Chief Characteristics Of Victorian Criticism

The Age: “Crisis of Culture”:

Criticism as a Means of Social Regeneration Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 and she ruled England till her death in 1901. The beginning of her reign coincided with far reaching economic, social, scientific and literary changes which not only transformed English social life, but also had far reaching, impact on literature and literary criticism. The growth of evolutionary and biological science and rationalism, played havoc with religious faith. Faith in old ideals and values was shaken so that one can say with Tennyson that the older order was changing yielding place to the new. Technological advancement ushered in the Industrial Revolution which brought in its wak unprecedented material prosperity but it also brought in the evils of unfettered capitalism, materialism and mammon-worship. in its worst form. It meant over-crowding in big industrial cities and the consequent moral and social problems, the coexistence of the extremes of poverty and wealth, resulting in class tensions, the despoiling of the face of nature, and the resulting loss of the sense of beauty. Therefore. despite the flow of wealth and imperialist expansion, despite faith in steady and unlimited progress, discontent and a feeling of social insecurity was widespread.

There was a ‘crisis of culture’ and critics, like Matthew Arnold pondered over the role of literary criticism in the present age. They felt that, as against the romantic criticism of the older generation, criticism in the new age must draw closer to life and make life nobler and better. Literary criticism to be worthwhile must serve the ends of life, and promote a better understanding of cultural values and thus bring about social regeneration. Poetry must be, criticism of life, it must answer the question, “How to live”? Which is, in essence, a moral question. Critics, like Ruskin and Carlyle, sought to give a religious and moral bias to literary criticism in order to overcome the current degradation and disintegration of values and ideals. Victorian literature reflects Victorian life, and Victorian literary criticism seeks to make, that life better and nobler by propagating the best that was ever thought and written.

The Decay of the Romantic Tradition: Search for Order and Balance:

With the memory of the horrors of the French Revolution still fresh in their minds, the Victorians had a passion for law and order. They wanted progress but a steady, ordered progress, healthy evolution, and not a bloody revolution. A disciplined nation must respect authority; it must obey rules and regulations. This passion for law and order is also reflected in the literary criticism of the age. This respect for authority and adhorrence for all lawlessness was also fostered by the decay and decline of Romanticism. By the time Queen Victoria came to the throne, the great romantics were either dead, or had ceased to produce. The great romantic critics like Coleridge, Lamb, and Hazlitt had done admirable work. But they had written according to their own light; they had no other guides except their own critical acumen and insight. In the hands of the lesser critics, the romantic individualistic criticism degenerated into sheer waywardness and licence. It became lop-sided, unbalanced, erratic. capricious and whimsical. The excesses and extravagances of the lesser critics of the older school, naturally resulted in a re-action in favour of a criticism which would be more orderly and balanced, and would have certain ideals and standards of excellence as its guides. However, this did not mean a return to the old “Neo-classical” rules. If the Romantic criticism was erratic and lawless, the older criticism allowed no freedom to the critic. It was to rigid and hide-bound.

Foreign Influences: The Method of Sainte-Beuve :

Thus the Victorian search in literary criticism, as in matters religious and social. was a search for compromise, for the golden mean. And in this they were helped by certain influences which flowed in from abroad. English literary criticism has always been fertilised and given new life and vitality by continental influences. The Italian influence during the Renaissance, the French during the Neo-classical era, and the German during the romantic. all bear witness to the truth of this statement. The materialistic and positivist philosophy of Saint Simon and Auguste Comte, with its stress on facts and the reality of the physical word, reinforced the teaching of science and undermined the romantic and idealistic forces. This trend towards realism and matter-of-factness, which we witness in Victorian criticism, was further supported and strengthened by the critical methods of two French critics, Taine and Sainte-Beuve. Both these critics emphasised the importance of the historical and biographical context for assessing a work of art. According to Taine, the race, the millieu, and the moment determine a writer’s work and so they must be studied thoroughly for right understanding and appreciation. This method appealed to Arnold and other Victorian critics, for it was a sort of compromise between romantic licence and neo-classic rigidity. The critic will not be free to judge in an off hand manner. He would have to study and take pains in order to know the man and his environment. But he would not be hampered and limited by any rigid rules. Having acquired the necessary knowledge, he would have ample freedom to proceed in his own way. Lawlessness and caprice would be put down, but individual freedom would not be suppressed.

The Dual Trend:

The scientific rationalism and materialistic philosophy undermined romanticism, romatic trends were not entirely eradicated. In fact, these two opposite and contradictory tendencies existed side by side both in Victorian literature, and literary criticism. There are writers like Macaulay, John Stuart Mill, Huxley, John Morley. Herbert Spencer, who express the rationalistic and materialistic trends of the age. The opposite way of thought-the romantic-idealistic-is represented by writers like Ruskin, Carlyle, Pater, Addington, Symonds. Arthur Symons, and the Pre-Raphaelites. Arnold occupies a middle position between the two. He has the moral concern of the second group, but not their romantic negation of life and reality; he has the realism of the first group, but has no faith in their materialistic philosophy. Rather, he would like to correct the evils of excessive materialism by making poetry a “Criticism of life”, by making the best and noblest ideas prevail through his literary criticism.

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Complexity: The Role of the Reviewers :

The Victorian literary scene is a curiously complex one with a number of currents and cross- currents cutting across each other. This complexity is futher increased by the role of the reviewers. The Reviews had been there since the very beginning of the century, but they enjoyed nothing of the multiplicity, popularity, and influence of the Reviews in the new age. The Edinburgh Review The Quaterly The Monthly Review, etc., are the names of a few of the most influential of the Reviews. The Reviews did valuable service. With the rise of democracy and the spread of education, a new class of causal readers-readers who had no time to read a full scale book- sprang into prominence, and the Reviews fulfilled admirably the needs of this class. Hence they enjoyed a wide circulation. They also served the causal writer who had not the time or the inclination to write a book..

Inferiority of Periodical Criticism: Abundance of Output:

The Reviews had the service of fairly well-read and competent writers at their disposal. Some of the reviews are excellent and of a high order. But on the whole the literary criticism they published is strangely muddle- headed, strangely blind to literary worth and excellence. The chief cause which accounts for the inferiority of Periodical criticism is the extreme partiality and bigotry of the reviewers. Their personal literary, political, religious prejudices and loyalties carried them off their feet, with the result that they indulged in virulent and violent, inactive and vicious fault-finding. Moreover, as most of the articles were published anonymously, the reviewers lacked any sense of responsibility There was abundance of output, but a corresponding paucity of standards. Non-literary interests penetrate literary criticism and spoil it. There is nothing like pure literary criticism in the Victorian era. Politics, economics, science, history, religion, passion for social reform, interests in other Arts, all mix up with literary criticism to its detriment.

Evolution of Victorian Criticism

(a) The First Stage:

A brief survey of Victorian scene reveals that literary criticism during the age easily falls into three clear-cut and distinct stages the early Victorian, the mid-Victorian, and the later Victorian The early Victorian era [1835-1860) is a period of the decay and decline of literary criticism. There is practically no talented critic, and no outstanding work of literary criticism. The only names worth mentioning are those of Keble and Brimley No doubt. Macaulay, Carlyle, and John Stuart Mill belong to this age, but they are not literary critics. Their literary criticism, though of a high standard, is only incidental; their interests are historical, social or philosophical.

(b) The Middle Phase Arts for Life’s Sake’:

To the middle period (1860-1880) belong Arnold and Ruskin, both outstanding thinkers and scholars. Of these two, Ruskin is more an art critic than a literary critic, though his literary criticism too is illuminating and original. Ruskin considered that art to be the greatest, which conveyed to the reader the greatest number of the greatest ideas. Thus he could achieve a synthesis or compromise between art and morality. This very compromise Arnold did achieve by advocating that poetry should be a criticism of life, and that criticism should propagate the best that ever was thought or written.

(c) The Later Phase-Art for Art’s Sake’

In the third phase (1880-1900) this synthesis is broken, and the cult of “Art for Art’s sake, as distinguished from the earlier cult of “Art for life’s sake”, acquires prominence. Pater and Oscar Wilde are the most power exponents of this cult. They stand in the front rank of the English aesthetes, who made the pursuit of Beauty to the total exclusion of life and reality, the concern of their art. The ultimate source of this school of art for art’s sake may be traced to the Idealistic philosophy of Kant and other German philosophers. Now it was revived under the influence of the French critic Gautier, and the French symbolist Baudelaire. The critics of this school sought refuge from the ugliness and harshness of reality in the realm of art. Their method of evaluation is largely individual and impressionistic.

Academic Criticism:

To the later Victorian phase also belong a number of able and scholarly university professors who devoted themselves to literary criticism. Their work lacks originality, but they are talented scholars. They collect their facts painstakingly, and their methods are scientific and systematic. Leslie Stephen. Edward Dowden. George Saintsbury, David Masson, are only a few of these illustrious names. Their contribution is of far-reaching significance in as much as they bring facts to light, and make us see things in their correct perspective.



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