Victorian Poetry and the Shock of the Belated

Abbey in an Oak Forest, Caspar David Friedrich, 1810

by Charles LaPorte

Victorian poetry is famous for documenting the emergence of key strains of secular modern thought, including those associated with natural science and modern biblical criticism. Breathtaking advances in astronomy, geology, and evolutionary biology during this era had produced a very different looking cosmos from that imagined in the book of Genesis. Meanwhile, dramatic advances in philology and textual criticism conspired to put the Bible in a literary and mythological light by emphasizing the uncertainty and apparent heterogeneity of its origins.Those working on the frontiers of these fields often experienced a dramatic change in their relationship to biblical religion, and so did their nineteenth-century readers. Viewed from either the vantage of the scholar (D. F. Strauss) or that of the scientist (Darwin), the Bible became increasingly seen at this time as a literary text. Or, to use the contemporary parlance, it became a work of poetry. My recent book, Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible explores the place of Victorian poetics in this dramatic cultural upheaval, which turns out to be central.

My chief aim in writing this book was to consider the literary implications of the nineteenth century’s reliance upon poetry and the “poetic” as a means of reimagining biblical inspiration and religious tradition—a way of getting past biblical literalism without invoking fiction. This appeal to the “poetry” of the Bible had its most far-reaching consequences for poets themselves, naturally enough, who had a prior investment in the term. It could radically alter the scale of their ambitions. If the Bible was best viewed as poetry, many felt, modern poetry could also come to serve a cultural role like that traditionally held by scripture. Consider in this light Matthew Arnold’s famous pronouncement that “the strongest part of our religion to-day is its unconscious poetry” or Alfred Austin’s insistence that “great poets” possess “channels ready-made for the reception and transmission of [God's] precious messages.” It is not that such Victorian critics failed to grasp the basic difference between the “poetry” of the Bible and the poetry of English verse: it is that the era’s manner of speaking about religion blurred its literary taxonomies so thoroughly that Arnold could come to view poetry as the secret heart of religion, that Austin could champion the poet as some kind of cosmic telegraph operator for the Almighty. In this cultural context, it should surprise us little to see Robert Browning addressed by his admirers as God’s very mouthpiece or Alfred Tennyson spoken of as a veritable prophet.

My book centers upon the most ambitious poetry of five prominent mid-Victorian figures: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Tennyson, Robert Browning, Arthur Hugh Clough, and George Eliot (whose poetry differs in scope and intent from her more famous novels). These poets all paid close attention to modern developments in biblical criticism and science, and they seized upon contemporary ideas about inspiration as an extraordinary opportunity. “I am in the Spirit on the Lord’s day,” as Clough would put it, claiming kinship with the author of Revelation, “With John on Patmos.” Just what such authority really meant depended upon the poet, since the Brownings were (in different ways) non-conforming evangelicals, Clough and Eliot (in different ways) unbelievers, and Tennyson (famously) a doubt-ridden member of the established Church. But all five poets shared a sense that inspiration of genuinely biblical proportions was newly up for grabs, and they produced thereby some wonderfully experimental poetry. Collectively, they helped shape both the evolution of English poetics and a much wider Victorian debate about what religion ultimately meant: whether traditionally divine inspiration was really human, whether traditionally human inspiration was really divine. Their poetry often entails an extraordinary set of practical experiments, testing out in various ways these arch-Romantic propositions. “Earth’s crammed with heaven,” urged Barrett Browning in Aurora Leigh (1856), “And every common bush afire with God.” The suggestion here and throughout Aurora Leigh is that new burning bushes require new prophets, too.

The Ring and the Book I. Stained glass window, Armstrong Browning Library, Baylor University, Waco, Texas

One unexpected pleasure of writing this book lay in the ways it forced me to rethink my ideas about the course of nineteenth-century secularization. I found my assumptions about how to locate cultural sea changes regularly checked by the sheer diversity of its contemporary currents. Scholars like to imagine scientific and interpretative advances of the sort I address here—and, indeed, secularization itself—as marking a clear, unambiguous, forward progression. This very expectation forms a key Victorian legacy.  Yet I slowly became convinced that the arguments against biblical literalism that most shook up Victorian readers had actually appeared well before the nineteenth century, and that the milestones by which we habitually judge their progress (Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830), Bishop Colenso’s study of the Pentateuch (1862), even the works of Darwin himself) stirred such controversies not because of their novelty so much as because of the state of culture in a given moment. That these are major scholarly breakthroughs is without question, but their cultural implications depended upon shifting religious notions and the shifting imaginative horizons of their milieu.

In some respects, the most earth-shaking developments of Victorian intellectual culture were rather behind the times. Consider the famous geological passages from Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850) such as the following:

                                   . . . They say,
The solid earth whereon we tread

In tracts of fluent heat began,
And grew to seeming-random forms
The seeming prey of cyclic storms
Till at the last arose the man.

Victorianists have long appreciated that such passages respond to Robert Chambers’s bestselling Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), and that they grope toward the religious implications of human evolution years before The Origin of Species (1859). But far fewer appreciate how Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had probed its most central implications in late Georgian evolutionary poems called The Botanic Garden (1789-92) and The Temple of Nature (1803), which describe the earth’s flora and fauna—expressly including humankind—as having evolved from more primitive life forms.  Or that William Cowper (a poet of considerably greater stature than Darwin) had long before addressed inconsistencies between Genesis and the geological register in his masterpiece, The Task (1785):

. . . Some drill and bore
The solid earth, and from the strata there
Extract a register, by which we learn
That He who made it and reveal’d its date
To Moses, was mistaken in its age.

*          *          *

. . . And thus they spend
The little wick of life’s poor shallow lamp,
In playing tricks with nature, giving laws
To distant worlds and trifling with their own.

Tennyson’s shocking nineteenth-century geological revelation, that is, is really Cowper’s and Erasmus Darwin’s eighteenth-century one: viz. whereas the Bible suggests the Earth to be a few thousand years old, the geological record makes it a few thousand million, and we all seem to have evolved from prehistoric slime. Cowper dismisses contemporary science here, remarking that God could hardly be “mistaken in [Earth's] age.” But somebody was mistaken, and to Tennyson it no longer looked like the geologists. Tennyson’s universal popularity in the 1850s, by turn, represents an unquestionable popular triumph for the conclusions of contemporary geology, yet the shocking news presented here is yesterday’s news. This is the shock of the belated.

Biblical criticism shows a parallel historical lag in this regard; indeed, it gets there first and waits longer for general acceptance. Take Browning’s daring announcement in “Gold Hair” (1864) that Christians needed to come to terms with a new method for understanding the Bible as a mythological record rather than a straightforward historical one:

The candid incline to surmise of late
That the Christian faith proves false, I find;
For our Essays-and-Reviews’ debate
Begins to tell on the public mind,
And Colenso’s words have weight[.]

These lines advertise the recent conclusions of Bishop Colenso and the clerical authors of Essays and Reviews (1860): arguments for the composite authorship of the Pentateuch and for viewing the Old Testament miracles “with the latitude of poetry” (as Rowland Williams would scandalously put it). But Colenso was reinventing the wheel: the French critic Richard Simon had taken apart the tradition of Mosaic authorship as early as the seventeenth century, and German scholars of the early nineteenth century took this conclusion entirely for granted. In like manner, the Essays and Reviews authors became notorious in Britain for nudging their readers toward the less exceptional conclusions of avant-garde German biblical criticism. And English poets appreciated as much.  Tennyson reasonably urged that the new German insights should be ascribed “not to Strauss, but to Niebuhr, who lived a generation earlier.” Arnold protested in The Function of Criticism at the Present Time that “it is really the strongest possible proof of the low ebb at which, in England, the critical spirit is [that] the book of Bishop Colenso is the critical hit in the religious literature”. And Browning himself had been reading the Germans F. D. E. Schleiermacher and Strauss for decades when he wrote “Gold Hair” (drafts of which he discussed with George Eliot, who became Strauss’s most authoritative translator in 1846).  Browning’s poetry thus signals a preoccupation with the British “public mind”: “Colenso’s words have weight” with the public, and this “weight” drives him to frame his poetic intervention as he does.

The shock of the belated is, in sum, the shock of the Victorian “public mind” at the reframing of its religious culture. To say so is not to minimize the importance of science or criticism—nor of this poetry, which demonstrates an extraordinary verve and which reached an unthinkably large percentage of the literate public by today’s standards. Victorian poetry actually helps to sculpt the course of modern British religion and modern British secularization, not least because it aspires so often, so extraordinarily, and, in select cases, so successfully to the status of sacred text. Barrett Browning, Tennyson, and Browning would come to be hailed as prophetic figures by many of their immediate readers in their very lifetimes. But they reshape the cultural landscape not when biblical literalism becomes untenable to most Victorian scholars or scientists, but when biblical literalism becomes untenable to great sections of the literate public. Biblical criticism, natural science, and this kind of Romantic literature all come of age in the mid-nineteenth century. Chambers and Darwin, Essays and Reviews and Colenso were discussed far more widely than Lyell had been a few decades before them, or Niebuhr a generation before Strauss, or James Hutton a generation before Niebuhr. This context likewise provides the key difference between the most prominent mid-Victorian poets and forward-thinking Romantic eighteenth-century poets like William Blake or Novalis. A poet like Tennyson created a sensation nearly as unimaginable in Blake’s time as it would be in ours.

Victorian poetry provides not just an index of the effects of modern science and biblical criticism—it helps to condition and even sometimes to create those effects. And in doing so, it reminds us just how hard it can be to chart the irregular, variable, and unruly effects of scholarship on culture. Scholars sometimes view this kind of poetry either as a push for secularization or as a rearguard effort to apologize for religion, but from this vantage it looks much more like a gamble upon religion’s potential future. Certainly the extraordinary success of these particular poets raises questions about the meaning of secularization as it takes place in the nineteenth century. In the cases of the most prominent Victorian poets, the clearest markers of secularization ironically also point to the longevity and vigor of religious expression, a circumstance that my work tries to better account for. Literary scholars gravitate toward tidy, smart chronologies. We enjoy breakthroughs, epochs, and turning points much more than we enjoy belated adoptions, gradual siftings, half-achieved permutations. But sometimes the most important breakthroughs, epochs, and turning points are the belated adoptions, siftings, and half-achieved permutations. It is hard not to marvel at Austin’s mid-century arguments that contemporary poets should serve as God’s telegraph operators. But his image points to a significant and powerful nineteenth-century understanding of literary inspiration, an intriguing example of what poetry in a modern culture can mean.

About the Author:

Charles LaPorte is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Washington. His teaching and scholarship is grounded in 19th Century British literature and culture, especially Victorian poetry and poetics. He is the author of Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible.