Printer Friendly

Finding the Modern Frames in Tennyson's Final Classical Poems.

As a young child, Alfred Tennyson received an education in Greek and Latin literature that was unusually rigorous, even by the standards of the early nineteenth century. In the years before he was sent to Louth Grammar School and later to Trinity College, Cambridge, Tennyson's father gave his son a thorough classical training that included regularly translating into English the copious passages of Latin commentary in both his Greek and Latin texts, and memorizing lengthy passages of classical verse, including at one point all four books of Horace's odes. Such an early inundation with classical poetry and prosody necessarily left an indelible imprint on Tennyson's ear as a poet.(1) Moreover, throughout his career, Tennyson found his broad knowledge of Greek and Latin literature to be an endless source of thematic material, particularly in the composition of his classical dramatic monologues, such as "Ulysses," "Tithonus," and "Lucretius."(2)

Tennyson began experimenting with classical stories as early as his first poetic endeavors, many of which were included in the early collections, Poems by Two Brothers (1827) and Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830). Many decades later, in the final stages of his life, Tennyson continued to be profoundly affected by his background in the classical languages. His last three volumes of poems bear witness to a particular resurgence of interest in recasting classical material; each volume carries the title of a classical poem in the collection: Tiresias, and Other Poems (1885), Demeter and Other Poems (1889), and the posthumously published The Death of Oenone, Akbar's Dream, and Other Poems (1892). Tennyson did not believe, however, in returning to classical stories and myths simply to recast them for contemporary audiences. When considering the composition of his monologue "Demeter and Persephone" (1886-87), Tennyson said, "I will write it, but when I write an antique like this I must put it into a frame--something modern about it. It is no use giving a mere rechauffe of old legends."(3) Tennyson did not see the value of retelling a story simply for its own sake, and he only returned to familiar classical material when he felt he had something distinctly novel to do with it.

That Tennyson had a clearly defined sense of his classical poems as original in their refashioning of traditional source material is evident from his attitude towards contemporary criticism of his work. Tennyson was very much concerned that his readers acknowledge the merits of his poems in their own right, and he was often quite petulant on this point. An example of Tennyson's attitude toward his critics' tracing of literary allusions without a proper acknowledgement of originality can be found in his copy of an article, "A New Study of Tennyson," published by John Churton Collins in the January 1880 edition of the Cornhill Magazine, which is now housed at the Tennyson Research Centre in Lincoln, England. Throughout the article, Tennyson made hand-written responses to the allusions which Churton Collins points out, writing "No," "Nonsense," "Not known to me," or simply placing exclamation points next to the critic's citations of passages in Tennyson's works indicating the influence of earlier authors. Tennyson's annotations become angrier as the article progresses, and they culminate with a sentence scrawled at the bottom of the last page of the article, stating that, "I will answer for it that no modern poet can write a single line but among the innumerable authors of this world you will somewhere find a striking parallelism. It is the unimaginative man who thinks everything borrowed."(4)

Of course poets throughout British literary history tended to be well schooled in the classical languages, and many of them experimented with translating classical works or composing English poems based on material from classical myth. One thinks, for example, of such predecessors as Milton, Pope, Thomson, Wordsworth, Scott, Byron, Moore, Campbell, Shelley, and Keats. Moreover, Tennyson was joined by a number of contemporaries who likewise engaged in classical scholarship and who contributed to the popular Victorian project of reworking classical materials in modern poetry. Thomas Babington Macaulay published his popular Lays of Ancient Rome in 1842. Robert Browning drew inspiration from classical characters and stories in such works as "Cleon" (1855); "Pan and Luna" (1880); "Ixion" (1883); and "Apollo and the Fates" (1887). Browning also translated the Agamemnon of Aeschylus in 1877. In several of her poems, Elizabeth Barrett Browning steeped a modern speculation in a rich classical atmosphere, as in "Wine of Cyprus" and "The Dead Pan" (1844), and "A Musical Instrument" (1860). Barrett Browning also translated Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound (1833), as well as an excerpt from Apuleius, "Psyche Gazing on Cupid" (1845), and she collaborated with Richard Hengist Horne on the unfinished lyrical drama Psyche Apocalypte (1876). Matthew Arnold's particular interest in drawing on his extensive classical background is illustrated in such poems as "The Strayed Reveller" (1849); "Philomela," (1853); "Fragment of Chorus of a `Dejaneira'" and "Palladium" (1867); and of course in his long dramatic poem "Empedocles on Etna" (1852).

The younger generation of the Pre-Raphaelites was also much drawn to the classics, as they were to the literature of Medieval Europe, in their ongoing endeavor to revive stories from history and folk legend in both their poetry and their visual art. Algernon Charles Swinburne continually engaged himself with classical topics, from such poems as his dramatic monologue "Itylus" (1866) based on the tragic story of Procne and Philomela, to his verse drama, Atalanta in Calydon (1865). Swinburne published his well-known "The Garden of Proserpine," a lyrical speculation on life and death, as well as "Hymn to Proserpine" in his Poems and Ballads of 1866, twenty years before Tennyson would take up the myth again in composing his "Demeter and Persephone" in the late 1880s.

Similarly, William Morris often worked with classical source materials, most particularly in his collection inspired by Chaucer entitled The Earthly Paradise (1868-70), in which he rewrote two stories from classical, Norse, or Medieval sources for each month of the year. Morris's popular narrative poem, The Life and Death of Jason (1867), was begun as a piece for this collection, but quickly outgrew the boundaries of The Earthly Paradise. As Tennyson was to do two decades later in "The Death of Oenone," Morris rewrote Quintus Smyrnaeus' account of the story of Oenone and Paris in "The Death of Paris," one of the two poems written for the month of September in The Earthly Paradise.

Tennyson was certainly not unique among Victorian British poets in finding inspiration in the classics, nor was he by any means the only poet of the era who realized and capitalized on the Victorians' deep and abiding interest in reading modern variations on the poignant, inspiring, and highly entertaining myths of the ancient Greeks. Nevertheless, Tennyson's particular method of "framing" tales from Greek mythology and recasting them for a modern audience became a distinctive aspect of his work in every phase of his career. Of course, this aspect of his work is also illustrated by his refashioning of ancient folk material from cultures other than those of ancient Greece and Rome, most notably his rewriting and reframing of Arthurian legend in the Idylls of the King.

Determining exactly what is novel about Tennyson's classical poems has long been a concern of his critics. What exactly did Tennyson mean by putting an old tale into a "frame"? In looking closely at his classical poems, it soon becomes evident that Tennyson was more likely referring to a metaphorical frame than a literal one; that is, a new, modernized interpretation of the story with something distinctive to offer a contemporary audience. Perhaps the best place to begin searching for a definition of what the poet meant by a modern frame is to be found in his 1842 publication of "The Epic," a literal frame around the poem "Morte D'Arthur," his first publication of a refashioned Arthurian legend. In "The Epic," a group of contemporary characters sits around the fire on a Christmas Eve debating, among other things, the merits of retelling old tales for a modern audience. The poet, Hall, who disdains his own experiments in composing an Arthurian epic in twelve books, is nonetheless prevailed upon by the company to read from this epic. Hall reads his account of Arthur's death, for which Tennyson supplies "Morte D'Arthur." When the tale is concluded, the frame of "The Epic" begins again with the speaker's description of the dreams that the poem inspired in him that night--dreams of the return of Arthur as a modern gentleman, ushering in the dawn of a new age for Britain. "The Epic" thus provided Tennyson's readers with both an apology for rewriting material from folk legend in general and a guide to interpreting the Idylls of the King which were to come as an optimistic outlook on the promise of England's future.

Like "Morte D'Arthur," Tennyson's earliest classical dramatic monologues usually are framed in such as way as to make it clear how the poems are to be interpreted by a modern audience; the figurative frame characteristically involving a moral or lesson that is appropriate and timely for the present day. In his early classical poems concerned with recreating the choric songs of particular groups of mythic figures, for example, Tennyson's lyrics clearly rehash dangers familiar from the context of Homer's Odyssey, but which metaphorically represent dangers that are equally threatening in the modern day. "The Sea-Fairies" (1830) implicitly warns of the danger of being tempted away from one's duty. Similarly, "The Lotos-Eaters" (1832) traditionally has been read as a warning against the dangers of an undirected life--dreaming one's days away in that state of "confusion worse than death" (line 128). In Tennyson's rich retelling of the Judgment of Paris in his first extended classical dramatic monologue, "Oenone" (1832), there is a modern message implicit in the offer that Pallas Athena makes to Paris of "Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control" (142), as opposed to the promise of pleasure in love promised to him by Aphrodite.

In 1833, Tennyson began work on three classical monologues in response to the deeply shocking death of his closest friend, Arthur Henry Hallam: "Ulysses," "Tithonus," and "Tiresias." Although they were published at distinctly different periods in the poet's career, "Ulysses" in 1842, "Tithonus" in 1860, and "Tiresias" in 1885, the modern frame of each of these three poems has to do with the value of various human reactions towards death and dying. The framing device of "Ulysses" can be understood as a clever reinvention of the title character, drawing heavily on both Homer's and Dante's versions of Odysseus/ Ulysses in creating a voice whose ambiguous message "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield" (70) has been so provocative as to engender debate on Tennyson's message throughout the generations since its first appearance. By contrast, "Tithonus" presents a view of the rightness of mortality in its poignant rendering of a speaker whose desperate reaction to the reality that he will grow old but never die offers modern readers a lesson on the proper end of life. The message of "Tiresias" concerns "life's best end" being "to end well" (126-27), regardless of when death may come. Similarly, Tennyson's brilliant rendering of the voice of the Roman philosopher Lucretius in his dramatic monologue of that name (1868) memorably dramatizes the dangers of a blind adherence to a philosophy that valorizes the rational side of the human psyche without acknowledging the needs and the importance of the irrational emotions.

In several of his late classical poems, Tennyson also provided more literal poetic frames in addition to altering the theme in some way to adapt it for a modern audience. When he finally published "Tiresias" in 1885, he framed the poem with the dedicatory "To E. Fitzgerald." In this frame Tennyson dedicates "Tiresias" to his old friend Edward Fitzgerald on the occasion of Fitzgerald's seventy-fifth birthday, and he provides a subtle explanation for choosing to publish a poem written decades earlier by claiming that it is meant to remind his old friend of their "younger London days" when "You found some merit in my rhymes / And I more pleasure in your praise" (54-56).

The dedication of "Tiresias" carries with it an implicit message about the value of writing modern poetry based on ancient literatures when one considers Fitzgerald's fame to Victorian readers as the translator of ancient Persian poetry, most notably the widely read The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1859), to which Tennyson alludes in "To E. Fitzgerald." Framing "Tiresias" in such a way thus addresses the poem to a reader who will appreciate its relationship to the ancient source material from which it is drawn. The reader is placed in the position of Fitzgerald, and is thus asked to read "Tiresias" from the perspective of a translator of ancient poetry. The final lines of "To E. Fitzgerald," appended to the conclusion of "Tiresias," give an account of Tennyson's having learned of Fitzgerald's death before he was able to send his dedication to his old friend. Thus the dedicatory frame in which an old poet complains of the many friends he has lost to death appropriately follows the old Tiresias' longful vision of a pleasant after-life, and ensures that no reader will miss the relevance of the message of "Tiresias" to the present day.

The modern "frames" constituted by Tennyson's alteration and modernization of earlier legend in most of his classical poems have been commonly acknowledged. Nevertheless, Tennyson scholars have characteristically dismissed his two final classical poems, "Demeter and Persephone" (1889) and "The Death of Oenone" (1892), as failed efforts in modernizing classical stories. Perhaps because of Tennyson's lackluster attempts at writing plays in the final years of his life, scholars have too hastily written off the products of his last years as the works of a doddering old poet who had lost his touch. This tendency to undervalue Tennyson's late works no doubt accounts for the misreading and undervaluing of his final two classical works. Despite Tennyson's direct reference to "Demeter and Persephone" in stating the necessity of providing a new frame for an old tale, his critics have often dismissed the poem as a pat Christian response to death. Even more dismissively, scholars have failed to acknowledge any modern frame or message whatsoever in "The Death of Oenone."

In "Demeter and Persephone," Tennyson's characterization of the goddess gives an account of the loss of her daughter that consists of strands from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, from Ovid's Fasti and Metamorphoses, and from Claudian's De Raptu Proserpinae, works that originated over a period of roughly a thousand years of classical story-telling. Because of the poet's profound engagement with so many classical sources, it is necessary to return to the sources themselves in order to understand fully where the classical accounts end and where Tennyson's modern frame begins. Critics' failure to read the poem against its classical sources have led them to misread and to underestimate this poem. Similarly, when "The Death of Oenone" is read against its classical source, Quintus of Smyrna's Fall of Troy, it becomes quite clear that Tennyson's message lies in his significant, if subtle, alterations in the story.

Much as Tennyson framed "Tiresias" with "To E. Fitzgerald," he prefaced "Demeter and Persephone" in the first printed edition with the short dedicatory piece, "To Professor Jebb, with the Following Poem," in which the poet addresses his old friend, the accomplished classical scholar R. C. Jebb:
   Fair things are slow to fade away,
   Bear witness you, that yesterday
   From out the Ghost of Pindar in you
   Rolled an Olympian; and they say

   That here the torpid mummy wheat
   Of Egypt bore a grain as sweet
   As that which gilds the glebe of England,
   Sunned with a summer of milder heat.

   So may this legend for awhile,
   If greeted by your classic smile,
   Though dead in its Trinacrian Enna,
   Blossom again on a colder isle.(5)

Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb (1841-1905) was a Scottish-born scholar who became one of the leading classicists of his day. Jebb served as Professor of Greek at Glasgow and later at Cambridge, and he was renowned for his commentary on the newly discovered lyric poetry of Bacchylides, and particularly for his editions of Sophocles' tragedies. Jebb was known for his unusually feeling for the Greek language, and his editions of the Greek texts of Sophocles' plays are so comprehensive and thorough as to be considered standard texts even today. Jebb was also a friend of the Tennysons, and a great admirer of Tennyson's work. He warmly praised the poet's later poems and his plays, and considered Tennyson to be without rival among the English poets in terms of the originality and flexibility of his blank verse.(6) Tennyson and Jebb shared a profound interest in both classical and modern poetry and prosody; interestingly, Jebb published a book of Translations into Greek and Latin Verse (1873), which included several of Tennyson's poems rendered into one or the other of the classical languages.

"To Professor Jebb" is composed in an original Tennysonian stanza, which the poet developed in "The Daisy" and in "To the Rev. F. D. Maurice" in the early 1850s in order to approximate the rhythm of the Horatian Alcaic meter. Perhaps Tennyson felt this meter was appropriate for a poetic address to a classical scholar. In addition, the poem's echo of Horace calls attention to its author's own classical scholarship. After all, "To Professor Jebb," has a double purpose. First, it praises Jebb's June 1888 composition of an ode in Greek to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the University of Bologna. More importantly, it dedicates "Demeter and Persephone" to Jebb, Tennyson hoping that his own modern classical piece will please his fellow classicist. The fact that Tennyson chose to preface his poem with a personal address to a well-known classical scholar suggests that he wished his audience at large to read the poem as a classicist would--keeping in mind its relationship to its classical forebears.

When referring to the necessity to avoid a mere "rechauffe" of classical material, Tennyson cited lines 126-36 of "Demeter and Persephone" as an example of what he meant by a frame. In this passage, the speaker Demeter identifies herself as earth-goddess, and thus separate and unique among the gods of Olympus who rule the universe. Outraged by Hades' lawless abduction of her daughter, Demeter boldly questions the justice of the gods. This unusual aspect of the goddess's characterization encapsulates the poet's new twist on the old story, and subtly suggests something of what the poem's modern message will entail.

The story of the rape of Persephone survives in several classical accounts, each of which provides a slightly different version. The earliest extant account is found in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which describes Hades' kidnapping of Persephone while the young goddess is gathering flowers in a field in Sicily. A despairing Demeter then begins searching for her daughter, a search which culminates in her appeal to the Sun to tell her what he had seen. Upon learning the truth, Demeter exiles herself from the other Olympians and takes on mortal form, ostensibly satisfying her need to mother by serving as a nurse to the child Demophoon in Eleusis. Eventually Zeus is forced to arrange for Persephone's return to her mother, since Demeter's sorrowful neglect of the earth leads to its utter barrenness.

Ovid retells the story of the Rape of Proserpina in two separate works. In Book 5 of his Metamorphoses, Ovid alters the tale by making Venus the cause of Proserpina's abduction. Anxious to spread her "empire" to the realms of the dead, Venus instructs Cupid to pierce the heart of Pluto, resulting in his hasty abduction of the beautiful Proserpina. Like the Homeric Hymn, Ovid's account describes both the universal catastrophe brought forth on the earth due to Ceres' grief, and the eventual restoration of Proserpina to her mother, which establishes the cycle of the seasons.(7) In his Fasti, Ovid retells the story in order to explain particular conventions in the rituals of Ceres' worship, adding to this version the story of Ceres' nursing of the infant Triptolemus, as she nursed Demophoon in the Homeric Hymn.(8)

An additional source that certainly influenced Tennyson's "Demeter and Persephone" is Claudian's unfinished Latin epic of three books, De Raptu Proserpinae, composed in the late fourth century A.D. Because Tennyson translated the opening passage of Book I of this epic as a schoolboy, we can be sure of his intimate familiarity with this work from childhood. Claudian adds a great deal of detail to his expanded version of the myth. He opens Book I with Pluto's complaining to Jupiter that he alone among the gods remained without a consort. In response, Jupiter commands Venus to arrange for Pluto's union with Proserpina. Claudian's account of the rape scene is novel, since Venus, Diana, and Pallas, having been forced by Jupiter, go to visit Proserpina in her mother's palace in Sicily and persuade her to join them in gathering flowers.(9) Claudian adds the epic conventions of a lengthy ecphrasis of Proserpina's embroidery, depicting the organization of the universe, along with a detailed catalog of the flowers the goddesses choose to gather and a purple passage describing the beauty of the Sicilian countryside.(10)

As do the majority of his classical dramatic monologues, including "Ulysses," "Tithonus," "Tiresias," and "Lucretius," Tennyson's "Demeter and Persephone" retells an old story as a means of expressing a modern speculation on death. While each of the classical versions of the story ends with Persephone's reunion with her mother, Tennyson chooses that final point in the story to begin his poem. "Demeter and Persephone" involves Demeter's address to her daughter just after Persephone's return to earth. The goddess has brought Persephone back to the site of her abduction "In Enna," as the subtitle indicates, hoping to restore her to her former self, and also hoping that, "the day / When here thy hands let fall the gathered flower, / Might break through clouded memories once again on thy lost self" (8-11). Tennyson's emphasis on the psychological effects of her time in the Underworld on Persephone is original, as are the Christian undertones of Demeter's identification of Persephone's return as a resurrection from the dead: "when before have gods or men beheld / The Life that had descended re-arise, / And lighted from above him by the Sun?" (29-31). Demeter attributes her daughter's resurrection to the mightiness of her own "childless cry" (32-33), and this point of view emphasizes the symbolic importance in this myth of the power of the mother as the source of life.(11) Perhaps this explains his decision to use the Greek names of the deities in his poem despite the heavy influence of Ovid and Claudian, because of the associations of "divinity" and "mother" in the name "Demeter," as opposed to the Latin "Ceres," which emphasizes instead the goddess's association with grain.

Traces of elements from the classical accounts are scattered throughout Tennyson's version of the story. As Demeter leads Persephone to retrace her steps through the field of flowers, and even over the "black blur of earth" left by the chasm through which Hades ascended to the earth (37), she mentions the "crocus-purple hour" when Persephone vanished (50), recalling the crocuses that Persephone gathered in Ovid's Fasti (442). In addition, Demeter speaks of her apprehension that she will hear in this spot "The shrilly whinnyings of the team of Hell" (44), a detail which recalls Claudian's catalog of Pluto's four horses, Orphnaeus, Aethon, Nycteus, and Alastor, drinking the stagnant waters of Lethe and champing at their bits in preparation for their journey up to kidnap Persephone (Book 1, 280-88). Demeter also alludes to her nursing and curing of sick infants to the amazement of their own mortal mothers (55-57), recalling both her nursing of Demophoon in the Homeric Hymn and of Triptolemus in Ovid's Fasti.

In Demeter's description of her tireless search for her daughter, however, Tennyson invents a number of original details in order to emphasize Demeter's distress as well as the direct effect of her distress on human civilization. Demeter describes seeing "the jungle" rooted in man's abandoned hearth, the serpent "coiled around his broken shaft," the scorpion "crawling over naked skulls," and the tiger springing from a fallen idol in a temple (75-79).(12) By using these original elements that focus on the human terms of Demeter's catastrophe, Tennyson sets the stage for exploring the theme of humanity's suffering at the hands of irresponsible divinities. This theme of the lawlessness of the universe is reinforced when Demeter tells of her interview with the Fates, who told her that they knew nothing of Persephone's whereabouts, since "'we spin the lives of men, / And not of Gods, and know not why we spin! / There is a Fate beyond us'" (84-86). Here the modern cast to the story begins to come into focus as Demeter is humanized in her realization that there is a larger fate that the gods can neither control nor understand.

Demeter continues her address to her daughter by describing Persephone's appearance to her in a dream, an element borrowed from Claudian. The vision of Persephone tells Demeter that her marriage has been arranged by Zeus and Hades: "Bright" and "Dark" have ordained that she will be the "Bride of Darkness" (93-99). Persephone acknowledges her own life as the power that lifts her mother's "buried life from gloom to bloom" (97), thus identifying herself' as the symbolic representation of Demeter's creative and maternal power. Demeter concludes her account of this dream with the details of her self-exile from the other Olympians, an important aspect of the story in the Homeric Hymn as well as in both of Ovid's accounts.

Tennyson's Demeter angrily points out that Zeus restored Persephone to her because he began to miss "the steam of sacrifice" from mankind. Persephone's restoration was thus motivated by Zeus' own selfish desires, rather than by any fear about the welfare of mankind. This detail provides a smooth thematic transition between Demeter's recounting of her story for Persephone, and the frame of the poem, beginning at line 126, in which Demeter speaks openly of her anger with the gods. Calling herself "Earth goddess," she draws a distinction between herself and "them, who still are highest" (126-27), and she assumes that the Fates' reference to a "Fate beyond the Fates" indicates that a new race of "younger kindlier Gods" will one day subjugate the Olympians, as the Olympians in turn overthrew their antecedents, the Titans (129).(13) Like Tennyson's "The Lotos-Eaters," who referred to a group of hedonistic and indifferent Epicurean gods, Demeter scoffs at her irresponsible fellow deities and looks forward to a new race of gods who will not spread plague and famine, will not hurl the thunderbolt without good reason, and will not allow such crimes as her daughter's abduction. Demeter dreams of a day when light and dark will be united and shadows cancelled out, when her daughter will be restored to her for the entire year, and when men will grow "beyond their race," and live free from the fear of Death and Hell (135-40). The goddess's apocalyptic vision of the future recalls the prophetic ending of Tennyson's In Memoriam A. H. H. (1850):
   That God, which ever lives and loves,
   One God, one law, one element,
   And one far-off divine event,
   To which the whole creation moves.


Demeter concludes her words to her daughter with a hope that Persephone will one day transcend her role as "Queen of the Dead," and join Demeter in her emanation as the life force, reaping with her mother
   in the harvest hymns of Earth
   The worship which is Love, and see no more
   The Stone, the Wheel, the dimly glittering lawns
   Of that Elysium, all the hateful fires
   Of torment, and the shadowy warrior glide
   Along the silent field of Asphodel.(14)


Tennyson smoothly manages Demeter's transition from her suffering after losing Persephone to her prophetic hopes for a new universal order based on love and the life force. By keeping Demeter's tone and emotional state consistent and her imagery and language firmly grounded in an appropriately classical idiom, Tennyson accomplishes a believable shift from his retelling of the ancient tale into his modern vision of the future. In "Demeter and Persephone," he has accomplished one of his subtlest and most effective marriages between an ancient myth and his own contemporary sentiment. As in the trilogy of "Ulysses," "Tithonus," and "Tiresias," as well as in In Memoriam, Tennyson returns in "Demeter and Persephone" to the themes of human loss, the pain of bereavement, and the nature of the force behind the universe. After raising questions about that force, he looks forward, as he does in the epilogue to In Memoriam, to a new and more moral order.

Tennyson read the proofs for his final volume of poems just before he died, and the volume was published soon after his death in October of 1892. Once again, as in his two previous collections, it is a classical poem that gives the collection its name: The Death of Oenone, Akbar's Dream, and Other Poems. "The Death of Oenone" has been almost universally disliked and dismissed by Tennyson's critics, many of whom have attacked it for what they interpret as Tennyson's overly Victorian and sentimental emphasis on a marriage bond between Oenone and Paris. In Mythology and the Romantic Tradition, however, Douglas Bush clearly points out the inaccuracy of this assumption, pointing to the fact that the marriage of Oenone and Paris is a detail emphasized in Apollodorus' Epitome 3.12, in Ovid's Heroides 5, and in Quintus Smyrnaeus', or "Calaber's," fourth century A.D. Greek epic, The Fall of Troy, or the Posthomerica, Tennyson's chief source for the poem (222-23).

What has surprised critics most about "The Death of Oenone" is the lack of any ostensible frame in this final classical narrative. Even Tennyson's more astute and admiring critics, including Douglas Bush, have made such comments as, "He had forgotten that `it is no use giving a mere rechauffe of old legends'" (2241). But the poem deserves a closer reading. Rather than his least successful classical narrative, I would argue that "The Death of Oenone" is among Tennyson's most successful in the smooth, seamless incorporation of the modern sentiment within the rekindled tale.

Designed as a sequel to "Oenone," which Tennyson had composed over sixty years earlier, "The Death of Oenone" was prefaced in the first edition by the short poem "To the Master of Balliol." As he had addressed "Demeter and Persephone" to the well-known classicist R. C. Jebb, Tennyson addresses "The Death of Oenone" to his old friend, the Greek scholar Benjamin Jowett:

   Dear Master in our classic town,
   You, loved by all the younger gown
   There at Balliol,
   Lay your Plato for one minute down,


   And read a Grecian tale re-told,
   Which, cast in later Grecian mould,
   Quintus Calaber
   Somewhat lazily handled of old;


   And on this white midwinter day--
   For have the far-off hymns of May,
   All her melodies,
   All her harmonies echoed away?--


   Today, before you turn again
   To thoughts that lift the soul of men,
   Hear my cataract's
   Downward thunder in hollow and glen,


   Till, led by dream and vague desire,
   The woman, gliding toward the pyre,
   Find her warrior
   Stark and dark in his funeral fire.

Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893) served as Tutor at Balliol College, Oxford, for twenty-eight years, and as Master of the college for twenty-three. He was widely known and respected for his translations of Thucydides, Aristotle's Politics, and particularly Plato's Dialogues and Republic--the work to which Tennyson alludes in his dedication. In his translations of Plato, Jowett went to great lengths to produce English renderings that captured Plato's ideas as faithfully as possible, while still producing an interpretation that would be readable and valuable both to Greek scholars, and to readers entirely unfamiliar with Greek. Not a pure philologist per se, Jowett, very much like Tennyson, was more interested in translating the ancients in a manner to assist in their application to the modern world. As Master of Balliol, he worked to expand the rigid, classical-based canon at Oxford to include the works of modern philosophy. Jowett was well known to his fellow Victorians, and he exacted a profound influence on the England of his day through the many students who absorbed from him both a deep appreciation of the potential of philosophy for improving society, and an unflagging dedication to hard work. The extent of his renown is suggested by the well-known jingle, thought to have originated among Oxford undergraduates in the early 1880s:
   First come I. My name is J-w-tt.
   There's no knowledge, but I know it.
   I am Master of this College.
   What I don't know, isn't knowledge.(15)

Benjamin Jowett enjoyed a close relationship with Tennyson and his family that dated from the 1850s. Hallam Tennyson recorded in his biography of his father that Jowett often spent the Christmas holidays with the Tennysons at Farringford, that Jowett often provided the poet with ideas for new poems, and that Tennyson enjoyed debating with Jowett "on points of philosophy and religious doubt." Hallam Tennyson also recorded Jowett's testament to the value of his friend's poetry, which he believed to have "an element of philosophy more to be considered than any regular philosophy in England" (Memoir, 2, 418).

For his dedicatory lines to Jowett, Tennyson again uses a variation on his original "Daisy" meter as he used it in "To Professor Jebb" to approximate the Horatian Alcaic. In this poem, however, Tennyson alters the third line, using a three-stress line in place of the four-stress line common to his "Daisy" stanza, and closer in line-length to the third line of Horace's Alcaic stanza. Tennyson's attempt to approximate the rhythm of the Alcaic strophe emphasizes its thematic relationship to Horace's Odes 2.11, a poem written in Alcaics, in which the speaker, referring to his youth having passed him by, invites an old friend to join with him in enjoying wine and song.(16)

Once again, here Tennyson dedicates a refashioning of a classical tale to an old friend and fellow classicist who he hopes will appreciate his endeavor. Because the dedicatory prefaces to Jebb and Jowett were published with the poems, the poet's chosen addressee sets a standard by which his readers should judge the poems that follow: "Demeter and Persephone" and "The Death of Oenone" are meant to be read with Greek and Latin literature in mind. Moreover, in its direct mention of Quintus Calaber, the prefatory dedication to Jowett even indicates which classical work with which "The Death of Oenone" should be compared. Because the study of Greek and Latin was fundamental to nineteenth-century education, most of Tennyson's contemporary readers would have been more likely to recognize these poems' relationships to their classical forebears than readers are today.

Tennyson's son Hallam recorded that his father considered "The Death of Oenone," "even more classical in form and language than the old `Oenone'" (Memoir 2:386). The poem is in many ways a retelling of the account of Quintus Smyrnaeus, who describes the deaths of Paris and Oenone at the end of Book 10 of his fourteen-book Greek epic, The Fall of Troy. Quintus' late epic was designed to bridge the events of the Iliad to those of the Odyssey, and it was probably heavily influenced by material from the no longer extant Epic Cycle.(17)

In both "Oenone" and "The Death of Oenone," Tennyson seems to have been drawn to the challenge of depicting this young woman's passionate response to being abandoned by her lover Paris for the alluring Helen of Troy. In Quintus' account of the story, a wounded and miserable Paris returns at the end of the Trojan War to Oenone's house in order to request her healing powers. Oenone angrily refuses his request, and berates him for his disloyalty. Quintus depicts Paris' subsequent death on the mountainside, and then describes the false grief of Helen and the other women of Troy who mourn Paris in word, but who are too preoccupied by fear for their own safety to truly share Oenone's real grief. Although angry and sarcastic before, Oenone becomes Paris' only true mourner after his death, regretting having chosen not to save him, strongly expressing her desire to leave behind her life of misery, and quietly and deliberately climbing onto his funeral pyre to join him in death.

William Morris's "The Death of Paris," from The Earthly Paradise provides an interesting contrast to Quintus' account. Focusing even more directly on the emotional states of both Paris and Oenone in their reunion scene, Morris vividly evokes the poignant memories that Paris experiences as he is carried on a litter up into the hills of Ida to seek his former lover. In remembering his life there as a young shepherd, Paris dreams of his love for Oenone, and symbolically reaches for the shepherd's horn around his neck, only to find himself to weak to produce any sound with it. Oenone comes and speaks of her years of misery, and in a moment that is reminiscent of Morris's "The Haystack in the Floods," she walks away from Paris and speaks to herself, deliberating over whether or not to save him. Although Paris swears to Oenone that he still loves her, she sees a look of pity in his eyes, and imagines him returning healthy to the arms of Helen. Ultimately, Oenone spurns Paris' attempt to convince her that he may well love her again, as he had years before, and she decides not to save him. Paris dies after finally managing to blow his horn one last time, and, tellingly, after calling out Helen's name three times. Neglecting the detail of the pyre altogether, Morris's evocative poem focuses more directly on the pain of memory and lost potential. As a story meant to represent September in his calendar of folk tales, "The Death of Paris" is a deeply moving treatment of the theme of love that might have been.

Tennyson's "The Death of Oenone," by contrast, follows Quintus' account much more closely. In his poem, the brooding Oenone remains in the vale of Ida, sitting in a cave amidst her barren landscape--a landscape that had been deforested to provide wood for the ships Paris built in order to abduct Helen years before. Oenone looks at the withered vines that had sprung up when the three goddesses entered the valley years ago to be judged by Paris, and she is reminded of the events that she described in Tennyson's earlier poem. Here the reader remembers along with Oenone the vision of the young Paris coming toward her, "beauteous as a god" (18). This recollection becomes a reality when a wailing cry signals the actual approach of Paris in the present, rising through the mist like a dead soul, "Lame, crooked, reeling, livid," and "no longer beauteous as a God" (27, 25). Paris' appeal to Oenone closely follows his appeal in Quintus. He wishes he had died in Oenone's arms long ago, he acknowledges her fame as a healer, he warns her that the gods will avenge a stony heart that is unable to feel pity, and he blames his association with Helen on fate.(18) Unlike Oenone in Quintus' account, where her angry response equals Paris' request in length, Tennyson's Oenone is terse as well as bitter, and she replies as follows to Paris' statement that he is poisoned to the heart:
   `And I to mine,' she said, `Adulterer,
   Go back to thine adulteress and die!'


In both Tennyson and Quintus, the rejected Paris stumbles away from Oenone and dies a painful death in the valley; however, rather than follow Quintus in having his body discovered by the nymphs of Ida, Tennyson has him discovered by the old shepherd who originally found Paris as an abandoned infant on the hillside. This detail emphasizes the cyclical pattern in the story, in Paris' return to the countryside where he spent his youth with the shepherds and with Oenone before the events of the Trojan War.

Tennyson concludes his poem with the stunned Oenone's dreaming of Paris calling to her, and her slowly but deliberately following his voice down into the valley to his funeral pyre. In Quintus, a highly remorseful Oenone laments Paris' death at length, but she is silent as she dramatically jumps into the flames. In doing so she shocks the nymphs who stand by, though at the same time inspires them to acknowledge the depth of her loyalty. Tennyson's version is different in some significant ways. In his poem, Oenone confesses no remorse, and after her trance-like and dispassionate wandering to pyre, she asks the mourners twice who lies upon it. When she receives the answer, "He, whom thou wouldst not heal," the poet writes that, "all at once / The morning light of happy marriage broke / Through all the clouded years of widowhood," and crying "Husband!" Oenone leaps upon the fire (101-6).

Interpretations of "The Death of Oenone" range from reading it as a lesson on the Christian value of forgiveness, to interpreting it simply as a pointless retelling of Quintus' story. Critics have been quick to criticize the poem's brevity and the poet's "forgetting" to include a modern frame.(20) But the poem's 106 lines are trimmed of all excesses, much like a short classical epyllion; and even so the poem is still longer than "Ulysses" or "Tithonus." Moreover, the criticism of its lack of a modern frame lies in a misreading of the poem's ending. In "The Death of Oenone" Tennyson follows Quintus more closely than he usually follows an original source; thus the differences between the poems require a closer analysis than usual. The chief departure from Quintus' account lies in the important detail that Tennyson's Oenone does not choose to die out of desperation and regret that she turned Paris away and let him die. Tennyson's reader must take into account the poet's complete omission of Oenone's loud and mournful remorse in The Fall of Troy. Tennyson's Oenone has not learned an incongruous Christian lesson of forgiveness, nor has she committed an act which she regrets; rather, she has come at last to the end of her grief, and the "clouded years of widowhood," in which she waited to be avenged on Paris. Her suicide is not the act of a woman agonized with sorrow and regret, but the act of a bride facing the "morning light of happy marriage" after years of waiting. As Tennyson wrote in "To the Master of Balliol," Oenone glides towards her fate, "led by dream and vague desire" (17). Much like Percy Bysshe Shelley's Laon and Cythna in his poem of that title, a brother and sister who gladly embrace death together on a pyre, Oenone is resigned to the fulfillment of a destiny that has avenged the pain she suffered for so many years, and that ultimately allows for her much-longed-for reunion with her husband. The "missing frame" that has caused so many critics to pity a failing poet past his prime is actually a frame intrinsic to the poem's structure. Tennyson's modern twist lies in his altering of the original myth in order to focus on a character who has come to peace with herself after a long period of anguish and hostility.

Reading Tennyson's two final classical poems together indicates some intriguing similarities between these two works. In both cases the reader is presented with a bold female figure who is angry with the notion of "fate" that has perhaps become too much a part of modern explanations for tragedy and loss. Demeter reviles her fellow gods for their submission to fate as a higher power. "What meant they by their `Fate beyond the Fates'" (128), she asks angrily, suggesting and even hoping that if such a higher power exists it must be that of "younger kindlier Gods"--gods who promise a better world in which the maternal life force that Demeter represents will triumph over death. Similarly, when Paris shirks responsibility for his betrayal of Oenone by claiming that "Man is but the slave of Fate" (44), Oenone reacts to his pleas with utter disdain. Both "Demeter and Persephone" and "The Death of Oenone" offer clear and bold human responses against the notion of the inevitability of blind fate. Certainly there is a clear message in these responses for Victorian readers lulled by contemporary scientific advances into questioning the long-held tenets of religious faith.

What is more, the two poems may be read as contributions to contemporary debates on marriage. It is interesting that Demeter's vision of a future world in which love may conquer death is a world in which she as a parent is not to be separated from her child. It is maternal love, not conjugal, that is celebrated in the speaker's vision of the future. Is Tennyson making a comment on marriage here, or is he simply speaking to the creative potential of maternal love? More importantly, the issue of marriage is central to "The Death of Oenone," whether one sees the poem as a celebration of the loyalty implicit in Oenone's suttee, or an illustration of the destructiveness of Paris' faithlessness. Most modern readers despise this poem for its glorification of a woman's self-obliteration. But why must the poem be read as advocating Oenone's actions, any more than "The Lotos-Eaters" is to be read as advocating the neglect of duty in pursuit of a life of hedonistic pleasure? Surely the poem may be better interpreted as an illustration of the extreme destructive potential of a man who abandons all control over his actions to a larger concept of fate. Moreover, is Oenone, a woman who has been sitting idly in her cave and staring blankly for years, necessarily to be seen as a figure worthy of emulation? Critics have never tired of debating whether or not "Ulysses" celebrates the unflagging spirit of the adventurer who refuses to accept death gently, or excoriates a man who places fame and glory well ahead of his responsibilities to kingdom and to his family. Why then are Oenone's actions to be read in only one light?

In "The Death of Oenone," Tennyson has come full circle like Oenone herself, returning to a character "sixty years after" and picking up where we left her in 1832 when she went off to seek the advice of Cassandra, saying that "whereso'er I am by night and day, / All earth and air seem only burning fire" ("Oenone," 263-64). Fascinated by the static figure of the abandoned woman fixated by grief in such early poems as "Mariana," "Oenone," and "Mariana in the South," not to mention his explorations of the character of Elaine in "The Lady of Shalott" and later "Lancelot and Elaine," Tennyson finally allows this figure to resolve her fixation in "The Death of Oenone." Certainly there is something for a modern audience in Tennyson's revision of the story, and in his return in his final classical poem to the character to whom he originally gave a voice in one of his first successful classical pieces. Certainly there is a great deal of the aged Tennyson himself in this poem which has to do with coming to terms with the pain of life and moving beyond it, and with facing death at the proper time with peace and dignity.

If "Demeter and Persephone" is Tennyson's final expression of optimistic hope for a happier future, then "The Death of Oenone" is his final resignation to the next stage of that future. While critics have neglected to see the implications of the poet's alterations of his classical sources in these two poems, Tennyson clearly asks his readers to consider these implications by casting the poems as offerings to the most famous Greek professors of the day at Cambridge (Jebb) and at Oxford (Jowett). As with each of the classical pieces that Tennyson composed throughout his life, one must be familiar with his sources and how he alters them in order to see clearly the :new frames he has fashioned for his modern poems.(21)

Penn State University, Delaware County


(1) The influence of particular classical authors on Tennyson (such as Homer, Theocritus, Vergil, and Horace) is treated by a number of essays written mainly in the late nineteenth- and earlier half of the twentieth century; but there have been only four general treatments of Tennyson and the classics: Wilfred Mustard's Classical Echoes in Tennyson (New York: Macmillan, 1904:); Douglas Bush's chapter on Tennyson in Mythology and the Romantic Tradition (Harvard U. Press, 1937; New York: Pageant, 1957), 197-228; Theodore Redpath's "Tennyson and the Literature of Greece and Rome," in Studies in Tennyson, ed. Hallam Tennyson (Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1981), 105-30; and Santosh Nath's Treatment of Greek Mythology in the Poems of Tennyson (Aligarh, India: Printwell Publications, 1992). Mustard, Bush, and Nath provide helpful catalogs of Tennyson's sources, but contain little in the way of critical analysis. Redpath's essay is more critical, but its breadth and brevity preclude a detailed discussion of any one work.

(2) There have been many important critical works on Tennyson and the dramatic monologue; a few of the most noteworthy include K. N. Bakaya, "Tennyson's Use of the Dramatic Monologue," Essays Presented to Amy G. Stock, ed. R. K. Kaul (Rjasthan U. Press, 1965), 95-110; James R. Kincaid, "Rhetorical Irony, the Dramatic Monologue, and Tennyson's Poems (1842)," PQ 53 (1974): 220-36; Philip Hobsbaum, "The Rise of the Dramatic Monologue," The Hudson Review 28 (1975): 227-45; Alan Sinfield, Dramatic Monologue (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1977); Loy D. Martin, "The Inside of Time: An Essay on the Dramatic Monologue," Robert Browning: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Harold Bloom and Adrienne Munich (Englewood Clifs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979), 59-78; William E. Fredeman, "One Word More: On Tennyson's Dramatic Monologues, Studies in Tennyson, ed. Hallam Tennyson (Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1981), 169-85; Dorothy Mermin, The Audience in the Poem (Rutgers U. Press, 1983); Herbert F. Tucker, "Dramatic Monologue and the Overhearing of Lyric," Lyric Poetry: Beyond New Criticism, ed. Chavia Hosek, Patricia Parker, and Jonathan Arac (Cornell U. Press, 1985), 226-43, and Tennyson and the Doom of Romanticism (Harvard U. Press, 1988); Linda K. Hughes, The Manyfaced Glass: Tennyson's Dramatic Monologues (Ohio U. Press, 1988); Earl G. Ingersoll, "Considerations of Gender in the Dramatic Monologue," The Modern Language Review 86 (July 1991): 545-52; and W. David Shaw, "Lyric Displacement in the Victorian Monologue: Naturalizing the Vocative," Nineteenth-Century Literature 52 (December 1997): 302-25.

(3) Hallam Tennyson, Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir by His Son. 2 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1897), 2:364.

(4) Anthony Kearney assesses Churton Collins's critical commentaries on Tennyson in "Making Tennyson a Classic: Churton Collins's Illustrations of Tennyson in Context," Victorian Poetry 32 (1992): 75-82.

(5) The passages of Tennyson's poetry quoted in this essay are taken from The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks, 3 vols. (Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1987).

(6) Hallam Tennyson, Memoir, 2:14.

(7) Ovid adds the origination stories of two bodies of water to this version--those of Cyane and Arethusa. He brings the nymph Cyane into the story as she attempts to stop Dis from abducting Proserpina, which brings about her melting into the waters of her own pool. The spring Arethusa, in addition to telling her own story, is the one who reveals to Ceres where to find her daughter, Arethusa having seen Proserpina in the Underworld during her subterranean migration from Pisa to Sicily. In the Fasti, his unfinished poem on the rituals of the Roman calendar, Ovid provides a somewhat different account of Proserpina's rape to explain the origin of the games of Ceres on the twelfth of April, an account which is much closer to the Homeric Hymn.

(8) See Fasti 4.393-620.

(9) Claudian's epic demonstrates a few Christian overtones in the scene of Proserpina's temptation. Venus' appearance to the girl is reminiscent of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary; likewise the threefold creaking of the doors of Ceres' palace and the threefold rumbles of Mount Aetna foreshadowing Proserpina's fate recall the story of Christ's betrayal.

(10) Other additions in Claudian's account include the rebellion of Diana and Pallas against Pluto when he comes for his bride, followed by Jupiter's thunderous warning to them to comply, as well as a detailing of Proserpina's laments and Pluto's promises to her of a wonderful new life in the Underworld. The conversation between Pluto and Proserpina is followed by a lengthy description of their marriage rituals, which bring about temporary relief for those being punished in the Underworld, including Ixion, Tantalus, and Tityus. (De Raptu Proserpinae 2.335-42. Compare Ovid's description of the effects of Orpheus' singing on the inhabitants of the Underworld in Metamorphoses 10.42-47). One of Claudian's most original additions is his use of Proserpina's appearance to her mother in a dream as the means by which Ceres learns of her daughter's abduction. Book 3, the final book of the unfinished epic, closes in the midst of Ceres' dejection and lamentations after having this dream.

(11) Douglas Bush contrasts Tennyson's emphasis in this poem on the relationship between mother and child to Tennyson's treatment of the same theme in "The May Queen," a highly sentimental piece set in the modern day. Bush suggests that the location of the theme in an ancient world is what keeps it from becoming sentimental or trivial. See Mythology and the Romantic Tradition in English Poetry, 220-21.

(12) The tiger indicates the extension of the catastrophe to lands far from Sicily; in addition, it recalls Claudian's comparison of the grieving goddess to a tigress who angrily pursues the captors of her cubs (3.263-68).

(13) Hallam Tennyson points out the relationship of this passage to the prophecy of Zeus' downfall in Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound (lines 907ff), and the reference of a future race of "kindlier" gods to Aeschylus' Eumenides, 808 (Ricks, 3:168n). Tennyson may have had Shelley's Prometheus Unbound in mind in addressing this theme of the eventual overthrow of the Olympians in favor of a more moral universal order.

(14) The reference here to the dissolution of the punishments of the Underworld in the allusions to Sisyphus' stone and Ixion's wheel again recall incidents in classical myth in which these punishments are temporarily suspended. See note 10 above for references to Ovid and Claudian. The final image is from Odysseus' interview with Achilles' shade in the Odyssey 11.538-9: "So I spoke, and the soul of the swift-footed scion of Aiakos / stalked away in long strides across the meadow of asphodel," Richmond Lattimore, trans. (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 182. Cf. Ricks, 3:169.

(15) Reprinted by Geoffrey Faber in Jowett: A Portrait with Background (London: Faber & Faber, 1957), 22.

(16) Ricks also points out Milton's variation on Horace 2.11 in his Sonnet 18 (3, 220).

(17) N. G. L. Hammond and H. H. Scullard, eds., The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 908.

(18) Compare to The Fall of Troy 10.284-305.

(19) These lines follow the final lines of Oenone's speech in Quintus' version, in which Oenone likewise suggests that Paris return to Helen for help (10.324-27).

(20) See Theodore Redpath, "Tennyson and the Literature of Greece and Rome," in Studies in Tennyson, ed. Hallam Tennyson (Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1981), 129, and Bush, Mythology and the Romantic Tradition, 222-23, respectively.

(21) I am most grateful to Allan R. Life, Sara Mack, Beverly Taylor, Mark L. Reed, and William Harmon for their many readings of this manuscript.
COPYRIGHT 1999 University of Iowa
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson
Author:MARKLEY, A. A.
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 1999
Previous Article:Fairy Magic and the Female Imagination: Mary Lamb's "A Midsummer Night's Dream".
Next Article:The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters