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"Who knows if he be dead?": Maud, signification, and the Madhouse Canto.

The most compelling question in Tennyson's Maud (1855) is not, as some have suggested, "What is it, that has been done?" (1) but rather, "Who knows if he be dead?" (II.119). Both of these inquiries, in their immediate contexts, relate to the speaker's uncertainty surrounding the fate of Maud's brother after their duel, but each also represents a more general method of reading the poem. Most readers have approached Maud with the first question in mind, either to attempt to reconstruct the events that take place in this notoriously fragmented narrative or to foreground their absence. (2) The latter question, however, draws our attention toward what E. Warwick Slinn calls the "brilliance of Tennyson's dialectical and figurative ambiguity which shifts dramatic action away from external event towards signifying process." (3) Asking "Who knows if he be dead?" provides an occasion to look beyond the "O that 'twere possible" lyric (privileged as the historical, compositional, and thematic germ of Maud (4)) and to thereby reconsider the function of the less-analyzed "madhouse canto" that follows it. Here, the speaker surrenders at last to the insanity that has haunted him throughout the poem and raves under the delusion that he has died and has been buried in a makeshift tomb. Given the poem's preoccupation with death and madness, it is easy to dismiss the speaker's conflation of the asylum with a "shallow grave" as an incidental trope deployed to demonstrate the extent of his insanity. Most of Tennyson's readers have done something of the sort, if they have noticed this section at all. However, even if we accept that the "burial" experienced by the Maud speaker is the disturbed reality of a deranged mind, it nonetheless reflects and cites the concerns of a cultural and scientific discourse that is missed when we focus too much on Tennyson's sheerly psychological skill in rendering madness. Premature burial, while today associated almost exclusively with Gothic horror, was to the nineteenth century a possible (if not entirely likely) consequence of medical error. Understood within the context of uncertainty surrounding death, Maud's so-called mad scene discloses a fear of what might be broadly termed insignificance: not only the lack of societal importance the speaker complains of across the poem, but also a textual condition in which one's very survival depends on other people's reading practices which are themselves always open to dispute.

The rhetorical question "Who knows if he be dead?" is key to Tennyson's construction of Maud in and as discourse. A rhetorical question, as Paul de Man explains, "engenders two meanings that are mutually exclusive: the literal meaning asks for the concept (difference) whose existence is denied by the figurative meaning." (5) Although we usually privilege the figural meaning over the literal (that is, we understand that the speaker is not literally searching for a person who could report on the status of Maud's brother but is commenting on the impossibility of establishing that status), de Man invites us to consider the possibility that the literal meaning might also be equally urgent. The conjunction of meanings that are mutually exclusive and mutually dependent creates what de Man calls a referential aberration, an undecidable suspension of reference between literal and figural. The two meanings thus no longer "exist side by side" but "engage each other in direct confrontation, for the one reading is precisely the error denounced by the other and has to be undone by it. Nor can we in any way make a valid decision as to which of the readings can be given priority over the other; none can exist in the other's absence" (de Man, p. 12). The mode of the rhetorical question and the referential aberration it opens in the text help us recover the literal connotations of the Maud speaker's figural burial. Slinn applies de Man's frame of referential aberration specifically to explore in Victorian poetry what he describes as "the potential for cultural critique engendered ... by that suspension of normative referential logic that is frequently an effect of poetic utterance" (Cultural Critique, p. 10). Although my argument will not directly address critique as such, it is implicit in many of the questions of signification raised in Maud, especially since Tennyson situates these issues within the social world, unsettled and sometimes marginal as it occasionally appears in the poem.

1. "They cannot even bury a man"

As the well-known story goes, Tennyson composed Maud's "mad scene" in about twenty minutes at the beginning of 1855, making it one of the last sections of the poem to be written (Shatto, pp. 208-209). Placed just after "O that 'twere possible" and right before the poem's perpetually controversial conclusion, it marks a rare forward movement in a text that Aubrey de Vere famously described as being "written, as it were, backwards." (6) From a narrative perspective the canto breaks very little new ground. The speaker revisits the circumstances that occasioned his present crisis, but the emphasis is no longer on events ("What is it, that has been done?") but rather on betrayal: "Who told him we were there?" (II.290). Though he repeats key images and phrases from earlier in the poem, the speaker remains powerless to make meaning out of his plight. He no longer possesses even the modicum of self-awareness that earlier had enabled him to wonder whether he was "raging alone as [his] father raged in his mood" (I.53); now, he simply rages as this mood takes him. To the extent that Maud as a whole relies, as Aidan Day argues, on the "representation of the condition of near madness" to generate its "peculiar force," (7) the fully-realized insanity portrayed in the final section of Part II constitutes the lessening of that force and, consequently, of our reasons to be interested in it. Part III, for example, has generated a passionate debate about Tennyson's politics and his speaker's language; the madhouse canto seems to offer no comparable ambiguity. (8)

However, at a time when widespread uncertainty about the signs of death made the Victorian reading public "deeply ambivalent about the ambitions of medical science," (9) the speaker's belief that he has died yet still retains consciousness and physical sensibility is legible not simply as evidence of madness but also as a speculative fiction concerning the unknowability of death. Tennyson's poetry of the 1840s already registers some of the nineteenth century's uncertainty about the boundaries between life and death, with the most significant example from this period being the narrator of The Princess (1847), who suffers from an inherited susceptibility to catalepsy. At the moments when he is "silent in the muffled cage of life" (7.32), the paralyzed Prince embodies the more haunting figure of "Death in life, the days that are no more" (4.40) who passes through the final line of "Tears, Idle Tears." When he becomes inexplicably paralyzed during the battle, the Prince appears "stark, / Dishelmed and mute, and motionlessly pale" (6.84-85), and only Princess Ida is able to discern that he still lives, though without evidence of vital signs. Thanks to Ida's attentiveness, the Prince is never in imminent danger of live burial. He nevertheless recognizes the connection between that fate and thwarted communication, using that distressing possibility to heighten the suspense of his first attempt to speak to Ida as his coma dissipates:
      I could no more, but lay like one in trance,
   That hears his burial talked of by his friends,
   And cannot speak, nor move, nor make one sign,
   But lies and dreads his doom. (7.136-139)

True, he speaks figuratively--but just barely, given that he has been lying in a trance that with a different set of bystanders could have ended with that "doom" he imagines.

"Death-in-Life" is also the title of an anonymous article by George Henry Lewes in the July 1847 issue of Fraser's magazine. (10) Staged as a discussion among a group of educated men at a dinner party, this fictional tale surveys contemporary medical and anecdotal information about bodily states that confound professional medical attempts to diagnose death. The discussants explore the implications of an episode experienced by of one of them, a military man, at the beginning of his career. Recalling the "concomitance of keen sensibility, with a complete absence of all outward indications thereof" (p. 110), this Captain Hurst describes how his deathlike paralysis allowed him to hear everything around him and feel everything that was done to his body without being able to make any sign to show that he was still alive. The harrowing two days Hurst spent as a sentient corpse forced him to reconsider everything he had previously believed to be true about his own body:
   I began to ask myself, "Is this death? Am I really alive? Do the
   dead hear and feel?"

      I then thought of the imperishable nature of my soul. It, of
   course, preserves itself through all bodily decay. Is it imprisoned
   in the body as long as the body holds together? and shall I be
   liberated only on the utter falling away of these fleshly walls
   that encompass me? Am I to be buried, sensible of all that is going
   on around me? (p. 109)

The other characters in "Death-in-Life" accept Hurst's experience as authentic material for a scientific discussion about death and consciousness. We know all along that Hurst, like the Maud speaker, is not actually dead, but, unlike the Maud speaker, we are never expected to think that he is mad. Hurst's reflections are imagined as what any educated person would think in this situation. Even though this combination of paralysis, consciousness, and sensibility seems medically unlikely, (11) it is interpretable within the bounds of Victorian medicine, which possessed "an opulent if unstable vocabulary to designate bodily conditions that hovered between the fully animate and the irrecoverably dead. Trance, coma, syncope, catalepsy, insensibility, suspended animation, human hibernation, and anesthesia were only the most common labels for what appeared to be corporal frontiers" (Behlmer, p. 208).

The widely acknowledged source for Maud's graveyard imagery is Edgar Allan Poe's 1844 story, "The Premature Burial" (Shatto, pp. 208-209). Although Gerhard Joseph, in his definitive study of the two authors, dismisses the Maud speaker's delusion of live interment as a rare lapse wherein "states [of immobility] in Tennyson's work achieve some of the more luridly gothic effects of Poe," (12) "The Premature Burial" is notable for its restraint in situating its subject within the realm of everyday possibility. (13) Appealing to "the direct testimony of medical and ordinary experience" (p. 667), Poe's narrator describes a number of live burials, complete with names and specific details, before introducing his own "positive and personal experience" (p. 672) with his topic. The subtle terror of "The Premature Burial," in contrast to Poe's other stories like "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Fall of the House of Usher," comes from its depictions of live burial as a result of honest and possibly inevitable cognitive mistakes in reading unreadable bodies. Medical mistakes can happen even when all the procedures have been followed. In the case of one congressman's wife, for example:
   No one suspected, indeed, or had reason to suspect, that she was
   not actually dead. She presented all the ordinary appearances of
   death. The face assumed the usual pinched and sunken outline. The
   lips were of the usual marble pallor. The eyes were lustreless.
   There was no warmth. Pulsation had ceased. For three days the body
   was preserved, unburied, during which it had acquired a stony
   rigidity. (p. 667)

In spite of all the indications, however, this respectable Baltimore lady was not dead, and her gruesome fate was not discovered, Poe writes, until two years later. The narrator's fear of being buried alive, similarly, originates in his body's tendency to assume an outward form that might lead others to assume (not illogically, hastily, or maliciously) that he has died. Jan Bondeson comments that "compared with the flights of fancy enjoyed by some of the serious medical writers on the perils of premature burial, Poe was a mere dismal realist; compared with the grand guignol visions of horror they conjured up, his images were those of a squeamish maiden aunt." (14) No doubt, Poe's aggregation of plausible-sounding reports, coupled with the narrator's first-person account of catalepsy and paranoia induced by the reading of these reports, gave his more credulous readers material for terrified meditation. But Poe hardly invented the underlying fears, and George Behlmer has recently observed that Poe's story "would not have resonated so powerfully with its transatlantic readership had medicine been of one mind about the nature of human vitality" (p. 215).

The affinity between "The Premature Burial" and Maud's mad scene extends beyond the theme of immobility to express shared uncertainties about signification. The breakdowns in bodily communication that Poe envisions are not so different from the linguistic ones that are realized across Maud; in both cases, the individual who fails to be one thing or another comes under life-threatening pressure. The image of premature burial is a fitting culmination for Maud, given what Matthew Rowlinson calls "a pervasive thematic concern with utterances that fail or suffer foreclosure." (15) The consequences of such foreclosure are more relentlessly embodied in the madhouse canto than anywhere else in the poem: the starkly repetitive report, "the hoofs of the horses beat, beat, / The hoofs of the horses beat, / Beat into my scalp and my brain" (II.246-248), is perhaps the only section of the poem where the speaker experiences the outside world in the present tense.

2. "I thought the dead had peace, but it is not so"

The tenuous lyric hope expressed at the end of "O that 'twere possible," "to weep, and weep, and weep / My whole soul out to thee" (II.237-238), is shattered with remarkable abruptness in the disembodied opening of the madhouse canto: "Dead, long dead, / Long dead!" (II.239-240). The transformation of the "still cavern deep" (II.236) into the grave that lies "Only a yard beneath the street" (II.245) disrupts lyric topography in a manner that implies that the second location is the more appropriate site for disclosure of the speaker's "soul," which may be as shallow as he finds his grave. From this vulnerable position, the speaker experiences the "stream of passing feet" (II.249) above him as a torturous intrusion on his harried corpse and a painful reminder that he is not even important enough to merit a decent burial. What all of this amounts to is a definitive disarticulation of the speaker's long-established association of withdrawal and tranquil security. Though he aspired to a "passionless peace" "Far-off from the clamour of liars belied in the hubbub of lies" (I.151, 152), his imagined self-burial leaves him, paradoxically, more vulnerable to the incursions of the outside world than ever before. His ability to respond is all that he has managed to foreclose; the "Clamour and rumble, and ringing and clatter" (II.251) persist.

The speaker does not, in the opening stanza of the madhouse canto, consider himself explicitly as the victim of a live inhumation. His language is more confused, and instead of the terror we might expect from someone who has just awakened in a shallow grave, his first reaction is disappointment:
      I thought the dead had peace, but it is not so;
   To have no peace in the grave, is that not sad?
   But up and down and to and fro,
   Ever about me the dead men go;
   And then to hear a dead man chatter
   Is enough to drive one mad. (II.253-258)

The speaker had voiced a desire near the beginning of the poem to "bury myself in myself" (I.75) and thereby refuse to participate in an uncertain social world. That metaphor and its corruption in the madhouse canto are symptomatic of a more general phenomenon that Michael Wheeler identifies in Victorian eschatology: "although [figurative language] may suit a specific context or spiritual need, other extraneous and purely physical associations can be evoked. This is a particularly frequent occurrence in writing on death and burial, where the other-worldly perspective of a bereaved person is all too likely to be interrupted by the physical reality of this world." (16) The speaker's disillusion stems from the sense that he has been let down not just by his individual emotional investments but by an entire Victorian cultural and theological discourse, in which we might well include In Memoriam, that constructs the grave as a site of rest, security, and peaceful sleep.

Kirstie Blair's study of heart images in Victorian poetry also identifies a slippage between material and the figural, but rather than arguing that one interrupts the other, she foregrounds the discourse that emerges from their intersection. The speakers of Tennyson's two major poems of the 1850s are, Blair argues, "struggling to come to terms with their lack of poetic command, their inability to separate the metaphorical from the literal, and their helpless consciousness of underlying heartsickness." (17) Blair's observations about the instability of figural and literal levels in nineteenth-century discourse are affirmed by Behlmer's catalogue of live burials used as metaphors for other kinds of confinement: "innocent girls immured in nunneries ... the financially feckless entombed in debt ... pottery workers slowly suffocating in clay dust; and of course ... coal miners and grave diggers who, on occasion, were literally buried alive. Where the trope ended and true vivisepulture began could be nearly as hard to distinguish as the body's vital signs" (p. 209). Read within other Victorian discourses of live burial, the madhouse scene emerges as something more than the random projection of a disordered mind operating in isolation. By asking "Who knows if he be dead?," Tennyson cultivates referential aberration as a way of aligning his speaker's plight with other insignificant and non-signifying bodies.

Traditional funeral practices reflected uncertainty about the status of the corpse and attempted to accommodate both the physical realities of putrefaction and the belief that a recently dead body occupies a transitional spiritual state, retaining traces of the deceased. Rural practices such as providing food and drink for the dead indicate, Ruth Richardson argues, "a widely held conviction that the human corpse possessed both sentience and some sort of spiritual power," an ambiguity that may stem from the practical difficulties of defining and recognizing death. (18) Furthermore, advances in techniques of resuscitation reopened seemingly settled questions about the finality of death in cases of drowning and asphyxiation, transforming these traditional concerns into efforts of the mid-eighteenth and nineteenth century to establish reliable scientific indicators for death. One of the most important texts in this regard was Jean-Jacques Bruhier's Dissertation sur l'incertitude des signes de la mort. First published in the 1740s, Bruhier's sensationalized and much-expanded translation of a more rigorous work of anatomy asserts that putrefaction is the only reliable sign of death and argues for a cumbersome reform of burial practices throughout Europe that include the creation of public waiting mortuaries. (19) Bruhier's first edition detailed no less than 181 cases of apparent deaths, varying widely in their outcomes and their authenticity. Bruhier's work enjoyed a long period of prominence; by the beginning of the nineteenth century the cessation of breathing had been definitively rejected as an unequivocal sign, but, save for putrefaction of the limbs, no other infallible criterion had emerged. The ideal mark of death must not only be absolute and unequivocal--and, preferably, free of the logistical and hygienic inconveniences associated with allowing a body to putrefy--it must also respond to reliable tests that could be administered and interpreted by anyone, regardless of his level of medical expertise. To institutionalize a test that was too complicated or not sufficiently specific would, obviously, do more harm than good by officially classifying certain living bodies as dead (Bondeson, p. 138).

Anecdotes abouts live burial, many of which have their roots in folklore and local legend, are frequently and laughably formulaic. Yet they sometimes attained surprising credibility as supporting evidence of the real difficulties of reading the human body. An 1845 Medical Times article by Charles Clay prefaces its discussion of apparent death by stating, essentially, that even if the particular circumstances around each anecdote of premature burial cannot be historically verified, they nonetheless disclose more important principles of humanitarian urgency:
   It is true, many circumstances have been related of so marvellous a
   nature, as to lead to a doubt of their authenticity, but there are
   many others so well attested, that we cannot deny their general
   accuracy, particularly when connected with circumstances that have
   occurred in the experience of almost every person of mature age,
   and acute observation: sufficient will be established to prove the
   importance to futurity, as well as the best means of avoiding the
   errors and prejudices of former times, and to place this important
   subject on a surer basis than it has hitherto been. (20)

There is, no doubt, a certain irony (not often remarked upon in these kinds of texts) in the act of suspending questions of verifiability as they apply to stories that demonstrate the necessity of verification, but it is an irony that pervades the scientific literature on the signs of death and stories like those of Poe and Lewes; Clay refers his readers to Bruhier and the Encyclopedia Britannica for further information.

One of the cases that Clay mentions in his article is that of Charlotte Clopton. This daughter of a wealthy family in Stratford-on-Avon died of the plague (or so it seemed) in the late sixteenth century and was quickly placed in the family vault. When another family member was buried a few days later, the second tragedy was compounded by the discovery of
   Charlotte Clopton in her grave-clothes leaning against the wall....
   [S]he was indeed dead, but not before, in the agonies of despair
   and hunger, she had bitten a piece from her white round shoulder!
   Of course, she had walked ever since. (21)

Charlotte Clopton's story, like Charlotte Clopton's ghost, walks. This particular retelling of the centuries-old tale comes from an 1840 travelogue by Elizabeth Gaskell, who recalls it from a visit to Clopton House she made as a girl. (22) Clay, in the Medical Times essay, cites it (without the Gothic trappings) as a poignant illustration of the inadequacy of diagnostic procedures, especially at times of widespread sickness (p. 270). His account, in turn, seems to come from a lecture on medical jurisprudence by A. T. Thomson, a respected physician, which was reprinted in the London Medical and Surgical Journal of April 25, 1835. (23) Thomson, like Clay ten years later, mentions the Clopton incident among several other famous stories, including that of the plague-stricken peasant who recovered on the way to his grave, and the unfortunate Spanish gentleman who awoke during his autopsy. Like these figures, Charlotte Clopton is transformed into the subject of a medical cautionary tale, "show[ing] the necessity of not pronouncing hastily on the presence of death, until the last unequivocal sign presents itself" (Thomson, p. 386).

The debates over the signs of death encouraged a not-entirely-unfounded skepticism among the general public about the ability of professionals to make a reliable diagnosis of death, a skepticism already reflected in the medical mistakes aggregated in Poe's "The Premature Burial." Nineteenth-century speculative fictions such as Lewes's combined scientific discussion and Gothic fantasy, imagining death as an indefinite, hybrid state with terrifying implications for those who find themselves to be caught in the middle. Referential aberration takes on a troubling physical aspect in these bodies that resist all systems of signification, present evidence of death to even the most rigorous investigators, and harbor a living, thinking, and often terrified subject. Avoiding error in all such cases is almost impossible, and the results may be, as they are for Captain Hurst, a kind of "moral and physical torture": "The surgeons thought it necessary to stimulate my nerves and restore them to their sensibility; but their sensibility was frightfully acute! and the pain I suffered in the attempts to restore my sensation of pain was indescribable" ([Lewes], p. 109). If Bondeson's research into Continental techniques of resuscitation is any guide, we can imagine that over the two days of Hurst's paralysis, his sensibility could have been stimulated by itching powder, razor cuts to the soles of his feet and palms of his hands, needles inserted under his nails, a crawling insect in the ear, or an enema of tobacco smoke (Bondeson, pp. 137-143).

The unpeaceful death of the Maud speaker is, as with Hurst, ultimately a result of his not actually being dead. Slinn seems to state the obvious, and summarizes critical consensus since Maud was published, when he writes that "according to the rules of normal existence, where dead men do not speak, this claim to literal burial must of course be figurative, shedding doubt on the speaker's sanity" (Discourse of Self, p. 82). Certainly, the speaker is mad. Clearly, the burial is figurative. But, as my discussion of signification and referential aberration suggests, these two conditions are not necessarily as intimately related as we tend to assume. Lewes's story illuminates the problems associated with grounding claims about death in "the rules of normal existence," with one speaker's observation that Hurst's experience "throws a doubt on that which hitherto had been acknowledged as indisputable, viz. that the dead feel no pain. But do they not? I am not at all sure of it. How are we to prove they do not? The mere absence of any of the signs which, in a normal condition of the body, indicate pain, is no proof; because death is abnormal" (p. 110). Just as Alan Sinfield argues that lyric "reminds us that meaning, communication, language, work only because they are shared, that making yourself understood is interactive, a social affair," (24) medical diagnoses require at the very least communication between two parties. Death is a matter of signs like anything else. If dead men do not speak, that is partially because not being able to speak is a kind of death. If we understand speaking expansively as signification in general, we could say that it is not so much that dead men do not speak, as that dead men no longer speak in a way that is intelligible to other people as a sign of life.

Another work of fiction from the late 1840s, Horace Smith's "Posthumous Memoir of Myself," addresses this issue directly. (25) Incompetently poisoned by his son, Smith's first-person narrator falls into a state of paralysis and is declared dead. During the night before his interment, the narrator's thoughts, not surprisingly, turn toward "miserable victims who, being buried in a trance, had turned round in their coffins; and of some who, having forced themselves out of them, had been discovered as huddled skeletons in a corner of the vault, whither they had crawled to die of hunger and exhaustion" (p. 8). Yet while he is able to banish these speculations--perhaps because they are entirely conventional--he cannot so easily imagine his way out of the possibility that he, as an individual, might be doomed to a "perpetual consciousness" beyond death. Smith's narrator does not need to hear the chatter of the dead to be driven to madness. The experience of absolute insignificance will do it just as effectively: "how could a man be mad and motionless, a maniac and a statue? What inconceivable misery, to feel your brain raving and raging with an insanity which can find no vent for its fury, either by the explosions of the voice or the convulsive violence of the limbs!" (p. 9).

The image of the madman known only to himself anticipates the situation of the Maud speaker, ineffectually "loud in the world of the dead" (II.263). The Maud speaker and those "dead men" around him remain at the mercy of an outside world that remains ignorant of their plight, communicating brutally through the impersonal vibration of horses' hoofs or a well-intentioned but misapplied tobacco enema. Stripped of its more explicit Gothic trappings, the fear of premature burial hinges on the loss of signifying power that renders one completely dependent on other people who, simply because they are other people, can never be capable of knowing everything. Like a locked vault or earthy grave, this dependence is inescapable. Of the many schemes for the prevention of premature burial launched in Britain and Europe during the nineteenth century, not a single one--from the waiting mortuary to the several models of security coffins--could function without the intervention of some other person or persons. That intervention in turn always depended on restoring interpersonal communication where interpersonal communication was the very thing that the entire live-burial complex we have been examining showed had been massively breached. (26)

The Maud speaker and his narrative contemporaries are threatened less by the deliberate intentions of others than by their possession of capricious bodies that fail to signify correctly by presenting itself as sufficiently readable to representatives of the medical profession. Maud takes the situation to an even greater degree of precariousness by demonstrating throughout the poem how that social body is itself in disarray: "it is not merely the protagonist who is mad but Maud's brother, the young lord, the two feuding fathers, the shopkeepers and mine operators, the baker who adulterates his bread, the lying politicians, the Quaker who does not know peace from war, the treacherous and tyrannical czar-all are mad, and there is a sense in which the protagonist, who alone seems to perceive this fact, is the only sane person among them." (27)

3. "Everything came to be known"

A typical assumption of writers in the "signs of death" debate is that official bodies need to prescribe more rigorous reading practices in order to meet the needs of all individual bodies; this belief rests, in turn, on the faith that these individual bodies are, in theory, readable under the right conditions. What Maud and the speculative fictions imply is that there exist certain states which cannot be "read," no matter how careful those reading processes are which are brought to bear on them. Yet, seemingly in spite of the overwhelming force of epistemological breakdown in the madhouse canto, the speaker expresses a paranoid fear of exposure:
      I never whispered a private affair
   Within the hearing of cat or mouse,
   No, not to myself in the closet alone,
   But I heard it shouted at once from the top of the house;
   Everything came to be known. (II.285-289)

When uttered by a victim of live burial, "Everything came to be known" is both an equivocation and a provocation. For, as we have already seen, the referentially aberrant body is a body about which everything cannot, in an absolute sense, be known. A moment in Lewes's "Death-in-Life" makes this fact brutally clear: "If your motory nerves are paralysed, how am I to know that your sensory nerves are not likewise paralysed? You give me no clue. To a spectator there is absolutely no indication of the sensory nerves being in a normal condition. How, then, is it to be known?" (p. 111). Since the apparently dead body is a referential aberration, the power to rectify the reading disorders that lead to live burials may not even lie within the official, social world, even if that world could be cleansed of its babble, gabble, and sundry other sins of "linguistic deviancy" (Tucker, p. 426).

The Maud speaker's complaint comes just after his denunciation of the "idiot gabble" (II.279) that surrounds him, chatter that yields little in terms of useful information. The language of the madhouse is, in a sense, both too private and too public, and the disordered excess serves as a reminder that expression per se does not automatically lead to communication or intersubjective understanding. The discursive frames provided by premature burial and apparent death shed new light on Herbert Tucker's argument that the "devastating exposure" the speaker recalls in the madhouse canto is nothing less than the exposure of "the notion of privacy itself" (p. 427), allowing us to separate the form of privacy (which is revealed and thus collapses) from the content of the private (which remains unarticulated even after this collapse). What the speaker suggests is that the very category of "everything" is produced and constituted by the fact of its being "shouted at once from the top of the house." The nightmare does not lie in the revelation of any specific secret (the speaker's intentions towards Maud, for instance) that he had wanted to keep hidden, but rather with the impossible demands made on a body that is constitutionally resistant to signification. (28) If, on the one hand, it is true that "meaning cannot be made exclusive: other people will interpret our communications whether we will it or not, and our words have unavoidable social consequences," (29) it is equally true that no guarantee exists that these communications will be received. Rowlinson discerns an even greater estrangement and claims that "the utterance recorded in Maud assumes a social dimension only on condition that it be unrecognizable as such to the speaker or to any possible hearer of his utterance" (p. 141n19). The mad scene is, for Rowlinson, the exception that proves the rule, for the speaker's words register the presence of other people, but he does not know where he is, mistaking the asylum for the grave. It also adds a complicating layer to the question "Who knows if he be dead?": even the patient may not know the status of his own case.

Knowing and being known in Maud are rarely, if ever, staged as singular or affirmative processes. More often, it is a matter of not knowing and of remaining unknown. The rhetorical "who knows?" appears twice in the opening sections of the poem, marking first the speaker's disavowal of his father's sordid past--"Did he fling himself down? who knows? for a vast speculation had failed" (I.9)--and, second, a rejection of responsibility for his own future:
   Sooner or later I too may passively take the print
   Of the golden age--why not? I have neither hope nor trust;
   May make my heart as a millstone, set my face as a flint,
   Cheat and be cheated, and die: who knows? we are ashes and dust.


The palpable fatalism in these utterances reappears when the speaker pauses in one of his early rants against British society: "Who knows the ways of the world, how God will bring them about?" (I.145). In a different context, this could be interpreted as an expression of faith and acceptance; here, it denotes a radical negativity. The "who knows" empties out the speaker's agency instead of affirming the mystery of life. It reinforces the self-alienating passivity that is implicit in the speaker's reiterated desire for withdrawal from both the social and the ethical world, especially as it comes later to be applied to the effects of the speaker's own actions against Maud's brother.

When apparently indisputable knowledge does come, it often appears out of nowhere, again obscuring the question of agency. Maud's arrival in the poem is indirect and couched in hearsay: "I have heard, I know not whence, of the singular beauty of Maud" (I.67). The aside effects, like "who knows?," disavowal of personal investment. An even more extravagant instance of spontaneous discovery grounds the speaker's belief that Maud has been promised to him from the time of her birth:
   Did I hear it half in a doze
      Long since, I know not where?
   Did I dream it an hour ago,
      When asleep in this arm-chair? (I.285-288)

Even though Maud herself, so far as the reader can tell, validates the dreamed agreement between their two fathers with her own childhood memories, the entire claim remains comically out of proportion with the weight the speaker puts on it. Knowledge again collapses into assertion at a crucial point in Part II. The "Courage, poor heart of stone" passage--added in 1856 as an attempt to clarify the plot (Shatto, p. 203)--announces the fact of Maud's death, but makes absolutely no attempt to establish how the speaker knows it. Coming just after the section where the speaker asked "Who knows if he be dead?" as he contemplated Maud's brother, the omission of this concern as it relates to Maud herself ironizes the entire epistemological project of the poem. To render knowledge indistinguishable from assertion is a potentially life-threatening gesture, mirroring that of the concluding line of "Death-in-Life": "Death is a name we give to the Unknown. We name it, and fancy we have explained it" ([Lewes], p. 112). Words come to stand in for conditions that themselves remain ungraspable, beyond (or beneath) human powers of perception.

The threat determines the speaker's obsessive fear of being taken in by other people's machinations or tricked by his own overwrought brain:
   For a raven ever croaks, at my side,
   Keep watch and ward, keep watch and ward,
   Or thou wilt prove their tool.
   Yea, too, myself from myself I guard,
   For often a man's own angry pride
   Is cap and bells for a fool. (I.246-251)

However, if the speaker's self-directed vigilance can be read generously as an example of a "glimmering self-knowledge" that supports his "attempt to struggle away from the place, the pit, and the fear" (Day, p. 145), this vigilance nonetheless becomes part of his self-negating madness. Emblematic of this drift is the speaker's self-consciously inappropriate reaction to the appearance of Maud's home:
      I looked, and round, all round the house I beheld
   The death-white curtain drawn;
   Felt a horror over me creep,
   Prickle my skin and catch my breath,
   Knew that the death-white curtain meant but sleep,
   Yet I shuddered and thought like a fool of the sleep of death.


If we read this scene as another manifestation of referential aberration (and one that recalls the central question of "Who knows if he be dead?"), we see that the speaker's problem is not that he must decide between the false and the true but that he is caught between two compelling sources of information: his internal bodily experience and the objective reality he believes lies behind the curtains at the Hall. As the speaker remains excluded from the origin of determinable meaning envisioned as the inside of the Hall, it is the delusion or error, that shuddering horror, that remains most "true," since it represents the speaker's physical experience. Of course, the fact that what he knows becomes reduced to what he feels is, in part, a sign that the speaker already suspects that the Maud of his dreams is not entirely the girl who lives at the Hall. Fittingly, by the time Maud's ghost appears in the madhouse, it has fallen silent and emerges from a distant world the speaker describes as "Stiller, not fairer than mine" (II.309).

4. "O me, why have they not buried me deep enough?"

What is finally at stake in Maud's complaint that "everything came to be known" is nothing less than the possibility of interiority. Writing of "O that 'twere possible," Rowlinson argues that the impossible desires expressed in that canto's first and final stanzas "virtually cancel themselves," leaving that first "O" to mark the boundary between inside and out, "set[ting] in motion a discourse structured by this difference as an expression of longing for an interiority from which it is constitutively excluded" (pp. 133,134). That residual "O" recurs more consequentially in the final stanza of the mad scene: "O me, why have they not buried me deep enough?" (II.334). The repetition of "me" means that identity itself is cancelled out in the madhouse canto, though it leaves a trace that persistently remains too close to the surface. Similarly self-canceling reflexive pronouns have earlier represented the speaker's desire for withdrawal ("bury myself in myself') and his essentially paranoid skepticism ("myself from myself I guard").

The speaker's ultimate complaint in Part II is not that he has been buried alive, but that he has been buried alive in a shoddy and perfunctory manner:
   Maybe still I am but half-dead;
   Then I cannot be wholly dumb;
   I will cry to the steps above my head
   And somebody, surely, some kind heart will come
   To bury me, bury me
   Deeper, ever so little deeper. (II.337-342)

Slinn sees in these lines "an effort to elude the torment of present consciousness, the torment of the self as a discourse that is no longer in possession of the means for transforming its sense of meaninglessness and incompletion" (Discourse of Self, p. 84). Even more, however, the speaker's desire for a more complete burial forecloses the possibility of recuperation (moral or otherwise) through an encounter with one's authentic, grounded inner being. By contrast, in most stories of premature burial and apparent death and, indeed, in many of the more scientific examinations of the subject, these circumstances are recuperated through absorption into an archive of anecdotal evidence, generating awareness that allows similar mistakes to be avoided in the future.

This possibility for recuperation depends upon a discourse that understands the "buried life" as a figure (albeit an unstable one, always threatened by physical reality) of authenticity that remains just outside our everyday consciousness. Such authenticity is so powerful that it cannot be accessed under the conditions of normal life. Only a dangerous limit experience can bring us into contact with this passionate, authentic, yet unreachable selfhood that takes its canonical Victorian form in Matthew Arnold's 1852 poem. "The Buried Life" mourns an estrangement from these deeply submerged sources of personal identity untainted by the masks that society requires, expressing an "unspeakable desire/After the knowledge of our buried life." (30) Blair situates Arnold's language of the buried life in this and his other poems of the 1850s within a tradition that uses "the void within the breast [as] an established literary trope connected to heartsickness and the inability to feel" (p. 171), yet this poem, like the broader discourse, remains confident that such interiority exists apart from and prior to its enunciation.

"The Premature Burial" provides an ironic view of the restorative structures at work in the myth of the "buried life." Poe's title names the structure of what is revealed to be a delusion rather than an objective reality. What is "buried" in "The Premature Burial" is an empty delusion and inauthenticity. What finally "cures" the narrator of his fear of premature burial is the delusion of having been buried alive, and he insists upon the legitimacy of that delusion to the end. The circular structure of his malady--he reads about premature burials, becomes afraid of premature burials, and as a result becomes subject to cataleptic trances that place him at risk for premature burial--establishes it as an allegorical signifier, in that it functions by referring to other signs in a process that is avowedly inorganic and arbitrary. Because it always involves a rupture from the origin, the meaning produced through allegory, as de Man has argued, "can then consist only in the repetition ... of a previous sign with which it can never coincide, since it is of the essence of this previous sign to be pure anteriority." (31) In its place is presented a de Manian allegorical series of conventionalized anecdotes constituting a merely arbitrary anteriority.

In Maud, Tennyson too rejects the organic pretensions of selfhood in favor of the artificiality of allegory. Dwight Culler's study of Maud that places it within the generic history of monodrama helps make this point. Culler observes that Maud's madness is "right out of Shakespeare" (p. 207), drawing attention to its textual constructedness instead of speculating on what it might reveal about the speaker's--or Tennyson's--interior life. That Tennyson has been criticized both for putting too much and too little of himself into Maud is symptomatic of the poem's vexed relationship to the "buried life." The terms of such a critique disclose an irresolvable difficulty in locating the source of poetic genius. (32) George Eliot objected to Maud on the grounds that it contained "scarcely more than a residuum of Alfred Tennyson; the wide-sweeping intellect, the mild philosophy, the healthy pathos, the wondrous melody, have almost all vanished, and left little more than a narrow scorn which piques itself on the scorn of narrowness, and a passion which clothes itself in exaggerated conceits." (33) Later her review returns to this idea: "it perhaps speaks well for Tennyson's genius, that it has refused to aid him much on themes so little worthy of his greatest self" (p. 178). Eliot gives us no less than three Tennysons: the "greatest self" to which he should aspire, the "genius" that animates his writing towards that goal, and this narrow-minded "him" that persists in writing on inferior themes. The discourse of poetic genius imputes an immortality to the poet's "greatest self," but the status of the "him" remains more uncertain.

Yet, Maud functions as a critique of a reading that depends on preexisting categories of the genius and the self, the public and the private, the interior and the exterior. While writing In Memoriam, Tennyson had still been able to gain poetic strength by "drawing (through the inexpressibility topos) on the soul-saving reserve of what he cannot say" (Tucker, pp. 380-381). In Maud, the "buried life" is revealed as empty of significance and possibly nonexistent. To the extent that it does exist as a potentiality, it is characterized by its vulnerability, penned in a grave that remains "so rough" (II.335) and insecure. The self-canceling gesture of the madhouse canto and the seemingly aberrant desire to be buried more securely mean that this reserve, if it ever existed in the first place, has been emptied; it, too, is subject to a being-known that depends on performative articulation. The meaning promised and mourned in the Arnoldian vision of the buried life is, in Tennyson's reading, both too accessible to the influence of the external world and too far estranged from that world.


The existence of this article owes much to the encouragement, commentary, and patience of Herbert Tucker. Mia Chen and Gerhard Joseph also offered invaluable assistance. A preliminary version of this project was presented at the 2008 NVSA conference.

(1) Tennyson, Maud, II.7. Tennyson's poems are quoted from The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks, 3 vols. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987).

(2) See, for example, Jonathan Wordsworth, "'What is it, that has been done?': The Central Problem of Maud," Essays in Criticism 24 (1974): 356-362, where he uses the question as a way to examine the way the poem encodes sexuality. Seamus Perry has more recently approached Maud as "a sequence of dramatic lyrics, all uttered by the same speaker, diverse[y set in moments when action is imminent or its aftermath evident--a poetry of inflections and innuendos, then, on the edge of events or just after. We can more or less deduce a story, but the narrator does not reflect much upon incidents to produce a narrative for us; and the pivotal event of the story is left obscure: 'What is it, that has been done?'" (Alfred Tennyson, [Tavistock: Northcote Press, 2005], p. 118).

(3) E. Warwick Slinn, The Discourse of Self in Victorian Poetry (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1991), p. 76. My debt to Slinn's work, both in this book and in Victorian Poetry as Cultural Critique: The Politics of Performative Language (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 2003), will be evident throughout.

(4) Tennyson's Maud: A Definitive Edition, ed. Susan Shatto (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1986), pp. 1, 2-5.

(5) Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), p. 9.

(6) Quoted in Hallam Tennyson, Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir, 2 vols. (New York, 1897), 1:379.

(7) Aidan Day, Tennyson's Scepticism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p. 156.

(8) Part III, where the speaker asserts his sanity and enlists to fight in the Crimean War, has provoked Tennyson's readers since the poem was published, and Herbert Tucker suggests that "The poet's insatiable demand for social ratification of this work suggests that he, like the rest of us, found it impossible to endorse Maud wholeheartedly" (Ten. nyson and the Doom of Romanticism [Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1988], p. 406). Robert Lougy connects Maud's conclusion to its speaker's madness, writing that Part III "reveals nothing less than a voice that believes itself to be the voice of God speaking to Himself" ("The Sounds and Silence of Madness: Language as Theme in Tennyson's Maud," VP 22 [1984]: 426).

(9) George K. Behlmer, "Grave Doubts: Victorian Medicine, Moral Panic, and the Signs of Death," Journal of British Studies 42 (2003): 207.

(10) [George Henry Lewes], "Death-in-Life," Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country 36, no. 211 (July 1847): 108-112.

(11) Unlikely, but not entirely implausible, as suggested by recent research in anesthesia awareness. Patients who suffer from this condition, which can only be diagnosed after the fact through a process of interviews, report consciousness and sensations of pain when they have supposedly been put under general anesthesia for major surgery. See Michael S. Avidan et al., "Anesthesia Awareness and the Bispectral Index," The New England Journal of Medicine 358, no. 11 (March 13, 2008): 1097-98.

(12) Gerhard Joseph, Tennyson and the Text: The Weaver's Shuttle (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992), p. 36.

(13) Edgar Allan Poe, "The Premature Burial." Poetry and Tales (New York: Library of America, 1984), pp. 666-679.

(14) Jan Bondeson, Buried Alive! The Terrifying History of our Most Primal Fear (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001), p. 11.

(15) Matthew Rowlinson, "The Thing in the Poem: Maud's Hymen," differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12 (2001): 156.

(16) Michael Wheeler, Death and the Future Life in Victorian Literature and Theology (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990), p. 58. See also his extended discussion of the figural language of death on pp. 25-68.

(17) Kirstie Blair, Victorian Poetry and the Culture of the Heart (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2006), p. 185.

(18) Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection, and the Destitute (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 15.

(19) See Bondeson, pp. 57-71, for a more detailed history of Bruhier's work and its contents.

(20) Charles Clay, "An Essay on the Various Forms of Asphyxia, or Suspension of Some of the Principal Powers of Animal Life, with General Rules for Resuscitation," chap. 1, "On the Analogies existing between Real and Apparent Death-Utility of the Inquiry, &c., &c.," Medical Times 12, no. 302 (July 5, 1845): 270.

(21) Elizabeth Gaskell, The Works of Mrs. Gaskell, 8 vols. (London: Smith and Elder, 1906), 1:506.

(22) Because of the location and the date of Charlotte's tragic demise, the story is sometimes cited as inspiration for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and is included in travel guides and histories of the region. See, for example, H. Curling, "The Enthusiast at Shakespeare's Tomb," Bentley's Miscellany 11 (1842): 245; "Shakespeare's Country, Part II," English Illustrated Magazine 2 (February 1885): 328.

(23) "Lectures on Medical Jurisprudence Delivered by Professor A. T. Thomson. Lecture XXVI: Sudden Death," The London Medical and Surgical Journal 7, no. 169 (April 25, 1835): 385-390. For biographical background on Thomson, see "Notice on the Life and Work of Dr. Antony Todd Thomson," Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal (October 1, 1852): 446-461.

(24) Alan Sinfield, "Tennyson and the Cultural Politics of Prophecy," ELH 57 (1990): 176.

(25) Horace Smith, "Posthumous Memoir of Myself," The New Monthly Magazine 87, no. 345 (September 1849): 1-9.

(26) For a description of schemes to prevent live burials, including waiting mortuaries and security coffins, see Bondeson, chaps. 5 and 6. As he notes, one of the reasons why security coffins offering a permanent air supply did hot sell as well as expected was anxiety about what would happen if the system of alarms failed and nobody responded, leaving the victim alive and still buried (p. 136).

(27) A. Dwight Culler, The Poetry of Tennyson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1977), p. 207.

(28) See Blair's observation that "Maud is Tennyson's most sustained effort in the creation of a character and a narrative which are trapped in subjectivity, morbidly aware of sensation, and, in his words, 'constitutionally diseased.' 'Constitutionally' suggests both a disease inherent in (and inherited by) the individual and one caused at least partly by 'the circumstances of the time,' the constitution of the country" (p. 204).

(29) Samuel Schulman, "Mourning and Voice in Maud," SEL 23 (1983): 645.

(30) Matthew Arnold, "The Buried Life," ll. 47-48, The Poems of Matthew Arnold, ed. Miriam Allott (New York: Longman, 1979).

(31) Paul de Man, "The Rhetoric of Temporality," Blindness and Insight (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 207.

(32) See Samantha Matthews, "Burying Tennyson: The Victorian Laureate immortalized," Mortality 7 (2002): 247-268, for a discussion of how these questions were again raised with an uncanny materiality at the time of Tennyson's death.

(33) George Eliot, Selected Critical Writings, ed. Rosemary Ashton (New York: Oxford World Classics, 2000), p. 173.
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Author:McCarthy, Anne C.
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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