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Tennyson and Zeno: three infinities.

Though Tennyson left Cambridge without a degree because he refused to climb "the apparently unscalable wall of mathematics," (1) astronomy, physics, and the new geology of Robert Chambers and Charles Lyell continue to fire his imagination with thoughts of two immensities: the infinitely great and the infinitely small. As the mourner contemplates the fossil record and the long perspectives of the earth's history, sowing the dust of continents to be in In Memoriam, he hears a female harpy cry, like the sibyl in Heraclitus: "A thousand types are gone; / I care for nothing, all shall go." (2) The poem also plunges Tennyson into a second kind of infinity: the vortex of an endlessly receding mindscape. Within Tennyson's picture of the earth is a picture of his own mind, and within that picture a picture of the mind that frames the pictures, and so on to infinity. In the third place, as a mystic who uses mantras to evoke God's presence, Tennyson is continually trying to map the coordinates of the Nameless of the hundred Names. Transformed by rapture and transfixed by awe, he is touched in turn by these three infinities: physical infinities of space and time, infinities of a mindscape, and the metaphysical paradox of a God who is absolute and infinite at the same time.


Tennyson most memorably evokes infinities of space and time in "Ulysses," where the poetry is distinguished by self-retarding motions that inch toward the end of a line by tiny increments, like Zeno's tortoise:
   Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
   Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
   For ever and for ever when I move. ("Ulysses," ll. 19-21)

In imitation of the "untravelled world" that gleams before Ulysses, expansive open vowels with long quantities and voiced consonants stretch and pull open the long central line. Readers can also literally see how the "fading margin" of that world coincides with a slight fading of the poem's right-hand margin on the printed page. Indeed long vowels and assonance combine with the visual impact of the poem's "printed voice" to create an impression of spaciousness so vast that Matthew Arnold felt "these three lines by themselves take up nearly as much time as a whole book of the Iliad." (3)

It is as impossible for Tennyson's Ulysses to reach the untravelled world as it is for Achilles to overtake the tortoise or for Zeno's arrow to reach its target. As in Zeno's third paradox of motion, which argues that an arrow in flight is always at rest, Tennyson often freezes motion into a still life or photograph that visualizes spatial effects through sound. Browning, by contrast, is always trying to free the arrow from the frame in which Zeno freezes it, and then to graph the trajectory it traces. A student of calculus would say that as a connoisseur of spatial effects and opsis, Tennyson is a poet of derivatives, who takes refuge from vertiginous movements by retreating to the still point of an instant in time, which appears like Zeno's arrow to possess no motion at all. Though Zeno's arrow must have instantaneous velocity, it is hard to determine at any given moment what that speed might be. To calculate such velocity we have to divide zero distance by zero time, which is impossible. As a poet who traces movement in time rather than pattern in space, Browning reverses this process by graphing integrals instead. Out of a point in space he generates the volume of a sphere or a three-dimensional star, just as the student of calculus adds up pieces of area that have no volume in themselves to create a solid object that has three dimensions.

As in the hierarchical world of Pope's Essay on Man, where the chain of being is a ladder or the vertical axis of a graph, In Memoriam's "great world's altar-stairs / That slope through darkness up to God" (LV.15-16) approximate a 45 degree-slanted straight line. If x is the length of time Tennyson has traveled on the moving stair, then the function f(x)=x tells us how high he has climbed. Matters become more complicated when the scale of nature turns into an escalator that may suddenly accelerate or abruptly slow down at any moment. Once Newton's laws of motion substitute changing velocity for constant velocity we require a function like f(x)=[chi square] to plot Tennyson's new position. We now need calculus to determine the velocity at which he is travelling at any given place on the moving stair: in this case, a derivative of the function f(x)= [chi square], namely 2x. We also need calculus to determine the exact distance he has traveled. This distance turns out to be the antiderivative of the function, which is also the area under the graph of the sloping line.

In "Ulysses" Tennyson creates an effect of infinite regress and vertigo by opening up three separate time frames. About to embark on his last voyage, the speaker recalls a time during his return to Ithaca when he was welcomed as a hero whose exploits from a still earlier period of his life were already known. Experiencing what it means to "become a name" (1. 11), Ulysses has the odd sensation of confronting a legendary version of himself, a hero who once stepped out of Homer's pages, and from whom he is now many times removed.

The vortices in "Ulysses" induce several forms of vertigo. Near the end of the poem Ulysses becomes for a moment his own audience. He observes himself drowning in a whirlpool, dashed like Dante's mariner against the Mount of Purgatory.
   It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
   It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
   And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

("Ulysses," ll. 62-64)

At other moments Ulysses creates a vortex of dissolving time frames and events. Alive with both the clamor of war and empty windswept ruins, the spacious line "Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy" (l. 17) collapses the space filled by years of conflict into a direct confrontation of pride and ruin. By combining battle on the darkling plain with a picture of Troy as the bare ruined choir of wasting winds, Ulysses allows the mind to cross great intervals of space and time. So voracious indeed is the whirligig of time that its vortex begins to induce the kind of vertigo Tennyson experiences in section CXXIII of In Memoriam. Here shocking pictures of hills as shadows and of solid land as mist run events together. It is as if the poet had just taken a time-lapse photograph of the earth extending over billions of years. Such pictures are not so much "timeless" as "timeful," since they include an infinite regress of past and future snapshots of a given place.

Ulysses encounters a third form of vertigo in the prospect of passing "Beyond the utmost bound of human thought" in a dizzying violation of the law of limits:
   And this gray spirit yearning in desire
   To follow knowledge like a sinking star
   Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

("Ulysses," ll. 30-32)

Logically, the last line carries to a sublime depth of vision the contradictions of a bull. For if Ulysses is able to pass beyond a cosmic edge or limit, it cannot literally be "the utmost bound" he claims it is. Instead, it is only one more end before the end, one more limit to be crossed before death closes all.

To sustain the sense of vertigo Tennyson allows the striking simile of the sinking star to fall two ways at once. Does the plummeting star trace the overreacher's manner of pursuing knowledge? Or does it trace the trajectory of the knowledge he pursues? In the first case, the vertigo induced by the falling star may be a product of Faustian arrogance. In passing beyond the utmost bound of human thought, Ulysses is passing into the apeiron, which for Aristotle can mean not only "infinitely large" but also "totally disordered, infinitely complex, subject to no finite determination." In this interpretation, the vertigo Ulysses experiences is "'a privation, not a perfection.'" (4) Grazed by chaos in his brush with the infinite, Ulysses is unfit for future life in Ithaca. Alternatively, the vortex of the sinking star may dramatize the general paradox of the infinity of knowledge, Pope's prospect where Alps on Alps arise. In "The Two Voices" Tennyson formulates the same paradox without any hint of criticism:
   "The highest-mounted mind," he said,
   "Still sees the sacred morning spread
   The silent summit overhead." ("The Two Voices," ll. 79-81)

The double trajectory of the plummeting star allows us to register simultaneously the sublime elusiveness of the goal and the ironic retreat of the goal, which like the flight of an asymptote from its curve continues to recede no matter how closely Ulysses approaches it.

Like the pure questing of Browning's Childe Roland, Ulysses' quest is Tennyson's version of the typical Victorian preoccupation with what Walter Houghton calls "aspiration without an object." (5) To borrow Robert Frost's phrase ("Directive," 1. 49), the poem has a "destiny" but no "destination." It foresees but impedes its own end. Accordingly, there are no past or future verbs at the end of "Ulysses." Instead, the speaker is absorbed into a cluster of timeless infinitives, poised between verb and substantive, between finite acts and endless questing. The poem's final phrases drift down, one by one, with as steady but unhurried a conclusion as any poem can have:
      that which we are, we are:
   One equal temper of heroic hearts,
   Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
   To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. ("Ulysses," ll.

It is as if Ulysses, like Tennyson, were as reluctant to end his life as those final, tenseless infinitives--staring off into space and time--are reluctant to end the poem.

The parataxis in line 5 of "Ulysses" ("That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me") and the infinitive triad of line 70, each capped by a negative construction, call to each other across sixty-five intervening lines through an apparatus of allusion. Though audible only to attentive readers, they show how the echoes of Hamlet that resound subliminally ("What is a man, / If the chief good and market of his time / Be but to sleep and feed?" IV.iv. 33-35) allow Ulysses, like his Shakespearean double, to be and not to be; to say opposite things simultaneously. As in the closing line of "The Lotos-Eaters," "O rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more," words drag after them their own opposite, not for contradiction but development. In the verb of volition, "we will not wander more," the mariners evoke for a fleeting instant the resolute opposite of that irresolution and inertia into which they continue to subside. Similarly, even in Ulysses' defiant phrase "not to yield," it is hard not to hear in the expansive infinitive the tranquilizing opposite of what Ulysses keeps asserting: the desire for oblivion of a mind half in love with easeful death.


I turn now from infinities of space and time to the infinite regress of Tennyson's mindscapes. Whenever the poet recalls with fond and exact scrutiny a place he once loved and cared for, it becomes a landscape of his mind. One distinguishing feature of such a mindscape is its inclusion of the recollecting mind in each local geography that it depicts. In section CI of In Memoriam, for example, Tennyson anticipates a mindscape of neglect and oblivion after his family leaves Somersby and the ancient boughs and flowers fall into ruin. Anxiety can be felt in his equivocal syntax: "And year by year our memory fades / From all the circle of the hills" (ll. 23-24). Is the possessive pronoun "our" a subjective or objective genitive? Does the poet's memory of the hills fade, or the hills' memory of him? The second possibility is the more unexpected and disturbing. And yet even the hills' fading memory of the poet is a framing of the past that the poet himself has still to enclose within a second frame of his mindscape. Because Tennyson, even in grieving that the Somersby rectory is no longer cared for, continues to care about it, he expects us to see why no picture of a once cherished place can ever be unhinged from a self-conscious mind. Indeed the picture within picture of a framed absence is always more vivid for Tennyson than an event he has experienced only once. Like the falling tree in an earless forest, the minimal unit of cognition is what a framing mind (God's or one's own) perceives to be real. (6)

The mourner's recollections of his remembered mindscapes explain why In Memoriam is so recursive a poem, one that repeats, repeats, and repeats again, often with no relieving difference. A third anniversary of Hallam's death recalls a second anniversary, and a second anniversary recalls the original shock of the mourner's first hearing of Hallam's death. Such a poem of recursive mindscapes is clearly tracking not only the progress of a dead soul, but also the successive surges of grief and melancholia that pass over and through the mourner. Just as the history of Christianity is more about the afterlife of Christ than about the life and death of its founder, so In Memoriam is as much about Hallam's afterlife in the mourner's mindscapes as it is about Hallam himself.

An important feature of In Memoriam's mindscapes is the mourner's emblematic imagery for his own mind. The landscape of his past includes a forlorn yew tree, an infant crying in the night, and a burial ship, and each of these pictures includes other pictures of the same bleak image. The power of Tennyson's mind to generate recursive pictures of itself often induces a disturbing vertigo. In sections LIV-LVI of In Memoriam man, the self-conscious architect of mindscapes, turns out to be as far below the dinosaurs as he was once thought to be above them as "the roof and crown of things." At the bottom of the altar-stairs that slope through darkness up to God lies a false floor. And through an opening in that floor, man, the cosmic misfit, can fall in an apparently infinite descent far lower than the rest of the creation:
        And he, shall he,

   Man, her last work, who seemed so fair,
      Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
      Who rolled the psalm to wintry skies,
   Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

   Who trusted God was love indeed
      And love Creation's final law--
      Though Nature, red in tooth and claw
   With ravine, shrieked against his creed--

   Who loved, who suffered countless ills,
      Who battled for the True, the Just,
      Be blown about the desert dust,
   Or sealed within the iron hills? (In Memoriam, LVI.8-20)

In the first two quatrains a familiar feature of the appositional sublime, a widely spaced anaphora--"Who built," "Who trusted," "Who loved"--gives man, God's noblest work, a spacious dwelling place in language. But, far from confirming that nobility, the run-ons between stanzas suspend man over an abyss of dizzying duration and depth. Amid physical infinities of time and space, the self-contained tetrameter quatrains, with their included rhymes (abba), normally provide the mourner with a secure platform on which to stand. But now that floor is opening up. As the relative pronouns modifying "man" begin huddling together, the repetitive contrasts, accumulative doubts, and bleak predicate of the quoted question mount to a crescendo of fear that is typical of the manic phase of depression and melancholia. Instead of providing comfort, the expansive appositions disclose a trap door.

The boldest explorer of mindscapes in Victorian poetry is G. M. Hopkins, who knows their terrors of recursive infinitude: "the mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed" ("No Worst, there is none," ll. 9-10). (7) No sooner does Hopkins, the climber of mindscapes, plunge to a new depth of despair than he realizes there is always another depth, another lower level of grief and despair, to plunge to.
   No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief
   More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
   Comforter, where, where is your comforting? (ll. 1-3)

Such trap doors and vortices are also familiar to Shakespeare's Edgar, who asks the gods in King Lear:
   Who is't can say 'I am at the worst'?
   I am worse than e'er I was ...
      And worse I may be yet. The worst is not
      So long as we can say 'This is the worst.'" (IV.i.25-28)

Even Christina Rossetti fears that the lowest place is still too high for her.
   Give me the lowest place: or if for me
      That lowest place too high, make one more low
   Where I may sit and see
      My God and Love Thee so. ("The Lowest Place," ll. 5-8) (8)

More typical of the casualties among the mind's mountaineers is Milton's Satan, whose exploration of hell is a free fall through space. Satan's descent from one depth to a lower depth mocks the very idea of a "lowest deep" or limit:
   Which way I flie is Hell; myself am Hell;
   And in the lowest deep a lower deep
   Still threat'ning to devour me opens wide,
   To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav'n.

(Milton, Paradise Lost, 4. 75-78) (9)

Since each descent to a lower depth stands to its preceding depth as hell does to heaven, Satan's mindscape of hell includes within itself an image of each new hell to which he is falling, and within that image another image, in an endless regress of descents. A similar virus infects Tennyson's portrait of man, the "roof and crown" of creation, who is also its most monstrous anomaly.

In "The Ancient Sage" Tennyson provides in "the abyss of all abysms" a basement for the mind's free fall through space. The quoted phrase refers also to the vortex of time, which is menacing because its fading memory of memories leaves only a faint wrack behind. Tennyson's "Passion of the Past" (l. 219) arrests the regress, however, by giving each act of recollection as much distinct dignity as the past it remembers. In "The Lotos-Eaters" the past becomes dreadful when the mariners lose all memory of it. In The Tempest, by contrast, Miranda manages to dredge from "the dark backward and abysm of time" (1.ii.49-50) some residue of what happened to her as a child. Logically, the line should read "in the dark abyss of events that occurred far back in time, in the distant past." But Shakespeare uses a daring combination of metonymy and hendiadys to turn "back" from an adverb ("back in time") to a noun, "the backward and abysm of time." Time is still the dark behind of a monster both rapacious and menacing. But like the hollow form with empty hands in In Memoriam, time now has a wallet at its back in which to keep alms for oblivion. A magician like Prospero or a prophet like Tennyson may still redeem the unread vision of his past in a higher dream.

It would be a mistake to conclude, therefore, that all the infinite regresses in In Memoriam have a viral malignancy. After chronicling the earth's appalling dissolution in section CXXIII, with its danger of mere blackout and indifference, the mourner announces with Olympian serenity:
   But in my spirit will I dwell,
      And dream my dream, and hold it true;
      For though my lips may breathe adieu,
   I cannot think the thing farewell. (In Memoriam, CXXIII.9-12)

I used to think that "dream my dream" was Tennyson's private joke. Instead of being unnerved by Pascal's fear of terrifying waste spaces, the mourner refuses to be undone by the deathly sublimities, even if it means retreating into solipsism. In "dreaming his dream" and "holding it true," Tennyson seems at first to be embracing the narcissism of cognates. If so, we may discern a flicker of irony in the phrase "dream my dream," as the poet strives to stave off his loneliness, his terror of the isolating illusion to which the word "dream" appears to consign him. I think now, however, that a more compelling reading of the lines may illustrate a more constructive use of infinite regress than we find in the downward spiral of section LVI. Tennyson cannot "think" Hallam's love and soul "farewell," not because it is too heartbreaking to do so, but because it is logically impossible.

As soon as Tennyson thinks of an absent Hallam, that thought becomes part of his own mindscape. Every future "dream" or thought of that mindscape will include a "dream" of Hallam, and a dream of the mourner dreaming of Hallam, and so on to infinity. When the mourner dreams his dream, he is not merely using cognate words. Instead, the grammatical object of a verb that describes a current dream of Hallam is another earlier dream: one of his many remembrances of Hallam. Section LXIV, where Tennyson thinks Hallam may be thinking of him "as in a pensive dream" (l. 18), seems to anticipate Through the Looking-Glass, where the dozing Red King dreams about Alice, who is asleep and dreaming about the Red King. As one commentator notes, "in both dreams, each dreams of the other, forming a pair of infinite regresses." (10) Unlike the malignant regress of section LVI, however, this one is constructive. Shakespeare's Prospero says that we are such stuff as dreams are made on. But if our dreams are one of the things we dream about, then whatever the world in its endless regress of dreams is searching for must be substantial somewhere. It is as inconceivable to think otherwise as to imagine an infinite universe in which our planet should have no twin.

In other mindscapes Tennyson occasionally uses a regress of pictures to dramatize a perceiver's distance from the object perceived. In "The Lady of Shalott," for example, Lancelot is said to flash into the Lady's mirror from the river. The double nature of that mirroring--from bank to river to mirror--turns the water's reflecting surface into a mirror inside a mirror. The Lady tries to shatter the regress of images by breaking her glass. More often Tennyson's distancing mindscapes are self-made. Nothing in his stage plays is quite so touching or dramatic as the unactable moment in his idyll Lancelot and Elaine when Elaine creates a mindscape in which Lancelot is conscious she is looking at him. In a regress of frames, Elaine knows Lancelot knows she is looking at him, and so cannot return her gaze:
   Then, when she heard his horse upon the stones,
   Unclasping flung the casement back, and looked
   Down on his helm, from which her sleeve had gone.
   And Lancelot knew the little clinking sound;
   And she by tact of love was well aware
   That Lancelot knew that she was looking at him. (ll. 973-978)

A stage play offers little opportunity for one-sided looking. But when Elaine looks at Lancelot in the poem, she reduces him to the quintessential object of her mindscape. Ashamed to return her look, he is powerless to disarm her unstated censure of him. The best comment on the passage comes from Christopher Ricks: "The tact, the tenderness, the unmentioned bruises: to me the lines are enduring." (11)


In addition to charting physical infinities of space and time and recursive images of a mindscape, Tennyson also explores a third form of the infinite: an Absolute that is unlimited or boundless. In approaching what his Ancient Sage calls "the Nameless of the hundred names" (l. 49), as a curve approaches its asymptote, Tennyson cultivates two forms of contemplation, which mystics call cataphatic and apophatic meditation. Either he repeats a proper name or mantra that focuses his attention on a specific word or sound; or else he tries to empty his mind of all content, until concentrated attention on no specific object allows him to pass "into the Nameless, as a cloud / Melts into Heaven" (ll. 233-234). Section XCV of In Memoriam presents both contemplative activities with remarkable precision. Whereas the section's opening quatrains are elliptically sublime and apophatic, its closing quatrains, concentrating on the rocking elm trees and the swinging of the heavy-folded rose, are expansively sublime and strongly cataphatic. The words in Hallam's letters are said to be "silent-speaking," probably because Tennyson pronounces them subvocally. But as in any apophatic operation that empties the mind of content, the words are also said to be silent because they must be elicited as the voice of someone who has died since the letter was written. One result is that the letters act as an earplug to block out distracting gibberish or chatter. To approach the infinitude of "boundless day" in the last stanza, Tennyson uses amplified repetitions that create simultaneous impressions of the bounded and the boundless. As the flaring lights of East and West join together to form a radiant center, Tennyson moves from apophatic to cataphatic contemplation, from silent-speaking words to a breeze that breathes the words "The dawn, the dawn," yet so unobtrusively that we scarcely notice what has happened.

In an earlier experiment in apophatic contemplation, "The Lotos-Eaters," Tennyson combines the slow release of breath in an exercise with repetitions that acquire the tranquilizing effect of a mantra. Like the regress of sounds that echo each other in an incantation or chant, the use of repetitions as rhymes in the poem's first four lines helps induce trance and hypnosis instead of mere inertia or torpor:
   "Courage!" he said, and pointed toward the land,
   "This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon."
   In the afternoon they came unto a land
   In which it seemed always afternoon. (ll. 1-4)

In the trembling, downward movement of the stream, Tennyson also uses sound to visualize tiny increments of change:
   And like a downward smoke, the slender stream
   Along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem. (ll. 8-9)

The two extra syllables combine with the vertical pattern of falling and pausing to prolong the water's slow descent. Like a value moving toward its limit in calculus, the stream draws ever closer to falling without actually appearing to descend.

Most readers interpret "The Lotos-Eaters" as Tennyson's indictment of hedonism. But if we concentrate on its diction and meter, we can see that the poem also resembles the yoga of breath control and incantation. The last line expands one of Tennyson's favorite mantras, "No more," into the resonant invocation: "O rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more." Also, by the time a member of the chorus reaches the first caesura in the concluding hexameter of each Spenserian stanza, he is barely breathing. He has slowed down even further by the middle of the line, and has all but exhaled his last breath by the time he comes to the line's late-breaking caesura. The ideal is to approach zero breathing, like a limit in calculus. The more slowly the breath can be released, the more relaxed and therapeutic the exercise will be. Like Wordsworth in "Tintern Abbey," Tennyson hopes that when "the breath of [his] corporeal frame" is "almost suspended," he may be "laid asleep / In body, and become a living soul" (ll. 43-46). The lotos-eaters are experimenting with what Dwight Culler calls the "Zen Buddhist practice" of combining "inhalations with rhythmic counting." (12) From the release of a modest amount of breath, these pauses proceed to a minimal release, and then to a release of breath that uses up all the speaker's energies. The Spenserian stanza ends as a yoga toaster might hope to relax his body and his will, or as a man might hope to die after expending all his powers without remainder.

Culler has shown how there survives in Tennyson "something of the older conception of language as a magical instrument, a means of incantation or ritual" (p. 4). Phrases like "far, far away" and "No more" moved Tennyson deeply, and often induced in him a trancelike state. In the song from The Princess, "Ask me no more," the incantatory refrain denies what it affirms. It dramatizes the moment of approach, when contact is about to occur but is still deferred. At a touch the woman will yield: delay will last only as long as her refrain "Ask me no more" is allowed to continue. Indeed like many mantras, the refrain contains its own opposite: "Ask me no more" is a petition to postpone indefinitely a convergence that seems fated to occur. Continued vocalization of a word may obliterate its meaning or induce a state of stupor in which "Ask me no more" also means "Ask me once more." Changes of direction are equally predictable in "Tears, Idle Tears," where the same repeated phrase, "the days that are no more," achieves a precarious stability even as it tells us that nothing is stable. There is a wavering finality about each rising and sinking movement, as things merely graze us in passing, like tangents to a curve. Since each impression is countered by its opposite, we are always at some boundary between hearing and seeing, being happy or sad. Is a ship rising over the horizon or sinking with all we love below the verge?

Behind Tennyson's mantra, "No more," we can also decipher the wildweed-flower of his early lyric "No More," sadly reduced by the youthful poet from flower to proper noun:
      Oh sad No More! Oh sweet No More!
        Oh strange No More!
      By a mossed brookbank on a stone
      I smelt a wildweed-flower alone;
      There was a ringing in my ears,
      And both my eyes gushed out with tears.
   Surely all pleasant things had gone before,
   Lowburied fathomdeep beneath with thee, NO MORE!

The mantra "No more" is Tennyson's version of a demythologized name, like the flower hyacinth in Greek myth, which is inscribed with the letters AI of the word for "Alas." But the mantra also has power to reverse the fall from Eden into Babel, and from myth into time, by becoming, as we have seen, the germ of one of Tennyson's finest lyrics, "Tears, Idle Tears." As Hartman says of the author of Genesis, Tennyson has brooded on the name of the flower "No More" until, like God brooding on the deep, he has made it pregnant. From the words which have been degraded from a name to a phrase, the precocious youth brings forth "a new meaning" and "world." (13)

To intimate what an experience of the Absolute might be like, Tennyson often creates situations in which it is possible, if only for an instant, to peer at once into two different worlds-the worlds of the infinite and the finite. Such situations sometimes occur in Tennyson's classical monologues, which try to reverse the fall into time. "Tithonus" is Tennyson's version of Zeno's arrow. It is a story of a hero locked in time, frozen in a spatial frame like the Sleeping Beauty, unable to inch forward to the grave or reverse the fall into time by becoming once again the beloved consort of the goddess. There is nothing special about Aurora's cold beauty, which renews itself "morn by morn." And like the swan that dies after many summers, the one-way vector of "earth in earth," the cycle of the man who comes and ploughs the field and lies beneath, is too familiar to need comment. What is unique about Tithonus' perspective is his ability to stand outside his situation, making distinctions, and contriving a union of sensuous immediacy with permanence that arrests the flight of time's arrow. Though warm and passionate, like most things temporal, Aurora's heart is always "renewed" and her "bosom" always beating, for like the lovers on Keats's Grecian urn she is "all breathing human passion far above." Only when oblivion crystallizes with terrifying literalness into Tithonus' image of himself, "earth in earth," does there follow a touching change of focus, comparable to Keats's contemplating a cold pastoral on a marble urn. For a moment, however, before the arrow that is locked in time is released, Tithonus achieves a unique perception. Instead of seeing the world as either cold and enduring or as sensuous and perishing, as either John's Logos or Heraclitus' vortex, he sees it for a moment as both at once.

Such is the moment of fugitive enlightenment that Zen calls satori. In D. T. Suzuki's words, "the oneness dividing itself into the subject-object and yet retaining its oneness at the very moment that there is the awakening of a consciousness--this is satori." (14) In his oxymoron for the Absolute, "the Nameless of a hundred names," Tennyson captures the fleeting instant of fluctuation Suzuki describes. If the Absolute is nameless, how can it have a hundred names? And if it has a hundred names, how can it be nameless? Only at the instant of oscillation, I suspect, between the blissful moment of merging with the One and the moment of abrupt awakening when the mind draws back to reflect on its dream, and commit it to articulation in words.

The pulse of Tennyson's poetry is this One-Many split. When drawn into the vortex of the world's multitudinousness, Tennyson is often panic-stricken by vertigo and loss. Pictures of an estranged place like the Somersby garden, "familiar" now "to the stranger's child" but unfamiliar to Tennyson, fill him with grief. "Unwatched," "Unloved," "Uncared for," the repeated negatives insist. But also "loved," and deeply so, by the Zen master who uses his negative past participles as chants to restore an impression of what is lost. "No," the repeated "Unloved" keeps saying, but also "Yes." James Richardson notes that "Tennyson's simplest and most profound delight in language is with its ability to say yes and no at the same time." (15) Like a master of satori or like his own Tithonus, who binds himself most firmly to Aurora when claiming to erase all trace of her empty courts from his mind, Tennyson can remember Somersby best by seeming to forget it.

I find a similar power to look into two worlds at once in The Passing of Arthur, where the certitude of "saw" is immediately qualified by the provisional "Or thought he saw" (ll. 463-465). The insistent pairing of "clomb" and "climb," "saw" and "saw," the passing "on and on," then going from "less to less" before dissolving, show Bedievere looking harder and harder at a shrinking object. Arthur's miraculous vanishing "into light" (l. 468) and Bedivere's hesitation and strain in tracking "the speck that bare the King" (l. 465) appear to suspend the reader forever between real and visionary worlds.

In "Flower in the Crannied Wall" Tennyson uses an infinite regress to dissolve relations and put the mind in a trance by showing how the flower's meaning is derivable only from the whole, endlessly retreating horizon of the world it is in:
   I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
   Little flower--but if I could understand
   What you are, root and all, and all in all,
   I should know what God and man is. (ll. 3-6)

Initially, an idea of organic spatial connection relates the flower to its crannied wall. The flower, after all, is said to be rooted in the wall: though both are intimately connected, they are still separate. In order to relate the rooted flower to the wall's other flowers, however, the poet must immediately invoke a second idea of being both rooted and detached, and then a third idea, and so on. Until the poet has related everything, he has understood and connected nothing. Since it is manifestly impossible to relate everything, and just as impossible to block the regress of relations once they are set in motion, either God and the mind must retreat from view down an endless vortex, or else we must conclude that relations are illusory. As a mystic who is ultimately a monist, Tennyson is tempted to embrace the second alternative by accepting the view of Parmenides, and of his follower Zeno, that relations are deceptive. Only the movement from the multitude of particulars back to the One turns shadow into substance. Tennyson's reversion to unity drives the compulsive monism of the last line, where instead of writing "I should know what God and man are," he substitutes a singular for a plural verb. In the Epilogue to In Memoriam the fourfold repetition of "one" in only two lines ("One God, one law, one element/And one far-off divine event") is further testimony to what M. H. Abrams calls the powerful "monistic compulsion of the human spirit." (16) When looking down induces vertigo and looking up induces despair, the mourner in In Memoriam can only keep going by looking straight ahead. If it were not for his final apocalyptic vision of one far-off event, he might seem to be going round in circles, like a senile man who thinks his third or fourth repetition of the same memory is new.

Like F. H. Bradley some twenty-five centuries later, (17) Zeno tries to prove that motion and change do not occur, by setting afoot an infinite regress that G.E.L. Owen understands as follows: "Any two members of a collection must be separated by something if they are to be two things and not one; but by the same argument what separates them must itself be separated from each by something else; and so forth." (18) Tennyson may not have read Bradley or Zeno. But we know he was a life-long student of Indian philosophy, which finds it hard to draw a horizon around its thinking. To conceive of anything in Indian philosophy is to initiate an infinite cycle, a regress of phenomena such as Bradley and Zeno set in motion.

It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the regress in a mindscape, the second category of the infinite, and the third category, the regress inside an Absolute that is infinite and boundless. The first kind of regress occurs in any self-representative system. The mind that tracks an experience is an important part of what is tracked. To move from this infinite mindscape to an Absolute Infinite is to move from epistemology to metaphysics, from a theory of knowledge to a theory of being. It is to pass from Tennyson's memory of his past in In Memoriam to his claim in "Flower in the Crannied Wall" that under certain conditions a mind that has regressed infinitely might come at last to know what "God and man is." As Daniel Cohen observes in Equations from God, the Victorian mathematician Thomas Hill attacks Sir William Hamilton and H. L. Mansel for dividing the mind into two irreconcilable faculties, the infinite and the finite. Just as Hill demonstrates how mathematicians can use calculus to add "together finite quantities" to "approach the infinite," (19) so Tennyson believes that by marching through infinite regresses and indefinites he can use reason as well as intuition to draw ever closer to a God who is boundless.

Clearly, however, the Absolute Infinite of Edward Caird, Bradley, and the English Hegelians is fraught with more contradictions than the infinite mindscapes of a subjective idealist like J. F. Ferrier or Pringle Pattison. Moreover, since the idea of an absolute that is also infinite involves switching in quick succession between contradictory pictures, like Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit figure, it also requires verbal sleight of hand. The great crisis in Victorian agnostic theology arises from an inability to combine images of the absolute and the infinite in an understanding of God. In a seminal essay, "The Philosophy of the Unconditioned," a principal source of H. L. Mansel's and T. H. Huxley's agnostic theologies, Sir William Hamilton argues that God must be either absolute or infinite, discrete or boundless. To say He is both at once is like saying that matter is atomic and endlessly divisible, at once a particle and a wave. How can a subject possessing these contradictory predicates claim to be intelligible? Christopher Herbert finds it ironic that Mansel should base his critique of "the philosophy of absolutes" squarely on Protagorean principles of relativity. "Most modernistic of ail," Herbert claims, "is Mansel's embrace of paradox as a necessary component of the scientific mode of knowledge." (20)

Fortunately, Tennyson is a more adventurous explorer of logical contradiction than Hamilton or Mansel. Ever willing to hover over contradictions and fluctuate between opposing states, his speaker in "Tithonus" seeks the absolution of forgetting what he also remembers: "I earth in earth forget these empty courts, / And thee returning on thy silver wheels" (ll. 75-76). Remembering a line from Dante, Tithonus forgets to forget. As Robert Douglas-Fairhurst observes, instead of erasing anything, Tennyson's "earth in earth" does the opposite: it memorably brings to life again the phrase "in terra terra" of Dante's St. John (Paradiso, 25. 124). (21) Something similar occurs at the end of "Demeter and Persephone," where the great earth mother vows to obliterate from memory all desolating impressions of "the Stone," "the Wheel," and "silent field of Asphodel." But in resolving to forget these images, she inscribes them on our minds. Only in In Memoriam does Tennyson acknowledge that every trade-off between the absolute and the indefinite, the discrete and the dissolving, entails irreparable loss. At the climax of the elegy Tennyson hoped to clasp Hallam's hand and listen to a voice that is irreplaceable and unique. But so diffused has that voice become that Tennyson can hear it only "on the rolling air" or "where the waters run" (CXXX.1-2). Hallam has turned into something more cosmic and sublime than Tennyson anticipated. Intimacy and sublimity, the discrete and the diffuse, exist in inverse proportion and cannot be combined in a larger whole.

Fascinated by transitions and rates of change, Tennyson is the Ovid of a protean age of flux and evolution in the physical sciences. As we have seen, he traces the slope of a moving stair as it ascends to new heights before plummeting down a vortex or black hole. I say "ascend" and "plummet," because Tennyson is intrigued by the way a seemingly "accidental variation" can be built into the program of a calculating engine, or what today we would call a computer. Tennyson owned a copy of George Babbage's Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (1838), which uses the analogy of the calculating engine to refute Hume's argument against miracles. When Robert Chambers introduces Babbage's example of the calculating engine into his hypothesis of development in Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), he is not, like Babbage, trying to show that unpredictable changes may have other causes than divine intervention. He is arguing instead that our historical era is "only a small portion of the entire age of our globe. We do not know what may have happened during the ages which preceded its commencement, as we do not know what may happen in ages yet in the distant future." (22) Who indeed can assert with certainty that "the world's great altar-stairs" will not turn at any moment into a wild careening roller coaster, doubtfully teleological, and frightening to contemplate?

David Berlinski believes that the calculus is "a great and powerful theory arising at the very moment human beings contemplated the infinite for the first time: sequences without end, infinite additions, limits flickering in the far distance." But then he adds, "the simple melancholy fact is that outside the charmed circle of those working on the current frontiers, no one believes any longer that physics or anything like physics is apt to provide contemplative human beings with a theoretical arch sustaining enough to provide a coherent system of thought and feeling."z3 Caught between worlds, Tennyson, I think, occupies a similar position in the nineteenth century. He is torn between a life-long interest in an Absolute Infinite in theology or metaphysics, on the one hand, and an obsession with sublime infinities of space and time in the physical sciences, on the other.

Like Lucretius and Zeno, Tennyson is an atomist whose "finer optic" is attuned to discrete units of sensation. Browning, by contrast, is fascinated by waves of force and chromatic blending, like Clough and Swinburne. I have argued that Tennyson's focus on atomic parts is to the use of derivatives in calculus what Browning's evolution of solids out of two-dimensional shapes and points is to the use of integrals. But no calculus can determine the instantaneous velocity or plot the trajectory of randomly accelerating atoms that "holy Venus" lets loose in Tennyson's monologue "Lucretius." Though "the abysmal terror of 'Lucretius' is redeemed," in one critic's words, by "a subcorporeal sort of infinitesimal sublime," (24) the flaming atoms that the goddess sets streaming through "the illimitable inane" resemble rapid fluctuations in the stock market. Their wild career traces a path too jagged and irregular for the smoother models of the calculus to quantify. The physics of Newton is designed to chart the dynamics of a continuously moving altar-stair that meets God at Ulysses' "utmost bound of human thought," or as a curve of a parabola meets its asymptote, at infinity. Perhaps fractals (or the computer simulations of a later age) provide the best model of Tennyson's post-Newtonian world of accidental variations in biology and of unpredictable changes in the history of the earth. In the world of Darwin, Chambers, and Lyell, species evolve randomly, and even solid lands shape themselves like clouds and disappear (In Memoriam, CXXIII.8).

Since nothing is certain or permanent in such a world, Tennyson finds that the secret of wisdom is the detachment without withdrawal of a spokesman like Ulysses, in whom Tennyson claims to find more of himself than in all of In Memoriam. As Koheleth discovers in the wisest book of the Hebrew Bible, there is a time for all things, for touching the Happy Isles and for being washed down by the waves. Honored in his own day as a wisdom poet, Tennyson realizes that wisdom is to knowledge what poetry is to history: a sense of the potential, not an understanding of what is actual or particular. Real wisdom starts with Ulysses' discovery that, despite his attempt to quest forever, it is impossible to travel endlessly. Only in a tranquilizing evocation of his end is it possible for Ulysses to be "absolute for death." Wisdom accepts the discontinuity of being whoever one is at the present moment, whether the wisest of the great Greek heroes or an old man "made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." Absolved at last from endless questing, Ulysses must learn to relax his will and accept what is absolute and discrete in place of what infinitely recedes or dissolves. He must find joy, not in any timeless quest with his comrades, who lead too fading and ghostly an existence for communal enterprise, but in finding a way out of emptiness by celebrating whatever is "past, or passing, or to come." When wisdom embraces experience as its own end there comes the liberating sense of acceptance. As Cornelia Pearsall finely says, Ulysses tells his men "that they are the sum of their losses, which is to say that what is taken is what abides." (25) To be wise is to accept the void of Buddhist thought, the world within nothingness, without any a priori judgment of it. Unlike the youth in "Locksley Hall," who says knowledge cornes but wisdom lingers, Ulysses is no weary pessimist, tired of life, but a vigorous realist, committed to a life of continuous mental energy.


(1) Robert Bernard Martin, Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980), p. 54.

(2) The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks, 3 vols. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987), In Memoriam, LVI.2-4. All quotations from Tennyson are from this edition.

(3) Matthew Arnold, "On Translating Homer: Last Words," 1861, The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold, ed. R. H. Super (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1960), 1:89.

(4) Rudy Rucker, Infinity and the Mind: The Science and Philosophy of the Infinite (New York: Bantam, 1983), p. 3.

(5) Walter Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind: 1830-1870 (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1957), pp. 291-297. Houghton's penultimate example of Faustian questing without an end or specific goal is Tennyson's Ulysses (pp. 295-297).

(6) In the early Victorian age, the significance of the mind's self-conscious framing of its world is explored in most detail by Tennyson's friend, J. F. Ferrier, who published a series of seven articles entitled "An Introduction to the Philosophy of Consciousness" in Blackwood's Magazine between February 1838 and March 1839.

(7) The Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. Norman H. Mackenzie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

(8) The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti, ed. Rebecca Crump, 3 vols. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana Univ. Press, 1979-90).

(9) John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: Odyssey Press, 1957).

(10) Martin Gardner, The Universe in a Handkerchief: Lewis Carroll's Mathematical Recreations, Games, Puzzles, and Word Plays (New York: Copernicus, 1996), p. 3.

(11) Christopher Ricks, Tennyson (New York: Macmillan, 1972), p. 260.

(12) A. Dwight Culler, The Poetry of Tennyson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1977), p. 2. The large number of books in Tennyson's library on Taoism, Buddhism, and Indian philosophy supports the view that his knowledge of Indian and Oriental thought in general is still an unjustly neglected area of Tennyson studies.

(13) Geoffrey H. Hartman, "The Voice of the Shuttle: Language from the Point of View of Literature," Beyond Formalism: Literary Essays 1958.70 (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1970), p. 347.

(14) T.D. Suzuki, The Field of Zen (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), p. 24.

(15) James Richardson, Vanishing Lives: Style and Self in Tennyson, D. G. Rossetti, Swinburne, and Yeats (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1988), p. 32.

(16) M. H. Abrams, Doing Things With Texts: Essays in Criticism and Critical Theory (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989), p. 232.

(17) As Wesley C. Salmon explains, "F. H. Bradley, while making no explicit mention of Zeno, uses thoroughly Eleatic arguments to support the conclusions that space and rime, motion and change are Unreal" (Zeno's Paradoxes [Cambridge: Hackett, 2001], p. 16).

(18) G.E.L. Owen, "Zeno and the Mathematicians," Zeno's Paradoxes, pp. 151-152. Owen immediately goes on to observe, however, that "this argument seems patently fallacious. For surely things may be separated by their common boundaries-by their edges, and nothing else" (p. 152).

(19) Daniel Cohen, Equations from God: Pure Mathematics and Victorian Faith (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2007), p. 60.

(20) Christopher Herbert, Victorian Relativity: Radical Thought and Scientific Discovery (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2001), pp. 38-39.

(21) Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Victorian Afterlives: The Shaping of Influence in Nineteenth. Century Literature (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2002), p. 229.

(22) Robert Chambers, "Hypothesis of the Development of the Vegetable and Animal Kingdoms," Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (London, 1844); repr. in Nineteenth Century Science: A Selection of Original Texts, ed. A. S. Weber (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1999), p. 152.

(23) David Berlinski, A Tour of the Calculus (New York: Vintage, 1997), pp. 304-305.

(24) Herbert F. Tucker, "When There's No There There: Mysteries of Matter,,' a paper read at the conference of the North American Victorian Studies Association, University of Victoria, October 12, 2007.

(25) Cornelia Pearsall, Tennyson's Rapture: Transformation in the Victorian Dramatic Monologue (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008), p. 199. Less tenable, I think, is Pearsall's claim that the coda of Ulysses' monologue is moving because it creates an "illusion of communal enterprise" (p. 98). In my view, Ulysses' auditors are too shadowy and ghostlike to engage in any such endeavor. For a discussion of the swerve or turn of voice that rhetoricians identify with aversio or apostrophe, see my Origins of the Monologue: The Hidden God (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999), pp. 62-85.
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Title Annotation:Alfred Tennyson
Author:Shaw, W. David
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2009
Previous Article:Tennyson and the embodied mind.
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