The age of Victoria “was arguably the first in which most people expected their lives to be shaped by forces and circumstances that had been unknown a generation or two before. As a result. Victorians felt alienated from even the immediate past, perhaps more acutely than ever before. While the future seemed to be open and uncertain, both promising and worrying, the past started to seem strange, disconnected from the present and removed from its new concerns.” — Tom Mole

Decorated initial I

n What the Victorians Made of Romanticism, Tom Mole’s excellent study of the various ways various nineteenth-century forms of media constructed their own versions of Byron, Shelley, and other major Romantic poets, he argues that Victorians saw their own age as essentially new, as essentially different from all that came before. This rupture with past ages, which he traces to the French Revolution, destroyed old deeply felt assumptions that “time flows smoothly from past to present. . . .Peter Fritzsche argues that the Revolution offered a model for conceiving other kinds of historical change as drastic and discontinuous, which was shared by both Revolutionary sympathizers and conservatives. The ‘Industrial Revolution,’ for example, was understood as a technological revolution by analogy with the political revolution that preceded it” (12). People begin to “think and speak of modernity as radically distinct from the past” and understand temporality in new ways, the sense of time “grounded in nature was gradually replaced by one measured by the clock. A temporality that was natural, cyclical, locally variable, and imprecise gave way to one that was mechanical, linear, uniform, and measurable” (12).

One of the results of these changed attitudes towards time and history involved seeing their own age as unique. In this context when Victorian authors and publishers looked at Romantic poetry, they saw it as something distant and in danger of being forgotten, so that in finding a way to insure that what Mole terms cultural memory would not lose their predecessors, “Victorians remodeled Romanticism to suit their own concerns” (13).

Related material


Mole, Tom. What the Victorians Made of Romanticism: Material Artifacts, Cultural Practices, and Reception History. Princeton: Princeton University press, 2018 [Review by George P. Landow].

Last modified 29 August 2018