“The human and artistic concerns of both the Romantic and Victorian Ages are similar to our own concerns; the response to those concerns- given by poets, novelists, dramatists and artists- can help us live fuller, more meaningful and creative lives in our own times.”
12 weeks to study an entire area of literature; such a thought was absurd to me about 3 months ago, as I selected units to enrol in. What could we possibly learn in 12 weeks, with one lecture a week? It goes without saying that I was pleasantly surprised at the outcome of my experience in this class. The study of 19th century literature since early March this year has left me amazed at the sheer complexity of literature in the world both past and present, as their addressed issues and concerns were ones that strongly resonated within me as not only a reader, but as someone engaged with what the texts provided had to offer. The exploration of different text forms, beginning with novels and going through poetry, short stories and plays, allowed a more nourished experience of literature of the past. The perceptions of love, status, and freedom from the context of the 19th century allowed a deeper connection to the authors and societies reflected in this period to today.
The variety of themes that were shown in this unit through a development of different time periods was something that I found compelling, as the shift between multiple views throughout this century are all elements of society prevalent currently. For example, the rise of Utilitarianism from the Romantic Era shows a development from values of human imagination and freedom, to utilitarianism, concepts we still value today. We see this through the growth of metropolitan life, particularly in current Sydney society.
William Blake’s poetry was an outstanding introduction to the Romantic period, and the wholesome perceptions of life that were expressed during this time. The significance of nature stood out as a driving force for human contentment and I found was often expressed through very powerful, yet gentle imagery. Blake’s works had a certain elegance in their writing styles that brought out the aesthetics of Mother Nature to the forefront of his works, showing how it could present inner human contentment. Our trip to the NSW Art Gallery also furthered this idea of beauty within nature from a more universal perspective, as we were introduced to Romantic era inspired artworks based in Australia. The continuing idea of Mother Nature’s vastness was overwhelming, but awestriking at the same time. This contrasted beautifully to the harsh and upfront nature of Hard Times, which instead looked at the almost grotesque, snake-like nature of mankind’s concrete jungle. I found that creative writing through blog entries was beneficial in exploring this visual difference between the Romantic Era and the Victorian Age. As well as this, a noticeable difference in the gentle language of Blake’s poetry and Dickens’ punchy and dramatized novels furthered this understanding. Dickens’ focused on values of education and knowledge however, we learnt to understand through more textual study that such views of education during the Victorian Era were if anything, barriers on young minds. “The Idea of a University” made very clear distinctions between knowledge and education, pointing out the limitations that university as a schooling system may implement on its students. This reflects the narrowmindedness that is seen in Gradgrind in Hard Times. However, while both William Blake’s poetry and Hard Times explored the concerns of human nature, they did so on varying levels of significance, as a progression from a desire for freedom within Romanticism to a desire for social credit in the Victorian Era can be clearly identifying while analysing the experience of this unit.
Jane Austen’s Emma interestingly enough, marries these two together through a false perception of love as a synonym for social status. She looks at something pure and turns it almost on its head to confront readers with an ugly perception of humanity that unfortunately, relates to readers currently whether they’d like it to or not. The text looks at the inner working of an individual’s mind, tossing between wanting to control love but also seeking love in its purest form without external interruptions. Her text similarly looks at the concerns and faults of human nature as that of Oscar Wilde’s, The Importance of Being Earnest, however from different textual perspectives and very different tones. Through Wilde’s satire a more ironic approach to such an issue is taken however, still remaining as a mirror to the still-existing nature of mankind today. As much as we may deny it, we judge people based off their level of success, varying from job and income to education. The real interest during the study of Emma, after rounding off this unit, was that like later 19th century texts such as Hard Times, it perceived something quite ordinary and conventional as another warped and skewed concept. The best examples would be Austen’s focus on love, but from a standpoint of social benefit. Dickens looks at education from a restricted perspective, void of opportunities for students to grow and develop their creativity in amongst a society of facts and numbers. The Scholar Gypsy was also touched on afterwards, as a further observation of the issue of schooling systems, and the imprisonment that it leaves people in. Almost coming full circle, it explores the idea of freedom and a love of freedom like William Blake’s poetry did, providing a panoramic understanding of literature in the 19th century. However, this is only furthered by the exploration of the concerns of loving life itself, such as Silas Marner which rejoices the pure, repenting moments in life that give individuals a reaffirmation of meaning. George Elliot’s text was an analysis on the redemption of mankind’s flaws; issues of shallow judgement and values in texts such as Emma are stripped away in Silas Marner in the tragedy of his stolen gold to produce a tale of redemption for the soul. It was a much more fulfilling text with a closer connection to the true and sometimes buried nature of mankind itself. As well as this it also touched on the human concerns over materialistic things that resonate within human nature today. The Importance of Earnest should be noted for also incorporating an observation of a value for materialistic values such as wealth, through the obsession with status and names that each character seeks. Both a quest for successful partners or for one’s own success, as well as possession of wealth, is what drives today’s society as one almost like Dickens’ utilitarian one, while masked by technologies and new ‘necessities, is still relevant today.
Throughout all these various texts, readers learn to reflect on their own lives, and the irony in their judgement of character’s shallow perceptions of such issues in their time which remain relevant today. It is a way of understanding how literature can become a reflection of the present as well as the past that it depicts, in which active readers can gain fulfilment in their own lives. They all touched on similar issues, yet branched off to explore it in different ways which is a key reason in why this unit worked so effortlessly. It was enough seamless enough but also diverted enough to result in learning as much as possible, as deeply as possible. Not only has it shed light on the complexity of literature but it has shed light on the complexity of mankind itself which has remained stagnant throughout history. Overall, this was a very fulfilling and enriching experience, one that allows not only a better understanding of what was, but a better observation of what is.