How to exist where you are: a lesson in Lotos-eating.
Ever let the Fancy roam, Pleasure never is at home. --John Keats
For over thirty years critics have tried Tennyson as an "imperialist of the imagination." To summarize their case: from a young age Tennyson immersed himself in travel literature to imagine a life far away from the unhappy, violent household in Somersby. This interest in remote experiences became a signature of his poetry, and his early works in particular abound in exotic details that we can trace back to his wide travel reading. In this Tennyson seems the aesthetic analogue of the imperial capitalist, venturing out in mind to some faraway land and returning with foreign resources to enrich his poetic hoard at home. And yet--as critics acknowledge--in using exotic imagery, Tennyson differs little from the poets who influenced him, such as Byron, Shelley, and Keats. What makes Tennyson's case distinct from theirs in the court of literary criticism is not his exoticism per se but rather his politics, which are as elusive in his early poems as they are hard to miss in his later. Thus the case against Tennyson depends in part on a developmental reading of his poetry, which detects his later commitments to British imperial policy as latent in his early reliance on exotic imagery. As Alan Sinfield alleges in the trial's opening argument, for Tennyson "the poetic spirit is the advance guard of capitalism and imperialism, and cannot escape this involvement." Subsequent critics, the most recent being David Riede, have developed or qualified Sinfield's accusation, but the majority verdict returns the same: guilty as charged. (1)
This essay is not a deposition for the defense. Tennyson himself admitted a fascination with things remote ("The words 'far, far away' had always a strange charm for me") that is hard to read as politically innocent. (2) And he did use exotic imagery for his own ideological convenience, as Sinfield accuses him of doing--this essay is partly about one of the ways he did so. But his situation is complicated: what Sinfield and later critics miss is that Tennyson was also deeply critical of an imaginative bias toward the far away--albeit primarily on aesthetic rather than political grounds. This aesthetic critique is my subject. By getting a better purchase on Tennyson's early aesthetics, we can more fully appreciate unusual formal choices that have been missed in the critical effort to discover a coherent political position in his early poetry. We will also come to suspect the developmental reading of his career.
The developmental reading states that before British imperialism was the imagination. That is, before "imperialism" became a recognizable political construct in the mid-Victorian era, the groundwork was laid by an aesthetic ideology that emphasized the imagination's preference for what lay apart from familiar experience: for the exotic, in the etymological sense of the word as demarcating what is outside. "Pleasure," as Keats's epigraph to this essay has it, "never is at home." Tennyson's early poems, which fly from Persia to Peru without ever obviously alighting in the poet's native Lincolnshire, would seem implicitly to further Keats's claim. But the very obsessiveness with which Tennyson imagines faraway places and stages and restages scenes of travel, discovery, or imperial conquest should make us hesitate. For if Tennyson's poetry can be read as the logical outcome of a particular imaginative ideal, it can also be read as a sustained investigation of that same ideal: that is, as challenging rather than confirming it.
I take up a set of interrelated early poems that critically analyze the attraction of the far away and counter it with a pleasure "Fast-rooted," "in its place" ("The Lotos-Eaters," 11. 83, 81): "The Merman," "The Mermaid," and "The Sea-Fairies" in Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830) and "The Lotos-Eaters" in Poems (1832). In reforming aesthetic pleasure around the nearby rather than the remote, these poems discredit imperialism after all, although not along the overtly political lines on which Sinfield and others would have them proceed. Rather, they criticize the psychology of empire. They proclaim "no more": an end to acquisition and expansion and, even more broadly, an end to the developmental thinking that finds value only in difference rather than continuity. And they break new aesthetic ground in imagining the body--that thing that is always "here"--as a privileged site of ideological resistance. Where these poems (and "The Lotos-Eaters" in particular) have been read as signal instances of Tennyson's imaginative imperialism, as "inevitably [taking] the tone of the dominant Orientalist discourse of his age" (Riede, p. 71), I read them as trying to avoid the inevitable. They form a set of experiments that tried to dismantle the imperial imagination from within. (3)
Before I get to Tennyson's poetic experiments, I want to sketch the context that makes them so experimental. In attending to the aesthetic value of the nearby, Tennyson was breaking from contemporary theories of mind, which emphasized the mind's affinity for unfamiliar sensations. The associationist models of Erasmus Darwin and James Mill, for instance, described intellectual development as a function of the pleasure afforded by novelty: we acquire knowledge because the mind "cannot rest on a point, but bounds forth, with an elastic spring, in quest of new observations." (4) Thus certain aesthetic experiences--experiences of pleasure in new and exotic sensations--came to be understood as the food of intellectual growth and hence as essential to humans' intellectual superiority relative to other animals.
This context helps us better understand the underpinnings of imaginative imperialism. For the aforementioned model of mind proved useful to the travel writers whom Tennyson read, who explained exploration not in political but in psychological terms. Washington Irving's Columbus, for example, travels not for imperial gain but rather because of his "ardent and impatient desire to break away from the limits of the old world, and launch into the unknown"-that is, because of his mind's "elastic spring" being wound so tight. (5) Thus imperialism was insidiously justified as psychological destiny. Claude Etienne Savary, whom Tennyson read by 1827, gives us perhaps the clearest instance of how the imagination is bound up in this destiny. Savary's Letters on Egypt characterizes Europeans as "continually receiving new impressions" and "continually tormented by a wish to know and act": "unable to moderate the violence of their desires, or satisfy their unbounded wants, [they] are weary every where, and exist only where they are not." (6) Savary describes a logical conundrum similar to the one Alice encounters in Wonderland--jam there and jam there, but never jam here. If you are after "new impressions," wherever you are is less attractive than wherever you have not yet been, since newness wears off with time. This is the imaginative imperialist's fate; if pleasure never is at home, the imagination must exist elsewhere. There is always, as Ulysses hoarsely exhorts his men, "a newer world" to be found ("Ulysses," 1. 57).
But if travel narratives modeled the imperialist imagination for Tennyson, they also provided the material for him to critique that imagination, in depicting an alternative psychological basis for the pleasures enjoyed by "savages." Westerners' supposedly different psychology blocks their access to Eastern enjoyments: "a monotony which, to a European, would be death, is delight to an Egyptian." Behold Savary's "Turk," smoking "his long jasmin pipe":
Thoughtless, in tranquil apathy, he smokes the sun down, void of desire, void of ambition; his calm passions never cast one curious look towards futurity: that restless activity by which we are tormented, and which is the soul of all our knowledge, of all our works, is to him unknown; ... his life, to us, seems a long slumber; ours, to him, one continual state of intoxication; but, while we are ever pursuing happiness which ever eludes our grasp, he peaceably enjoys the good that nature gives, and each day brings, without troubling himself concerning the morrow, (pp. 146, 51-52)
In place of the propulsive forces--desire, ambition, curiosity--that orient the European body to an elsewhere, Savary's Turk has "void." This emptiness is the passage's dominant note, echoed in its language of "thoughtless" unknowing and "apathy." Savary, like many other Orientalist writers, patronizingly frames Egyptians' "peaceable" enjoyments negatively, with Europeans' "restless activity" acting as the standard measure from which other cultures can only deviate. (7)
Yet despite the patronizing--and worse, exploitative--attitude toward other cultures in accounts like Savary's, they nevertheless helped Tennyson regard as contingent what elsewhere was treated as natural: humans' supposed fitness for innovation and progress. (8) To read Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830) and Poems (1832) in relation to these accounts is to recognize just how strongly their evocations of Oriental pleasure resonated with Tennyson. Monotony, emptiness, a blank future, a long slumber: these haunt Tennyson's early poetry, revealing his persistent attraction to inactive modes of being. In some cases he codes these images negatively. But in the early poems I consider, he reclaims inaction as simply pleasurable. Staged in, on, or next to the sea, the mer-poems and "The Lotos-Eaters" take back sites of travel or imminent departure for the purposes of poetic languor and in doing so protest the demand to be constantly on the move. In these poems Tennyson shifts away from acquisitive plots of desire and ambition, writing in their stead narratives organized around blank, eventless stretches of lived experience. These are moments in which the self is not defined by its imperial reach, its growing extension through time and space--it exists where it is, inasmuch as such a thing is possible. Tennyson attempts to write a counterhistory to supplement the dominant Western histories of action and acquisition; the mer-poems and "The Lotos-Eaters" explore experiences that occur in the negative space of progressive narratives. And in reworking the basis of aesthetic experience, Tennyson creates a new vocabulary of aestheticism, a development that I show to be deeply rooted in his resistance to the imperial imagination.
Night-Bats and Sea-Fairies
From an early age Tennyson wrote poetry as psychological portraiture, and on a cursory reading his model of what we might call "mental health" seems to require the imaginative roaming described earlier. Ulysses for example, gray haired and yet still vigorous in body and mind, finely realizes the person who exists only where he is not: "Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough /Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades/For ever and for ever when I move" ("Ulysses," 11. 19-21). (9) The "gleam" of the untraveled indicates the light of Ulysses's gaze pointing where he wants to be: anywhere outside the "arch" of the already experienced. What he has already "seen and known" serves only to frame what is yet unfamiliar; this prioritizing of new over old is most evident when Ulysses's listening audience and his immediate surroundings at Ithaca's port emerge in the monologue only as afterthoughts. In "Ulysses" Tennyson evokes the imaginative imperialist's inner life, in which the world is barren unless it holds out "something more,/A bringer of new things" (11. 27-28). And as Tennyson builds out this acquisitive mindset, he also shows his sensitivity to the cultural work it performs. Ulysses's desire for "something more" marks him out as consummate capitalist and imperialist--he sets out in search of "profits" and "a newer world" together (11. 1, 57). Yet even in this strident monologue, with its ringing endorsement of just the mentality Sinfield and Riede criticize in Tennyson's poetry, we get a hint of the poet's hesitancy. Ulysses's metaphor for the life he rejects in Ithaca--"To rust unburnished, not to shine in use"--depicts in one image the sword of battle laid by and the capitalist anathema of money not put out to interest (1. 23). That Tennyson marries the two strongly suggests his awareness of the predatory instincts of capitalism. The old warrior's habitual violence spreads through his speech, coloring even the apparently laudable "desire/To follow knowledge like a sinking star, / Beyond the utmost bound of human thought" (11. 30-32). The mechanism behind intellectual progress, the pursuit of new sensations and new ideas, merges imperceptibly with the larger cultural forces of early capitalism and proto-imperialism.
That Tennyson considered Ulysses (for all his violent impulses) a model of mental health seems supported by a number of his early poetic figures with no corresponding orientation toward the far away. Tennyson was fascinated with people who lingered, lazed, or did nothing at all, but it was a guilty fascination. Ulysses's most famous counterpart in this regard is Mariana: while the former strains to be leagues away from wherever he is, far over the horizon, the latter can hardly bring herself to get out of bed; and while Ulysses "will drink/Life to the lees," gulping down whatever it has to offer, Mariana finds even the "sparrow's chirrup on the roof" an unwelcome distraction from her all-consuming misery ("Ulysses," 11. 6-7; "Mariana," 1. 73). Ulysses may train his attention on the remote "gleam" of the "untravelled world," but Tennyson has dozens of other figures who dwell in a "night of wretchedness," a "waste of darkness," "a dark gulf of woe" ("Remorse," 11. 9, 29; "Written by an Exile of Bassorah," 1. 3). In their cases the absence of light marks both their psychological state (an absence of active curiosity or desire "to shine in use") and its repercussions (the darkness of punishment). They recapitulate many of the characteristics of Savary's Turk; their lives are defined by emptiness, wasted opportunity, and the lack of expectation. But the Turk found his blank state to be a "delight," while Tennyson's poems interpret the same as torment. We are looking at this state through "European" eyes, so to speak, so that inaction is perceived as pain. Tennyson's frequent recourse to situations like these--in poems that include the histrionically bleak titles "Remorse," "I Wander in Darkness and Sorrow," "The Grave of a Suicide," "Unhappy Man, Why Wander There?," and "The Deserted House"--indicates his interest in developing a poetics of inaction and empty experience. But it seems that he struggled to do this apart from a value system that privileged Ulysses's heroic pursuit of something more and that accordingly consigned do-nothings to moral perdition.
Yet there is a poem called "Perdidi Diem," which Tennyson wrote around 1830 and did not publish, that reworks this imagery and that marks the poet's uncertainty about the value of action. It, too, takes place in darkness, but it suggests that the guilty suffering of those who are in the dark is not endemic to their state but rather projected into it from a perspective that looks for progress. Here we see the possibility that inaction could be a source of real pleasure, as Tennyson performs a kind of psychological history by imagining an early state in which the mind was less prone to seek out difference:
And thou hast lost a day! Oh mighty boast! Dost thou miss one day only? I have lost A life, perchance an immortality; I never lived a day, but daily die, I have no real breath; My being is a vacant worthlessness, A carcase in the coffin of this flesh, Pierced through with loathly worms of utter Death. My soul is but the eternal mystic lamp, Lighting that charnel damp, Wounding with dreadful rays that solid gloom, And shadowing forth the unutterable tomb, Making a 'darkness visible' Of that which without thee we had not felt As darkness, dark ourselves and loving night, Night-bats into the filtering crevices Hooked, clinging, darkness-fed, at ease: Night-owls whose organs were not made for light. (11. 1-18, emphasis in original)
Not until Gerard Manley Hopkins wakes and feels the fell of dark some fiftyfive years later does English literature produce a sweatier, more suffocating poem. Tennyson's image of a speaker metaphorically buried alive makes his point: on a ledger that marks only the productive use of time, a "life" of lost days looks just like "death." But gradually the poem's register inverts, ironically reframing its initial evaluation of action. The vocabulary of waste and loss-both capital offenses under Weber's Protestant ethic--transforms into one of "ease." From carcasses we come to creatures who are "darkness-fed," at home in a night that succors and nurtures them and at home in the "coffin" of the body rather than transported elsewhere through imaginative flight. Suffering is wrought not by this darkness but by "the malignant light" (1. 22) and "dreadful rays" that "wound" in creating a difference where none had been felt before. Only with this light comes the knowledge that what had felt like ease was, in fact, "wasted" time, time that should have been used productively. Tennyson reverses the priority usually given to day over night, picturing an originary darkness that is unnaturally invaded by the "mystic lamp" of Christian conscience. Thus while the poem begins in mourning the loss of day, by its end we see that the true loss is the loss of night, of a prior pleasure in rest and empty time.
Contemporary racial theories, which understood primitive peoples to be types of early humans, would have encouraged the idea that a "savage" pleasure in vacant inertia was prior to a "civilized" curiosity. And so the very travel accounts that built up the imperial imagination could also be used to deconstruct it, enabling Tennyson to write his way toward a poetry in which pleasure can exist where it is, unaccountable to any demand to achieve something more. We can see Savary's influence, for instance, on Tennyson's embrace of "venerable" (that is, ancient or prior) darkness in another poem contemporary with "Perdidi Diem": "I savour of the Egyptian and adore /Thee, venerable dark!"("Ode: O Bosky Brook," 11. 83-84). These poems expose the assumption of humans' fitness for activity and change to be just that--an assumption, which can be dismissed at will. In reframing inaction not as "loss" or "vacant worthlessness" but as "ease," "Perdidi Diem" critiques an Enlightenment understanding of life as measured by accumulation and progress. For the mind's "spring" toward the exotic Tennyson substitutes the "hooks" that fix his night creatures in their "filtering crevices." And once the gleam of the far away fades, a different kind of poetry emerges. Thus Tennyson bids farewell to a daylight empire "with lordly cities and with towers, /... with the gliding white of pregnant sails"--all this the stuff of his overtly "imperial" poetry--and turns to "Rare sound, spare light" as offering its own aesthetic delight ("Ode: O Bosky Brook," 11. 100-101, 111).
Tennyson most directly engages a pleasure independent from the far away in the interrelated poems "The Merman," "The Mermaid," and "The SeaFairies," from Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830), and "The Lotos-Eaters," from Poems (1832). Christopher Ricks notes these poems as thematically linked to one another in his edition of Tennyson's works, and it is easy to understand why (1: 278). They all visit an archetypal scene of travel--the sea, which often functions in Tennyson's early poetry as the space across which the questing imagination projects itself. They all inhabit a similar mythos, with journeying mariners and their alluring marine counterparts, sea-sirens (or Lotos-eaters). And they all take up a similar problem in working through the poetic implications of an imagination unhitched from the drive toward a newer world.
If "Perdidi Diem" whispers the pleasures of "loving night," these lyrics celebrate them with full voice: here we see Tennyson's verbal fluency reach its high tide, having burst the narrow bounds of Mariana's staccato refrain and similarly unimpeded by Ulysses's later rhetorical restraint. The attitude of guilt that framed earlier accounts of unproductive time gives way to a sprawling embrace of darkness as offering its own bliss. The mer-people are poets who gladly and willfully prefer the dark to the light. Like Mariana, who only opens her curtains "When thickest dark did trance the sky" ("Mariana," 1. 18), the sirens keep to the seabed at day and surface in a "magic night" with "neither moon nor star" ("The Merman," 11. 23, 21). And in their darkness, in the underworld beneath imperialism's chartered realms, they sing with an aural intensity unprecedented thus far in Tennyson's poetry: they "carol aloud," "sit and sing the whole of the day," "fill the sea-halls with a voice of power," "call aloud in the dreamy dells, /Call to each other and whoop and cry/All night, merrily, merrily" ("The Mermaid," 1. 52; "The Merman," 11. 9, 10, 25-27). Even visual detail, never Tennyson's strong suit, is subsumed in aural intensity: "And I should look like a fountain of gold/Springing alone/With a shrill inner sound" ("The Mermaid," 11. 18-20, emphasis added). These are some of the most striking representations of vocal power in all of Tennyson's work; that he places them in the context of an aimless, repetitive life emphasizes how freeing he found this idea to be for his own lyrical gifts.
Tennyson's verbal playfulness spins out even more exuberantly in "The Sea-Fairies," in which the merfolk tease some mariners to abandon their onward course:
Whither away, whither away, whither away? fly no more. Whither away wi' the singing sail? whither away wi' the oar? Whither away from the high green field, and the happy blossoming shore? Weary mariners, hither away, One and all, one and all, Weary mariners come and play; We will sing to you all the day; Furl the sail and the foam will fall From the prow! One and all Furl the sail! Drop the oar! Leap ashore! Know danger and trouble and toil no more. Whither away wi' the sail and the oar? Drop the oar, Leap ashore, Fly no more! Whither away wi' the sail? Whither away wi' the oar? (1830 version, 11. 7-24)
Tennyson's verse is so self-involved that the sea-fairies' call to "drop the oar" is gratuitous: this language is not going anywhere. The limited stock of consonant and vowel sounds ("whither," "wi' the," "away," "weary") advertises a pleasure to be gotten out of little rather than the "something more" that the mariners are off to discover. "Whither" is repeated until it is leached of semantic content, while "the high green field, and the happy blossoming shore" bloom all the brighter for the waste of words that surrounds them. In this vivid blooming of the nearby we arrive at the perspective inverse to Ulysses's: whereas for Ulysses "untravelled" margins gleam out against a dull, familiar center, for the sea-fairies (as opposed to sea-farers) "hither" shines brighter than the unknown "whither." The imperative toward knowledge is ignored: as "know" withers to "no," the sea-fairies mark the limits of the ne plus ultra beyond which Ulysses was determined to sail. Their motto is "no more"; they refuse to go elsewhere, rather choosing to remain with what they already have.
"No more" is likewise the motto of another, more well-known group of Tennysonian figures: the mariners turned Lotos-eaters, whose Choric Song begins and ends with the refrain, "we will return no more." (10) Written at least a year after the mer-poems and reflecting further thinking on the mind's attraction to the far away, "The Lotos-Eaters" is Tennyson's most extended experiment to curtail the imagination's vagrant tendencies and to give it a home. Crucially, the poem focuses not on "alien" experiences like those of the mer-people or even the Lotos-eaters but on the mariners' feelings. That is, it does not project an experience that is physiologically "other" or even fantasize about "going native," as some readings of the poem have it. It tests a hypothesis: what if the mariners took the merfolks' advice and stopped short in their wanderings? What feelings, what experiences, what plot might emerge absent a drive to be elsewhere?
Although "The Lotos-Eaters" ultimately trades "something more" for "no more," it begins in the Ulyssean mode, with Tennyson appealing to the imagination's forward trajectory before he corrects that trajectory. "Courage!" Ulysses points to an unknown island in the distance, as a series of direction words ("toward," "shoreward," "unto") orient the mariners toward an elsewhere ("The Lotos-Eaters," 11. 1-3). Visual details predominate in the first descriptions of Lotos-land, and an exploratory eye canvasses its streams, three mountains, inland dale. If this were Columbus's expedition, we would expect the mariners to reconnoiter the island, to make notes on the inhabitants, and then to move on to whatever new adventure might await them elsewhere--which is not altogether unlike what Homer's Odyssey has them do. But Tennyson has other designs.
The initial lure of the unknown turns out to be merely bait. What the mariners do not know is that in setting foot on the island, they have entered into a poetic laboratory, so to speak, and become test subjects in a psychological experiment. First, they are given a mind-altering drug, the Lotos plant. Whatever desire they had to explore the exotic paradise dissolves under the Lotos's influence: instead of continuing to look around, they "[sit] them down upon the yellow sand," content to stay where they are (1. 37). Critics have typically described the drug's effect to lie in enervating the mariners' will, reading their sluggishness as a surrender to indolence. (11) But this is more of a sit-in than just a sit-down; the one thing the mariners do not seem to lack is will. "We will return no more," "we will no longer roam," "we will not wander more": the Choric Song is a drawn-out protest in which the mariners repeatedly refuse the Ulyssean "something more" logic that would impel them onward (11. 43, 45, 173, emphases added). Their reiterated refusals indicate just how insistent the mentality they are resisting can be. Ulysses's "newer world," a promise of transformed future selves: these beckon at the margins of the poem, but the mariners defiantly avert their gaze ("Ulysses," 1. 57).
The island mirrors the uninterest in transformation effected in its inhabitants. It is "A land," in a spine-tingling line, "where all things always seemed the same!" (1. 24) "The Lotos-Eaters" shifts its focus to continuity rather than difference; this inversion of background and foreground is what gives the poem its eerie quality. Sun and moon share the sky, obviating even the basic distinction between night and day. This is not to say that Lotos-land is timeless but rather that on the island time no longer serves as a measure of difference or change. Like the tropical existence later rejected in "Locksley Hall" because in it "earth should stand at gaze like Joshua's moon in Ajalon," experience seems static in "The Lotos-Eaters" because it no longer heeds the logic of progressive development (1. 180). As what Tennyson called the "lazier" "no rhyme of 'land' and 'land'" indicates, Lotos-land is a place where things seem coincidental with themselves through time, rather than differentiated into distinct temporal parts (quoted in Tennyson, Poems, 1: 468).
This shift in focus likewise transforms the poem's narrative structure. "The Lotos-Eaters" begins in a Homeric mode, on the scene of a detour, as the mariners' return to Ithaca is deferred by a storm that blows them off course. As readers of the poem know, this disembarking at Lotos-land is not an end, full stop, but merely a pause on the way. As such, the subplot of the mariners' marooning there neatly resembles what Peter Brooks terms an "arabesque" of desire--a detour from the final end, a feint at a less satisfactory ending that through its very unsatisfactoriness keeps desire in play. "The Lotos-Eaters" spins away from epic journey into the "wanton wreathings intricate" of Spenserian romance, with Lotos-land drawing from the wandering isle of the Bower of Bliss. (12) Like the Bower, Lotos-land's point lies partly in its pointlessness, its curling away from any straightforward itinerary. Both of these patterns--epic, romance--lead us to expect the mariners' byway, their digression at Lotos-land, to rejoin the highway, the larger line of the quest forward.
But this is precisely not how Lotos-land works within Tennyson's poem. What should be a temporary berth becomes a permanent home, and what should be a plot feint away from the path toward Ithaca turns out to be no feint at all, but real ending. Brooks's dynamism of plot verges dangerously close to stasis--an arabesque that curls in on itself endlessly, no longer furthering any direction. The poem gradually closes down the possibility that the mariners might go on to Ithaca and so releases them from an end-oriented mentality in which the significance of the present is bestowed by a beckoning future. (13) In "The Lotos-Eaters" Ulysses's pointed finger drops to his side, and the poem tacks away from an elsewhere that will fill the empty here and now with meaning. The large-scale narratives of process and completion that surround the poem--the hints of erotic consummation in the mariners' attainment of the "sunset-flush'd" isle, the journey homeward, the images of organic growth and decay, and even the musical references that seem to gesture at melodic complication and resolution--are thwarted by an insistence on remaining put, so that forces of progress sweep around "The Lotos-Eaters" only to leave the poem undisturbed, like "the languid air" that blows the Lotos dust "Round and round the spicy downs" in directionless futility (11. 5, 149). As the deftly woven Spenserian stanza frays into the looser Choric Song, we feel that the mariners have really and truly gone "off the grid," left recognizable narrative patterns behind. (14)
The mariners' refusal to "wander more" stems from their awareness of the fraud underlying a Ulyssean journey onward. Whereas Ulysses fills the last hours of his life with "new things," the mariners note the pointlessness of accumulation when "Death is the end of life" and "All things ... ripen towards the grave" (11. 86,96). (15) They mean this not just in a tautological sense--death by definition marks life's term--but with a darker instinct for life's purpose. This far-off destination, to which we refer the meaning of the empty present, is itself just as empty: it's turtles all the way down. This recognition explodes the essential fiction that a successful narrative must sustain and that Brooks explains in discussing Freud's death drive as "a dynamic model that structures ends (death, quiescence, nonnarratability) against beginnings ... in a manner that necessitates the middle as detour, as struggle toward the end under the compulsion of imposed delay.... The model proposes that we live in order to die, hence that the intentionality of plot lies in its orientation toward the end even while the end must be achieved only through detour" (pp. 107-108). "We live in order to die": the mariners know this, and what has been read as their suicidal impulse to close the gap between life's beginning and end is really a refusal to differentiate what comes in between. They reject the understanding of life as a journey measured by the distance a person travels from her origin. "Our island home"--the site of significance and ultimate belonging--"Is far beyond the wave" (11. 44-45). This "home" has been variously taken to denote Ithaca, England, or the Lotos-land itself. But there is another way to understand this phrase, as setting up a structural problem: for people who "exist only where they are not," home is always elsewhere, "beyond the wave." This is the mariners' reason to "no longer roam," to give up the illusory project of trying to fill up what contemporary writers described as "the vacuity of Time." (16)
Once experience is no longer oriented toward a faraway "whither," what does it look like? Tennyson would have had plenty of speculative answers to choose among from writers who wondered, as he did, what life would be like "without hope of change" ("Mariana," 1. 29). Most agreed that it would be unpleasant: "From the hope and expectation of joys yet unexperienced, arise the desire of life, and the efforts to preserve it. As every day brings forth something new to us, we view its approach with pleasure. But, were the present state of nature one undistinguished uniform assemblage of the same objects, these hopes and pleasures could not exist. The journey of life, short as it is, would then become tedious, and present no other prospect than that of a dull unmeaning void." (17) By now the assumptions encoded in this passage should be familiar to us: that pleasure and significance fundamentally depend on an orientation toward things "yet unexperienced." Without the possibility of something new--or, as in the mariners' case, without the orientation toward novelty that makes that possibility salient--existence would become unbearable. But as we have seen, similar descriptions of life without the prospect of difference appeared in travel literature and as giving not pain but pleasure. As Savary writes, "a monotony, which, to an European would be death, is delight to an Egyptian" (p. 146). Assertions like these undermined for Tennyson the general claim that an imaginative bent toward the metaphorically untraveled was essential to pleasure. In "The Lotos-Eaters" the mariners drop the attitude of expectation and willingly confine themselves to the island's limits, to something like "one undistinguished uniform assemblage of the same objects." Then, Tennyson probes the aesthetic possibilities in the empty experience that ensues.
As the mariners "cease from wanderings" after new objects, their experience thins down to minimal, repetitive sensations. Key readings of the poem have fundamentally mistaken this, tending to describe Lotos-land as a sensory paradise and the mariners as giving in to sensual indulgence. (18) But actually they go to the opposite extreme: "Only to hear and see the far-off sparkling brine, /Only to hear were sweet, stretched out beneath the pine" (11. 143-144, emphasis added). Preferring the less of just hearing the sea over the more of both hearing and seeing it, the mariners draw near to a limit case of experience. They become like Condillac's hypothetical statue, with their minds occupied by only one sensation. For philosophers such a state would test the boundaries of sentience. As James Mill explains in 1829, "It has been said, that if we had but one sensation, and that uninterrupted, it would be as if we had no sensation at all.... We know that the air is continually pressing upon our bodies. But, the sensation being continual, without any call to attend to it, we lose, from habit, the power of doing so. The sensation is as if it did not exist." (19) Mill goes on to place this and other similarly continuous sensations among a "class of feelings" that go "forgotten" amid more changeful sensations (p. 32). What is continuous or steadily repeated fades into something like nonexistence: sensations that are no longer sensible, the occurrence of which is indistinguishable from nonoccurrence.
Although parts of "The Lotos-Eaters" describe a sensory feast of "amber light" and "purple hill," the mariners seem content to dine on bread and water-or, rather, the Lotos-plant, which for all practical purposes is the same thing. Their eating it ushers them into a sensory state attuned to something like Mill's class of minimal feelings. Like the seeing and hearing of the "sparkling brine," the mariners' sensations are repetitive: they watch "the crisping ripples on the beach" or "the emerald-coloured water falling," hear "the downward stream" or "the dewy echoes calling" (11. 106, 14L 99, 139). Mostly they listen to a music that suffuses the island and that is the primary source of their pleasure there. But this is not a symphony; it is not even The Tempest's tantalizing airs. The music that charms the mariners issues from their own "beating heart[s]" and from the languorous "breathing" that sounds continually around the island: "All day the wind breathes low with mellower tone;/Through every hollow cave and alley lone" (11. 147-148). In heartbeats and a breath blowing through a "cave" and "alley" that mimic the mouth and throat of human respiration, we find sensory impressions that could not be less like the exotic ones that have been read into the poem. The mariners' sensations are not "outside" anything; rather, they are as "inside" as it gets, inside the body. Nor are they "exotic" in the sense of being foreign or rare: they are entirely commonplace. In evoking their "music," Tennyson sketches out an aesthetic subsistence independent of anything remote or hard to get and returns imaginative pleasure to the one place that is always "here" no matter where we are--the body. We can measure the power of this decision by comparing William Godwin's triumphant picture of humans' capacity to "launch ourselves in conceit into illimitable space, and ... proceed without impediment from country to country." For Godwin, any effort "to imprison the mind within the limits of the body" is as futile as "the attempt of the booby clown who is said within a thick hedge to have plotted to shut in the flight of an eagle." (20) Tennyson, of course, makes just such an effort; and as Godwin's Thoughts on Man might be read as an apotheosis of the imperialist imagination, so "The Lotos-Eaters," published a little over a year later, might be read as its nadir.
The poem's repeated recourse to sensations that are usually imperceptible amid the din of other impressions--sensations such as the continuous murmur of ocean or stream, the thrum of the heart or sigh of the wind--should revise our understanding of the mariners' apparent will to blissful ignorance. For all of these sensations are ones that fail to register if anything "more interesting" is around, as Mill says (p. 32): it is only by removing themselves from the hope of change that the mariners might be able to feel what they feel at all. They do not plunge themselves into oblivion for its own sake, forcibly evacuating all lived experience. Rather, the music they choose to listen to marks all the "forgotten" sensations that are buried in active life. It flows in the negative space of narrative, in stretches of time in which nothing much happens. The most extensive description of Lotos-land's music is a study in subtlety:
There is sweet music here that softer falls Than petals from blown roses on the grass, Or night-dews on still waters between walls Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass; Music that gentlier on the spirit lies, Than tired eyelids upon tired eyes. (11. 46-51)
This music plays at the limits of sensibility: could the mariners really hear something softer than rose petals falling on grass, than night-dews passing onto still waters? These are events so attenuated as to be indistinguishable from nonevents. Their happening makes no difference, just as a drop of dew condensing on a body of water does not leave even a ripple behind. Like the "rare sound, spare light" that Tennyson praises, on Lotos-land the mariners enjoy a sensory slightness. (21) Their "half-shut eyes," "With half-dropt eyelid still," act like the night-bats' "filtering crevices" to temper novel stimulation (11. 100, 135). And the sensations that filter through not only make no demands on the attention: paradoxically, they seem to be accessible only through in attention. The island's music lies on the spirit more gently "Than tired eyelids upon tired eyes": it is not by keeping the eyes open, that signal instance of paying attention, that the mariners hear it; rather it is by letting go, unfocusing. (22) Wasting time, Tennyson intimates--paying no attention to its passing--may provide unlooked-for pleasures that could not register in a more crowded, productive life.
In describing the "music" of forgotten feelings, Tennyson invites a reading of his own hypermusical poem as structured by minimal, near-empty experience. And in this reading we can see him stress-testing the very constructs by which we try to make aesthetic objects mean. Tennyson does not suggest that the slight feelings he takes up in his poem are somehow deeply significant after all; he does not try to fill up the "spaced out" condition of the stranded mariners. In fact the island's acknowledged emptiness seems to form part of its attraction: "In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined" (1. 154, emphasis added). But it is curious how much our sense of this hollowness comes from an automatic identification of redundancy with unmeaning. A "land" that rhymes with "land," a breeze that circles back to the same place over and over: it is hard to read these as signaling anything other than vacuousness or futility. Moving away from the kairos that shapes stories around symbolic development, Tennyson approximates a literature of chronos, weighting all moments evenly. But this temporality is equally distant from the mechanical clock time with which one might associate chronos, with its connection to the monotony of nineteenth-century industrial labor. Clock time is imposed on human experience, but Lotos-land's cfironos draws from somatic life as the ground against which meaning differentiates itself. (23) And whereas mechanized time measures hours in terms of productive value, still expecting something of import from the ticking moment, the mariners simply waste their time. Their spending as gratuitous what Ulysses sees as the scarcest of commodities ("Life piled on life / Were all too little, and of one to me / Little remains"; 11. 24-26) is part of what makes "The Lotos-Eaters" so scandalous.
In weighing moments that make no difference in a life, Tennyson challenges the categories we use to produce significance. To write a history of the Lotos-eaters would be to tell a tale of lacunae, lulls, iterative spans about which another author might simply note, "Four months passed in this way." Two years after Tennyson published Poems (1832), Thomas Carlyle sat down to write The French Revolution: A History and digressively imagined a "happy" people "whose annals are vacant." The Lotos-eaters are that happy people, and as Carlyle's description suggests, to write about them is to test the limits of historical record: "Consider it well, the Event, the thing which can be spoken of and recorded, is it not, in all cases, some disruption, some solution of continuity?" (24) Writing about an island where "all things always seem the same," Tennyson nears Carlyle's paradox of an eventless history. What emerges in this history is not an account of the many "disruptions," the many narratable events that stud any life, hut rather the moments in which "nothing" happens, moments of relative continuity that swiftly pass into oblivion. The history produced here is one of minorness, of the minimal sensations and experiences that do not fit in a narrative of life defined by active changes of state, by Carlyle's "Events" writ large. And as Samuel Johnson noted in the century before Carlyle, most of life comprises these empty moments, rather than the denser nodes of eventful significance: "It is said by modern philosophers, that not only the great globes of matter are thinly scattered through the universe, but the hardest bodies are so porous, that, if all matter were compressed to perfect solidity, it might be contained in a cube of a few feet. In like manner, if all the employment of life were crowded into the time which it really occupied, perhaps a few weeks, days, or hours, would be sufficient for its accomplishment, so far as the mind was engaged in the performance." (25) Much of Tennyson's juvenilia had devoted itself to "the employment of life" rather than life's porous, uncrowded stretches. But in "The Lotos-Eaters" Tennyson sketches out a provisional history of the expanse of minor sensations that, despite their minorness, pervade most of our existence. In this he looks for a way to supplement a history of lived experience in which only significant events and feelings are worth the telling.
Tennyson's sensitivity to a proto-Carlylean concept of history, as a record of heroes and heroic action, is evident in his early poetry. Repeatedly he describes "the former bright page" of fame ("Exhortation to the Greeks," 1. 7), on which great figures and places "blaze ... Like the morning star, whose gleam / Gazeth through the waste of night" ("The Fall of Jerusalem," 11. 48, 51-52). But if Tennyson realizes that it is heroic souls like Ulysses who make it into history's annals, in the poems I have addressed, he supplements fame's glow by describing the "waste of night" that makes up most of "history's darkened page" ("The Fall of Jerusalem," 1. 50). Elsewhere so invested in psychological difference--an investment that subtly feeds into Carlyle's concept of history as an account of individual feats--Tennyson uses "The Lotos-Eaters" and the mer-poems to counter individual exceptionalism. Rather than taking the individual as the fundamental unit of society, these poems begin from a Burkean idea of the "little platoon" and feed into a conservative history of communal continuity through time. As each mariner's identity is subsumed into a corporate corporeality, the poem that begins with Ulysses's ringing voice ends with the sound of collective impersonality.
This collective impersonality reworks the social basis of the aesthetic. Sharon Cameron argues in her study of impersonality that "the reduction to sensation without thoughts that appropriate it (or a seeing through such thoughts) unsocializes perception," because it severs the connection between experiential phenomena and the more personal conceptual organization of those phenomena. (26) And readers of "The Lotos-Eaters" have tended to see the poem as solipsistic rather than social. They note the mariners' retreat into their bodily interiors, where they listen to their own hearts beating and hear others speak only "as voices from the grave"--here the corporeal tomb of "Perdidi Diem" reappears (1. 34). But from the boneyard of the body the Choric Song emerges, with its origins in community rather than isolation. The inward turn here actually facilitates the collective: one body's repetitive sensations are similar enough to another's to allow for something approaching shared experience. And we see what language Carlyle's impossible annals might contain: as the mariners' individual voices merge into a communal "we," their language increasingly plays a somatic rather than signifying function. No longer shoring up the symbolic borders of a distinctive, developing personality, the mariners willingly blend one into another. Their song issues from neither a supervenient, expressive self nor an "official" civic discourse but from the sort of sound games inherent in any linguistic system and associated primarily with presymbolic speech. (27) Particularly in the 1832 ending, lines like "And the dark pine weeps,/And the lithe vine creeps" draw more from the play of lips, teeth, tongue, and breath than from sound's representative function (1832 version, 11. 182-183). This kind of babble, which could be drawn out indefinitely since it is separate from the teleological work of making meaning, is potentially accessible to anyone.
Through these readings we have seen the stakes of Tennyson's critique of an imaginative dependence on faraway material and can clarify his complicated relationship to nineteenth-century imaginative imperialism. For even as the mer-poems and "The Lotos-Eaters" draw on an exotic vocabulary, they use it to construct an ideal of pleasure that can exist where it is, an aesthetic subsistence in which "music" can arise from feelings as common as the breath or the heartbeat. These feelings may be imperceptible to a sensorium trained on what is novel or striking, but they can be perceived through inattention, through wasting time, even through failure. By giving up an orientation toward the unexperienced, even if only temporarily, Tennyson intimates that some compensatory pleasure can be felt in even the emptiest of moments. And when the mariners refuse to pursue "something more," they effectively resist the psychology motivating imperial and capitalist accumulation. Through their sitin Tennyson defines a conservative protest against the major cultural forces shaping British life in the mid-nineteenth century, cultural forces that others have read his poems as implicitly furthering. Thus the subversiveness of these poems has yet to be fully appreciated. The mer-poems and "The Lotos-Eaters" not only question the categories by which readers produce meaning but even trouble the very project of assigning significance at all. Rather than seek narrative completion, a pursuit that measures time according to its transformative progress, they concede the emptiness of much experience: "Let what is broken so remain" ("The Lotos-Eaters," 1. 125). In accepting vacancy, waste, and incompletion, they supplement life's rarer moments of dense historical significance.
After publishing Poems (1832), Tennyson seems to have given up his experiment to reform the imagination. It is worth noting that after "The Lotos-Eaters" the next poem he writes addressing the tension between "something more" and stasis is "Ulysses," composed in the immediate wake of Arthur Henry Hallam's death and reflecting Tennyson's "feeling about the need of going forward" (quoted in Tennyson, Poems, 1: 613). Galvanized toward action by the apparent waste of his friend's promise, Tennyson also adopts a position much closer to Hallam's own project of imaginative realization, in which "it is the business of the Poet to number, and measure, and note down every form and fleeting appearance of human feeling." (28) Ulysses in some ways can be read as a later version of an earlier hero of Hallam's invention who is pictured "fevering with fond love of th' unknown shore" ("Timbuctoo," 1. 50). Following new knowledge, Hallam's intellectual explorer gathers "novel truth[s]" as "living lamps that starred /His transit o'er the tremulous gloom of Thought":
More, and now more, their gathered brilliancy On the one master Motion sending out, Which brooded ever o'er the passionate sea Of his deep soul. (11. 56-62)
Even as Tennyson's ambivalence over the project of travel lurks in the lines of "Ulysses," the poem returns us to Hallam's vision of intellectual discovery and of sounding the meaningful depths of the self. Ulysses's imaginative projection forward into a "newer world" clears the way for Tennyson's imperialist commitments in his later, more political poetry. But in tracing this trajectory in Tennyson's career, critics have overlooked a set of early poems that experimentally set aside the exotic "spring" of the imagination, replacing it with a "hook" to stay in one place.
Coda: Tennyson and Aestheticism
Musical, self-involved, showily divergent from referential ends: "The Lotos-Eaters" and the mer-poems have long been held to exemplify Tennyson's early aestheticism. (29) That so many parallels can be drawn between these poems and subsequent aestheticist art suggests both Tennyson's intuition of later artistic developments and the vast resource his works proved to those who contributed to the Aesthetic Movement. Tennyson's circular imagery (the merfolks swimming from depths to surface and back again; the blowing Lotos dust) and exact rhyme ("land" and "land"; "whither away") establish a self-referentiality like that which characterizes ideas of I'art pour I'art. Similarly, dense sonic textures attract attention to sound for its own sake, distracting from signification, while the mariners' and merfolks' happiness to waste time rather than to "shine in use" anticipates the Aesthetic Movement's antiutilitarianism.
But despite these similarities, "The Lotos-Eaters" differs significantly from later aestheticist principles. Figures central to how we conceive of aestheticism today--Theophile Gautier, Charles Baudelaire, Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde-allied art to novelty. In their thinking the aesthete should be like a child who "sees everything in a state of newness," "forever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions," "always searching for new sensations." (30) Granted, these writers decoupled these pursuits from the cultural ends furthered by Ulysses and tapped novelty's potential to fracture rather than reinforce stereotyped narratives of development. But while the mariners similarly resist progressive structures, they do so by going to the opposite extreme, choosing to forgo novelty in favor of attenuated or repetitive feelings. In "The Lotos-Eaters" Tennyson is uninterested in extraordinary sensations, which he places in the context of an exploratory, acquisitive attitude toward the world. Rather, he imagines how pleasure might be found in sensations that are so familiar as to be lost amid what is more striking. These familiar feelings involve a different kind of perceptual experience: whereas Pater famously encourages a heightened perception of each moment, to "be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy," by contrast the mariners' pleasure comes with their relaxing attention (p. 119). Dreamily filtering any new impressions that invite symbolic mastery, the mariners' willful lack of focus allows them to feel the overfamiliar hum of being alive. In their "hollow" experiences, in feelings as light as rose petals falling on grass, Tennyson finds a fit subject on which to exercise his lyrical talent. It is the insignificance of the mariners' time on the island that allows the verbal unspooling of the poem's 1832 ending, in which language loosens from symbolic pattern into the rawer material of sonic resemblance. As Tennyson describes music echoing from "hollow" sea and "hollow" cave, he implies that empty experiences uniquely license the sonic power that is his aesthetic hallmark.
Tennyson's altered 1842 ending to "The Lotos-Eaters" moves toward rejecting this approach to language. As he paints the Epicurean gods treating "a lamentation and an ancient tale of wrong" as "a music" and "a tale of little meaning" (11. 162-164), he reminds readers that language has both a history and a symbolic function and intimates that focusing primarily on its somatic aspect is to cruelly ignore human concerns. Yet, as we have seen, the earlier drift of the poem was not to evacuate history altogether but rather to produce a counterhistory, attending to blank moments of lived experience that occur (if they can be said to "occur" at all) in the intervals between more striking events. This somatic counterhistory, although relegated to a minor position in Tennyson's later poetry, can still be felt obliquely in the fluctuant yet elusive rhythms of In Memoriam, rhythms that operate separately from either its regular stanzaic pattern or the recurrence of Christmases, New Years, and dates of birth and death that locate the poem in social, historical time. It likewise influences that poem's haunted, persistent sense of Hallam's body, now "darkened" in death--his "quiet bones," "breathing voice," cold brows--and of the poet's own "weight of nerves" and beating "pulses" (XVIII, XIII, XII, LXXXV). Much later in Tennyson's career, in the 1864 poem "The Islet," he briefly casts a look back. A singer reminisces about a "mountain islet" that is recognizably Lotosian in its "cataract brooks" and "valleys of palm and pine" (11. 15, 17, 23), imagining honeymooning there for a "score" of summers--some honeymoon!--until he abruptly changes his tune:
'No, no, no! For in all that exquisite isle, my dear, There is but one bird with a musical throat, And his compass is but of a single note, That it makes one weary to hear.' (11. 25-29)
Tennyson had earlier shown himself to be more than capable of finding musical pleasure in "a single note," in the sounded-out sameness of life on Lotosland. Now he rejects this narrow "compass" for the varied responsibilities and ampler range of a poet laureate devoted to the "ever-broadening Commerce" and "ever-widening Empire" of Victorian Britain ("On the Jubilee of Queen Victoria," 11. 51, 53). The course of Victorian poetry might have been very different had he lingered instead on Lotos-land.
Thanks to Meredith Martin, Deborah Nord, Esther Schor, a writing group led by Susan Wolfson, participants in the Oxford University Victorian Graduate Seminar, and the anonymous reader for Victorian Poetry for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this essay.
(1) Alan Sinfield, Alfred Tennyson (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1986), p. 53. Tennyson's poetry has been central to critical efforts to interpret the politics of a broadly Romantic emphasis on exotic experience. This is partly because of the timing of his career, which can be seen (as Riede argues) to move from a Romantic "imperialism of the imagination," in which poets sympathetically appropriate feelings or mental states alien to themselves, to a mid-Victorian "imperialism of the imagination" with explicit political stakes. As Matthew Rowlinson notes, to describe Tennyson's 1830s Orientalist poetry as "imperialist" is to anticipate the actual language of British empire by some thirty years. Patrick Brantlinger and Marion Shaw also relate Tennyson's later imperialist poetry to his early Orientalist interests, while Lynne O'Brien and Robin Inboden explore Tennyson's ambivalence toward imperialism. William Paden first established Tennyson's early dependence on travel literature for his poetic imagery. David G. Riede, Allegories of One's Own Mind: Melancholy in Victorian Poetry (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 2005); Matthew Rowlinson, "The Ideological Moment of Tennyson's 'Ulysses,'" VP 30, no. 3 (1992): 265-276; Patrick Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1988); Marion Shaw, "Tennyson's Dark Continent," VP 32, no. 2 (1994): 157-169; Lynne B. O'Brien, "Male Heroism: Tennyson's Divided View," VP 32, no. 2 (1994): 171-182; Robin L. Inboden, "The 'Valour of Delicate Women': The Domestication of Political Relations in Tennyson's Laureate Poetry," VP 36, no. 2 (1998): 205-221; William Paden, Tennyson in Egypt: A Study of the Imagery in His Earlier Work (Lawrence: Univ. of Kansas Press, 1942).
(2) Quoted in Alfred Tennyson, The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks, 3 vols. (Harlow, UK: Longman, 1987), 3: 197. All references to Tennyson's poems are to Ricks's edition.
(3) Saree Makdisi's account of a Romantic "celebration of anti-modern exoticism" helps us situate Tennyson's own unlikely strategy of positing exotic zones where the exotic holds little imaginative sway. Makdisi's attention to Byron, who strongly influenced Tennyson's early poetry, is particularly pertinent. Saree Makdisi, Romantic Imperialism: Universal Empire and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998), p. 8.
(4) John Young, Lectures on Intellectual Philosophy, ed. William Cairns (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1835), p. 10.
(5) Washington Irving, The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (London: John Murray, 1828), p. 70. Tennyson read Irving's biography shortly after it was published in 1828.
(6) Claude Etienne Savary, Letters on Egypt (London: J. Robinson, 1787), pp. 138-139, 146-147.
(7) William Jones's accounts of Sufism and Irving's picture of the "indolent repose" of Haiti's "gentle and peaceable" people likewise influenced Tennyson's ideas of Oriental pleasure (pp. 336, 314). Sir William Jones, The Works of Sir William Jones (London: J. Stockdale, 1807).
(8) Isobel Armstrong argues that Tennyson's sense of contingency, influenced by the Cambridge Apostles, is the most radical aspect of his early poetry. Armstrong's discussion of Tennyson's "subversive conservatism" informs my argument that Tennyson subverts the acquisitive psychology behind empire and capitalism, but not from the revolutionary motives that Sinfield would have him employ. Rather, Tennyson undermines the call to "something more" from a reactionary desire to recover a pleasure in minimal, familiar feelings. Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poets and Politics (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 36.
(9) My reading of "Ulysses" as demonstrating a healthy psychological impulse draws from Tennyson's own framing of the poem in this way in the aftermath of Hallam's death: "it gave my feeling about the need of going forward and braving the struggle of life." Quoted in Tennyson, Poems, 1: 613.
(10) In the 1842 version, the final phrase is revised to "We will not wander more." On a project of return rather than of discovery the mariners might seem exempt from the thing I argue Tennyson is critiquing: the imaginative bias toward faraway novelty. But in their drive homeward they merely complete Sinfield's imperial model: "the poet throws his imagination out to the periphery, plants himself as securely as he can there, adapting all that he finds to his project, and brings back to the mother country a rich hoard" (Alfred Tennyson, p. 50). By arresting this drive, Tennyson short-circuits the imaginative trade that Sinfield describes.
(11) Nearly everyone has read the poem in this way. See for example Armstrong, Victorian Poetry; James Eli Adams, Dandies and Desert Saints: Styles of Victorian Masculinity (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1995); Christopher Decker, "Tennyson's Limitations," in Tennyson among the Poets: Bicentenary Essays, ed. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst and Seamus Perry (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009), pp. 57-75; and Riede, Allegories. But Tennyson is trying to undo the premises by which inaction is coded as shirking a normative demand to stay on the move and be productive.
(12) Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1992); Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton, Hiroshi Yamashita, and Toshiyuki Suzuki (Harlow, UK: Pearson Longman, 2007), bk. 2, canto 12, st. 53,1. 9.
(13) Frank Kermode gives a classic account of the apocalyptic, or end-oriented, time of kairos. Herbert Tucker reads Tennyson's poetry as written in an essentially apocalyptic mode, temporally directed toward its own "doom." My analysis, by contrast, takes up an experiment in which Tennyson dismantles the idea of significant time. Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967); Herbert F. Tucker, Tennyson and the Doom of Romanticism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1988).
(14) Tennyson's use of the Spenserian stanza to open his poem is significant, given its history as a form that mediates between a call to action and a longing to linger. Spenser's The Faerie Queene and James Thomson's Castle of Indolence exert the strongest influence along these lines, with Keats's The Eve of St. Agnes acting more indirectly. Byron, another major influence on Tennyson's use of the form, reworks the stanza to facilitate Childe Harold's restless roaming from place to place. In developing the Choric Song, which partly draws from the languorous Spenserian alexandrine, Tennyson ultimately pulls his verse away from both of these patterning influences. James Thomson, The Castle of Indolence (London: A. Millar, 1748); John Keats, "The Eve of St. Agnes," Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats, ed. Edward Hirsch (New York: Modern Library, 2001); Lord George Gordon Byron, "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage," Lord Byron: The Major Works, ed. Jerome J. McCann (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000).
(15) Of course Ulysses is also privy to this knowledge: following Dante's Inferno, the journey he forecasts in his monologue comes after he has already reached his purported destination. "Ulysses" and "The Lotos-Eaters" represent divergent responses to the same dilemma: Ulysses holds his heroic resolve to discover "a newer world" despite his realization that no destination will offer the fulfillment he seeks.
(16) For this phrase see Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present, ed. Chris Vanden Bossche, Joel J. Brattin, and D. J. Trela (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2005), p. 162.
(17) Edmund Rack, "Rashness of Censuring the Laws of Creation," Literary Magazine and British Review 12 (April 1794): 294. For similar accounts that might have been familiar to Tennyson, see Thomas Reid, "Of Taste," essay 8, "Of the Objects of Taste and First of Novelty," chapter 2 in Essays on the Intellectual Power of Man (Edinburgh: John Bell, 1785); or Richard Payne Knight, "Of the Passions," part 3, "Of Novelty," chapter 3 in An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste (London: T. Payne, 1805).
(18) See for instance Robert Langbaum on the island's "over-richness of landscape," in The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 89; and Adams, Dandies and Desert Saints.
(19) James Mill, Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind (London: Baldwin and Cradock, 1829), p. 32.
(20) William Godwin, "Of Body and Mind," in Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions, and Discoveries (London: Effingham Wilson, 1831), p. 9.
(21) In this Lotos-land parts company with its predecessors in romance, such as Spenser's Bower of Bliss, adorned "with all varietie" (Faerie Queene, bk. 2, canto 12, st. 59,1. 9), or Thomson's Castle of Indolence, stocked with "Whatever sprightly Juice or tasteful Food /On the green Bosom of this Earth are found" (Castle of Indolence, canto 1, st. 34,11. 3-4).
(22) Herbert Tucker argues that "The Lotos-Eaters" alternates between attention and relaxation as a way of managing fatigue; I read the poem rather as challenging this self-disciplined mind-set. See Stephen Arata on the value of literary inattention for William Morris and Robert Louis Stevenson, who protested an insistence on constant attentiveness that made reading into "work." Herbert F. Tucker, "Over Worked, Worked Over: A Poetics of Fatigue," in The Feeling of Reading: Affective Experience and Victorian Literature, ed. Rachel Ablow (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan
Press, 2010), pp. 114-130; Stephen Arata, "On Not Paying Attention," Victorian Studies 46, no. 2 (2004): 193-205.
(23) Armstrong famously reads "The Lotos-Eaters" as describing "the physical and mental world of sensations which emerges from oppressed labour" (Victorian Poetry, p. 85). But while the near-uniform nature of the mariners' sensations might resemble the time of mechanized labor, their grounding in the bodily rhythm of the heartbeat pulls against an understanding of this uniformity as the unhappy expression of a mechanically depleted consciousness. Like Armstrong I see the mariners as protesting an enforced estrangement that continually strips away "portions and parcels" of the self. But I understand the mechanism of enforcement to be a demand for self-transformation, while Armstrong describes the estrangement as a product of alienated labor. On literature as sounding the "hum of existence," see Paul H. Fry, "The Hum of Literature: Ostension in Language," Modern Language Quarterly 54, no. 1 (1993): 178.
(24) Thomas Carlyle, The French Resolution: A History (1837), ed. John D. Rosenberg (New York: Modern Library, 2002), p. 24.
(25) Samuel Johnson, The Rambler 8, April 14, 1750, in The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, ed. W. J. Bate and Albrecht B. Strauss, vol. 3 (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1969), p. 41.
(26) Sharon Cameron, Impersonality: Seven Essays (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 5-6.
(27) See Francis Barton Gummere for a classic account of "primitive" poetic expression as collective. See also Mutlu Konuk Biasing's description of the communal history of language, in which the infant babbles until learning to symbolically differentiate an "I" against the mother tongue. Francis Barton Gummere, The Beginnings of Poetry (New York: Macmillan, 1901); Mutlu Konuk Biasing, Lyric Poetry: The Pain and the Pleasure of Words (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2007).
(28) Arthur Henry Hallam, Remains, in Verse and Prose, of Arthur Henry Hallam (London: W. Nicol, 1834), p. 333. All references to Hallam's works are to this edition.
(29) Angela Leighton gives a recent, evocative account of Tennyson's place in nineteenth-century aestheticism. As she notes, the connections between Tennyson and aestheticism go far back: the first recorded instance of the word aestheticism was an 1855 reference to Tennyson's "The Lotos-Eaters." Angela Leighton, On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2007).
(30) Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon, 1995), p. 8; Walter Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance, ed. Matthew Beaumont (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010), p. 120; Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed. Joseph Bristow (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2006), p. 22. Exotic lands were a significant source of this novelty-whether in Gautier's numerous stories set in ancient Egypt, in Baudelaire's poetics of opioid intoxication, or in Dorian Gray's passion for Oriental jewels.
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|Author:||Russell, Beatrice Sanford|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2015|
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