Tennyson, Browning, populism, Victoriana

A couple of posts back I lumped The Charge of the Light Brigade in with Kipling and Newbolt as ‘populist poetry’, as contrasted with ‘literary poetry’. I’m still not wild about that distinction, because it seems to imply an inverse correlation between accessibility and merit. But it does seem to capture some sort of truth. Notice it’s nothing to do with being ‘avant garde’ – in the comments to that post I contrasted Kipling and Hardy, and Hardy was no modernist. Highbrow vs. middlebrow would be part of the distinction, but that’s not quite right either.

Anyway. The Charge of the Light Brigade is interesting in this respect because Tennyson also wrote poems like In Memoriam A. H. H., which are (clearly?) ‘literary’. And Browning, who was also a ‘literary’ poet, wrote things like The Pied Piper of Hamelin. It’s a very Victorian tendency, a thick streak of populism in serious art. All those awful narrative paintings with titles like Faults On Both Sides, and the shamelessly crowd-pleasing novels of Dickens. In some ways it’s very democratic, so it seems a pity that the results were so awful. All aspects of the visual arts (architecture, painting, fashion, design) seemed to produce abomination after abomination, it’s one of the weakest of all periods of poetry in England; only the novel seemed to do well on it.

Does populism lead to bad art? Or were they both symptoms of something else?

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