This book has resulted from the convergence of two distinct lines of inquiry. One was undertaken with the purpose of providing grounds for a critical revaluation of the poetry of the great Victorians: notably, Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold. The other originated in a desire to examine the relationship of the artist to society in the Victorian age.
Any random sampling of anthologies of Victorian poetry published over the last half century will reveal a remarkable uniformity in the choice of selections, despite the abundance and diversity of available material. Modern readers, it would seem, have uncritically accepted preferences passed on by previous generations, and in so doing have allowed their concepts of these poets and their work to be influenced by standards of taste very different from their own. The student who sets out to read right through Tennyson or Browning or Arnold can hardly fail to be surprised and gratified by the illuminations which await him on nearly everv page. More importantly, he discovers as he goes along the necessity for revising his view of the artists in question to make room for hitherto unsuspected areas of originality, beauty, and power. And when read in full context, even those poems most staled by familiarity take on fresh meanings illustrat*e of neglected aspects of the writers' genius.
The prevalent tendency to hold up the poetry of Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold as a faithful mirror of the Victorian era has been responsible for a further historical fallacy in our thinking about these writers. Artists of their generation were the first to face the problem of communicating with a modern reading public little sensitive to the life of the imagination. A traditional view of the artist's social responsibilities led Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold to make a good many popular concessions, both in subject-matter and style; and an exaggerated notion of the extent of these concessions has implanted prejudices fatal to the serious study of their work. Yet the student who penetrates the blandly complacent surface of Victorian poetry does not have to probe very deep [ v/vi] to come on evidence of a divided intent premonitory of the coming rift between society and its artists.
If sufficiently prolonged, the two methods of approach here outlined must eventually meet in a recognition that the qualities in Victorian poetry which accord least well with the conventional habits of mind of that age are precisely the ones most interesting to our own time. It follows that an attempt to reappraise these poets must inevitably take into account the circumstances under which the alienation of the artist has occurred. And conversely, any investigation of the origins of this alienation, as it is foreshadowed in Victorian poetry, cannot but involve a new and suggestive approach to the poets who most eloquently speak to us across their age.
My colleagues and friends, Donald A. Stauffer, Willard Thorp, and Alba H. Warren, have not only taken the time to read the manuscript of this book in its entirety, but have also helped me with suggestions at every stage in its writing. Richard P. Blackmur has also given me the benefit of his critical experience and wide knowledge of modern poetry. To all these I wish to express my deep appreciation for their generous and always helpful advice. And lastly, I should like to record my gratitude to Princeton University for the award of a Bicentennial Preceptorship and for the opportunity thus provided to devote myself to the completion of this work.
Last modified June 2000