VICTORIAN PROSE

The Victorian Period, almost coincident in extent with the reign of the queen whose name it bears (Queen Victoria 1837-1901), stands nearly beside The Elizabethan Period in the significance and interest of its work. The first great figure in prose, in the period, and one of the most clearly-defined and striking personalities in English Literature, is Thomas Babington Macaulay, who represents in the fullest degree the Victorian vigor and delight in material progress, but is quite untouched by the Victorian spiritual striving. The intense spiritual striving which was so foreign to Macaulay’s practical nature first appears among the Victorians in the Scotsman Thomas Carlyle, a social and religious prophet, lay-preacher, and prose-poet, one of the most eccentric but one of the most stimulating of all English writers. In 1825 his first important work, a Life of Schiller, was published. The first of Carlyle’s chief works, Sartor Resartus came next. The title is allegorical, and Teufeldrockh, the hero, is really Carlyle. The clothes metaphor (borrowed from Swift) sets forth the central mystical or spiritual principle toward which German philosophy had helped Carlyle, the idea, namely, that all material things, including all the customs and forms of society, such as government and formalized religion, are merely the comparatively insignificant garments of the spiritual reality and the spiritual life on which men should center their attention. In 1834 Carlyle moved to London, where he first published The French Revolution. Here as in most of his later works, Carlyle throws emphasis on the power great personalities. During the next years he took advantage of his success by giving courses of lectures on Literature and history, though he disliked the task and felt himself unqualified as a speaker. Of these courses the most important was that on “Heroes and Hero-worship”, in which he clearly stated the doctrine that the strength of humanity is in its strong men, the natural leaders, equipped to rule by power of intellect of spirit and of executive force.

Among the other great Victorian writers the most obvious disciple of Carlyle in his opposition to the materialism of modern life is John Ruskin. But John Ruskin is much more than any man’s disciple; and he also contrasts strongly with Carlyle, first because a large part of his life was devoted to the study of Art- he is single great art-critic in English Literature- and also because he is one of the great preachers and of the nineteenth century humanitarianism at which Carlyle won’t sneer. His own practice in watercolour drawing led him as a mere youth to a devoted admiration for the landscape paintings of the contemporary artist J.M.W. Turner. Turner, a romantic revolutionist against the eighteenth century theory of the grand style, was then little appreciated; and when Ruskin left the university he began, with characteristic enthusiasm , an article on ‘Modern Painters’ designed to demonstrate Turner’s superiority to all possible rivals. In the intervals of this work Ruskin published others less comprehensive, two of which are of the first importance. ‘The Seven Lamps of Architecture’ argues that great art, as the supreme expression of life, is the result of seven moral and religious principles. “The Stones of Venice” is an impassioned exposition of the beauty of Venetian Gothic architecture, and here as always Ruskin expresses his vehement preference for the Gothic art of the Middle Ages as contrasted with the less original and as it seems to him less sincere style of the Renaissance.

Contemporary with Carlyle and Ruskin and fully worthy to rank with them stands still a third great preacher of social and spiritual regeneration, Mathew Arnold. His essays fall into four classes, literary, social, religious and political, though they cannot always be sharply distinguished. Some of his essays like, those on “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time”‘, “Wordsworth” and “Bryon” , are among the best in English while his “Essays on Translating Homer’ present the most famous existing interpretation of the spirit and style of the Greek epics. In his social essays, of which the most important from the volume entitled “Culture and Anarchy”, the contemporary English life presented as being in a state of moral chaos. he held that the English people had been too much occupied with the ‘Hebraic’ ideal and disregarded the Hellenic(Greek) ideal of a perfectly rounded nature. He found that one actual tendency of modern democracy was to ‘let people do as they liked’, which, given the crude violence of the populace naturally resulted in lawlessness and therefore threatened anarchy. Culture, on the other hand, includes the strict discipline of the will and the sacrifice of one’s own impulses for the good of all, which means respect for Law and devotion to the State. Existing democracy, therefore, he attacked with unsparing irony, but he did not condemn its principle.

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