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Rationalist thought, science and higher criticism challenge Bible's writings in the Victorian Era

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Challenges and faith to Christianity in the Victorian Era by Gerard Manley Hopkins and William Butler Yeats

During the Victorian age, there were many challenges to the Christian faith and to the Bible itself. These challenges to religion were the following: rationalist thought, science, and higher criticism. People who were rationalists believed in Utilitarianism, which found that religion was just superstition. When it came to science, like biology it introduced concepts like Darwinism. Darwinists thought that the concept of natural selection conflicted with the idea of creation in Genesis. Lastly, people in Germany started to apply the scientific method to the Bible. Even though these challenges were going on during the Victorian Era, there were two Victorian writers named William Butler Yeats and Gerard Manley Hopkins, who promoted their faith, biblical truths and moral values in their literature.

Gerard Hopkins, a poet from the mid-nineteenth century, was a priest who wrote a few poems that celebrated God in nature or it explored the trails of faith. In “God’s Grandeur,” the narrator says that “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” (1), indicating that the world is full of God’s energy and beauty. However, this beautiful world will “flame out” (2) because it is temporary. The speaker goes on to say even if this world is temporary; people should not destroy God’s work, and they should fear him. Over time people has separated themselves from God by being so involved in industrialization because “all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil” (6). The speaker then goes to say that even though people are distant from God and are disconnected from nature, that God ultimately still loves everyone and watches over the whole world.

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This speaker can be compared to the speaker in another of Hopkins poems “Hurrahing in Harvest.” The speaker once again observes nature; he comments on the how “silky-sack” (3) the clouds are as they move across the sky. The speaker then “lift up his heart and eyes” to the sky and praises how God is in the heavens. The speaker compares how seeing God in the heavens is like a “Rapturous love’s greeting” (8) and “Majestic as a stallion stalwart” (10). In the end, God’s nature is so beautiful to the speaker because he sees God in all of nature.

William Butler Yeats is another Victorian writer who promoted his faith in his poems. In his poem, “The Second Coming”, not only does Yeats incorporate religion but adds what was going on during that period. He talks about how “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”, he may have been talking about how many heads of the state were assassinated by Anarchists. For example, the Tsar Alexander the second of Russia and President Sadi Carnot of France were murdered by Anarchists. Not only that but World War 1 was happening during his lifetime, therefore, “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” (3). It is almost like the four horsemen have been released into the world because even “the ceremony of innocence” or baptism cannot help anyone. The rest of the poem suggests that history recycles and that before the second coming of Christ there will be destruction, destruction is coming because of World War 1. The speaker also states that a “rough beast” (21) will be born in Bethlehem like Christ. Therefore, the beast could be the Anti-Christ. The Anti-Christ will bring a lot of turmoil in the world before Christ returns to take his throne on the earth.

Another poem of Yeats is “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” In this poem, the speaker talks about how he wants to go away to an island called Innisfree. He wants to get away from the city because he longs nature. He remembers the “small cabin builds there, of clay and wattles made (2) and “a hive for the honey bee” (3). His memory tricks him into hearing the “lake water lapping” (10). The island of Innisfree sounds like a garden of Eden where the speaker can get away to be with God.

What these authors reveal is that even if the world is corrupted that one can find religion in everything. Both Hopkins and Yeats’s works gave people peace and hope in times of turmoil just like religion. So while these writers teach us that religion is an important factor in society, they also teach us that even if things get rough religion will always be around no matter if someone does not believe in it.

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