The Nineteenth Century gives me real insights into human and social issues that are still current in the 21st century.
If you had told me at the beginning of the semester that every single one of the texts we would be studying in this Nineteenth Century Literature unit has relevance to my life today, I would have replied, “Surely not. How can the people who lived so long ago, who didn’t have iPhones or drive cars or eat McDonald’s provide that much insight into the social issues we face today in the 21st century?” But I would have been proven wrong. The poetry, novels, short stories and drama of the Nineteenth Century not only illuminate the wider social issues and problems of the human condition that you and I experience today, but also provide solutions to these issues and alternative ways of living that I believe we could all greatly benefit from.
Working chronologically from the start to the fin de siècle of the Nineteenth Century, we began by exploring the Romantic movement (1770-1820) which championed human emotion, imagination, and a connection to nature in revolution against the spiritual destructiveness of the Age of Enlightenment. Studying the poetry of William Blake, Percy Shelley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge proved that the Romantics were concerned with many of the same human and social issues that we are today. I wrote about this my first blog post, explaining how the film ‘Pandaemonium’ expresses the Romantics’ desire for spiritual connectedness with and presence in the natural world. My post illustrates that this Romantic desire is emulated in our current society through climate change action and the ‘wellness’ movement that promotes meditation, but it is paradoxically also rejected by a culture of instant gratification and materialism.
We continued exploring the impact of Romanticism, looking particularly at the poetry of William Wordsworth who encouraged his contemporary humans not to seek out knowledge from science and books but to practise “wise passiveness”, letting stillness and reflection in nature be our teacher. Indeed, Wordsworth’s poem ‘My Heart Leaps Up’ (1807) inspired my best blog post, a Letter to my Child-Self, in which I explain to a younger me why Wordsworth’s appreciation of nature as the ultimate teacher and view that children are inherently insightful is important to remember as I grow up, social structures preventing me from maintaining my connection of wonder with the natural world. Indeed, if they were alive right now I am sure that the Romantic poets would revolt against our ‘Age of Technology’, pleading for us to reconnect with our child-selves and with nature.
Moving into the literature of the expansive Victorian Age (1837-1901), we read Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (1854) which satirises and critiques the rapid industrialisation and education system of Victorian England. The novel, set in the fictional Coketown, brings to light the ways in which humanity is ruined when society values material production, factual knowledge and utilitarianism over individuality, kinship and spirituality. Finding that today’s society mirrors Dickens’ fictitious town, I adapted his description of Coketown to the 21st century in my third blog post, as I believe that the people he describes in Hard Times who lack individuality and feeling can be found today in our disconnection and material dependence.
Indeed, Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘The Scholar Gypsy’ (1853) offers a still pertinent solution to the problems of Victorian (and today’s) society described by Dickens. My final blog post for the semester discusses the ways in which Arnold conveys the meaninglessness of life that was prolific in Victorian society, while also giving his reader hope in the form of the mythical Scholar Gypsy, who literally absconds from the pressures and confines of society by living an alternative lifestyle with gypsies. Arnold’s illustration of escape from what he calls “this strange disease of modern life” is certainly relevant in the 21st century, whose diseases continue to grow stranger.
In the final weeks of the semester we examined two short stories of Leo Tolstoy, ‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’ (1886) and ‘Master and Man’ (1895), both of which demonstrate an appositeness to the social issues of the 21st century by conveying the corruption of classed society and the transformative power of suffering and death. Bringing us to the fin de siècle of the Nineteenth Century was Oscar Wilde’s satirical play The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), which parodies the grandiosity and pomposity of the Victorian Era and exposes the triviality and superficiality of its middle-class values. Wilde’s wit and humour perfectly captures the human issues of Victorian society, and the fact that it is still incredibly funny to audiences today demonstrates its continuing relevance.
Studying these works of the Nineteenth Century this semester has demonstrated to me that writers all respond to the human and social issues that define their epoch – and that these issues presented by Nineteenth Century writers are highly relevant still today. The Romantic and Victorian writers we explored were intensely perceptive of society’s pitfalls and sought to ameliorate them through the communicative powers of literature, inspiring change in the lives and societies of their contemporaries. And I am sure that any students reading the same works in two hundred years from now, or even hundreds more, will also be inspired by these writers to change their own lives and societies for the better.
Thank you, Michael, for a great semester, and I’m looking forward to what the literature of the Twentieth Century has in store for us soon!