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Posted on April 21st, 2012, by

The Victorian Age marked a considerable change of British society and traditional culture and system of value. In fact, traditionally the Victorian Age is viewed as the Golden Age of the British Empire. However, the Victorian Age was not as perfect as it might seem to be. In this respect, it is possible to refer to works of poets working at that epoch, such as Robert Browning and Christina Rosetti, whose works reveal the controversy of the Victorian Age and uncover the shift from old traditions to a new, more pragmatic system of values. At the same time, it is important to underline that the Victorian Age was the epoch when Great Britain was the main world power and British culture, British lifestyle and values were considered to be mainstream at the epoch. In such a context, the revelations made by Robert Browning in his poems “My Last Duchess”¯ and “The Bishop Orders His Tomb”¯ and by Christina Rosetti in her “In an Artist’s Studio”¯ prove the epoch that traditional values of old England had fade away and the world had become less idealistic and more concerned with material benefits. This new world shattered the foundation of traditional English society which could hardly survive through the Victorian Age, which actually became the sunset of the idealistic values of the epoch of Enlightenment and gave place to the new moral principles and values of the epoch of imperialism.

On analyzing poems written at the Victorian Age, including poems by Rosetti and Browning, it is worth mentioning the fact that authors paid a lot of attention to traditional familial relations and the changes that took place in relationships between spouses, sons and fathers, and simply between men and women. At the same time, poets still believed in the great power of art that probably is the evidence of the idealism which still survived in minds of poets.

In fact, it is possible to estimate that poets viewed the salvation of old ideals and traditions in art, which they believed to be powerful enough to prevent the degradation of British society and its total decay.

In this respect, the poem “My Last Duchess”¯ by Robert Browning is particularly noteworthy. In fact, the poet narrates a tragic story of love and death, though, intentionally or not, the author mainly focuses readers’ attention on the death theme and on the personality of the murderer or, to put it more precisely, of the person who really desired the death of the victim. The narrator of the poem is the Duke of Ferrara who reveals the terrible truth of his life. At first he attempts to prove that he is a truly noble man, originating from a noble family, but who suffered from the injustice of the life and treachery of his wife. He attempts to convince the audience that he was a caring husband, devoted to his wife and to noble traditions and moral norms and principles. At the same time, he attempts to demonize his wife, attributing all possible vices to her. She depicts her as a prideful and disrespectful woman.

On the other hand, the poet reveals the true nature of the duke, who proves to be a manipulative, authoritarian person who wants to have the full control over his wife. Hence, it is only after her death the Duke can feel the total control over his wife:

Since non puts by

The curtain I have drawn for you, but I

(Browning, 10)

In such a way, he proves that the only thing he really wants from his wife is obedience and control. However, the duke’s desire of having control is overwhelming and expands not only on his wife, whom he actually murdered, but when he talks to his agent, telling the truth about the death of his wife, he goes out of control. Nevertheless, he attempts to regain control immediately as he says to his agent:

Nay we’ll go down together, sir

(Browning, 530)

At the same time, this is not a trivial story of a manipulative man who wants to control other people and play them as puppets. In stark contrast, this is a story of relationships of men and women and social gaps existing in British society at the Victorian Age. Obviously, the story narrated by the Duke reveals the desperate position of women, who were oppressed by men and who were expected to be under their total control. The pride of the duke’s wife is considered to be a great vice, while her attempts to stay independent and equal to her husband are interpreted as signs of disrespect. Therefore, the poet reveals that the Victorian Age was the age of patriarchal family, though women had started to oppose to the male’s oppression.

As for social conflicts existing in English society, it should be said that the poet shows the duke, who was supposed to be a noble man, the best representative of the society. Instead, he turns out to be a manipulative criminal who uses his position to manipulate not only with his wife but also with his agent who cannot oppose to the duke’s will because of his lower social status. In such a way, the author uncovers the true nature of the duke and shows that he is guided by pragmatic, almost primitive feelings that determine his actions.

In his “Bishop Orders His Tomb”¯, Browning keeps debunking myths concerning fundamental values of the Victorian Age. As he depicts the dying bishop, he shows that he is really disenchanted with his religion and the church. The bishop, who was supposed to be a devoted Christian, proves to be a convinced materialist who speaks about villas he gave the Pope:
Else I give the Pope

My villas!

(Browning, 102-103)

Thus, instead of thinking of the Pope as the respectable leader of the Catholic Church, he shows him as a person whose material interest dominate over spiritual ones. Moreover, t he bishop is confident that his family also had lost basic Christian values and is interested only in his money and property. For instance, when he talks to his son he wonders:

Will ye ever eat my heart?

Ever your eyes were as a lizard’s quick,

They glitter like your mother’s for my soul

(Browning, 103-105)

In such a way, he metaphorically compares his relatives to lizards and attempts to show that they are not loving and caring but rather avid and pragmatic people. Hence, traditional idealistic values gave in to the pragmatism and materialism at the Victorian epoch.

Nevertheless, both Browning and Rosetti believe in the power of art which could change people or create a kind of a new reality. For instance, Bowning in his “Last Duchess”¯ shows that the duke appreciates art and this is probably the best side of his personality. At the same time, Rosetti depicts an image of a woman which was probably viewed as an ideal woman at the Victorian Age and which meets traditional views of English people at the epoch on women and the author compares her to an angel, a saint:

A nameless girl in freshest summer greens,

A saint, an angel

(Rosetti, 6-7)

Ironically, this ideal woman is just a fruit of the artist’s imagination, which he depicted in his painting. In such a way, the author shows that the idealization of traditional English values had gone away at the Victorian Age and it is only art that maintained the power to revive old values and traditions. At the same time, the poet shows that the art, being a great power, still cannot replace the real life. Hence, at the end of the poem the artist is apparently disappointed because the girl in the painting only “fills his dream”¯, but do not exist in reality.

Thus, in conclusion, it should be said that the Victorian Age preserved some elements of traditional England of the past epochs, but the idealization of noble men, relationships of men and women had fade away. Instead, the Victorian Age brought disillusioning and imperfectness of the world.

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