Thursday, February 3, 2011

Why be Romantic When You Can be Victorian?

While Victorian writers displayed immense knowledge of the English language (and how to manipulate it to evoke emotion), they did not display the whimsical creativity that the Romantics had only a generation before. Writing about places like Kubla Khan, a 'lady in the meads', or personifying clouds like William Wadsworth Longfellow seemed more of a luxury than a necessity. What seemed to concern the Victorian poets were social issues of the day.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "The Cry of the Children" is a poem that summarizes child labor taking place in coal mines and factories. The conditions the children had to endure were horrific, ultimately leading to a death they knew was soon to come: "'True' say the children, 'it may happen That we die before our time," (Greenblatt et al, 2006). Each child would lead a short and brutal life in the poem, not even being allotted a proper funeral for their troubles: "Her grave is shapen like a snowball, in the rime," (Greenblatt et al, 2006).

Rudyard Kipling had strong feelings about imperialism and why he thought it was needed, and he let those feelings be known in his poem, "The White Man's Burden". "Fill full the mouth of famine/ And bid the sickness cease," (Greenblatt et al, 2006); Kipling had noble intentions about the savage countries he thought to be filled with "sullen peoples/ Half-devil and half-child," (Greenblatt et al, 2006). From a more objective view, his poem was more patronizing and oppressive than it was an ode to aide the needy impoverished.

The Victorian poets were creative, but they used their creativity in different ways compared to the Romantics. Victorians did not merely want to bring art and beauty to the world via prose; they wanted to change the world. It was an understandable perspective, considering the world around the Victorians was changing greatly. Technology was helping to reshape the world, making it a smaller and less mysterious place, and one worthy of critique.

Greenblatt, S., et al. (Eds.) (2006). The Norton anthology of English literature (8th ed., Vol.2). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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