ge and PriorVictorian Dogmatism as a Gift from the Romantic Age and Prior
Houghton prefaces The Victorian Frame of Mind by noting, “the
Victorian mind remains for us blurred and obscure. It appears as a bundle of various and
often paradoxical ideas and attitudes” (xiii). Houghton acknowledges the “fragmentary
and incoherent” (xiii) characteristics of the Victorian period, in contrast to general
assumptions defining the period simply as morally rigid and intellectually dogmatic, for instance. Much of The Victorian Frame of Mind is devoted to an exploration of the complexities of the age in revealing established generalities as actually being not so clearly defined in terms of what they are assumed to represent.
An example of this is the characterization of Victorianism as a reaction to Romanticism, Houghton demonstrates this as an oversimplification as he notes Romanticism’s continuing, yet often subtle and paradoxical, influence over the Victorian age.While Houghton relies on the literature of the age as a means to illustrate the
various characteristics of the “Victorian mind,” he does not limit his analysis to what is
most obviously conveyed by the writers of the time. Houghton examines the dogmatic framework behind the ideals presented by Victorian writers, as such dogmatism is often seen as one of the defining characteristics of the age. A profound difference between the Victorians and the Romantics, for instance, seems to be expressed when he writes:
Paralleling his thought in other areas, Ruskin revived the tradition of absolute “rules” which the Romantics had challenged; and though he rightly took issue with those who thought there were no standards in art, what he meant by standards was “laws of truth and right.
..just as fixed as those of harmony in music, or of affinity in chemistry.” (149)
Houghton goes on to clarify, however, that while the ideals presented by Victorian writers may have been quite distinct from, or even at times in direct opposition to, Romantic ideals, the philosophical basis for a Victorian writer’s staunch belief in his own views did not necessarily emerge as unique to Victorianism.
The confidence of Victorian writers in their own sense of absolute law was founded on the possession of an infallible power of insight: either reason or intuition. Both faculties may be used, of course, and were used by the Victorians, with modesty, but the extreme exaltation of both, which was inherited, respectfully, from eighteenth-century Rationalism and nineteenth-century Romanticism, provided an epistemological basis for dogmatism. (149-50)
While it most simply may be said that what at least in part ushered in the Victorian era was the waning power and excitement of the Romantic revolution in poetry, Houghton, however, notes that part of that power and excitement was still working for the Victorian writers. Such power comes in the form of a dogmatism that was not necessarily new to the age, but perhaps more pronounced than ever before because of its inheritance from the Romantic writers and even their predecessors.
a Victorian writer could hardly escape becoming a fine dogmatist, was created by the transformation, under philosophical or mystical influence, of the natural genius of the eighteenth-century – the poet who wrote spontaneously without knowledge of classical literature or the rules of art – into the Romantic Genius of the nineteenth whose imagination was an oracular organ of Truth. This heady doctrine, preached by Wordsworth and Shelley as well as by Goethe and Fichte, was adopted from those sources by the Cambridge Apostles. (152)
Houghton examines the dogmatic tone of works by Victorian writers such as Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Newman, and especially Carlyle (151-54) and comments on its attraction during the Victorian era which may, in part, account for its seeming more-pronounced presence when compared to the Romantic or earlier periods. While the dogmatism of the Romantics may have been urging readers toward a belief in the spirituality to be found in nature, for instance, Houghton notes that Victorian dogmatism had perhaps a greater task at hand – a filling of the void left by emerging atheism and refinement of scientific thought.
He indicates that dogmatic doctrine to the Victorians “was not only natural (given the climate of opinion) – it was attractive. They liked it. One might even say they asked for it. The prophets who put on the mantle of infallibility did so as much from public demand as from a personal sense of fitness” (154).
Intellectual dogmatism, in a sense, became the “new religion” for many during the Victorian age. Houghton’s examination of Victorian intellectual dogmatism reveals it to be not so much a striking contrast to Romantic revolution in poetry, for example, but rather, the next step, how ever more pronounced, of that same dogmatism that was practiced by the Romantics and their predecessors.
Houghton, Walter Edwards. The Victorian Frame of Mind 1830-1870.
Yale Univ Press. 1963