Victorianism as a Fusion of Neoclassical and Romantic Ideas and Attitudes

M. H. Abrams's enormously influential The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (1953) provides a valuable way into the problem of defining Victorianism in art and literature. Abrams begins his argument by pointing out that the once near-universal tendency to discuss art in terms of author and artist arrived on the scene quite late in the 2,500 year-old history of aesthetics and critical theory:

To pose and answer aesthetic questions in terms of the relation of art to the artist, rather than to external nature, or to the audience, or to the internal requirements of the work itself, was the characteristic tendency of modern criticism up to a few decades ago, and it continued to be the propensity of a great many — perhaps the majority — of critics today. This point of view is very young when measured against the twenty-five-hundred-year history of Western theory of art, for its emergence as a comprehensive approach to art shared by a large number of critics, dates back not much more than a century and a half. [3]

Before he can demonstrate the "momentous consequences for the identification, the analysis, the evaluation, and the writing of poetry" (3) of these comparatively recent ways of looking at literature and art, Abrams explains that all discussions of them discuss four elements — text or work, author, reality or nature, and audience — but define themselves by which one of the four they emphasize.

Four elements in the total situation of a work of art are discriminated and made salient, by one or another synonym, in almost all theories which aim to be comprehensive. First, there is the work, the artistic product itself. And since this is a human product, an artifact, the second common element is the artificer, the artist. Third, the work is taken to have a subject which, directly or indirectly, is derived from existing things — to be about, or signify, or reflect something which either is, or bears some relation to, an objective state of affairs. This third element, whether held to consist of people and actions, ideas and feelings, material things and events, or super-sensible essences, has frequently been denoted by that-word-of-all-work, "nature;" but let us use the more neutral and comprehensive term, universe, instead. For the final element we have the audience: the listeners, spectators, or readers to whom the work is addressed, or to whom, at any rate, it becomes available. [6]

Having thus set forth the framework of the argument to follow, Abrams proceeds, beginning with the relation of the work (or text) to nature (or universe), to explain the implications of each approach. Abrams labels mimetic those explanations of "the work of art as essentially an imitation of aspects of the universe" (8), and he discusses the quite different forms it takes in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. A central part of all such mimetic theories — and one which probably surprises most modern readers — lies in their conception of the roles of artist and poet, who do not have what Abrams terms "a determinative function;" that is, although poets are "indispensable," their "personal faculties, feelings, or desires are not called upon to explain the subject matter or form of a poem" (11). No one cares, in other words, if the poet is sincere or original: only accuracy, only truthfulness count.

The next category, the approach to art that emphasizes its relation to audience, Abrams labels pragmatic, "since it looks at the work of art chiefly as a means to an end, an instrument for getting something done, and tends to judge its value according to its success in achieving that aim. . . . The central tendency of the pragmatic critic is to conceive a poem as something made in order to effect certain responses in its readers" (15). This essentially rhetorical approach, which characterizes critical theory from the Renaissance through much of the eighteenth century, leads in turn to an emphasis upon distinct genres, or artistic and literary kinds, each with its own specific techniques and ends. Tragedy, for example, must have noble characters, elevated diction, and employ certain poetic devices, such as elaborate metaphor, to produce pity and fear. Pastoral, lyric, satire, burlesque all have their own rules, for this kind of critical position sees literary genres or kinds as forms of technology that can or should produce specific definable effects in the reader. Once again, no one cares if the poet is sincere or original: only effect and effectiveness, and skill in following the rules, counts.

With romantic or expressive theories come all the criteria with which we are familiar at last: spontaneity, sincerity, originality, intensity . . . alienation. "Poetry is the overflow, utterance, or projection of the thought and feelings of the poet; or else (in the chief variant formulation) poetry is defined in terms of the imaginative process which modified and synthesizes the images, thought, and feelings of the poet. . . . A work of art is essentially the internal made external" (21-22) or expressed. I always think of this approach as reactive: the artist-poet confronts nature or society, has a reaction that takes the form of a powerful emotional and imaginative experience that he or she later expresses. Kinds, literary or painterly genres, even the audience no longer appears central, and in fact the subjective nature of the artist-poet's experience almost guarantees several things. First, the resulting text or picture will appear to the audience as new, novel, and possibly strange or even weird. Second, the creator will always be ahead of the audience. Third, as Wordsworth put it, truly great art and literature advance so beyond the audience's expectations that it must create the taste by which it is to be enjoyed. And fourth, manifestos and prefaces, critics and interpretative criticism, become centrally important, as does the notion of an avante garde, since someone has to explain and defend art and artist to audience.

Leaving aside the fourth category — objective theories ranging from Art for Art's Sake to New Criticism that concentrate upon the work itself, we can turn to the question of Victorianism in literature and the arts. For all the great poetry and art produced by the romantic generations, many nineteenth-century readers and writers believed their approach tended towards egotism and excessive subjectivity. Nonetheless, at the same time that Thomas Carlyle proclaimed that his contemporaries should close their Byron and open their Goethe (which many of his readers reconfigured as "close Byron and read Carlyle"), they had passed a great divide — one of the central ones in Western intellectual and social history — and could not return to the elegant wit and scathing satire of the Augustans. As E. D. H. Johnson pointed out more than half a century ago in The Alien Vision of Victorian Poetry (1952), the Victorian project involved finding literary and artistic means of bridging a series of what they understood to be binary oppositions: self and society, personal and political, subjective and objective. Above all, as Carlyle managed to do in Sartor Resartus, Tennyson in In Memoriam, and Dickens in Great Expectations, they had to find public uses for very private experiences without either becoming egotistical or makes themselves vulnerable. Thus, the necessity of developing the dramatic monologue and new forms of both autobiography and autobiographical fictions. In other words, the Victorians had to find a way to create a synthesis of what Abrams calls pragmatic and expressive forms of art. Characteristically Victorian literature therefore attempts bravely, and often successfully, to combine the individuality, originality, intensity, and above all sincerity of Wordsworth and Keats with publicly accessibility and social relevance of Pope and Johnson.


Abrams, M. H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. NY: Oxford UP, 1953.

Last modified 10 November 2006