The Loss of Victorian Morality
The Victorian era marks the period of Queen Victoria’s reign over England from 1837, until her death in January 1901. It was an age of new prosperity brought about by thriving industrialization, new scientific discoveries and technology, which encouraged the rise of an educated middle class. This new age also brought about a shift from agriculture to manufacturing, causing mass immigration into cities. City life provided Victorians with freedom and anonymity from the social values of smaller rural communities, and resulted in the loss of social and spiritual morality with violence, poverty and carnality becoming routine occurrences. New cultural ideals and scientific findings, such as evolution, clashed with the religious philosophies of the time. The early Victorian age also had an influence upon literature and poetry and produced many excellent writers, such as Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, and Matthew Arnold. The subject matter of most Victorian works by these authors was usually socially oriented and focused upon the practical problems of daily life and contained moral messages for their readers.
Robert Browning focused his poetry on the scandals of everyday Victorian urban life. He used sex, violence and moral hypocrisy as themes in many of his poems. Browning, like Charles Dickens, filled his literary works with people from all levels of society and he also included characters that were immoral and evil. According to The Literature Network, “Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues covered a wide array of subjects, from lucid dreams to the nature of art and even the meaning of existence.” His poems “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess,” are similar in that they both include murderers who coldly describe their evil deeds without any remorse. “Porphyria’s Lover”, begins with a lover describing the arrival of Porphyria, and then it quickly descends into a description of her murder at his hands. He describes how he strangled his lover with her own hair to preserve the moment forever. The poem “My Last Duchess” also echoes this theme of depravity. The Duke describes his last wife, whose painting is hidden behind a curtain on the wall, and cheerfully mentions that his wife seemed to smile at everyone, so he “…gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together” (Browning 503).
Robert Browning, like Matthew Arnold, included religious figures in his commentary of the loss of social values in society. His poem, "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister" demonstrates that religious men were not immune to immoral behaviour either. In the "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister", the speaker spews out his intense hatred for his colleague, Brother Lawrence. The reader quickly discovers that Brother Lawrence is a sincere and devout Christian; however, the narrator is in fact morally, spiritually and socially bankrupt. Scott and John, suggests that Browning’s botanical references throughout the poem not only demonstrate the narrator’s petty attitudes and disturbed mind, but also suggests that homosexuality and buggery were common place. He points out that the word “scrofulous” in stanza 8, (Browning p501) could also refer to the Latin name of a plant commonly used to cure piles, which was usually associated with buggery and homosexuality (Scott;John)
Browning’s poetry shares a common thread with Matthew Arnold’s poetry, in that they both use variety and inventiveness to draw attention to a narrator’s thoughts and concerns. Arnold is more thoughtful about what true spiritual belief should be; yet, Browning tackles the same topics in a more flamboyant manner by illustrating what true spiritualism is not. “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church,” is one of Browning’s most famous poems and demonstrates his view that base, immoral tendencies could be found anywhere in Victorian society. This poem also portrays a man of high religious standing, who lacks the morals and values of...
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