Thomas Carlyle’s “Signs of the Times,” which did so much to shape the thought and literature of the age, displays the multiple relations between Victorian literature and religion. For example, the title of this work that has nothing explicitly to do with religion cites the words of Christ, obviously implying that Carlyle expects readers to recognize that they come from Matthew 16:3. Furthermore, “Signs of the Times,” which draws upon nineteenth-century understanding of Old Testament prophecy, initiates that most Victorian of genres, sage-writing, and it does so—and this is an important point—even though the author has himself rejected Christianity. Before examining the way Victorian authors drew upon both the Bible and standard modes of interpreting it, let us remember the extent to which the Bible permeated Victorian culture.
When twenty-first-century readers fail to recognize biblical allusions and the interpretive practices common in the age of Victoria, we deprive many secular works of a large part of their context. Having thus impoverished them, we then find ourselves in a situation comparable to that of readers trying to understand a poem in a foreign language after someone has gone through their dictionaries deleting words. A half-century ago, when I first encountered Victorian literature as an undergraduate, my distinguished instructors presented the Age of Victoria as an attractive proto-modern era primarily characterized by loss of religious belief, but recent work has shown it to have been largely an age of faith that peaked around mid-century and generally remained strong, if increasingly embattled, to its close. As Robert Lee Wolff has shown in Gains and Losses: Novels of Faith and Doubt in Victorian England (1977), Newman’s Loss and Gain is just as typical of Victorian fiction as is Mrs. Ward’s Robert Elsmere.
One dominant factor in the way Christianity permeated Victorian culture lies in the centrality of the Bible not only as one might expect to Roman Catholics and Protestants but even to agnostics like T. H. Huxley and atheists like Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh. Scholarly preoccupation with the “higher criticism” and such approaches to the Bible has made central figures such as E. B. Pusey and C. H. Spurgeon seem old-fashioned and out of step with their times while backdating the more liberal elements of Quakerism and Unitarianism (Larsen, 2011, xxxx). Believers and nonbelievers, who alike found it difficult to avoid the Bible, habitually salted all forms of discourse with proof-texts quoted from scripture.
Victorians drew upon the Bible whether or not they accepted its divine inspiration or even its essential truth because doing so allowed them to participate in a shared cultural space. True, it also permitted authors like Matthew Arnold, Charles Dickens, and John Ruskin to appear to hold views more in tune with orthodox believers than they actually did, something we see with particular clarity in Victorian sage-writing, a genre that draws upon the Bible and a variety of related texts, including commentaries, sermons, the Old Testament books of the prophets, and traditions of interpreting the scriptures, such as typology and apocalyptics. In particular, the genre that Carlyle created in “The Signs of the Times” draws upon the patterns of Old Testament biblical prophecy. Since, like the Old Testament prophet, the sages self-consciously position themselves apart from their society (or audience), they must find means to convince their readers not only that they deserve a hearing but also that received opinion is incorrect and, moreover, that they, and only they, have access to truths essential for the audience’s survival. One such rhetorical strategy, the virtuoso act of interpretation, explains unexpected meanings in contemporary phenomena ranging from wars and political uprisings to apparently trivial things like advertising signs and pub decorations. Carlyle, Ruskin, and Arnold also employ straightforward definition and satiric redefinition of words, Ruskin redefining “taste” in “Traffic” and “political economy” in Unto This Last, Carlyle “machine” in “Signs of the Times,” and Arnold “culture” in Culture and Anarchy. Third, Victorian sage-writing uses grotesque analogies and examples, which take two forms—those the sages find in contemporary life, such as the murder of children for insurance money (Carlyle and Arnold), and those they invent as parables or satiric analogies.
The most important idea derived from the Old Testament prophets was, as Thomas Scott and other expositors popular with Victorian readers explained, that prophets do not tell the future but diagnose the illnesses of the present. Charles Kingsley, author of sermons and novels, bases his claim that God still sends prophets to guide man upon this conception of the prophet as forthspeaker rather than foreteller. According to this Broad Churchman, the Lord does not leave us unguarded when “the lying spirit comes and whispers to us … that we shall prosper in our wickedness … [but] sends His prophets to us, as He sent Micaiah [sic] to Ahab” (“Self Destruction,” p. 65).
This view of the prophet as one who speaks out on crucial issues, was recognized even by those without orthodox belief. T. H. Huxley, certainly no believer, thus pointed out in “The Method of Zadig” that “the term prophecy applies as much to outspeaking as foretelling; … the essence of the prophetic operation does not lie in its backward or forward relation to the course of time, but in the fact that it is the apprehension of that which lies out of the sphere of immediate knowledge” (Huxley, 1901, p. 6).
The sage adopts not only the general tone and stance of the biblical prophets but also the quadripartite pattern of their messages. According to Scott, who presents the orthodox view of his subject, the prophets of the Old Testament first called attention to their audience’s present grievous condition and often listed individual instances of suffering. Second, they pointed out that such suffering resulted directly from their listeners’ neglecting—falling away from—God’s law. Third, they promised further, indeed deepened, miseries if their listeners failed to return to the fold; and fourth, they completed the prophetic pattern by offering visions of bliss that their listeners would realize if they returned to the ways of God. Many of these visions took the form of predictions of divine vengeance upon the irreligious heathen, who having served as God’s agent for punishing the wayward Israelites would in future serve as an informing example of punishing wrath. For example, the book of Isaiah “opens with sharp rebukes of the people for their idolatry and iniquity, and denunciations of divine vengeance upon them; but intermixed with encouraging intimations of mercy, and predictions of Christ. Afterwards follow various prophecies of judgments about to be executed on several nations, as well as on Judah; through all of which the reader is led to expect future deliverances and glorious times to the church of God” (III, 79).
This prophetic pattern of interpretation, attack upon the audience (or those in authority), warning, and visionary promise provides the single most important influence of the Bible upon the writings of the Victorian sages, and it gives rise to many, though not all, of the devices that make up this characteristically Victorian genre. Biblical prophecy—and contemporary understanding of biblical prophecy—also provides the ultimate source of the discontinuous, episodic structures found in this genre and perhaps also of the audience’s willingness to accept them.
Theories of biblical prophecy therefore seem to have had much the same effect upon notions of literary structure that theories of the sublime had upon notions of aesthetics. In the same way that the apparent disorder of sublimity allowed Augustan critics to compensate for the restrictions and omissions of neoclassical conceptions of beauty, biblical prophecy allowed them to work in acceptable literary forms outside the neoclassical canon. According to Campegius Vitringa’s Typus Doctrinae Propheticae (1708), which appeared in John Gill’s popular Bible commentary, prophecies often
"admit of resumptions, repetitions of sayings, and retrograde leaps and skips, or scattered or detached pieces … which are inserted into the text, for the sake of illustrating this or that part of the prophecy. … To these may also be rightly referred the excursions and digressions, in which the prophets, whilst they really have before their eyes some object of more remote time, suddenly leave it, and by way of excursion turn themselves to men of their own time, or the next; that from the subject of their prophecy, they may admonish, exhort and convince them."
Vitringa might be describing the next century’s Past and Present, Culture and Anarchy, or The Stones of Venice.
If Old Testament prophecy provided the inspiration for Victorian sage-writing, typology (or typological symbolism) permeated other genres, including some of the most famous works of the age, such as In Memoriam, The Ring and the Book, and Jane Eyre. This Christian form of biblical interpretation proceeds on the assumption that God placed anticipations of Christ in the laws, events, and people of the Old Testament. According to this way of understanding the Bible, Samson, who sacrificed his life for God’s people, partially anticipates Christ, who repeats the action, endowing it with a deeper, more complete, more spiritual significance. Similarly, the scapegoat and the animals sacrificed in the Temple at Jerusalem, both of which atoned for man’s sins, and Aaron, God’s priest, are also types. As Thomas Hartwell Horne explains in the text that was standard reading for British divinity students: “A type, in its primary and literal meaning, simply denotes a rough draught, or less accurate model, from which a more perfect image is made; but in the sacred or theological sense of the term, a type may be defined to be a symbol of something future and distant, or an example prepared and evidently designed by God to prefigure that future thing. What is thus prefigured is called the antitype” (II, 257).
Horne further explains that the Bible contains three kinds of types: the historical, the legal, and the prophetical. Historical types, such as those provided by Moses, Samson, David, and Melchizedek, “are the characters, actions, and fortunes of some eminent persons recorded in the Old Testament, so ordered by Divine Providence as to be exact prefigurations of the characters, actions, and fortunes of future persons who should arise under Gospel dispensation.” For example, as Newman explains in “Moses the Type of Christ,” this first great prophet of the Jews prefigured Christ as redeemer, prophet, and intercessor for guilty man.
This symbolism’s second major form is the legal type, which is also known as the ritual, ceremonial, or Levitical type. Taking all the rules for sacrifice proscribed in the book of Leviticus, Christian interpreters explained that they simultaneously enforce the need for sacrifice and, by suggesting the inadequacy of animal sacrifice, point toward the need for a divine one. In the third form, prophetical types, divinely inspired prophets “prefigured or signified things either present or future, by means of external symbols.” The most important of all such prophetic types appears in Genesis 3:15 when God tells the serpent, “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shall bruise his heel.” All denominations agreed that this passage from Genesis shadows forth a fundamental battle of good and evil, thus providing believers with a view of the central law of human history. F. W. Robertson, a Broad Churchman, agrees with more literal-minded denominations that “it is the law which governs the conflict with evil. It can only be crushed by suffering from it. … The Son of Man who puts His naked foot on the serpent’s head, crushes it: the fang goes into His heel” (p. 117).
Tennyson’s In Memoriam uses both typology’s linking of times and events as well as its equal emphasis upon signifier and signified. Organizing his poem in terms of plays upon the word “type”—meaning both divinely intended prefiguration and biological species—the poet closes the elegy with the now calm assurance that Hallam
was a noble typeAppearing ere the times were ripe,That friend of mine who lives in God,That God, which ever lives and loves,One God, one law, one element,And one far-off divine event,To which the whole creation moves.
Tennyson has resolved the crisis of faith Hallam’s death precipitated by assuming that his friend is doubly a type, one that foreshadows both the second appearance of Christ and that of the higher race of men. In making this characteristically Victorian—that is, characteristically idiosyncratic—use of typology, Tennyson “solves” the problem raised earlier in the poem by his other uses of the word “type” where it means “biological species.” The central sections 54 through 56, which dramatize his groping for consolation, show how the poet’s doubts raised increasingly appalling specters. He thus begins section 54 with trust that when God’s plan is understood, all will see that not one life is “cast as rubbish to the void,” but even as he tries to assert this hopeful view, his doubts wear away his confidence. Retreating, he tries in the next section to find consolation in the fact that while nature may be careless of the individual life, she is nonetheless “careful of the type.” In response to this last desperate hope that nature preserves the species if not the individual, section 56 immediately replies:
“So careful of the type?” but no.From scarped cliff and quarried stoneShe cries, “A thousand types are gone:I care for nothing, all shall go.”
Thus, his friend’s death, which first made the poet experience the emotional reality of loss, soon forced him to realize the possibility that not only man-the-individual but also man-the-species could die out. But, as the final lines of the poem make clear, Tennyson can accept this once terrifying possibility—that man the “type” may disappear from the earth—precisely because he believes that Hallam, the original cause of this investigation, is a dual type. In other words, Tennyson can accept the possibility that man will become extinct because he believes that such extinction would occur only when God was ready to replace man with a higher, more spiritual descendant. At the close of the poem, then, theological type replaces biological type, or rather encompasses it, because faith reveals that God’s eternal plan includes purposeful biological development.
Turning to one especially popular type—Moses Striking the Rock, or the Smitten Rock—we can observe how it appears throughout Victorian poetry. When the Israelites were desperate from thirst during their desert wanderings, God instructed Moses: “Behold, I will stand before thee there on the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink” (Exod 17:6). Henry Melvill, the “Evangelical Chrysostom” who was the favorite preacher of Ruskin and Browning, makes the standard Victorian interpretation when he holds that “this rock in Horeb was typical of Christ” and its yielding water when struck by Moses signifies “that the Mediator must receive the blows of the law, before he could be the source of salvation to a parched and perishing world” (II, 163–164). Melvill also cites the New Testament authentication of this type when he explains that “it is to this that St. Paul refers, when he says of the Jews, ‘They did all drink of the same spiritual drink; for they drank of that spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ’ [1 Cor 10:4].”
English literature alludes to the smitten rock in several chief ways, the most obvious of which is the embodiment of God’s sustaining the Israelites and all human beings. Less common in literature is Paul’s use of it as prefiguration of baptism, although this interpretation occurs in the visual arts, particularly stained glass. The smitten rock appears most often as a type of Christ, who when struck (crucified) produces waters of grace, or as the stony heart of the believer that when struck by God or Christ produces waters of grace. Both these typological readings appear in secularized forms.
Seventeenth-century poets like George Herbert and Richard Crashaw, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century hymns, and Victorian devotional verse make extensive use of the smitten rock to generate a typological universe surrounding the reader. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s dramatic monologue, “Soliloquy of One of the Spies Left in the Wilderness” (ca. 1864), Isaac Watts’s “Go, Worship at Immanuel’s Feet” (1709), William Williams’s “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah!” (1774), and John Newton’s “When Israel, by Divine Command” (1799) make the general situation rather than the smitten rock itself a type and thus emphasize the contemporary believer’s postfiguration of the sinful wandering Israelites. In contrast, John Newton’s “That Rock Was Christ” (1772), Augustus Montague Toplady’s “Rock of Ages” (1776), and Horatius Bonar’s “The Cross” present the smitten rock simply as a type of the Crucifixion.
Another, perhaps less strictly orthodox type occurs when poets use Moses striking the rock to prefigure Christ bringing forth tears of repentance from the stony heart of the individual worshipper. This version of the type, which has had a long history in English verse, appears in book 6 of The Excursion (1814), where Wordsworth has Ellen explain that God “ ‘at whose command the parched rock / Was smitten, and poured forth a quenching stream’ has softened her hardness of heart” (VI, 920–921). This use of the smitten rock, which occurs again in John Ruskin’s “The Broken Chain,” John Keble’s “Sixth Sunday after Trinity” and “Easter Eve,” and Tennyson’s “Supposed Confessions” (1830), provides the climax and poetic center of Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850) (section 131) and of Christina Rossetti’s “Good Friday” (1862).
“Good Friday” differs from other poets’ use of this type because here the stricken rock generates the structure of the entire poem. Rossetti’s initial opposition of stone and sheep, which she may have derived from one of the Olney Hymns, sets the conceit in motion:
Am I a stone and not a sheep,That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,And yet not weep?
The opening line establishes the contrasts that provide the axis of the poem: she calls herself a stone, one who does not react deeply enough, humanly enough, to the reality of Christ’s sacrifice, and yet she wants to make herself one of the shepherd’s flock, one of those whom he will save. The next two stanzas emphasize the other people and even things that grieved: Mary and the other women, Peter, the thief, even the sun and moon. After confessing at the end of the third stanza that “I, only I,” remain a stone, she turns to God in lines that brilliantly resolve the spiritual—and poetic—problem introduced by her initial contrast:
Yet give not o’er,But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;Greater than Moses, turn and look once moreAnd smite a rock.
Many Victorian authors differ from Rossetti and earlier poets when they make purely secular applications of a type. Such uses of this kind of imagery and metaphor require readers to recognize the Christian reading of the Old Testament event as a prefiguration of Christ and his dispensation, but they have no religious theme. For example, Robert Calder Campbell’s untitled love sonnet, which appeared in the Pre-Raphaelite periodical The Germ (1850), tells the speaker’s beloved that when she departs he has “no speech—no magic that beguiles / The stream of utterance from the harden’d rock,” and Emily Dickinson in “A Wounded Deer—leaps highest” makes the “Smitten Rock that gushes” one of several instances of sharp reaction to a blow. Both these examples, like the following from Meredith’s The Egoist (1879), draw upon commonplace traditions of biblical exegesis primarily for emphasis: “We cannot quite preserve our dignity when we stoop to the work of calling forth tears. Moses had probably to take a nimble jump away from the rock after that venerable Law-giver had knocked the water out of it” (ch. 31). The allusion achieves its full effect only if one recognizes the traditional association of Christ’s calling forth tears of repentance from the sinner. A more elaborate secular allusion to Moses striking the rock appears in Robert Browning’s “One Word More” (1855), which emphasizes that just as the ungrateful Israelites failed to appreciate Moses’s bringing forth water from the rock, so, too, the Victorian audience fails to appreciate what the poet produces on its behalf.
Typology, which thus provides Victorian authors with imagery and theme, also has other important literary applications. Prose fiction, narrative poetry, and related forms, such as the dramatic monologue, frequently employ this form of symbolism as a device for creating and defining character. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) provides examples of two contrasting uses of scriptural types to describe the moral and spiritual condition of a character. Immediately after Jane has fled Rochester upon discovering the existence of his insane wife, she confesses, “My hopes were all dead—struck with a subtle doom, such as, in one night, fell on all the first-born in the land of Egypt. I looked on my cherished wishes, yesterday so blooming and glowing; they lay stark, chill, livid corpses, that could never revive” (ch. 26). In comparing her love to the dead firstborn of the Egyptians who had perished in the tenth plague, Jane recognizes that she is being punished because she committed the sin of the Egyptians: she believed both that God’s powers are limited and that she and Rochester could evade his law.
Brontë prepared for this scriptural allusion several chapters earlier when Jane admits, “My future husband was becoming to me my whole world; and more than the world: almost my hope of heaven. He stood between me and every thought of religion, as an eclipse intervenes between man and the broad sun. I could not, in those days, see God for his creature of whom I had made an idol.” Jane worshipped a man instead of God, and she made an idol of Rochester, worshipping a false god and, as it turned out, a false man as well. Jane’s citation of this Exodus type to describe her own spiritual weakness and consequent punishment serves two ends. First, it places her character and actions within a clearly defined scheme of values; second, because she self-consciously and accurately applies this type to herself, it serves to dramatize her new self-awareness and her admission of guilt. Rochester, in contrast, has recognized his own guilt, so when he cites scripture, he demonstrates a complete lack of self-awareness. Trying to convince her to go away with him, he tells her that he does not want to torment her with “the hideous associations and recollections of Thornfield Hall—this accursed place—this tent of Achan …—this narrow stone hell, with its one real fiend, worse than a legion of such as we imagine” (ch. 27). In mentioning Achan’s tent, which hid the stolen goods, Rochester condemns himself by admitting more than he realizes, for Achan disobeyed God’s command against taking spoil from conquered Jericho, thereby bringing disaster upon his people who then punished Achan by stoning him and his family to death and then burning their bodies. Rochester, who still refuses to see that he has done anything wrong in trying to marry Jane while his first wife still lives, believes that Thornfield Hall is a “tent of Achan” only insofar as it contains the evidence of crime, and he still believes he can evade the consequences of his acts. Thus, in a manner quite common in works whose characters misapply types to themselves and their situations, Jane Eyre uses such symbolism to convict Rochester of both sin and lack of self-knowledge. By placing these contrasting citations of types within a few pages of each other, Brontë manages to define the spiritual condition of her two main characters at a crucial point in the narrative. Moreover, by having Rochester describe Thornfield in terms of stone and fire—that is, as “a narrow stone hell”—she reminds her reader of Achan’s fate and, as it turns out, also makes that fate a partial anticipation of Rochester’s.
Such applications of types to judge oneself sternly, such as Jane makes, appear more often in spiritual autobiographies and sermons than in novels, and the fact that Jane Eyre takes the form of an autobiography explains in part how such types can there be used so effectively. Rochester’s misapplication of scriptural texts exemplifies a far more common fictional use of this kind of symbolism. Another use of types for characterization is the purely mimetic one by which their appearance in dialogue identifies someone as belonging to a particular church party or Dissenting sect. Since Evangelicals habitually salted their conversation with scriptural quotation and paraphrase, writers sometimes include types merely for realistic effect. Similarly, when imitating or describing Evangelical sermons, writers also naturally cite types because Evangelical preachers so frequently employed them.
For instance, Browning’s “Christmas Eve” (1850) in part uses such citation of typology for purposes of verisimilitude, and so does George Eliot’s “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton” from Scenes of Clerical Life (1858). Eliot relates how poor Barton tried without much success to instruct the paupers in the local workhouse about the mysteries of typological exegesis. He discusses the unleavened bread in Exodus “to convey religious truth within reach of the Fodge and Fitchett mind” but only succeeds “in carrying the pauper imagination to the dough-tub” and not, alas, to its spiritual meanings (ch. 2). Unlike Brontë’s use of types, in this delightful passage Eliot’s has a purely mimetic function. Of course, Eliot’s citation of typology does not take the form of dialogue, but it differs most from Brontë’s by not containing explicit or implicit judgments of the character who states them in typological terms.
Since all types bear a heavy burden of meaning, they rarely appear in dialogue or indirect discourse without revealing a character’s moral status. The typological image or event readily generates multiple meanings because, by definition, it exists in at least two contexts, times, and senses: that of the literal historical type and that to which the type refers. The ability to perceive such meanings serves as a handy gauge of a character’s general discernment and morality, since a type provides author and audience with something whose meanings have been established by convention.
For example, we first meet Amos Barton thinking about books he has donated to the local lending library in order to deal “a pretty sharp blow to the Dissenters,” he relishes his idea that Dissent “would have its head bruised in Shepperton,” because he attacked it “in two ways,” preaching doctrine as “evangelical as anything to be heard in the independent Chapel” while emphasizing high church ideas of “ecclesiastical powers and functions. Clearly, the Dissenters would feel that ‘the parson’ was too many for them… . The wisdom of the serpent, Mr. Barton considered, was one of his strong points” (ch. 2). Barton, a disciple of the Evangelical greats Venn, Newton, and Simeon, who has come under the influence of Tractarian thought, remains a fierce partisan of the established church. Unlike many Evangelical Anglicans, he does not try to build bridges to Dissenting denominations that share his emphasis on the Bible and conversion but instead considers them agents of the Evil One. His judgment in these matters is characterized by his application of the passage from Genesis 3:15 about bruising the serpent’s head to his attempts to conquer the Dissenters in Shepperton. Like preachers of all parties, he accepts that the Christian bruises the serpent’s head by advancing spiritual doctrine, and also like preachers of all parties, he defines spiritual doctrine, naturally enough, as that in which he believes. Keble, we recall, pronounced fasting to be a Christian’s means of bruising the serpent’s head, whereas the Cambridge Evangelical Clayton found it to lie in preaching the gospel. Barton, on the other hand, makes not just the general battle against Dissent but his particular use of tracts directed at the laborer the fulfillment of this prophetic type. The reader’s recognition that Barton and his opponents share a great many basic tenets immediately casts into doubt his judgment here, for the reader soon realizes that the minister’s interpretation of this central biblical type is as ill-founded as his belief that a working man wrote his favorite tract or his confidence that he has the wisdom of the serpent.
Eliot’s use of Genesis 3:15 within a passage of indirect discourse effectively satirizes the man for his comical self-aggrandizement. She gives her gentle satire another twist several chapters later when she informs the reader that his “notable plan of introducing anti-Dissenting books into his Lending Library did not in the least appear to have bruised the head of Dissent, though it had certainly made Dissent strongly inclined to bite the Rev. Amos’ heel” (ch. 5). Whereas the first part of Genesis 3:15 was taken to prefigure the ultimate triumph of good over evil in the person of Christ and his church, the second was interpreted to signify the fact that to have such a victory, Christ and the church would have to be bruised—or crucified. When applied to the individual worshipper, such bruising took the form of any of his sufferings for Christ or, in practice, any he chose to believe were on behalf of his Savior. The wit of this second application of the bruising passage arises from the fact that the relatively mild discomfort Barton endures because of his ill-conceived plan in no way matches the bruising of martyrdom or crucifixion. Eliot applies this phrase to her character directly, for this second use of it occurs, not in indirect discourse representing his interior monologue, but in the author’s commentary. The gap between the seriousness of the metaphorical bruising that Barton suffers at the hand of the Dissenters of Shepperton and that suffered by Christ further mocks him and his inability to interpret or apply properly the things of God to the things of man.
The almost inevitable disparities between type and fulfillment in the life of a fictional character, like a character’s misapplication or misinterpretation of such symbolism, produces a range of ironic commentary on fictional personages. Since the time the Wife of Bath argued for female superiority with wonderfully twisted allusions to scripture, English authors have employed such misapplications of scripture as a means of creating and occasionally satirizing figures in their own works. As Barton demonstrates, such uses of commonplace types can produce gentle, if far-reaching, satire. They can also induce the reader to make far harsher judgments of a fictional character, and Rochester’s misapplication and misreading of Achan’s tent exemplifies such an earnest condemnation.
The double perspective or context provided by typology makes it particularly useful to authors of dramatic monologues, since the disparity between literal and symbolical (or type and antitype) provides them with an effective means of allowing a character to convey more than he or she intends. Robert Browning, who is the great typologist among Victorian poets, frequently employs types for this purpose. For instance, “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church. Rome, 15—” (1845) uses a number of types to emphasize the precise nature of the prelate’s characterizing attitudes toward life and death, matter and spirit. The Bishop, whom Ruskin took to be a brilliantly achieved emblem of the Renaissance, blasphemously confuses matter and spirit, for having no true belief in Christian immortality, he yet tries to secure himself a kind of bizarre life after death. Browning’s many citations of types in the poem reveal his speaker continually misinterpreting heavenly spiritual matters, which he appropriates and misapplies to his passionate yearning to make himself immortal. As George Monteiro has pointed out in his seminal “The Apostasy and Death of St. Praxed’s Bishop,” “in ordering his tomb—and the entire poem is organized around this piece of business—the Bishop in effect parodies the Lord’s command to Moses to build him a sanctuary: ‘According to all that I show thee, after the pattern of the tabernacle’ (Exodus 25:9).” The Bishop, who sees himself as “an object worthy of worship,” wishes his tomb to be constructed of stones from the Tabernacle, moreover, which were types of Heaven. Furthermore, the very details, such as the nine pillars supporting his tomb, turn out to be allusions to passages in Exodus, which were commonly read as prefigurative images of Heaven as well.
The Bishop’s many blasphemies reveal his complete inability to comprehend the nature of matter, spirit, and the relationship between them. In particular, he cannot interpret the literal expression of spiritual matters properly. Augustine’s Confessions tell that during his earlier Manichaean stage, when he accepted the sect’s belief in philosophical materialism, he could not conceive symbolic interpretation, and that as he came to believe in a world of the spirit, he also came to accept and understand symbolic reading of texts. In fact, the connection of the two remains so close for Augustine that he terms “spiritual” what we today would subsume under the broad category “symbolical.” Browning’s Bishop finds himself in the predicament of a Manichaean who can only accept the material and yet passionately desires immortality, which requires a belief in spirituality. As a result, he collapses matter and spirit into each other, now calling upon the capacities of the one and now the other. This fusion and confusion of states of being that his passionate desire for immortality produces is well suited to the psychological state of a dying man, and perhaps this suitability provides another reason why Browning chose to set this character portrait within the context of a deathbed scene.
The dying prelate provides only the most extreme example from Browning’s work of a character who can neither interpret nor apply types properly, but the preacher in “Christmas Eve” (1850), like many in The Ring and the Book (1868–1869), embodies an equally effective use of this method of character definition. His long poems also depict characters by means of both of these figures’ self-conscious distortion of types for dishonest ends and their apparently unconscious citation of such biblical images. For example, in The Ring and the Book the villainous Count Guido Francheschini represents himself as an innocent, selfless man by dramatizing himself as Christlike. But when he refers to “God’s decree, / In which I, bowing bruised head, acquiesce” (4.1410–1411), he reminds us that he is, in fact, far more like Satan than like Christ. Guido’s satanic nature is recognized by other characters in the poem, including Caponsacchi, who, realizing his adversary’s dangerous scheming, had thought to himself: “No mother nor brother Viper of the [Francheschini] brood / Shall scuttle off without the instructive bruise” (6.677–678). The authoritative statement of Guido’s nature in terms of this image is made, of course, by the old Pope, who sees Pompilia acting analogously to Christ when she treads this Satan-figure into hell and, the reader adds, is herself “bruised.” Browning uses the same typological allusions in The Inn Album (1875). When the evil nobleman mentions in passing that “Head and feet / Are vulnerable both, and I, foot-sure, / Forgot that ducking down saves brow from bruise,” the reader might not perceive this as an allusion to Genesis 3:15. But when his former mistress describes him more elaborately, we cannot miss the allusion:
Let him slink hence till some subtler Eve Than I, anticipate the snake—bruise headEre he bruise heel—or, warier than the first,Some Adam purge earth’s garden of its pestBefore the slaver spoil the Tree of Life.
Two points demand mention here. First, Browning has his characters employ typological allusions to locate his villain for the reader, thus providing a means of authorial commentary even in the midst of forms modeled on dramatic monologue in which he cannot speak in his own person. Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) demonstrates the intrinsic difficulties that first-person narration has in identifying the author’s point of view, and recent debates about the correct reading of dramatic monologues by Tennyson and Browning suggest that such problems are intrinsic to this poetic form. Typology, however, offers one solution to such interpretive problems. Even though no single character’s application of a type may be entirely correct, the fact that several speakers employ the same type identifies for us the terms in which Browning wants defined the issues in question. In some cases, such as that exemplified by the pope, one character has sufficient moral, spiritual, and intellectual authority that his interpretation compels our assent. In others, the authority exists, as it were, in the correct—usually the traditional—readings of the type. Of course, when Browning uses a typological image that traditionally possesses several antitypes or interpretations, then he puts the reader, like his characters, to the test.
In addition to using this detailed typological reference for several related modes of character definition, Victorian prose and verse employ other, far more secularized versions of typology, some of which are so distantly related to this kind of biblical symbolism that they are most profitably considered as secular analogues. Building upon the work of Paul J. Korshin and other scholars of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature, John R. Reed has well described “a tradition of secularized and immediate typology” in which Charles Dickens uses The Pilgrim’s Progress as a model for The Old Curiosity Shop, and “Thackeray entitles one of his novels The Adventures of Philip on His Way Through the World Showing Who Robbed Him, Who Helped Him and Who Passed Him By, and continues the Samaritan motif throughout the novel in allusion as well as illustration” (1975, p. 11).
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George P. Landow