Faith and Doubt in Victorian Poetry
Christianity in the Victorian Era
While the strength and sincerity of faith is a highly individual thing, Christianity, as a religion, was, and is, quite widespread in England. To this day, the Church of England “is the “established” church of the nation”’ ("Centre for Citizenship"). Though people in Victorian England were not coerced into membership in the Church of England, as they had been under certain other monarchies, belief in God seems to have been the norm. Then, the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin and other scientific discoveries caused many to doubt articles of faith they had previously taken for granted (Damrosch, and Dettmar 1291). Many writers of the period explored the conflict of faith and doubt in their work. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, C.G. Rossetti and Gerard Manley Hopkins are three writers whose poetry reflects the eventual triumph of faith over doubt.
Three Victorian Poets on Faith
After the death of his closest friend in 1833, Tennyson suffered crushing sorrow and “doubts about the immortality of the human soul” (Damrosch, and Dettmar 1204). In his lengthy poem, In Memoriam A.H.H., Tennyson chronicles his journey from grief to acceptance, and from crippling doubt to something like assurance.
O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil (25-28 section 55).
The poem’s introductory section, which was written later, shows Tennyson’s return to a firmer spiritual footing;
Thou wilt not leave us in the dust;
Thou madest man, he knows not why,
He thinks he was not made to die;
And thou hast made him: thou art just (9-12).
A committed Anglo-Catholic, Christina Rossetti allowed little doubt to enter her writings. “Up-Hill” is one of the shortest and most obvious Christian allegories I have ever read, while Goblin Market explores many topics, including sin and redemption. In Goblin Market, the temptation of Laura by the goblins, her wasting illness and later restoration through the efforts of her sister parallel the story of man’s fall into sin and eventual and salvation through Christ (Rossetti 1650-1663). Though Goblin Market is open to many different interpretations, Rossetti’s life and writings leave little doubt that her faith was quite solid.
Hopkins’s unconventional style and deeply symbolic word choices can make his poems difficult to interpret. A perfect understanding of his metaphors is not requisite to catching Hopkins’s basic meaning, though. Such poems as “God’s Grandeur” and “The Windhover” express Hopkins’s awe and joy at God’s creation. Like many poets, Hopkins sees elements of God’s personality reflected in nature. In “God’s Grandeur”, Hopkins complains that “Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;/And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;/And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell:” (5-7). But, like the ever-present love of God,
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward springs— (9-12).
Not all of the Hopkins’s poetry is so hopeful, however. With its darker imagery and frantic tone, “Carrion Comfort” gives vent to Hopkins’s spiritual torment, as he wrestles with despair: “Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;” (1). Perhaps even more than his happier works, Hopkins’s “Terrible Poems” show his determination and strength, as he refuses to bury his pain in easy explanations (Rickards).
The three Victorian poets just discussed bear little relation to one another in terms of writing style, personal circumstances or even age. It is the very disparateness of the three that makes them such good examples, though. Coming from diverse backgrounds, and dealing with separate life issues, Tennyson, Rossetti and Hopkins are united in their use of art to express their fears and religious convictions. Whether struggling with the death of a beloved friend who was “closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24), the rehabilitation of “fallen women” and the dual roles of author and woman, or a dramatic conversion to Catholicism, all three draw strength and hope from their faith (Damrosch, and Dettmar 1204, 1643, 1701).
Blue Letter Bible. "The Proverbs of Solomon 18 - (KJV - King James Version)." Blue Letter Bible. 1996-2012.
"Church and State in Britain." The Centre for Citizenship. Centre for Citizenship, 1998-2012. Web. <http://www.centreforcitizenship.org/church1.html>.
Damrosch, David, and Kevin Dettmar, ed. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Vol. 2B. Boston, MA: Longman, 2010. 1204,1291,1643,1701. Print.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “God’s Grandeur” The Longman Anthology British Literature. Vol. 2B. Damrosch, David, and Kevin Dettmar, ed. Boston, MA: Longman, 2010.1702, 1703. Print.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “[Carrion Comfort]” The Longman Anthology British Literature. Vol. 2B. Damrosch, David, and Kevin Dettmar, ed. Boston, MA: Longman, 2010.1708. Print.
Rickards, Amy. "Week Six Lecture." 12SP English 350 Victorian Literature. Regent University. Spring 2012. Lecture.
Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market” The Longman Anthology British Literature. Vol. 2B. Damrosch, David, and Kevin Dettmar, ed. Boston, MA: Longman, 2010.1650-1663. Print.
Tennyson, Alfred Lord. “In Memoriam A.H.H.” The Longman Anthology British Literature. Vol. 2B. Damrosch, David, and Kevin Dettmar, ed. Boston, MA: Longman, 2010. 1205,1219. Print.
Related, Useful Hubs
- How to Identify Literature Written During the Victorian Era
An overview of the Victorian period and its effect on Victorian literature. Videos included.
More by this Author
Considered one of Christina Rossetti's masterpieces, 'Goblin Market' has provided literature buffs with plenty of material for analysis. This two-part essay identifies the poem's major themes in light of Rossetti's...
Lancelot's rescue of Guinevere after her trial, as told by Guinevere.
Literary essay exploring the vital role of paternity in Zora Neale Hurston's short story, "Gilded Six Bits."