Victorian Voices: Nature, Science, and Christianity in Lizzie Mary Little’s “Voices of the Age”

“Voices of the Age.” In Persephone, and Other Poems. By Lizzie Mary Little. Inscribed by the   author to her sister, Grace. 18 Nassau Street, Dublin: Printed by William McGee (1884).   Armstrong Browning Library 19thCent PR4890.L355.

Armstrong Browning Library Digital 19th Century Women Poets Collection

Rare Item Analysis: Victorian Voices: Nature, Science, and Christianity in Lizzie Mary Little’s “Voices of the Age”

By Kelly Collins

Click here to visit an interactive timeline and map related to this post on Central Online Victorian Educator (COVE).

In a world rocked by the discoveries of Charles Darwin, many Victorians began to question the relationship between scientific, poetic, and theological truth. How did the theory of natural selection affect the Christian understanding of a Creator God? How did the culture’s increasingly “scientific” mindset influence the importance of art? Many poets, such as Gerard Manley Hopkins and Alfred Lord Tennyson, used their poetry to wrestle with such questions, viewing poetic form as a means of conveying truth in an increasingly scientific age.

This post examines the intersection of nature, science, and Christianity in the poetry of Lizzie Mary Little, a little-known female poet of the nineteenth century. Little published three volumes of poetry over the course of her writing career, including Persephone, and Other Poems. A rare copy of this 1884 collection, which bears the inscription of the author, can be found in the Armstrong Browning Library’s 19th Century Women Poets Collection. A digital copy can be accessed through the ABL’s website, linked above.

Though Little touches on the relationship between nature, science and Christianity throughout the volume (see “Christmas-Day” and “Persephone”), her poem “Voices of the Age” provides the clearest commentary on competing claims for truth in the Victorian age. In the poem, Little employs a variety of speakers, meters, and rhyme schemes to weigh the merits of four Victorian “solutions” to the problems of their age. She creates four different voices, which we might label a Romantic Bard of Nature, a Disillusioned Modern Man, and a Scientific Humanist, before articulating what she deems “the truest voice”—the Modern Christian.

While the first three voices discount the possibility of an intersection between nature, science, and faith, the Modern Christian promotes a view of a “strangely mingled” (line 136) world in which nature and science peacefully coexist. This coexistence, however, is only possible through the word made flesh, the divine made human—Christ. Little suggests that our deepest yearnings cannot be satisfied by either science or nature alone. Instead, the “beauty” of nature and the “truth” of science gain their truest manifestation in Christ. Furthermore, by encapsulating a range of different viewpoints (poetic, scientific, and religious), she suggests that poetry can uniquely hold all of the concerns of the age in dialogue and unity.

The poem begins in the voice of the Romantic Bard of Nature, a poet whose “harp is twined with flowers” (1). Worshipping “Nature, that glorious goddess” (7), the Bard adopts religious language to stress the sufficiency of nature—and nature alone (5-12):

Lines of poetry

By rendering himself a “priest and prophet” (11) of nature, the Bard imbues his language with a sense of spiritual significance. This worship, however, bears a vaguely pantheistic quality. The poet need not reck, or heed, the significance of the Bible’s “fancied Edens” (5); he needs only read the Book of Nature for spiritual fulfillment.

Though the Bard decries Eden as a “fancy,” his language rings of enchantment. He says that nature “has taught me her magic spell” (10) and laments how the “magic of life” (18) has been marred by the rise of scientism. He also defines nature’s teachings as “lore” (38), “siren singing” (53) and a “mystic song” (59). He portrays this mythic mindset as a natural way of being, a way once held but lost in the din of modern society. He urges a return to this enchanted life, a reawakening of a childlike wonder at the “great All-Mother / [they] loved in the long ago” (27).

The Bard’s mindset hearkens back to the age of Romantic poetry, which preceded the Victorian age. Though the Romantics did not always deify nature, poets such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, especially in their earlier poetry, viewed nature as imbued with life and soul. Throughout Book One of The Prelude, for example, Wordsworth addresses the “Presences of Nature, in the sky/ And on the earth! Ye Visions of the hills!” (493-494). Philosopher Charles Taylor describes the Romantic movement as being “engaged in…a project” to “reenchant the world” (Taylor 39), or recapture earlier societies’ sense of magic and wonder. Little’s allusion to Romantic poetry indicates that the Romantic mindset still existed in the Victorian era.

When the voice of the Bard ceases, another voice emerges from the crowd: the voice of the Disillusioned Modern Man. He accepts the beauty of the Bard’s words, but bemoans them as wishful thinking. Though every soul yearns for fulfillment, nature worship fails to fill the void. The “social problems pressing hard” (69) of the era necessitate answers that lie in science, not the “babble of the bard” (70). It is the scientific mindset that allows man to “know his manhood” (71). This may not be pleasant or beautiful, the speaker acknowledges, but at least it is true. “Still our spirits yearn for beauty, but they hunger more / for truth” (72), he says. Beauty may have once been truth, and truth beauty (see John Keats), but the Romantic age has passed. The confusion and social ills of the Victorian age necessitate a more pragmatic view.

Little conveys these different voices through distinct metrical structures:

Lines of poetry

Whereas the Bard speaks in a sing-song trimeter, the Disillusioned Modern Man speaks in trochaic octameter (eight feet of stressed/unstressed feet). Visually, this lengthening makes the lines resemble lines of prose, corresponding with the Disillusioned Modern Man’s “pragmatic” solution to the problems of the age. The trochees also give the voice a hard, insistent rhythm which corroborates the speaker’s world-weariness, as illustrated by the example below (King):

Image of metrical stresses

The Disillusioned Modern Man cannot be bothered with the childish songs of the Bard; instead, his stress—both literal and metrical—pervades his view of the world.

After the Disillusioned Modern Man ends his lament, a Scientific Humanist interjects, boasting that he has “found what man has sought and sighed for” (81): the religion of science. He seeks a “disenchanted” (89) world where neither nature nor religion reign. Calling for the removal of “pope and priest and prophet” (95), he claims the “Hero Soul” (86) of scientific man will enact a new golden day:

In the footsteps of true science

We will follow bravely through the night,

Till o’er the world the sun of knowledge

Sheds its light (103-106).

 

While The Bard represents the voice of the past and The Modern Man speaks of the present, this is the voice of utopia, to be enacted by a man in service of science. The Scientific Humanist echoes the ideas of Tennyson, who discusses humanity’s evolution into a higher state of being in In Memoriam A.H.H.; Charles Taylor, whose idea of “disenchantment” refers to the gradual diminishment of belief in magical spirits and interconnection in the modern world (Taylor 39); and Daniel Brown’s explanation of positivism in “Victorian Poetry and Science,” which “maintain[s] that the information which science extracts from sense-perception is the only nonanalytic knowledge possible” (Brown 137). By following in the “footsteps of true science,” (103) the Scientific Humanist says, humanity will be fulfilled and perfected.

Science worship does not satisfy the Disillusioned Modern Man, however, who reemerges in the next stanza. Unsatisfied by the Scientific Humanist’s focus on the future, he laments that science fails to help understand the significance of the past. In a future-oriented, science-minded world, there is no way to validate the importance of the people dead and gone, the “thousand times ten thousand who have fallen by the way” (114). The scientific worldview cannot explain the deep internal yearning within each human, the “hope [to see] the sunshine” (120) amidst a dark and dreary world. The speaker references Darwin and questions, “Is it only Evolution that has raised the human race?” (122). He then concludes that he will not “kneel at [science’s] shrine” (123). Instead, he will keep listening until a truer voice emerges, a voice that can deal with “the problems of the present and the phantoms of the past” (126). There then follows a silence, broken only by the “sighing, / Sad and dissatisfied, of souls in pain” (127-128).

But then a final voice emerges, and it is a voice both beautiful and true. The Modern Christian shows how neither nature nor science can fulfill deep human longing (130-135):

Lines of poetry

The problem comes from the previous speakers’ starkly segmented view of the world. For reality is more complex than any single voice or philosophy can convey. Truth is neither enchanted nature nor disenchanted science—instead, it is a combination of both. There are “two worlds around us, strangely mingled” (136). One of them is a world grander than Eden, full of “heroic men and noble women” (138). The other world is one of depravity, a world of “abject horror” (147).  Though it may seem paradoxical, both of these aspects exist in the world—and in the heart of every human. Humans are made in the divine image and yet hopelessly fallen. Life is a mystery, this voice says, which no human philosophy can possibly encapsulate.

Yet there does exist an answer. The two worlds of divine and human mingle in the Word made flesh: Christ. Until humans fall “at the feet of God” (158), they will search in vain. Rather than searching for answers in magic or science, people must trust in God and the truth of Christ. It is only by relying on God that their yearning will finally—and beautifully—be fulfilled.

Interestingly, the Modern Christian does not discount nature and science altogether. Instead, she asserts that they do not hold ultimate importance. She acknowledges that science has increased in importance, saying “Around the seat of Science will we gather / And own her light has steadily increased” (173). By affirming the beauty of nature and the truth of science, she validates that both are tools that can actually help people understand Christ. Christ himself reflects the “mingling” of two worlds—He is the word made flesh, the divine made human, the God who is ultimate beauty and love and yet came down to earth to suffer. After this speaker ceases her song, the voice of the poet comes through, judging the merits of the previous voices: “Though we love the songs of Nature, and the science of the sage / Is [Christianity] not the best and truest of the Voices of the Age?” (186).

The degree to which truth could be “mingled” in this way was one of the primary intellectual dilemmas of the age. The idea that science reflects God was a common one for Christians of the time, such as Charles Pritchard, a Victorian astronomer and preacher who says that the “deepest, most exact, and the most recent science of our age” reflects the “majestic personality of the Creator and Lord of the Universe” (Pritchard 11). Matthew Arnold, on the other hand, took a skeptical view of the mingling between faith and science in “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” (1867), when he claims he is “wandering through two worlds, one dead / The other powerless to be born / With nowhere yet to rest my head” (85-87). Little seems to side with thinkers like Pritchard.

“Voices of the Age” provides a timely look at four philosophies that existed in the time period. Little’s poem also validates the importance of poetry in an increasingly scientific age by showing how poetry can easily express the views of science, Christianity, and nature. Just as science and nature can be incorporated within the truth of Christianity, so too poetry can be a medium that holds importance in a positivistic world.

This post could help begin studies on the poetry of Lizzie Mary Little, about whom very little has been written. Other poems in Persephone, and Other Poems comment upon evolution and science, and further study would provide a more nuanced view of her philosophy. Scholars could also use this post to compare Little’s view on nature, science, and Christianity with other, more canonical poets of the Victorian age, such as Hopkins and Tennyson. Little’s voices—and her own poetic voice—could therefore add to the chorus of poets commenting on nature, science, and Christianity in the Victorian Age.

 

Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse.” Representative Poetry Online, 1867, rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poems/stanzas-grande-chartreuse.

Brown, Daniel. “Victorian Poetry and Science.” The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry, by Joseph Bristow, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 137–143.

Keats, John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 1820, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44477/ode-on-a-grecian-urn.

King, Joshua. “Notes on Rare-Item Presentation.” Emailed to Kelly Collins on December 3, 2019.

Little, Lizzie Mary. Persephone, and Other Poems. William McGee, 1884.

Pritchard, Charles. Modern Science and Natural Religion: An Essay Read Before the Church Congress at Brighton, and Now Submitted to the Members of the British Association Who Listened to the Presidential Address at Belfast. New and rev. ed., Christian Evidence Committee of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1874.

Taylor, Charles. “Western Secularity.” Rethinking Secularism, by Mark Juergensmeyer et al.,

Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 31–53.

Wordsworth, William. “The Prelude: Book 1: Childhood and School-Time.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 1799, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45542/the-prelude-book-1-childhood-and-school-time.

Posted in ABL Rare Item Analyses by Students, Armstrong Browning Library

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