Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Dr. Matthew Rowlinson


No Delicate Flower: Victorian Floral Symbolism’s Mediation of Social Issues in Selected Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alfred Tennyson, John Ruskin, and Isabella Bird Bishop examines floral symbols in the writings of four Victorian authors. Although a large body of work exists on the Romantic literary symbol, its Victorian counterpart is often ignored: Barrett Browning, Tennyson, Ruskin, and Bird Bishop use floral symbols in their work as outward-looking instruments, in contrast to the more inward-looking Romantic symbol, to help understand changing social conditions and address real-world concerns.

Chapter one offers an overview of the Victorian symbol and the language of flowers. Chapter two examines Barrett Browning’s floral symbolism in “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” (1844) and Aurora Leigh (1857), focusing on the way the poet adds to the transcendent Romantic symbol by looking beyond the symbol to real-world issues. Chapter three examines how, in Tennyson’s minor poems, floral symbols model the social unification he advocates. Chapter four analyzes Maud (1855), in which Tennyson alters his use of the floral symbol to stress the impossibility of unification in a world gone mad. Chapter five moves away from poetry to prose to explore Ruskin’s The Queen of the Air (1869); Ruskin wields the floral symbol to try to unite God and humankind in a time rife with religious doubt. Lastly, chapter six provides a postcolonial reading of Bird Bishop’s The Hawaiian Archipelago (1875). When Bird Bishop visits Hawaii, she uses Victorian floral symbolism to critique the inhabitants’ morality and to reinforce existing power hierarchies.