Tennyson, Browning, Arnold and Carlyle
Thomas Carlyle writes in Characteristics that, "The healthy know not of their health, but only the sick"(923). He extends this medical/biological aphorism to the social and ideological world of Victorian England. Carlyle thoroughly goes over the question, What is the state of England? He finds that England is in a state of transition, and while the old is no longer useful to the society, the new has not yet been clearly defined. This void contributes to problems of poverty, social graces, and spiritual/social direction in 19th C. England. Carlyle goes on to discuss the nature and effects of the problems he identifies in the culture, and encourages the members of the society to remain hopeful of finding a solution. Carlyle identifies problems and trends in the society by close observation. In his contemporary poets are correlations to Carlyle's own work. Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold, Dante Rossetti, and Algernon Swinburn all exhibit traits in their poetry that relate to Carlyle's ideas about the condition of England.
Carlyle wrote that literature is "a branch of Religion," and believed that in Victorian England "it is the only branch that still shows any greenness; and, as some thing, must one day become the main stem"(926). It makes sense, when Carlyle gives such huge import and value to literature, to look for ways that his ideas are evinced in the poetry of his time. During his age, poets were becoming more socially responsible. They incorporated themes and ideas that they envisioned to be solutions to at least some of the problems they saw around them. Often they simply gave voice to the problems they witnessed, allowing the issue to be discussed rather than ignored.
Tennyson is a poet who's importance to England and English society is undisputable. He, too, exhibits Carlyle's characteristics in his verse. In "Ulysses," Tennyson writes a dramatic monologue from the point of view of the old Greek hero who was stranded away from home for twenty years. In Homer's Odyssey, Ulysses (aka Odyssius) is blessed by the gods. His wife, Penelope, remains devoted to him and beautiful, despite the hoard of suitors that overrun their household in his absence. But the Ulysses that Tennyson gives us is quite different. Ulysses is pessimistic and dissatisfied. He is critical of Penelope, and says that he doles out "unequal laws unto a savage race"(1067). This is not Homer's noble hero. This is a Victorian Ulysses, caught up in a mire of self-awareness and self-doubt. Carlyle writes, "Never since the beginning of Time was there ... so intensely self-conscious a Society"(925). Ulysses is aware of his age, of the age of his country, and of the manifold failures of his society, mirroring the Victorian concerns of the poet. Tennyson also upholds Carlyle's idea that eventually there will be answers. Carlyle writes that although Victorian England is in a state of transition, and nothing can...