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The Victorian Conspiracy of Cant


This book is objective and carefully documented. It is full of information. It is entertaining. It must be stimulating, because it provoked me to reread a considerable amount of quite bad minor Victorian verse. What The Victorian Temper attempts to do is to present the Victorians in their own words, and in these words to trace the evolution of what Buckley calls “the moral aesthetic.” Allowing the Victorians to speak for themselves imperceptibly turns into accepting them at their face value. This leads to madness, to such madness as allowing Tennyson to speak as a “thinker.” Tennyson’s poetry is very beautiful, some of it, but beautiful for a diffuse, but not diluted, mindless, vertiginous eroticism, of the kind invented by Keats. Maud is a farrago of vulgar chauvinism, but it has such lovely songs.

What we want to know first about the Victorians is how they got that way. It is almost inconceivable that they were the contemporaries of Baudelaire and Rimbaud. We do not need books to tell us what they thought of themselves; we can always visit our relatives. This is why it is so important to understand the Victorian era. Much, perhaps most, of England and America is still living in it. It cannot be understood by arranging quotations from literary documents in chronological order, with commentary confined to the documents themselves. This is the old juridical hallucination. The history of the last two decades is not to be understood by reading the speeches of Roosevelt and Churchill, the works of Whitehead, the constitutions of the CIO and the USSR.

Buckley presents a large assortment of quotations, from the sentimental obscurantism of Newman to the muscular Christianity of Kingsley. It is true that he shies away from the extreme radicals, and it is surely disingenuous to present John Stuart Mill primarily as an example of the process of conversion. But no matter. Left, Right and Center, all the spokesmen of the era seem implicated in a vast conspiracy of cant. Their humanitarian and plausible words covered a horrible reality, a poverty, squalor, ignorance, which changed little throughout the period. Marx and Engels documented it at the beginning. Doré portrayed it in his London engravings, far more frightening than his Inferno, at the end. True, they were critical, the Victorians, very, but critical from the safe refuges of their clubs and rectories. The power of the sex lie never wavered. It produced the obscene nonsense of the trial of Queen Caroline just before the beginning of the reign; at the end it murdered Parnell with a poleax. History knows no equal of the English Custer, “Chinese” Gordon, a sanctimonious freebooter whose portrait graces the windows of English churches and the walls of cottages to this day, and who seemed a peerless hero even to that civilized Edwardian, Andrew Lang.

I have never read a book that set out to analyze, really exhaustively, the objective causes of this cultural dark night of the soul. Other countries in the nineteenth century had a brutalized working class, subhuman paupers, hordes of newly rich parvenus — Evangelicals, Christian Socialists, Catholic Reactionaries, Ethical Positivists, Manchester Economists, not a tendency but was duplicated on the Continent or in America. Europe, not England alone, groaned under the long reaction which followed the suppression of Napoleon the First. Napoleon the Little emerges in history on Kennington Common sabering the demonstrators for the Great Petition. The suppression of Chartism and the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon were historical twins. The France of Louis Napoleon produced some of the greatest painting the world has ever seen, and a body of literature not only great, but fundamentally critical of the society which produced it and artistically both impeccably wrought and technically revolutionary. Darkest Russia produced a whole school of writers whose influence is still potent over a hundred years. Provincial America produced Whitman, and, at the end of the century, Henry James. The Victorians, even when they tried to swim against the stream — and most of them, as Buckley points out, did try in one way or another — wrote atrociously and painted worse. The tastelessness and fustian of Rossetti, Swinburne, Oscar Wilde, make us shudder today. Why? I do not know for sure, and Buckley does not help.

The cultural historian, to be valuable, must commit himself. It is not enough to be objective, to treat literature and the arts as though they were produced by beetles or chemical compounds. Certainly one of the things wrong with the major Victorians is that they were all more or less implicated in the guilt of the society that produced them, whereas Delacroix, Degas, Seurat, Baudelaire, Flaubert, even Hugo and Gautier, were definitely exiles from a future time. For this reason the Victorians who interest us most today are minor artists whom personal eccentricity or circumstances dislocated from their fellows, who were cut off, by cranky ideas, geographical isolation or some other accident, from the pervasive spirit of the time. The list is long and, in its way, imposing: Clare, Beddoes, Landor, Barnes, Lear, Dodgson, Christina Rossetti, Clough, Doughty, Butler, Hopkins are only a few who occur to me offhand. Perhaps a major figure like Browning means as much to us as he does because he went to Italy and tried to keep himself uncontaminated. It is this side of Victorianism, the cultural underground, we want to know most about. Carlyle, Ruskin, even Morley or Bagehot, let alone Tennyson as a social philosopher, can all be found today, repeated with singularly little adulteration in the newspapers, especially on Easter, Labor Day and the anniversary of Hiroshima.



This review of Jerome Buckley’s The Victorian Temper originally appeared in The New Republic (3 December 1951). Copyright 1951. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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