Wordsworth and Evolution in Victorian Literature
The influences of William Wordsworth’s writing and evolutionary theory—the nineteenth century’s two defining visions of nature—conflicted in the Victorian period. For Victorians, Wordsworthian nature was a caring source of inspiration and moral guidance, signaling humanity's divine origins and potential. Darwin’s nature, by contrast, appeared as an indifferent and amoral reminder of an evolutionary past that demanded participation in a brutal struggle for existence. Victorian authors like Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Thomas Hardy grappled with these competing representations in their work. They turned to Wordsworth as an alternative or antidote to evolution, criticized and altered his poetry in response to Darwinism, and synthesized elements of each to propose their own modified theories. Darwin’s account of a material, evolutionary nature both threatened the Wordsworthian belief in nature’s transcendent value and made spiritual elevation seem more urgently necessary. Victorian authors used Wordsworth and Darwin to explore what form of transcendence, if any, could survive an evolutionary age, and reevaluated the purpose of literature in the process.
Trenton B. Olsen completed his PhD in English Literature at the University of Minnesota and is currently Assistant Professor of English at Brigham Young University–Idaho. His work has appeared in Victorian Literature and Culture, The George Eliot Review, and The Journal of Stevenson Studies. He received the 2017 Idaho Humanities Council Research Fellowship and the 2018 George Eliot Essay Prize.
"Olsen's book is a careful and productive contribution to intellectual history. Conscientiously and energetically researched, it demonstrates the value of crossing period boundaries in literary criticism. . . . Olsen shows convincingly how our sense of Wordsworth's historic importance is shaped by the interaction of his thought with evolutionary science, and also how that interaction illuminates the work of Victorian writers seeking to clarify their understanding of the natural world in light of what they were learning of its evolutionary history."
—Robert M. Ryan, Review 19
"Olsen’s work is a real joy to read. This is partly because his style encourages the reader to engage in a dialogue through his easy-going and accessible ways of presenting an argument. It is also so partly because the rather complex idea of ‘entangled influence’ is elegantly explained in a thoroughly convincing way supported by clear and well-referenced evidence."
—Faysal Mikdadi, The Thomas Hardy Journal
"Readers of this journal may remember Trenton B. Olsen winning last year’s George Eliot Fellowship Essay Prize with his fine piece ‘Wordsworth, Darwin, and the Growth of the Mind in George Eliot’s Late Fiction.’ His book is equally fine, closely argued, thought-provoking and highly recommended."
—Antonie G. van den Broek, The George Eliot Review