What is haunting Tennyson's Maud (1855)?
The death of Arthur Henry Hallam in 1833 was, to his friends and family, devastating in part because it was premature. Hallam was twenty two, beginning a career in the law, and newly engaged to Emily Tennyson. Premature in one sense, the news of that death did not, in another, arrive early enough. By the time Henry Elton, Hallam's uncle, wrote to inform Alfred Tennyson, as the brother of Hallam's fiancee, on October 1, 1833, his nephew had been dead for more than two weeks. It was a letter before its time, and after. There had been little warning of the impending calamity. Hallam's ill-health had been inauspicious, no doubt. But the only other indication had been, the Tennysons claimed much later, the glimpse of a ghost. "Almost all instances of alleged supernatural appearances," confidently remarked Isaac Taylor, author of the Natural History of Enthusiasm (1829), a background presence in In Memoriam (1850), "may easily be disposed of." But "no such explanation will meet the many instances ... in which the death of a relative, at a distance, has been conveyed, in all its circumstances, to persons during sleep." (2) Yet what about similar messages about a relative, or a soon-to-be relative, not received in sleep? It was hard, certainly, for the Tennyson family to dispose of a claim about a death in the Tennyson circle conveyed in waking consciousness. Long after Hallam's demise, Emily Tennyson wrote in her journal that Mary and Matilda Tennyson, the poet's sisters, had been taking a late September walk in 1833 through a lane at Somersby. The sisters saw a tall figure, clothed in white: it cannot have been at first persuasive for they thought for a moment it was a goat. They followed it as it turned through a hedge where there was no gap: the effect, by now, was startling. Robert Bernard Martin put Matilda's reaction thus: she "was so perplexed that she went home and burst into troubled tears." (3) But Emily Tennyson--Martin's source--said in fact that she was "so awed ... she burst into tears." (4) Being awed is not being troubled. Whatever the case, the memory was thirty-six years old.
Tennyson would later, in In Memoriam, claim Hallam as half divine and, convinced or otherwise, as a fore-runner of a higher race of men. The supernatural premonition remembered by the Tennyson family lent to that representation a not inconvenient sense of Tennyson's friend as especially touched, peculiarly attended. But ghosts belonged with In Memoriam in more consequential ways. Indeed, a reader of the most celebrated elegy of the Victorian period, heralded by a ghost, was provided in Mary and Matilda's story with an unexpected clue to some of the poem's most substantial of insubstantial ruminations. A text intrigued by questions of the speaking dead, it found in an inventive proximity to and rejection of ghost narratives and gothic tropes a way of shaping its thought about consolations and a way of probing hopes. Involved with imagined returns, In Memoriam was, in one sense, a set of speculations on how the dead might survive, on what a ghost was and was not, and about the knowledge that could be obtained about the life beyond. In its thoughts on these, In Memoriam distinguished versions of the phantom, claiming at last, but only for an instant, the power of words to summon not a specter but, apparently, a living soul. In Memoriam was a meditation on types of posthumous return: it was a ghostology--a Victorian word--which assessed understandings of the place of the departed on earth. And as such, it was energetically rebuked by Maud.
The sound of Hallam's voice, long after his death, would not leave Tennyson. Or rather, it had left him so completely he could not stop thinking of it. Tennyson's breath, as Eric Griffiths has beautifully shown, was uniquely modulated: (5) but the most important thing for the poet after 1833 about Hallam's was that it had ceased. Amid the silence, the dead calm of the noble breast, Tennyson's pensive imagination felt Hallam's absence most painfully in the inaudibility of his voice. "Break, break, break" (1842), written shortly after Hallam's death, made the reader puncture a deathly silence with broken words: in that carefully enunciated opening line, the commas provided the briefest moments of pause as the reader makes silence give away to sound and sound give way to silence with a stilted, painstaking control. Yet the burden of the poem was to describe a silence that could not be broken. "O for the touch of a vanished hand," Tennyson wrote, in words often quoted by spiritualists, "And the sound of a voice that is still!" (6) Making a conspicuous quibble, the line could not help asking the reader to imagine a voice that, still, was still. Shaking a hand and speaking were the outline actions of greeting Hallam as if all had been normal, as if he had returned from Vienna in better health. The imagined welcome figured his loss--dead of a congenital brain disease--in spare metonymy. And the thought of greeting Hallam troubled In Memoriam with a return from the dead that, it seemed, could never be.
The longing for a touch of a vanished hand was a desire to meet. Yet images of the arms and hands of the dead, if they figured the joyful hope of coming together, hinted also at the macabre. The gothic lingered in the longed-for warmth of once-living flesh. The hand of the dead, the dead hand, a mortmain, the spectral fingers reaching from the grave: along with the giant hand Bianca sees in The Castle of Otranto (1765), images of dead or ghostly hands were familiar terms of night terror. Emily Bronte, writing Lockwood's nocturnal experience of a longed-for greeting in Wuthering Heights (1847), created the most memorable of such scenes. Dwelling on the gothic frisson, Tennyson could not rid himself of the thought of Hallam's dead hand, even in a state of decay. It seems better, he said in lyric X of In Memoriam, thinking about Hallam's corpse, to be buried at home in a village churchyard, than that
the roaring wells Should gulf him fathom-deep in brine; And hand so often clasped in mine, Should toss with tangle and with shells. (X.17-20)
A hand clasped by fronds not fingers and consumed by impersonal forces of the deep: craving for the touch of the vanished hand, the lyric fantasized what might make that hand, literally, vanish.
At once incongruous to the history of a dearly-felt loss, the gothic was coherent with In Memoriam's veiled dealings with the ghostly in all their complicated diversity] There were twilight scenes of hoped-for visitations, provoking a flicker of nocturnal fear: "Be near me when my light is low/When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick / And tingle" (L.1-3). There was a sense of being watched from the grave ("So mayst thou watch me where I weep" [LXIII.9]); glimpses of supernatural forms ("Cloud-towers by ghostly masons wrought" [LXX.5]); a gloomy ancestral hall and meditations on Hallam's decaying body in Clevedon churchyard where vegetation entwined his crumbling form, "fibres" gathered about the "dreamless head" and "roots" were "wrapt about the bones" (II.3, 4). There was an imagined moment of reaching from the tomb: Hallam's "Unused example from the grave" would, Tennyson said, "Reach out dead hands to comfort me" (LXXX.15,16). If the mood was of consolation, the image, a skeleton animated, was not. There were strange trances (XII) and non-human voices--Love, Nature, Melpomene. Death made itself heard in lyric LXXXI, answering back to Tennyson's grief. And there were moments of quieter gothic suggestiveness. Lyric LXVII presented Tennyson in another scene of twilight reverie, thinking of the church where Hallam lay. Affectionate and reverent, the stanzas conjured an image of a half-animated funerary tablet, hinting at the possibility of disclosure as much as its unlikeliness. As Tennyson thought of dawn over Clevedon, "I know the mist is drawn/A lucid veil from coast to coast," he said:
And in the dark church like a ghost Thy tablet glimmers to the dawn. (LXVII.15-16)
Glimmering, the arch state of Tennyson at his most ambivalently suggestive, was the condition of being present and absent, visible not graspable. The tablet's reflected light gave nothing back even as it seemed to suggest glimmers of meaning, of vitality, beyond the tomb.
Northanger Abbey (1818) drained the power from a Radcliffean gothic, turning night horrors into the amusingly and reassuringly mundane. Tennyson, whose favourite novelist, before his later enthusiasm for the writing of M. E. Braddon, was Jane Austen, altered the nature of the gothic in summoning it too. But he did not change it into the quotidian. Its presence underlined death's materiality, the business of the grave with bones and decay. But the gothic also affirmed how In Memoriam could not rid itself of concern with the survival of the soul and the interpenetration of the earthly world by the dead. In the first recoil of grief, Tennyson tormented himself with an encounter which was uncannily normal, a (false) testament to the fact Hallam had not died, predicated on a (false) conditional:
If one should bring me this report, That thou hadst touched the land today, And I went down unto the quay, And found thee lying in the port; And standing, muffled round with woe, Should see thy passengers in rank Come stepping lightly down the plank, And beckoning unto those they know; And if along with these should come The man I held as half-divine; Should strike a sudden hand in mine, And ask a thousand things of home; And I should tell him all my pain, And how my life had dropped of late, And he should sorrow o'er my state And marvel what possessed my brain; And I perceived no touch of change, No hint of death in all his frame, But found him all in all the same, I should not feel it to be strange. (XIV.1-20)
This was, and was not, a return from the dead. Defying Alcestis, the moment of reunion made, with a peculiar combination of unemotional normality and choking grief, a revisitation defiantly unmiraculous. Confirming that Tennyson could not at first believe his friend was dead anyway, the lyric's confusion of tenses brought memory and hope together, confounding exactly when the moment of return could be. "I should tell him ... should sorrow ... should not feel" looked towards the desired meeting, while "I perceived ... found him all in all the same" dragged the anticipation back to a retrospective point, as if it was something recalled. Confusing time, the lyric also confused Hallam with Tennyson. When the poet imagined his friend marvelling at "what possessed my brain," a more miserable truth momentarily appeared: what had been the really devastating "marvel" was what possessed Hallam's brain, a disease unnoticed from birth.
Thinking of how imagination might torment the living by temporarily overlooking the fact of death, Tennyson's fantasy was marked by the perplexity of grief. But the presence of the dead among the living was a lasting theme. Two months after the news of Hallam's death, Tennyson heard from his companion at Cambridge, Richard Monckton Milnes (1809-85). "A letter from you was like a messenger from the land of shadows," he said. (8) He could not rid himself of that language. How might one keep in touch with those one could not touch? Shifting between imaginings of the living soul's continuation in a heavenly afterlife and a fantasy of a more spectral kind, Tennyson probed the Old English meaning of "ghost" (gast) as soul, and its added Middle English sense as specter. "[Y]et that this could be," he said in lyric XLI.9, imagining a visit to Hallam's soul in heaven:
That I could wing my will with might To leap the grades of life and light, And flash at once, my friend, to thee. (XLI.10-12)
The envisaged greeting of soul to soul--"My Ghost may feel that thine is near" (XCIII.16)--replaced the impossible earthly welcome that the poem desired. Death prompted a dream of cosmic flight, figured in the language of the telegraph, as if Heaven was a visitable place in the known, reachable world. (That "flash" of human presence would return.) Having invited Hallam's soul to be near him at night in lyric L ("Be near me when my light is low," 1. 1), Tennyson, being visited not visiting, worried about what exactly the experience might be like. What might Hallam's living self, his presence without a body, do to him? What might he see? "Do we indeed," Tennyson pondered, "desire the dead / Should still be near us at our side?" (L1.1-2). This was not exactly a conventional fear of meeting a ghost, but sudden uncertainty about what a living presence gifted with inner sight--a higher man who could see all--might observe. Is there no "baseness we would hide? / No inner vileness that we dread?," he inquired (LI.3-4).
Thinking about seeing a simulacrum that appeared to be Hallam, Tennyson elsewhere found his scepticism likely to defeat his desire for consolation.
If any vision should reveal Thy likeness, I might count it vain As but the canker of the brain; Yea, though it spake and made appeal To chances where our lots were cast Together in the days behind, I might but say, I hear a wind Of memory murmuring the past. Yea, though it spake and bared to view A fact within the coming year; And though the months, revolving near, Should prove the phantom-warning true, They might not seem thy prophecies, But spiritual presentiments, And such refraction of events As often rises ere they rise. (XCII.1-16)
Like those who would not believe in the returning spirit of Dives, the poet could not prepare himself to believe even the most convincing sign that a ghostly form was his returning friend even though that form was as close to the real as "rises" was to the final rhyme word it very nearly repeated. Maud, Tennyson's son remembered, was a "little Hamlet." (9) In Memoriam was Hamlet-like too not least in thinking about spirits' meaning, their truthfulness and authenticity--and how tempting it was not to believe in them.
"You lose a friend," one disapproving mid-period clergyman wrote: "you want the spiritual world opened so that you may have communication with him. In a highly-wrought, nervous, and diseased state of mind, you go and put yourself in that communication." (10) He meant the seance. Adjudicating between forms of reprise, choosing between the returning soul, the doubted vision, and the "visual shade of some one lost," In Memoriam looked for communication of different kinds, but never, despite the poet's "nervous ... state of mind" to a spiritualist. Encounters with the dead--nervously, with dubiety--In Memoriam sought nonetheless. Consuming itself with worry about how the dead could be met, and what desire for such meeting suggested about the poet's state of mind, In Memoriam returned to forms of human return with an anxious but insistent fascination. Lazarus was brought from the charnel house, the poet observed of the New Testament miracle in lyric XXXI, a man "raised up by Christ!" (1. 13). But it was to his silence that Tennyson was drawn, a silence that was the quintessence of the poem's fascination with what lay beyond dust. Of what Lazarus knew from the world beyond, nothing was said: Lazarus "told it not; or something sealed / The lips of that Evangelist" (XXXI.15-16), Tennyson said, with desire, sorrow, suspicion, and vexation behind that "something." Enigmatic reticence wreathed the return of the typological anticipator of Jesus' resurrection. And at the seeming return of Hallam in lyric XCV--the emotional centre of a poem absorbed with the terms by which the dead might be known--the news the departed brought was hidden too.
Extraordinary and unrecountable that return was, all the same. Beginning in twilight, where bats flew through the skies "and wheeled or lit the filmly shapes / That haunt the dusk" (XCV.10-11), lyric XCV commenced with a hint of the ghost story, another touch of the gothic. Surely, this was to be a narrative of a haunted night? But the gothic potential of the darkened house and the flitting bats was again denied. The "genial warmth" of the evening, accompanied by the singing of old songs, belonged in no episode of Ann Radcliffe or Monk Lewis or Eliza Parsons: the tapers burned with calmness, "unwavering," and "The brook alone far-off was heard" (XCV.6,7) in a scene not of terror but of reassuring repose. The lyric was a narrative of the nocturnal visitation by the dead nevertheless, even if its interest was in a bodiless return, the claimed revelation of a soul not the longed-for grasp of a hand. "But when those others, one by one," Tennyson said, beginning the story of his night-time experience,
Withdrew themselves from me and night, And in the house light after light Went out, and I was all alone, A hunger seized my heart; I read Of that glad year which once had been, In those fallen leaves which kept their green, The noble letters of the dead: And strangely on the silence broke The silent-speaking words, and strange Was love's dumb cry defying change To test his worth; and strangely spoke The faith, the vigour, bold to dwell On doubts that drive the coward back, And keen thro' wordy snares to track Suggestion to her inmost cell. So word by word, and line by line, The dead man touched me from the past, And all at once it seemed at last The living soul was flashed on mine, And mine in this was wound, and whirled About empyreal heights of thought, And came on that which is, and caught The deep pulsations of the world. AEonian music measuring out The steps of Time--the shocks of Chance--The blows of Death. At length my trance Was cancelled, stricken through with doubt. (XCV.18-44)
Hedged and qualified, Tennyson's scene of "fallen leaves which kept their green" was stalled between the awe of recognizing an apparent presence and corrosive dubiety about what it really was. Silent-speaking words offered a moment both craved and not entirely believed in. "How good men have desired to see a ghost," Browning's Mr Sludge says complacently, without much consciousness of the significance of his deceptions. (11) But In Memoriam, finding little of comfort in other imagined visitations, fantasized in this final revivalist act not a ghost but Hallam's living soul, visiting through the seeming force of undisclosed words. If ghosts in the gothic tradition brought terror, the flash of Hallam's being, however momentarily, brought luminous improbability that nonetheless consoled. Not one of Tennyson's models--"Lament for Bion," "Lycidas," "Adonais"--had ventured such a scene, and if after Maud Tennyson returned to the uncanny survival of messages from the dead, lyric XCV of In Memoriam remained the most personal and audacious of the future Laureate's intrigues with moments of their revisitation.
"The soul or spirit of a man is immaterial," said James Thacher in his Essay on Demonology, Ghosts and Apparitions, and Popular Superstitions (1831), pursuing the logic of his own suspicions: and it is, "of course intangible and invisible." So, if it is "not recognisable by our senses," he continued: "how can the dead appear to the living? That disembodied spirits should communicate with surviving objects on earth ... that the spirit of the wise and good should return to proffer instructions ... must be deemed unphilosophical." (12) The fear of being "unphilosophical" for Tennyson in 1850 was irrelevant--he was worried rather about the fear of being the dupe of pain. Yet, despite the caution in his nervous "seemed," despite the swift admission of the inadequate nature of language to narrate the experience, and despite the subsequent history of the poet's complicated rethinking of what had occurred, the lyric of Hallam's return fashioned an image of re-union that elsewhere the poem had yearned for but not obtained. "Vague words!," Tennyson said, faced with the difficulties of recounting the event:
how hard to frame In matter-moulded forms of speech, Or even for intellect to reach Through memory that which I became. (XCV.46-48)
"Matter-moulded forms of speech" offered only the outer shell of meaning. Yet the mouldering of matter, the decaying of Hallam's body, had, all the same, been momentarily put to one side. Angela Leighton sums up the force of In Memoriam's efforts to contact the dead with the unanswered question: "Ghost, can you see us, hear us?" (13) Yet the elegy, in its climax, approached a half-proposal that, as it was not a ghost Tennyson had wished to contact, it was not a ghost he had, for a moment, known. It was a living man, returned animate from the dead. Looking back on the consolation others found in In Memoriam, Tennyson declared flatly that "it is very little that words can do." (14) Yet the possibility that words in the poem could do something, that some mysterious power remained in their deepest being to permit the return of a living soul, had not been wholly absent from In Memoriam's painfully discriminating, painfully cautious, speculations that culminated in its most un-gothic gothic scene.
Arthur Hallam's living soul was "present" but for an instant--and it was impersonal and Lazarus-like in its silence about the nature of life beyond the grave. It was also almost immediately doubted. But if doubts came quickly in the poem, so, later in Tennyson's career, the notion that his friend had in someway returned, that he had been present in an un-analyzable moment of revelation, became a matter of serious discomfort. Intrigued by the mental states that follow bereavement, the fluctuations of faith and changes of mood; absorbed by a lost central figure whose identity remains hidden; drawn over again to scenes of meeting, including the longed-for embrace with the vanished; continually juxtaposing the language of love with that of the grave; continually searching out what higher purposes may be knowable through personal calamity; and intrigued by the multiple forms in which the dead might take their place with the living: these are not, despite appearances, descriptions of In Memoriam. They are a summary of Maud, the antiphonal voice, claimed Tennyson, to the elegy. Maud was antiphonal, perhaps--but it was also resistant. About ways in which the past shaped the future--the vivid memory of the death of the speaker's father, the marriage pledge of the speaker and Maud as a child--Maud was peculiarly conscious of Tennyson's own past as a poet. In Memoriam had shaped Tennyson's public reputation. Tampering creatively with the elegy's legacy, Maud endeavored to define territory for itself in the shadow of an exceptional product of grief. Yet Maud's challenge to In Memoriam was not only an act of poetic space-clearing, a challenge driven by the anxiety that a writer's past might injuriously overshadow his present (Tennyson would return to this subject). Ruminating on death, the borders between the quick and the dead, and what words might cross them, Maud made its richest ironic capital out of an act of self-admonishment about lyric XCV, parodying what had seemed part of the best hope, the highest prize, of In Memoriam.
Maud's figuration of the mental anguish of a man who has loved and lost retold the story of In Memoriam in alternative terms. It took the elegy's sense of Tennyson as "A weight of nerves without a mind" (XII.7) to make a history of a nervous, neurotic man struggling to control his damaged life. The elegy presented a voice that turned from inner grief to public questions of theology and science: Maud proposed--Maud's speaker proposed--enthusiasm for the Crimean War as a resolution to a private malaise. In more local but persistent ways, Maud engaged with and rebuffed the substance of its precursor. But it did so most frequently by dwelling on the figures of the poem's mourning and its longing to know the dead. It took the fascination with the presences, durability, and communicative power of the deceased in In Memoriam and made them the convictions of a man of troubled sanity.
Unkindly greeted by reviewers, as Tennyson saw it, Maud could not forget the significance of welcomes and acknowledgements. In Memoriam's yearning for Hallam, imagined at the harbour, in heaven, as a skeletal hand stretching from the grave, as a touch that was no touch, was changed in Maud into a set of encounters, literal bodily meetings, of increasing jeopardy. Those greetings were symptomatic of the way Maud entered the substance, the imaginative and emotional fabric of the elegy, to pursue new, alternative meanings. Through changed scenes of welcome, In Memoriam's language of mourning was, in part, undone. Greetings were the events around which Maud's dramatic progress was arranged--yet they signified not the loss of something in the past, but the failure of a hoped-for future. They are the closest the speaker comes to knowing Maud. Yet they grow in capacity to harm and the grasping hand of welcome in the first poem is finally transformed in the climatic horror of the second into a striking, murderous fist. The speaker sees his beloved infrequently and usually by chance--"Whom but Maud should I meet / Last night"(I.VI.196-197) (15)--but the scenes of encounter become those that necessitate or precipitate partings. He sees Maud with the "new-made lord" (I.X.332) and is jealous; with her brother and his "stony British stare" (I.XIII.465) and is humiliated; and, disastrously, he sees Maud with her brother and the "babe-faced lord" (II. I.13) in the garden at the close of Part I, and is driven to apparently murderous wrath. In Memoriam desired re-unions that would mean the dissolution of grief: Maud turns greetings into grief.
Maud was written against In Memoriam most noticeably when its subject was explicitly the dead. "Poor Maud," (16) as Tennyson came to call the "very roughly treated" poem, (17) could not let the subject go, and with that theme Maud most deftly created its best distances from Tennyson's anonymous "signature" poem. Beginning with suicide and ending with war, Maud circled around paternal loss, conscious of the "spirit of murder ... in the very means of life" (I.I.40), and those killed in war, while persistently confusing the states of life and death. From forms of vitality beyond the tomb, it made a succession of its sharpest ironies. And if those ironies could be in unlikely places, they could also touch the central enigmas of the poetry. Seeing the presence of the living among the dead, and vice versa, as an act of perceptual confusion, Maud placed a question mark over the assumptions and emotional resolutions of In Memoriam, as if it was reproachful of its predecessor, embarrassed by its succumbing to the untestable in answer to emotional need. Many a reader has wondered whether Maud is, within the single perspective provided by the poem, "real" or not: is the tale told by the speaker meant to be a delusion, or is Maud, within the text, intended to possess external reality? Is the poem a drama of the mind alone? Yet among the doubts about Maud's reality is the more persistent oddity not whether she is real but whether she is alive. A woman of whom the speaker asks, "What is she now?" (I.I.73), Maud admits no firm answer, caught between life and the phantom's state. Oscillating in the speaker's vocabulary between two worlds, Maud drifts through Tennyson's language as a hybrid being, flickering between different forms of being. "Maud is here, here, here" (I.XII.423), but where is that, exactly?
"Dead," symptomatically, creeps in as the most unlikely of adjectives in this perceptual confusion. Maud is "Dead perfection, no more" (I.II.83). The "no more" means first of all that her perfection is not more than perfect, but the stark monosyllables, "no more," are a synonym of "dead" all the same. She is "Pale with the golden beam of an eyelash dead on the cheek" and her whole face seems without life: "passionless, pale, cold" (I.III.91). Frigidly, coldly perfect, Maud is caught between existence as living alabaster and dead, chilly, materiality. Once she is "lain in the lilies of life" (I.IV.161). But, despite that "life," she sounds uncomfortably close to a corpse in a funeral parlour. Sitting by a pillar alone in church, she is placed as if underground with a funerary image above her. "An angel watching an urn" observes her: it "Wept over her, carved in stone" (I.VIII.304). That sounds more like a churchyard. Maud seems briefly like her mother, dead "in her grave" with an "image in marble above" (I.IV.159): the scene set up her odd co-existence on both sides of the tomb with an element of theatricality. Elsewhere, she is a phantom before she has died. Thinking, in Part 1, of Maud's garden and a surprise visit, the speaker drifts again into the language of night visitations that had tempted Tennyson in In Memoriam:
I thought as I stood, if a hand, as white As ocean-foam in the moon, were laid On the hasp of the window, and my Delight Had a sudden desire, like a glorious ghost, to glide, Like a beam of the seventh Heaven, down to my side, There were but a step to be made. (I.XIV.505-510)
Another imagining of non-corporeal movement, the lines reconceived Emily Bronte's account of Lockwood's nocturnal visitor into a union that is desired, not terrifying. But the image retained its sense of Maud's living deadness, her position between conflicting forms of being. And its disconcerting Shelleyan formulation of a "glorious ghost" animated by a "sudden desire" added a frisson of necrophilia to the scene's sexual dynamic. In the slippage between one vocabulary and another, Maud offered its reader a conundrum of human identity, asking a question about what strange forms of life existed behind the "death-white curtain drawn" that hid Maud from the world (I.XIV.522).
The vocabulary of the speaker's self-representation is drawn to ominous confusions of life and death. Aidan Day reads such confusions as a sign of the wholesale collapse of value systems in the poem, a feature of its movement towards what he calls nihilism. "The real problem in Maud," he suggests, "is that the happy and blessed spirit is not fundamentally separable from the abiding phantom cold. All dualistic distinctions asserted by the protagonist collapse into an undifferentiated monism." (18) But such collapses should not be the basis of such generalized and dark conclusions, for the confusions of state are functions--far more ironic, inventively parodic than Day sees them--of Maud's desire to be doubtful about, and distant from, In Memoriam. The blending of life into death is about the re-prisioning of Tennyson's poetic past more than a foundation of Nietzschean pessimism avant la lettre. The elegy hoped that the departed might survive among the living, but Maud, tangling up the quick and the dead, makes the inability to distinguish between them a function of mental instability. Watching Maud in church (underneath the angel), the speaker's heart "beat stronger / And thicker" (I.VIII.308-309): that is both testimony to vitality and death, to an intensifying desire and a hint of clogging arterial unhealthiness. But as a figure on the threshold of the grave or of life, Maud herself more directly parodied In Memoriam's elaborate preoccupation with the tenacity of the dead, their interfusion in the wor(l)ds of the living. After the incident with Maud's brother, does she really die? Matthew Campbell is certain that she does. "In the second part of Maud, an apparition of the loved one's ghost comes back to haunt him," he remarks. (19) If there is an obscure equivocation between a "ghost" and the "apparition" of a ghost here, there is also an assumption which the text does not quite allow. Does the statement in Part 2.III that "She is but dead" (1. 139) mean she has literally died, of grief, of shock? Or she is now, after the killing of her brother, metaphorically dead to the speaker? When he then imagines Maud standing at his own grave, what understanding of mental turmoil must the reader have? "She is not of us I divine," he says, imagining himself looking at a ghost of someone who had never really seemed alive anyway: "She comes from another stiller world of the dead" (II.V.308). What does he mean by this? Is she dead (for real), or is this hallucinatory grief?
The text's playful refusal to confirm turned back to In Memoriam with all the force of impatience, undercutting the notion of visitation that was once a momentary answer to bereavement with complicated irony and mistrust. Maud probes arguments for and against the Crimean War. It is a meditation on the relationship between lyricism and insanity, a study of hereditary insanity, a consideration of the place of femininity in masculinity, and many other things. But it is also a sophisticated act of self-definition against an act of imagining that Tennyson could no longer quite own but which continued, so to speak, to haunt his mind even in the midst of his labour to exorcise it.
Nowhere was the parodic vigour of Maud on the subject, specifically, of the communicating dead more pointed than in the speaker's imagined graveyard scene--another spry instance when the monodrama appropriated the terms of Hamlet. Shifting the reader's uncertainty of the borders between the living and the dead into a fantasy of being buried alive, the speaker's maddened rumination on the nightmare of immolation offered the most conspicuously upturned notion of In Memoriam's concern with communicative power from beyond the grave. It is a version in which the nature of emotional longing is grotesquely transformed from a desire to meet again into a desire to be more dead. Hamlet fails to converse with the dead skull of Yorick. Tennyson's speaker utters words not from but to the dead, yet which are not part of a conversation either. This was one of the highest moments of the insanity that seemed "truth to nature" to a "madhouse Doctor," Tennyson later, proudly, said. (20)
"Dead, long dead, / Long dead!," the speaker of Maud, says, believing himself the nemesis of Maud's brother, and now thrust under ground:
And my heart is a handful of dust, And the wheels go over my head, And my bones are shaken with pain, For into a shallow grave they are thrust, Only a yard beneath the street, And the hoofs of the horses beat, beat, The hoofs of the horses beat, Beat into my scalp and my brain, With never an end to the stream of passing feet, Driving, hurrying, marrying, burying, Clamour and rumble, and ringing and clatter, And here beneath it is all as bad, For I thought the dead had peace, but it is not so; To have no peace in the grave, is that not sad? But up and down and to and fro, Ever about me the dead men go; And then to hear a dead man chatter Is enough to drive one mad. (II.V.241-258)
Imagining himself buried under a pavement, the speaker hears the dead talk. Tennyson, from Hallam's first loss to his last poems, wondered about sounds that had vanished into the grave. But this was their darkly comic other, a sound coming out of the grave. The language of eternity, "never an end," "ever about," is drained of joyful promise to become but the hyperbole of a grieving insomniac. Where, In Memoriam wondered, do the souls of the departed go? The speaker of Maud knows in his crazed perception that they carry on their daily lives, clattering over their dead companions in a danse macabre of ordinary life. Lazarus did not speak: these "dead [men] chatter" with the inconsequence of the banal spirits in the Victorian seance. In Memoriam prevented the reader from seeing the lines that brought Hallam's flash of soul back, masking the language of enchantment, the gateway between one world and another. Here, the words of the buried man, with their gesture to the hallucinations in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1798), are unhindered, all too audible. In the archest comment on In Memoriam's most luminous hopes, this strangely orderly cascade from a disorderly brain, confirms, in the bathos of its feeble sorrow, that fantasies of communication from the grave take their origin in the most distressing confusion.
The last moment of Part II completes the separation of 1850 from 1855:
O me, why have they not buried me deep enough? Is it kind to have made a grave so rough, Me, that was never a quiet sleeper? Maybe still I am but half-dead; Then I cannot be wholly dumb; I will cry to the steps above my head, And somebody, surely, some kind heart will come To bury me, bury me Deeper, ever so little deeper. (II.V.334-342)
Deciding whether he is dead or not, and what that means for his ability to communicate, the speaker's literalness about being buried--he is a "quiet sleeper" so needs to be further down--winningly concludes Maud's scrambling of In Memoriam's most serious matters with a gothic joke. Hallam's living soul apparently returned through hidden language and revealed nothing about himself except, for a moment, the vitality of his continued existence. Here, the words are spoken by the "dead," and, far from bringing consolation or knowledge of the heavenly state, they are mundane and crazy. In Memoriam dramatized the gleaming return of the unspeaking deceased: Maud's garrulous speaker, believing himself dead (or half-dead), desires simply the boundaries of the grave to be restored.
The curious non-gothic of in Memoriam has become the maddened, comic-gothic of Maud. These disturbing, witty, and disruptive scenes are driven by Maud's impatience with the elegy, by a tense compound of continual absorption with the idea of the returning or communicating dead, and new self-reproach about it. "Deep down," says Aidan Day, "there is a hopelessness in Maud, even a nihilism" that comes from the poem's "deconstruction of the narratives by which Western culture has sought to order human life" (p. 184). But the resistance to improbable things that brought fragile hope did not result, from the perspective of my argument, in anything like nihilism. Read as a partial parody of In Memoriam's dealings with the dead, Maud disclosed Tennyson seeking to move away, to distance himself, from the strange desires and temptations to believe in forms of life that, seeming to survive the grave, were beyond empirical certainty. By what it chose to ironize, the poem suggests not Day's radical skepticism, but Tennyson's effort, for a moment in 1855, to resist a deeply lodged desire to succumb to consolations about the tomb, his intention to place any future hopes on surer footing, to be more circumspect in what he allowed himself to believe, and write down.
Maud looked back to In Memoriam. But what followed Maud in the first publication looked back to Maud. Eventually, Tennyson, of course, would return seriously to new ways in which the dead might return: the discomfort of Maud was not final. (21) But the immediate aftermath of Maud was different. Maud's implicit salute to things knowable and empirically credible was in turn quietly affirmed, the ironic relationship between the monodrama and Tennyson's past neatly summed up in another subtle reprise, another upsetting of a return-from-the-dead narrative. With what eventually became "The Brook: An Idyl," Tennyson in Maud, and Other Poems offered a new comment on the subdued argument with himself that was worked out in the inhospitable textures of his little Hamlet. A brief narrative poem, "The Brook" asked the reader to recognize, to feel, the pull of a desire to believe in the dead's return. But it also answered Tennyson's desire to keep his feet on the ground, replacing the mysterious with the surety of empirical credibility, and playing out the epistemological shifts that Maud had attempted. "The Brook" recounts, at its close, the meeting of old Lawrence Aylmer with the daughter of a woman he knew when young. Tennyson's narrative moves from the apparently or near-miraculous to the rationally comprehensible, from a furtive hint of a mysterious world to a restatement of the empirical, knowable one. Sitting on a stile, Aylmer is thinking of Katie Willows, the mother, who long ago left for Australia, when, "On a sudden," he looks up:
There stood a maiden near, Waiting to pass. In much amaze he stared On eyes a bashful azure, and on hair In gloss and hue the chestnut, when the shell Divides threefold to show the fruit within: Then, wondering, asked her 'Are you from the farm?' 'Yes' answer'd she. 'Pray stay a little: pardon me; What do they call you?' 'Katie,' 'That were strange. What surname?' 'Willows.' 'No!' 'That is my name.' 'Indeed!' and here he looked so self-perplext, That Katie laughed, and laughing blushed, till he Laughed also, but as one before he wakes, Who feels a glimmering strangeness in his dream. Then looking at her; 'Too happy, fresh and fair, Too fresh and fair in our sad world's best bloom, To be the ghost of one who bore your name About these meadows, twenty years ago.' 'Have you not heard?' said Katie, 'we came back. We bought the farm we tenanted before. Am I so like her? so they said on board. Sir, if you knew her in the her English days That most she loves to talk of, come with me. My brother James is in the harvest-field: But she--you will be welcome--O come in!' (11. 204-228)
Tennyson's language of the visitation resonates with western traditions of mythic or sacred returns. The Gospel accounts of Jesus' resurrection, most obviously. Rather than a woman meeting a man returning from the dead, as in the Christian narrative, a man looks--like Jocelyn Pierston at the second and third Avice in Hardy's The Well-Beloved (1892)--incredulously at a woman who seems to have preserved her youth. Mary's belief that the resurrected Jesus is the gardener is transformed to the most quotidian of queries to Katie: "Are you from the farm?"
Other narratives of revival are here. Proserpine lingers behind this scene, seasonally returning from the underworld to bring fruition and new growth. But the mood and direction is not toward the enchanted. Francis Turner Palgrave, retelling a version of Alcestis, had Admetos cry, on seeing Alcestis miraculously returned, "'Mine, / My one of all the world! my all in one!'" (22) Tennyson's non-Alcestis obtains no such rapture as it stages no such supernatural revival. Here, a young woman "returns from the dead" only for an instant in the spectator's imagination as he muses on the "glimmering strangeness" of an idea that cannot, he realizes, be true. The return is not ghostly but rationally explicable. Saved not from the underworld, the heroine of "The Brook" is brought back alive from Australia by boat. Like the return of Elizabeth Gaskell's Kinraid in Sylvia's Lovers (1863), there is an explanation: there is neither "apparition" (to borrow the title of Gaskell's chapter in which Kinraid comes back) nor resurrection. The palimpsest of the Greek narrative of revival, in which Browning figured central ambitions for resurrectionary poetry, (23) effects the transformation in "The Brook" of the miraculous into the credible, the marvelous into the mundane. And that is not wholly without relevance as a clue to Maud's relations with In Memoriam, with all the later poem's mistrust of "supernatural" narratives of human returns, its provision of an explanation as to where such ideas come from, and its reluctance to give credence to anything that looks like a claim about the uncanny vitality of the dead.
Isobel Armstrong thinks the primary relation between Maud and In Memoriam is merely that the former suggests "the mourning process" of the latter "has been arrested at its earliest stages and turned morbid" (p. 269). But in truth Maud was far more conscious of the elegy than this, and it looked persistently back to In Memoriam, with, by turns, antiphonal, ironizing, and parodic purposes. Among its central intentions was a repositioning of what In Memoriam had, Tennyson thought for awhile in 1855, unguardedly claimed as an answer to grief. Maud provides its reader with an exceptionally unclear view of who the speaker is (what does he look like? is he tall or short, dark or light? does he look mad or sane and calm?). It is apt that the poem should, in this sense, fail to "call up" the image of its central figure, as Browning's monologues sought to call up the presence of their speakers as lively beings. Inviting the reader to perceive confusion between the borders of the living and the dead as an uncertain product of an uncertain mind, Maud was not inclined to imagine the presence even of the living. And that was only a glimpse of its bigger hesitation, for Maud's inventive restlessness with Tennyson's most famous poem expressed just how impatient he now was with an idea that words might somehow call up not the quick--but the dead. However much the deceased were mourned, poetry in the age of doubt, Maud suggested, should maintain a distance from any claims, spiritualist-like or otherwise, that living souls could overcome the tomb. Wherever Maud is, then, she is not here.
(1) Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 268.
(2) Isaac Taylor, Physical Theory of Another Life (London, 1836), p. 260.
(3) Robert Bernard Martin, Tennyson, The Unquiet Heart (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), p. 183.
(4) James O. Hoge, ed., The Letters of Emily Lady Tennyson (London: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1974), letter to Hallam Tennyson, p. 249.
(5) See Eric Griffiths, The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), pp. 97-170.
(6) The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks, 3 vols. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987); hereafter cited as Poems. All references to Tennyson's In Memoriam are to lyric numbers and line numbers.
(7) For more on "almost-gothic" elements of In Memoriam, see Julian Wolfreys, "The Matter of Faith: Incarnation and Incorporation in Tennyson's In Memoriam," in Victorian Hauntings: Spectrality, Haunting, the Gothic, and the Uncanny in Literature (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 59-74.
(8) Letter postmarked December 3, 1833, The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson, ed. Cecil Y. Lang and Edgar F. Shannon, Jr., 3 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982-90), 1:l01; herafter cited as Letters.
(9) Hallam Tennyson, quoted in Poems, 2:517n.
(10) The Rev. T. de Witt Talmage, The Religion of Ghosts: A Denunciation of Spiritualism (London: Longley, ), p.7.
(11) Mr. Sludge, 'The Medium,' 1. 136, in The Poems of Robert Browning, ed. John Pettigrew with Thomas J. Collins, 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1981), 1:825.
(12) James Thacher, An Essay on Demonology, Ghosts and Apparitions, and Popular Superstitions (Boston, 1831), p. 4.
(13) Angela Leighton, On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2006), p. 72.
(14) Letter to the Duke of Argyll, February 25, 1862, Letters, 2:297.
(15) References to Maud are by section, sub-section and line number, from the Ricks edition.
(16) See, for instance, letter to Robert James Mann [September 1855], Letters, 2:127, and "poor little Maud" in letter to Emily Tennyson, September 27,  (Letters, 2:128).
(17) Letter to F. G. Tuckerman, October 17, 1855, Letters, 2:133.
(18) Aidan Day, Tennyson's Scepticism (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p. 180.
(19) Matthew Campbell, Rhythm and Will in Victorian Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999), p.154.
(20) Letter to Robert James Mann, October 9, 1855, Letters, 2:132.
(21) On this subject, see Francis O'Gorman, "Poetry in the Age of New Sound Technology: from Mallarme to Tennyson," Cahiers victoriens & eduoardiens 69 (2009): 41-58.
(22) Francis Turner Palgrave, Lyrical Poems (London: Macmillan, 1871), p. 37.
(23) See Robert Browning, Balaustion's Adventure, Including a Transcript from Euripides (London: Smith, Elder, 1871).
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2010|
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