ABSTRACT

Literary historians of the past have privileged reaction as a concept essential to comprehending the movement of generation to generation. The notion of the rejection or cauterizing of the past has been a powerful agent in the workings of historical periodization, and in the construction of ideas of literary movements which, as David Perkins has convincingly argued, have persistently dubious intellectual bases but remain indispensable in critical reading. 1 For decades, Modernism was understood – through encouragement from the Modernists themselves – as a reaction against Victorianism, homogenized into a unitary cultural entity. In recent years studies such as Carol Christ’s Victorian and Modern Poetics (1984), S.P. Rosenbaum’s Victorian Bloomsbury (1987), David Weir’s Decadence and the Making of Modernism (1995) and Carolyn Dever’s Death and the Mother from Dickens to Freud ( 1998) have helped to develop increasingly subtler models. In the literary-historical assumptions dominant in the first half of the twentieth century, Romanticism, emerging through ‘The Pre-Romantic Period’ (in the terms of the influential literary historians Legouis and Cazamian), was persistently framed as a reaction to Augustanism, the reassertion of feeling and sincerity after a period of reason and artifice. Robert Griffin’s Wordsworth’s Pope: A Study in Literary Historiography (1996) is only the most recent study comprehensively to query commonplace notions of the boundaries between the Romantics and Augustans. 2 From the literary cartography that saw the writing practices of the Romantics as part of a reaction against Augustanism, it easily followed that the Victorians, inheritors of the Romantics, continued the rejection of the eighteenth century. That rejection – a lingering commonplace today – was and is expressed in numerous oppositional pairings that supposedly clinched the differential between one century and its successor, channelled through the defining event of the Romantic revival: Augustanism and Victorianism; the ages of Pope and of Tennyson; Addison and Ruskin; Sterne and George Eliot; of reason and doubt; mind and spirit; of Classical and Gothic; artifice and sincerity; satire and lyric; of the poetry of public statement and the ‘overheard’ poetry of personal meditation. Antagonistic pairings of this nature have remained surprisingly dominant in definitions of the Victorians’ relationship with the century before them, earning little of the sceptical questioning directed at the Modernists’ relation 2with Victorianism, or Romanticism’s relation to the mid and early eighteenth century. 3