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?

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fevourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

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