general humanistic responsibility for the culture as a whole, the amateurism of which will prove increasingly incapacitating as bourgeois society develops; or it converts itself into a species of technological expertise, thereby establishing its professional legitimacy at the cost of renouncing any wider social relevance.”

Matthew Arnold, perhaps the most influential critic of the Victorian era, saw cultural expressions such as art and literature as having an important impact on the overall well-being of society. He felt that great literature conveyed deep and everlasting truths about the human condition. These works, combined with detached, objective criticism, would naturally move culture toward intellectual, moral and spiritual perfection. Arnold also attempted to address societal anxieties regarding new science and the threat to religion by proposing that people look to poetry for inspiration and as a buffer of sorts from bleak reality. In the view of Patrick Parrinder, it was Arnold who “bore the brunt of propagandizing for literary culture in the Victorian age. He saw literature as embodying the spiritual life of modern society and taking over the edifying and consoling functions of religion.” T. S. Eliot, however, claims that Arnold's work as a critic is weakened by his “conjuring trick” whereby he considered poetry as substitute for both religion and philosophy. Eliot posits that Arnold's reputation as a literary critic is overblown and unsubstantial, a viewpoint that Lionel Trilling challenges in his essay, “The Spirit of Criticism.”

Later in the century, in contrast to previous concerns with science, culture, and religion, came the development of the Aesthetic Movement with its credo of “Art for Art's Sake.” The movement centered on Walter Pater’s Preface to Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), which was written after a trip to Italy where Pater became quite impressed with the vitality and sensuality of Italian culture and Renaissance art. The Aesthetic Movement pivoted on the belief that, since the absolutes of religion and morality were rendered relative and mutable, the purpose of life had necessarily changed as well. Pater wrote that, since life was so short, it was imperative to seek, “not the fruit of experience, but experience itself.” According to the Aesthetes, to be truly alive was to be immersed in “ecstatic experience,” with free enjoyment being the supreme priority and “beauty” a central focus. Aesthetic critics became concerned with seeking and identifying beauty, not as an absolute, but as a “relative, ever-changing” quality. Albert J. Farmer claims that “the aim of the aesthetic critic should be, therefore, to find, not some inadequate universal formula, but the formula which expresses beauty in this or that individual case, under these or those particular circumstances.” Other notable Aesthetes included Algernon Charles Swinburne and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Critic Parrinder acknowledges that the doctrine of art for art's sake had appeared earlier in the nineteenth century, but that “it was not until the time of Pater and Swinburne that aestheticism emerged as a coherent force in England.” Although several modern critics align Swinburne with aestheticism, Clyde K. Hyder suggests that Swinburne's position is not quite that simple. “Though Swinburne emphasized aesthetic criteria in judging literature,” Hyder comments, “it is an error to suppose that he disregarded moral standards or historic considerations.” Swinburne is also known for popularizing poets and novelists that other critics had dismissed. “Who among English critics has done so much to awaken interest in so many different authors?” asks Hyder, crediting him with recognizing the value of William Blake, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Lord Byron, Robert Browning, and Charles Dickens well in advance of most other scholars and critics. Even Eliot, while categorizing Swinburne as an “imperfect critic,” acknowledged that “he was sufficiently interested in his subject-matter and knew quite enough about it; and this is a rare combination in English criticism.”

In addition to Arnold, Pater and Swinburne, there were a number of other scholars who contributed to critical thought during the Victorian period. According to René Wellek, George Henry Lewes was the first to promote the use of realism in a novel. Lewes believed that all art should closely reflect reality, although Wellek points out that he did not insist on literal portrayals and, in fact, disliked what he called “detailism.” Instead, he advocated that the purpose of the artist was to obtain “the necessary coherence of reality,” while allowing for artistic license. In the 1840s, John Ruskin published Modern Painters. Although the book was primarily a criticism of visual art, Ruskin’s theory on imagination is widely considered one of the more important critical developments for literary criticism as well. It is described by Alba H. Warren, Jr. as, “a theory of a penetrative function by which the imagination seizes the object in its very core of reality and meaning.” With the publication of The Gay Science (1866), Eneas Sweetland Dallas posited his own ambitious theory on imagination. He claimed that real imagination occurs through the unconscious and that a poet who possesses this gift will display it in his work. To this end, Dallas attempted a scientific approach to poetry, creating classifications of “genres in a triadic scheme.” Wellek writes, “Oddly enough, the scheme overlays a highly irrationalistic psychology that locates the origin of art in the unconscious or the ‘hidden soul.’ The incongruous mixture of psychology of the unconscious with insistently symmetrical schematization makes Dallas' books piquant dishes not to be missed by connoisseurs of the history of criticism.”