Tennyson. (Guide to the Year's Work).
Noting Tennyson's early preoccupation with isles on which the voyager merely touches, Leighton moves on to the larger role of touching and the body in his poetry. Characteristically, gestures toward transcendent meaning and purpose are suspended by the near approach of a physical body--as when the dead body as well as living voice of Hallam seem to touch the speaker before Hallam's soul is suddenly flashed on his own in Section 95 of In Memoriam. Even at his poetry's most transcendent moments, Leighton argues, Tennyson is never unmindful of sensuous palpability or language's materialist drift--just as "form" itself might signify the abstract immateriality of beautiful style or the touchable human body. If Tennyson's resonating diction and rhymes pushed his poetry toward a condition of pure music early in the century, his resort to Lucretius was another link between his art and late-century aestheticism. Lucretian atomism and materialism obviously chimed with nineteenth-century science and Pater's foregroundin g of transience and sensuous experience. But Leighton also reminds us that Lucretius was an important influence on Arthur Henry Hallam and the source of the Epicurean gods in "The Lotos-Eaters" as well as the whole of Tennyson's 1868 dramatic monologue. Lucretius taught that only what could be touched was real and relevant to human life (hence the irrelevance of Epicurean gods). Leighton then re-reads In Memoriam in light of Lucretian materialism, which constantly brought into question the poem's reach toward transcendent spirituality and posed the suggestion that sensuous perception of art as an entity unto itself might be the one thing certain.
In Aestheticism and Sexual Parody 1840-1940 (Cambridge Univ. Press) Dennis Denisoff focuses on Tennyson's reception more than his poetics or philosophical underpinnings. Denisoff's larger aim is to show that mainstream authors and literary critics contributed to aestheticism's sexual ambiguity and anti-bourgeois identities by circulating its outre elements even when attacking or parodying aesthetes. Earlier in the century, however, before "effeminacy" was linked to the emergent construction of homosexuality, reviewers could align Tennyson with aestheticism and effeminacy without provoking anxiety. Arthur Henry Hallam called Tennyson an exponent of "sensation"; John Wilson Croker thought "O Darling Room" a girlish effusion; writing anonymously, Bulwer Lytton contended that Tennyson's effeminacies comprised a "'eunuch strain"'; George Brimley first used "aestheticism" in discussing "The Lotos-Eaters" (1856); and Alfred Austin argued that Tennyson had a feminine muse. Meanwhile, Tennyson's career prospered. Only when sexual deviancy was constructed (by elite insiders and the mainstream press) as a potential component of aestheticism did Tennyson react with epigrams condemning "Art for Art's Sake" and "... One Who Affected an Effeminate Manner." Denisoff does not mention Tennyson's "The New Timon, and the Poets," which like so many parodies of aestheticism was published in Punch. In attacking Bulwer Lytton's dandiacal hair "en papillotes," tiny feet, stays, and cosmetics while also addressing him as "Sir," Tennyson foregrounded sexual ambiguity while parodying Bulwer's Pelham (a text Denisoff discusses). Tennyson thus anticipated both objects of parody and the parodists in late-century aestheticism as analyzed by Denisoff.
Gerhard Joseph contributes to the discussion of Tennyson and aestheticism by arranging for the publication of Stephane Mallarme's "Tennyson, vu d'ici" in the Tennyson Research Bulletin (7, no. 5: 255-258). This obituary essay (recently translated by Mary Ann Caws) was first published in the October 29, 1892 National Observer, edited by poet W. E. Henley. Mallarme's homage to Tennyson as a colorist and painter in language who had introduced new aural harmonies into English underscores the link between Tennyson and aestheticism also urged by Leighton and Denisoff.
If aesthetes claimed (however disingenuously) that art resided in a self-enclosed realm of beauty, the artists themselves lived in Victoria's political realm. Joseph Bristow recently noted Victorian debates over poetry's role in reforming society ("Reforming Victorian Poetry: Poetics after 1832," The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry , pp. 1-24). The most notable development in Tennyson studies this year is a return to Tennyson's poetry and public--rather than ideological or cultural-- politics. Matthew Bevis anticipated this trend in "The Civil Tongue" (1999), part of his ongoing investigation of poetry's relation to Victorian politics and oratory, which now continues in "Tennyson, Ireland, and 'The Powers of Speech"' in VP (39: 345-364). Bevis examines "The Voyage of Maeldune" in relation to Parnellism and the Land League in the late 1870s, "Locksley Hall Sixty Years After" in relation to Home Rule legislation in the 1880s, by which time Tennyson was a peer sitting in the House of Lords and asso ciating with both Gladstone and the Duke of Argyll, who judged Gladstone's rhetoric temporizing and evasive. The link between the two poems and political contexts is that Parnell, himself an M.P., had honed a political rhetoric that could simultaneously uphold constitutional action while covertly encouraging rebellion. The question in the 1880s, then, was in part whether Gladstone was doing Parnell one better. Tennyson's reference to the laming of cattle in both poems under discussion was a clear reference to Irish agrarian violence, and though Tennyson recirculated some blatant Irish stereotypes, he also signaled recognition that the Irish themselves suffered political injustice. Ultimately, based on intertextual echoes (including some from Gladstone's speeches) and the nuances of Tennyson's rhythm and rhymes, Bevis argues that Tennyson attempted to create a poetic and political rhetoric that allowed for aspiration and apprehension at the same time, ambiguity in good rather than bad faith insofar as it ackno wledged the complexities of political problems and their proposed solutions.
In "The Stones in the Sword: Tennyson's Crown Jewels," also in VP (39:1-24), Michael W. Hancock positions Idylls of the King in relation to state-sponsored imperialism. In depicting the elusive ownership and violence attendant upon gems that pass through women's hands--the jewel-bedecked hilt of Excalibur wrought by the Lady of the Lake, the nine diamonds of the diamond jousts, Guinevere's pearl necklace, the ruby carcanet of "The Last Tournament"--Tennyson could address imperial anxieties about the cost (and peril) of acquiring foreign possessions. This link was underwritten by the arrival of the Koh-i-noor and Timur Ruby in England from the Lahore Treasure House, both gems having once been part of the Indian Peacock Throne. If Hancock theorizes the Idylls' jewels in terms of gift exchange, commodities, museum culture, and the social life of material objects, he also anchors his analysis in the specifics of gem lore and above all Victorian print culture, tracing the complex associations of superb, unusually rare (and large) gems with foreign conquest, imperial power, and a woman's (Victoria's) oversight and possession of them. Hancock (whose prose sparkles too) also attends closely to poetic features of the text, probing the successive symbolic meanings jewels acquire as they pass through successive hands, and in the process suggesting Tennyson's skillful use of contemporary rhetoric as well as poetic resonance to register complex questions about the imperial enterprise in which his own court appointment implicated him.
Matthew Reynolds' The Realms of Verse 1830-1870: English Poetry in a Time of Nation-Building (Oxford Univ. Press) provides the most extended treatment of Tennyson's response to Victorian politics. Reynolds repudiates poetry as journalism, opting instead for a model of "parabolic drift" that enables him to place poetry in the public realm while avoiding overdetermined readings that ignore formal complexity and aims. As he demonstrates in his splendid third chapter ("Three Types of Unity"), there were congruences between Hegelian idealism and Coleridgean poetics, both of which emphasized organicism and the unifying sympathy that reconciles and melds individual parts into, and with, a whole; these, in turn, could be aligned with marriage, which often functioned as a trope of unification of difference (between sexes, families, regions), legal union (which, like the state itself, mingled coercion and consent), and religious sacrament. The numerous courtship plots of Victorian poetry furthered exploration of nation hood at a symbolic level, while the contest between national law and freedom of action could be played out in poems' handling of metrics, form, and diction. (Reynolds' deft analysis of language in the marriage ceremony that concludes In Memoriam demonstrates the richness of his method.) Yet, he is quick to point our, the nesting of these tripartite unities was not consistent within a poem or across a range of poets--just as, in the realm of political philosophy, Edmund Burke might hold marriage's "organic" union to symbolize the "naturalness" and organic quality of the nation state, while J. S. Mill held marriage to be a form of tyranny and despotism, and the state to be a human contrivance susceptible to modification through human rationality. Whereas Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning focused on negotiating the most equable relation between the individual and the state (mirrored by their interest in overarching form versus freedom of expression in their poetics), Tennyson tended to conceive the nation, e mpire, and his poetry in terms of amalgamations into larger wholes held together by continuity and sympathy.
As do the essays of Bevis and Hancock, Reynolds' investigation often leaves the poems richer as a result of his exegesis, especially in his discussion of The Princess. Here the poem's fantastic geography, abstracted to the North and South (with Ida complicating matters by moving to the liminal boundary at the poem's outset), allows multiple opportunities for exploring an imagined, unified realm. Reynolds is particularly witty in the analogies he draws between strategies pursued by the Prince and his cohorts and boys' adventure tales set in foreign exotic climes (invade, form a bridgehead with someone of mixed race or loyalties, and offer power to an ambitious chieftain or maharajah). Despite Ida's submission to marital union linking North and South at the end, Reynolds resists reading the narrative as a reductive scenario of capitulation and submission, in part because of the complex relation between Romance (southern) and Anglo-Saxon (northern) diction in the verse, in part because of the plot's distant para llel to contemporaneous Welsh riots led by "Rebecca"--a man dressed as a woman--that resulted in negotiation and redress of grievances rather than iron domination and suppression (the policy the Prince's father recommends). Reynolds' analyses are always subtle and flexible, but sometimes his materials prove more recalcitrant than he acknowledges. In the early exotic poems (which David Riede  viewed in a thoroughgoing imperialist context), Reynolds underscores the fantasy quality of the enterprise, based more on scenes of reading than on actual travel or conquest; yet of the "Barbarian" huts disclosed once "Discovery" reaches the site, Reynolds says nothing. Similarly, while the analogies he draws between Balin and Ireland, Balan and the Irish Anglican Church that seeks to "civilize" its subjects are illuminating, the political significance of Guinevere's and Lancelot's implication in Balin's anarchic exile goes unmentioned. Nonetheless, Reynolds succeeds, as do the essays of Bevis and Hancock, in demons trating poetry's entanglement in political history and in illuminating poems' overlapping language, form, and political commitments.
Interest in cultural politics, of course, is still active. Daniel Denecke's "The Motivation of Tennyson's Reader: Privacy and the Politics of Literary Ambiguity in The Princess" (VS 43, no. 2: 201-27) engages both political history and cultural analysis, taking as its point of departure Jewish conversion and the question this posed for nations and narratives: to what degree did national unity and identity depend on making private subjectivity congruent with the state? In The Princess Tennyson never reveals Princess Ida's motives for marrying the prince. Her shift from separatist politics to marriage may represent conversion, just as the Jewish heroine in conventional narratives converts and marries a Christian. Or she may mirror heroines of industrial novels, who deflect interest from political debates with a revelation (tantamount to conversion) of love. But she could also represent the crypto-feminist, an analogue to the Jewish converso figure of burlesque, whose ostensible conversion provides a cover for c ounter-civic motives and beliefs. In this case, Denecke argues, poetic ambiguity serves the important political function of establishing a space for privacy within the public sphere. Lilia enacts this optimistic possibility in the conclusion Tennyson later added, when she refrains from participating in the debate about how best to narrate the tale and never discloses the effect the narrative has had on her. Denecke's innovative adaptation of the Jewish to the Woman Question raises new issues in turn. Subjective opacity in the public sphere is indeed a means of limiting the reach of the state--but at the cost of silence and nonparticipation, at least where Lilia is concerned. What, then, are the ethics, responsibilities, and political implications of privacy? And what is the relation of The Princess to the inverse plot of Maud? The speaker of Maud converts from melancholy, insane privacy to public solidarity, yet his motives for public conversion are ultimately as opaque as Ida's for marrying.
Tennyson has only a cameo role as imperial "heavy" in Nancy M. Houston's "Reading the Victorian Souvenir: Sonnets and Photographs of the Crimean War" (YJC 14, no. 2: 353-383). Part of her ongoing study of the Victorian sonnet and its cultural role, this essay probes the link between the sonnet and contemporary photography, since both were conceived as memorial souvenirs of individual moments that could revive complex emotional associations for the viewer. She offers a less happy role than does Denecke for privacy, arguing that commodified sonnets and photos of the Crimean War multiplied the potential range of affective responses, thereby undermining national unity in favor of private, individual response. In this context privacy is also surrender to market forces. To Houston, Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" represents the older aristocratic response to war; he suppressed--as photographs and sonnet collections did not--the role of an audience in his depiction of doomed heroism and acknowledgment of hi s means of production. Houston, however, omits to take up the significance of Tennyson's close attention to audience and distribution when he restored "Some one had blundered" at soldiers' request and paid to have the poem distributed among common soldiers in the Crimea.
William Weaver, in "Identifying Men at Ida's University: Education, Gender, and Male/Male Identification in Tennyson's The Princess" (NCC 23, no. 1: 121-148), turns to debates about boys' education in the 1830s and 1840s rather than Jewish conversion to reassess Tennyson's narrative. Reacting to the old model of flogging and fagging at Eton, Thomas Arnold offered an alternative at Rugby that relied on boys' modeling themselves after their headmaster and appointed leaders among boys (an idea, Weaver suggests, not far from the hero worship advocated by Carlyle in 1840). Tennyson's own investment in the matter, Weaver suggests, lay in his desire to align the Cambridge Apostles with reformist masculinity as a third educational model. Ida's intense identification with Blanche and Psyche vitiates her individuality and maturity. In contrast, the poem's narrators and the Prince's circle achieve solidarity through collective literary creation yet preserve the borders of their individual identities through self-aware p erformance. But since the recitation of "Tears, Idle Tears" and reading of "Come down, O Maid" also shape Ida's behavior and character, and since women assist in the male narrators' performance, the distinction between the alternative models blurs. Moreover, the Prince's model of heterosexual marriage as the "two-celled heart" does not look so different from the same-sex corporate identity offered by Ida and Psyche. Weaver's conclusion is thus a familiar one--in treating educational reform, Tennyson pursues a strange diagonal.
Catherine Maxwell connects the "two-celled heart" and Ida and Psyche's relation to same-sex desire. But her principal emphasis in The Female Sublime from Milton to Swinburne: Bearing Blindness (Manchester Univ. Press) is on a psychodynamic model of masculine poetry that Maxwell associates with Milton and Shelley, whereby poetic vision entails castration and submission to the female sublime. This last term derives from Sappho, whose conflation of bodily sensation with pleasure and pain Maxwell aligns with Longinus' and Burke's theories of the sublime. If Maxwell's study is a timely reminder of how complicated symbolic regimes of gender can be, her argument seems inconsistent. Maxwell repeatedly declares interest in the male lyric poet, but when she examines The Princess she ignores the interpolated lyrics to focus on the narrative, especially the Prince's weird seizures (his equivalent to blindness) and Ida's compelling hold over him in the opening sections. Maxwell's engagement with sexual politics is likewis e uneven and sometimes surprising. Emphasizing what men had to suffer to become poets, Maxwell is careful to trace their associations with violation and disfigurement. Thus, she argues, the nightingale Philomel, to which several nineteenth-century male poets responded, was threatening because of its implied feminization. In contrast, she argues, women enjoyed a kind of unproblematic identification with the female nightingale. But she suspends the concomitant associations of Philomel for women, including rape and the ripping away of a tongue--hardly unthreatening scenarios either.
Margaret Reynolds more directly examines Tennyson's relation to Sappho in Fragments of an Elegy: Tennyson Reading Sappho (Tennyson Society). Noting that Arthur Henry Hallam adapted Sappho's fragment 31 for his lyric "To the Loved One," Reynolds cogently argues that Sapphic influence on Tennyson was strongest when his friendship with Hallam was most intense. Ultimately she posits Sappho as a third party between the two men, who mediated their own relationship (and desire for each other) while effecting Tennyson's maturation as a poet. Significantly, Reynolds observes, in Fragment 31 a third party is present, the man who looks upon the beloved woman who makes Sappho's heart tremble, skin catch fire, tongue stop, and body ooze. When Tennyson appropriates poetic agency, Sappho disappears, so that in his poems most indebted to Sappho, his desired and desiring women utter a mans name. In other respects Reynolds does not advance her argument beyond Linda Peterson s 1994 essay on Sappho's formative role in Tennyson's poetic identity, and sometimes her method seems self-indulgent. Asking what really happened between Hallam and Tennyson in the 183 Os, Reynolds opines, "Much more than we can know. And much less than we can imagine." But what does this mean?
Jack Kolb would presumably contest the suggestion of homoeroticism advanced by Margaret Reynolds. In "Hallam, Tennyson, Homosexuality, and the Critics" (PQ 79, no. 3 : 365-397) KoIb, the editor of Hallam's letters, charges that Alan S infield, Jeff Nunokawa, Chris Craft, Eve Sedgwick, and Richard Dellamora have played fast and loose with historical evidence regarding the two men's relationship. Kolb is surely right that no documentary evidence clinches a homosexual element in the loving friendship they shared. But it is one thing to argue, as Kolb does, that "Tennyson wrote about his relationship with Hallam with no consciousness of homosexual feelings" and another to continue, "because there were no homosexual feelings." The latter does not logically follow, given the possibility that underlying emotions and inclinations might contradict public behavior--a point common not only to Freudian psychology and Sartre's bad faith but also to the concept of denial in contemporary psychotherapy. More puzzling s till is Kolb's insistence that Jowett s allusion to Tennyson's momentary sympathy with Hellenism and the Times reviewer's scorn of amatory effeminacy in In Memoriam give no credence to homoerotic readings of the poem. Kolb seems anxious to establish an either/or position (Tennyson either did or absolutely did not experience homosexual desire). I would suggest that this stance diminishes rather than enriches study of the poem. Reader--response theory makes it entirely credible--and cogent--that some readers would stress passages supporting same-sex desire in In Memoriam, whereas readers with other interests, e.g., historical detail, might emphasize other meanings.
A final cluster of work on Tennyson in 2001 involves connections between Tennyson's poetry and twentieth-century literature. Julian Wolfreys contests T. S. Eliot's pronouncement that the faith of In Memoriam "'is a poor thing, but its doubt is a very intense experience."' As the title and subtitle of the collection in which Wolfreys's essay appears might suggest ("The Matter of Faith: Incarnation and Incorporation in Tennyson's In Memoriam," in Writing the Bodies of Christ: The Church from Carlyle to Derrida, ed. John Schad [Ashgate, pp. 59-74]), Wolfreys is concerned with the vexed issues of presence and absence central to Derridean thought and theology in general. "Incorporate," as Isobel Armstrong noted in 1993, can signify bringing something formerly outside into a material body (a concept not unakin to orthodox views of Christ's incarnation) or that which has no material body (e.g., spirit) and therefore can never be referenced in terms of the body. Wolfreys' illuminating point is that Tennyson, never ea sy in orthodoxy, most expresses faith in refusing the familiar sense of "incorporation." Tennyson's unstable references ("endless substitutions," Christ and Hallam among them) and the poem's evasion of church doctrine in its conclusion are Tennyson's testimony to a haunting presence beyond language that can never be drawn into it. In this sense, what might be termed doubt is faith. Wolfreys is particularly good on Section 38, in which Tennyson alludes to a "'doubtful gleam of solace."' Doubt here modifies rather than opposes illumination, just as the illumination modifies doubt, until the direction of reference is undecidable. Elsewhere doubt is linked not to ghosts, which retain a link to material bodies, but to spectrality ("a spectral doubt" [Section 41], "slender shade of doubt" [Section 48], "spectres of the mind" [Section 96])--a fit counterpart to the Christ whose very absence, insubstantiality, and desired presence haunt the speaker. Wolfreys' essay is perceptive, but in contrast to the accessibility of Leighton's prose in her equally subtle argument, Wolfreys prefers occluded syntax and diction.
In 2000 Kathy Alexis Psomiades approached "The Lady of Shalott" as a useful lens for tracing the concept of "doubleness" in twentieth-century criticism of Victorian poetry ("'The Lady of Shalott' and the Critical Fortunes of Victorian Poetry," The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry, pp. 25-45). This year two essays link the poem to twentieth-century criticism and to novels by women writers. In "'Say That I Had a Lovely Face': The Grimms' 'Rapunzel,' Tennyson's 'Lady of Shalott,' and Atwood's Lady Oracle" (TSWL 19, no. 2 (Fall 2000): 231-254), Shuli Barzilai notes Margaret Atwood's study of Victorian literature as a graduate student at Harvard and analyzes Atwood's subtle use of Tennyson's poem in Lady Oracle. If, like the Lady, the young protagonist Joan Foster is immured in a tower (of social convention and layers of fat), the adult Joan continues to immure herself by internalizing the Lady of Shalott as a figure of beauty whose doom is the lot of any woman who acts on her own desires. Joan achieves fre edom when she fakes rather than consummates her death by water, cuts off her Pre-Raphaelite red hair, and rewrites Tennyson "by changing the 'dead-pale' Lady of Shalott, 'robed in snowy white' (11. 157, 136), into a formidable 'redgold Lady,' an oracle / of blood."' Rather than assuming the passive inertness of a corpse with a "lovely face," Lady Oracle is an active agent who prompts very different questions from those who glimpse her: "'Who is the one standing in the prow / Who is the one voyaging / under the sky's arch"' (Barzulai, pp. 233-234). Barzulai might also have noted Atwood's appropriation here of the agency of "Ulysses" and his "arch of experience" on behalf of her female poet.
A. S. Byatt herself acknowledged the impact of "The Lady of Shalott" in 2000 ("Ice, Snow, Glass"), which adds credence to Kathleen Coyne Kelly's argument that the Tennyson poem is a subtext of Byatt's creation of Maud Bailey and Christabel LaMotte in Possession ("'No--I am out--I am out of my Tower and my Wits': The Lady of Shalott in A. S. Byatt's Possession," in On Arthurian Women: Essays in Memory of Maureen Fries [Scriptorium Press, pp. 283-294]). Kelly's most interesting point is that Byatt also knowingly draws upon twentieth-century criticism, whether F. R. Leavis' dismissal of Tennyson or scholars' recurring approach to the Lady as a trope for the dilemma of the male poet, both of which Byatt resists and reworks.
David-Everett Blythe argues in "Keats and Tennyson in Flags in the Dust" (ELN 37, no. 3 [March 2000]: 67-68) that a passage describing the baying of hounds in Faulkner's novel ("floated upon the chill air, died into echoes that repeated the sound again until its source was lost and the very earth itself might have found voice, mournful and sad and wild with all regret") echoes "Tears, Idle Tears." Blythe cites Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" as the origin of the dying echoes, but Faulkner is surely alluding to another lyric from The Princess, "The splendour falls from castle walls": "set the wild echoes flying, / Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying."
This last cluster of work suggests that it may be time for a thoroughgoing study of Tennyson's influence on the twentieth century. Why has his work been so resonant for women writers, from Byatt and Atwood to Lucy Maud Montgomery (in Anne of Green Gables) and Elizabeth Bishop ("The Gentleman of Shalott")? Tennyson clearly influenced T. S. Eliot, and Blythe's identification of the Faulkner allusion suggests that Tennyson's poetry may pervade twentieth-century literature more widely than might have been supposed. Tennyson's work has also had an impact on film, not only in successive versions of Enoch Arden (addressed by John Crompton in "'His wife his wife no more': The Sexual Politics of Enoch Arden," TRB 7.5: 239-45) but also in John Boorman's 1981 Excalibur. Under what circumstances does his poetry become a legible source in twentieth-century works, and what kind of cultural coding is attributed to his poetry? Answers to these and related questions would bring Tennyson's (active) afterlife into focus.
LINDA K. HUGHES is Professor of English at Texas Christian University. She is the author of The Manyfaced Glass: Tennyson's Dramatic Monologues (1987) and co-author, with Michael Lund, of The Victorian Serial (1991).
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|Author:||Hughes, Linda K.|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2002|
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