English Literature Of The 19th Century:
John Richard Green
Alexander William Kinglake
Poets Of The Later Victorian Period
Algernon Charles Swinburne
Sir Edwin Arnold
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Poets Of The Later Victorian Period
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Down to the last decade of the Century the two great poets who are the literary glory of the Victorian era survived in revered old age, and still sent forth poems worthy of their fame. But their lives and works have already been discussed and others claim attention. A general characteristic of these later poets, as indeed of nearly all poets of the Century, is the tendency to recur to the past for themes of their important works. This is partly an imaginative escape from the recognized ills or prosaic monotony of the present, just as poets of former days sung of the Golden Age. But it is partly due to the increased knowledge of history, which, in these days of books and universal education, is forced upon everybody. Hence latter-day poets revert to King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, to the quest of the Holy Grail, to mediaeval legends, to classical mythology and Icelandic sagas.
Another characteristic is the frequency of imitation, the distinct following of an earlier poet, or of Words-worth, Tennyson, or even Browning, as a master. This is due to the spread of criticism and the careful study of the thought and art of those who have been awarded admission to high station in the temple of the Muses. The beauty of their work being acknowledged, it is regarded as the duty of others to learn wherein it consists, then follows imitation, conscious and unconscious. Even Matthew Arnold, a poet of ability, was overborne by his critical spirit and study of his predecessors. Such poets remember too much of what others have sung, and waste their own talents in striving to reproduce the effect of the songs hallowed by associations.
The greatest poets of this time, except the first two, are Swinburne and William Morris, both highly educated, and both decidedly musical. Swinburne, indeed, is the greatest musician in English verse, the most complete master of both words and meter. His work is chiefly lyrical, but he has also composed excellent dramas. Morris was an epic poet, but chose to present his narrative poems in rhyme, with occasional lyrics interspersed. Besides these there have been several poets who have introduced new forms and measures from old French verse. Some of them have gone on to more serious work in poetry, others have turned to writing light essays. The period has been full of experiments, and taken altogether, poetry has declined. This was proved, perhaps, when Tennyson died, for three years passed before one was found worthy to take his place. The two mentioned above were, of course, excluded for their pronounced political opinions, Swinburne being a Republican, and William Morris a Socialist. So the highest official honor which can be given to an English poet passed after a long pause to Alfred Austin, who then, at the age of sixty, first became known to the world.
A curious but exquisitely pleasing mixture of old fashions and modern style is found in the work of Austin Dobson. His poems have been chiefly vers de société and imitations of old French meter. In prose he has written biographies of English literary men, and studies of four French women, all belonging to the same period as his "Eighteenth Century Vignettes." Austin Dobson was born at Plymouth in 184o, studied civil engineering, and has held office in the Board of Trade. He began writing in 1868, but published no volume till 1873, when his "Vignettes in Rhyme" were collected. Another collection is called "At the Sign of the Lyre" (1885).
His friend, Edmund Gosse, born in 1849, was in youth an assistant librarian at the British Museum, and wrote poems and essays for the periodicals. He afterward be-came translator to the Board of Trade. Poems collected in several volumes "On Viol and Flute" (1873), "Firdausi in Exile" (1885), show his skill as a lyrist. In many of them Old French metrical forms are used. His "Studies in the Literature of Northern Europe" (1879) are the result of travels in Sweden and Norway. Other books treat of English literature in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, in which he is an acknowledged authority. Thorough knowledge of his subject and delicate skill in handling mark all his work.