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Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible

Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible

Charles LaPorte
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 304
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    Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible
    Book Description:

    Victorian Poets and the Changing Biblecharts the impact of post-Enlightenment biblical criticism on English literary culture. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a widespread reevaluation of biblical inspiration, in which the Bible's poetic nature came to be seen as an integral part of its religious significance. Understandably, then, many poets who followed this interpretative revolution-including Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning-came to reconceive their highest vocational ambitions: if the Bible is essentially poetry, then modern poetry might perform a cultural role akin to that of scripture. This context equally illuminates the aims and achievements of famous Victorian unbelievers such as Arthur Hugh Clough and George Eliot, who also responded enthusiastically to the poetic ideal of an inspired text.

    Building upon a recent and ongoing reevaluation of religion as a vital aspect of Victorian culture, Charles LaPorte shows the enduring relevance of religion in a period usually associated with its decline. In doing so, he helps to delineate the midcentury shape of a literary dynamic that is generally better understood in Romantic poetry of the earlier part of the century. The poets he examines all wrestled with modern findings about the Bible's fortuitous historical composition, yet they owed much of their extraordinary literary success to their ability to capitalize upon the progress of avant-garde biblical interpretation.

    This book's revisionary and provocative thesis speaks not only to the course of English poetics but also to the logic of nineteenth-century literary hierarchies and to the continuing evolution of religion in the modern era.

    Victorian Literature and Culture Series

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3165-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-xii)
    (pp. 1-22)

    Mid-Victorian poetry has always gratified historians of British secularization. Religious disputes held a more central place in the intellectual life of nineteenth-century Britain than most of us can easily imagine today, and much of that discord centered upon the Bible’s status as the culture’s foundational religious text. The eighteenthand nineteenth-century progress of textual scholarship had recently come to make the scriptures seem more fortuitous, uneven, fragmentary, and literary than had previously been supposed by most of their readers, while major events in the Victorian sciences came independently to militate against many traditional biblical perspectives. To take the most obvious example,...

    (pp. 23-66)

    Elizabeth barrett browning is a paradox in Victorian religious literature. Her fervent devotion to the Romantic cult of poetry made her verses seem quaint even to members of her own literary and social milieu. So did her devotion to the rhetoric of evangelical Christianity. Yet despite such quaintnesses (or possibly owing to them), Barrett Browning came to win greater critical acclaim in her lifetime than any previous woman poet writing in English. She became, in other words, a great voice in Victorian poetry. Even commercial success on the scale that Barrett achieved it was unlikely in the lean years of...

    (pp. 67-110)

    It can be hard in the twenty-first century to regardThe Idylls of the King(1859–85) as Alfred Tennyson’s supreme poetic achievement. At the middle of the nineteenth century, it was quite easy to do so. When the first edition ofThe Idyllsappeared, it was trumpeted by many periodicals as the finest work yet from the era’s finest English-language poet.¹ Such praise now seems excessive, but by the late 1850s, Tennyson’s generation viewed him as Britain’s national bard and looked to him to provide a fitting poetical foundation for its grand industrial and imperial ambitions. As theQuarterly...

    (pp. 111-152)

    The radical engagement with Victorian biblical hermeneutics found in the poetry of Barrett Browning and Tennyson also animates the work of less frequently lionized mid-century poets—indeed, poets whose lack of contemporary lionizing caused this engagement to resonate quite differently. Arthur Hugh Clough (1819–1861) stands at the forefront of such poets because of the ways in which his eager engagement with the literary potential of the higher criticism both embraces and rigorously critiques the kinds of poetic gambits we have seen in the above chapters on Barrett Browning and Tennyson. The present chapter attempts to clarify the stakes of...

    (pp. 153-188)

    Robert browning’s relationship to the Bible generates a good deal of commentary. It has always done so. Browning’s late Victorian disciples were rather given to religious speculation, and their response to his work provides one of literature’s more intriguing cases of modern bibliolatry. The London Browning Society of 1881–92, for instance, routinely alienated nonreligious members in its zeal to demonstrate the spiritual value of Browning’s poetry. Even the society’s freethinking co-founder, F. J. Furnivall, sometimes expressed irritation with the group’s religious tendencies. (The other, the poet Emily Hickey, later became a Catholic.) And fin de siècle readers throughout the...

    (pp. 189-230)

    George eliot could hardly have picked a worse time to publish her first volume of poetry,The Spanish Gypsy,than the fall of 1868. A few weeks previously, her friend Robert Browning’sThe Ring and the Bookhad created a great critical hubbub, partly by orchestrating its own quasi-religious reception in ways that I describe in the previous chapter. To the extent that Browning’s poem capitalizes upon the changing hermeneutics of the Victorian Bible, as I argue, Eliot found herself taken to school in a subject to which she had made real contributions as the translator of David Friedrich Strauss...

    (pp. 231-238)

    Scholars have long acknowledged the cultural importance of Victorian developments in modern biblical criticism and—less often—the equal importance of its widespread dissemination during this same period. It has been my attempt here to show how changing nineteenth-century perceptions about the Bible both stimulated the ambitions of the most prominent Victorian poets and conditioned their contemporary reception. Victorian biblical criticism often invoked the “poetic” nature of scripture, and Victorian poets often took this language literally as in some sense paradigmatic of their craft. Where the critic might take up “poetry” to indicate the fragmented, historically uncertain composition of the...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 239-262)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 263-276)
  13. Index
    (pp. 277-284)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 285-286)