The industrialization and its consequential desensitizing of the personal power of creativity are seen throughout much of Victorian poetry. The Enlightenment that had culminated in two major revolutions upon two continents influenced this Victorian age by placing everything under the microscope of unbridled scientific inquiry and intellectual scrutiny that birthed a withering skepticism that began to strip the human heart bare.
Tennyson, in The Lady Of Shalott, and Arnold in both Marguerite pieces –and even in Dover Beach, painted pictures of lonely human figures looking for meaning in life. Poignant portrayals of the deep longing within the human heart to be known and appreciated are seen in all of these works.
A quiet resignation to find but crumbs of love and beauty in one’s companion in Dover Beach is a more subtly tragic poem than the others; the speaker is yet hopeful that he will find comfort and truth in a lover’s arms, yet the outcome is still not certain. In the Marguerite poems, however, it is certain that his love is not being requited, and the internal upheaval he undergoes strips him of all hope for an enduring happiness.
If beauty is truth, as Keats has suggested, then Arnold or his speaker here, is only seeing it as a reflection; his desire for Marguerite not being realized mirrors the illusory nature of beauty and begs the question about what really constitutes truth.
A mirror and moons and reflected imagery looms large in Victorian poetry, and suggests that all of our enlightenment is a secondary enlightenment that must yet come into a noonday experience to be perfectly understood.
Disillusionment is the first stage of a paradigm shift, and its bent light, about what was once concrete, is now too abstract to enjoy. All moons and mirrors beguile; the desperate reach for certainty eclipsed by mirages. The “Self-Sway’d” heart is a deceived heart no matter how pure the motive.
Love can only attach itself to that which will allow it; only when the heart is embraced and its advances acknowledged and accepted is there the peaceable and enduring truth of a relationship realized (but any nectar obtained here will also be exhausted because of its mortal nature).
Using terrestrial nature now as only a backdrop (having consumed all that it had suggested in the early days of the Romantic movement), these Victorian poets begin to explore human nature to its fullest; but like as terrestrial nature ultimately disappointed, so human nature will too.
Arnold is yet working through it, Browning clearly demonstrates the monstrosity of unbridled human nature, and Tennyson begins to surmount its inner pull towards nihilism and reaches out, however feebly, to God.
Ultimately, C. S. Lewis, in The Weight of Glory, said it best when he said: “If a transtemporal, transfinite good is our destiny, then any other good on which our desire fixes must be in some degree fallacious, must bear at best only a symbolical relation to what will truly satisfy.”