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THE LITERATURE OF THE VICTORIAN ERA

by Hugh Walker (1910)

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Previous Page  ...alive, for the moment its failure seemed to be complete, and the fascinating vision of liberty, fraternity and equality faded into the light of common day.

England had suffered from the great struggle far less than the continent of Europe. She had never felt the pressure of hostile armies on her soil, and for her the measureless waste of war had been in great part made good by the extraordinary development of her commerce. Yet even in England the reaction after the war was severe. Prices were high; the artificial stimulus to trade was gone; the evils inherent in that industrial revolution which had been in progress for half a century were becoming more conspicuous; and there was as yet little or no factory legislation to check them. Moreover, the poor law has never, either before or since, been so unwisely administered: it was sapping the manhood of the nation, pauperising the poor, demoralising the well-to-do. There were bread-riots. Necessary and inevitable political reforms were delayed till, as the Duke of Wellington warned the nation, the choice lay between concession and civil war. In truth, the state of things was not far removed from a state of civil war. The windows of Apsley House were broken by an infuriated mob; there was a crisis when troops and artillery were held in readiness to sweep the streets of London; the Chartist movement grew; that warlike spirit in the civilian, which in the opening years of the century had been directed against a foreign foe, was now absorbed in contemplated civil strife. "You should have the like of this," said a young lawyer equipped as a volunteer to Thomas Carlyle. " Hm, yes," was the reply; " but I haven't yet quite settled on which side." The continuance of such a social state meant the death of hope, which is as indispensable in literature and art as Bacon knew it to be in politics.

A time of stress and strain, far from being inimical to literature and art, is in the highest degree stimulating, provided the ferment is due to the leaven of great ideas and of ennobling conflicts. The greatest periods of the world's literature have followed upon such times. The effect is due, not to the turmoil, but to the operation of the ideas which occasion the turmoil, or which are evoked by it. But there is nothing dignified, nothing vivifying, ...Next Page




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