Victorian poetry carried forward the previous Romantic tradition and also reacted against it. These two periods have a lot in common: skepticism, interest in everything mysterious, distrust of organized religion. On the other hand, Victorian poets reacted against what they felt was the soppy, flighty, and saccharine sweet poetry of late Romanticism. Victorian era poets, such as Robert Browning and Tennyson, developed a more purposeful poetry that focused on narrative and concrete, everyday issues in the real world. The overarching character of Victorian-era poetry was a preference for the intellectual over the emotional. Poetry was turned into a forum for discussing the socio-cultural conflicts that preoccupied the leading minds of the time. In this manner, Victorian poets reacted against what they perceived to be excessive emotionalism of the Romantics and turned poetry into a rational, intellectual criticism of contemporary society.
Tennyson’s poetic output covers a breadth difficult to comprehend in a single system of thematics: his various works treat issues of political and historical concern, as well as scientific matters, classical mythology, and deeply personal thoughts and feelings. Tennyson is both a poet of penetrating introspection and a poet of the people; he plumbs the depths of his own consciousness while also giving voice to the national consciousness of Victorian society.
Unlike the Romantics, Tennyson uses nature as a psychological category. In “Mariana,” for example, he uses Keatsian descriptions of the natural world to describe a woman’s state of mind. In “The Lady of Shalott” and the poems within Idylls of the King he captures a medieval world of knights in shining armor and their damsels in distress. In addition to treating the history of his nation, Tennyson also explores the mythological past, as articulated in classical works of Homer, Virgil, and Dante. His “Ulysses” and “The Lotos-Eaters” draw upon actual incidents in Homer’s Odyssey. Likewise, his ode “To Virgil” abounds with allusions to incidents in the great poet’s Aeneid, especially the fall of Troy. In In Memoriam, he insists that we must keep our faith despite the latest discoveries of science. Tennyson also spoke to his Victorian contemporaries about issues of urgent social and political concern. In “The Princess” he addresses the relations between the sexes and argues for women’s rights in higher education.
Browning is popularly known by his shorter poems, such as Porphyria's Lover, My Last Duchess, Rabbi Ben Ezra, How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix, and The Pied Piper of Hamelin. His fame today rests mainly on his dramatic monologues, in which the words not only convey setting and action but also reveal the speaker's character. Unlike a soliloquy, the meaning in a Browning dramatic monologue is not what the speaker directly reveals but what he inadvertently "gives away" about himself in the process of rationalizing past actions, or "special-pleading" his case to a silent auditor in the poem. The Ring and the Book is an epic-length poem in which he justifies the ways of God to humanity through twelve extended blank verse monologues spoken by the principals in a trial about a murder. These monologues greatly influenced many later poets, including T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
One of the most significant accomplishments of the Victorian Era is the appearance of female poets. There were few female poets before, as poetry was considered to be predominantly male occupation. Despite these views, works of such poets as Elizabeth Browning, Christina Rossetti, and the Bronte sisters became famous during The Victorian Age.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was quite a popular poet of the time. Sonnets from the Portuguese is a collection of love poems and songs, some very intimate, dedicated to the single greatest love in her life; her husband. Elizabeth was stating quite clearly that she loved her husband more than God, and this fact in itself reflects a major issue of the time, the crisis of faith. This very deliberate affront to God was displayed in her sonnet “How Do I Love Thee?”
Gerard Manly Hopkins was a devoutly religious man, and resisted the wave of loss in faith that swept England during the Victorian era. His poetry is devotional poetry, with dense layers of imagery and metaphors.
Matthew Arnold was seen as a representative of Victorian intellectual concerns, and his writings characterized many Victorian beliefs towards religious faith. Much of his poetry shares his own inner feelings with great clarity, and his questioning of faith. His works, such as “Dover Beach”, portray the feeling of isolation of a man without faith.
Victorian Poetry was a very crucial period in the history of poetry, as it linked Romanticism and Modernism of the 20th century. Therefore, it is sometimes difficult to identify to which epoch this or that poet belongs, as it is not easy to categorize them all in these broad movements.