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Outlines of English and American Literature
Victorian Essayists and Historians
by Long, William J.

There is rich reading in Victorian essays, which reflect not only the practical affairs of the age but also the ideals that inspire every great movement whether in history or literature. For example, the intense religious interests of the period, the growth of the Nonconformists or Independents, the Oxford movement, which aimed to define the historic position of the English Church, the chill of doubt and the glow of renewed faith in face of the apparent conflict between the old religion and the new science,--all these were brilliantly reflected by excellent writers, among whom Martineau, Newman and Maurice stand out prominently. The deep thought, the serene spirit and the fine style of these men are unsurpassed in Victorian prose.

Somewhat apart from their age stood a remarkable group of historians--Hallam, Freeman, Green, Gardiner, Symonds and others no less praiseworthy--who changed the whole conception of history from a record of political or military events to a profound study of human society in all its activities. In another typical group were the critics, Pater, Bagehot, Hutton, Leslie Stephen, who have given deeper meaning and enlarged pleasure to the study of literature. In a fourth group were the scientists--Darwin, Wallace, Lyell, Mivart, Tyndall, Mill, Spencer, Huxley, and their followers--some of whom aimed not simply to increase our knowledge but to use the essay, as others used the novel, to portray some new scene in the old comedy of human life. Darwin was a great and, therefore, a modest man; but some of his disciples were sadly lacking in humor. Spencer and Mill especially wrote with colossal self-confidence, as if the world no longer wore its veil of mystery. They remind us, curiously, that while poetry endures forever, nothing on earth is more subject to change and error than so-called scientific truth.

Typical Writers

It is impossible in a small volume to do justice to so many writers, reflecting nature or humanity from various angles, and sometimes insisting that a particular angle was the only one from which a true view could be obtained. Some rigorous selection is necessary; and we name here for special study Macaulay, Carlyle, Ruskin, who are commonly regarded as the typical Victorian essayists. This selection does not mean, however, that some other group might not be quite as representative of their age and nation. Our chosen authors stand not for Victorian thought but only for certain interesting phases thereof. Macaulay, the busy man of affairs, voiced the pride of his generation in British traditions. Carlyle lived aloof, grumbling at democracy, denouncing its shams, calling it to repentance. Ruskin, a child of fortune, was absorbed in art till the burden of the world oppressed him; whereupon he gave his money to the cause of social reform and went himself among the poor to share with them whatever wealth of spirit he possessed. These three men, utterly unlike in character, were as one in their endeavor to make modern literature a power wherewith to uplift humanity. They illustrate, better even than poets or novelists, the characteristic moral earnestness of the Victorian era.


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