Many of the themes and meanings of Victorian poetry reflect a conflicted sense of self. At once manypoems by Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning portray a longing for the ideals of theRomantic period in literature but they are stunted it seems by the unique period and its new use of language, the changing and ever-growing economy in the bustling city of London, and of course, the changing views of religion and its place in such a complex world. Through the poems from the Victorian era of both Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Matthew Arnold, the recurrent themes of shifting religious ideas, language usage, and the economy are clear.
During the long reign of Elizabeth religious dissent was growing and the Church broke off into three distinct branches. This schism was also coupled with the fact that new discoveries were being made, most notably by the controversial theories of Darwin, but by other thinkers as well that argued for a more rational existence. Influenced by the works of Percy and Mary Shelley, Robert Browning already had atheistic ideas and although his feelings dissipated to some degree later in his life, his numerous criticisms of religion are obvious in his poem “Fra Lippo Lippi” in which he tells the tale, in the form of a narrative poem complete with slang and comedy, of a man that was not destined to be in the Church and chooses to heed his more physical impulses instead of conforming to the will of the Church. ” Browning seems to be engaging in a dialogue with the Church regarding celibacy—both in the artistic and sexual sense.
The feelings of the poem’s narrator in “Fra Lippp Lippi” by Browning can easily be seen as Browning’s own critique and while the main theme concerns art, the strict sense in which the church views artistic pursuits and products is similar to the way it requires priests to live celibate lives. While the church’s main argument is that art should be presented as something “higher” than the base representation of the human form, this denies the essential humanity of the subject, God’s people. Along these same lines, the way the church frowns upon sexual, lustful activity on the part of its clergy by demanding celibacy is exactly the same request as for the artist. Both demands of the church, artistic and sexual are idealized conceptions of how humans should be represented and both, according to the narrator of the poem, are entirely unrealistic and misguided. Through this poem, Browning is arguing against mandatory celibacy for priests and is suggesting, through the story and artistic struggle of Fra Lippo Lippi, that the demands of the church go against human nature.
We are all, to use Browning’s word, “beasts” thus prone to the same desires that the church wishes to “rub out”. The narrator of this poem from the Victorian period argues that his life in cloister has been unnatural and restraining and bemoans the lack of life he is allowed to experience (although he obviously breaks the rules). The mandatory celibacy is made even more absurd when the Fra point out, “You should not take a fellow eight years old/ And make him swear to never kiss the girls” (224-25). Earlier in the poem, he speaks of this in terms of other boys that had been brought into cloister by openly saying, “Trash, such as these poor devils of Medici/ Have given their hearts to—all at eight years old” (100-101). He seems to see this celibacy as a terrible waste of youth and life—both of which he values above all else. He seeks to represent truth through art, despite the fact that everything in his life is geared towards a completely celibate existence—both in art, sexuality, and life. The story of his life can be summed up in the simple phrase on line 221, “Rub all out!’ Well, well, there’s my life in short.” He has been told to extinguish the art and the humanity, thus the keen sexual desire that longs to be free. This goes against human nature—an idea that was taking firm root after the more scientific observations about the self and the natural world and thus religion is represented as the antithesis of all that is natural.
What is most interesting about this religious criticism in the Victorian era as seen in some of its poetry is that there is also a certain yearning for the old days of religious order. For example, in “Sonnets from the Portuguese” Elizabeth Barrett Browning bemoans her loss of faith when she equates her lover as something she cannot quite grasp, something that is far away but familiar, the “lost Saints” that once presided over her world. It is almost a romantic-era poem but in the last stanza, :I love thee freely, as men strive for right; / I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise” (43.8) then goes on… “I love thee with a love I seemed to lose / With my lost Saints” (43.13) and the general tone of the poem indicates that there is something missing and remote about the speaker’s existence. She is not quite connected with the world of God and Saints yet she is also not connected with the Romantic ideas from earlier poetry. In true Victorian style she seems unable to extricate religion from the picture, it is something she seems to yearn for, much like a lost or dead lover from glorious days gone by. The Introduction to Victorian puts it rather succinctly as “All of the Victorian poets show the strong influence of the Romantics, but they cannot sustain the confidence that the Romantics felt in the power of the imagination. Victorians often rewrite poems from the Romantic Movement with a sense of belatedness and distance” (1060). One cannot help but wonder if it is the “religion question” that is perturbing their brilliance or just a melancholy from the fast-paced, industrialized, modern world that had sprung up in this era.