History of Literature





The Beginnings of Literature. Myths and Legends

Classical Myth

Myth and Mystery


Hebrew literature

Ancient Greek literature

Ancient Greek literature. Greek theatre

Ancient Greek literature. Philosophical prose

Latin (Roman) literature

Latin (Roman) Literature. The Silver Age

Latin (Roman) Literature. Renaissance

Modern Italian Literature

The Middle Ages Literature

The Middle Ages. Elizabethan England

The Restoration

The Rise of the Novel

Cervantes and Spanish literature

The Enlightenment


Classicism and Naturalism

The 19th century - Prose

The 20th century - Modernism

The 20th century - The Political Novel

Classicism and Naturalism

Classicism and Naturalism
Soren Kierkegaard
Alphonse de Lamartine
Alfred de Vigny
Anthony Powell
George Sand
Alfred de Musset
Charles Baudelaire "The Flowers of Evil"
Arthur Rimbaud "Poems"
Paul Verlaine "Poems"
Stephane Mallarme

Washington Irving
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"
"Rip Van Winkle"
Illustrations by Arthur Rackham

James Fenimore Cooper

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow "The Song of Hiawatha"

Edgar Allan Poe

1. "Ligeia"
2. "The Raven" Illustrations by Gustave Dore
"The Fall of the House of Usher"
4. Illustrations from Edgar Poe by Edmund Dulac
5. Illustrations from Edgar Poe by Harry Clarke

Walt Whitman "Leaves of Grass"

Emily Dickinson "Poems"

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
William Morris
Algernon Charles Swinburne

Robert Browning  "Dramatic Romances"
Elizabeth Barrett Browning  "Sonnets from the Portuguese"

Alfred Tennyson "Idylls of the King"  PART I, PART II   Illustrations by G. Dore
"Lady of Shalott", "Sir Galahad"
Pre-Raphaelite illustrations for Moxon's Tennyson

Heinrich Heine "Poems and Ballads"

Austrian Frans Grillparzer
Christian Friedrich Hebbel
Georg Buchner

Oscar Wilde  I. "The Ballad of Reading Gaol", "The Paradox" 
"The Picture of Dorian Gray"
"Salome" Illustrations by Beardsley

Walter Pater
Henrik Ibsen
August Strindberg

Anton Chekhov "Uncle Vanya"

George Bernard Shaw  "Pygmalion"

Dante Gabriel Rossetti A Sea Spell


The period corresponding roughly to the Romantic movement was also a period of dramatic social change, of transformation in the lives of many people and many parts of the country by the Industrial Revolution, and of struggle and social eruptions connected with the battle for reform. Naturally, these developments had profound effects on literature and the arts.


Romanticism is sometimes pictured as a reac­tion to the Industrial Revolution, and, although that is too simple a view as in most countries Romanticism predated factories, the new industrial society certainly made an impression on the later Romantics and on other aspects of 19th-century literature. The social and economic changes produced a new, prosperous middle class of factory owners and merchants, self-made men often of little educa­tion - the Victorian burst of public-school building only benefitted their sons - and of even less taste. In so far as their aesthetic considerations went, they tended to favour the Classical rather than the Romantic tradition.


The stature of the great Romantic poets tends to conceal the fact that, during the Romantic period, not all artists and writers, not even all poets, were Romantics. George Crabbe, admired more than Wordsworth by Shelley and Byron, and Jane Austen's favourite poet, continued to write in the heroic couplets of the classical tradi­tion. But what exactly was this tradition? The terms Classical, classic, and Neo-Classical tend to be interchange, which can cause confusion.

In a narrow sense, 'Classical' refers to the ideas and criteria of ancient Greece and Rome and, by extension, to the styles of later periods that largely follow from them. These aesthetic styles and ideas are generally regarded as embodying such qualities as simplicity, harmony, order and reason, and general obedience to accepted rules. In one sense or another, the Classical tradition has never been completely abandoned, but it has been more prominent in some periods than in others. The driving force of the European Renaissance was the rediscov­ery and revival of Classical (Greek and Roman) art and culture, with works such as
Aristotle's "Poetics" and Horace's "Ars Poetica" being widely studied. Literature was governed by rules derived from them and defined in works such as Boileau's Art of Poetry (1674).

The revival of Classicism in the 18th century is often referred to as Neo-Classical". It was largely a revival of Renaissance Classicism rather than the genuinely Classical, although the name 'Augustan' applied to English literature in the late 17th-18th centuries signifies the impulse to formal perfection inspired by Roman literature of the early imperial period. The Enlightenment represented the peak of intellectual Classicism and (as further evidence of the misleading effects of creating cate­gories) one of the greatest figures of the Enlightenment,
Rousseau, was also the pioneer of Romanticism.

The two strains, Classical and Romantic, can be distinguished in a broad way in practically every generation.
Shakespeare, it could be said, was a Romantic writer, but not a Classical one, whereas Racine and Corneille (who, unlike Shakespeare
, followed the Aristotelian rules) were Classical. However, Shakespeare was a classic writer. The Latin word classicus meant a citizen of the highest rank, and 'classic' simply means, or should mean, first-rate, the best of its kind.


The term Realism in literature also has more than one meaning. In general it means, simply, true to life, and can therefore be applied to at least some of the literature of practically any age or culture: the events narrated in an epic such as the
Iliad, may not be realistic, but the details are. More narrowly, it is the name given to the movement, first evident in France before 1830, that represent­ed a reaction against Romanticism. It was chiefly characteristic of the novel, where Realism is generally most readily achieved. Romanticism offered an idealized version of life, m which personal feelings figured promi­nently. Realism was down-to-earth, presenting a more accurate picture of life as it really is, with careful description of the world based on close observation.

In the general sense, the terms Realism and Naturalism are not clearly distinguishable. However, in the 19th century, Naturalism was the movement that followed from Realism — again, with France setting the pace. Realism was influenced by developments in the social sciences, some Realist novels resembling sociological tracts, and Naturalism was also largely a product of contemporary scientific developments, such as
Charles Darwin's explanation of evolution. Accuracy of detail - truth to nature - was even more important, and greater emphasis was placed on the effects of environment on behaviour and the effects of heredity on the individual character. While also a characteristic of much fiction, Naturalism was of particular significance in drama too.


Soren Kierkegaard

Danish philosopher
in full Søren Aabye Kierkegaard

born May 5, 1813, Copenhagen, Den.
died Nov. 11, 1855, Copenhagen

Danish philosopher, theologian, and cultural critic who was a major influence on existentialism and Protestant theology in the 20th century. He attacked the literary, philosophical, and ecclesiastical establishments of his day for misrepresenting the highest task of human existence—namely, becoming oneself in an ethical and religious sense—as something so easy that it could seem already accomplished even when it had not even been undertaken. Positively, the heart of his work lay in the infinite requirement and strenuous difficulty of religious existence in general and Christian faith in particular.

A life of collisions
Kierkegaard’s life has been called uneventful, but it was hardly that. The story of his life is a drama in four overlapping acts, each with its own distinctive crisis or “collision,” as he often referred to these events. His father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, was a prosperous but retired businessman who devoted the later years of his life to raising his children. He was a man of deep but gloomy and guilt-ridden piety who was haunted by the memory of having once cursed God as a boy and of having begun his family by getting his maid pregnant—and then marrying her—shortly after the death of his first wife. His domineering presence stimulated young Søren’s imaginative and intellectual gifts but, as his son would later bear witness, made a normal childhood impossible.

Kierkegaard enrolled at the University of Copenhagen in 1830 but did not complete his studies until 1841. Like the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), whose system he would severely criticize, Kierkegaard entered university in order to study theology but devoted himself to literature and philosophy instead. His thinking during this period is revealed in an 1835 journal entry, which is often cited as containing the germ of his later work:

The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.…What is truth but to live for an idea?

While a student at the university, Kierkegaard explored the literary figures of Don Juan, the wandering Jew, and especially Faust, looking for existential models for his own life.

The first collision occurred during his student days: he became estranged both from his father and from the faith in which he had been brought up, and he moved out of the family home. But by 1838, just before his father’s death, he was reconciled both to his father and to the Christian faith; the latter became the idea for which he would live and die. Despite his reference to an experience of “indescribable joy” in May of that year, it should not be assumed that his conversion was instantaneous. On the one hand, he often seemed to be moving away from the faith of his father and back toward it at virtually the same time. On the other hand, he often stressed that conversion is a long process. He saw becoming a Christian as the task of a lifetime. Accordingly, he decided to publish Sygdommen til døden (1849; Sickness unto Death) under a pseudonym (as he had done with several previous works), lest anyone think he lived up to the ideal he there presented; likewise, the pseudonymous authors of his other works often denied that they possessed the faith they talked about. Although in the last year of his life he wrote, “I dare not call myself a Christian,” throughout his career it was Christianity that he sought to defend by rescuing it from cultural captivity, and it was a Christian person that he sought to become.

After his father’s death, Kierkegaard became serious about finishing his formal education. He took his doctoral exams and wrote his dissertation, Om begrebet ironi med stadigt hensyn til Socrates (On the Concept of Irony, with Constant Reference to Socrates), completing it in June of 1841 and defending it in September. In between, he broke his engagement with Regine Olsen, thus initiating the second major collision of his life. They had met in 1837, when she was only 15 years old, and had become engaged in 1840. Now, less than one year later, he returned her ring, saying he “could not make a girl happy.” The reasons for this action are far from clear.

What is clear is that this relationship haunted him for the rest of his life. Saying in his will that he considered engagement as binding as marriage, he left all his possessions to Regine (she did not accept them, however, since she had married long before Kierkegaard died). It is also clear that this crisis triggered a period of astonishing literary productivity, during which Kierkegaard published many of the works for which he is best known: Enten-Eller: et livs-fragment (1843; Either/Or: A Fragment of Life), Gjentagelsen (1843; Repetition), Frygt og baeven (1843; Fear and Trembling), Philosophiske smuler (1844; Philosophical Fragments), Begrebet angest (1844; The Concept of Anxiety), Stadier paa livets vei (1845; Stages on Life’s Way), and Afsluttende uvidenskabelig efterskrift (1846; Concluding Unscientific Postscript). Even after acknowledging that he had written these works, however, Kierkegaard insisted that they continue to be attributed to their pseudonymous authors. The pseudonyms are best understood by analogy with characters in a novel, created by the actual author to embody distinctive worldviews; it is left to the reader to decide what to make of each one.

Kierkegaard had intended to cease writing at this point and become a country pastor. But it was not to be. The first period of literary activity (1843–46) was followed by a second (1847–55). Instead of retiring, he picked a quarrel with The Corsair, a newspaper known for its liberal political sympathies but more famous as a scandal sheet that used satire to skewer the establishment. Although The Corsair had praised some of the pseudonymous works, Kierkegaard did not wish to see his own project confused with that of the newspaper, so he turned his satirical skills against it. The Corsair took the bait, and for months Kierkegaard was the target of raucous ridicule, the greatest butt of jokes in Copenhagen. Better at giving than at taking, he was deeply wounded, and indeed he never fully recovered. If the broken engagement was the cloud that hung over the first literary period, the Corsair debacle was the ghost that haunted the second.

The final collision was with the Church of Denmark (Lutheran) and its leaders, the bishops J.P. Mynster and H.L. Martensen. In his journals Kierkegaard called Sickness unto Death an “attack upon Christendom.” In a similar vein, Anti-Climacus, the pseudonymous author of Indøvelse i Christendom (1850; Training in Christianity), declared the need “again to introduce Christianity into Christendom.” This theme became more and more explicit as Kierkegaard resumed his writing career. As long as Mynster, the family pastor from his childhood, was alive, Kierkegaard refrained from personal attacks. But at Mynster’s funeral Martensen, who had succeeded to the leadership of the Danish church, eulogized his predecessor as a “witness to the truth,” linking him to the martyrs of the faith; after this Kierkegaard could no longer keep silent. In December 1854 he began to publish dozens of short, shrill pieces insisting that what passed as Christianity in Denmark was counterfeit and making clear that Mynster and Martensen were responsible for reducing the religion to “leniency.” The last of these pieces was found on Kierkegaard’s desk after he collapsed in the street in October 1855.

Stages on life’s way
In the pseudonymous works of Kierkegaard’s first literary period, three stages on life’s way, or three spheres of existence, are distinguished: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. These are not developmental stages in a biological or psychological sense—a natural and all-but-automatic unfolding according to some DNA of the spirit. It is all too possible to live one’s life below the ethical and the religious levels. But there is a directionality in the sense that the earlier stages have the later ones as their telos, or goal, while the later stages both presuppose and include the earlier ones as important but subordinate moments. Kierkegaard’s writings taken as a whole, whether pseudonymous or not, focus overwhelmingly on the religious stage, giving credence to his own retrospective judgment that the entire corpus is ultimately about the religious life.

The personages Kierkegaard creates to embody the aesthetic stage have two preoccupations, the arts and the erotic. It is tempting to see the aesthete as a cultured hedonist—a fairly obvious offshoot of the Romantic movement—who accepts the distinction made by Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) between artistic and sensuous pleasure while combining them in a single existential project. But in one of the essays of Either/Or, the aesthete sees boredom as the root of all evil and is preoccupied with making life interesting; and the famous seducer in the same volume seems less concerned with sex than with the fascinating spectacle of watching himself seduce his victim.

This clue helps one both to define the aesthetic stage and to see what a stage or sphere of existence in general is. What the various goals of aesthetic existence have in common is that they have nothing to do with right and wrong. The criteria by which the good life is defined are premoral, unconcerned with good and evil. A stage or sphere of existence, then, is a fundamental project, a form of life, a mode of being-in-the-world that defines success in life by its own distinctive criteria.

What might motivate an aesthete to choose the ethical? The mere presence of guardians of the good, who are willing to scold the aesthete’s amorality as immorality, is too external, too easily dismissed as bourgeois phariseeism. Judge William, the representative of the ethical in Either/Or, tries another tack. The aesthete, he argues, fails to become a self at all but becomes, by choice, what David Hume (1711–76) said the self inevitably is: a bundle of events without an inner core to constitute identity or cohesion over time. Moreover, the aesthete fails to see that in the ethical the aesthetic is not abolished but ennobled. Judge William presents marriage as the scene of this transformation, in which, through commitment, the self acquires temporal continuity and, following Hegel, the sensuous is raised to the level of spirit.

In Fear and Trembling this ethical stage is teleologically suspended in the religious, which means not that it is abolished but that it is reduced to relative validity in relation to something absolute, which is its proper goal. For Plato (c. 428–c. 348 bc) and Kant, ethics is a matter of pure reason gaining pure insight into eternal truth. But Hegel argued that human beings are too deeply embedded in history to attain such purity and that their grasp of the right and the good is mediated by the laws and customs of the societies in which they live. It is this Hegelian ethics of socialization that preoccupies Judge William and that gets relativized in Fear and Trembling. By retelling the story of Abraham, it presents the religious stage as the choice not to allow the laws and customs of one’s people to be one’s highest norm—not to equate socialization with sanctity and salvation but to be open to a voice of greater authority, namely God.

This higher normativity does not arise from reason, as Plato and Kant would have it, but is, from reason’s point of view, absurd, paradoxical, even mad. These labels do not bother Kierkegaard, because he interprets reason as human, all too human—as the rationale of the current social order, which knows nothing higher than itself. In the language of Karl Marx (1818–83), what presents itself as reason is in fact ideology. Kierkegaard interprets Abrahamic faith as agreeing with Hegel and Marx about this historical finitude of reason, and, precisely because of this, he insists that the voice of God is an authority that is higher than the rationality of either the current establishment (Hegel) or the revolution (Marx). Against both Hegel and Marx, Kierkegaard holds that history is not the scene in which human reason overcomes this finitude and becomes the ultimate standard of truth.

Three dimensions of the religious life
The simple scheme of the three stages becomes more complex in Concluding Unscientific Postscript. The fundamental distinction is now between objectivity and subjectivity, with two examples of each. Objectivity is the name for occupying oneself with what is “out there” in such a way as to exempt oneself from the strenuous inward task of becoming a self in the ethico-religious sense. One example is the aesthetic posture, presented in earlier work; the other is the project of speculative philosophy, to which this text devotes major attention. The target is Hegelian philosophy, which takes the achievement of comprehensive, absolute knowledge to be the highest human task.

But, it is argued in the first place, speculative philosophy cannot even keep its own promises. It purports to begin without presuppositions and to conclude with a final, all-encompassing system. The very idea that thought should be without presuppositions, however, is itself a presupposition, and thus the system is never quite able to complete itself. The goal of objective knowledge is legitimate, but it can never be more than approximately accomplished. Reality may well be a system for God, but not for any human knower.

Secondly, even if speculative philosophy could deliver what it promises, it would have forgotten that the highest human task is not cognition but rather the personal appropriation or embodiment of whatever insights into the good and the right one is able to achieve. Becoming a self in this way is called existence, inwardness, and subjectivity. This use of existence as a technical term for the finite, human self that is always in the process of becoming can be seen as the birth of existentialism.

The two modes of subjectivity are not, as one might expect, the ethical and the religious stages. One does not become a self simply through successful socialization. Besides, in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, ethics is treated as already recontextualized in a religious rather than merely a social context. So the two modes of ethico-religious subjectivity are “Religiousness A” and “Religiousness B.” The fact that the latter turns out to be Christianity should not lead one to think that the former is some other world religion. It is rather the generic necessary condition for any particular religion and, as such, is available apart from dependence on the revelation to be found in any particular religion’s sacred scriptures. Socrates (c. 470–399 bc), here distinguished from the speculative Plato, is the paradigm of Religiousness A.

Religiousness A is defined not in terms of beliefs about what is “out there,” such as God or the soul, but rather in terms of the complex tasks of becoming a self, summarized as the task of being simultaneously related “relatively” to relative goods and “absolutely” to the absolute good. Kierkegaard and his pseudonyms refer to the absolute good variously as the Idea, the Eternal, or God. As the generic form of the religious stage, Religiousness A abstracts from the “what” of belief to focus on the “how” that must accompany any “what.” The Hegelian system purports to be the highest form of the highest religion, namely Christianity, but in fact, by virtue of its merely objective “how,” it belongs to a completely different genus. It could not be the highest form of Christianity, no more than a dog could be the world’s prettiest cat.

There is something paradoxical about Religiousness A. Socratic ignorance—the claim of Socrates that he is the wisest of men because, while others think that they know, he knows that he does not—reflects the realization that the relation of the existing, and thus temporal, individual to the eternal does not fit neatly into human conceptual frameworks. But Christianity, as Religiousness B, is more radically paradoxical, for the eternal itself has become paradoxical as the insertion of God in time. In this way the task of relating absolutely to the absolute becomes even more strenuous, for human reason is overwhelmed, even offended, by the claim that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. In the Concluding Unscientific Postscript there is an echo of Kant’s admission, “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith”—though Kantian faith has a very different “what.”

Some writings of Kierkegaard’s second literary period extend the analyses of the first. For example, the two halves of Sickness unto Death can be read as reprising Religiousness A and B, respectively, in a different voice. But several texts, most notably Kjerlighedens gjerninger (1847; Works of Love), Training in Christianity, Til selvprøvelse (1851; For Self-Examination), and Dømmer selv! (1851; Judge for Yourselves!), go beyond Religiousness B to what might be called “Religiousness C.” The focus is still on Christianity, but now Christ is no longer just the paradox to be believed but also the paradigm or prototype to be imitated.

These works present the second, specifically Christian, ethics that had been promised as far back as The Concept of Anxiety. They go beyond Hegelian ethics, which only asks one to conform to the laws and customs of one’s society. They also go beyond the religion of hidden inwardness, whether A or B, in which the relation between God and the soul takes place out of public view. They are Kierkegaard’s answer to the charge that religion according to his view is so personal and so private as to be socially irresponsible. Faith, the inward God-relation, must show itself outwardly in works of love.

The first half of Works of Love is a sustained reflection on the biblical commandment “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:36). This commanded love is contrasted with erotic love and friendship. Through its poets, society celebrates these two forms of love, but only God dares to command the love of neighbours. The celebrated loves are spontaneous: they come naturally, by inclination, and thus not by duty. Children do not have to be taught to seek friends; nor, at puberty, do they need to be commanded to fall in love. The celebrated loves are also preferential: one is drawn to this person but not to that one as friend or lover; something in the other is attractive or would satisfy one’s desire if the relation could be established. Because they are spontaneous and preferential, Kierkegaard calls the celebrated loves forms of “self-love.”

This is not to say that every friend or lover is selfish. But, by their exclusionary nature, such relations are the self-love of the “We,” even when the “I” is not selfish in the relation. Here one sees the political ramifications of commanded love, for an ethics that restricts benevolence to one’s own family, tribe, nation, race, or class expresses only the self-love of the We.

By contrast, commanded love is not spontaneous, and it needs to be commanded precisely because it is not preferential. Another person need not be attractive or belong to the same We to be one’s neighbour, whom one is to love. Even one’s enemy can be one’s neighbour, which is a reason why society never dares to require that people love their neighbours as they do themselves. For the Christian, this command comes from Christ, who is himself its embodiment to be imitated.

One could hardly expect the literary and philosophical elite to focus on the strenuousness of faith as a personal relation to God unsupported by reason, or on the strenuousness of love as responsibility to and for one’s neighbour unsupported by society’s ethos. That task was the responsibility of the church—a responsibility that, in Kierkegaard’s view, the church had spectacularly failed to fulfill. As these themes came more clearly into focus in his writings, the attack upon Christendom with which his life ended became inevitable.

Kierkegaard says that his writings as a whole are religious. They are best seen as belonging to the prophetic traditions, in which religious beliefs become the basis for a critique of the religious communities that profess them. The 20th-century theologies that were influenced by Kierkegaard go beyond the tasks of metaphysical affirmation and ethical instruction to a critique of complacent piety. In existential philosophies—which are often less overtly theological and sometimes entirely secular—this element of critique is retained but is directed against forms of personal and social life that do not take the tasks of human existence seriously enough. Thus, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) complains that his secular contemporaries do not take the death of God seriously enough, just as Kierkegaard complains that his Christian contemporaries do not take God seriously enough. Likewise, the German existential phenomenologist Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) describes how people make life too easy for themselves by thinking and doing just what “they” think and do. And Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80), the leading representative of atheistic existentialism in France, calls attention to the ways in which people indulge in self-deceiving “bad faith” in order to think more highly of themselves than the facts warrant.

Merold Westphal



Partly as result of the upheavals of the French Revolution, and partly because Classicism was more strongly entrenched, the Romantic movement arrived later in France. It was influenced by England and Germany, although its father figure was Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand (1768-1848), whose Genius of Christianity (1802) was a major influence in the revival of religion in post-revolutionary France, and its most provocative leader was the novelist Victor Hugo.


The outstanding poets in France were less central to the Romantic movement than their equivalents in England. Alphonse de Lamartine (1790—1869) established his reputation with his lyrical and deeply personal Meditations poetiquc (1820). The most popular of the French Romantic poets, he not only wrote poetry, but also extensively on history, politics (he was a leading political figure), biography, travel and memoirs. Like Vigny, he had an English wife, wrote a poetic tribute to Byron, and was widely translated into English from the 1820s.

The best poems of
Alfred de Vigny (1797-1863) were published after his death. Vigny's Romanticism is pessimistic and stoical: he described his work as an 'epic of disillusionment', but retained his faith in the 'unconquerable' human mind. Unusually for a Romantic poet, he was a professional soldier for over a decade and his Servitude et grandeur militaires (1835) still finds a place in the knapsack of intellectually inclined soldiers (Vigny's reflections on the military life are wittily discussed in Anthony Powell's novel The Valley of Bones, 1964).

The lover of
George Sand before her liaison with Chopin, Alfred de Musset (1810-57) made his mark with a translation of De Quincey's Confessions. His most famous poems, 'Les Nuits' (1835-37) and 'Le Souvenir' (1841) deal with the familiar Romantic theme of love denied. He is probably best known for his plays, in which humour and parody are more evident; in general, his work is suffused with that contemporary melancholy called mal du siecle.


Charles Baudelaire "The Flowers of Evil"

One of the most significant influences on modern poetry,
Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) was associated with the Parnassians, a group of poets in reaction against Romanticism, whose aims were formal perfection, restraint ('Classical' virtues), and objectivity. His great work is Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Ewil, 1857), a collection of a hundred poems in various different metres, technically brilliant, in which the poet seeks to find beauty and order in a world that is often hideous, cruel — and boring.

Baudelaire was arrested and six of the poems were banned as offensive to public morals, but the last edition, published just after his death, contains about fifty more poems, and the work is regarded as one of the greatest treasures of French literature. Today Baudelaire is rated highly as a critic, notably on art (painting and poetry were often closely linked in France). His prose includes commentary on De Quincey and descriptions of his own experiences with opium and hashish, and he was the French translator of Edgar Allan Poe.


Arthur Rimbaud "Poems"


Paul Verlaine "Poems"


Around the spectacularly intense revolutionary Arthur Rimbaud (1854-91), forerunner of Symbolism and Surrealism, legends cluster like flies around a carcass. From an early age he-was in full revolt against every orthodox authority. His most famous poem, 'Le Bateau ivre' (The Drunken Boat), which exalts the quest for some unknown reality (the key to Rimbaud's alienated existence), was written aged 17 and he abandoned poetry altogether at 19. His finest works are the prose poems of Illuminations (1886) and A Season in Hell (1873), experimental products of his efforts to acquire the wisdom of a seer through 'disorientation of the senses'.

For a troubled period in the early 1870s, he was the lover of
Paul Verlaine (1844-96). He became a wanderer and spent his latter years as a trader deep in Africa. Verlaine was a tormented, unstable character, one of the Parnassians and generally regarded as a Symbolist (though he rejected the label), who served a prison term (1873—74) for shooting and wounding Rimbaud in a quarrel. Reconverted to Catholicism, he wrote some of the finest religious poetry of any age, as well as some of the most musical and original lyrics of the century — especially in the early Fetes galantes (1869) and Romances sans paroles (1874). He was a popular lecturer in England in 1875.


Edouard Manet
Portrait of Stephane Mallarme

Stephane Mallarme (1842-98), another of the founders of modern European poetry, was the outstanding master of Symbolism, the movement which, reacting against the objectivity of Realism and Naturalism, stressed the importance of suggestion and reverie and found subtle relations between sound, sense and colour. Alallarme's 'L'Aprecs-midi d'un faune' (1876) is a key Symbolist work. The preoccupations of the Symbolists led to obscurity, and Mallarme's 'Un coup de des jamais n'abolira le hasard' (1897), which employed ingenious typographical devices to suggest music, has been called the most difficult poem in the French language.


After independence, there was a conscious attempt in the U.S.A. to forge a national litera­ture, but in spite of the popularity of the tales of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, there were few poets who achieved international stature, excepting William Cullen Bryant, whose Thanatopsis (1817) showed the influence of the Graveyard poets and early English Romanticism.


Washington Irving
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"
"Rip Van Winkle"
Illustrations by Arthur Rackham

James Fenimore Cooper


William de Leftwich Dodge
Death-Of-Minnehaha (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow "The Song of Hiawatha")

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807—82), how­ever, became the most popular poet in the English-speaking world after Tennyson. A genius of narrative verse, Longfellow spent some years in England before taking up a professorship aged 29 at Harvard, where he remained the rest of his working life. His first major work was basically a prose romance, Hyperion (1839). Ballads and Other Poems, containing such sentimental favourites as 'The Wreck of the Hesperus' and 'The Village Blacksmith' appeared in 1841. He was already immensely popular long before publication of his best-known work.  (1858), with its hypnotic, unrhymed metre, and in the same year, The Courtship of Miles Standish, based on a New England legend. The Chaucerian Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863) contained the lively 'Paul Revere's Ride', commemorating a famous incident at the begin­ning of the American Revolution. The death of his second wife in a fire and advancing age lent a more sombre tone to Longfellow's later work.


Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

1. "Ligeia"

2. "The Raven" Illustrations by Gustave Dore

3. "The Fall of the House of Usher"

4. Illustrations from Edgar Poe by Edmund Dulac

5. Illustrations from Edgar Poe by Harry Clarke

The enigmatic Edgar Allan Рое (1809-49) was a very different kind of poet, uninterested in 'national' literature and, as master of the macabre, representing the darker side of the Romantic movement. After a disastrous spell in the military (dishonourably discharged from West Point) he became a journalist and a fierce critic of what he considered second-rate American writing. His early poetry, technically complex and tinged with mysticism, was published at his own expense. His most famous poem, 'The Raven', appeared in a newspaper in 1845.

Poe's private life became increasingly disastrous, owing to illness, poverty, drink and mental instability, but he achieved some success, if not wealth, with his short stories, such as 'The Gold-Bug' and 'The Fall of the House of Usher', which appeared with other extraordinary Gothic horror stories in Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840). An early death prevented his enjoyment of international fame. Admirers included Baudelaire, Swinburne, Wilde and Yeats, and psychologists, including Freud, have long been fascinated by the disquieting themes in Poe's work. He has been called the first detective-story writer and claimed as a pioneer by the existentialists, among others.


Walt Whitman "Leaves of Grass"

Leaves of Grass (1855), the first collection of Walt Whitman (1819-92), was dedicated to Emerson and generally adhered to Transcendentalist doctrines, celebrating communion with nature. The sensual overtones provoked disap­proval and lost him a good job in government, but more controversial was Whitman's style. In following Emerson's call for a genuinely Ameri­can literature, Whitman adopted a loose, 'unbuttoned' style, employing colloquial lan­guage and specifically American idioms, which contemporary readers found coarse.

In general, apart from one favourable anony­mous review (by himself),
Whitman, previously known as a journalist and author of short stories, received little critical attention. This changed after the second (1860) edition of Leaves of Grass, containing many new poems, and still more after the Civil War, which cast some shadows over his vision of America. As a volunteer nurse, he experienced its horrors at first hand and led to some of his most famous poems, including his elegy for Abraham Lincoln, and 'O Captain! My Captain!'. After the war he worked in Washington D.C., and wrote, in prose, his vigorous defence of democracy, Democratic Vistas (1871). New editions of Leaves of Grass continued to appear, the last in the year of his death, when the original twelve poems had increased to over three hundred.

The image - rough, tough, old Walt, the prophet of American democracy and friend of the common man — was phoney, and some of
Whitman's verse is as poor as people initially said it was. On the other hand, he was the first great American poet, a genuine original.

'I think I could turn, and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contairTd,
1 stand and. look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the
mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived
thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth'

Whitman, 'Song of Myself'



Emily Dickinson "Poems"

In common with many poets of the time, Emily Dickinson (1830—86) came from New-England. A lively and amusing young woman, she became a recluse in her mid-twenties, com­municating only through letters. Her poetry was almost entirely unknown until after her death. Publication in 1890 created no immedi­ate sensation, and her reputation as a major poet of arresting originality was only estab­lished recently. Her character, in spite of much research and speculation, remains mysterious.

Her poetry is peppered with allusions to violence, human and natural, and she is pre­occupied with death, immortality and, above all, poetic vocation. She seems to have felt isolated, while simultaneously belonging to an exalted elite. She wrote in a unique style: 'sharp, stacca­to, often awkward, never far from thoughts of death, but when successful . . . wonderfully bold and concentrated . . . making the men of her time seem timid and long-winded.'


The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in 1848 by Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, the Rossetti brothers and others, a group of painters. They were in revolt against contemporary artistic standards as typified by the Royal Academy, and determined to revert to the principles prevailing before the High Renaissance, as represented by Raphael. Encouraged by Ruskin, the Brotherhood existed as a close-knit group only for a few years. Broadly, Pre-Raphaelitism carried on the Romantic tradition. Its preoccupations included the study of nature in close detail, sound technique, and an inclination towards mystical (often medieval) subjects, influencing a number of later artists and writers.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

William Morris

Algernon Charles Swinburne


The Rossettis' father was a political refugee from Naples, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82), though born in London, grew up in an Italian household. Famous in his own day as a painter, he is the author of some of the most musical sonnets in English. As a student he knew Holman Hunt and Millais, and was one of the founders and leading representatives of the P.R.B. Like his painting, his early poetry was closely detailed, symbolic, concerned with remote subjects and often included archaic usage. Eroticism was another Pre-Raphaelite characteristic, and Rossetti married what the Pre-Raphaelites called a 'stunner', Elizabeth Siddal, in 1860. She died of an overdose of laudanum two years later, possibly encouraging the morbid strain in Rossetti's later work. His Poems of 1870 included works he had buried with Elizabeth, but later recovered. Some of his most attractive work, besides his translations of Dante and other Italian poets, appeared a year later in Ballads and Sonnets, but by that time he was in terminal decline due to drugs and incipient paranoia.

His younger brother William was another founder member of the PRB and editor of their journal, The Gem. He wrote profusely on literary subjects and worked for nearly fifty years for the Internal Revenue service.

Their sister Christina (1830-94) was a poet who is now widely regarded as being more gifted than her brothers. She was deeply religious and physically frail, an invalid in her later years. Probably her most famous work is Goblin Market (1862), a vigorous, enigmatically symbolic fairy tale, highly original in technique. A love of verbal and metrical experiment is characteristic of her work, which included many religious poems. Of these the most admired is the sonnet sequence "Monna Innominata" (1881), which dwells on the superiority of divine love over human love, a conviction which seems to have influenced her private life.


Of all the people associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris (1834-96) was the greatest. However, he is remembered primarily in politics as a profound influence on British socialism, and in design as the leading light of the Arts and Crafts movement. His abilities were prodigious, his influence was - still is -enormous. His doctor explained his death as the result of being William Morris, having done more work than ten normal men. He was a copious writer, but his poetry, highly regarded in his day, is now seldom read. Probably his most famous literary work is his novel News from Nowhere (1890), a critique of contemporary society subsumed in a portrait of a communist, non-materialist Utopia.


When D. G. Rossetti was viciously attacked by Robert Buchanan in 'The Fleshly School of Poetry', he was defended by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), always ready for a literary fight. Swinburne was a prolific poet, immensely gifted, but often criticized for lack of depth - a safe judgment on someone who published so much. He first hit the headlines with his Poems and Ballads (1866), which, rebellious and perverse, might have been designed to irritate the bourgeoisie ('libidinous laureate of a pack of satyrs' fumed the critic John Morley). Swinburne, a 'Decadent' before his time, was certainly a shock after Tennyson. By 1879 he was a serious alcoholic, but was taken over by Theodore Watts-Dunton, who installed him in his house in Putney and reformed him. Surprisingly, Swinburne's muse survived this new regime, and he continued to publish his flamboyant poetry and criticism for another thirty years. He was a splendid scourge of prudes and pedants, and an invigorating influence on literature with his outspoken, if often wrong-headed, criticism.


The two giants of the later 19th century were Browning and, especially, Tennyson. In spite of periods of fierce critical antagonism, their reputation remains high today. The Romantics were either dead or poetically played out by the 1830s, and Browning and Tennyson represented a change, though not a particularly sudden or dramatic one. Romantics such as Byron were essentially popular poets, whose poetry was 'easy'. Although Tennyson, the only poet to become a peer, was hugely popular, both he and Browning moved on a somewhat higher plane. They nevertheless succeeded in maintaining a large audience for poetry in an age in which the novel had become the most popular form of literature.


Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning

Robert Browning
  "Dramatic Romances"
Elizabeth Barrett Browning 
"Sonnets from the Portuguese"

Robert Browning (1812-89) is almost equally famous for his partnership with Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806—61), who was initially the more popular poet. Although she had published previous collections, Elizabeth became famous with her Poems of 1844. At that time, illness, neurosis and a dominant father had reduced her to housebound hypochondria, but her work attracted Browning, who made contact. Romance followed and they eloped in 1846, settling in Italy. The 1850 edition of her Poems included 'Sonnets from the Portuguese', love poems written to her husband before their marriage. They have proved her most enduring work.

Although both were abundantly blessed with the gift of poetic imagination, the Brownings were otherwise dissimilar poets.
Browning came to poetry very early, rejecting any other occupation, but his early work, some of it almost impenetrable, attracted little and generally unfavourable notice. He only became famous after his wife's death with The Ring and the Book (1863), 21,000 lines of narrative blank verse about a terrible crime in 17th-century Rome. At a stroke, he became England's most celebrated poet after Tennyson, and his previously published work, notably Men and Women (1855), became immensely popular. In fact, nearly all Robert's best work was done during the course of his fifteen years of marriage, not the least of Elizabeth's contributions to English literature. Technical gifts apart, his greatest gift, in the opinion of many critics, was his intense curiosity. He enjoyed probing a problem, however complex, which largely explains a degree of obscurity in his work. He was also typically Victorian in the massive volume of his output, much of which seems today to be unduly verbose, but few writers excel him in capturing - often in dialogue - the atmosphere of an earlier age.


Alfred Tennyson "Idylls of the King"  PART I, PART II   Illustrations by G. Dore

"Lady of Shalott", "Sir Galahad"

Pre-Raphaelite illustrations for Moxon's Tennyson

What Gladstone was to Victorian politics, the tall and handsome, in later life shaggy-bearded Alfred Tennyson (1809-92) was to Victorian letters — the 'Grand Old Man', Poet Laureate for nearly half a century. He came from the large and doom-laden family of a Lincolnshire rector. It was something of a relief to escape to Cambridge University, where he became a devoted friend of an able contemporary, Arthur Hallam, and published two volumes of poetry that included 'The Lotos-Eaters' and 'The Lady of Shalott'. Hallam's death in 1833 was a terrible blow, which eventually produced In Memoriam (1850), perhaps the poet's most studied work and an extraordinary tribute which immortalized its subject.

Meanwhile, Tennyson's poems had made him famous, but not content. Twice during the 1840s he suffered near breakdowns, but his marriage to a devoted wife in 1850 brought him comparative peace and happiness. It also, coin-cidentally or not, marked the end of his period of creative genius. He was never to lose his almost unparalleled verbal artistry, and some of his most popular poems were written late in life, but his passion and originality faded after Maud, published in 1855, which he regarded as his greatest work, 'a little Hamlet, the history of a morbid, poetic soul, under the blighting influence of a recklessly speculative age'. In suiting the metre to the hero's mood, it is a fine example of Tennyson's extraordinary virtuosity, though it is not always readily comprehensible.

Poet Laureate from 1850, and one of the best in what tends to be a poetically uninspiring office, Tennyson, by nature extremely shy, became increasingly a public man. Popular fame accrued through poems such as his 'Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington', 'Charge of the Light Brigade' — one of the most famous in the language — and, more substantially, The Idylls of the King (1859-69), his most ambitious work, a retelling of Arthurian legend which he had started in 1833, returning to it in 1855. The first four (of twelve) books sold 10,000 copies within six weeks of publication in 1859.

It is Tennyson's earlier work, his more melancholy, pessimistic phase, that is most highly regarded by the majority of modern critics. 'His imagination responded most deeply to the doubtful and dismaying' (Christopher Ricks', but one of the great rewards of reading Tennyson is his visually perceptive descriptions of the world, especially the world of nature, which raise the question whether Tennyson was not a kind of Romantic after all.

With blackest moss the flower-pots
Were thickly crusted, one and all:
The rusted nails fell from the knots
That held the pear to the gable-wall.
The broken sheds look'd sad and strange;
Unlifted was the clinking latch;
Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
Upon the lonely moated grange . . .

Tennyson, 'Mariana' (1830).


As in England, so in Germany the 1830s repre­sented a literary watershed. After the Romantic Golden Age, the Biedemeier poets retreated to domesticity. The careers of more progressive writers were hindered by the repressive censorship of conservative governments, led by Metternich's government in Vienna, and interrupted by the Revolution of 1848, when many sought refuge abroad. Throughout the 19th century, the forms introduced by Goethe and Schiller, continued, such as the Lied in poet­ry derived from the folksong and the historical tragedy in drama from blank verse continued. In general, and in terms of their wider influence, the most significant literary figures in later 19th-century Germany were philosophers (Hegel, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer), historians (Ranke, Lamprecht) and dramatists, rather than poets. Though literary Romanticism was in decline, Romantic ideas were influential in other spheres, notably in politics, where they merged with the advance of German nationalism. The death of Goethe marked the end of the German classical tradition, yet among writers his influence was greater than that of the Romantics, though sometimes this was manifest as a rebellion against his predominance.


Heinrich Heine
"Poems and Ballads"

One of Germany's greatest poets, Hemneh Heine (1797—1856) preferred the more liberat­ing atmosphere of Paris, where he lived from 1831, writing in both German and French. He called himself the last Romantic, but the Romanticism of his ever-popular Book of Songs (1827) is well laced with irony, and his critical works, which included ruthless attacks on Romanticism, arc notable for savage and witty satire. Some of his best, and most sombre, poetry was written during his last eight years, when he was bedridden.


The greatest Germanic playwright of the early 19th century was the Austrian Frans Grillparzer (1791 —1872). His poetic tragedies were written m the Classical tradition, but lack its strength and confidence, his heroes and heroines generally coming to grief because of the feebleness of the individual will against the force of circumstances. Ambition, for Grillparzer's characters, is folly, or worse: the individual's only hope of happiness is to turn inwards, seeking spiritual peace through culti­vating inner resources. In his earlier plays, there is a suggestion of the hostile Fates of Greek tragedy, but in his Medea (1822), a marriage leads to disaster when the two part­ners are so overburdened with guilt that they cannot take positive action: weakness of will, rather than the ineluctability of fate, is the fundamental cause of catastrophe. As his work suggests, Grillparzer was himself a gloomy character, beset by personal difficulties and self-doubt. In 1838, a particularly hostile reception for his latest play, surprisingly a comedy, caused him to withdraw permanently from the theatre, leaving several dramas unper­formed (they were published after his death).

The sombre mood of
Grillparzer's plays was characteristic of most contemporary German drama, even comedy. Neither Romanticism nor the Classical tradition appeared to have anything more to offer, but nothing had yet appeared to replace them. There were some signs of future developments, however, for example in the plays of Christian Friedrich Hebbel (1813—63), whose greatest work was the trilogy Die Nibelungen, based on the 12th-century epic which was exploited more famously later in the century by Wagner. Hebbel shared the common pessimistic outlook, but his work looked forward to realism and the psychological depth of the founders of modern drama.


A far more significant figure - to us though not to his contemporaries, who had never heard of him - is Georg Buchner (1813—37). Biichner was trained as a medical research scientist, and died, probably of typhoid, as he was about to take up a post at the University of Zurich. Although he was only 23, and never had a play performed in his lifetime, he was the author of an influential, prophetic and startl­ing body of dramatic work. A revolutionary, he was forced to flee Germany as a result of his pamphlet, The Hessian Courier (1834), which anticipated Marx's Communist Manifesto, and wrote his first play, Danton's Death (1835) while in hiding. Though it celebrated the eponymous French Revolution hero, Biichner's pessimism later led him to conclude that revolution was pointless and freedom a pipe dream. Leonce and Lena (1836) satirizes the Romantic tradition, and Dantons Tod (1835; is a tragedy of hopeless heroism. But it is Biichner's last play, the stark drama W'ozzeck, or Woyzeck (183"*), about an ill-used barber who stands for the insignificance and vulnera­bility of individuals in a hostile and vicious universe, which, far ahead of its time, chiefly accounts for his reputation as the forerunner of many movements in modern drama -Expressionism, Naturalism, Absurdism, etc. The play was the basis for Alban Berg's scarcely manageable - and therefore seldom staged — but powerful opera. Wozzeck (1925).


The last decade of the 19th century, when the great Victorian poets had passed from the scene, was a period not of great literature but of great literary interest. In English poetry, the dominant influences were French - Rimbaud and Verlaine - and there was a prevailing preoccupation with the notion of end-of-the-century decadence, with the poet as a doomed figure ('decadent' poets and artists certainly tended to die young: Ernest Dowson at 33, Lionel Johnson at 35, the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley at 26, Oscar Wilde at 46).

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde 

"The Ballad of Reading Gaol", "The Paradox" 

"The Picture of Dorian Gray"

"Salome" Illustrations by Beardsley


The aesthetic movement derived largely from the Pre-Raphaehtes, and aroused some mockery in less refined circles for its exaggerated preference for antique ideals of beauty and affectations of speech and dress, which were motivated to some extent by the now customary desire to shake up the bourgeoisie. On a more serious level, as explained by one of its progenitors, the much-renowned critic Walter Pater (1839-94), it was concerned with 'not the fruit of experience, but experience itself . . . for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting impressions, and never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy'. Among artists, the current phrase, again originating with Pater though current earlier in France, was 'art for art's sake' (l'art pour l'art), the idea that art was not and should not be in any way 'useful' and, as Wilde put it, 'never expresses anything but itself. As with the Pre-Raphaelities, there were strong bonds between artists and writers, who co-operated in the pages of The Yelloiv Book and the Savoy magazine, while Wilde and Whistler famously exchanged quips in the Cafe Royal.


A few years before his death Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) told the young Andre Gide that he-had put his talent into his works and his genius into his life. No one would question his genius, and his literary reputation is now higher than it was once, but the impression remains that his cherished memory is due more to his persona than his writing. Born in Dublin (like Shaw), he was the son of a prominent physician and an egotistical poet who called herself Speranza. After Trinity College, he went to Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize for English verse. His journalism and his flamboyant espousal of the aesthetic movement and 'art for art's sake' made him a public figure. He shocked the Americans too, on a lecture tour, with his velvet breeches and silk stockings, not to mention his statement to the New York Customs, that he had 'nothing to declare except my genius'. He was satisfyingly guyed by Gilbert and Sullivan in Patience, and got married in 1884 to a pretty and tolerant young woman who gave him two sons. Their London home became a social centre of the avant-garde.

In 1892, none too soon,
Wilde finally achieved popular fame with his play Lady Windermere's ban, a witty and edgy social comedy. He followed it with A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Wilde's reputation depends largely on his last play, one of the most brilliant comedies in the British theatre, a cornucopia of briskly witty dialogue enhanced by brilliant characterization, especially of the minor characters - Lady Bracknell, Miss Prism, Canon Chasuble — and a deft if superficial plot.

At the height of his success,
Wilde became involved in a sexual scandal as a result of his association with Lord Alfred Douglas, son of the crude and reactionary Marquess of Queensberry. Convicted of homosexual practices, he was sentenced to two years in prison. Afterwards, ruined in every sense, he went to Paris, wrote 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' (1898) and died two years later. 'Neither in literature nor in life was tragedy his natural element', wrote Peter Quennell. 'His role was not to plumb the depths of feeling, but to flicker delicately across the surface.' Besides Salome, the basis of Richard Strauss's opera, and other plays, his writings included a novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), The Happy Prince (1888), fairy stories for his children, and The Soul of Man Under Socialism, a plea for artistic and individual freedom, provoked by a lecture by G. B. Shaw.


The 1890s was also the decade in which French farce reached its peak, in the concoctions of Georges Feydeau (1862-1921). Unlike the stock characters and improvisation of the commedia dell'arte tradition, the type of farce of which Feydeau was the supreme exponent (in Hotel Paradiso, The Lady From Maxim's and others) depended on careful plotting and elaborate, precise staging, with minimal characterization (since it would hold up the breakneck action). The subject matter was invariably domestic life and extramarital escapades, with misunderstandings, mistaken identities, etc., all resolved with remarkable ingenuity.

Duchess of Berwick:
Do you know,
Mr Hopper, dear Agatha and I are so
much interested in Australia. It must
be so pretty with all the dear little
kangaroos flying about.

Wilde, Lady Windermere's Fan, Acts II, III.


In general, 19th-century European drama was undistinguished. It was artificial and out of touch with changing times. Theatre-going was increasingly popular, but more for the Italian opera, for the crude melodrama that represented a hang­over from Romanticism, and for early forms of 'variety'. The productive Anglo-Irishman Dion Boucicault was responsible for about 200 plays, including adapta­tions, but is chiefly remembered for establishing playwrights' copyright in America. In France, Eugene Scribe pioneered the genre of the 'well-made play', well-constructed, but not much else. The most popu­lar playwright in the later 19th century was probably Victorien Sardou, with his intense, but phoney, emotionalism lavishly staged. The theatre awaited a genius, and he arrived, like Father Christmas, from the north.

Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Anton Chekhov, Bernard Shaw


No one disputes the status of the Norwegian
Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) as the founder of modern dramatic realism. He was the first to find the material of great tragedy in the lives of ordinary people. His literary career began in the 1840s, but it was the poetical plays, Brand (1866), originally a poem, and Peer Gynt (1867) that established his reputation in Norway. His genius was not widely recognized abroad until later — in Britain through partisans such as the critic William Archer and, subsequently, George Bernard Shaw. A single London perfor­mance of Ghosts (1881), which concerns adul­tery and mentions syphilis, caused an outcry and made him famous, if controversial.

Ibsen learned stagecraft as a theatre director in Bergen and Christiana, later Oslo, in 1851 — 62, and he was influenced by the dramatic theories of Hermann Hettner, who emphasized the importance of psychological truth in tragedy, and the middle-class tragedies of Hebbel. Cramped in Norway, from 1864 to 1891 he and his wife lived abroad. His literary career, which lasted half a century and produced twenty-five plays as well as some poetry, can be roughly divided between a Romantic phase, up to 1875, when he wrote mainly dramatic verse, and the remaining period when he employed everyday language in the interests of greater realism.

In plays up to An Enemy of the People (1882), he was chiefly concerned with moral, social and political themes, but in his last plays, including Kosmersholm (1886) and The Master Builder (1896), he sought to penetrate the unconscious (earning the approval of Freud). Besides those mentioned, the plays most often performed today are A Doll's House (1879), The Wild Duck (1884) and Hedda Gabler (1890).

The neurotic Swedish writer
August Strindberg (1849-1912) was almost as influential in modern drama as Ibsen. He was eonstantly at odds with convention - social, moral and sexual. He was once tried (but acquitted) for blasphemy and was three times married and divorced, though the charge of misogyny often made against him seems rather simplistic. Inferno (1898), written in French, is an extraor­dinary account of his mental crisis in Paris in which he came near to madness. Sexual conflict and psychological anguish are frequent themes, notably in Miss Julie (1888), his most often per­formed play today, which is also concerned with another of Strindbcrg's obsessions, social class. Besides Miss Julie, his best plays in his aggressive and unusual brand of Naturalism, are Master Olof (1881), The Father (1887) and Creditors (1889). Later plays — intense, symbolic, psycho­logical dramas, notably the trilogy To Damascus (1898-1901), and The Dance of Death (1901) -are suffused with religious longing.


Anton Chekhov "Uncle Vanya"

The subtle, humane, and perceptive Russian writer Anton Chekhov (1860—1904) was possi­bly more influential in Britain than either Ibsen or Strindberg. Equally admired for his short stories, Chekhov wrote, late in his career, four great plays: The Seagull (1895),
"Uncle Vanya" (1900), Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904). In conjunction with Stanislavsky's productions, the plays made the repu­tation of the Moscow Art Theatre, though Stanislavsky's Naturalism was probably not the best style for Chekhov (opinions on what that best style is are still in question), in whom Naturalism is blended with Symbolism.


George Bernard Shaw  "Pygmalion"

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) remarked that seeing Chekov made him want to tear up his own plays. Not the least of Shaw's virtues was his powerful advocacy on behalf of the great European originals, Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov. Enormously intelligent, wonderfully witty (there is something in the criticism that what he said was less original than the way he said it), a propagandist for every good cause from vegetarianism to women's rights, Shaw bestrode his age in an almost Johnsonian fashion, and the dip in his reputation since his death is no doubt temporary. That he was not a truly great playwright is due to the fact that he was primarily interested in ideas, not in people. Nevertheless, his plays have a unique and enjoy­able Shavian flavour. Comedies such as Arms and the Man (1894) and
"Pygmalion" (1913) still sparkle, Saint Joan (1923) is a fine historical drama, Heartbreak House (1919) a lesson in how to construct a play out of a debate.



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