Victorian poetry refers to British poetic works composed during Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901). It should be noted that Irish works are included in the category of British poetry. Literature of this era is exceptionally diverse, which in part may be accounted for by increasing industrialization and diverse technological discoveries. Therefore, Victorian poetry can’t be said to represent a single artistic movement, but works of this time show a growth away from Romanticism, and foreshadow Modernism.
In general, classic Victorian compositions are exceptionally attentive to verse, display some sentimentality, and often play on chivalric themes. Poets of this time often composed epic poems and dramatic monologues. The sonnet form was also frequently used.
Some Victorian poetry reflects philosophical shifts occurring in the 19th century. While Romanticism was concerned with the spirit of man, Victorian poems are sometimes described as more skeptical, clinical, and scientifically based, or profoundly sentimental, instead. The move from Romanticism to Victorianism is also evidenced in a disregard for free verse and a return to tightly structured and elaborately rhyming poems.
The poet who could most be called classically Victorian is Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who was England’s Poet Laureate for many years. His famous works include The Charge of the Light Brigade and Ulysses. Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, married poets, each produced what are critically considered exceptional works. His dramatic monologues include My Last Duchess; although her work is extensive, she is probably best known for her collection Songs from the Portuguese. Dante and Christina Rossetti are also often included as authors of classic examples of Victorian poetry.
The works of writers like William Butler Yeats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Matthew Arnold lend strength to the argument that Victorian poetry is exceptionally diverse. Hopkins adopted classic Romantic themes of spirituality in his work with verse structure and word choice that greatly influenced modern poetry. Yeats’ early work is somewhat similar to the other Victorians, but his later work is often described as much richer in structure and more thematically complex. Arnold’s Dover Beach is thought to evoke the modern, and especially existentialist philosophy, in its description of lost faith.
Generally, poetic works of this period are held in less regard than its novels, which had become an increasingly favored literary form. Novelists of this time included Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and the Brontë sisters. Emily Brontë was also a poet, and Oscar Wilde, a late writer in this period, composed novels, poems, and plays. Yeats wrote several plays too, especially on Irish political themes, and Hardy was a popular poet, in addition to penning works like Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
Some literary critics believe the best way to characterize Victorian poetry is to see it as diverse and not possessing of a single poetic trend. If anything, it might be argued, it is the bridge from Romanticism to Modernism. In other words, it is the path that poets traveled to get from Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality to T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.