As these portentous and transitory lines suggest, 19th century inhabitants of Britain existed very literally beneath the outstretched and looming arms of an immense and ambiguous shadow. After all, it was in 19th century Britain that humankind was first introduced to the intensely exponential rates of change that would come to define the endeavors of humankind thereafter. Slumped loosely upon the errant back of “progress” was the concept of time, which had for eons before, rolled along with all the ferociousness of the river Thames.
With the inception of the Industrial Revolution, however, the pace at which humankind lived, loved, and lost began to burgeon into something altogether mysterious, hopeful, and, at the same time, terribly frightening and uncontrollable. Each succeeding generation began to be defined by the technology and controversy of its day, each “age” noticeably marked by the incipient generation to succeed it and the lamented generations already fading into memory.
Technology advanced with lightning-quick speed, carrying with it new mediums of expression (particularly within the sphere of media) and the rapid dissemination of information and ideas bred revolutions in scientific, social, and political thought. It often seemed as though each fantastically new creation or revolutionary thought possessed the potential to evolve into a Frankenstein-type monster, impervious to measures of control or correction. The effect this process of constant change exerted upon art and artists is no less striking.
Whereas the Baroque period may be said to have lasted for 150 years, even the most liberal estimates place the duration of the Romantic period at only 40 years (approx. 1790-1830). Though many aspects of this rapidly evolving world provoked comment by artists and thinkers, one of the most conspicuous, the rise of industrialism, merits special attention. For without the rapid advances in technology produced by the revolution, and without the effects of these advances, ideas, technologies, and the basis for many further “shocks” to the establishment would not have been possible.
The rise of Industrialism, though not written of as specifically as it would be later on, is addressed to a degree in the literature of the early late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, industrial description prior to 1830 existed primarily to function as antithetical elements to the rapturous and idyllic natural world as presented in the works of authors such as Blake and Wordsworth. Blake, in his Songs of Experience (1794 pp. 33-41), more or less condemns the urban living experience as heartless and cruel.
Expressing sympathy and sadness in the face of the “Chimney-sweeper’s cry” and “the hapless soldier’s sigh,” Blake contrasts the sordid and “mind manacled” life of the urban dweller with the gracefully presented and heavily pastoral life of the country. Wordsworth, in his Prelude, experiences extreme disorientation and a dwindling of spirits in the face of “blank confusion! / true epitome of what might City is herself” (1850 pp. 253). These comments, though not directly indicting of industry, offer some of the first and most eloquent objections to the effects of industrialism and change upon the common laborer and the individual mind.
It is important to remember, however, that despite the horrors of the city, artists of the early Romantic period felt imbued with a divine sense of “progress,” which was often referred to as the “spirit of the age. ” One of the more important and portentous works of the 19th century, and one in which the true consequences of industrial fervor are eerily foreshadowed, is Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein ( 1818 pp. 847). In it, a brilliant and intensely determined scientist, Dr. Frankenstein, thirst for and finally acquires the knowledge which will allow him to effectively create a human being.
Once created, however, the being, driven to lengths in the face of its deplorable condition, turns upon its creator for vengeance. Modern industrialism and creative power is often viewed as a type of Frankenstein-creature that, once conceived, mutates with such complexity and rapidity that it soon grows uncontrollable. It is noteworthy to add that in addition to its relevance to industrialism on a macroscopic scale, Frankenstein can also be analyzed in regard to the isolation and alienation of the modern industrial human, that being one who is often, for reasons of origin or class status, cut off from the rest of humanity.
This type of alienation and isolation from one’s fellow man, as well as industrialism’s effects upon the quality and nature of the human creative drive, were later to become central points of issue with a new generation of social philosophers to follow. By the 1850’s, the effects of industrialization, both social and artistic, were clearly visible in all modes of human interaction. Religious and social debates raged over topics such as Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto.
More than ever before, people felt the once so solid ground beneath them quaking and falling away. Literature at this time began to showcase a tendency towards lament for the past, now concealed behind a cloud of smog, and a great unease directed at the future. Proponents of Darwinian evolution such as T. H. Huxley(who, interestingly enough, was the grandfather of 20th century novelist and social theorist Aldous Huxley) battled it out with religious leaders and scientists in churches and universities across the country.
Both Tennyson in his In Memorium poems and Arnold in “Dover Beach” miserably lament the passing away of religious faith, itself a product of scientific discovery and changes in social thought. For Arnold, the plain upon which he and his fellow humans lie is a “darkling” one, “swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight” (1867 pp. 1367). While many literary figures and social commentators of this time viewed industrialism and its products as beneficial and encouraging, many others, including Carlyle, Ruskin and Dickens, viewed it as a terrible regression.
Historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, in his Review of Southey’s Colloquies (1830 pp. 1580) was able to overlook the deplorable conditions of urban industrial life in favor of the material progress and social advances he felt it afforded members of any class. Carlyle, Ruskin, and Dickens, however, were appalled at the dissolution of the traditional feudal relationship between employer and employee that was affected by the Utilitarian cash-payment nexus system (trade of labor or goods for money).
Carlyle, for example, believed that the working classes innately required the guidance of a noble and heroic aristocracy in order for their life and work to be carried on in happiness and productivity. As he states, “when a world, net yet doomed for death, is rushing down to ever-deeper Baseness and Confusion, it is a dire necessity of Nature’s to bring in her ARISTOCRACIES, her BEST, even by forcible methods” (1843 pp. 969).
Without it, the proletariat (a term borrowed from the literature of Marx and Engels) remains subject to a pervasive and spiritually crushing social isolation, theoretically itself a bi-product of the encouragement of avarice and individualism in the middle classes. These theories, while somewhat popular at the time (and later on in the case of perennial codger Ezra Pound, and to a degree, T. S. Eliot) represented mere sparks to the gigantic conflagration that spread from the Marxist publications of the Communist Manifesto, and Kapital.
For the first time since the French Revolution the now crowded, filthy, and ruthlessly exploited working class had in their grasp a utopian ideology tailor made to spur on aspirations of equality and fairness. Many, including essayist William Morris, eagerly anticipated a great proletarian revolution, the effect of which would be a “new world” in which work and profit was handled collectively. Stemming from all of these things, and others such as the stretching of Britain’s monumental empire from hemisphere to hemisphere, was a current of pervasive ambivalence that penetrated the British consciousness across gender and socio-economic lines.
As conventional Victorian social structure (including the presence the domestic presence and occupation of women) continued to shift and the world steamed towards a new century and its first Great War, citizens of Britain tremulously awaited what awaited them. While the products of economic prosperity and worldwide hegemony inspired in many the triumphant jubilation of a pious, civilized, and conquering race, others, as Thomas Hardy relates in his “Darkling Thrush,” (1901 pp. 1697) leant perilously on the “century’s corpse,” dimly awaiting an uncertain future.
Reading Sassoon in modern retrospect, it is difficult to ascertain the direction in which his frustration and anger truly lie. That the poem is imbued with frustration, discontent, and sadness goes nearly without saying. The poem practically drips anguish, both of the physical body and the contemplative mind. But to what forces does Sassoon direct his frustration, his hate? By reading the deprecatingly sarcastic title of the poem it would seem that Sassoon is frustrated with the female gender, and indeed this is one way in which the piece may be analyzed.
However, if one is allowed to examine the social context in which the poem was composed then the dissatisfaction tends to lean more strongly towards to the socio-political establishment in general (comprising as well the role of women in society), rather than certain specific aspects of it. It is from this post-Victorian (and barely Edwardian) society that all other specific targets for criticism can be said to emanate. The British establishment of Sassoon’s time was one deeply concerned with and psychologically indebted to the toils of imperialism.
Just as men juxtapose themselves alongside women to enhance their own virility and inner self-worth, 19th and 20th century inhabitants of Britain had grown accustomed to the religious and economic propaganda of imperialism and found it quite useful in justifying their self-described position atop the pillar of civilization. World War I, being largely the product of pride, avarice, and an insanely complex and ridiculous web of mutual defense agreements, functioned for dissenters as the most outrageous example of a patriarchal world’s mad scramble to be the one with the most toys (colonies).
Taken as an element of a dysfunctional and dying culture, the frankness of speech and anger seemingly directed at the female gender can instead be read as an indictment of a society that would allow the horrors of the Great War to continue while producing docile, submissive women whose central goal was to “love us when we’re heroes, home on leave” or “worship decorations” (Sassoon p. 1833).
As Sassoon states in “They,” religious institutions cheered passionately that the boys being sent to die in the trenches were fighting for a just cause, leading the last attack against the Anti-Christ (Largely a creation of Anglo-American propaganda). Sassoon, however, relates the realities of the war in the second stanza: “George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind/ Poor Jiim’s shot through the lungs and like to die” (Sassoon p. 1832).