Louis Markos is Professor of English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University. Markos is the author of 19 books. He is well-known for his expertise on C.S. Lewis. His gifted teaching was recognized by The Teaching Company.
Moore: When and why were you first attracted to Tennyson?
Markos: My love for Tennyson began when I first read his dramatic monologue “Ulysses.” As the grandson of four Greek immigrants, I had always loved the Odyssey, and so Tennyson’s poem grabbed me right away—even if Tennyson changes Odysseus from a weary Greek soldier who just wants to get home into a Victorian explorer with a wanderlust and a yearning for endless adventure. When I was a teen, I memorized the poem and have been reciting it dramatically ever since! As I got older, I fell in love with his In Memoriam, the greatest meditation on grief ever written and the only long poem that has no padding or boring parts—as the epics of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Milton all do! I also have long loved Tennyson’s complete control of rhythm and rhyme. Even when he took up less interesting subjects, his verse was always pure, supple, and endlessly inventive.
Moore: Is the Victorian Age a complete rejection of Romanticism?
Markos: Good question! No literary age ever completely rejects the one before it. It builds on what came before, but takes it in a new and often unexpected direction. It is true that the major Victorian writers moved their focus from the past to the future, from the country to the city, and from the individual to the group, but they nevertheless maintained a sense that they needed to be in dialogue with the modern (post-Enlightenment, post-French Revolution) world into which they had been born. The difference is that whereas the Romantics handled the stresses and confusions of the modern world by turning inward and finding resources of restoration within, the Victorians dealt with their angst and sorrow by joining themselves with the growing spirit of progress. Interestingly, the three central Victorian poets (Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Matthew Arnold) all started as sensitive, over-self-conscious Romantic poets and then “matured” into outward-looking Victorians who exerted much influence on their age.
Moore: Throughout your book I was struck how the struggle to hold on to Christian belief during the Victorian Age is relevant for our own disenchanted time. Would you unpack a bit why the Victorian Age has much to offer us moderns today?
Markos: Yes, the Victorians, like us today, wrestled mightily with the disenchantment of the world. In fact, they were the first Christians who had to struggle with many of the key issues that American Christians still struggle with today: are progress and technology absolute goods or do they come at a high cost; can we build utopia and is the desire to do so a healthy one; is utilitarianism, which seeks the greatest good for the greatest number, an acceptable basis for making moral and ethical decisions; is a belief in evolution and a very old earth compatible with the Bible; should science or religion dictate how we think about ourselves, our world, and our choices; what role do imagination and the arts play in a modern, technological world; can modern people believe in the miracles recorded in the Bible or has scientific naturalism “proven” them to be impossible. The Victorians offered answers to these questions that we would do well to read and wrestle with today.
Moore: Your chapter on John Stuart Mill is one of my favorites. Along with Coleridge, you say that Mill writes of an “inner deadness from which the sufferer cannot rouse himself.” So how did Mill get help since he believed his own resources were inadequate?
Markos: As a lover of Romantic poetry (I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Wordsworth), I am always thrilled when I read Mill’s Autobiography and learn that he emerged from a nervous breakdown by reading the poetry of Wordsworth. Mill, like Coleridge, fell into a state that modern people would likely identify as clinical depression. Neither writer could find any resources in society or in nature to draw them out of their intense depression. Both found relief in the beauty of poetry and in its exploration of human feeling. Mill the utilitarian had devoted his early life to reforming the world and moving England toward a utopia where there would be no poverty or ignorance. When he realized that even if that utopia was reached, it would not bring him inner fulfillment, he had a nervous breakdown and gave up all hope. Wordsworth taught him that even if society reached a state of perfection, he could still continue to strive and grow emotionally and spiritually as Wordsworth had demonstrated in his poetry. Although lovers of poetry should celebrate Mill’s salvation by poetry, as a Christian, I must add that Mill is also a forerunner of all those modern and postmodern intellectuals who turn to the arts as a substitute for religion.
Moore: You highlight various shifts occurring in the Victorian Age. Two of them are: from the country to the city and from the individual to the group. Why are these so significant?
Markos: Whereas the Romantics saw the city as a hollow and inhuman place where man lost his connection to God, nature, and himself, the Victorians saw the city as a vibrant center of progress where men could strive together to throw of their bestial side and evolve upward into fuller human beings. The Romantic view often led people to isolate themselves; the Victorian encouraged them to band together. Although I think much was gained in that communal swell of urban progress, it brought with it a loss of silent contemplation and intimacy that often led to a deeper kind of isolation as people got lost in the urban mass. T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” captures well this sense of existential angst felt by early 20th century city dwellers. That is why I think it is important that we read the Romantics and Victorians together and learn from their opposing virtues and vices.
Moore: Tennyson is challenging to read. Where would you recommend that one starts reading him?
Markos: Start with his earlier, shorter lyrical poems: “Ulysses,” “The Lady of Shallott,” “The Lotos-Eaters,” “Tithonus,” “Mariana,” “Break, Break, Break,” “Morte d’Arthur,” and the later “Charge of the Light Brigade” and “Crossing the Bar.” All of these have a Romantic emotional richness to them and will introduce you to the music of Tennyson’s verse. Once you have learned to hear that music, read the longer “Locksley Hall” and then take up his monumental In Memoriam, which you should read slowly and devotionally. If you enjoy it, then try your hand at his Arthurian epic, Idylls of the King. If you want a real challenge and don’t mind diving into the mind of a man who slowly goes mad, give Maud a look.
Moore: What are two or three things you hope readers will take from your book?
Markos: First, and most importantly, that the Victorians are remarkably like us and that we can, and should, be willing to learn from them. Second, that our polarized age can learn a great deal from the reasoned discourse of the Victorian poets and essayists who took up the issues of their day and struggled honestly with them. Third, that we must understand that the benefits of progress and the modern world all carry dangers with them that we must not overlook or trivialize. Fourth, that a dialogue between religion and science, religion and technology, and religion and utilitarianism must be maintained if we are to preserve our humanity. Fifth, that poetry and the arts are more important, rather than less, in a global, technological age.