WORDSWORTH AND EVOLUTION IN VICTORIAN LITERATURE: ENTANGLED INFLUENCE by Trenton B. Olsen, Reviewed by Robert M. Ryan
 

WORDSWORTH AND EVOLUTION IN VICTORIAN LITERATURE: ENTANGLED INFLUENCE
By Trenton B. Olsen
(Routledge, 2019) xii + 182 pp.
Reviewed by Robert M. Ryan on 2019-07-28.

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Except in college catalogues, the dividing line between the Romantic and Victorian periods of English literature appears to be fading. The date of Queen Victoria's accession to the throne--1837--seems increasingly less useful for understanding the literary history of the nineteenth century. Wordsworth, for example, went on writing poetry for 13 years after Victoria's coronation and his prestige and influence increased steadily during the years of her reign. Trent Olsen highlights one factor that brought continued attention to Wordsworth in those years: the emergence of evolutionary theories that challenged his generally benign vision of nature.

In 1887 Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: "Everyone has been influenced by Wordsworth, and it is hard to tell precisely how" (The British Weekly, 13 May 1887). Olsen aims to show how the poet influenced four eminent Victorians--Stevenson, Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy--and a few less eminent ones like H. G. Wells, Charles Kingsley, and Emily Pfeiffer. All struggled to reconcile a Wordsworthian conception of nature with what Olsen calls "Darwinism"-- a shorthand term for various theories of evolution, some of them already current before Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. Olsen carefully documents the interactions and tensions between evolutionary science and Wordsworth's natural theology, interactions that constitute much of the texture of the writings of the authors he selects. In particular he finds Arnold, Eliot, Stevenson, and Hardy repeatedly and explicitly grappling with the period's two dominant views of nature and their implications for literature and the broader culture.

As Darwin saw a struggle for existence in the natural world, Olsen finds one in the literary world, where books compete with each other for survival in the marketplace and for influence and "progeny"--later authors who show an intellectual debt to their predecessors. One aspect of this struggle is what Harold Bloom called "the anxiety of influence," wherein "strong" writers like Wordsworth are challenged by younger rivals bent on making room for their own creative activity. Like John Keats, they felt a need to show "how tall I stand by the giant" (letter to Reynolds of 3 May 1818). Wordsworth could not be ignored, for his influence was too pervasive and his vision of reality too appealing and persuasive. But younger writers had to adjust or adapt his vision of nature to accommodate new intellectual currents and cultural conditions. Salient among them was evolutionary theory, which roused the anxieties expressed by Tennyson in In Memoriam, where he asks, "Are God and Nature then at strife / When Nature lends such evil dreams?" (Canto 55).

Few were more sensitive to the creative challenge posed by Wordsworth than Matthew Arnold, who grew up in the poet's neighborhood, almost literally in his shadow. Wordsworth's stature as a "strong poet" was part of what inspired Arnold to become a strong critic. Critics, he thought, were responsible for discovering and preserving "the best which has been thought and said in the world" (Culture and Anarchy [1869]) and for identifying whatever in literature made it adaptable to changes in culture. Arnold's struggle with Wordsworth is easily documented. Wordsworth's death inspired elegiac verses in which Arnold assessed the poet's cultural importance, acknowledging the spiritual comfort he brought in "this iron time / Of doubts, disputes, distractions, fears" ("Memorial Verses April 1850"). Yet even while honoring Wordsworth's achievement, Arnold saw that new developments in science and theology seemed to undermine much of the religious content of his poetry. In an influential anthology of Wordsworth's verse that he published in 1879, Arnold excised what he found no longer true or vital, specifically the poet's more traditional religious views. By this severe act of censorship and expurgation Arnold changed the meaning of "Wordsworth" for later generations and still profoundly influences our evaluation of the poetry.

If the tension between Wordsworthian faith and "Darwinian" science is patent in Arnold, it is less obvious in the other writers Olsen selects for examination. Like Arnold, George Eliot found in Wordsworth's poetry a source of instruction and moral guidance, but she faulted the poet for what she saw as his isolation and self-absorption, his apparent preference for solitary communion with nature over an active life in society. According to Olsen, however, Eliot could also trace in Wordsworth's writing "the sympathetic growth of the mind from unconscious self-absorption to conscious sympathy" (81), a sympathy antithetical to what Eliot perceived as Darwinian self-interest.

Olsen's chapter on Stevenson is the most surprising and most original in the book. Although no one (says Olsen) has previously studied Stevenson's response to Wordsworth, Olsen cites evidence that Stevenson read Wordsworth's poetry throughout his life, marking passages in his copy of the six-volume Poetical Works published in 1857. These annotations show Stevenson resisting Wordsworth's views on nature and the moral lessons that might be learned from it. Evolutionary theory pitted his pessimistic impulses against his optimism. As a reader of Wordsworth, Olsen strikingly observes, "Stevenson shows both Jekyll's reverent admiration and Hyde's mocking malice" (119). Stevenson could see no moral order in the natural world of evolutionary science, where he found violence and cruelty. Although Wordsworth reminded him of the beauty and serenity that could be found in nature, it lacked moral or religious significance for Stevenson, whose response to nature was more aesthetic than theological. One could admire the artistry of Wordsworth's descriptions of the natural world, Stevenson thought, without embracing his metaphysics.

Like Stevenson, Hardy found little evidence for what Wordsworth called "Nature's holy plan" ('Lines Written in Early Spring"). He abandoned religious orthodoxy because he thought it inimical to creativity. Rather than finding nature a source of spiritual inspiration or consolation, Hardy more often evoked its violence. Yet while previous studies of Hardy's development found the early influence of Wordsworth giving way to the stronger impact of evolutionary theory, Olsen sees throughout Hardy's career a continuing dialogue between Wordsworth's theories and"Darwinian corrections" of the poet's moral and religious ideas.. Like many others, and like Darwin himself, Hardy could sometimes share the poet's experience of joy in nature, but he also perceived that Wordsworth had projected into the natural world a kind of serenity and felicity that did not really exist.

By contrast, the concluding chapter places Charles Kingsley and Emily Pfeiffer among those who "sought to retain a Wordsworthian sense of nature's spiritual value in an evolutionary age" (168-9). Insofar as they did so, however, Olsen seems to regard them as failures. In their unwillingness to abandon "a sense of Wordsworthian transcendence through nature after the rise of evolutionary theory," Olsen writes, "they failed to adapt to their historical moment. They were out of step with the more successful writers of their time in their attitudes on the natural world" (174). But one of those contemporary writers was Gerard Manley Hopkins, who in 1877 wrote the sonnet beginning "The World is charged with the grandeur of God." Did Hardy's subscription to evolutionary theory make him a better or more "modern" poet than Hopkins? Twentieth-century critics found Hopkins to be, stylistically at least, more modern than Hardy. This raises a question that Olsen does not consider: to what extent does a commitment to a particular theology or ideology affect the artistic quality or intrinsic value of a poet's work? Or, more broadly, do paradigm shifts in science necessarily limit or alter the possibilities of imaginative literature?

In contrasting historical figures, one is tempted to exaggerate for the sake of argument the differences between them. Olsen sometimes tends in this way to oversimplify Wordsworth, ignoring some of the complexities of his thought and life experience. He overstates his case, for example, when he contrasts Darwinian realism with what he calls Wordsworth's "naïve innocence" (105). Could the poet have remained naively innocent after his experience of life in revolutionary France --including what may have been a near escape from the guillotine when some of his political associates were executed under Robespierre? Or later, when his connection with radical activists in England forced him and his sister to go into exile in Germany?

Olsen is perhaps too quick to attribute to "Darwinism" certain ideas and attitudes that were prominent in society and in literature long before the nineteenth century. I am not persuaded that Darwin's concept of sexual selection, for example, influenced Hardy as much as Olsen suggests. That sexual attraction can end in violence is not something anyone needed to learn from Darwin. The law courts would have provided sufficient evidence, as would the history of Western literature beginning with the story of Paris and Helen and continuing with popular novels like The Monk and Our Mutual Friend.

Olsen writes frequently of Wordsworth's "solipsism," a word he uses as if it were synonymous with egotism. Though Wordsworth's contemporaries criticized the poet's egotism, they did not equate his self-absorption with anything like what is now called solipsism, a term that entered the language later in the nineteenth century and signifies a conviction that one can know with certainty only one's own mind--not external reality. There is no evidence that Wordsworth subscribed to such an epistemology or acted in accordance with it. The word hardly seems applicable to a writer who claimed that he had "given twelve hours thought to the conditions of society, for one to poetry" (qtd. Stephen Gill, The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth [2003] 231). Poems such as The Excursion, which is so profoundly interested in history, politics, economics, and "the conditions of society," cannot spring from a solipsistic consciousness.

Olsen could also have been more precise in using "transcendence"--a slippery word that properly signifies what lies beyond the limits of ordinary experience or is not susceptible to scientific explanation or analysis. When Olsen finds "natural transcendence" in Wordsworth's poetry, the phrase looks like an oxymoron. "More than merely physical matter," Olsen writes, "Wordsworth found a source of benevolence, inspiration, and moral elevation in nature" (4). But as most of his nineteenth-century readers understood, the source of these positive impressions was the poet's imagination, which projected them into the natural world. When at the end of the book Olsen writes that the preservation of the English Lake District maintains "access to the natural transcendence [that Wordsworth] celebrated" (175), he probably does not mean to suggest that transcendence can be "accessed" for the cost of a train ride to Windermere.

Nevertheless, Olson's book is a careful and productive contribution to intellectual history. Conscientiously and energetically researched, it demonstrates the value of crossing period boundaries in literary criticism. "In estimating for ourselves the greatness of a poet," T.S. Eliot wrote, "we have to take into account the history of his greatness. Wordsworth is an essential part of history" (The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism [Harvard UP, 1933], p. 79). Olsen shows convincingly how our sense of Wordsworth's historic importance is shaped by the interaction of his thought with evolutionary science, and also how that interaction illuminates the work of Victorian writers seeking to clarify their understanding of the natural world in light of what they were learning of its evolutionary history.

Robert M. Ryan is Professor of English Emeritus at Rutgers University. His books include The Romantic Reformation: Religious Politics in English Literature, 1789-1824 (1997) and Charles Darwin and the Church of Wordsworth (2016).


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