Tennyson






Publication: Victorian Poetry
Author: Hughes, Linda K
Date published: October 1, 2011

The work on Tennyson published in 2010, including two books and numerous essays, addresses issues of genre, biography, literary history, cultural memory, and visuality. In "Form Things: Looking at Genre through Victorian Diamonds" (Victorian Studies 52, no. 4: 591-619), Stephanie Markovits integrates thing theory and neoformalism, noting that genre can function both as thing and abstract form. Diamonds, which bespeak narratives (of imperial capture, slow natural processes, commercial exchange) yet also signify the immaterialities of beauty or love, usefully focus generic impasses in Idylls of the King. The Idylls' aspiration toward epic form runs athwart episodes linked not by causal relationships but by lyric similitude. Yet the poem does not sustain lyric intensity, apart from such moments when Guinevere casts diamonds into the stream just as the dead Elaine, an authentic figure of diamond-like truth and fidelity, passes by-all of which suggests the impossibility of Tennyson's own inventive but unstable generic project. Whether Markovits' model applies equally to works that feature no diamonds but likewise incorporate lyric and narrative, as with "Tears, Idle Tears," is left unclear (see Helsinger below for an alternative approach). But Markovits' essay, like her subject, intrigues with its many facets.

Though Tennyson played a slight role in the special issue of VP on the sonnet (ed. Marianne van Remoortel and Marysa Demoor), Valentine Cunningham contributes a fine essay on the sonnets of Tennyson's brother: "Charles (Tennyson) Turner and the Power of the Small Poetic Thing" (VP 48, no. 4: 509-521). Turner's sonnets self-consciously announce their investment in small things not only in form but also subject-small animals, little girls, little England. But Cunningham reverses customary critical connections between modest scale and Turner's self-effacement relative to his laureate brother to probe the sonnets' ambition, which often depict the power of a small thing to envelop and even overwhelm vast reaches of time and space, whether a pocket watch capturing, then redirecting rays of the setting sun onto the landscape or little England subduing large tracts of the globe. Two essays probing the status of Shakespeare's sonnets in the nineteenth century are useful for the light these cast on In Memoriam. Rhian Williams ("'Pyramids of Egypt': Shakespeare's Sonnets and A Victorian Turn to Obscurity" [VP 48, no. 4: 489-508]) notes the impasse posed by Shakespeare for predominant expressive models of poetry, since his sonnets implied either deviant sexuality or a flawed icon of national identity. Robert Matz's fascinating "The Scandals of Shakespeare's Sonnets" (ELH 77, no. 2: 477-508) assembles compelling evidence that Shakespeare's "scandal" for nineteenth-century readers was less same-sex than adulterous desire (in contrast to post-Freudian, twentieth-century audiences that saw in robust heterosexual randiness expressions of health). Matz backs up his assertion that male romantic friendship remained an honorific operative ideal for Victorians with evidence from Wordsworth and Arnold, whose schoolboy commentary at Rugby lauded Shakespeare's sonnets on these very grounds. Henry Hallam's oft-quoted wish that Shakespeare had never written the sonnets, Matz suggests, may derive less from the speaker's expression of affection for a young man than the prospect of a middle-class poet abasing himself before a noble patron.

Other scholars explored the relation of Tennyson to song and sound in 2010. Elizabeth Helsinger provides a superb analysis of song's function when it is embedded in lyric or narrative poetry in "Song's Fictions" (Yearbook of English Studies: The Arts in Victorian Literature, ed. Stefano Evangelista and Catherine Maxwell [Maney Publishing], pp. 141-159). Simultaneously theorizing and closely reading the effects of embedded song in Tennyson and Swinburne, Helsinger suggests that song functions both as meta-commentary and as embodied immediacy of performance. Thus song instates an alternative order of space and time in "Tears, Idle Tears," bringing the past into the present and forestalling the future, which is precisely why the forward-looking Ida rejects the song's performance. If song's entrancing immediacy can seduce, as when Merlin loses himself in Vivien's song and becomes her victim, song also has the performative power to forge community. Indeed, Helsinger reads song in the Idylls as a counterpart to and trope for Arthur's laws, which can through repetitions, aural harmonies, ability to merge the real and ideal, and communal integration bring a new order into being but is-like all song-inherently unsustainable in time.

Jane Wright, in "Sincerity's Repetition: Carlyle, Tennyson and Other Repetitive Victorians" (Romanticism, Sincerity and Authenticity, ed. Tim Milnes and Kerry Sinanan [Palgrave Macmillan], pp. 162-181), suggests that Tennyson's insistent repetitions in his verbal music become so obvious that the style becomes sincere, openly avowing its workings to the reader and thereby inviting trust. Angela Leighton's memorable lecture on "Tennyson's Hum" at the 2009 bicentenary conference in Lincoln can now be revisited in the Tennyson Research Bulletin (TRB 9, no. 4: 315-329). She elucidates the distinctive undersong or "hum" that is both residue of and aural diapason within Tennyson's poetry. This distinctive effect, Leighton suggests, is the sound of Tennyson listening to what he hears in the act of creating poems, which is registered in his repetitions (often chiastic) that perform an articulation and then a listening to that articulation, or in speakers who are often distracted from immediate surroundings to listen to what is far away (as in The Lover's Tale, of which Leighton provides an elegant exegesis). Clara Dawson also takes up the undersong or hum of deep lyric subjectivity that only the poet can hear ("'A Tale of Little Meaning': The Mind's Ear in Tennyson's Early Poetry" [Tennyson Rresearch Bulletin 9, no. 4: 356-363]) but focuses on how that subjectivity turns toward finding an audience by translating what he (or his imagined character) hears into communicable meaning. In "The Mermaid" the speaker compares her song to a golden fountain with an inner sound, translating sound into a visual image that secures an audience (the sea creatures) and thereby confers meaning on her song. The rift between the lotos-eating mariners' inward song and their claim to hear the island's sounds poses the question whether poetry originates in the poet or in the world and juxtaposes competing acts and ethics of listening.

Francis O'Gorman re-enlivens poetry's connection to the novel in "What is Haunting Tennyson's Maud (1855)?" (VP 48, no. 3: 293-311). O'Gorman suggests that In Memoriam shares features of the gothic novel insofar as it never dissociates living spirit from decomposing material remains of the beloved dead and repeatedly considers how, and in what form, the dead might revisit the living. If In Memoriam dramatizes in Section 95 the realized possibility of the dead returning to the living, O'Gorman considers Maud a project that enabled Tennyson to distance himself from the famous elegy that threatened to overshadow his career and, in the face of spiritualism's increasing popularity, subvert any suggestion that we can summon the dead. O'Gorman's compelling reading of the madhouse scene, in which the buried man strives vainly to speak to the living and is assailed by the dead's ceaseless chatter, as a nightmarish, demythologizing version of the dead's return in In Memoriam reinforces his revisionary account of the two poems' relation.

John Morton's Tennyson Among the Novelists (Continuum) explores in fiction from Tennyson's time to our own two forms of Tennyson's literary afterlife: allusion as defined by Christopher Ricks and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst (i.e., intrinsic to another artist's invention of new meaning) and reception that registers Tennyson's critical standing. Prime examples of allusion include Elizabeth Gaskell's echo of In Memoriam to register Margaret Hale's parallel sorrow in leaving her Helstone garden in North and South or Leopold Bloom's inward thought during a concert about the "rift within the lute" from Tennyson's Idylls just when his wife is having an affair with Blazes Boylan in James Joyce's Ulysses. Predominantly, however, Morton charts the reception of Tennyson in fiction, making us realize, for example, how surprisingly often D. H. Lawrence quotes Tennyson, and proving along the way how deeply embedded Tennyson remains in cultural memory. The last three (of nine) chapters have the additional merit of functioning as a resource book for Neovictorian courses or reading lists. I wish that an editorial hand had intervened, however, to prevent the recurrent reference to A. S. Byatt's novella as The Conjugal rather than Conjugial Angel or the assertion that Hardy published no poetry before Queen Victoria's death (despite Wessex Poems, 1898). Morton lacks space to follow up on the implications of many of his details, but his study is a compendium of fascinating literary traces of Tennyson, who turns up in some very unexpected places indeed.

Morton justly terms the novel of Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze (U.K., 2009; U.S. 2010 [Penguin]) "the most believable" and "least caricatured fictional representation of the poet" to date (Morton, p. 149). If the novel principally explores the fine line between madness and sanity in the paired obsessions of poet John Clare and his keeper Dr. Matthew Allen, proprietor of the High Beach asylum, Foulds also deftly pairs Allen and Tennyson in relation to the monomaniacal drives that propel creativity and an almost physical need to be recognized for it. The "dirty monk" side of Tennyson is humorously, even malodorously, brought before readers, but Foulds, himself a poet, also dares fictional representations of Tennyson's moments of creative invention, here in terms that suggest "Break, break, break": "The forest dies into itself, growing, shapes fading, eaten, lengthening anew. Yes, yes. And thought, the unbreaking wave, constantly changing-colours, shapes, sinuously pouring towards the world, pushing with language" (pp. 25-26). Foulds knows Tennyson biography well and musters details that many Tennyson scholars will find pleasure in recognizing; best of all are moments in which Foulds imagines the poet's inward responses that scholarship can never recover, as when, listening to a Sunday sermon by Allen, Tennyson mentally compares it to his father's Somersby sermons, prompting us to think anew what that weekly experience must have been like for the adolescent son.

The Palgrave Literary Dictionary of Tennyson (Palgrave Macmillan) by Valerie Purton and Norman Page include full entries on Tennyson's father, his library, and even his doctor, Dr. Bousfield. It is an immensely useful reference work that functions as a dictionary proper for place names and people (with ample cross references) and as headnotes for individual poems and volumes, often spiced with the editors' judgments of Tennyson's success (they have reservations about "The Ancient Sage" but mount sprightly defenses of Tennyson's narrative poetry and his late lyrics such as "Roses on the Terrace"). It is learned and useful, worth dipping into as well as directing students to it, though the entry on periodicals is incomplete and Gawain's ghostly appearance to Arthur on the eve before the final battle is oddly traced to Shakespeare rather than Malory. No entry appears on William and Mary Howitt, who enjoyed a warm friendship with Tennyson in the later 1840s, and Emily Ritchie is twice named but never identified. But these are exceptions to the compilers' thorough coverage.

Emily Ritchie, cousin and sister-in-law to Annie Thackeray Ritchie, is the focus of John Aplin's Tennyson Society Monograph 'The Greatest Honour of My Life': Emily Ritchie's Recollections of Tennyson. Aplin located a typescript of Ritchie's record of Tennyson's conversation as part of his work on the Thackeray family papers and reproduces it here, prefaced by a deft memoir of Ritchie herself. Hallam Tennyson (for whom Ritchie may have harbored romantic longings) evidently mined the record of Tennyson's remarks for the Memoir, which makes any new materials of special interest. The most interesting to me were Tennyson's more vehement repudiation of eternal punishment-"St Augustin's descriptions of unbaptised infants crawling in everlasting torture revolts any mind of the present day. Rather than believe in a Deity who could call things into existence and then inflict upon them, no matter how innocent or guilty, such horrible torments eternally, I would say Damn God!!" (p. 16)-or his remark that Dr. Tennyson "held Unitarian views" about the trinity (p. 19).

Tennyson's place in a wider literary history also received recurring attention in 2010. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst perforce covers some familiar ground in his chapter "Tennyson: Still Life" (The Cambridge History of English Poetry, ed. Michael O'Neill [Cambridge University Press]), but does so with customary elegance and penetrating discernment. He focuses on telling details that imbue Tennyson's poetry with resurgent vitality in the midst of representations of entropy or stasis, as in the restless after-mutterings of feminine rhymes ("chilly," "tiger-lily") in the terminal stanza-lines of "A Spirit Haunts the Year's Last Hours." Douglas-Fairhurst also notes the effect of Tennyson's stating that "some one" had blundered in "Charge of the Light Brigade," which singles out without naming rather than resorting to the impersonal, guilt-evading "someone." Richard Cronin sensibly avers that there is no unifying style in "Victorian Poetry: An Overview" in the same volume, though noting the recurring themes of self-consciousness, inward divisions, belatedness, and antipathy to commodification. Cronin reprises some of his lively remarks from last year on Tennyson and nonsense verse in a section on children's verse. But Cronin ends on a note of Arnoldian melancholy, suggesting that the one thing all Victorian poets knew, no matter their style or ideology, was that poetry no longer occupied a central place in the world. This is a view I question in The Cambridge Introduction to Victorian Poetry (Cambridge Univ. Press), which emphasizes the broad audience poetry found through widely circulating periodicals, reprints, and other forms of mass-circulation print culture. Part I focuses on form, Part II on poets' dialogues about a range of issues; and Tennyson figures prominently in chapters on Victorian experimentalism (The Princess, Maud), science (In Memoriam, Maud, "Lucretius"), and empire (Idylls) as well as making brief appearances throughout.

In "London: Capital of the Nineteenth Century" (New Literary History 41, no. 1: 111-128), Evan Horowitz contributes a fascinating intervention in transnational, not merely British, literary history. Horowitz convincingly argues that for Baudelaire London, not Paris (pace Walter Benjamin) represented modernity, as indicated by his importation of the specifically English word "spleen" as a defining symptom of modern alienation and by his "plagiats" from English poetry reworked to new effect. Tennyson's "it seemed always afternoon" ("The Lotos-Eaters," l. 4) resurfaces in Baudelaire's "Le Voyage" ("aprčs-midi qui n'a jamais de fin!"), but "Ulysses," Horowitz suggests, inspired the structure of Baudelaire's poem, since the Frenchman read Ulysses' obsession with continuous voyaging as a trope of that "uniquely modern form of perversity called progress" (p. 119). One implication of Horowitz's revised literary history is that "Ulysses" might now profitably be reread in relation to "Locksley Hall." Parvin Loloi also tracks transnational literary history in "Hafiz and the Language of Love in Nineteenth-Century English and American Poetry" (Hafiz and the Religion of Love in Classical Persian Poetry, ed. Leonard Lewisohn [I. B. Tauris]). Loloi makes the case that Tennyson's own interest in Persian and the poetry of Hafiz (a factor in the representation of ecstatic love in The Princess, "The Gardener's Daughter," "The Day Dream," "The Vision of Sin," "Akbar's Dream," In Memoriam, and The Lover's Tale) derives less from Sir William Jones than Goethe, whose own West-östlicher Divan (1819) was made possible by the translation into German of Hafiz's The Divan by Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall (1812-1813).

John Holmes reassesses Tennyson's Romantic and classical heritage in "The Ionian Father: Tennyson and Homer" (Tennyson Research Bulletin 9 no. 4: 330-347), arguing forcefully that Tennyson worked out his response to Romanticism and its legacy of transformative imagination through his classical poems. The defining issue of Tennyson's early poetry inspired by Homer ("The Sea-Fairies," "The Lotos-Eaters," "The Hesperides"), Holmes suggests, is the threefold temptation of self-indulgent pleasure in idyllic nature, freedom from toil, and poetry as its own end. The narrative frames attached to the earliest classical poems register Tennyson's ambivalence about the imagination then unloosed in their narratives. Only in "Ulysses" does Tennyson enact the role of Romantic poet, a point confirmed in readers' long identification with the protagonist's resistance to mortal bounds and adherence to a high heroic ideal even though Ulysses is himself assigned the role of tempter who induces mariners to leave home for the joys of unending exploration. Holmes shores up his identification of Ulysses as tempter by freshly exploring accepted sources of the poem. In Dante's Inferno Ulysses never arrives home to begin with, since the desire to keep sailing overwhelms the mariners' desire for reunion; and in Book 14 of the Odyssey, when Odysseus meets his swineherd Eumaeus and denigrates the comforts of home relative to the delights of battle and voyaging, he is lying, pretending to be the illegitimate son of a nobleman. Tennyson's assumption of the Romantic mantle in "Ulysses" is thus atypical, and in "Tithon" Tennyson bid farewell to the Romantic poet he might have become, enacting his conclusion that the realm of the infinite is not suited to humankind and that it is better not "To vary from his kind" ("Tithon," l. 21).

"Ulysses" figures very differently in Emily C. Bartels' "Outside the Box: Surviving Survival" (Literature and Medicine 28, no. 2 [2009]: 237-252), one of several essays approaching Tennyson in terms of public or cultural memory. If Bartels' ultimate purpose is to probe the ontology of the cancer survivor (not ill, but often essentialized in a state of non-cure), she also critiques the misreading of "Ulysses" by Dr. Jerri Nielsen in Icebound: A Doctor's Incredible Battle for Survival of the South Pole (2001), which takes its epigraph from the poem (ll. 6-12). If Nielsen embraces Ulysses' heroic potential but ignores his retreat into nostalgia after line 12, Bartels contends that the poem's central dramatic conflict is not domestic duty versus heroic questing but two forms of inauthenticity, an attempt to reenter a past forever closed versus unwillingness to come to terms with a limited present. In this reading, the poem-as Tennyson said-is precisely about the need to move forward.

Religion and memory intersect in Julia Courtney's "'The Kraken': Aunt Bourne, and the End of the World" (Tennyson Research Bulletin 9, no. 4: 348-355) and Devon Fisher's "The Becoming Character of Tennyson's Simeon Stylites" (VP 48, no. 3: 313-326). Courtney concurs with Gerhard Joseph's psychoanalytic reading of "The Kraken" as an exploration of coming into voice, but she argues that Tennyson's memory of his Aunt's Calvinist eschatology, post-Napoleonic millenarianism, and developments in marine biology of the 1820s and 1830s also figure in the poem's representation of an apocalyptic marine birth that is a death. Drawing upon the rhetorical theory of Paul Ricoeur, Fisher approaches "St. Simeon Stylites" less in terms of Simeon's subjectivity than a poem exploring how a fixed character (for example, of a saint) becomes permanently impressed upon cultural memory. The answer lies in the force of a public narrative imposed upon perhaps groundless facts rather than through verifiable facts themselves. Such a realization had profound effects, Fisher argues, on Tennyson's subsequent career, as he sought to craft narratives that would allow, variously, Arthur Henry Hallam, the Duke of Wellington, Prince Albert, and King Arthur to enter public memory as exemplars of cultural ideals that helped (as did saints' lives) secure social cohesion.

Aaron Yale Heisler ("The English Destiny of Tennyson's Camelot," Philological Quarterly 88, nos. 1-2 [2009]: 151-170) argues that the linguistic memory embedded in the opening lines of "The Coming of Arthur" foretells Arthur's inevitable doom, since their shift from primarily Anglo-Saxon words (king, daughter, other, child, fairest, flesh, earth) to "delight," derived from the romance languages-and glancing toward the female principle-recapitulates the entire history of a Celtic romance hero giving way to an English identity forged from an Anglo-Saxon and then Norman French conquest.

Jonah Siegel's "Display Time: Art, Disgust, and the Returns of the Crystal Palace" (pp. 33-60) is another fine essay in the 2010 Yearbook of English Studies cited above. Siegel filters a complex, multi-layered consideration of modernity, memory, periodicity, and commodification through Tennyson's "The Palace of Art," the Crystal Palace in its original and Sydenham versions, and the theorizing of cultural memory and museums by Ruskin, Walter Benjamin, and others. Written before the nation had a "palace" for the permanent display of art, Tennyson's poem anticipates and embodies a specifically modern orientation toward art; even if ethical issues resulting from the Soul's appropriation of godlike power ends the Soul's initial residence, "The Palace of Art" enunciates the possibility of return that is intrinsic to the modern museum.

Among the essays collected in Lorraine Janzen Kooistra's special issue of VP [48, no. 1] devoted to "Victorian Poetry and the Book Arts," Tennyson is a recurring point of reference but a sustained presence only in "Palms and Temples: Edward Lear's Topographies" (pp. 73-94) by the late Richard Maxwell. If like Anna Barton in 2009 Maxwell takes up the counterpointed narratives of Lear's Journal of a Landscape Painter in Albania, &c. (1851) and Tennyson's "To E.L., on His Travels in Greece" (1853), Maxwell discerns a less contestatory relation between them. For if Tennyson effaces Lear's humor, he tacitly pays tribute to the power of Lear's book to transport him (in a double sense): "I turned the page / And tracked you still" (ll. 9-10). But Maxwell's principal focus is on Lear's projected book "Landscape Illustrations of Tennyson," which generated 200 artworks but never reached publication due to Lear's divided aims of documenting the vivid fidelity of Tennyson's pictorial details and executing sketches inspired by Tennyson's suggestive details (for example, the glimmering optical effects contingent on a day's cycle) after the manner of J.M.W. Turner's Liber Studiorum. Maxwell's account gains greater poignancy from the knowledge that Maxwell himself had begun a book-length project on travel narratives and landscape evocations but was prevented by cancer from completing it. Cancer claimed another fine Tennyson scholar in June 2011, with the sad and untimely passing of A. A. Markley, author of Stateliest Measures: Tennyson and the Literature of Greece and Rome (2004).

Author affiliation:

LINDA K. HUGHES, Addie Levy Professor of Literature at Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Texas, is the author most recently of Graham R.: Rosamund Marriott Watson, Woman of Letters (2005), and The Cambridge Introduction to Victorian Poetry (2010), which approaches poetry in the context of print culture. Two recent essays have appeared in VP: "Inventing Poetry and Pictorialism in Once a Week: A Magazine of Visual Effects" (Spring 2010), and "Ironizing Prosody in John Davidson's 'A Ballad in Blank Verse'" (Summer 2011).

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