The Victorian Age 1833-1901 Background

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The Victorian Age

  • 1833-1901


  • “British History is 2,000 years old, and yet in a good many ways the world has moved farther ahead since the Queen was born than it moved in all the rest of the two thousand put together.”
    • Mark Twain (visiting London in 1897)
  • The period during the reign of Queen Victoria was a time of tremendous change in England.

Historical Context

  • During the Victorian age, England becomes the most powerful country in the world
  • London grows from 2 million to 6.5 million people
  • Shift from a land based economy to a trade and manufacturing based economy
  • Rapid industrialization

Rise Of Industry

  • Innovations: Steam railroads, iron ships, the telegraph, photography, anesthetics, universal compulsory education
  • England was the first country to become industrialized  increase in both wealth and social problems
    • Unchecked industry led to horrible working conditions in factories, crowded cities and slums.
    • “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.”

Rise Of The Empire

  • Wealth growth of British Empire
  • Money allowed England to tap into markets all over the world
  • Increased manufacturing, shipping (early outsourcing)
  • Development of colonies – by 1890, England controlled more than ¼ of the land on earth
  • 1 out of every 4 people was a subject of Queen Victoria – the English influence was enormous
  • “The White Man’s burden” – need to civilize and evangelize the “natives” of colonized countries

The Empire, 1900

Queen Victoria

  • Namesake of the period
    • Reigned from 1837-1901
  • Defined the values of the age:
    • Moral responsibility, propriety, domesticity
    • Mother to 9 children
    • Wore black mourning clothes for 40 years after her husband’s death

Queen Victoria

Social Changes

  • Age of Reforms
    • 1832 – right to vote to all men owning property
    • 1867 – restructuring of Parliament to include more middle class
    • Working classes still suffer
    • Women still largely ignored
    • 1859 – Charles Darwin publishes The Origin of the Species  people begin to question faith and long-held beliefs about humanity

Victorian Literature

  • Realism
    • Romanticism now mainstream
    • Focus on ordinary people
    • Reflected trend toward democracy and middle-class audience
      • “The Lady of Shallot” by Tennyson: the artist must experience reality / critique of “pure” imagination
  • Naturalism
    • Scientific observation in the literary sphere
    • Texts full of nitty, gritty details, often with goal of promoting social reform
    • Nature portrayed as harsh and indifferent to human suffering
      • Vs. Romantics?
  • Pre-Raphaelites
    • Turned away from Realism
    • Embraced spiritual intensity of medieval Italian art

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

  • 1809-1892
  • From a poor family
  • Attended Cambridge
  • When Wordsworth died, Queen Victoria named Tennyson the poet laureate of England and gave him the title of “Lord”
  • Considered by his contemporaries to be the voice of the Victorian Age
  • Time of rapid change  poets look to past for inspiration and as a means of understanding the present

“The Lady of Shalott”

  • Based on Arthurian legend
  • Indirectly, a commentary of the role of the creative artist in society

Robert Browning

  • 1812-1899
  • No formal education – made use of his father’s extensive library
  • Married to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, also a poet
  • Decided to be a poet as a teenager, but his poetry didn’t attract much notice until the 1860s
  • Late in life recognized as the equal of Tennyson among Victorian poets

“My Last Duchess”

  • Dramatic monologue
    • Poem in which a single character delivers a speech
    • The speaker indirectly reveals aspects of his character
    • There is a silent listener, addressed by the speaker
  • Browning’s poem based on the Duke of Ferrara, a 16th century Italian nobleman
  • In the poem, a man is addressing the agent who represents the father of the woman he hopes to marry
  • His first wife or “last duchess” is dead…

Charles Dickens

  • No writer since Shakespeare has been so hugely popular
  • Critical and commercial success
  • Worked in factory as a child
    • Ills of industrialization figure prominently in his work
  • The novel was the most popular genre during the Victorian period, and he was the most popular and influential novelist
  • Memorable characters
  • Novel: long work of fiction with a complex plot (often featuring subplots and multiple settings), major and minor characters, and a significant overall theme
  • Social Criticism: writing that calls attention to society’s ills

Matthew Arnold

  • 1822-1888
  • Attended Oxford
  • Equally famous for poetry and prose – wrote essays of social criticism
    • Culture and Anarchy (1869): attack on Victorian complacency and materialism; argues that culture should open our minds to what is true and valuable
  • Poetry marked by cynicism and doubt

Matthew Arnold

  • More features of poetry:
    • p. 889: anxieties of Victorian Period
    • Focuses on the isolation of individuals from one another and from society
    • Feelings of loneliness and isolation
    • Insignificance of man in an uncaring universe
    • Desire for society to improve, but unsure that it can
    • Captures the doubts of the Victorian age
    • Sees himself as
    • “Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
    • The other powerless to be born,
    • With nowhere yet to rest my head”
    • (“Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” 85-88)
    • “Dover Beach”

Matthew Arnold – “Dover Beach”

  • What is the situation of the poem? (What is the speaker doing?)
  • What sound devices are most prevalent in the first stanza of the poem?
  • What is suggested by the line “Gleams and is gone”?
  • Describe the imagery in the second stanza. What words in particular suggest this imagery? What is the mood of this stanza?
  • What did Sophocles “hear” in the sea?
  • What does Arnold mean by “Sea of Faith”?
  • How does the third stanza reflect the growing doubt and uncertainty of the Victorian period?
  • In the final stanza, what does the speaker propose as an answer to the doubt and uncertainty? How can we counter this anxiety?
  • What do the final lines suggest about the “modern” world?
  • Compare Arnold’s reaction to the ocean to Byron’s in “Apostrophe to the Ocean” (pp.720-23)

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