Monday, December 27, 2010

The Naughty Nineties in English Literature

Lo! how upon Parnassus 'slopes they romp.
The sons of Wat, Dow, David, John, and Thomp.
The last decade of the nineteenth century was characterised less by "naughtiness" than revolt, decadence, and not a little confusion. The age of Queen Victoria extended beyond the end of the nineteenth century, but in the last ten years of the century many powerful forces could be seen at work pulling down the edifice of Victorianism.
The process of destruction (partly; Tor reconstruction) was attended with quite a bit of uneasiness. Therefore we can easily agree with Joseph Warren Beach that the last years of the nineteenth century were "the somewhat miscellaneous and uneasy period." Some ultra-Radicals like Oscar Wilde could be called "naughty", too, but the revolt or transition in its totality cannot be decorated with the same epithet. For that matter, most of the outstanding Victorians had been critics and revolutionaries who stood against their time-spirit. Carlyle, Ruskin, Arnold, and Rossetti may be noted in this context. On the other hand, those who, more or less, identified themselves with this spirit-Miacaulay and Tennyson, for instance- are now ranked lower.
The Nature of the Revolt:
"Victorianism" is a complex agglomeration of several values, and the revolt of the nineties against Victorianism is also quite complex. According to Compton-Rickett, this revolt has three prongs. First, it reiterates the old revolutionary formula of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, in a new setting. Secondly, it worships power rather than beauty. And thirdly, it challenges the older values of art and life. But such generalisations touch but a party of reality-as most generalisations do. However, our point holds that in the nineties there was abroad a spirit of criticism, scrutiny, and revolt. The "Victorian Compromise," was on top of the casualty list. In the socio-political field Gladstonian Liberal pacificism gave place to commercial imperialism. The Fabian Movement exalted enlightened socialism. Orthodox morality and priggishness associated with typical Victorians were swept away and a less restricted moral code was put into operation by a number of literatures. The Victorian conflict between Faith and Science which had disturbed sensitive souls like Matthew Arnold was now resolved-mostly in favour of Science, but in a few cases, in favour of Faith. Formerly, even agnostics like T. H. Huxley had to take notice of religion, even if only to criticise it. But now the attitude became one of indifference rather than of criticism or active acceptance. But all these revolutionary tendencies were not a harmonious lot. At many points they crisscrossed each other, and they affected different men of letters in different ways. For example, socialism and egalitarianism could not go well with imperialism.Oscar Wilde was a protagonist of the Aesthetic Movement, and yet he was a keen socialist. Rudyard Kipling was a blatant imperialist, but had connexions with the Pre-Raphaelites. The Fabians, like the Webbs and Shaw, supported the capitalistic Liberals and even their imperialistic wing. In a word, the revolt of the nineties looks to us confused-but not so "naughty."
The Literary Tendencies:
The nineties were a period of hectic literary activity. Poetry and the novel flourished well-as they did in the previous years of the Victorian age. But the period also witnessed a revival of the drama. The Aesthetic Movement of Pater and Oscar Wilde was calculated to wean literature from the usual Victorian tendency of dealing with social questions, and to exalt the sense of beauty, especially of literary form. There was also a movement for the revival of Irish literature in which Moore and Yeats played major roles. In poetry some voices echoing the past could also be heard, but, mostly, the tendency was to make new experiments. The same was the case with the department of fiction. In the literature of the nineties, considered as a whole, two distinct tendencies (among a welter of others) may be especially noted:
(1)        The pessimistic tendency found in the work of Hardy, Housman, Gissing, and others.
 (2)       The Continental tendency. The men of letters in the age looked more and more towards France. The older Victorians were mostly insular, making exception for the limited influence of Germany. But now the Russian Tolstoy and the Scandinavian Ibsen came to be admired and emulated.
Let us not consider at some length the achievement of the nineties in various departments of creative literature.
Many new tendencies are discernible in the poetry of the nineties. Even then, this department of literature is, of all, the most conservative--mainly perhaps because of the reason that however revolutionary a poet may be, he has to draw upon a fund of poetic language and other apparatus established and sanctified by a long tradition and more or less well set in the mind of the reader. In this period we hear the voices of such traditionalists as Stephen Philips (1864-1915) and Robert Bridges (1844-1930). Philips'Poems (1897) have pronounced echoes of the great Victorian masters. Bridges, the Poet Laureate, was a very conscious artist, but like the Cavalier lyricists he combined artistry and spontaneity with felicitous results.
Religious Poets:
Among the poets who used and even advanced the traditional Victorian poetic techniques may be mentioned the two Roman Catholic poets-Francis Thompson (1859-1907) and Alice Meynell (1850-1922) who were influenced by Coventry Patmore, and some of whose best poems were published in the nineties. Thompson often recalls the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century-particularly Crashaw. He is bold, colourful, and even flamboyant. Alice Meynell wrote about love as well as religion. But her work is just mediocre.
The Pessimists:
The pessimistic poets of the nineties fall into a group of their own. They include Hardy (1848-1928), John Davidson (1859-1905), Ernest Dowson (1867—1900), A. E. Housman (1859-1936), and sonic lesser ones. After the adverse reception to his last novel Jude the Obscure Hardy gave the rest of his life to poetry. His Wessex Poems appeared in 1898, but his highest poetical achievement The Dynasts came only in the twentieth century. Hardy, as Legouis says, "was the poet of disillusionment." His poetry has the quality of sincerity and technical excellence. Davidson' s Fleet Street Eclogues (1893 -96) and Ballads and Songs (1894) are also filled with pessimism. Davidson, say Grierson and Smith, was "a little of the spasmodic, apt when strongly moved and angry to overspur his Pegasus and grow a little shrill." However, he is splendid quite often, particularly in his ballads. Dowson was particularly influenced by Verlaine, the cynical French poet of the nineteenth century. Housman's Shropshire Lad came out in 189? The work is steeped in a stoically pessimistic spirit. In it, to quote Joseph Warren Beach, "the fragrance of gallant youth and love is distilled in the glittering alembic of fate and death, and 'gather ye rosebuds' sung to_a bitter but haunting tune."
The Imperialists:
Among the "imperialists" the most outstanding were Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) and W. H. Henley (1849-1903) who, to use the words of Legouis, were "poets of effort and action." Kipling was bom in India and was for a number of years editor of the daily Civil and Military Gazette of Lahore. His Barrack-Room Ballads and the Seven Seas were published in the nineties. In his exquisite mastery of rhythm he comes close to Swinburne. Henley in The Song of the Sword (1892) tried to breathe the spirit of adventure into prosaic people. His poetry is not only robust but robustious. His typical note rings in the following lines:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods maybe
For my unconquerable soul.
The Decadents:
Lastly, we have to consider briefly the group of poets known as the "decadents." They were influenced by Pater's aestheticism, but their acknowledged leader was Oscar Wilde. They published a periodical, The Yellow Book, which continued between 1894 and 1897. The periodical was illustrated by Aubery Beardsley. The decadents loved to shock the reader's morality, and, as such, wrote on daring subjects in a daring manner which amply fulfilled, their desire.
The spirit of revolt is much tnore intense in the fiction than the poetry of the eighteen-nineties. Tljiis revolt in fiction is, according to Moody and Lovett, two-fold.
(1)        First, there is the tendency to "restore the spirit of romance to the novel." This tendency is shown by such novelists as Conrad, tevenson, Barrie, and Kipling.
(2)        The second tendency is shown by such writers as Wells, Bennett, and Galsworthy. "These writers regarded the novel as a social document, and in some cases as a medium of propaganda." Previous to them such Victorian novelists as George Eliot, Charles Reade, and Charles Kingsley had done the same. But what distinguishes the social critics and propagandists of the nineties "is the severity of their criticism and the depth of their antipathy to the age in which they had grown up nd which they chose to depict."
" The First Group:
R. L. Stevenson's Island Nights Entertainment, The Ebb Tide, and DavidBalfour appeared in the nineties. These novels are gripping stories of adventure, and are full of the spirit ofjoie de vivre which makes them interesting reading for the juveniles. Kipling's stories are also interesting -especially those with an Indian setting which he knew so well. Sir J. M. Barrie's The Little Minister (1891) and Sentimental Tommy (1896) appeared in the nineties. His novels are mostly the psychological studies of their heroes, though the element of adventure is also very much there. Conrad's novels concern the adventures of sea-life but they are not just stories of adventure or action. Joseph Warren Beach observes: "What most fascinated him was the soul of man struggling desperately with the vast indifferent forces of nature, or still better with subtle lures of his own spirit—power, prestige, ambition, cowardice, or sheer malevolence." Thus his novels have a depth absent from the flashy stories of Stevenson and Kipling.
The Second Group:
H. G. Wells wrote novels of science as well as of serious social criticism. However, his only novel which appeared in the nineties is The Time Machine (1895) which is a fantastic romance based on the imaginary development of physical science. It was in the novels to come that he appeared as a social critic. None of the novels of Bennett and Galsworthy appeared in the nineties and therefore they may here be ignored.
Other Novelists:
Among the rest of the novelists who were neither romancers nor social critics the most prominent place ought to be given to Thomas Hardy. His two major novels Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891) and (his last) Judethe Obscure (1896) appeared in the period under review.. Tess is the tragedy of a simple village maid, and Jude that of a naive young man who would be a scholar. These novels, as Hardy's rest, are permeated with a pessimistic, deterministic point of view which onceives human beings as mere puppets in the hands of dark, mechanistic forces of the universe. Jude had some sensuous scenes which were condemned by many of Hardy's contemporaries, and it was this fact that made him bid farewell to novel-writing.
Gissing's Odd Women (1893) and New Grub Street (1891) were first published in the 1890's. Gissing's novels wear an atmosphere of gloomy oppressiveness created by his indulgence in the stark and seamy realities of life. "In truth," say Moody and Lovett, "Gissing's was a root out of dry ground, with little beauty of form, or amplitude of style, but urged upward by a stern, concentrated force of personality which carried it to a permanent place in English literature."
Among the lesser novelists may be mentioned George Moore who in Esther Waters (1894) gave an authentic picture of a servant girl; Israel Zangwill, who wrote about the life of Jews; and Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes.
The Revival:
The last years of the nineteenth century witnessed a dramatic revival. The drama which in the Victorian age had all alone been lying moribund sprang once again to life. Not only were many plays written but they were read, enjoyed, staged, and admired.
The Social Drama:
The most vigorous drama of the age was concerned with social and domestic problems and was considerably influenced by Ibsen. Henry Arthur Jones (1851-1929) and Sir Arthur Wing Pinero (1855-1934) were its most outstanding practitioners. Jones's plays Michael and His Lost Angel and Mrs.Dane's Defence are the most notable of all his works. He also wrote some satirical comedies of manners. As for Pinero, to quote Moody and Lovett, "he cast a wider net, and caught in it the insincerities and hypocrisies inseparable from a complex and sophisticated social life." Oscar Wilde's plays like Lady Windermere 's Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), and The Importance of Being Earnest (-1895) may also be noted here, though the tone of his social criticism is much lighter and anything but "earnest." He excels in wit of the kind of Sheridan's.
Shaw is, doubtlessly, the greatest of all the dramatists of this period. His collection Pleasant and Unpleasant-appeared in 1898. He combined his most exquisite wit with a very marked propagandist aim. He was anti-romantic and had a perpetual craving for correcting the most commonly held opinions-"romantic" or otherwise-which were supposed to be correct.
Irish Drama:
In the nineties some Irish writers, under the influence of Ibsen, started the Irish National Theatre in Dublin, where plays written by Irish dramatists were to be acted. The experiment continued till 1901. Among the Irish dramatists the most outstanding were J. M. Synge (1879-1901) and W. B. Yeats (1865-1939). "Synge's genius," say Moody and Lovett, "consisted in his ability to give his characters a place in nature, and constantly to draw poetry from this surrounding nature." Yeats's The Land of Heart's Desire (1896) and The Countess Cathleen (1899) were staged in the eighteen-nineties. The merit of his plays consists not only in the delineation of characters but in the use of the devices of symbolism and dream-like atmosphere.
Pater and Others:
Pater and Oscar Wilde were the promoters of the slogan, "Art for Art's Sake," which was too.often heard in the nineties. Pater was the chief spokesman of the school of aesthetic criticism which exalts beauty at the cost of everything else, including, of course, the content. Pater had a special praise for exquisite craftsmanship and his own style, which is extraordinarily finished, illustrates his predilection. Pater influenced Wilde a great deal. Wilde's Intentions came in 1891. Legouis observes about him: "He spiced the doctrine of'art for art's sake' with a certain cynicism; wit, paradox, and mocking humour give a keen edge to his beautifully wrought prose."

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