The following discussion was adapted from an essay by the authors; see bibliography below. GPL wrote this section and adapted it for the Victorian Web, placing the endnotes in the main text and bibliography.

decorated initial 'V' ictorian literature presents an interesting case to those concerned with the influence of the Bible and biblical tradition upon secular culture. M. H. Abrams and other critics have clearly demonstrated the major extent to which Wordsworth, Blake, and the other Romantics employed secularized extensions of Christian thought, of which the apocalyptic themes of the marriage of heaven and earth and the end of the world figured importantly. Nonetheless, critics of the Romantics have so accustomed us to thinking of nineteenth- century British culture as essentially humanistic, rather than Christian, that students of the later nineteenth century too easily assume that any reference to Apocalypse after 1800 can only take the form of loose analogy. Of course, British art and literature, like that throughout the West since the 1790s, displays many more situations, metaphors, and images of crisis analogous to the Apocalypse than detailed allusions to it (see Images of Crisis). One unfortunate corollary of the false assumption that English Romanticism and Post-Romanticism relate only distantly to contemporary religion is that their students do not have to acquaint themselves with either the Bible or the interpretive traditions according to which it was commonly understood.

Even were such an interpretation of Romanticism correct, Victorian studies would have to follow a different path. The situation in Victorian literature differs profoundly from that created by the first Romantic generation because of a dramatic -- and until recently, almost completely unnoticed -- revival of biblical prophecy, typology, and apocalyptics. This return to prominence of older exegetic practice, which often took on specifically Victorian intonations, means that the student of the age must know well both the Bible and contemporary attitudes towards its interpretation. Victorian uses of the Apocalypse in secular literature, for example, take far more elaborate forms than mere distant echoes of archetypal structures drawn from it.

The great Evangelical revival of the early nineteenth century produced a religious situation at mid-century which differed radically from what had obtained at 1800, for by the third decade at least two thirds of British Protestants within and without the established church practised some form of Evangelical religion. Evangelicalism, which thus shaped most people's attitudes towards reading and interpretation, taught countless nineteenth-century readers sophisticated approaches to typology and biblical prophecy, both of which they often found in rather surprising portions of Holy Scripture. Therefore, a precise knowledge of the Bible and its associated interpretive ttraditions formed a crucial element in the intellectual heritage (or intellectual baggage) of nineteenth-century readers, who possessed a rich repertoire of forms, codes, and symbols derived from the Book of Revelation and other books of the Bible.

The cultural accessibility of complex allusions to the Apocalypse in the Victorian age perhaps best appears in the fact that so many popular works made use of them. One finds little surprising in the fact that Edward Bickersteth, an Evangelical clergyman, wrote a popular visionary epic, Yesterday, Today, and For-Ever (1866), which tries to outdo Milton both by casting away all allusions to pagan literature and by furnishing a poetic redaction of the Apocalypse. Similarly, William Holman Hunt's The Light of the World (1853), which was probably the most popular British religious painting of the nineteenth century, illustrates a verse from the Book of Revelation, and the artist's very popular Triumph of the Innocents (versions 1884, 1887), which he painted many years later, parallels -- and possibly derives from -- John Keble's "The Holy Innocents," which takes as its text Revelation 14.4. Keble's extraordinarily popular The Christian Year also makes half a dozen other references to the Apocalypse.

Given a large contemporary audience capable of responding to the kind of allusions made by these religious works, Victorian authors like Carlyle and Ruskin frequently salt their prose with heavy allusion to the Apocalypse. Tennyson's "The Holy Grail," which makes several crucial allusions to Revelation, employs them differently than did either of these two previous groups of literary and pictorial artists. Whereas Bickersteth, Hunt, and Keble represent those who convey essentially religious themes by means of orthodox allusions, Carlyle and Ruskin, both of whom at one time or another abandoned orthodox Christianity, represent those many authors who employ specific allusions to the Apocalypse in extended and usually secularized forms. In contrast, Tennyson, who writes as a Christian, employs his allusions to the Book of Revelation to call into question the entire notion of revelation itself. Tennyson, we recall, began The Idylls of the King with "The Coming of Arthur," in which he dramatizes the essentially subjective means by which men and women attain to belief. After questioning others about their reasons for accepting Arthur's authenticity, King Leodogrand, Guinevere's father, falls asleep and has an ambiguous dream which presents Arthur's kingship in apocalyptic terms, for it includes both a joining of heaven and earth and the end of a world. He awakens and decides to give his daughter, his faith, and his allegiance to the young, untested monarch. Later in The Idylls, Tennyson presents such essentially subjective decisions far more darkly, since in "The Holy Grail" the grail vision comes to almost every knight as a disruptive force which leads him to break faith with his king and seek salvation for himself. At the close of the idyll, Tennyson has Arthur, who had been away from Camelot on a mission of justice and mercy when the vision appeared, tell how he, like the ploughman, must first do his task and not chase after ambiguous revelations. Using allusions from the Gospels and contemporary prophetic readings of the Psalms, Tennyson thus strongly suggests that one should avoid immersing oneself in apocalyptics and instead confine oneself to the clearer portions of scripture as guides for living on this earth. The poet's closing allusions, like those to the Book of Revelation in the visions of Percival, Bors, and Launcelot, display a detailed knowledge of apocalyptics being used, at least in part, to attack what he believes to be an excessive concentration upon them.

Related Materials

Bibliography

Mary Carpenter and George P. Landow. "Ambiguous Revelations: The Apocalypse in Victorian Literature," in The Apocalypse in English Renaissance Thought and Literature. eds. C. A. Patrides and Joseph A. Wittreich. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1984; Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984. 299-322.


Victorian Overview Religion Victorian Apocalyptics

Last modified 12 June 2014