Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (Routledge by Isobel Armstrong

By Isobel Armstrong

In a piece that's uniquely entire and theoretically astute, Isobel Armstrong rescues Victorian poetry from its longstanding sepia snapshot as `a moralised type of romantic verse', and reveals its usually subversive critique of nineteenth-century tradition and politics.

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40 TENNYSON AND BROWNING IN THE 1830S The ‘flowing’ philosophers were being redefined in terms of the new physics, astronomy and geology at Cambridge. William Whewell, Master of Trinity when Tennyson was at Cambridge, and whose speculations he would have known, was deeply involved in theorising astronomy in terms of flux. He opened up a world in which the stability of the universe could not be guaranteed. The poem is part of this new discourse. Whewell was to write later in volume III of the Bridgewater Treatises (On Astronomy and General Physics, 1833): The fact really is, that changes are taking place in the motions of the heavenly bodies, which have gone on progressively from the first dawn of science….

J. Fox took over the Monthly Repository in the early 1830s (he became editor in 1828 and bought it in 1831) it is clear that its project changed. From being a sectarian and Unitarian organ with radical traditions it became a more overtly political journal with the aim of forging a Utilitarian, Benthamite aesthetic. Fox’s aim was to deepen and enrich the Benthamite tradition by correcting misapprehensions of it and associating it above all with literature. His reading of Benthamism meant in the first place, the dissemination of pleasure in its widest sense, the democratisation of literature and the exploration of the links between literature and politics.

Though both were coterie poets until the 1840s, both dominated the century. Tennyson’s hold on intellectuals loosened in the 1860s after the watershed of the Crimean war, though his general popularity grew. Browning’s appeal was restricted to intellectuals until the 1890s and spread to a wider group subsequently. Even while Tennyson seemed an old-fashioned and tedious writer to young poets, particularly after the publication of Edward Fitzgerald’s version of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in 1859, the aesthetics of the Hallam group was reappropriated and reinterpreted in different ways by other groups almost until the end of the century.

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