Essay On Late Victorian Poetry


In this field, I will make a close study of four major Victorian poets (Tennyson, Browning, Christina Rosetti, and Hopkins) and place them within the context of Victorian intellectual debates about religion, science, and the moral value of Aestheticism. I plan to structure my analysis by reading the four poets in two contrasting pairs. For the earlier pair, Tennyson and Browning, my exploration will focus on the dramatic monologues and long narrative poems; I am interested in the shared project which leads both poets to break from the tradition of Romantic subjectivity and to insist on the primarily dramatic and narrative character of their work. The later pair, Rosetti and Hopkins, allow me to study an important challenge to the dominant poetic model of Tennyson and Browning; Rosetti and Hopkins fuse the impulses of late Victorian Aestheticism and Christian orthodoxy into a renewal and revision of lyric subjectivity, expressed in short forms such as the song and the sonnet. In order to understand how these contrasting poetic projects grew out of, and intervened in, the cultural politics of the Victorian era, I am reading the poets in conjunction with two lists of Victorian nonfiction prose: first, Victorian essays in poetry criticism; second, works that theorize religion, science, history, and aesthetics (Newman, Darwin, Carlyle, etc.). In the context of Victorian intellectual debates, I am particularly interested in tracing the four poets' varying approaches to a particular set of questions: history, religion, time and gender. The radically secular time schemes of Browning and Tennyson (Browning's focus on the mentalities of past historical eras; Tennyson's adaptation of the scientific time spans of evolution and degeneration) are challenged, in the works of Rosetti and Hopkins, by the equally radical restoration of an orthodox Christian time scheme (centering on the sacramental year and on the ever present presence of Incarnation). And, for all four poets, these questions of religion, history, and time are visibly marked by gender and sexuality whether in Browning's imagining of Renaissance Catholic sexuality in The Ring and the Book, or in the first person expression of erotic love for Christ in the writings of the other three poets (a stance which helps to construct Rosetti's womanhood but which problematizes the masculinity of Tennyson and Hopkins).


— Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics
— Gillian Beer, "Origins and Oblivion in Victorian Narrative"
— Carol T. Christ, The Finer Optic: The Aesthetic of Particularity in Victorian Poetry
— Richard Dellamora, Masculine Desire: The Sexual Politics of Victorian Aestheticism
— Mary Finn, Writing the Incommensurable: Kierkegaard, Rosetti and Hopkins
— Anthony H. Harrison, Victorian Poets and the Politics of Culture
— Robert Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition
— Angela Leighton, Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart
— G.B. Tennyson, Victorian Devotional Poetry
— Herbert F. Tucker, "Of Monuments and Moments: Spacetime in Nineteenth Century Poetry"


I. Poetry

Alfred Tennyson:
In Memoriam
Idylls of the King
Break, Break, Break
Supposed Confessions
The Epic/ Morte D'Arthur
The Palace of Art
Locksley Hall
The Lady of Shalott
Tears, Idle Tears
The Lotus Eaters
Demeter and Persephone
The Death of Oenone
The Two Voices
Crossing the Bar

Robert Browning:
The Ring and the Book
Porphyria's Lover
The Englishman in Italy
My Last Duchess
Love Among the Ruins
The Bishop Orders His Tomb
Fra Lippo Lippi
Bishop Bloughram's Apology
Andrea del Sarto
A Grammarian's Funeral
Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came
Caliban Upon Setebos

Christina Rosetti:
Goblin Market
Monna Innominata
Song ("When I am dead, my dearest")
Up Hill
After Death
A Birthday
The Convent Threshhold
The Three Enemies
Paradise: In a Dream
A Dirge
The Thread of Life
In an Artist's Studio
De Profundis
Winter: My Secret
A Christmas Carol
The Heart Knoweth Its Own Bitterness
A Better Resurrection
At Home

Gerard Manley Hopkins:
The Wreck of the Deutschland
Let me be to Thee as the circling Bird
The Habit of Perfection
Spring and Fall
Heaven Haven
As kingfishers catch fire
The Starlight Night
Carrion Comfort
The Windhover
To seem the stranger lies my lot
Pied Beauty
No worst, there is none
Hurrahing in Harvest
My own heart let me have more pity on
Binsey Poplars
I wake and feel the fell of dark
God's Grandeur
Patience, hard thing
The May Magnificat
Thou art indeed just, Lord
Morning, Midday, and Evening Sacrifice
That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire
The Blessed Virgin Mary Compared to the Air We Breathe

II. Victorian poetry criticism:

Matthew Arnold, "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time"
— "The Defects of English Romanticism" (from "Heinrich Heine")
— "Preface" to the First Edition of Poems (1853)
— "Preface" to the Second Edition of Poems (1854)
— "Tennyson and Wordsworth" (from On Translating Homer: Last Words)
— "The Study of Poetry"
Alfred Austin, The Poetry of the Period
Walter Bagehot, "Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Browning"
Robert Browning, "Essay on Shelley"
A.H. Hallam, "On Some of the Characteristics of Modern Poetry"
Gerard Manley Hopkins, selected letters and journals (with commentary on Tennyson, Browning, and C. Rosetti)
Henry James, "The Novel in The Ring and the Boob"
J.S. Mill, "Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties"
Walter Pater, "Aesthetic Poetry"
— "Postscript" to Appreciations (on the terms "classical" and "romantic")
John Ruskin, from Modern Painters (on Browning; on the "pathetic fallacy")
Oscar Wilde, "The Critic as Artist"

II. Victorian intellectual debates (history, religion, science, Aestheticism):

Thomas Carlyle, "Signs of the Times"
— "On History"
Charles Darwin, selections from The Origin of Species
George Eliot, "Introduction" to Strauss' Life of Jesus (on religion and historical truth)
Charles Lyell, selections from Principles of Geology
J.H. Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua
Walter Pater, selections from The Renaissance ("Preface"; "Leonardo da Vinci;" "Conclusion")
John Ruskin, "The Nature of Gothic" (from Stones of Venice) selections from Modern Painters (on ways of seeing)

Break, Break, Break” by Alfred Lord Tennyson

There is nothing worse than inability to tell about the sorrow, that tears the soul to painful pieces. The unspeakable pain is expressed in the poem Break, Break, Break by Alfred Lord Tennyson written during early 1835 and published in 1842 (, 2015). The title of the poem allows to make assumptions concerning the genre of lyric (a philosophical poem). The theme of the poem is to express the Tennyson’s feelings of melancholy along with his feelings of nostalgia after his friend died. The idea of this poem consists in expressing the insignificancy of human life in comparison with the infinite of entity.

This poem is typically Victorian in its subject (death and sorrow), tone (elegiac), expression (lyrical), theme (despair) and its musical quality (, 2015). The lyrical hero is associated with poet. The poem written in four stanzas of four lines each. The title Break, Break, Break repeated throughout the poem and, on the one side, used to describe the waves, which symbolize a force that “breaks” up Tennyson’s friends and him. On the other side, the poet’s thoughts seem to break up on his tongue before he can explain how he feels. (“I would that my tongue could utter The thoughts that arise in me”). This connection between the sea (as a symbol of eternity) and the poet is reinforced by the fact that “sea” rhymes with “me” (Shaw, 1976). In addition, the two lines about the sea and the two lines about the poet have the same three-beat rhythm (Anon, 2015).

In stanza two, there are two images that express the continuance of usual life (the fisherman’s boy is playing and the sailor lad the sings), but the grief of the poet remains. In the third stanza, the poet says that the majestic ships fly on their destination under the hill. The indirect reference to the friend, through phrases such as “a vanish’d hand” and “a voice that is still,” lifts the expression to a universal level.

In the forth stanza he is standing near the spot of his friend’s burial on the seashore but he would never enjoy the tender beauty of the days when his friend was alive (“… will never come back to me”).

There are such vivid and emotional images in the poem: visual (“gray stones,” “fisherman’s boy,” “sister at play,” “sailor,” “boat,” “ships,” “haven under the hill,” “sea”); auditory (“tongue utter,” “shouts,” “sings,” “the sound the voice”) and tactile (“cold,” “the touch of a vanish’d hand”). There are also some references to abstract concepts: “a hand” symbolizes friendship, “sea”- eternity, “boat” – people’s life.

The figures of speech and stylistic devices help to create the imagery of the poem: personification as a variety of metaphor (“thoughts arise”); epithets (“cold, grey”) that are more logical attributes characterize the object and imposing on reader. Oxymoron (the tender grace of a day than dead) expresses the feeling of displeasure, pity, regret; ordinary repetition (“break”) emphasizes the emotional meaning.

Polysyndeton (repeated use of conjunctions (“for,” “and,” “but”) has strong rhythmic impact. Alliteration “b-h-d” expresses deep sorrow, “s-l-sh”- the sounds of sea, “o-ai”- lament.  Syntactically the line is a broken sentence. The rhyming scheme is “abcb,” but in the second stanza, the rhyme also adds up to “aaba.”

Break, Break, Break is one of the great short lyrics. It has somber music, vivid pictures, and profound feeling, expressed in a style marked by simplicity, economy, and directness of appeal. All elements and aspects (phonological, syntactic, semantic and stylistic) of the poem are integrated.


1., (2015). Alfred, Lord Tennyson : The Poetry Foundation. Available    at:

2. Anon, (2015).Available at:.

3., (2015). Salient Features of Victorian Literature. Available at:

4. Mustard, W. (1899). Tennyson and Virgil. The American Journal of Philology, 20(2), p.186.

5. Shaw, W. (1976). Tennyson’s Style. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

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