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In Memoriam, The Idylls of the King, Aurora Leigh, and The Ring and the Book all represent major Victorian attempts to explain the ways of God to man in long poetic forms. Their themes, definition of the role of the poet, and their redefinition of major literary forms make them nineteenth-century versions of Milton's great epic that try to serve as viable contemporary versions or replacements for the epic.
By proposing a woman — and a woman author at that — as the protagonist of Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning offers the most obviously radical redefinition of the hero of these four works; but Tennyson, who wishs to retain Arthur as traditional hero, makes an equal challenge to the convention of literary heroism: Arthur exists only as an absence at the heart of The Idylls of the King, for the blameless king himself rarely acts, since most of the individual idylls are about his influence upon others. The Ring and the Book, which divides the role of hero among a priest who fails his rescue mission, an innocent young girl who is the daughter of a prostitute, an aging pope, and the poet himself, also makes clear that the older epic or romance hero is irrelevant to modern literature. In Memoriam, which appeared the same year as Wordsworth's Prelude, makes an epic of the poet's own experiences, creating the Victorian version of what Keats had called the egotistical sublime.
All four works self-consciously employ devices of epic and romance, including invocations, mythic allusion, and the test of the hero from the medieval romance and the elevation of the hero or aristea from epic. Two of them also make central to their plots the mysterious birth of a major character — Pompilia in Browning's poem and King Arthur in Tennyson's. All the poems also have antagonists who appear to be incarnate evil.
Finally, although In Memoriam and Aurora Leigh have contemporary settings, both The Ring and the Book and The Idylls of the King take place in a distant if Victorianized past. Both Tennyson and Browning, in other words, use the past as a literary laboratory that allows them to discuss contemporary issues and problems while preserving an aesthetic distance. All three works by Tennyson and Browning also employ prologues, epilogues, and framing sections that isolate the work's interior from the contemporary world.
These partial imitations of Miltonic epic challenge the form more than they follow it, for all four reject epic narrative as inappropriate to a modern age. In Aurora Leigh Barrett Browning transfers the subject and method of the Victorian woman's novel to the long poem, and all three of the other poems attempt to construct a long form out of fragments, much as do Dante Rossetti in The House of Life, his sister Christina in "Monna Innominata," George Meredith in Modern Love, and William Morris in The Earthly Paradise. Although Tennyson most obviously tries to shore up fragments against his ruin in In Memoriam, all three works employ the fragment as a truer embodiment of phenomenological and spiritual truth than narrative. This questioning of narrative anticipates late-twentieth-century Postmodernism.
All four works privilege imaginative and experiential truth, and both Aurora Leigh and The Ring and the Book self-consciously make it the center of explicitly stated theories of poetry. Tennyson's In Memoriam, like The Idylls of the King, implicitly shows that it is the province of poetry. Having constructed a poetic form of fragments, the works by Tennyson and Browning juxtapose panels, set pieces, or tableaux arranged in a climactic narrative. Although emphasizing fragments less than does Tennyson's epic elegy, Browning's twelve-part mystery-novel poem functions in the same way by constructing a poem and a reality of fragments, each of which contains part of the truth and each of which the reader must traverse to experience the world as the poet sees it. Each of these segmented poetic structures dramatizes a conversion experience or confirmatory vision — that of the speaker in In Memoriam, Caponsacchi in The Ring and the Book, and Bedivere, Guinevere, and a host of others in The Idylls of the King. Aurora Leigh, which employs a more conventionally unified narrative structure, also features the conversion of Romney.
In all four poems the problem of faith appears as the relation between having faith and keeping faith, between belief and right conduct (or right identity). This relation, which makes conversion experience central to the meaning of the work, appears embodied in relations of men and women, especially that of marriage.
Having abandoned narrative as the dominant principle of literary structure and organization, these works employ chains of images, motifs, and paradigms to inform their climactic segmented poetic structure, and even Aurora Leigh, which makes greater use of narrative, relies heavily on skillfully deployed organizing motifs. In three of these poems biblical allusion provides a major source of such motifs. In Memoriam uses it to resolve the problem of God in history, The Ring and the Book to reveal the moral stature of individual characters, and Aurora Leigh to present Barrett Browning's poetic theory and seize the high ground for women in their battle with oppressing men.
Finally, all four poems present of the inspired prophetic poet. The four-part religious structure of In Memoriam, which takes the reader from despair to doubt and then to hope before he arrives at faith, also leads us progressively to discover a final definition of the role of the poet and justification of his enterprise. Although the emphases on art in The Idylls of the King take the less explicit form of Merlin and even Arthur's own attempts to create order, in Aurora Leigh and The Ring and the Book they clearly occupy center stage.
Last updated 7 August 2004