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  • Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible by Charles LaPorte
  • Wendy Williams (bio)
Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible by Charles LaPorte; pp. 284. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2011. $50.27 cloth.

In Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible, Charles LaPorte challenges literary histories that emphasize the secularization of nineteenth-century England, arguing that religion played a vital role in society. He traces the impact of higher criticism—the practice of studying the Christian scriptures as mythical and poetical rather than as factual—on Victorian literary and religious culture by examining the works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Arthur Hugh Clough, Robert Browning, George Eliot, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, prominent mid-Victorian poets who responded to higher criticism and found ways to express religious truth through their poetry. In his introduction, LaPorte explains that as Victorians assimilated scientific discovery and re-evaluated biblical inspiration, some came to associate the Bible’s poetic nature with its religious meaning. The higher critical focus on the poetic and mythological character of the Bible allowed for the possibility of the existence of new sacred texts. Victorian poets, excited by the prospect of participating in an open canon, took on prophetic roles and even came to see their own poems as inspired texts.

Chapter 1 charts the progression of Barrett Browning’s religious view of poetry and, in particular, her struggle to find a literary model that reconciled evangelical Christian beliefs with her belief in the Romantic cult of poetry. LaPorte shows how her early poems “Sounds” and “Earth and Her Praisers” reveal conflict between her religious and poetic visions and examines how this conflict comes to an initial resolution in the 1830s and 1840s with her reading of François-Auguste-René de Chateaubriand’s apology, Le Génie du Christianisme (1802). LaPorte discusses Chateaubriand’s influence on Barrett Browning in his analysis of “The Seraphim” (1838), a poem that balances traditional hermeneutics and an inspired poetic vision, and Emanuel Swedenborg’s influence in his analysis of Aurora Leigh (1856), concluding that although Barrett Browning disavowed the findings of the higher critics, she found common ground with them in her belief in poetry’s potential to reveal God’s divine presence.

The second chapter addresses the religious implications of Tennyson’s Arthurian epic, The Idylls of the King (1859–85). Tennyson, LaPorte asserts, [End Page 219] endorsed a higher critical mode of thinking in his poem by encouraging a parallel view of British national history and Arthurian legend. Tennyson admitted to the mythological nature of The Idylls and asked readers to embrace mythological tradition, despite its doubtful foundation, as an important part of England’s national history. He thus implicitly encouraged an analogous, poetical view of the Bible as a historical-mythological sacred text. LaPorte adeptly argues that Tennyson’s strategy, unlike his message, stood in contrast to that of higher critics like David Strauss, who, in his Life of Jesus (1835–36), invited outrage for forcefully advancing a mythological reading of the Bible. During a time of national religious crisis, Tennyson comforted Victorian readers facing a changing understanding of the Bible by offering a palatable, literary example of historical criticism.

In chapter 3, LaPorte traces Clough’s complex views on higher criticism and poetic ambition in his readings of “Epi-Strauss-ium” (1862), “Easter Day: Naples, 1849” (1865), Amours de Voyage (1858), and Dipsychus and the Spirit (1865). LaPorte discourages the trend of reading Clough autobiographically and as representative of Victorian religious conflict. Instead, he favours reading Clough’s poetry as a forum in which Clough explores his philosophical principles. LaPorte focuses most of his analysis on Dipsychus, discussing Clough’s view of the value of redemptive literature. The poem, LaPorte maintains, critiques Victorian readiness to make English literature sacred, suggesting that poetry provides no better moral influence than the ancient scriptures.

LaPorte discusses the higher critical hermeneutics and religious influence of Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book (1868–69)in chapter 4, arguing that Browning’s murder story, based on supposed history, both reflected his implicitly religious belief in the potential for sacred truth to be found in a melding of fact and fiction and served as an analogy...


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