March 14, 2012

Fin de Siecle

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A quirky, slightly old-fashioned video on the Fin de Siecle, which nevertheless provides some interesting context:

February 22, 2012

Angel/Whore Dichotomy: Dante and Christina Rossetti

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This week we will be examining 'The Goblin Market', Christina Rossetti's most famous poem, and one that has been variously interpreted as an expression of proto-feminist and homosexual politics; female oppression and women's exclusion from the public/literary/artistic sphere; religious allegory; criticism of the Victorian marriage market;an exploration of drug addiction and even a critique on the rise of advertising. The poem has also frequently been read as a critique of the angel/whore (or Virgin Mary/Mary Magdalen) dichotomy which has been observed to be deeply embedded in Victorian literature. Rossetti's view on this-- as we will explore-- is not straightforward. As many have noted, by the time Rossetti came to compose the poem, she was working with the London Diocesan Penitentiary of St. Mary Magdalen, "for the reception and reformation of penitent fallen women" (my emphasis).1 Clearly she believed that these women should be reformed. But it is important that Laura (the "fallen woman") does reform. Unlike a vast amount of other prostitutes in Victorian literature, the fallen women in 'The Goblin Market' does not die, and Rossetti does not dwell on her guilt; she goes on to live a normal happy life. As Elizabeth Russell has noted: 'The last six lines of the poem are extremely important. In no way do they moralise or reprove Laura's behaviour. There is no religious knocking of knuckles, no lingering guilt in Laura's heart, no punishing God or father. The poem points to a formula for dealing with women's problems in a patriarchal society. It is the Language of the Father that splits the signifier "woman" into various other signifiers which become fixed and inviolable: woman into angel, woman into whore. The angel and the whore are linked to each other in a hierarchic vertical relationship. The angel rises in esteem. The whore falls from favour. There is always the risk of an angel falling but the whore can never rise. In a society where men make the laws, it is only a horizontal relationship between women as sisters, a relationship bascd on respect and solidarity, which will finally subvert these laws.'2

Dante Rossetti, Rossetti's brother, also wrote a poem addressing the same dichotomy, focusing on the figure of the "fallen women" in his poem 'Jenny'. He, too, links golden hair and coins with prostitution.

Q: Compare and contrast these two poems (both in the Norton Anthology) and their treatment of the angel/whore dichotomy.


1 Diane D'Amico, Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender and Time

2 Elizabeth Russell, Christina Rossetti: Contemporary Feminist (

How to Scan Poetry

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Julie Wareing's find of the week! Website on how to scan poetry, complete with exercises to test your knowledge:

Love letters of Barrett and Browning sent online on Valentine's Day

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Love letters of Barrett and Browning sent online on Valentine's Day

573 billets-doux that capture Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett's romance put online by Wellesley College and Baylor University, as featured in the Guardian 14th February 2012.

See also the collection:

With thanks to Kay Hughes for bringing this to our attention!

February 01, 2012

Alfred Tennyson's 'In Memoriam' & the "second birth

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For those of you who expressed interest in Tennyson's use of the term "second birth" (l.16) in poem 45 of In Memoriam:

The baby new to earth and sky,
What time his tender palm is pressed
Against the circle of the breast,
Has never thought that "this is I":

But as he grows he gathers much,
And learns the use of "I" and "me,"
And finds "I am not what I see,
And other than the things I touch":

So rounds he to a separate mind
From whence clear memory may begin,
As through the frame that binds him in
His isolation grows defined.

This use may lie in blood and breath,
Which else were fruitless of their due,
Had man to learn himself anew
Beyond the second birth of Death.

The poem has been interpreted variously by critics, but they all agree on its religious significance.

Q: The Victorian Web (website address above) asks: Tennyson spends most of the section describing the effects of self-recognition after birth. He then compares death to a "second birth" (line 16). How does he think self-recognition and identity would function after death?

January 31, 2012

'In Our Time': Matthew Arnold's 'Dover Beach'

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Melvyn Bragg, Dinah Birch (Professor of English at the University of Liverpool), Rosemary Ashton (Quain Professor of English Language and Literature at University College London) and Peter Mandler (University Lecturer and Fellow in History at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge) discuss Victorian Pessimism and Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach.

"On 1 September 1851 the poet Matthew Arnold was on his honeymoon. Catching a ferry from Dover to Calais, he sat down and worked on a poem that would become emblematic of the fears and anxieties of a generation of Victorians. It is called Dover Beach and it finishes like this:

“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night”.

From Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach to the malign universe of Thomas Hardy’s novels, an age famed for its forthright sense of progress and Christian belief was also riddled with anxieties about faith, morality and the future of the human race. They were even worried that the sun would soon go out. But to what extent was this pessimism spread across all areas of Victorian life? What events and ideas were driving it on and were any of their concerns about race, religion, class and culture borne out as the 19th century drew to a close?"

Courtesy of Julie Wareing!

January 25, 2012

'In Our Time': Alfred Tennyson's 'In Memoriam'

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Melvyn Bragg , Dinah Birch (Professor of English Literature and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at Liverpool University), Seamus Perry (Fellow and Tutor in English at Balliol College, University of Oxford) and Jane Wright (Lecturer in English at the University of Bristol), discuss Tennyson's 'In Memoriam', on Radio 4's In Our Time.

Click here to listen:

With thanks to Kay Hughes!

January 16, 2012

Alfred Tennyson's Critical Reception

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The critical reception of Alfred Tennyson’s poetry is as fascinating as the poems themselves, reflecting the mood of an anxious Victorian public, who could not bear to see their fears (or their denial of them) reflected in art. It is well known that Tennyson’s poetry was reviewed harshly, and these reviews were in turn sometimes bitterly, and publicly, refuted by Tennyson himself, but he also had several important critics—not least Queen Victoria—who admired him, defended his work, and, moreover, offered some important interpretations of his poetry which continue to guide critics today. Other than Arthur Hallam (who as Dr. Emma Mason outlined in the last lecture, was Tennyson’s closest friend and the champion of his poetry in ‘On Some of the Characteristics of Modern Poetry’), another critic, Robert James Mann, was also an ardent supporter. His pamphlet ‘Tennyson’s Maud Vindicated’ (1856) is, as aptly put by Laurence Mazzeno, an extraordinary critique:

Maud Vindicated is an “earnest appeal” to the general readership for the merits of the poem. Knowing that the “guild of critics” that are forever hobbled by the “tramels of contradictory causitry and shallow pretence” will never approve of the poem, Mann offers a detailed critique of Maud['s] dramatic structure and analyzes with sympathy the poem’s main character […] Mann was practicing with uncommon skills nearly fifty years before “close reading” became de rigeur among academics.

Such was the perception of Mann’s interpretation, that extracts of this review were, according to Tennyson’s son, even read as a preface by Tennyson during his private readings of the poem.


Q. In Tennyson’s Maud Vindicated, Mann suggests that the poem is ‘a statement that the proper function of love is the enobling and energizing of the human soul’. To what extent do you agree with this statement?

November 21, 2011

John Clare's 'I Am'

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Copy of original poem 'I Am'.

Click on link above and listen to Tom Tantol's somewhat twisted and tormented version of John Clare's ("Asylum Poem") 'I Am', incorporating several different "characters" to tell the poem-- well worth a watch.

** Please note: Fran Scott's RVP blog does not accept responsibility for any nightmares that you may have after watching this clip...! **

November 14, 2011

Percy Bysshe Shelley 'A Defence of Poetry'

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Percy Bysshe Shelley believed that poetry could excite the imagination, which, as the source of compassion and benevolence, could in turn improve society. In his 'A Defence of Poetry', published posthumously by his wife Mary Shelley (neé Wollstonecraft Godwin) in 1840, he argued:

'A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others. The pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts, and which form new intervals and interstices whose void forever craves fresh food. Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.'

Thus poets had an important role to play in society; they were, in his view, the 'unacknowledged legislators of the world':

'[P]oets, or those who imagine and express this indestructible order, are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting: they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers, who draw into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and the true that partial apprehension of the agencies of the invisible world which is called religion [...] It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.'

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  • Wow. I know this poem is tortured and sad but how beautiful! And the clip was fab. by Julie Wareing on this entry
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