The Victorians have a reputation for being, some might argue, sexually repressed – the trauma of the first world war, novels such as ‘The Go-Between’ show the post Victorian era as a long attempt to escape from the repressive Victorian Past, from the corsets, the clothing and the politics. However, the world that the poems of the time present is one that is completely different. Erotically charged to the brink of madness, these are poems about murder for love and the battle for sexual mastery.
The sexuality of the time was growingly open, famous court cases such as the trial of Oscar Wilde made talking about these topics more open and common – to the point of humour: when asked whether he had kissed a certain boy during his trial he famously replied:
‘Oh, dear no. He was a particularly plain boy – unfortunately ugly – I pitied him for it.’
Robert Browning’s poems are perhaps the most notorious for depicting violent sexuality – the crazed narrators of ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ and ‘My Last Duchess’ sticking in your head long after you have finished reading.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. – Porphyria’s Lover
Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. – My Last Duchess
Like Wilde’s trial, these poems’ contents swing on the line between tragedy and humour, their semi-ridiculous tone perhaps robbing them of the inappropriateness, perhaps of their erotic and violent content. However hard we try, we simply cannot take Porphyria’s Lover seriously, just as we cannot take Wilde seriously in court.
Maud: A Monodrama
Another lover whose veil of madness clouds over the violence and meaning of his actions is the narrator of Tennyson’s ‘Maud: A Monodrama’
‘Maud with her venturous climbings and tumbles and childish escapes,
Maud the delight of the village, the ringing joy of the Hall,
Maud with her sweet purse-mouth when my father dangled the grapes,
Maud the beloved of my mother, the moon-faced darling of all,—
What is she now? My dreams are bad. She may bring me a curse.
No, there is fatter game on the moor; she will let me alone.
Thanks, for the fiend best knows whether woman or man be the worse.
I will bury myself in my books, and the Devil may pipe to his own.’ – ‘Maud: A Monodrama’
The ‘curse’ of which the narrator speaks is the madness that his love of Maud brings on, and which drives him to murder her brother. At the end of the poem, he then channels both his madness and his love for Maud into his role as a soldier for the British Empire.
Maud’s eroticism in these stanzas is contained within the image of ‘Maud with her sweet purse-mouth when my father dangled the grapes’, linking it to the fruit of Christina Rosetti’s ‘Goblin Market’:
‘They answer’d all together:
“Buy from us with a golden curl.”
She clipp’d a precious golden lock,
She dropp’d a tear more rare than pearl,
Then suck’d their fruit globes fair or red:
Sweeter than honey from the rock,
Stronger than man-rejoicing wine,
Clearer than water flow’d that juice;
She never tasted such before,
How should it cloy with length of use?
She suck’d and suck’d and suck’d the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;
She suck’d until her lips were sore;
Then flung the emptied rinds away’
In both ‘Maud’ and ‘Goblin Market’ there is a conscious effort to resist the lure of the ‘fruit’ and the opposite sex, and the erotic sexuality that they imply, alongside the sinfulness always implicitly contained within the idea of ‘forbidden fruit’. Nowhere is this fight clearer than Swinburne’s ‘Hymn to Prosperine’ about the repressing of sexuality after the coming of Christianity.
Wilt thou yet take all, Galilean? but these thou shalt not take,
The laurel, the palms and the pæan, the breasts of the nymphs in the brake;
Breasts more soft than a dove's, that tremble with tenderer breath;
And all the wings of the Loves, and all the joy before death;
All the feet of the hours that sound as a single lyre,
Dropped and deep in the flowers, with strings that flicker like fire. - Hymn to Proserpine
Sexually 'Repressed' Victorians?
It is therefore perhaps too simplistic to simply read the Victorians as a nation ‘repressed’, they are rather a nation engaged in a fight between sexual desire and its social controversy, it hides in plain sight, buried beneath the guise of both ‘madness’ and humour, a madness and humour which gives it an extremity beyond what the reader expects.