The literature of the late 19th and early 20th century is a reflection of a general sense of fear permeating society at this time. It would be a fair assumption to say that literature at this time was concerned with the potential progress of civilisation. Scholarly minds would have been keenly aware of the collapse of the Roman Empire arguably the largest and most powerful civilisation in the ancient world. Many authors such as Tennyson, H.G. Wells and T.S. Eliot would have been all too aware of this. Archaeological discoveries and the Publishing of Darwin’s The Origin of Species caused many to question not just the engrained belief in an afterlife but also man’s position of dominance in the natural world. Surely, they began to question, if other life forms could collapse into oblivion then what fate awaited mankind. Before the outbreak of world war one the civilised world was coming to terms with advances in science and these had caused a collective existential crisis. The major power at this time was the British Empire and most of the literature at the time reflected this fact. French literature was considered decadent and pervasive for the Anglophile the future appeared to be secure. However many writers at the period were concerned with the level civilisation had climbed to both In Memoriam A.H.H and The Time Machine reflect on the potential collapse and degeneration of civilisation. T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland seems to reflect the collapse of civilisation as predicted by H.G. Wells and fretted on by Tennyson.
H.G. Wells’ work could in many ways be seen as a social dialogue. He was in many ways a forward thinker an idealist who towards the end of his life became somewhat pessimistic for the future of civilisation. While his later works are more despairing for the future they are reflections of his earlier work especially the Time Machine. This novel has been called one of the origins of the modern science fiction novel. What is strange about this novel though is it’s introduction of the various characters rather than names each is given their job description or title this includes the time traveller. These characters reflected the social structure at the time the novel was written and set in many ways this is used to tie the material into a factual setting for the reader. Tennyson’s poetry especially In Memoriam mirrors in many ways the search for hope within dark times. In Memoriam maintains an Elegiac form and shares patterns with the traditional hymnal structure at the time. “In form, in imagery, and even in some of their declarations of faith or doubt, the lyrics of In Memoriam echo hymns sufficiently to exploit familiar devotional responses in their readers” M. Shaw. P.1. It could be argued that by using this structure to question the purpose of life, evolution and the question of an afterlife he manages to encapsulate the divide between church and science and through his writings brings about a semi solution to this contentious divide. Indeed the Vatican and the Italian science community have worked to close this divide recently by creating a portal through which scientists, philosophers and Christians can explore the same questions prevalent through In Memoriam. Both of these pieces had been written before the greatest upheaval to face the world since the collapse of the Roman Empire. The affect of the war can be seen reflected in H.G. Wells’ later writings however The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot captures the shock and upheaval caused by the war and its aftermath.
The tale told by the Time Traveller in The Time Machine could be considered a cautionary tale or as forewarning. “It seemed to me that I had happened upon humanity upon the wane.
The ruddy sunset set me thinking of the sunset of mankind. For the first time I began to realize an odd consequence of the social effort in which we are at present engaged. And yet, come to think,
It is a logical consequence enough. Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness” Wells.p24. There is pessimism within some of H.G. Wells’ works especially The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. These two tales appear to warn of the complacency of a society which has appeared to have reached the peak of its social and technological evolution. The Time Traveller represents the highest endeavours of civilisation at that time [insert date]. He associates with people of upwardly mobile social circles and his scientific breakthrough could be said to reflect the technological marvels of his age. The Great Exhibition 1851 was designed to highlight the successes of British imperialism even the Crystal Palace which was constructed to house it was a marvel of its age. This marvel is reflected in the tale however here it has collapsed into ruin and there are signs of social decay everywhere.
Both Tennyson’s and Eliot’s poems deal with loss in different ways perhaps reflecting a transition into the twentieth century. Tennyson’s In Memoriam begins as an Elegy to his friend however as it develops it begins to cross into doubt for the future of humanity [insert quote] and the cruelty of nature at odds with the possibility of a god. Elliot’s The Wasteland has been described as one of the origins of modernism. The fragmentary nature of the poem could be seen as reflecting the trauma which had shaken the stability of the previous age.
“In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,
Dry bones can harm no one.” Eliot. Lines 386,391
There is a sense that civilisation has begun to wane and in many ways reflects the nature of the world in which the Eloi and Morlock’s live. In her article “Visionaries of Dereliction” Joanna Rapf compares the poetry of Tennyson and Wordsworth looking at how both shared a vision of dereliction the difference being that “ Tennyson had the courage to doubt , but Wordsworth ran away from uncertainty into a faith that perhaps reflected his own desperate need for certainty” Rapf. P380. Whilst this article only looked at Victorian poetry it would be fair to say the Wells, Tennyson and Eliot could be classed as “Visionaries of Dereliction”.
A concurrent theme is mastery over Nature this is true in Well’s, Tennyson and it can be seen in Eliot’s The Wasteland to an extent. Writers of the period seem to suggest that for civilisation to flourish and survive it needs to have this mastery of the natural world in many ways this is a reflection of the Patriarchal hegemony which influenced these writers. “The whole world will be intelligent, educated, and co-operating; things will move faster and faster towards the subjugation of Nature. In the end, wisely and carefully we shall readjust the balance of animal and vegetable life to suit our human needs.” Wells. P23. This motif also features in Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H;
“Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law—
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed” Tennyson. LVI
Nature appears uncaring and aloof of man and the toil of his industry the machinery of civilisation. The industrial breakthroughs of man are seemingly at odds with the wild carefree ways of nature and therefore nature and civilisation are in a precarious position. The last dominant life forms became extinct, civilisations collapsed and all seems anarchy and decay.
“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.” Eliot 19, 24 The Burial of the dead.
Eliot’s writing seems to reflect the idea of a civilization in decay and it would fairly easy to juxtapose these three pieces of literature. The thematic elements of social concern for the future of civilization, progress, decay and degeneration dovetail throughout each authors work. While there is a strong sense of fragmentation in these tales there is an overriding element of despair and foreboding.
It would be fair to say that the literature of the period reflected a lack of confidence in the progress of civilisation. From the travails of Tennyson’s poetry, Well’s vision of a future wasteland and the physical ‘Wasteland’ preoccupying Elliot’s modernistic present the writing of this period reflects the reality of a world order no longer constant in its security. These doubts began with the development of the fossil records and the extinction of previous species leading to a period of self doubt for the Victorian civilisation. Darwin’s The Origin of Species shook the bedrock of civilisation both morally and spiritually however it also gave the English ammunition for their periodicals including satirical magazines such as Punch. The outbreak of World War 1 or the ‘Great War’ as it was known struck at the very foundation of civilisation itself leading to a newer, darker modern edge in writing. This period saw the collapse of empires and the reshaping of global powers closer to home it saw many people lose loved ones with entire families lost. This can be seen in ‘The Wasteland ‘and the complete sense of displacement and despair prevalent within the text. Not even the Fisher king can save civilisation in this tale and the ending leaves with us with little or no hope. The Time Traveller has the luxury of returning to his civilised period with little or concern for the consequences of his actions and even Tennyson’s poetry eventually achieves a sense of conclusion even if it takes a walk through darkness to reach it. Depending on the era we look at the writing can be seen to have either a pessimistic vision of civilisation or have doubts about the future. It could be argued that their fears about civilisation were founded on a very real basis of concern. Modern society is reliant on technology for entertainment, transport, communication and an escape from reality. New health issues are prevalent including asthma and obesity does that make us the Eloi from The Time Machine? If it does then where are the Morlock’s and can civilisation survive without technology?
Eliot, T.S. The Annotated Wasteland with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose. Pennsylvania: Yale University Press, 2006.
Rapf, Joanna E. “”Visionaries of Dereliction”: Wordsworth and Tennyson.” Victorian Poetry, Vol. 24, No. 4, Wordsworth amoung the Victorian Poets (1986): 373-385.
Shaw, Marion. “”In Memoriam” and Popular Religious Poetry.” Victorian Poetry, Vol. 15, No. 1 (1977): 1-8.
Tennyson, Alfred Lloyd. Selected Poems: Tennyson. London: Penguin, 2007.
Wells, H.G. The Time Machine. London: Penguin, 2005.