A Short Critical Examination of the Effects of the Industrial Revolution on British Literature
The disappearance of the aristocratic ruling class began to occur in Great Britain a relatively short time after the development of the factory system of manufacturing. The political power shift that resulted from this change in the economy left profound scar on the literature of the Victorian period (about 1832-1902) that continues to mar the literature of the modern period.
The pivotal literary figure in the transformation from the Romantic Period to the Victorian Period was Matthew Arnold. Arnold was skeptical about the quality of life in an industrial society. In Arnold’s era the same aristocratic intelligences who had presided over English culture for so long were still people of great learning, stimulating each other’s minds and perpetuating English cultural orthodoxy. This would soon change, because at the same time, the working classes were increasingly demanding improvements in their quality of life.
The factory system was quickly eliminating the feudal master craftsmen and his apprentices who produced high quality, hand-made goods. They were being replaced by large teams of unsophisticated laborers producing a large quantity of lower quality goods at lower prices. This development began occurring more rapidly between the 1850s and the turn of the century, creating for the first time in English history the lowest class of the laborer proletarian.
Victorian writers joined the public outcry at the lamentable state of the laboring class. The state responded with the formulation of what, in England, are known as “board” schools. Unfortunately, most of the problems with the early British “board” schools could be witnessed in modern American schools. The state saw the usefulness of an opportunity to indoctrinate the masses. Life in the schools at that time was not so different from the miserable life in the factories. It was “noisy, overheated, odorous from dirty clothing and a hundred unwashed and unhealthy bodies – and the atmosphere of stern discipline and unimaginative force feeding of the rote memory.” (Altick, 250)
There is no point in teaching classical thought to people who will be factory workers. In fact, it is detrimental to their will to be factory workers. Arnold observed the changes in motion around him and foresaw a cultural decline. He describes himself in these famous lines from Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse as “wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.” The teachings of modern science that had come with the industrial age had been cultural orthodoxy unbelievable to many. Arnold considered poetry to be a religious medium. Robert Adams states in his book, The Land and Literature of England, that:
Arnold proposed that Culture in the form of humane letters must take the place once held by religion in softening manners and energizing ideals. Nowadays, I think, we are a little less likely to look in literature for a guide to behavior a talisman against ill fortune. We are also less confident of being able to recognize and make use of “the best that has been known and thought in the world.” (425)
The English public educational system did not create great scholars; instead, it created a class of people who probably read as little as possible. When they did read, they mostly read penny novels. These schools succeeded in creating semi-literates, which was about as much as they had set out to do. The circumstance of the State controlling education in a democratic system is one that, for ethical reasons, should be questioned. The conveyor belt system of education could not possibly be expected to produce great intellects that would be inclined to willfully pursue the study of classical literature.
The next really dynamic poetic figure to come along was Gerard Manly Hopkins who experimented with rhythm and alliteration. He was always in pursuit of new poetic structures. According to David Daiches in A Critical History of English Literature, he:
Charged older words with new meanings by the contexts in which he set them; he experimented with word combinations reminiscent of the Anglo-Saxon “kennings;” he restored their original meanings to dead metaphors thus providing a shock of surprise. (1043)
The publication of Hopkins’ poems, long after his death in 1918 was a significant factor in the development of the new poetic style. The first poem of this new style was T. S. Eliots’ The Waste Land. A clue to Eliot’s poetic method may be found in this quote from The Metaphysical Poets:
“Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into this meaning.” (Daiches, Norton, 2515)
The work of Eliot became a model for twentieth century writers. Eliot’s Waste Land depicted contemporary industrialized society and foreshadowed the physical wasteland of the war-time era. Eliot’s poem made extensive use of symbolism and he purposely incorporated information from some of his obscure studies into his poems. Oddly enough, there may be a case for using personal symbolism and obscure knowledge when a writer’s audience is too insufficiently educated to understand his work, anyway. But symbolism and metaphor are usually intended to illuminate a subject in a way that could not be done with more direct language, not to further cloud the subject. I contend that being enigmatic for no other reason than to pass one’s self off as an intellectual or to simply bewilder the reader is bad writing. It is of concern that this kind of writing is the inspiration of modern writers.
Nevertheless, we see that the impact of the Industrial Revolution manifested itself in British literature in a variety of ways. It provided an unattractive background for much of literature, most famously, that of Dickens. The ugliness of the industrialized towns caused some writers like William Butler Yeats, James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence to flee their hometowns in search of places more conducive to the artistic fancies of great writers. The scientific discoveries that accompanied the industrial revolution destroyed faith in orthodox religious teachings and shined a severe light on the beauty of classicism. The factory system, which incorporates the many into a body of one, destroyed individual creativity and left little time for the pursuit of classical ideologies. The poor educational system created a multitude of semi-literates who could not be expected to comprehend great literature. The aristocracy was almost entirely destroyed, and with it went the spirit of classicism and romanticism.
Adams, Robert M. The Land and Literature of England. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1983.
Altick, Richard D. Victorian Peoples and Ideas. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1978.
Daiches, David. A Critical History of English Literature. New York: The Ronald Press Company, 1970.
Daiches, David. The Norton Anthology, Third Edition. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1962.