The breathing space of ballad: Tennyson's stillborn poetics.
My dear Robert, I am quite sure you will feel with me. My poor little boy got strangled in being born.... I have suffered more than ever I thought I could have done for a child still born.... [H]e was the grandest-looking child I have ever seen. Pardon my saying this. I do hOt speak only as a father but as an Artist.... [H]e looked ... majestic in his mysterious silence. (2)
Those accustomed to the poet's guarded epistolary style may be surprised to read such a direct and open expression of grief: "I have suffered more that ever I thought I could have done." Tennyson speaks as an artist and a father perhaps in order to justify the intensity of his attachment to the child, but his claim also suggests an inchoate aesthetic judgment, itself in the process of being born. According to this aesthetic, it is neither character nor action that determines the beauty of the stillborn child, but rather his arrested and unrealizable potential.
Tennyson's need to apologize--"Pardon my saying this"--is complicated. While he seems anxious on one hand to control the perception that parental bias may have skewed his evaluative judgment, there is also a sense in which his speech risks shattering the "mysterious silence" that uniquely marks the child's majesty. It is as though he feels compelled to speak. This compulsion at once results in and precipitates an intense identification. I say that identification is both cause and effect of a compulsion to speak in order to foreground the ways in which the poetic description of a stillborn infant tends necessarily toward prosopopoeia. Any attempt to grant potential or futurity to the stillborn child breaks down the binaries of living-dead, speaking-silent, and subject-object. And although the grammar suggests a linear relationship between the son's passivity (got strangled) and the father's active and ongoing suffering (he suffers because the son got strangled), the participles describing that relationship--"strangled" and "suffered"--are almost interchangeable. The more or less identical places they occupy in their respective sentences work toward destabilizing the causal, in this case filial, link. Additional mirrorings and reversals, implicit and explicit, occur throughout the passage. The roles of the father (pater, creator, "majestic," sovereign) are hived off and given to the son, whereas the conventional positions of the son (admiration, identification, supplication) are assumed instead by the father. Even the fixed roles of the percipient and the perceived are tenuous, liable to subtle shifts. Thus, the "grandest-looking child" seems capable of looking back at his father--he "looked...." This confusion--this fusing with--reproduces the mutability of object boundaries ascribed both to the state of infancy in nineteenth-century philosophy and natural science, and to the poetry of immediate experience in aesthetic theories from the period. (3) Finally, Tennyson's multiple connections to the child allow the reader an oblique identification--"I am quite sure you will feel with me." In other words, Tennyson's overflow of emotion interrupts and facilitates our empathetic identification with the child, with the result that his mediation (between stillborn child and reader) is at once transparent and thick.
Tennyson maintains these slippages and reversals as well as this emotional pitch (a strained and strangely objective subjectivity) in nearly all the extant letters, repeating several times how beautiful the child was, how he kissed his "poor, pale hands," and expressing his open embarrassment at being so moved: "I am foolish [i.e., childish] enough to be affected with all this" (Letters, 2:14). An unfinished fragment of poetry survives:
Little bosom not yet cold, Noble forehead made for thought, Little hands of mighty mould Clenched as in the fight which they had fought. He had done battle to be born, But some brute force of Nature had prevailed And the little warrior failed. Whate'er thou wert, whate'er thou art, Whose life was ended ere thy breath begun, Thou nine-months neighbour of my dear one's heart, And howsoe'er thou liest blind and mute Thou lookest bold and resolute, God bless thee dearest son. (4)
Here again expression and observation are mixed, creating a strange amalgam of coldness and passion. The poem, unlike any of the letters, employs the masculine rhetoric of war. (5) We can interpret this difference as either a defense against (public) feeling or as an example of the increasing segregation of genres by gender--the openness of the (feminine) epistolary form versus the steely defensiveness of (masculine) lyric. (6) Yet there is no anger in the poem, and any (imagined) violence has preceded the moment of composition. Rather, there is acceptance, together with praise of the dead child's ineffable and impotent beauty. It is significant for Tennyson, as he reports in one letter, that the child never took a breath ("not born--I cannot call it born for he never breathed" [2:15]).
Yet while the absence of breath--related etymologically to inspiration in the Latin and to fire and burning in the German--inscribes an internal limit to Tennyson's conceptualization of the stillbirth, the apostrophe that signals the turn in the lyric ("Whate'er thou wert") marks a desperate attempt at animation; that is, it attempts to transcend the limit of death. Theorists of poetic voice and address have suggested that apostrophe signals an effort to animate dead or missing objects in order that they (the objects) might, in response, "constitute an image of the self." (7) But Tennyson's apostrophe is triggered by a "fall[ure]" in the preceding line that seems at once the still-born child's, the poet's, and, in an overarching sense, everyone's. In other words, the signature emotions of the poem, tenderness and intimacy, are only possible if the possibility of animating breath is denied. (8) Were he to speak as a father and an artist about his living infant (think of S. T. Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight," for example) there would always be the problem of projection; the prophetic claims of the poem and the real life of the child can diverge at any point. But with a stillbirth, some qualities (you could almost say of life itself) remain preserved in the child, locked up forever within, protected.
Of course, it is common in the criticism to recognize an aspect of Tennyson's thought and poetics that identifies with and longs for the stillness of death. (9) Yet where other critics have pointed to Tennyson's "fixations" or his ambivalent submission to doom, (10) I am interested in connecting those drives and tendencies not only to his poetics but also to his deeply ambivalent feelings about having his poems circulate, that is, having them subject to constant critique.
Tennyson, like many poets, uses the language of parturition when discussing his poems. This extended metaphor, in which the poet appropriates the figure of the mother and in which discursive births replace fleshly ones, is at least as old as the Platonic dialogues. (11) Yet, as I will show, Tennyson uses the figure of the parturient poet uniquely in order to express his anxieties concerning the circulation of his poetry. In fact, there is a sense in which Tennyson's working through of his anxiety about poetic circulation uncannily parallels his working through of the stillbirth. Not only is the description of his "little warrior" or stillborn son recapitulated by Tennyson in the many letters that he composed that week; it also recurs as a motif in several of his poems.
In what follows, I treat stillbirth not as a historical fact per se but rather as a figure, the way Tennyson himself does. For it is not only that Tennyson aestheticizes stillbirth; he also articulates a desire for a poetry that does not circulate, that is, for a stillborn poetics. A stillborn poetics would allow for qualities and potentials to be locked up inside the object and preserved. Because the poem, like the child, has not breathed, it can circulate without the fear of being snuffed out or asphyxiated by criticism and misreading. In the first of the three sections that follow I introduce birth trauma as a way to theorize, in a general way, poetic and philosophical anxiety about separation, as well as Tennyson's professional circulation anxiety. In the next section I read several songs interpolated into The Princess, showing how these songs push against the blank-verse body of the poem, and pull it toward a kind of stasis that resembles the stillness of death. My final section shows how infancy and ballad meter come together in The Princess, and argues that ballad, as an archaic English form in the nineteenth century, is in a certain sense already always born dead.
The trope of the stillborn child and the anxiety that underwrites it are highly productive for Tennyson, especially insofar as they create a kind of breathing space in, by, and through which the poet can separate his self-evaluation from the critical reception of his poetry. Even the name of the poet is problematic for Tennyson, in that it denies to the poet and the poem any separate autonomy or difference. In contrast, a stillborn poem would be nameless; it would be alive and dead at once.
1. Birth Trauma
In 1833, Tennyson writes in a letter to James Spedding: "I was delivered of them [letters] so long after conception--my confinement was very painful--the nurses said it was like to have proved a still birth" (Letters, 1:86). If "confinement" or gestation--that is, the work of writing and revising--is painful for Tennyson, the act of actually letting his poems circulate, out there in the world and open for critique, seems even more so.
Tennyson's desire not to circulate, that is, to return to the innocence of stasis, is evident in his early poem "Supposed Confessions of a Second-Rate Mind": "Thrice happy state again to be / The trustful infant on the knee! / Who lets his rosy fingers play / About his mother's neck, and knows / Nothing beyond his mother's eye" (ll. 40-44). I follow the later Freud in interpreting such a wish not as regressive, governed by typical models of repression in response to apprehended danger, but as something more strictly formal: a wish for death. The death instinct as Freud conceives it in Beyond the Pleasure Principle responds to a universal material fact. As he describes in a later essay, the very fact of being born sets up a separation for us, which results in a consequent anxiety:
Anxiety is not newly created in repression; it is reproduced as an affective state in accordance with an already existing mnemic image.... In man and the higher animals it would seem that the act of birth, as the individual's first experience of anxiety, has given the affect of anxiety certain characteristic forms of expression. (my emphasis) (12)
This primal anxiety stems from a material and literal separation, one that precedes our "fall" into language, our entrance into the symbolic order. Birth trauma sets up an impossible desire to suture that separation, to return to the womb. The impossibility of this desire and the anxiety it creates have a positive valence in that they establish in us a kind of rhythm, a compulsion to repeat. Birth trauma represents a particularly productive anxiety for Tennyson insofar as it is born of a separation that cannot be repaired, either by aesthetic manufacture or by appeals to duty. If, as Freud argues, birth trauma partially motivates the death drive (the move toward stasis and non-circulation), then it may well serve as a non-repressive figure for Tennyson's "nervousness" as well as his anxiety concerning the circulation of his poems. The emblem of his stillborn son responds directly to the particular effects (fear of circulation) of a universal trauma (the double anxiety of being "social" and separate) by working to undo the paralysis surrounding these effects. It does so by providing an alternate image of something outside the self, something half in and half out of existence, a potential buffer between the poet and the world.
This doubled desire, to have his poems be in the world and out of it, is evinced in the following fragment, which Tennyson wrote twelve years before the letter quoted above. It was published in Times Literary Supplement in 1969, one hundred and thirty years after its composition (I quote only the first several lines). The poem attests to the potency of Tennyson's self-image as a solitary creator, his anxiety concerning the social realm more generally, and the affective force with which he felt the threat of usurpation, or intrusion:
Wherefore, in these dark ages of the Press (As that old Teuton christened them) should I, Sane mind and body, wish to print my rhyme, Fame's millionth heir-apparent? why desire (If like a man that hath his sense compact I write a clean fair hand) the public thumb Of our good pamphlet-pampered age to fret And sweat upon mine honest thoughts in type, The children of the silence? I today Lord of myself and of my ways, the next A popular property, nauseate, when my name Shot like a racketball from mouth to mouth And bandied in the barren lips of fools May yield my feeling organism pain Thrice keener than delight from duest praise? And if I be, as truecast Poets are, Half woman-natured, typing all mankind; So must I triple-man myself and case My humours as the caddisworm in stone, Or doing violence to my modest worth With one long-lasting hope chain-cable-strong Self-fixt, immoor in patience, till I die. (ll. 1-22)
Several dangers appear in the poem, to the poet as well as to his poems. First, there is the threatening technology of print itself, as though in the dark ages of the press, "type" yields more easily to fretting judgment, to the meanness of the "public thumb," than does, say, ink penned on paper. The poet's "clean fair hand" is at once the product and evidence of his "Sane mind and body." Typing and typology blend in homonymic repetition; to represent is to reproduce, to reduce "honest thoughts" to mere manufacture. (13)
Responding to the insane and unseemly nature of commodification, the psychic territory of "Wherefore, in these dark ages" is the blurred boundary between inside and outside, public and private. Thus, sensitivity to having one's "self"--name, poem, thought--swallowed results in images of nausea and being vomited, "Shot ... from mouth to mouth." (14) The sensitive skin of the poet ("Thrice as keen to insult as to praise") is akin in porosity and thinness to paper. There seems little difference between the poet and his productions at all. In fact, Tennyson projects onto his readership signs of authorial labor that suggest yet another permeable boundary, this time between poet and audience; the public "frets" and "sweats" over the poet's thoughts, his children. Sweating and fretting (the rhyme reinforces their relatedness) should be the actions of the poet-parent. It is almost as if the bearing forth, the sweating and fretting--the labor necessary to bring forth a child or a poem--is itself the problem, at least insofar as these bodily processes are cast as dangerous and then projected onto readers. Any transmission of the poem (spoken or pamphleted), as the etymology of "transmission" suggests, entails the crossing of a threshold or border.
Tennyson's attack on the "barren" fools (the critics) recalls his early rejection of the "Dark-browed sophist" in "The Poet's Mind" (l. 8), in which the "natural" topography of poetic thoughts is described as holy, deep, clear, and bright. The companion poem "The Poet" makes it clear that poetic production is a maternal act of labor: "Like to the mother flower in semblance, grew / A flower all gold" (ll. 23-24). From this perspective, barren critics must also be read as sterile or unproductive. In "Wherefore, in these dark ages," Tennyson not only seals himself off from "fools," he simultaneously seals himself off from, and identifies himself with, the opposite sex; true-cast poets are half-woman natured. (15) His immediate defense against this admission is telling. If he, as a poet, is half-woman, he will "triple-man" himself in response. Tennyson originally adopted a more distanced position vis-a-vis his feminine half: an earlier manuscript version (MS A as compared to the Trinity Notebook) is written from a third-person perspective: "should any man desire to print his rhyme" rather than "should I ... wish to print my rhyme." While we can only guess why Tennyson might have chosen to collapse the distance--from "he" to "me"--the effect is of a heightened, more immediate, and more hemmed-in danger and response. "Immoor" ("self-fixt, immoor[ed] in patience, till I die"), a neologism with no apparent precedent, stands exceptionally well, I would argue, as a verbal icon for these alienating effects of authorship. The word contains a Moorish connotation, as in "Recollections of the Arabian Nights" from 1830, a narrative that conflates the exotic and the infantile as it seeks to reverse the direction of time. To be immoored is to be sealed off as a boat moored in harbor; it recalls Wordsworth's <mmortality," a core concern for Tennyson, and specific to his perceived place in the pantheon of English poets, and more generally to his concept of earthly loss and renewal, both in this poem and elsewhere. It is also close to "immoral," in the distinct sense of moral impasse rather than transgression: Tennyson cannot simply and morally seal himself off from his readers, for the author-function cannot be fulfilled in solitude, even if "immoor" also suggests "immure," to wall in or secure.
Where in the stillbirth letter and poem Tennyson is able to differentiate himself sufficiently from his son, here he seems trapped in a narcissistic identification--by which I mean simply that the children of the poet's thoughts are his thoughts, the product is the producer: thus, an attack on the poem is an attack on the thought, which, in turn, is an attack on the self (now made coequal with the poet's name). He cannot conceive of the poem as having autonomous life outside the self, which results then in a stunted birth. By resisting the recognition, and possible misrecognition, of the reader/critic, Tennyson also resists the recognition of the necessary other, through which the poem and poet might mark their entrance into the symbolic order, that is, into the literary marketplace. Instead, Tennyson's intense identification of poem and name as well as the identification of publication and death--"immoor in patience, till I die" (16)--suggests that to enter the public life of circulation constitutes not only a private death, but also the death of the private realm altogether, which is consistently figured in Tennyson's poems as the bonded safety of the enmeshed mother and child. As John Coyle and Richard Cronin explain, "Tennyson prefers to take his stand not in an enclosed and private world nor in a public arena, but in the shadowy borderland between them." (17)
Negotiating these dual desires--safety and circulation--results in a poetry that retreats from, at the same time as it entreats, the reader. Furthermore, Tennyson's anxiety about having his poems, his children, subjected to a critical readership recasts theories of his melancholy in such a way as to affiliate his trademark anxiety with the discourse of poetic authorship and origination. From this vantage point, it becomes apparent that although Tennyson's anxiety is encoded, at the formal level, in the symbolic realm of sexuality (poet as mother), and is represented, at the level of "message," in the thematic realm of gender (half-woman natured), it is also a loss articulated within a literary tradition and history, and within existing debates about poetic form and the "place of the poet." This final point is particularly significant because the stillbirth of his son more or less corresponds to his assumption of his poet-laureateship on the death of his predecessor Wordsworth.
So how does this revised recognition of Tennyson's professional anxiety begin, as I have claimed, to constitute a poetics? Let us say that life--pleasure, progress, Eros, what Tennyson terms "delight from duest praise"--corresponds to the circulation of poems. This circulation is not without its dangers--to the "feeling organism" as well as to the "name," that is, to one's lineage (poetic and otherwise). Not to circulate poems is potentially to damage one's "modest worth." For Tennyson's choice lies not between making poems and not making them, but between crossing and not crossing the threshold between public and private realms. To preserve his worth he must risk his name. (18) He must risk completing the circuit poet/poem/reader. This binding--a feature of address (apostrophe) in poetry and a feature of cathexis in psychoanalytic discourse (identification or projection)--requires a movement of unbinding, a mobilizing will to let go. (19) Tennyson realizes that to withhold his poems from the public would be akin to an act of violence against the self.
"Wherefore in these Dark Ages," by locating poems as half-in and half-out of the poet, replaces anxiety over the exteriority of ideas in discourse with anxiety about intrusion at the level of the body, which in effect reconceives the problem as one that is formal (that is, pre- or extra-lingual) as well as discursive. As we have seen, the poem itself is fraught with posterior caesuras and multiple enjambments, especially in those sections that consider the impact of public readership on creative output: "why desire ... I today ... the next ... till I die." These fragmentary lines reproduce the brokenness and conflicted quality of thought, the fragility and vulnerability of a poet working very hard to be understood, when the message of the poem is that such understanding is probably not going to occur. (20) As I will show, Tennyson's stillborn poetics occupies precisely the undecidable ground between the poles of understanding and being understood, risking and preserving, unity and separation.
2. Song as Stillborn Form
While lost and stillborn children persist throughout Tennyson's poetic career (Maud, "Demeter and Persephone," "The Grandmother," etc.), The Princess, probably conceived the same year that "Wherefore in these Dark Ages" was written, is the most ambitious of Tennyson's poems to center on the figure of the lost child. Famously, it underwent significant revisions in the course of its first three publications. (21) Several songs (centering primarily on the child) were included in the third edition, inserted between the seven narrative sections of the larger mock-heroic poem. As Tennyson recounts, "The child is the link through the parts, as shown in the Songs, which are the best interpreters of the poem" (Ricks, 2:186). The collegiate narrator announces in the prologue that, unlike the heroic narrative (told in seven parts by the seven college friends), "the ladies [will] sing ... some ballad or a song / To give us breathing-space" (ll. 233-235). Commentators have almost universally preferred the "breathing-space" of the songs to the "rougher" body of the narrative (Prologue, 1. 237). Song then becomes not only the sole province of the feminine, but the poem's most widely satisfying aesthetic element.
The gendering of poetic form takes on unique significance for Tennyson, especially given his assertion that all true-cast poets are "half woman-natured." According to George Saintsbury's discussion of The Princess in The History of English Prosody (1906), song accomplishes these ends not merely by means of its content, but also by its more malleable, fluid, and dexterous form. (22) While Saintsbury expresses admiration for Tennyson's plurality of styles, he notes specifically the taste for shorter pieces, claiming that it was the "bent of the century." Shorter pieces gave "more opportunities for varying prosodic success than the long," and, as a consequence, the "addition of [Tennyson's] songs ... was a rich prosodic as well as poetic bonus" (3:202, 203). According to the nineteenth-century critical consensus, it is not simply that the songs compensate for an aesthetic gap in the blank verse (Tennyson is generally acknowledged to be a masterful practitioner (23)), or that they communicate corrective meanings; rather, the "bonus" (the "good") provided by the songs is woven into the texture of the poem, serving now pedagogic, now disciplinary, and now aesthetic ends: "The songs themselves ... stand there, not merely for the sake of their intrinsic beauty, but serve to call the reader's mind, at every pause in the tale of the Princess's folly, to that very healthy ideal of womanhood which she has spurned." (24)
Yet it is not at all clear, from Tennyson's own comments, precisely what was to be called to the reader's mind by the songs. With a characteristic mix of scrupulousness and opacity, Tennyson writes, well after the fact, to S. E. Dawson, corroborating that the child was indeed the "heroine of the piece" and that the songs were intended to clarify what "the public did not see" (Chalmers, ed., p. 18). "The songs were not an afterthought," the poet explains. "You would be still more certain that the child was the true heroine [of the poem] if, instead of the first song as it now stands 'As thro' the land at eve we went,' I had printed the first song which I wrote, 'The Losing of the Child'" (Chalmers, ed., p. 18):
The child was sitting on the bank Upon a stormy day. He loved the river's roaring sound; The river rose and burst his bound, Flooded fifty leagues around, Took the child from off the ground, And bore the child away. O the child so meek and wise, Who made us wise and mild! All was strife at home about him, Nothing could be done without him; Father, mother, sister, brother, All accusing one another; O to lose the child! The river left the child unhurt, But far within the wild. Then we brought him home again, Peace and order come again, The river sought his bound again, The child was lost and found again, And we will keep the child. (Ricks, 2:229)
Beginning with the title, Tennyson seeks to frame the poem within a mythical and balladic Blakean structure. Narrative definitiveness takes the form of a pattern of shorter lines. Thus, from a strictly formal point of view--and by view, I also mean the literal way the poem looks on the page--the songs introduce shorter three- and four-beat lines where previously (I am reading the poem as if it had occupied the first place for which Tennyson claims to have intended it) there had been only been uniform pentameters.
There are also several intertextual and transhistorical resonances in "The Losing of the Child." Formally, the first and last pairs of lines in each stanza paragraph replicate exactly the measure of Blake's "Little Boy Lost," and "Little Boy Found" from Songs of Innocence. In Blake's companion poems, written in ballad (more specifically, hymn) measure, God appears in the place of the father and leads the boy home to his mother. In Tennyson's poem, no such deity is at work. The social and familial structures likewise seem to have failed. Instead, Tennyson uses three tetrameter lines with more or less unchanging rhyme in between the hymn measure groupings. The effect is formally to inscribe something like homogeneity and order. The only real difference appears in the middle stanza, when chiasmus (meek and wise ... wise and mild) and internal (aural and ideational) rhyme (Father, mother, sister, brother) do the work instead, the list of family members sharing equalized blame for the loss and resulting disorder, or such disorder as there is in this very tidy poem. The identical rhymes that break out in the final stanza (again, again, again, again) drive home the point of the child's importance as a symbol, an arbitrary and appositive sign that stands in for something, reproduces it, in contradistinction to any actual children, whose historical and personal specificity--not to mention gender as a girl or boy--might make identical rhyme tantamount to a form of reification. For what human subject, even, or perhaps especially, a child, is ever identical with itself, much less with any other? There is a further analogy to be made between "The Losing of the Child" and Blake's "Little Girl Lost" and "Little Girl Found" in Songs of Experience, where Lyca becomes one with nature in such a way as to re-naturalize her civilized surroundings. In a similar way, the "river find[ing] its way again" in Tennyson's poem suggests a reciprocity with nature, albeit a nature that is enclosed within a classical myth of origin.
Tennyson himself, though, does not drive these allusions home as essential to The Princess. In fact, the song remained unpublished in his lifetime and he interpolated instead the song "As through the land at eve we went," the Wordsworthian tale of a husband and wife who have a falling out while journeying to the grave of a child "lost in other years":
As through the land at eve we went, And plucked the ripened ears, We fell out, my wife and I, O we fell out I know not why, And kissed again with tears. And blessings on the falling out That all the more endears, When we fall out with those we love And kiss again with tears! For when we came where lies the child We lost in other years, There above the little grave, O there above the little grave, We kissed again with tears. (l^ll.l-14)
Immediately we can see that the loss Tennyson imagines as social and communal in "The Losing of the Child" is experienced at a much more isolated, familial, and individual level in the song he chose to put in its place. Although the couple is reconciled in grief at the end, the child as a living being remains lost. As a point of origin for their loss (perhaps even for the strength of their love), it (he, she) is located again by being named. It is lost and found simultaneously, in different orders of being.
My argument for the operation of a stillborn poetics in the songs from The Princess shares certain premises and characteristics with Anna Barton's recent article on "Nursery Poetics" in The Princess. For Barton, the losing and finding of the child correspond to the losing and finding of an inarticulate and infantile lyric cry. (25) She reads "As through the land at eve we went" as containing "a textual trace of the lyric he is replacing"--that is, "The Losing of the Child" (p. 498). Yet there is also a formal trace of the earlier in the latter poem, which is unfalteringly balladic. The comforting repetition of the refrain (kiss again with tears) links the form of ballad with a form of mourning, a structure (the primal form of English measure) and a drive toward the past (the "other years") and the future (blessings whose reverberations move "through the land," that is, through the spatial and temporal field of the poem). Here is yet another sense in which the poem--like the river in "The Losing of the Child"--conserves even (or especially) that which it overtakes. Besides pulling the blank verse of The Princess toward loss and recuperation, the song compulsively repeats its stanzaic structure and its repeated end-rhymes. (26)
In its content, "As through the land at eve we went" is built on the irony of the narrator's repressed understanding of his and his wife's condition. We know why the couple falls out, even as he claims not to know. Presumably, it is easier to fall out than to feel the full brunt of their loss. One gets the sense that this couple peripatetically wanders the countryside, endlessly fighting and kissing. The poem, of course, presages the (more self-aware) reconciliation of the Prince and the Princess, but with an important difference that the poetic form rehearses. The mock-heroic blank-verse sections of The Princess do not melancholically incorporate into their narrative structure--at least not so explicitly--the repetitions of falling and rising, losing and finding. This more cyclical weltanschauung is the unique project of the songs. Elegiac in form and content, Tennyson's songs remove the object of the song (principally the child) from the narrative contingencies of the idyll world and seal it up within a song of praise. As the first song in Tennyson's sequence, "As through the land at eve we went" sets the pattern for its successors: loss is sealed up within the verse form (not enjambed and broken with caesuras like the blank verse) at the same time as it conserves (one might even say buries) within the "form" its emotional appeal.
This push and pull between form and message, ballad and blank verse in The Princess has been commented on extensively. Daniel Albright, for example, calls the child of the songs a "living emblem of the structureless, the inarticulate, the unresolved, the virtual." (27) For Albright, the child--read as a ludic figure evolving over the cycle of interpolated songs--comes to life, is buried or lost, and then comes to life again. In his reading, the fragile wholeness of the child mirrors the wholeness of the mother. Its primary narrative function is to bring the Prince and Princess into a triangulated wholeness. Yet if we read the child as stillborn, rather than unresolved or virtual, then it is neither alive nor dead, and whatever wholeness it seems to possess is illusory. Rather than ascribing, as Albright does, a similar wholeness to the mother and the child, I suggest that Tennyson's habitual identification of maternal with authorial functions disallows any attempt at reading them as anything more than parts of a symbiotic whole. To "kiss again with tears"--that is, to occupy the middle ground between love and loss, life and death--is thus the perfect motto for a stillborn poetics. Tennyson's anxious revisions of The Princess, adding first the prologue, then the songs, then the Prince's seizures, might be likewise read as the act of bringing forth a stillborn poem, one whose genres, themes, and even critical reception are forever undecidable, in between. Like the child, they are continuously lost and found.
3. Child as Ballad, Ballad as Child
So far I have suggested that Tennyson's revision of The Princess, especially the inclusion of several songs focusing on children, resonates in powerful ways with his aesthetics of the stillborn child, and that both can be read as responding to an ongoing anxiety about the circulation of his poems. I would now suggest that ballad measure, perhaps because of its multiple associations in the nineteenth century with childhood, innocence, and the simplicity of the past, becomes the form most suited for the ideological and psychological work of interrupting and sewing together Tennyson's fragmentary epic. I focus on the particular ways in which ballad measure is deployed in The Princess as well as the cultural and political associations specific to ballad in the nineteenth century.
Coventry Patmore refers to ballad as an "ancient narrative meter, which, though almost excluded from the 'polite literature' of the eighteenth century, never lost its charm for the people." (28) Similarly, D. M. Moir, writing in 1856, claims that ballad has a specific affective universality:
Common to every human heart there is a certain class of emotions, the expressions of which "turn as they leave the lips to song;" and hence the primitive form of poetry in the ballad. (29)
Song or ballad measure then represents the infancy of English poetry, a form best suited for the primal emotions. Moir's universal claim suggests that ballad measure recurs throughout the nineteenth century as indexical of a loss (of nature, national and personal innocence, youth, poetic vision, rural splendors, etc.). (30) This poetry of eternal return is often articulated in proximity to infants, domesticity, pastoral scenes, or memories of childhood--so much so that the signification flows in both directions between balladry and childhood. Thus the songs in The Princess are only one obvious example of a very broadly disseminated set of cultural associations.
My point about these associations is that ballad as a "primitive form of poetry," adjacent to archaic forms in general, was received in the nineteenth century in ways that are consonant with Freud's concepts of a death instinct and birth trauma. Not in any essential way, but as a literary-historical construction--that is, as a cultural fiction--ballad, elegiac and nostalgic, pulls toward the archaic historicity of poetic forms, entailing death, disintegration, stasis, even as it is being born. In the nineteenth century, in other words, ballad is always already born dead. And this generalization about poetic history receives pointed validation from the instance of Tennyson's Princess, where the nostalgias found by song are set off sharply by the forward drive of the blank verse toward a created unity. Where a stillborn poetics negates the drive toward progress, the normative blank verse pulls toward a narrative unity that, in the strange logic of liberal individualism, is predicated on separateness.
As we have seen, Freud's romantic formulation of anxiety in birth trauma, like Tennyson's turn to ballad and the Prince's strange seizures, describes a formal breaking through or pushing up of a buried and collective loss ("reproduced as an affective state" it gives "certain characteristic forms of expression"). A criticism attuned to the theory of birth trauma, by making anxiety a primary affect rather than a secondary symptom, does not seek to uncover the etiology of Tennyson's or the nation's anxieties, but rather locates their dual points of articulation, which the poet concurrently feels as internal (personal) and external (social). The advantage to reading in this way--that is, outside of repressive paradigms--is that ballad (or the child) no longer necessarily comes to represent some repressed quality, like bardic identity or the plight of the rural poor (not to say that ballad does not sometimes signify in these and kindred ways); rather, ballad, as a stillborn form, corresponds to something elsewhere but in so doing it makes that elsewhere affectively present, (31) coloring the present with the opaque content of the (universal) past. As Moir writes in 1856, "in every case these songs and ballads are valuable, not only as poetical, but as historical records" (p. 118). Like the emblem of the stillborn child, one of ballad's functions is to orient us, to create breathing space (space that separates and connects) between the present and the past as well as between the world of publication, the "pamphlet-pampered age" with all of its increasing speed and homogenizing tendencies and the realm of composition, often imagined as private, slower, and in contact with a long tradition.
In The Princess a kind of narrative disorientation uniformly prefigures the appearance of ballad. The Prince's "weird seizures," added in the final edition, not only point to the feminine and parturient nature of the Prince/ narrator, but they also give way/birth to the interpolated ballad and balladic sections of the poem, suggesting that sensitivity and sensibility are still poetic prerequisites in Tennyson's schema. The songs, in some measure, act as an index of the Prince's anxiety, an anxiety that paradoxically gets worked out through their incorporation. Yet there is also a sense in which the seizures cast the poet/Prince as parent and child simultaneously, giving birth to the songs while also regressing to the state of infancy. The seizures reproduce the boundary between sleep and consciousness, a vestige of the space and temporality of infancy. Critics and poets have long associated this liminal state with poetic production on the one hand and the reception of song on the other: "[song] awakes all the fountains of bitter-sweet memory, sets us dreaming like a half audible strain of music in the distance, without fixing the mind to definite objects, suspends reflection and will, and brings up all the delicious sweetness of the past with the sadness that it is past." (32) Dream states, like metaphysical experience more generally, are part and parcel of the self-conception of many nineteenth-century poets, Keats being the paradigmatic example.
Several nineteenth-century critics of The Princess, including S. E. Dawson (whose conflation of Tennyson with the Prince drew forth from the poet a letter of disagreement), read the narrator figure of the poem as himself belonging to a border-state, half alive and half dead, half masculine and half feminine. (33) Many also worried over the effeminacy of the poem's language, warning of a "dressy literature, an exaggerated literature," a soft effeminacy that is an "evil incident to democracy." (34) If Tennyson felt hemmed in by these culturally gendered forms and associations, clearly his solution in The Princess, to move in a "strange diagonal" between lyric and epic, seems to have satisfied almost no one: Moir pronounced the conclusion
a crambe recocta of all heterogeneous elements--for which it would be difficult to discover a palpable simile, except we find it in a Centaur, "half man and half horse"--or in a mermaid, "a lovely lady with a fish's tail"--or in a Caliban, or in a "Bottom the weaver," with his innocent ass's mouth "watering for thistles."... The general impression left on the mind by "The Princess" is therefore, as might have been expected, simply the grotesque. (pp. 318-319)
The term "grotesque" had a certain valence in nineteenth-century poetry criticism, and it comes close to describing what may be the core distaste for the poem: its gender-bending, not to mention its genre-blending, are entirely too close to the surface for comfort. (35) The fact that Moir needs similes of both the centaur and the mermaid suggests that the hybridity in the poem is sexual as well as formal. Yet it will not do to reduce the provocation to the Prince's unmanliness and the Princess's surplus of masculine attributes. The deeper scandal here is how finally and inextricably linked the hybridity of the represented gender roles is with the hybridity of the poetic genres that make the poem legible to begin with. When the poem announces finally that women are, or should be, "diverse" from men, we cannot help hearing both "different" and "varied," as well as "double versed."
As the narrator acknowledges, it was the power of the women and the ballads that forced this grotesque diagonal:
The women--and perhaps they felt their power, For something in the ballads which they sang, Or in their silent influence as they sat, Had ever seemed to wrestle with burlesque, And drove us, last to quite a solemn close-- (Conclusion, 11. 13-17)
Like the effect of the image of his stillborn son, the solemnity of the close can be understood as providing distance or space. Through the interpolation of the songs as spatial and temporal intervals or interruptions, whose balladic form "wrestles" with its blank-verse surround (recall the "little warrior's" battle with "some brute force of nature"), the poem can finally be "driven" into the world-put into circulation. Tennyson's anxiety about releasing poems into the world, the fear that he, or perhaps we, will "lose the child," results in a poem shot through with the gaps and fissures, hesitancy and doubt, that critics have tended to read as a sign of effeminacy, but that is also characteristic of Tennyson's stillborn poetics.
Finally, the stand-alone disposition of the ballads not only allows them to comment on the action in the narrative sections, but also makes it possible for the action of the poem to comment on the efficacy and ideological status of the ballad as form and idea. After the Prince is injured yet before he is hospitalized and infantilized, a song is sung, "Home they brought her warrior dead," whose (Blakean) argument is that a failure to respond to grief results in an entombment of that very grief (not repression, says Freud, rather a wholesale incorporation). Typical of ail the songs in The Princess, it does not correspond directly to the epic action of the poem, in which the Prince has just been wounded. The ballad instead describes a more generalized scene and introduces an orphaned infant where none exists in the longer text. The Princess of the song, cold and imperious, must grieve, say her handmaids, or else she will die. Her refusal to respond to the dead hero or his child corresponds to Ida's initial refusal to return the child Aglaia to Psyche as well as her denial of her feelings for the Prince. Furthermore, throughout The Princess, Ida rejects ballad and its many significations in favor of the ode. "Home they brought her warrior dead" cautions that if Ida's intractability continues, it will result in an even wider breach between her and her people, a political ramification that is implied in other portions of the narrative and seems directly determined if not signified by her inability to mourn. The Princess's refusal of the ballad and the child, not of its sentiment per se but of its "already existing image," illustrates the political as well as cultural and social power of its (ballad's and child's) characteristic and embedded form. Losing the child then means also potentially losing ballad's emotional appeal. The point is reinforced later in Canto VI when Violet, the singer of the song, is the one finally to convince Ida, not yet "melted," to open the college so that the injured men may be treated.
In the final ballad-like if not strictly balladic strophe, an older nurse named Rose models responsible behavior by responding emotionally to the other:
Rose a nurse of ninety years, Set his child upon her knee--Like summer tempest came her tears--"Sweet my child, I live for thee." (V^VI.13-16)
The wintry Rose is restored to summer, and that restoration reverberates outward toward the community. Stillbirth might be ascribed to this scene emblematically, in other words, as a still-life or tableau. Certainly, the sentiment evoked in the passage shows the power of the image of the child as a spur to domesticity and nationhood. Throughout The Princess, the repetition of scenarios in which a child is worried over, or in which the Prince is reduced to a state of dependence resembling that of a child, works to "develop" anxiety and to disperse it over the wide political, cultural, and ideological field that the poem represents, and to which it is addressed. Very often, the form of the appeal is song, and its metrics are balladic.
In a fragment from the Memoir, written at roughly the same rime as the letter I began by quoting, Tennyson muses over the child.
Dead as he was l felt proud of him. To-day when I write this down, the remembrance of it rather overcomes me; but I am glad that I have seen him, dear little nameless one that hast lived tho' thou hast never breathed, I, thy father, love thee and weep over thee, tho' thou hast no place in the Universe. Who knows? It may be that thou hast.... God's Will be done. (1:340)
I do not mean to schematize or reduce Tennyson's emotions at the loss of his actual child. But to recall the child-as-poem analogy is to witness the transformation that we have seen was enabled for Tennyson by the image of a stillborn child. Exactly two years before the still-birth in April, Tennyson wrote "The Losing of the Child": "The child was lost and found again, / And we will keep the child." The "dear little nameless one" who lived yet did not breathe is finally outside of the poet, where he may function like a poem that circulates among readers.
The shift in the pronoun, from third to second person, from description to apostrophe, creates a relation to the stillborn child that is both lost and found. Similarly, the distance created by Tennyson's surrender ("God's Will be done"), and made possible by the displacing doubling (lost and found) of the figure of the still-born child, allows the poet once again to speak as father and poet, that is, to express a judgment even about that which is nearest to him because it is no longer an undifferentiated object; like the ballad measure that remained an essential feature in Tennyson's poetic practice, it has an exterior existence, a "place in the Universe."
(1) Christopher Ricks, Tennyson (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1989), p. 221.
(2) The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson, ed. Cecil Y. Lang and Edgar F. Shannon (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1981), 2:15.
(3) For the infant's place in philosophical accounts of subjectivity, in this case an associationist one, see "On Sympathy" in The Writings of Arthur Hallam, ed. T. H. Vail Motter (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1943), pp. 133-142; for the infant's role in theories of poetic language and development see Shelley's opening paragraphs of "The Defense of Poetry," Shelley's Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers (New York: Norton, 1977), pp. 480, 481.
(4) The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Rick, 3 vols. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987), 2:465. All quotations from Tennyson's work are from this edition.
(5) That the stillbirth happened on Easter is deeply significant to Tennyson, suggesting that Christ the sufferer occupies a privileged position over the little warrior figure.
(6) See Tennyson's own gendered theory of epistolary exchange: "A brief and terse style suits the man, but the woman is well when she deals in words" (Letters, 1:176).
(7) Jonathan D. Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1981), p. 142.
(8) Barbara Johnson, "Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion," in A World of Difference (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1987). Johnson suggests that the "lost child" hovers beneath the figure of apostrophe and furthermore, that their may be a "deeper link between motherhood and apostrophe" (p. 198).
(9) For a related argument concerning Thomas Hardy's lyrics see Marjorie Levenson, "Object-Loss and Object-Bondage: Economies of Representation in Hardy's Poetry" ELH 73 (2006): 549-580.
(10) Matthew Rowlinson, Tennyson's Fixations: Psychoanalysis and the Topics of the Early Poetry (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1994); Herbert F. Tucker, Tennyson and the Doom of Romanticism (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1988).
(11) In the Symposium Socrates relates a story from Diotima: it is better to give birth in beauty than in flesh. For the authorial-maternal function, see Julie Kipp, Romanticism, Maternity, and the Body Politic (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003), p. 13.
(12) "Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety," in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1925-26), 20:93. Freud himself gave little time or space to this primal separation. Otto Rank and Geza Roheim on the other hand made "birth trauma" central to their respective theories of psychology and culture. For a more recent cultural consideration of birth trauma see also the introduction to Hans Blumenberg, Work on Myth (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985).
(13) "Typing," as can be seen by looking at Tennyson's late ballad "On One who Affected an Effeminate Manner," has a dangerous edge: "While man and woman still are incomplete, / I prize that soul where man and woman meet, / Which types all Nature's male and female plan, / But, friend, man-woman is not woman-man." Ricks (3:217) points also to The Princess and "Locksley Hall Sixty Years After," 1.48. See The Princess, vii.281-282, and vii.268 in the 1847-48 text. "Typing" is an important term because of its common usage in philology as well as in the discourses of science and moral philosophy. See Isobel Armstrong's rephrasing of Carlyle's "movable type": "Movable type, where technology mobilizes the logos, makes the process of signification a political matter as it opens up a struggle for the meaning of words which is part of the relations of power explored through the structures of the poem" (Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics [New York: Routledge, 1993], p. 16).
(14) The oral fixation of "from mouth to mouth" is also an anticipatory echo of the narrator's intention to share the story of The Princess with his classmates: they will pass the story "from mouth to mouth" (Prologue, 1. 189).
(15) Christ (again) is Tennyson's exemplar in this sense, as can be gleaned from the manuscript version of "Locksley Hall Sixty Years After": "our greatest [Christ] is man-woman (Ricks, 3:151).
(16) Compare "Ulysses": "for my purpose holds / To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths / Of all the western stars, until I die" (ll. 59-61). The poet is now made heroic, as is the stillborn child in "Little Bosom hOt yet Cold."
(17) John Coyle and Richard Cronin, "Tennyson and the Apostles," in Rethinking Victorian Culture, ed. Juliet John and Alice Jenkins (New York: Macmillan, 2000), p. 114.
(18) Rowlinson points to what he sees as a "taboo on naming" in Tennyson's early poetry: "subjects cannot speak where named" (Tennyson's Fixations, p. 127). See also "The Ancient Sage," a relevant poem not only for its focus on the "nameless" and "namelessness" ("I ... revolv[ed] in myself / The word that is the symbol of myself, / The mortal limit of the Self was loosed, / And past into the Nameless" [ll. 229-233]) but also for ways in which, as in The Princess, songs intercut the blank verse. See also Anna Barton, "'What Profits Me My Name?' The Aesthetic Potential of the Commodified Name in Lancelot and Elaine," VP 44 (2006): 135-152.
(19) For the mobility of the child-figure, see Jo'Ann Wallace, "Technologies of 'the Child': Towards a Theory of the Child-Subject," Textual Practice 9 (1995): 285-302.
(20) This anxiety about reception recalls Hallam's argument that readers of Tennyson's poetry should assume some of the responsibility, through erudition or simply through difficult work (Hallam calls it "requisite exertion"), of the construction of meaning in a poem ("On Some of the Characteristics of Modern Poetry," in Writings, ed. Motter, p. 44). Perhaps, for Tennyson, there is only one originary reader who can be trusted to make the requisite exertion, and he--Hallam--is dead.
(21) See John Killham, Tennyson and The Princess: Reflections of an Age (London: Athlone Press, 1958), pp. 1-19.
(22) George Saintsbury, A History of English Prosody from the Twelfth Century to the Present Day (London: Macmillan, 1906-10), 3:203.
(23) See, for example, Percy M. Wallace's comments on the blank verse in his edition The Princess: A Medley, with Introduction and Notes (New York, 1892), pp. xx-xxiii.
(24) Charles Kingsley, quoted in Tennyson's The Princess: A Medley, ed. James Chalmers (New York, 1897), pp. 12-13.
(25) Anna Barton, "Nursery Poetics: An Examination of Lyric Representations of the Child in Tennyson's 'The Princess,'" VLC 35 (2007): 499. Barton suggests that a complex of disciplinary "nursery spaces," described within the blank verse of the poem, contains, and "colonizes" the interpolated songs. Barton's larger argument is that Tennyson includes the songs in The Princess in order to narrate "the progress of his career," but that the songs are prevented from contributing to the larger social themes of the blank verse by his ambivalence about the figure of the child.
(26) Note the identical repetition of the penultimate line--is this melancholic "supplement" an echo [abba] of the In Memoriam stanza? Alicia Ostriker follows this line of thinking in her metrical examination of the first two editions of Tennyson's poems (1830, 1832). She finds the poet attempting to develop a "flexible" stanza form, which could be used to produce "serious and substantial work": "The Three Modes in Tennyson's Prosody," PMLA 82 (1967): 280. What she describes is roughly a ballad structure--mostly isometric, tetrameter lines, more than half of which "build on that strong rock of English stanzas, the simple quatrain" (p. 279).
(27) Daniel Albright, Tennyson: The Muses' Tug-of-War (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1986), p. 238. Albright reads The Princess as enacting a thematic "movement toward the whole, the undifferentiated" (p. 226). Yet the child's wholeness is fragile, in part because it can only be materialized through the "wholeness of marital coupling" (p. 238). The mother's wholeness is similarly fragile and bound up with that of the child:
"The mother, however, like the child, represents a state of vague inarticulate being, something luminous and revered in the dim past" (p. 226).
(28) Coventry Patmore, An Essay on English Metrical Law (Washington: Catholic Univ. of America Press, 1961), p. 45. Stuart Curran points out the amorphousness of "song," and leaves it, as a category, out of his study on romanticism and form; yet in a later chapter he links up ballads and songs in terms of their shared "vernacular" qualities: Poetic Form and British Romanticism (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 12, 25. Generally, ballad is seen to be a type of song, as is hymn (Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan, ed. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1993], p. 1167).
(29) David Macbeth Moir, Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (Edinburgh, 1856), p. 117.
(30) In one of many recent studies of the ballad's influence in British culture, Jason Rudy claims that "the comfortingly predictable Victorian ballad offers ... an impossibly idealized vision of the British nation" ("On Cultural Neoformalism, Spasmodic Poetry, and the Victorian Ballad," VP 41 : 591).
(31) "The key to the interpretation of this Song-element is to be found in the fact that they all centre round the persistence of the affections" (The Princess, ed. Wallace, p. li).
(32) George Brimley, Essays (London, 1868), p. 92.
(33) Samuel Edward Dawson, A Study with Critical and Explanatory Notes, of Alfred Tennyson's Poem The Princess (1882; Folcroft, Pennsylvania: Folcroft Library Editions, 1972).
(34) John Campbell Shairp, Aspects of Poetry (Boston, 1882), pp. 133-134; Walter Bagehot, Literary Studies, 2 vols. (1879; New York: AMS Press, 1973), 2:389.
(35) See Isobel Armstrong, "Browning and the 'Grotesque' Style," in The Major Victorian Poets: Reconsiderations, ed. Armstrong (London: Routledge, 1969), p. 93, on the way Robert Browning's management of "metrical patterns" and a "heterogeneous vocabulary" produces "an eccentricity which it is appropriate to call grotesque."
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|Title Annotation:||Alfred Tennyson|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2009|
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