Victorian Aesthetics and Politics

Throughout the literature of the Victorian period (1837-1901), authors, poets, and artists faced many of the social issues we continue to contend with today. From industrialism, environmentalism, and labor to racism and colonialism to the New Women, free love, and aesthetics, Victorians were fascinated with characterizing their age, as well as how they characterized it. We will continue that work by defining and analyzing many of these themes through a formal approach to the period. Not only will we discuss and question the political and personal content of the literature of the long nineteenth century, but we will also explore the different genres and forms that emerged alongside that content.

Starting with the lyric and gothic poetry of the Romantic period, which immediately preceded Victoria’s reign, we will use their introspective exploration of the self and the sublime as a foundation for understanding how Victorians dealt with the rapid change that defined the rest of the century. As we proceed, we will engage with the major forms that marked the period, including realism, sensationalism, sonnet sequences, and the early musical. We will engage with a number of questions about form and the political and social change it reflected: How does Victorian poetry stem from but also reimagine earlier poetic forms and why? How does the realistic, journalistic form of the social problem novel help or hinder the reader’s understanding of working-class conditions? Why realism? How might other forms be responding to realism? What role does drama play toward the end of the century?

Because the Victorian period is so complex, there are a number of terms and concepts with which you may not be familiar. Don’t worry! I will spend some of each class defining terms and inviting questions about the period and the literature we are reading. That said, this is a discussion-based class, and I expect you to participate enthusiastically in those discussions and come to class prepared.1

1 This course was designed for ENGL 208 at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.