Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Names and literary figures

It occurred to me that some literary figures with similar names have some things in common, so I thought I'd post it here.

It is most interesting to note that a number of the female literary geniuses were reclusive and misanthropical. I wonder why? Literature is supposed to be humane and embrace society.

William Shakespeare is known as The Playwright, as William Wordsworth is synonymous with English poetry. These are the towers of English literature.

Shakespeare was certainly a visionary - in character, in poetry especially he was eloquent. He is probably the father of Romanticism (though by several centuries). The Romantics opposed the rational witty 18th century poets and went all emotional. Shakespeare was well in advance. His poetry is fairly simple, like the Romantics, and not like the Metaphysicals.

Wordsworth was visionary in giving voice to simple rustic people in his poetry, using simple language unlike the technical ornate verse of the 18th century. He is widely considered to revolutionise poetry.

A lesser William, William Blake, is now considered part of the Big Six Romantic poets (arguably more famous than the Victorian poets). Like the two Williams, he was a visionary (he had hallucinations). Even more than Wordsworth, his language was simple. (And he's before Wordsworth). And yet perplexing.  He is less elegant than Wordsworth.

William Makepeace Thackeray, along with Dickens, was one of the foremost novelists of the early Victorian era. A known social critic, which you will see in Vanity Fair, which is set during the Napoleonic Wars, the era of the Romantics.

William Cowper, an obscure Romantic poet, loved by Jane Austen and the Brontës used simple language before Wordsworth even came into the picture, and his poetry contains a great deal of natural emotion and passion. While he didn't have Wordsworth's impact, his style certain came before the latter popularised it. Known for The Task and The Castaway.

Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson were both eccentric but highly creative and unconventional writers, both noted for simplicity of style. Both were recluses and little is comparatively known about them. As well as being a novelist, Emily Brontë was a talented unusual poet, and Miss Dickinson was fond of No Coward Soul is Mine.

Their works were not widely accepted in their lifetimes, but after their deaths they grew to the stature of geniuses. Emily Brontë is now considered the greatest among her sisters. She made the Byronic hero popular and mainstream (though this is misinterpreted) in the form of Heathcliff. Emily Dickinson was declined for publication while she lived. She is the most cryptic of the 19th century poets.

Robert Burns was a famous 18th century poet, famed for promoting Scottish verse. He is The Scottish Bard. Charlotte Brontë praised his simplicity, truth to nature and sincerity. Robert Browning was with Tennyson the most famous Victorian poets and held as godly figures. Unlike Burns, he is more profound, complex and wordy. Yet he was known to use a great deal of crude slang in his poetry, which is a similarity. While arguably not as influential as Wordsworth he was a towering figure.

Robert Southey, Poet Laureate before Wordsworth, his friend. Both and Coleridge were known as the Lake Poets, because they lived in the Lake District. Well-received in his time and the Victorian era, he has now faded to obscurity. He doesn't have the power of Wordsworth and Coleridge but he has harmony and his works sound well on the ear. Known for nature poems and the Gothic Thalaba the Destroyer. His Life of Nelson is still in print (yup, he was a biographer and journalist, and his house had thousands of books). Now known as the guy who told Charlotte Brontë that literature is not a woman's business. though we've misconstrued him as misogynist. In fact he was supportive of female and working-class poets. His point was to caution Charlotte against desiring celebrity through poetry, and to write poetry for its own sake, so that it will be good.

Robert Carlyle, eminent Victorian historian. Wrote the History of the French Revolution, which influenced Dickens' Tale of Two Cities. Known for his relative informality in a formal era, which probably was why his book was compelling reading.

The most famous novelist of the Victorian era, Charles Dickens, popularised the Newgate novel, crime, and social issues. He wrote mainly about the working and lower-middle classes. Considered a caricaturist and comic novelist. He was internationally renowned, before the days of fast travel.

Charles Darwin, naturalist, wrote no novels, but The Origin of Species is still in print, and influenced many scientists and novelists. Many of his principles are still in use today. His most famous theory is natural selection, now mainstream in biology. He also introduced the concept of sexual selection in the Descent of Man. Unlike other Victorian scientific works, Origin of Species is comparatively simple to read. Darwin wasn't considered eloquent or good at language, which is probably why his language is simple and informal.

Charles Lamb, author of Tales from Shakespeare with his sister Mary. He was however known as the essayist Elia, for his sharp wit and humour, and his off-colour jokes at dinner parties. He was friends with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, with whom he went to school.

Mary Shelley was the first science fiction author of Frankenstein. Her other later works were less well-received, as she was better at Gothic power than politics and society novels. (The Romantics were no realists when it came to fiction).

Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) was the most intellectual major Victorian novelist, famed for Middlemarch. She analysed social issues, politics and family troubles - the most complete major Victorian novels perhaps. She too had a great deal of passion, as you can see in Mill on the Floss. Perhaps her problem was she had no poetic spirit in her, as an early reviewer said: she was very intelligent with a dash of genius, whereas Charlotte Brontë had genius with a dash of intelligence. As well as being a novelist, she was a journalist,
translator, and well-versed in several languages, philosophy and the sciences.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon, sensational novelist of the "bigamy" genre. Author of Lady Audley's Secret. Her reputation hasn't really been good, but she still sells, which shows you she must be a compelling read - something that is uncommon for genre fiction.

Samuel Richardson (not widely read now) was the father of the psychological novel, which began with Pamela. Arguably the psychology there is flawed, but instead of far-fetched exciting plot, there was an emphasis on character tension. He does not make easy reading.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, partner of Wordsworth in Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth's job was to write the simply language of ordinary people, whereas Coleridge was to write supernatural poems. The whole point was to dramatise the emotions that would be felt had the supernatural events taken place, which is a form of psychological realism. Unlike Wordsworth he has greater dramatic power, more mystery and a small output. After 1810 his poetic powers had died out. His finest works, Khubla Khan and Christabel remain unfinished.
He was widely known in his time for his lectures on philosophy and literature and considered a greater genius than Wordsworth. After their deaths however Wordsworth has been acknowledged as the greater man because of his influence (which is more accessible than Coleridge's eccentricity).

And if you're into stereotypes of poets on drugs, the Romantics originated them. Coleridge was an opium addict, like Thomas de Quincey.

A little-known but in his time, successful (even offered the Poet Laureateship) Samuel Rogers.

John Keats, one of the Big Six of the Romantic poets. Unlike the Lake Poets, he was of the Cockney school of poets (including Leigh Hunt) and its only timeless survivor. Known for his Odes and luxurious language. For those who are fans, they will know his theory of negative capability, the ability to write about things and people without knowing the background or intentions ... because you know what they will do, and what you write is truthful to nature. This he got from Shakespeare. Originated one of the stereotypes of poets: he died of consumption at the age of twenty-five.

John Clare, peasant-poet of the Romantic era. Unlike most poets, he improved with age, though his earnings fell with time. While Wordsworth and Coleridge declined in middle-age, Clare improved. Known for his existential poem "I Am." He and Keats shared the same publishers, Taylor and Hessey, but never got to meet. Clare unlike the major Romantics was immensely truthful to nature, and yet considered a better class of poetry. He is an important minor poet. One of his criticisms of Keats was that the latter held too many natural things in his fancy rather than seeing them as they were.

He also conformed to another poetic stereotype: he died in a lunatic asylum. While he was there he wrote some of his best lyrics.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, wife of Robert Browning and famed for her Sonnets of the Portuguese. She also wrote the feminist poem Aurora Leigh. It is through poetry that the courtship of the Brownings began, which makes them one of the most famous literary lovers in the 19th century. She was delicate though a prodigy for her age. Her poems were widely praised in her day (she was considered as a possible successor to Wordsworth's Poet Laureateship when he died) and had a lot of political and social issues.

Elizabeth Gaskell, author of North and South, made a stir when she wrote the industrial novel Mary Barton. It is the first major industrial novel still read today. A born storyteller, Dickens called her Scheherezade. Her final and best work was Wives and Daughters, unfinished by her death. She was friends with Charlotte Brontë and wrote the latter's biography. While the latter was a prickly personage, she was fond of Mrs Gaskell, who was at ease with good society, the intelligentsia, active in social work and the working-classes and yet a warm, kind person who loved the eldest Brontë sister, who was her temperamental opposite, as she was. Unfortunately she was prone to gossip, but still her characters stand out for their  reality, far more so than the more intellectual George Eliot, whom she admired. Like Mrs Browning, she was into social issues.

Ann Radcliffe, the trope codifier of Gothic fiction. Famed for the Mysteries of Udolpho, mentioned in Northanger Abbey. She influenced the Romantic poets including Keats and was considered a prose poet in her time. Unlike her contemporaries she wrote a great deal about nature in her novels (when the dominant form was the society comedy or morality novel) and how one could be impressed by it. While her psychology is rudimentary you do see fear, suspense and some emotion in her novels.

Anne Brontë, the forgotten Brontë sister, author of the first major governess novel, Agnes Grey. Also wrote Tenant of Wildfell Hall, about a wife running away from an alcoholic husband, which caused a controversy when it was published. Was ahead of her more emotionally expressive sister Charlotte in this. Little is known about her. Like Ann Radcliffe she was a recluse and withdrew from society.

The foremost late Victorian novelist of the realist tradition, Thomas Hardy, famed for his rural landscape painting, reminiscent of Romantic poetry. He was also known for obscenity, because he wanted reform in the marriage laws to enable easier divorce. Symbolism and high emotion abounds in his works, and far more despair than his predecessors. In his later life he published poetry, but never made it as much as he did as a novelist.

Thomas de Quincey wrote Confessions of an English Opium Eater, not the most famous work, but as he's published by Penguin Popular Classics (which doesn't exist anymore) he deserves a mainstream mention. It was written in the Romantic era, when realist, emotionally charged novels were not the norm (Jane Austen an exception). There is an emphasis on the intellectual individual. He was read by the young Charlotte Brontë who wrote a convincing scene of an opium-addled Lucy Snowe in Villette. One of the early confessional biographies? novels? to be classified along with classic novels.


  1. What a clever and eloquent post! Thank you.

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