The University of Virginia’s Victorian Literature and Culture Series
aims to “publish the best contemporary scholarship and criticism on the Victorian period,” and Charles LaPorte’s contribution to the series fulfills this goal admirably. Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible
persuasively argues against “conventional models of secularization” (7) that posit the association of poetry and religion as a compensatory response to nineteenth-century religious decline. In contrast to traditional scholarship’s pervasive attempts to “minimize the oddness of Victorian poetic theory’s claims for religious significance” (7), one might say that LaPorte aims to maximize this strangeness, or at least capitalize on it. Noting the Victorian engagement with German higher criticism, which applied historical methods to the Bible, LaPorte avers that “poetry inspired by the higher criticism almost never comes down to a tactical withdrawal from biblical literalism” (20), and argues that the reluctance of nineteenth-century poets “to disentangle the scriptures from… ‘the puzzled skein’ of history’” evidences their desire “to reclaim the whole skein as the province of poetry” (21). LaPorte devotes a chapter each to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Arthur Hugh Clough, Robert Browning, and George Eliot. Happily, his focus encompasses more than those poems most frequently anthologized or critically examined; the section on Robert Browning, for example, positions Red Cotton Night-Cap Country
as an achievement equal to that of the oft-praised The Ring and the Book
. LaPorte reads the works of these major Victorian poets as varying responses (he calls them “poetic experiments”) to the burgeoning trend of German higher criticism. Contemporary debates of the period called for a reevaluation of the Bible’s poetic quality, arguing that this was an integral part of its religious significance. While acknowledging current reevaluations of religious vitality in the Victorian era, particularly the recent scholarship of Emma Mason, Mark Knight, and William McKelvy, LaPorte’s work helpfully narrows the conversation to five mid-century authors who run the gamut from confessional poet to agnostic. By doing so, he manages to draw a detailed portrait of “dramatically successful and unsuccessful instances of Victorian literary ambition” (22). But his book also charts the enthusiastic reactions of his five chosen poets to the idea of an inspired text. The zealous devotion of the Brownings and Tennyson contrasted with the agnostic temperament of Clough and Eliot might seem to promise an uneven study, given that the former set embraced higher criticism as an opportunity for their poetry to fulfill a role akin to that of scripture. However, LaPorte skillfully navigates the religious divide and demonstrates that even unbelievers like Clough and Eliot actively engaged with the idea of an inspired text and ardently responded to the possibility of poet-as-prophet. The conflation of religious and poetic sentiment was not without its challenges, as LaPorte notes in his first and most approachable chapter on Elizabeth Barrett Browning. He describes her literary stance as one that “vacillates between devotional reverence for the traditional scriptures … and a Romantic ambition to craft new religious texts” (23-4), and his detailed analysis of her 1857 masterpiece, Aurora Leigh
, demonstrates the tension between Barrett Browning’s expressed distaste for the higher criticism and her integration of its fundamental values into her work. Such professed aversion makes Barrett Browning the most unusual of LaPorte’s subjects, but she emerges as a perfectly salient example of his thesis: a poetess who channeled her religious ideals into the creation of her own sacred text. The standout chapter in LaPorte’s volume is that on Robert Browning and The Ring and the Book
, which begins with the deceptively simple assertion that the “the poem’s excitement of the nineteenth-century religious imagination itself contributes ...
Elizabeth Ryba is a graduate student in the department of Comparative Literature at Indiana University. Her current project focuses on female authorship, victimization, and narrative identity in nineteenth-century literature.