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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Walter

Poetry Blog #23: Victorian Poets

I have a textbook of Victorian Poetry that I used when I was in school. Can you guess what poet’s work takes up the bulk of the book—more than 10% of its content, though it covers almost fifty poets? You guessed it—Alfred Tennyson. I think it is safe to say that Tennyson was the giant of the Victorian Period who overshadowed all other poets by his literary output and enduring popularity. There are two other very remarkable poets of the Victorian Period that I want to talk about with you today: Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti. 

   Although lesser known, Robert Browning was also a giant of the period, indicated by the fact that my Victorian literature book dedicates another 10% of its content to his poetry.

Robert Browning (pictured on right) is probably most widely known for his dramatic monologues. A dramatic monologue is a poem that is very similar to a dramatic soliloquy in which a character speaks his thoughts alone on stage. Some of Browning’s most famous dramatic monologues are “Caliban upon Setebos,” in which Caliban (a revolting creature  that appears in Shakespeare’s play Tempest) speaks his ideas on religion, and “My Last Duchess.” Browning’s most famous and grand work is a collection of dramatic monologues concerning a real murder trial that occurred in Italy in 1698, titled The Ring and the Book.

    Robert Browning was married to another famous poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who is famous for her Sonnets from the Portuguese, which are love poems addressed to her husband. (Do you  remember what a sonnet is?—a poem, usually about love, that has 14 lines.) The Brownings had one son, whom the couple nicknamed “Pen.” Don’t ask me why they named him that. Perhaps they thought the name was literary.

I think my favorite Victorian poet, however, is Christina Rossetti. Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) was born into a family of great literary talent. Her father, Gabriel Rossetti, was a professor of Italian at King’s College, London and wrote poetry and literary criticism; her older brother, Dante Gabriel, was a very famous painter and poet.  Her younger brother, William Michael, was a famous author, editor and critic. Both Christina and her brother Dante began writing poetry at a very early age (eleven and six respectively).  She had her first book of poetry privately published when she was only 17 years old and became a famous poetess in 1862 with her book The Goblin Market.

    Rossetti’s poems are sometimes sad and often deep with feeling.  She was one of the most respected poets of her time.  As one contemporary critic and pastor wrote: “Her genius is universally recognized; her place among the highest English poets is secure; her pious, childlike spirit is alive in all her readers’ hearts.” Her childlike spirit is evident in the following poem, which the Vice and Virtue students might be called on to recite in the final rounds of the poetry bee. You might want to recite it at the end of December when people celebrate the birth of the Savior.

The Shepherds Had an Angel

The Shepherds had an Angel,

The Wise Men had a star,

But what have I, a little child,

To guide me home from far,

Where glad stars sing together

And singing angels are?—

Lord Jesus is my Guardian,

So I can nothing lack:

The lambs lie in His bosom

Along life’s dangerous track:

The willful lambs that go astray

He bleeding fetches back.

Lord Jesus is my guiding star,

My beacon-light in heaven:

He leads me step by step along

The path of life uneven:

He, true light, leads me to that land

Whose day shall be as seven.

Those Shepherds through the lonely night

Sat watching by their sheep,

Until they saw the heavenly host

Who neither tire nor sleep,

All singing “Glory glory”

In festival they keep.

Christ watches me, His little lamb,

Cares for me day and night,

That I may be His own in heaven:

So angels clad in white

Shall sing their “Glory, glory”

    For my sake in the height.

The Wise Men left their country

To journey morn by morn,

With gold and frankincense and myrrh,

Because the Lord was born:

God sent a star to guide them

And sent a dream to warn.

My life is like their journey,

Their star is like God’s book;

I must be like those good Wise Men

With heavenward heart and look:

But shall I give no gifts to God?—

What precious gifts they took!

Lord, I will give my love to Thee,

Than gold much costlier,

Sweeter to Thee than frankincense,

More prized than choicest myrrh:

Lord, make me dearer day by day,

Day by day holier;

Nearer and dearer day by day:

Till I my voice unite,

And sing my “Glory glory”

With angels clad in white;

All “Glory glory” given to Thee

Through all the heavenly height.

Shall sing their “Glory glory”

For my sake in the height.

   The Victorian Period coincides with the reign of Queen Victoria, who came to the English throne at the death of her uncle William IV in 1837 and died in 1901.   Many of the most recognizable names in prose and poetry come from the Victorian Period. Fiction writers include such notables as Charles Dickens, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Anthony Trollope, Arthur Conan Doyle (one of Queen Victoria’s favorite authors), Thomas Hardy, and Robert Louis Stevenson—just to name a few. Poets of the Victorian Period include Alfred Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, Christina Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Browning and his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning—again, just to name a few.

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