Victorian Science and the Humanistic Vision of Bronte, Browning and Tennyson

Victorian Science and the Humanistic Vision of Bronte, Browning and Tennyson

During the Victorian Age, new developments in astronomy, geology and biology diminished man’s place in the universe. In 1830, Charles Lyell published Principles of Geology challenging the prevailing view on how the earth was formed. In 1844, Robert Chambers published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation which introduced a theory of cosmic transmutation, suggesting that current natural formations developed from earlier formations. Finally in 1859, Charles Darwin published Origin of the Species, which introduced the idea of biological evolution and natural selection.

These new ideas began to undermine the religious, social, and political heritage inherited from previous generations. Without these infallible guiding principles, many artists searched for new ones to fill the gap. Three who did so include Charlotte Bronte, Robert Browning, and Alfred Tennyson. Through characters like Jane Eyre, Bronte explored the in growing sense of moral individualism developing in the face of a naturally hostile world. In Poems like “Andrea del Sarto,” and “The Bishop Orders his Tomb”, Browning explored the moral obligations of artist and art. And with poems like “The Lady of Shalott” and “Ulysses”, Tennyson explored mystical and mythological forms of wisdom in an increasing empirical age.

In the preface of The Professor, Bronte clarified her intention: “my hero should work his way through life . . . no sudden turns should lift him in a moment to wealth and high station” (Bronte). The idea of the self-made man was a popular one during the industrial boom of the 19th Century. The self-made woman, on the other hand, still faced a hostile reception. In the December 1848 issue of Quarterly Review, one such critic wrote:

Jane Eyre is throughout the personification of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit . . . It is true Jane does right, and exerts great moral strength, but it is the strength of a mere heathen mind which is a law unto itself. No Christian grace is perceptible upon her. She has inherited in fullest measure the worst sin of our fallen nature-the sin of pride.


Of course, what some might see as pride, others might as recognize self-reliance. Jane Eyre does not depend on friends, family, or spiritual advisors. In fact, Bronte purposely crafts an environment in which a Victorian woman could achieve independence. As a penniless orphan, and later as a governess, Jane lacks any definitive social status. Although this essentially condemns her to life as a perpetual outsider, it also liberates her from any social obligations. Jane asserts this sense of individualism early in the novel. Just prior to her departure for Lowood, Jane launches a tirade against her tyrannical aunt insisting “I’m glad you’re no relation of mine” (Bronte 45). After citing examples of her aunt’s cruelty and deception and her determination to tell anyone who will listen, Jane experiences an definitive increase of her own sense of self worth:

Ere I had finished this reply, my soul began to expand, to exult with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt. It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst, and that I had struggled out into unhoped-for liberty.

Despite negative reviews, Bronte’s first novel instigated what the North American Review dubbed “Jane Eyre fever” which “defied all the usual nostrums of the established doctors of criticism” (Whipple). Although the magazine accused the novel of “producing a soft ethical sentimentality, which relaxed all the fibers of conscience” and of “exciting a general fever of moral and religious indignation”, it obviously struck a cord with many Victorian women. For Bronte, it was one’s own sense of self worth, not dogmatic rules that should guide an individual’s ethic and moral decisions.

Where Bronte came under fire for her individualistic morality, Robert Browning often questioned the place and purpose of morality in art itself. In “Andrea del Sarto,” and “The Bishop Orders his Tomb”, Browning addresses both the artist and the commissioning of art.

In the early 1800’s, many critics like Arthur Henry Hallam believed that the moral and aesthetic considerations of art should be completely integrated into one another. This, of course was not a new idea, adapted from the theories of Coleridge, the idea of “pure” art had an established pedigree. Much of Browning’s poetry questions this theory.

In “Andrea del Sarto”, the poem is narrated in the voice of a renaissance painter. Although del Sarto is technically superior to his contemporary rivals, he has fallen into obscurity do to a lack of passion and his acquiescence to domestic pressures. In lines 73-75, del Sarto describes how others struggle to achieve his technical skill:

Who strive-you don’t know how others strive

To paint a little thing like that you have smeared

Carelessly passing with your robes afloat, –

Then, just a few line latter we learn that although they do not have his skill they certainly out pace him in emotional and spiritual power:

Their works drop groundward, but themselves, I know,

Reach many a time a heaven that’s shut to me

(ln 83-84)

Although del Sarto momentarily blames his wife for her lack of support, in the end he recognizes the fault lies with him: “incentives come from the soul’s self” (ln 134). He then asks, “What wife had Rafael, or has Agnolo?” (ln 137). This line has multiple implications. It not only indicates that these great masters succeeded without the support of wives, but that they were not inhibited by the domestic concerns that accompany marriage. It also begs the question, if they did not have wives, did they live their lives as celibates or, as is more likely the case, did they have illegitimate relationships? This is the heart of Browning’s poem.

In lines 177-179, del Sarto imagines this conversation:

‘Rafael did this, and Andrea painted that;

The Roman’s is the better when you pray,

But still the other’s Virgin was his wife- ‘

Although Rafael’s work is more inspired, Andrea’s subject (being his own wife) is supposedly spotless of blame. Again this speaks to assumptions, though we do not know the ‘purity’ of Raphael’s models (merely posing for an artist damaged a woman’s reputation) or what their relationship was with the artist, we do know that del Sarto’s wife regularly entertained extramarital affairs.

Through the narration of “Andrea del Sarto”, Browing questions the possibility of merging aesthetic and moral considerations. The argument in this poem appears to be one weakens the other. In “The Bishop Orders His Tomb”, Browning addresses the motives behind commissioning great works of art.

In “The Bishop Orders His Tomb”, an Renaissance Bishop gathers his illegitimate sons around his death bed and instructs them on how he should be buried. We learn not only has the Bishop failed to uphold his vow of chastity, but he has been embezzling riches from the church in order to commission a monumental crypt after his death.

We learn that the Bishop’s rival Gandolf has a very humble tomb made of “onion-stone”, befitting his position. The Bishop, however, envisions his tomb as a grandiose work of art made of “Peach-blossom marble” an “antique-black” slab and a “bas-relief in bronze”. He orders a combination of Christian and Pagan scenes to cover his tomb:

Those Pans and Nymphs ye wot of, and perchance

Some tripod, thyrsus, with a vase or so

The Saviour at his sermon on the mount,

Saint Praxed in a glory, and one Pan

Ready to twitch the Nymph’s last garment off,

And Moses with the tables . . .

(ln 58-62)

These images are so contradictory that they underscore the bishop’s hypocrisy. The tripod refers to the three legged stool used by the oracle at Delphi while the thyrus refers to the staff carried by Dionysus (an pagan god often associated with the excesses of the clerics). These pagan images undermine the power of the Christian iconography of Moses with the Ten Commandments (the first being: ‘thou shalt have no other gods before me) and Christ delivering the central tenants of Christianity (the first being: ‘blessed are the poor’). The image of Pan and the Nymph undermines the reverence of Saint Praxed’s virgin martyrdom.

However hypocritical the bishop maybe, Browning communicates the idea that this lack of piety funded the great works of the Renaissance. Again morality and aesthetics appear to be at odds. Just as science and religion were diverging during the Victorian period, many artists like Browning were attempting to unravel the idea of “pure” art.

Like Browning, Tennyson often wrote narrative verse. Tennyson, however, was less concerned with the relationship between morality and art than with the relationship between morality and knowledge. Like Milton before him, Tennyson believed human knowledge to be morally ambivalent. As Gerhard Joseph notes in his essay, Tennyson “formed an epistemology in which knowledge is at best a way station toward and at worst a temptation luring man away from a superior wisdom” (315).

For Tennyson, the empirical knowledge that was gaining prominence during the Victorian Age, was at the bottom of this intellectual hierarchy. It was the artist’s job to transform sensual experience into a metaphorical trope, creating mystical and mythical levels of wisdom. One of his early poems, “The Lady of Shalott”, addresses this conflict between experiential and meditative states.

The Victorian Age saw an enthusiastic revival of Celtic antiques. This ancient source of stories and traditions inspired much of Tennyson’s work as he adopted and transformed many of the Arthurian legends. “The Lady of Shalott” was one of these early adaptations. In the first two parts of the poem we learn that a beautiful lady is imprisoned in a tower. “There she weaves by night and day/ A magic web with colours gay” (ln 37-38). As she weaves, she sees shadows of the world outside in the reflection of a mirror. We are told she is held captive by a curse that forbids her to look down upon Camelot, lest she die. Here in the first half of the poem, Tennyson establishes the meditative world. Focusing only on the shadows of the world, the artist concentrates on weaving the magic of a mystical trope.

In the second half of the poem, however, the lady catches sight of Lancelot. In part III, the Lady of Shallot, observes the details of Lancelot’s exquisite armor. In part IV, the Lady sets about her labor of following after him. Floating down river, “Till her blood was frozen slowly,/ And her eyes where darkened wholly” (ln 147-148) she arrives at Camelot “Dead-pale”. The death of the Lady of Shallot occurs when she becomes too enthralled with sensual experience and labor. It is the degeneration of the intellectual ideal.

Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” moves in the opposite direction. A restless King seeks to disentangle himself from the mundane concerns of ruling his kingdom in order “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” (ln 70). He calls on his mariners who have “toiled, and wrought, and thought with me-” (ln 46). Considering the journey’s of Odysseus (on whom the poem is based), the reader might expect the previous line to read “toiled, and wrought, and fought with me-” but it does not. It is a poem of intellect, not of adventure.

Where science left Victorian man feeling small, and without guiding principles; artist’s like Bronte, Browning, and Tennyson helped them feel empowered and inspired.

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