Victorian Literature Devotional Verse
by
Victoria N. Morgan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0090

Introduction

Perhaps what best defines the Victorian period are the various fluctuations and developments within religious culture that punctuate its timeline. A dominant and crucial strand within Victorian society, religious culture found many expressions, particularly within the arts. The output of what we can call “devotional verse” is one very rich aspect of this culture. The most common feature of devotional verse is the presence of a speaker who seeks self-definition through a source that is felt to be external to and/or greater or other than the self. It is therefore a flexible and potentially very powerful genre—something that contributed to its wide appeal and usage during the Victorian period. A large body of religious poetry makes up this genre, and this is most frequently situated within the various branches of the Christian tradition. The broad topic of devotional verse also necessarily encompasses the huge corpus of 19th-century hymnody, which, in the Victorian period, was almost exclusively Christian. Devotional verse by general definition is, of course, not limited to the expression of religious devotion. Devotion to political causes of the period was expressed in verse form as much as devotion to a person or an idea, for example. Literary form is an important aspect of criticism on devotional verse. This is as much in the way particular forms, such as the hymn, ode, or sonnet can be identified with the devotional mode, as well as the extent to which the meaning of a poem or hymn can be shaped by its form, or indeed by its deviation from the form and its particular associations. For example, in Christina Rossetti’s Verses (Chiefly collected from her devotional writings) (1893), religious concepts and secular concerns come together in a devotional mode of delivery, and, as such, are classified as “devotional.” Many well-known Victorian poets are associated with the genre of devotional verse, such as Alfred Lord Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Matthew Arnold. Some of these also wrote hymns. However, as scholarship on devotional verse increases in its breadth of interest, more “devotional” aspects of poetic writing, as well as individual poets, are being paid critical attention. In a similar way, as scholarship on hymnody of the period expands beyond the well-known Victorian hymnists such as John Keble, “Mrs.” Cecil Frances Alexander, John Mason Neale, Reginald Heber, and Frances Ridley Havergal, so too do the parameters by which we measure the “traditional” hymn. Although the pursuit of reading and researching Victorian devotional verse is primary a literary one, an understanding of the unique climate of religious culture during the Victorian period is helpful. The devotional verse and hymnody of this era can be said to be characteristically “Victorian” in a number of ways, particularly in the way “devotion” takes its shape, reflecting the religious, familial, political, and sexual aspects of devotion with their particularly Victorian inflections. These features do not easily cohere and are often contradictory and even oppositional in nature, reflecting the mutable aspect and continuing debates surrounding devotional verse of the Victorian period.

General Overviews

Criticism on aspects of devotional verse associated with particular poets have been included alongside more general surveys on the frequent intersections between religion and literature that appeared in verse and writing during the 19th century. The individual poets selected are, of course, only a representative sample of a much wider range. Hogan and Bradstock 1998 is one of the first indispensable collections of essays to take as its main focus the subject of women writing within Victorian religious culture. Landow 1980 explores the increased interest in biblical scholarship and the specific explication of biblical typology in devotional verse of the period. Lemon, et al. 2009 provides an excellent reference guide for issues surrounding biblical scholarship in relation to the literature of the period, covering poets such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, Tennyson, the Brontës, Christina Rossetti, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Mason 2003 is a deft consideration of the relation between religious and literary enthusiasm and is a crucial study for those wishing to come to grips with the issues of self and culture that are often highlighted within devotional verse. Mason 2016 on the relationship between literary and religious forms in the Victorian period forges new critical paths for reading in the mode of what the author calls “pastoralism.” Morgan and Williams 2008 is a key collection of essays concerned with the way in which various forms of belief shaped the writing of the period. The introductory chapter helps foreground the critical background to this subject as well as establish a view of belief as a shaping force within the literature of the period. Several of the essays discuss the role and nature of devotional writing of the period, such as Morgan’s chapter on Emily Dickinson’s reshaping of religious aesthetics or Kirstie Blair’s on the relation between the form of 19th-century church architecture and Tractarian poetry. Palazzo 2002 is a crucial study of Rossetti’s poetics and theology, offering a theoretical framework for reading devotional verse by women writers of the period as well as a thorough investigation of Rossetti’s relation to the Oxford Movement. Scheinberg 2000, a chapter on religious diversity and the role of the poet, provides a useful foregrounding of the religious and literary history affecting Victorian devotional poetry. Scheinberg identifies distinct differences, for example, in Thomas Carlyle’s understanding of the relationship between the figure of the poet and that of the prophet with those found in the work of Sir Philip Sydney. While Sidney’s discussion ultimately defers to a “heavenly Maker,” Carlyle writes in an open-ended way of the “sacred mystery of the Universe,” thus elucidating the fact that for the Victorians, the poet, who was also a prophet, was able to transcend historical and cultural boundaries. Shaw 1987, a landmark study of the relation between philosophical and religious thought and feeling in the poetry of the Victorian period, offers a detailed analysis of the work of individual poets such as Clough, Hopkins, and Arnold. Shaw’s book provides excellent clarification of the often complex theological issues at work in Tractarian poetry. Psalmody continues to be an area of critical interest within the field. Zim 1987 usefully demonstrates the features of psalmist language often employed in Victorian devotional verse in a study that focuses on 16th-century poetry.

  • Hogan, Anne, and Andrew Bradstock, eds. Women of Faith in Victorian Culture: Reassessing the Angel in the Home. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    Collection of essays that considers the literary output of women during the Victorian period in relation to religious culture. Features an essay by J. R. Watson, “Quiet Angels: Some Women Hymn Writers,” which draws usefully upon material from Pitman 1892 (cited under Collections), a collection of hymns by women.

  • Landow, George P. Victorian Types, Victorian Shadows: Biblical Typology in Victorian Literature, Art, and Thought. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980.

    E-mail Citation »

    Landow’s comprehensive study of the influence of typology on the literature, art, and thought of the Victorian period provides detailed analysis of typological inquiry in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It also provides an extremely useful introduction to the practice of typology during the Victorian period.

  • Lemon, Rebecca, Emma Mason, Jonathan Roberts, and Christopher Rowland, eds. The Blackwell Companion to the Bible in Literature. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444324174E-mail Citation »

    Includes informative section on Victorian writing of the period that draws heavily on Christian and religious imagery and themes. The introduction to this section is very helpful to those not familiar with biblical scholarship.

  • Mason, Emma. “‘Some God of Wild Enthusiast’s Dreams’: Emily Brontë’s Religious Enthusiasm.” Victorian Literature and Culture 31.1 (2003): 263–277.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1060150303000135E-mail Citation »

    Mason argues that it is Brontë’s religious enthusiasm that inspires the “fiercely emotive poetics” evident in the Gondal poems and Wuthering Heights.

  • Mason, Emma. “Religion, the Bible, and Literature in the Victorian Age.” In The Oxford Handbook of Victorian Literary Culture. Edited by Juliet John, 331–349. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

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    Mason’s chapter in this handbook considers the relationship between religion and literary culture in the Victorian period, paying attention to the aesthetics and forms of literary and religious texts. Mason argues that recent modes of literary criticism such as New Historicism and Cultural Formalism have been rather limited as tools of analysis for the intimate relationship between Victorian religious and literary culture. Crucially, Mason’s chapter suggests new ways in which critics might approach the reciprocal nature of religious and literary culture and prescribes a “pastoralism” in the form of reading communally, with compassion, and a heightened understanding of Victorian notions of “spirit” and “faith.” Mason suggests using Theopoetics, the affective turn, and the nondualist work of Martin Heidegger as ways to demonstrate how such pastoralism might be affective in such readings.

  • Morgan, Victoria N., and Clare Williams, eds. Shaping Belief: Culture, Politics and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Writing. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2008.

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    This eclectic set of essays provides the reader with a broad and interdisciplinary approach to the issues surrounding belief in the writing of the period. The introduction is helpful in setting the scene for those who are coming to the period afresh by establishing some of the key themes and locating them within current critical debates.

  • Palazzo, Lynda. Christina Rossetti’s Feminist Theology. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230504677E-mail Citation »

    Crucial discussion of Rossetti’s theological expression; although focused on prose, it provides a powerful argument against the widely held notion that she was heavily influenced by the theological doctrines of the Oxford Movement.

  • Scheinberg, Cynthia. “Victorian Poetry and Religious Diversity.” In The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry. Edited by Joseph Bristow, 159–179. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521641152E-mail Citation »

    Essential reading for an understanding of Victorian religious culture and the important role poetry played in giving voice to the many different religious perspectives of the age. Scheinberg sets out a helpful discussion of the historical changes that took place between the 16th and 19th centuries in English culture.

  • Shaw, W. David. The Lucid Veil: Poetic Truth in the Victorian Age. London: Athlone, 1987.

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    This excellent study analyzes the philosophical background to the work of major Victorian poets. Importantly, Shaw traces the shifting emphasis between philosophical and religious sensibilities in the work of poets such as Clough, Hopkins, and Arnold, and provides a rigorous analysis of the effects of Tractarian doctrine on poetic expression during the period.

  • Zim, Rivkah. English Metrical Psalms: Poetry as Praise and Prayer, 1535–1601. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

    E-mail Citation »

    Although this study focuses on 16th-century poetry, the discussion of psalms and psalmist language is useful for an understanding of Victorian appropriation of the Psalms in verse.

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