The Victorian era in Britain was one of stifling, almost caste-like political and social values. It was an age that found table legs far too sexual to be openly displayed and women far too delicate to emerge from their socially imposed prisons of virtue. It was a time that, needless to say, produced quite a bit of depression in its inhabitants. The Victorian British considered themselves to be the ebullient pinnacle of humanity, but that supposed brilliance and virtue often constricted and repressed their creativities and aspirations. Furthermore, the indoctrination of the young into social roles and strict paradigms of virtue and respectability in many cases led individuals to repress themselves even where society did not. This uncomfortable societal reality was well expressed in the poetry of the period, which often expressed a kind of depression and quiet darkness that easily matched that of Romantic poetry. Indeed, the Victorian poets were in some ways actually more depressed than the Romantics, especially in their contemplation of repression, death, and evil.
The Victorian poets often explored repression, and one can see an evident depression in their examinations of the topic that simply outmatches that of the Romantics. An excellent example of this can be found in Elizabeth Barrett's poem, "The Prisoner," a work of utter hopelessness as exemplified by literal physical repression. In the poem, Barrett describes the loneliness of the prisoner in question in agonized terms, referring to his imprisonment as a "door so closely shut," behind which lies the "visionary pain" of an individual unable to escape their confinement ("The Prisoner," 7-11). Barrett paints a portrait of complete despair, as the prisoner endures a life spent only "count[ing] the dismal time by months and years" ("The Prisoner," 1). Barrett's poem gives no context for why or how the prisoner is confined, and that exclusion grants the poem a universal tone that provides an excellent metaphor for the societal repression the Victorians faced on a daily basis. Though the works of the Romantics occasionally touched on issues of repression and overt oppression, especially in cases such as William Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper," the visions they saw occasioned at least some hope. In Blake's work, for example, the boys forced into their cruel, wretched positions at least entertain fantasies of escape, particularly in the case of Tom, who dreams of an angel that might deliver them from their bondage and set them free to frolic in the plains ("The Chimney Sweeper, 13-16). To Barrett's prisoner, even his remembrances bring him terrible pain, and in the end, he allows himself no hope of ever being released from his confinement. His mind cannot even evince childlike fantasies of hope, and his future will only be one repression and meaninglessness.
The Romantics were masters of poetry concerning death, but the Victorians explored the matter with an evident depression that outmatched even the Romantics' sorrow. Christina Rossetti is a fine example of this, especially in her work "A Better Resurrection." In the poem, Rossetti's narrator laments her horrid condition, her life "like a faded leaf, / [her] harvest dwindled to a husk" ("A Better Resurrection," 9-10). Rossetti calls upon Jesus to cast her witless, worthless life, which she compares to a broken bowl, into the fires of death to be remade into something worthy of life ("A Better Resurrection," 17-24). In essence, the narrator is begging to die, having become so tired of her existence and herself that her only hope is to die and be reborn into something her God may deem suitable to live. Needless to say, it is a sentiment born of extreme and hopeless depression. The Romantics also explored death, but never in a way that could be considered truly analogous of Rossetti's poem. The Romantics found glory in life, but in everything they found a hint of death and the inevitability of the decay of prosperity and life. It was that loss that they bemoaned. For the Victorians in Rossetti's case, however, it is death that is revered, for life, which holds no glory for the narrator, is simply not worth living.
If the Victorians' depression was evidenced by their view of death, it was certainly also reflected in their representations of evil, which were in many ways far darker than that of the Romantics. Evil was a very real concept to the Victorians, and one can find an excellent example of it in Robert Browning's poem "My Last Duchess." In the poem, a mysterious duke muses upon a picture on his wall of his last wife, a woman that he apparently despised for her habit of smiling on things beside himself. He demanded that she take no pleasure in anything but him, and when she disobeyed that, he enacted her murder, upon which "all smiles stopped together" (Browning, "My Last Duchess," 45-46). Not only did the duke murder his wife, but he now desires another, which, along with the title's reference to the earlier wife being his "last" duchess, implies that he may have killed before. The duke is an obvious figure of extreme evil, and the idea that individuals like him could and do exist is an exceptionally depressing one. This is far different from the evil shown in Romantic poetry, which is often of a supernatural nature. In Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Christabel," for example, evil is represented in the form of a ghostly woman named Geraldine, who seems to bear an unnatural, corrosive influence that bears heavily upon Christabel, the title character. In the poem, Geraldine is still, however, portrayed as something unnatural, something alien. In "My Last Duchess," however, a Victorian view of evil in the form of an all too human aristocrat is seen, one that is far more depressing than any supernatural form of evil.
Whether dealing with repression, death, or evil, the Victorians were in some ways simply more depressed than the Romantic poets. It is hardly difficult to understand why. Much of the depression of the Romantics was tempered by frequent periods of revelry in intense pleasure and excess. The Victorian poets, however, often enjoyed no such alternatives to their depression, which festered like a disease beneath the upstanding exteriors they presented to society. Far more than the Romantics, they inhabited a world astonishingly stringent in its malignant repression of the human spirit. The Victorians lived with in a society so utterly repressive that every movement and gesture had to be measured for social acceptability. Even their own impulses were sharply regulated by a combination of religious and social indoctrination that left them raging against their own instincts. Only in the margins of society could their anxieties and depression be expressed in their fullest form, and just such a margin was the texture of their poetry.
Barrett, Elizabeth. "The Prisoner."
Blake, William. "The Chimney Sweeper."
Browning, Robert. "My Last Duchess."
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. "Christabel."
Rossetti, Christina. "A Better Resurrection."