Printer Friendly

The becoming character of Tennyson's Simeon stylites.

Tennyson's St. Simeon Stylites has, in common parlance, gotten a bad rap. The often comical and always exaggerated figure standing atop a pillar proclaiming his own sainthood has, at least by recent scholars, been deemed a failure. Larry Brunner uses that word explicitly to describe Simeon's asceticism, arguing that even if the poem is successful as an example of the dramatic monologue, its subject is a "failure as a positive example and pattern." (1) The idea that Simeon is a failure stems, at least in part, from the sense that for one's life to be a success, one must be true to some inner sense of self. Thus in Herbert Tucker's reading of the poem, the Romantic self wages an ineffective battle to achieve a self-knowledge undistorted by context. (2) Claire Berardini similarly views the monologue as a contest between Simeon and the crowds below in which Simeon ultimately is forced to acknowledge the necessity of the social; the poem thus stands as a denial of "the possibility of the autonomous self." (3) More recently, Seamus Perry has been slightly more generous to the would-be saint, arguing that, as in many of Tennyson's poems, we see in "St. Simeon Stylites" a vacillation between progress and stasis that yields not a definite failure but an unknown result. For Perry, Simeon demonstrates an obsessive need for reassurance of his saintliness, and "the possibility of reassurance is not exactly gratified (we are not certain of his sanctification), and not quite ungratified either (we do not know for sure he is a self-deluding fraud), but left hanging." (4)

To interpret "St. Simeon Stylites" as a record of the failure of the self to achieve wholeness, however, is to acknowledge only one of the ways in which the poem, as James W. Hood puts it, "ride[s] the ordinary currents of [Tennyson's] culture." (5) The idea that the self remains in fragments, unable to achieve any real sense of autonomy certainly resonates with our understanding of how many Victorians responded to the rapid social change of the first decades of the nineteenth century. Indeed, it is this very sense of fragmentation that gives the poem its satirical bite. Simeon's repeated, contradictory claims about himself-that he is the worst of sinners who deserves to be a saint, that he has suffered greatly even though he seems to enjoy that suffering-allow the poem to work as a critique of certain trends in Victorian religious culture: as a caustic attack on Roman Catholicism in the years immediately following the 1829 Emancipation Act or as a caricature of the extreme Evangelicalism of Charles Simeon and his followers the Simeonites (6) (or as both).

For all of its satirical qualities, however, "St. Simeon Stylites" participates as well in a much more serious discussion of how the past can and should shape the present. Even the poem's title--"St. Simeon Stylites"--reminds us that the fragmented self speaking the poem does, in fact, succeed in becoming a canonized saint; success for Simeon Stylites, in other words, comes not from within but from without, when those who see and hear him formally make him a part of their collective memory through the act of canonization. Implicitly asking how the comic, ridiculous figure standing for years at a time atop a pillar actually manages to inscribe himself as a saint in the collective memory, Tennyson's poem engages directly with the same sorts of questions about history and memory that saturate hagiographies and other discussions of sainthood in the 1830s and 1840s. Tennyson's contemporaries (largely but not exclusively the participants in the Oxford Movement) were deeply interested in the power that the saints held for the present and in the process by which those saints entered the collective memory; these discussions offer a useful framework for understanding "St. Simeon Stylites" as a text that suggests ways in which the past can be put to use in the present. Read in the light both of the rhetoric of sainthood as it circulated in the 1830s and 1840s and of contemporary discussions of collective memory, "St. Simeon Stylites" can be seen as a poem in which Simeon's quest for a subjective identity is secondary to his desire to inscribe himself as a saint in the collective memory. As such, the poem stands as one of the earliest instances in which Tennyson asks what would be the fundamental question of much of his most important verse: how does the individual, situated in time, become transformed into a collectively remembered exemplar?

Considering the poem in its cultural context reveals the extent to which Victorians in the 1840s were concerned with the process of how the saints became a part of the collective memory. In the same year that Tennyson published "St. Simeon Stylites" as part of the 1842 Poems, three prominent Victorians began work on their own lives of the saints: Charles Kingsley, Anna Brownell Jameson, and John Henry Newman. Charles Kingsley began his verse drama A Saint's Tragedy (1848) in 1842; in it, he presents St. Elizabeth of Hungary as a good Protestant whose life the Roman Catholic Church would appropriate as part of its own tradition. (7) In the same year that Kingsley began thinking about that play, Anna Brownell Jameson began work on Sacred and Legendary Art (1848), in which she attempted to strip the saints of their religious significance, focusing instead on the artistic merits of the legends represented in the visual arts. (8) At issue for Kingsley and Jameson was the question of how the saints should be remembered by the English in the 1840s. This question proved even more central to John Henry Newman's ongoing project The Lives of the English Saints. Newman conceived of the project in 1842, and it came to fruition in 1844. Over and over in the series, Newman and his colleagues pursue the question of how Christians can know with any degree of certainty the truth about the lives and miracles of the saints. The clearest answer to that question in the context of the Lives of the English Saints may be given by Frederick William Faber, who, writing the life of St. Wilfrid, offers this justification of his narrative: "We will give the story in St. Bede's own words, again putting it forward as, whether fact or not, something undoubtedly historical because it was believed, and so historically testifying to the belief the men of Wilfrid's diocese had about such matters." (9) Faber boldly declares fact to be irrelevant to the history that he writes. It simply does not matter to him whether the events in St. Wilfrid's life occurred in any factual sense; all that matters is the history that Christians shaped from their memories of the saint's life. Newman would echo this same idea both in his role as editor and in his own contributions to the series. (10) The common theme through each of these different manifestations of the saint's life as a genre is that, once entered into the public memory, the individuality of the saint ceases to be relevant, and his or her life becomes available for use by the community.

Tennyson certainly had no inkling of any of these projects when he began to compose "St. Simeon Stylites" in 1833, shortly after Arthur Hallam's death. Nevertheless, given the prevalence of the saint as an object of study in the years between the writing and the publication of "St. Simeon Stylites," it is fair to say that Tennyson's interest in the saint represents one of the ways that his poetry engages with the religious trends of his time. Although Tennyson's poetry evinces little interest in ecclesiastical history, he, like Newman, Jameson, and Kingsley, demonstrates a nearly compulsive need to understand the process by which facts attain a practical use value in the public eye. (11) The relation between historical fact and public memory drives much of Tennyson's best poetry--In Memoriam, the Arthurian poems, and even much of his verse as Laureate. In the saint, Tennyson, like his contemporaries, found a form through which he could articulate his abiding concerns about the relation between the past and the present; sainthood becomes an idiom through which Tennyson explores the process by which the individual life becomes something quite different when registered in the public memory.

Tennyson's dramatic monologue finds its origins primarily in two sources--William Hone's Every Day Book and Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, though of these two, Hone's eclectic volume of tales and saints' days seems to be the chief. (12) Gibbon's account attempts a historical retelling of the life and history of the hermit monks who spent their lives perched atop pillars or styluses. Hone, in contrast, embraces the legendary quality of St. Simeon Stylites. He provides a synopsis of Alban Butler's telling of Simeon's life, a detailed account of what is presented as factual information about the saint's life: the height of his different styluses, the duration of the time he spent upon them, and his self-inflicted penances. Hone includes as well, though, details taken from the Golden Legend, a medieval source that records Simeon's miracles, not the least of which was the healing of a dragon, the eye of which had been pierced through by a stake. In Tennyson's poem, these sorts of miracles are largely downplayed. Instead, in a striking dramatic monologue, Tennyson allows Simeon Stylites to reflect upon his own life. In the moments before he dies, the would-be saint expresses uncertainty as to whether he merits sainthood, recounts his self-inflicted sufferings, and pleads with God to allow him to serve as an example to those who have watched him.

At the metaphoric (and nearly at the literal) center of the poem, Simeon Stylites poses a critical question: "What am I?" (1. 124). Simeon does not ask "Who am I," a question that hints at a desire to attain knowledge of a self held together by consistency through time. Instead, by asking "What," Simeon demands an unequivocal response that fixes his identity as something permanent and unchanging. (13) His desire is not to know the answer to the subjective question regarding his interior state; it is, instead, to know how his identity will be fixed as a fully knowable quantity available for use by any and all. As he voices this question, Simeon demonstrates a startling awareness of what Paul Ricoeur has called the "fragility of identity." (14) At the root of this fragility, Ricoeur identifies the self's relation to time. Faced with the question "Who am I?" we respond in terms of "what": "this is what we are, we, ourselves." Simeon's question, then, invites not potential but fixity; he knows intuitively that, as Ricoeur puts it, "the temptation of identity ... [lies] in the slippage, the drift, from the flexibility, proper to self-constancy as manifested in the promise [of becoming], to the inflexible rigidity of a character " (p. 81; Ricoeur's emphasis). This process of becoming an inflexible character speaks to the trade-off that occurs in any act of canonization. If canonization is, as Tricia Lootens puts it, "always a process of creation ... [and] also inevitably a process of loss," (15) the canonized figure gives up the self, with both its inconsistencies and its potential in exchange for the state of having become. By asking the question "What am I?" in hopes of being created a saint, Simeon gives up the "who" with its ability to change through time in favor of being fixed in the public eye as a saint. Moreover, by phrasing the question as he does, he invites responses at several different levels that will aid him in his goal of becoming a character in Ricoeur's sense of the word.

Over the course of the dramatic monologue, Simeon suggests three different sources for answers to the question of what he is. (16) He claims repeatedly that an objective knowledge of the self is possible; the catch, of course, is that only God himself proves capable of grasping that signification. (17) Four times in this relatively short poem, Tennyson's Simeon cries out that God knows him for what he is. The people on the ground below clamor about Simeon's miracles; the man responds that even he himself does not know if miracles have occurred--"Thou, O God, / Knowest alone whether this was or no" (11. 81-82). A bit later in the poem, just before Simeon's ponderous question "What am I?," he announces "O Lord, thou knowest what I am" (1. 119). Absolute meaning, a definite fixing of identity as an entirely coherent, objective thing, resides with God alone. Such knowledge proves useless in any practical sense, however, because like the God of "Porphyria's Lover," Simeon's God remains silent. The would-be saint's cry early in the poem, "O take the meaning, Lord" (1. 21), sends echoes through the hollowness of himself as a sign; all sense of a fixed meaning that attaches to the self-flagellation that he has undergone for upwards of thirty years exists in a space to which Simeon simply cannot refer.

Transcendent knowledge proves impractical for any pragmatic purpose because that knowledge lies just out of reach; although the poem vigorously asserts that such knowledge exists, it proves fruitless in answering the question "What am I?" In the face of this failure of transcendent knowledge, Simeon turns to two other ways of answering his crucial question: subjective knowledge and collective knowledge. If we read the poem literally, subjective knowledge of what he himself is eludes Simeon. Every attempt to forge from the events of his life a "what"--a fixed identity--ends as pieces of the self slip away from his grasp. Tennyson initially presents this failure in terms of oppositions, with Simeon claiming to be simultaneously the worst of sinners and a potential saint:
   Although I be the basest of mankind,
   From scalp to sole one slough and crust of sin,
   Unfit for earth, unfit for heaven, scarce meet
   For troops of devils, mad with blasphemy,
   I will not cease to grasp the hope I hold
   Of saintdom. (ll. 1-6)

Tennyson's Simeon juxtaposes two competing claims in order to position the self as an entity pulled between vastly different potentials; he is the basest of mankind drawn nevertheless to the hope of sainthood. Rather than being pulled in one direction or the other, however, Simeon claims that his self has been pulled to pieces, with the result that the self fractures and fragments into an incoherent mass of parts. He perceives himself as a collection of body parts upon which a series of events have played out. Recounting his experience standing atop the pillar, Simeon inventories the effect that long years have had upon the components of his corpus: his teeth, his beard, his thighs, his right leg, and his stiff spine. (18) Anticipating his death, he imagines the final fragmentation of the body and the dissipation of the self as his "limbs drop piecemeal from the stone" (1.43) upon which he stands.

Something in this reading of the poem, however, rings false. For all of his equivocation and claims to uncertainty, Simeon demonstrates an absolute confidence that his sacrifice has been as perfect as any human could hope. Later in the poem, having expressed all of his uncertainties in detail, Simeon asks a series of rhetorical questions that suggest his belief that no further sacrifice could be possible: "Who may be made a saint, if I fail here?" (1. 47). On the surface, then, the speaker's words alternate between uncertainty and confidence, and a doubleness emerges in the poem in which even claims that at the semantic level assert uncertainty work rhetorically to reinforce the idea that Simeon merits canonization. Simeon's claims about the physical body, for instance, serve double duty. On the one hand, he presents the disintegration of the physical body as evidence of his own materiality and sinfulness. On the other hand, even--and perhaps especially--in his claims that his limbs will "fall piecemeal from the stone" upon which he stands, Simeon imagines his own canonization when the remnants of the physical body will become the relics, the bones, and the dust that signify his sainthood (11. 191-193). This performativity points toward a truth that underlies not only Tennyson's presentation of the saint but also his later presentations of Arthur Hallam, of the Duke of Wellington, and of King Arthur-that pragmatically speaking, the individual's ability or inability to achieve self-knowledge, like God's transcendent knowledge of that individual's life, is irrelevant. Through his performance of an incoherent, fragmented self, Simeon acknowledges and exploits the fact that only the onlookers who surround his column can ever really remove the individual from time so that identity can be fixed permanently; only if his memory is inscribed in the public memory will Simeon become the character that he hopes to be. (19)

The idea that the meaning of Simeon's life must be imposed from without pushes the question of identity towards the fixity of Ricoeur's "what." The final answer to Simeon's question--"What am I?"-can be answered satisfactorily only in the speaker's absence when death has negated the possibility of any further becoming. By choosing as the subject of this dramatic monologue a saint in the process of becoming, Tennyson touches on the deepest questions of history and narrative. Search as he might for some meaningful narrative to his life, Simeon ultimately is reduced to an individual who can only plead with the crowds around him to fix his memory through the framework of sainthood. He dramatizes what other hagiographers recognized as their own dilemma in recording the history of a saint, and in this sense, the parallels between Tennyson's poem and Newman's ongoing project of cataloging the lives of the English saints extends beyond mere timing. Both Tennyson and the Oxford hagiographers recognize that the meaning of the lives in question has far more to do with the narrative imposed on a set of facts than it does with the facts themselves. Simeon knows that his life will be produced by his auditors; they must determine what to do with a body and a self waiting to be filled with content. The charge that Simeon gives to those standing around his pillar thus anticipates the task that Newman and his contemporaries undertook when they attempted to record not history but the beliefs about the past written deep in the public memory. Richard W. Church, later Dean of St. Paul's and author of The History of the Oxford Movement, expresses this intent in his "Life of St. Wulstan":
   The following account of [St. Wulstan] pretends not to be a critical
   history; it aims merely at giving the idea of St. Wulstan which was
   impressed on the minds of those who had seen him and lived with him.
   They certainly believed that they saw in him the tokens of
   saintliness ... and so they portrayed him; an image which moved them
   to greater self-control and self-devotion. (20)

Like Church's St. Wulstan, Simeon's lasting identity--the "what" that he so desperately wants to pin down--will have little to do with history, if by history we mean an objective understanding of past events. Nor will it have anything to do with Simeon's own knowledge of himself. Instead, what will ultimately determine the answer to the question of whether or not Simeon becomes a saint will be the impression left on the minds of those who encircle the stylus from which he speaks. Considered in the light of contemporaneous hagiography, we can understand Simeon's question as that of a man who realizes that although his life can be understood as history, as a series of traces that can be known by examining the historical record, the narrative imposed on those events will far exceed the events themselves.

Throughout the text Simeon recognizes the power of the words of others to produce his own memory. The claims of some that he cannot endure enough suffering to merit sainthood send him into fits of doubt. He focuses repeatedly on the words of those who label him a saint: "they say then that I worked miracles" (1. 79), "The silly people take me for a saint" (1. 125), "They say that they are healed" (l. 144), "They shout, 'Behold a saint!'" (l. 151). Here Tennyson offers to us the voice of one who recognizes that his canonization depends on the narratives imposed upon his own actions by others. Reflecting on his impending death, Simeon speaks words that reflect his awareness of the contingency of sainthood:
       time is at the doors
   When you may worship me without reproach;
   For I will leave my relics in your land,
   And you may carve a shrine about my dust,
   And burn a fragrant lamp before my bones,
   When I am gathered to the glorious saints. (11. 189-194)

His choice of verbs here reveals his anxiety at dying without having yet fixed the identity that he wishes. Simeon voices two of the verbs ("I will leave" and "I am gathered") as declaratory statements. He takes as given that the physical body will remain behind as a testimony to his life, echoing his earlier claim that his limbs will fall piecemeal from the pillar. Similarly, he expresses no doubt that he will be gathered into the company of the saints. The other less certain verbs reflect his sense that the people who listen to him could have an ambiguous response to his life. The phrases "you may worship" and "you may carve a shrine" could be construed as an anticipation of canonization, a recognition that worship of the living constitutes heresy while veneration of the dead is an acceptable response: "After I am dead, it will be permissible for you to worship me, to carve a shrine about my dust." The iambic lines lend support to this interpretation by emphasizing the "you"--Simeon's audience. This reading, however, obscures another potential interpretation of the lines in which the repeated word "may" functions grammatically as a conditional verb that qualifies the entire prophecy. Certainly Simeon hopes that the people will worship and enshrine him--but they may not. Facing his imminent death, Simeon thus wrangles with the transactional nature of a fixed identity, knowing that only a public memory of his life can inscribe him as a saint.

For a meditation on this transition in which a conscious self embedded in time becomes a fixed memory in the public mind, Tennyson could not have picked a more apt subject than Simeon Stylites. The movement from living individual to canonized saint requires, as Tennyson's contemporaries recognized, that the individual be fixed (or as Church puts it "impressed") in the collective memory. No matter how loudly Simeon declares his own saint-like qualities, only the assent of others to a common, collectively held memory of what Simeon was will suffice (Berardini, p. 370). Moreover, in a poem that concerns itself with the relation between the lived experience of the individual and the public memory of that individual, the historical distance between the life of Simeon and the lives of Tennyson's reader is crucial. As readers, we know that the speaking Simeon will, in fact, be proclaimed one of the "calendared saints," whose life and memory will be celebrated in a perpetual, revolving cycle. (21) That the figure whose extreme actions seem like a parody

of martyrdom and saintliness did, indeed, become St. Simeon Stylites lends credence to the idea that John Henry Newman would later express in his "A Legend of St. Gundleus"--that in the absence of the transcendent knowledge that Simeon claims belongs to God alone, subjective knowledge becomes irrelevant, and it is by "the sympathy of many minds, and the concert of many voices, and the lapse of many years, [that] a certain whole figure is developed with words and actions, a history and a character" ("The Life of St. Gundleus," pp. 8-9). That we as readers may perceive the living, speaking Simeon as a charlatan proves irrelevant in a certain sense. The knowledge that he has been proclaimed "St. Simeon" by a cultus highlights the difference between the self as a living, breathing entity and that same self reshaped and recast by those looking back.

The payoff for Tennyson occurs in the final lines of the poem. Having given voice to his fragmented self and having insisted on God's transcendent knowledge of that self, Simeon speaks these final words:
        But thou, O Lord,
   Aid all this foolish people; let them take
   Example, pattern: lead them to thy light. (1l. 218-220)

From his perch atop his stylus, Simeon presents himself to the public as an exemplar, as one whose life can be reproduced in the collective memory as a moral guide. The purpose of the saint's life as a genre is above all didactic in nature. By offering himself as a pattern, Simeon registers himself in public discourse. He thus makes himself available to be produced and reproduced in response not only to the current needs of his audience but to the desires of subsequent generations, to those like Hone, Gibbon, and Tennyson, who will strip away Simeon's own self-imposed significance, filling the idea of Simeon Stylites instead with a memory that serves their own needs. Simeon's life becomes like that of other saints who, as Thomas Heffernan has argued, although distinctly individual in life become available after canonization as "part of the tradition and as a model for public imitatio." (22) In speaking these words, Simeon renders the self worthless in favor of the as yet unspoken, publicly produced character that will come into being when the public collectively remembers Simeon as a saint.

Although Tennyson's poem seems to reject the idea that Simeon might be an appropriate figure for imitation, the poem nevertheless recognizes the potential of the saint's life as a genre well suited to shaping the collective memory. Heffernan argues that the saints' lives "are designed to promote social cohesion. If the normative values are not present or [are] challenged by such a text, it is unlikely that the text will receive community approbation" (p. 18). Simeon's life, as Tennyson presents it, can hardly be read as an attempt to "promote social cohesion" by presenting Simeon as a positive example of the values that a community of readers should espouse. Indeed, the only way in which the poem reinscribes deeply held social values is through its satire, which presents Simeon Stylites as a negative example whose actions are to be scorned. The satire of the poem, however, does not take away from the fact of Simeon's success at understanding and using the conventions by which individual lives are rewritten in the collective memory. In St. Simeon, Tennyson finds a character who successfully registers himself in the public memory yet whose life, as the satire of the poem suggests, hardly merits remembering, and the poem thus becomes an exposition of collective memory gone awry as Tennyson acknowledges the power of the saint's life as a vehicle for the transmission of cultural values even as he lampoons the values that Simeon's life demonstrates. Simeon's life thus bifurcates into form and content-the form of the saint's life that transmits memory and the content that is transmitted. In this respect, Tennyson may have taken his cue from Arthur Hallam, who had argued that the saints represented a beautiful mythology that had been invested with the inappropriate content of Roman Catholicism. (23) In "St. Simeon Stylites," form and content are, as in Hallam's analysis of the saints, distinctly separated, allowing the poem to be simultaneously a serious poem about the possibility of inscribing oneself in the public memory and a satirical attack on both Roman Catholicism and Evangelicalism.

This split between form and content holds significant implications for much of Tennyson's later poetry. Seen on its own and read only as satire, "St. Simeon Stylites" seems to be a relatively minor poem about content, about the excesses of Simeon's life. As a poem about form, however, "St. Simeon Stylites" offers to Tennyson the potential of the saint's life as a rhetorical device through which collective memory can be transmitted. The challenge that Tennyson faced was to find a way to harness the power of the form and to invest it with positive content. The satire of "St. Simeon Stylites" operates almost exclusively in a negative mode, showing how the past has been mishandled in the collective memory. This satiric mode, moreover, holds little potential for Tennyson's ongoing project of using his poetry to lead his readers to ideals like truth, freedom, and wisdom, a project described as early as 1830 in "The Poet" and enacted later in poems like In Memoriam and Idylls of the King. Tennyson thus faced something of a dilemma: the challenge of yoking together the form of the saint's life with the very earnest content characteristic of his later poetry. His answer to this problem plays out along lines that sociologist Maurice Halbwachs describes. Halbwachs has argued that an essential part of changing religious values in any society involves the retention of old forms invested with new content; as religion changes, the society becomes "intent on incorporating into the new religion elements of old cults that are assimilable into a new framework." (24) For Tennyson, the saint's life offers just this type of form. For that form to have any prescriptive value, Tennyson must strip it of its specifically religious content and use it within a more secular framework. Largely uninterested in the sanctity and piety that the saints' lives traditionally inspired, Tennyson nevertheless found a tremendous value in the way that the genre presents communal values through the rewriting of individual lives that have already been given public approval, for at the most basic level, "St. Simeon Stylites," as an instance of the saint's life, poses one of the consuming questions of Tennyson's poetic career: how does the life of the individual attain meaning in a public setting?

Tennyson would pose this question to himself over and over again not only in the months following Hallam's death but in the years of the composition of In Memoriam, in the Arthurian idylls, and in the verses he composed as Laureate. In each set of poems, Tennyson casts himself as the author who reinscribes the individual consciousness that changes through time as a fixed pattern or example whose life, already endorsed by public approval, promotes social cohesion and the preservation of communal values. In In Memoriam, this authorial work involved a transformation of Arthur Hallam from friend and companion into a prototype of the modern Englishman, the memory of whom, whether factual or not, counters the social upheaval of the 1830s and 1840s. (25) In the Arthurian poems, Tennyson welcomes this role even more completely, acknowledging that his Arthur has been created as a memory out of scant fragments (Ricks, 3: 260). Finally, in the Laureate poems, Tennyson recasts individuals like Arthur Wellesley, General Gordon, and Stratford Canning not simply as great men but as parts of the public memory. Wellington becomes a pattern of greatness, buried at the very heart of London; he is the example who will inform "all lands and ... all human story [that] / The path of duty be the way to glory" ("Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington, 11. 223-224). Gordon becomes not only a general but a man who "livest in all hearts" ("Epitaph on General Gordon," 1.3), while Canning becomes nothing less than the "voice of England" ("Epitaph on Lord Stratford de Redcliffe," 1. 4).

One of the most striking instances in which Tennyson very consciously creates this sort of memory occurs in the dedication to Idylls of the King that Tennyson composed in 1862. In the first lines of this introductory poem, Tennyson dedicates the subsequent volume to "His Memory." Immediately after performing this dedication, he slips back to the same question that dominated so much of his career: How can the individual life of the past be made relevant to the public life of the present? As he commingles the memories of Albert and Arthur, Tennyson in one deft stroke of poetic brilliance effects the transformation through which the individual consciousness that exists no longer becomes a public memory that inhabits the consciousness of the nation. He casts the Prince's death in astronomical terms, an eclipse, the shadow of which extends across the entirety of the British Empire. In the next two lines, Tennyson's stark language illustrates the emotional eclipse: "we have lost him: he is gone: / We know him now" (11.14-15). Loss and absence in this metaphor represent only a temporary state, just as the earth's shadow, cast on the moon, dissipates in time. Reemerging on the other side is the full brilliance of Albert.

Couched in this metaphor--and indeed, created by it--is the poet's sleight of hand, for in the brief time of shadow, the substantive, individual, conscious Albert, full of the potential represented by "who" is replaced in the public mind by the poet's remembered version. The poet's words set a pattern and an example. Just as Albert finds in the Arthurian legends that Tennyson has created "some image of himself," so too will England find an image of itself in the memory of Albert that the poet creates, a pattern of modesty and statesmanship that will be available to future generations both through the public memory that Tennyson creates and in the most literal way through the passing of Albert's genetic material from son to son. Following his long list of the qualities that he hopes the English will find in Albert, Tennyson concludes thus:
   Dear to thy land and ours, a Prince indeed,
   Beyond all titles, and a household name,
   Hereafter, through all times, Albert the Good. (Il. 40-42)

Taken literally, Tennyson's words claim that the memory of Albert that will permeate the English mind through all times has been created by the Dedication itself. It is from the moment that he inscribes these words that Albert's memory will be associated with Arthur's and thus will become a public memory that, as Simeon Stylites recognized, offers both pattern and example.

Simeon's vital question--"What am I?"--becomes in Tennyson's hands something quite different: "What is this self, situated in time, and how can it become a character--a fixed, unchanging identity--suitable for public use?" He would spend much of his poetic career attempting to answer this question, and it is in his answer that we find the power of Tennyson's moral vision. The self--the "I" that we know in this physical world-becomes, when made absent by time or by death, the material out of which the poet creates the public memories that give shape to the nation that he serves. As unbecoming as we may find him, Simeon Stylites is, in the most literal sense of the words, a becoming character, a self just at the point of being fixed as a saint by public memory. In this soon-to-be saint, Tennyson finds a model that would drive much of his most important verse over the next decades. Like Simeon Stylites, Arthur, Albert, Arthur Hallam and others become characters in Tennyson's hands. By presenting to a reading public fully realized characters whose identities have been fixed by the poet's own words, Tennyson enacts the ambitious project announced by Simeon in the first drafts of the poem: "Let them take / Pattern from me." (26)


(1) Larry Brunner, "'Let Them Take Example': Failed Asceticism in Tennyson's 'St. Simeon Stylites,'" Christianity and Literature 35 (1986): 30.

(2) Herbert F. Tucker, Jr., "From Monomania to Monologue: 'St. Simeon Stylites' and the Rise of the Victorian Dramatic Monologue," VP 22 (1984): 121-137.

(3) Claire Berardini, "The Tennysonian Paradox: Privacy and Sociality in 'Ulysses' and 'St. Simeon Stylites,'" VP 31 (1993): 380.

(4) Seamus Perry, Alfred Tennyson (Tavistock, Devon: Northcote House, 2006), p. 85.

(5) James W. Hood, Divining Desire: Tennyson and the Poetics of Transcendence (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), p. 7. See also Roger S. Platizky, who, like Hood, sees Simeon as simultaneously a caricature and "a Victorian in disguise in his anxieties about faith" ("'The Watcher on the Column': Religious Enthusiasm and Madness in Tennyson's 'St. Simeon Stylites,'" VP 25 [1987]: 181).

(6) For more on the poem as a satire of Charles Simeon and his followers, see Jerome Hamilton Buckley, Tennyson: The Growth of a Poet (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1967), pp. 26-28.

(7) Charles Kingsley, Poems, vol. 1, The Life and Works of Charles Kingsley, ed. Fanny Kingsley (London: MacMillan, 1902), p. 8.

(8) Anna Brownell Jameson, Sacred and Legendary Art, 3rd ed. (London, 1859), p. vii.

(9) Frederick William Faber, "The Life of St. Wilfrid," in vol. 1, Newman's Lives of the English Saints (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1901), p. 417; Faber's emphasis.

(10) In his preface to "The Life of St. Walburga," Newman argues that Christians must accept the saint's miracles as fact in the absence of contradictory evidence. In his own "The Life of St. Gundleus," Newman expresses even more strongly the idea that it is the popular conception of the saint rather than the actual facts of the saint's life that matters. See Newman, "Advertisement," "The Life of St. Walburga," in vol. 2, Newman's Lives of the English Saints (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1901) and Newman, "The Life of St. Gundleus," in vol. 3, Newman's Lives of the English Saints (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1901), pp. 5-13.

(11) Platizky notes that traits of "St. Simeon Stylites" "can be found in most Victorian spiritual autobiographies" (p. 182). This article seeks to trace some of those similarities in a way that is quite different from Platizky's argument that Simeon's religious ecstasy is, at heart, a psychological phenomenon.

(12) The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks, 3 vols. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987), 1:594. All quotations will be from this edition. William E. Fredeman identifies two other possible sources: the Acta Sanctorum and Cooper's Truth ("'A Sign Betwixt the Meadow and the Cloud': The Ironic Apotheosis of Tennyson's St. Simeon Stylites," University of Toronto Quarterly 38, no. 1 [1968]: 69).

(13) See Tucker and Berardini for further discussion of this oddly phrased question.

(14) Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 81.

(15) Tricia Lootens, Lost Saints: Silence, Gender, and Victorian Literary Canonization (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1996), p. 9. Lootens refers here not only to literary canonization, the subject of her book, but also to religious canonization.

(16) Brunner identifies the same tripartite structure that I find in the poem. Our arguments, however, diverge from that point. Brunner reads the crowds, God, and the self as points against which Simeon measures an internal sense of self-understanding; I, on the other hand, am concerned primarily with the ways in which others know the self.

(17) James Eli Adams, Dandies and Desert Saints: Styles of Victorian Masculinities (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1995), p. 42.

(18) The effect of this carving-up of the body into its component parts would have been even more pronounced had Tennyson left intact an earlier version of the first lines of the poem. In the 1842 version, Simeon speaks of being "From scalp to sole one slough and crust of sin / Unfit for earth, unfit for heaven" (Il. 2-3). In an earlier draft, these lines read as follows: "Sloughed to the throat in crime--from scalp to sole / Blood, bone, breath, sinew, pulse and motion, sin" (qtd. in Ricks, 1:595).

(19) For further explorations of Simeon's relationship to the crowds surrounding his pillar, I refer readers to Tucker (pp. 127-129) and to Berardini (pp. 364-367) each of whom presents the crowd as an affront to Simeon's sense of self.

(20) Richard W. Church, "The Life of St. Wulstan," in vol. 5, Newman's Lives of the English Saints (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1901), pp. 3-4. Similar claims appear throughout the multi-volume series.

(21) See, for instance, Eviatar Zerubavel, Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003), pp. 46-48. Zerubavel argues that the calendar, in effect, ensures that we collectively remember our past on a regular basis.

(22) Thomas J. Heffernan, Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographers in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), p. 20.

(23) Arthur Henry Hallam, "The Influence of Italian upon English Literature," in The Writings of Arthur Hallam, ed. Thomas Hubbard Vail Motter (New York: Modern Language Association, 1943), p. 219.

(24) Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, trans. Lewis A. Coser (Chicago: Chicago Univ. Press, 1992), p. 86.

(25) For a more thorough treatment of the transformation of Arthur Hallam, see Devun Fisher, "'Spurring an Imitative Will': The Canonization of Arthur Hallam," Christianity and Literature 55 (2006): 221-244. Fisher argues that the language of sainthood provides an idiom through which Tennyson effects this transformation of his friend.

(26) Qtd. in Ricks, 1:604. Tennyson amended these lines to read "let them take / example, pattern" in the later drafts of the poem.
COPYRIGHT 2010 West Virginia University Press, University of West Virginia
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Fisher, Devon
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2010
Previous Article:What is haunting Tennyson's Maud (1855)?
Next Article:Laying claim: George Saintsbury's assessment of Matthew Arnold.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters