Monday, December 27, 2010

Pessimism in Victorian Poetry

In the texture of Victorian poetry there runs a noticeable strand of pessimism, mostly the work of the group of poets consisting chiefly of Arnold, Arthur Hugh Clough, James Thomson, and Edward Fitzgerald. By pessimism we mean, if not a philosophy of life, at least a well reasoned-out attitude towards life based on a temper of mind that looks on the dark side of things. To feel or express melancholy is not necessarily to be a pessimist unless this melancholy is well thought-out. Who is more subject to moods of melancholy than Shelley, for instance? And Shelley is an optimist for all that.

The Origin of Pessimism:
Victorian pessimism, in most cases, is the outcome of a deep-seated spiritual disturbance to which the sensitive poets of the age were eminently prone. The age experienced a protracted battle between the advancing forces of science and agnosticism and the retreating forces of Christianity and faith which had been holding the fort for times immemorial. While the tremendous advance of science destroyed much of the existing faith, it could not provide another spiritual anchor. Many thinkers and poets, then, felt lost, without moorings or a rudder. They found themselves blundering
between two worlds; one dead,
The other powerless to be born,
Some attempted some sort of compromise, and failed; others were knocked about on the flood of doubt and despair and ensuing melancholy which settled into pessimism. Some like Thomas Henry Huxley went over to open agnosticism and started singing paeans of the powers of science. Some, like Macaulay, dazzled by the material splendour and prosperity ushered in by the development of science, gravitated towards a posture of smug, "Victorian" complacency. Robert Browning kept his chin above the commotion of all doubts, and complacently believed:
God's in His Heaven--
All's right with the world.
But such optimism was essentially alien to Victorian spirit, and it is not surprising that he was taken to task by a number of his contemporaries and a still larger number of his successors.
From what has been said it should be clear that pessimism of (some of) the Victorians arose from impersonal grounds, not subjective experience. The only possible exception is, perhaps, James Thomson whose life was, indeed, far from happy—though it was he himself (and not his circumstances) who was to blame for it. The rest of Victorian pessimists were well-placed and materially prosperous individuals. Between them and pessimists like Voltaire, Swift, and Schopenhauer may thus be drawn a line, as the pessimism of the latter was nurtured, if not generated, by their unhappy lives as individuals. All Victorian pessimistic poets were endowed with the following two qualities:
(i)         A sensitive, acutely impressionable mind, with a tendency towards self-introspection.
(ii)        A searching intellect.
Their poetry reflects both of them quite abundantly. It was their tendency to be too intellectual and to subject everything to a searching intellect that was perhaps responsible for much of their pessimism. Compton-Rickett observes in A History of English Literature: "It was the endeavour to intellectualise the visions of imaginative life that led Arnold, Clough, Fitzgerald, and James Thomson into that mood of wistful melancholy, that crystallised soon into a more or less pessimistic criticism of life."
After these preliminary remarks let us now consider the pessimistic note in the poetry of some important Victorian poets.
Tennyson (1809-1892):
To include Tennyson among the Victorian pessimists is, on the face of it, as egregious a solecism as to include Hercules among the fair sex! Tennyson is usually considered a sleek optimist with a certain irritating cocksureness regarding the transcendent power of God. He is not a pessimist; but there are melancholy and pessimistic moods which he gives expression to now and then-though only to sweep them aside soon after. "For me", says Harold Nicholson, "the essential Tennyson is a morbid and unhappy mystic.'" Robin Mayhead contradicts this opinion, for according to him, "some of Tennyson's most successful poetry has nothing to do with the morbid and the melancholy." However, he adds, that it must "be granted that this trait is certainly of capital importance."
Tennyson's In Memoriam, one of his major works, is an elegy which contain not only the expression of the poet's personal grief at the death of his friend Arthur Hallam but also grapples with the ultimate issue of human predicament. Life, death, and the whole creation are discussed with recurring references to the evolutionary theory which, even before Darwin, had started rocking the times. At moments the poet's faith wavers and he is inclined to be pessimistic, but all doubts are ultimately cleared with a reassert!on of faith in God and man— His favoured creature. Tennyson salutes
That God, which ever lives and loves,
One God, one law, one element,
And one far off divine event,
To -which the whole creation moves.
According to Robin Mayhead, in In Memoriam we find "a progress from the initial stunned grief, through gradual acquiescence, to a condition of peace and serenity in which passionate regret is replaced by the consciousness of union with the spirit." It was not for nothing that Queen Victoria said to Tennyson : "Next to the Bible In emoriam is my comfort."
Matthew Arnold (1822-1888):
Arnold is the most consistently pessimistic of all the major victorian poets. According to Middleton Murry; "Arnold's most consistent achievement was in the kind which we call elegiac." "He is," observes Garrod, "the greatest elegiac poet in our language not by virtue merely ofThyrsis but by virtue of the whole temper of his Muse. His genius was essentially elegiac." Thyrsis is, of course, a formal elegy written by Arnold at the death of his friend Arthur Hugh Clough. But almost all the rest of Arnold's poems are also characterised by a sort of elegiac tone, melancholy brooding, and Stoic resignation. Much of his pessimism comes from his ill-adjustment to the changing conditions of his times. As has been said in the beginning, the advance of science in the Victorian age had given a rude shock to the body of Christian beliefs. Arnold was neither too much influenced by science so as to turn a downright atheist, nor so little as to remain an unquestioning believer. He found himself standing on the parting of the ways and shaken by the gusts of opposing winds. This spiritual disturbance took the form of despairing pessimism at the consciousness of spiritual vacuity as well as a searching introspection combined with a groping for a moral stance. In Dover Beach he observes that "the Sea of Faith" has now withdrawn and the world as he sees it
Hath really neither joy, nor light, nor love,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain,
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant, armies clash by night.
Whatever little "certitude", "peace", or "help for pain" is possible, can be secured from true love-of course, man-woman love. Hence his ppeal:
Ah love, let us be true
To one another.
Likewise, in The Buried Life he points out what companionship may do to alleviate "the fret and worry of life "
Only but this is rare
When a beloved hand is laid in ours...
The eye sinks inward, and heart lies plain,
And what we mean, wesay, andwhatwe would, we now....
And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, Rest.
The air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwanted calm pervades his breast.
But, mostly, Arnold strikes the note of melancholy loneliness.
Yes! in the sea of life enisled
With echoing strains between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild
We mortal millions live alone.
Loneliness is a feature of nature also.
Alone the sun rises and alone spring the great steams.
Arnold's attitude to life is, mostly, of pessimistic resignation. He believes that life is a thing to suffer rather than to enjoy. But resignation is also of two kinds : one escapist, and the other, Stoic. In the Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse his resignation is of the former kind. Sick of the fever, fret and fury of life, he appeals to the monastic cloisters to take him into their fold:
Oh hide me in your gloom profound;
Ye solemn seats of holy pain!
Take me, cowl'd forms, and fence me round,
Till I possess my soul again.
But more often Arnold's resignation is of the Stoic kind. It is usually accompanied by a paralysis of action. Arnold knows the inherent lot of men
For whom each year we see
Breeds new beginnings, disappointments new.
Who hesitate and falter life away
And lose tomorrow the ground won today.
Sometimes, like Hardy, he finds man like a straw knocked about by the waves of the dark sea of destiny:
We are all like swimmers in the sea,
Poised on the top of a huge wave of fate
Which hangs uncertain to which side to fall.
And whether it will leave us up to land,
Or whether it will roll us out to the sea,
Back out to sea, to the waves of death,
We know not.
Arnold's pessmism, however unmitigated and melancholy, is yet of a manly character and singularly free from the weakness of sentimentalism or excessive self-pity or clever attitudinisation. Observes Compton-Rickett: "No whining, no luxury of grief, no sentimental pessimism. Neither is there any joy, any real peace. It is the serenity of a troubled but brave spirit."
Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861):
Clough was a lifelong friend of Arnold and his death was the subject of Arnold's elegy Thyrsis. He resembles his friend a great deal, provided we ignore the very obvious points of contrast. F. L. Lucas calls him "a half-hewn Matthew Arnold, left lying in the quarry." We have in Clough the same brooding melancholy, spiritual unrest, and disturbing introspection as we find in Arnold. Clough's mind was deeply exercised by the Science-Faith conflict which influenced Victorian thought and poetry. His was a searching intellect which probed into the mysteries of the ultimate questions of God, human, destiny, life and death. However, in his inquiries and analyses he does not approach the dignity and stature of Arnold. For one thing, he does not have the single-mindedness and emotional integrity of his friend. His is not an unrelieved pessimism-in the Bothie the dominant note is that of high spirits and holiday tranquility. G. D. Klingopulos observes:"Clough's work is not by any means entirely sombre, much ;s humorous and faintly satirical." For an instance of his cutting sarcasm sss the following lines from The Latest Decalogue:
Thou shalt have one God only, who
Would be at the expense of two?
No graven images may be
Worshipped except, the currency...
Thou shall not kill, but needst not strive
Officiously to keep alive.
"Say not the struggle nought availeth," a usual anthology piece, puts fr-vard an optimistic message of action and hope for the best. During the dark years of the Second World War the poem was used by Sir "Winston Churchill as a morale-boosting text. It contains in Ulysses like terms what is called the philosophy of action, not the Stoic endurance which characterises Arnoldian attitude. Comparing the two poets. Hugh Walker observes: "Clough is the more hopeful poet of the two. Arnold lays the whole stress upon courageous endurance, the doing of duty in spite of the certainty of defeat. Clough sees all the western land bright in the sunshine, and the tide breaking in elsewhere if not here."
Clough's Dipsychus is a good example of the Victorian conflict between two spiritual voices. But, as is usual with Clough, the note of seriousness in the poem is often broken by sallies of wit and humour.
James Thomson (1834-1882):
James Thomson in The city of Dreadful Night and the shorter Insomnia struck a note of the intensest, nightmarish pessimism. As a young boy he had been fed on Calvinistic doctrines which he later found to be inadequate in the changing context of the times. Absolute despair, unrelieved by any "silver lining," was the outcome. He himself was subject to insomnia and at night he nsed to feel lonely and gloomy. This personal experience gives a touch of reality to the ghoulish pictures he draws in the poems mentioned above. His pessimism does not have the brooding energy or Stoic fortitude of Arnold's or Clough's. It is the issue of a morbid mind which puts one in mind of Poe. It is not for nothing that he is often labelled as the English Poe or the English Leonardi. In the words of Hugh Walker, "his pessimism was founded on the conviction that there was no hope for humanity any more than for himself, and that the appearance of progress was a mere illusion."
As a man, Thomson was not altogether an unalloyed melancholiac lost to all sense of humour, fun, or humanitarianism. He definitely had more sides to his personality. He was, says Compton-Rickett, "in his happier moments, an affectionate and steadfast friend, a delightful companion, and an unselfish worker in the cause of humanity."
Edward Fitzgerald (1809-1888):
Edward Fitzgerald is chiefly known for his verse translation of the Persian Rubaiyaat of Omar Khayyam. This work, says David Daiches, "puts an altogether more attractive face on pessimism. Thomson alternated between hedonism and despair; Fitzgerald expressed a hedonism grounded on skepticism." Fitzgerald's pessimism is inherent in his acceptance of the evanescence of life and its purposelessness. This acceptance makes him cry a halt to all maddening activity and prompts him to devote whatever time he has been granted in this world to sensual pleasures. His pessimism is of the Epicurean kind. His paradise is earthly, somewhat drugged, but overflowing with Oriental splendour and luxury. Wine, women and verse are its chief features.
A book of verses underneath the bough,
A jug of-wine, a loaf of bread and thou
Beside me singing in the wilderness,
Oh, wilderness were paradise enow!
Fatalism is an important ingredient in Fitzgerald's pessimism.
The moving finger writes and having writ
Moves on, not all thy piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.
And, again:
Oh threats of Hell and hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain
This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is lies;
The flower that once has blown for ever dies.
Later Pessimistic Poets:
The pessimism of some later Victorian poets is more "modern" than "Victorian." Such poets include Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), John Davidson (1857-1905), Ernest Dowson (1867-1900), A. E. Housman (1859-1936), with some lesser ones who may not detain us here.
After the adverse reception to his last novel Jude the Obscure, Hardy gave up the rest of his life to poetry. His Wessex Poems appeared in 1898, but his highest poetical achievement, The Dynasts, came only after the end of the Victorian era. Hardy, as Legouis, says, "was the poet of disillusionment." His poetry has the qualities of sincerity and technical excellence. Davidson's Fleet Street Eclogues (1893-96) and Ballads and Songs (1894) are also charged with pessimism. He, say Grierson and Smith, was "a little of the spasmodic; apt when strongly moved and angry to over-spur his Pegasus and grow a little shrill." However, he is splendid not unoften, 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 1896. This work is steeped in a stoically pessimistic and somewhat oppressive 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."

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