Alfred, Lord Tennyson Poetry: British Analysis
Always praised for his ability to create musical lyrics, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, is now recognized as a master of a number of verse forms and a thinker who brooded deeply over the problems of his age, attempting to capture these problems and deal with them in his poetry. He is also credited with being one of the few poets whose works demonstrate a real assimilation of the poetic tradition that preceded him. His poems reflect an insight into the crises of his own age, as well as an appreciation of problems that have faced all people, especially the problems of death, loss, and nostalgic yearning for a more stable world.
Early works such as “The Palace of Art” and “The Two Voices” are clear examples of the kind of poem for which Tennyson traditionally has been acclaimed. In each, the poet presents a sensitive person who faces a crisis and is forced to choose between radical alternatives. In “The Palace of Art,” the speaker must choose between self-indulgence in a world of artistic beauty and commitment to a life of service; in “The Two Voices,” the speaker’s choice is either to escape the harsh realities of an oppressive world through suicide, or to continue living with only the faintest glimmer of hope.
Tennyson’s highly regarded classical poem “The Lotos-Eaters” explores similar themes to “The Palace of Art” and “The Two Voices.” For his subject, the poet drew on the incident in the Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614) in which Odysseus’s men disembark in the paradisiacal land of the lotus-eaters and fall under the enchantment of the lotus fruit. The poem is also influenced by Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), where the figure of Despair argues for the same kind of languid repose that the mariners sing of in “The Lotos-Eaters.” Tennyson uses all his powers of description and his special command of the language to select words and phrases whose tonal qualities and connotative meanings strongly suggest the sense of repose and stasis. The musical quality of the poem is enhanced by the meter, the effectiveness of caesura and enjambment, and the varying line lengths used throughout, especially the extensive use of long lines broken by numerous caesuras near the end of the lyric. “The Lotos-Eaters,” a combination of narrative and choric song, describes the arrival of the mariners in a land that appears to be perpetually “afternoon,” where “all things always seemed the same.” Here the “wild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters” bring to the travelers the food that will dull their desire to continue on to Ithaca. Having partaken of the fruit of the lotus, the mariners begin to think of their homeland as merely a dream, too distant a goal, no longer worth striving for. As they lie on the beach, one suggests that they “return no more,” and the others quickly take up the chant; their choric song, in eight sections, makes up the remainder of the poem. In the song, the mariners review the many hardships they have faced and the many more that await them if they continue their journey. About them they see that “all things have rest”; they ask “Why should we toil alone?” Rather than continue, they beg to be given “long rest or death, dark death, or dremful ease.” The poem’s final statement is an exhortation to “rest, ye brother mariners, we will not wander more.” It is unwise, however, to assume that the mariners’ decision to opt for “dreamful ease” over a life of “toil” is Tennyson’s own position. Rather, “The Lotos-Eaters” explores, from only one perspective, the dilemma of commitment versus retreat. The poet treats the same theme in many other poems in which the speaker takes a decidedly different view.
Tennyson’s complex treatment of this theme of commitment to ideals can be seen in one of his most famous shorter works, “Ulysses.” This poem also exemplifies numerous other characteristics common to much of Tennyson’s poetry, particularly his use of irony. Indeed, in “Ulysses” the reader can see the glimmerings of the essentially ironic poetic form that emerged during the nineteenth century, made popular byRobert Browning—the dramatic monologue. “Ulysses” is a poem inspired by Tennyson’s personal experiences; yet in the poem Tennyson transforms his experiences into a work of art that speaks of an issue that concerns all people. In “Ulysses,” Tennyson is both typically Victorian and still a poet for all times. The call to action at the end of the poem and the emphasis on each man’s “work” was no doubt appealing to the poet’s contemporaries. In the twentieth century, under the scrutiny of critics more aware of the subtleties of Tennyson’s ironic vision, the poem provides pleasure for its refusal to yield to a simplistic reading.
In “Ulysses,” the reader discovers how Tennyson uses the poetic tradition, especially the legacy of classical and Renaissance poets. Like “The Lotos-Eaters,” “Ulysses” is based in part on Homer’s Odyssey. The classical epic is not the only source, however, for by the poet’s own admission, the poem owes much to the portrait of Ulysses in Dante’s Inferno (in La divina commedia, c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802). In Dante’s poem, Ulysses is found in hell, condemned as a deceiver for having led his men away from Ithaca in search of vain glories. That Tennyson chose to draw his own hero from sources that present such radically different views of Ulysses suggests that he wanted to create an ironic tension in his own work. In the Inferno, Ulysses tells Dante that, unable to remain at home, he was compelled by wanderlust to set forth in search of new adventures. The spirit of Homer’s unconquerable quester is captured in Tennyson’s poem, but Dante’s condemned spirit is always there to remind the reader that there may be dangers in pursuing the ideal at the expense of other considerations.
When one first reads “Ulysses” one can easily be swept along by the apparent vigor of the hero’s argument. His description of life in his native Ithaca, where he is “matched with an aged wife,” forced to “meet and dole/ Unequal laws” in a land whose people he regards as “savage,” makes it easy for the reader to understand Ulysses’ wish to return to a life of seafaring adventure. Among these people, Ulysses is not appreciated for the adventures that have caused him to “become a name” throughout the Mediterranean world. His experiences have become absorbed into the very fiber of his being; he reflects that “I am a part of all that I have met.” Small wonder that the confines of his island home seem to imprison him! He realizes that his many exploits are only doorways to future experiences, an “arch” beyond which “gleams/ That untravelled world” he has yet to see. At home he finds himself becoming “dull,” like a weapon left to “rust unburnished.”
Realizing that he can no longer be happy as ruler in such a land, Ulysses declares that he will leave his “sceptre and the isle” to his son Telemachus, a man more capable and more patient than his father when operating in the “sphere/ Of common duties.” Ulysses recognizes that he and his son are different—“He works his work, I mine”—and it is best for all if each man follow his own destiny. This difference is easy for the modern reader to accept, as it suggests a truism about human nature that those imbued with the Romantic desire for self-fulfillment find immediately palatable.
Having passed on his kingship to his son, Ulysses turns to the companions who have “toiled, and wrought, and thought” with him, and calls them to one last voyage. As night draws near, he urges them to embark once more in the ship that will carry them to lands where “some work of noble note, may yet be done.” “’Tis not too late,” he exhorts them, “to seek a newer world.” His purpose is to “sail beyond the sunset” until he dies. The unextinguishable spirit of adventure, burning still in the heart of this old warrior, is summed up best in the closing lines, where he proclaims to those who accompany him that, although they are no longer young, they can still be men of “heroic hearts,” “strong in will,/ To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Because the poem was composed shortly after the death of Tennyson’s friend Arthur Henry Hallam, some critics have seen “Ulysses” as a statement of the poet’s personal commitment to continue living and writing even after suffering a great personal tragedy that seemed to have robbed life of its meaning. Looking at himself as an old man who had been deprived of the spark of adventure and facing a fast-approaching death of his creative self, Tennyson chose to continue living and working. Only through an active commitment to life itself could he hope one day to see “the great Achilles,” here meant to represent Hallam. Such a biographical interpretation is supported by Tennyson’s comment, preserved in Hallam Tennyson’s Alfred, Lord Tennyson: A Memoir, that “Ulysses” expressed his “feeling about the need of going forward, and braving the struggle of life” after Hallam’s death.
The biographical interpretation can be supported in part by a close reading of the text. The resounding note of optimism, at least on the surface of the poem, is apparent. All the images associated with life on the isle of Ithaca suggest dullness, a kind of death-in-life. Tennyson displays his mastery of the single line in his withering description of the people of Ithaca; ten monosyllables capture the essence of those whom Ulysses has come to despise: They “hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.” Here is avarice, indolence, a suggestion of animal satisfaction with physical ease, and, most important, a lack of appreciation for the man who has raised himself from the multitude and won fame through bravery, cleverness, and other distinctly human qualities. Similarly, Tennyson has Ulysses describe the life of wandering and the yearning for further adventures in most appealing terms, both sensual and intellectual. Ulysses is a “hungry heart”; he wishes to “drink/ Life to the less,” having previously “drunk delight of battle with my peers.” In a single phrase borrowed from Homer, Tennyson’s Ulysses recalls the great struggle in which he first won fame, far away from home on the “ringing plains of windy Troy.” The excitement of battle serves as a counterpoint to the dullness of life in Ithaca. The hero’s excitement is captured in his final exhortation, in which the poet once again resorts to a line of monosyllables that bombard the reader in staccato fashion: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Active verbs call the mariners to action and the reader to acceptance of the hero’s decision.
Despite the stirring note of optimism in this final line, however, the poem cannot be accepted simply as another example of strident Victorian rhetoric aimed at encouraging one to have faith in oneself and one’s God and press on in the face of uncertainties. In fact, when the uncertainties in the poem are considered carefully, the reader begins to see another side of the aged hero. Ulysses is certain of his boredom with having to govern the “savage race” and of the resentment he harbors toward them because they fail to honor him for his past exploits. What Ulysses will substitute for his present life, and what good he will accomplish in leaving Ithaca, is not at all clear. Some notable work “may yet be done,” but he cannot be certain that his new wanderings will lead to anything but death: “It may be that the gulfs will wash us down,” he cautions. Of course, he and his mariners may “touch the Happy Isles” where they will be reunited with “the great Achilles,” but the chance of such a reunion is at best tenuous. In fact, such a desire implies a kind of death wish, since Achilles has departed this life for Elysium.
One may sympathize with Ulysses, seeing that his present life is unfulfilling, and agree that pursuing tenuous goals is better than stagnating. At this point, though, one must recall that the dreary condition on Ithaca is not related by the poet as factual, but rather is described by Ulysses himself. Because the poem is dramatic in nature, only the hero’s own word provides a touchstone for judging things as they really are, and it is possible that Ulysses’ view is jaundiced. One must consider, too, that Tennyson draws not only from Homer but also from Dante for his portrait of Ulysses; the Dantean quality of the hero cannot be overlooked, and in the Inferno, Ulysses is found in hell, having led his mariners to their doom. In the version of the Inferno that Tennyson probably read, that by H. F. Cary (1805), Ulysses tells Dante that no familial feelings could overcome the “zeal” he had to explore the world, a feeling that he calls “man’s evil and his virtue.” Tennyson’s Ulysses may also be a victim of this curse and blessing. Despite his pronounced enthusiasm for a life of heroic adventure, Ulysses may in fact merely be running away from his responsibilities. If the reader recalls from the Odyssey the hero’s struggles to return to his wife and son, Ulysses’ behavior in Tennyson’s poem must appear a little suspect. The beloved and faithful Penelope is now scorned as an “aged wife.” Telemachus, although praised for his sagacity and patience, is still not of the heroic mold.
A word of caution is in order here. In the past, critics have been quick to call Ulysses’ description of his son a thinly disguised piece of sarcasm, but this reading smuggles twentieth century notions into a nineteenth century context. Words such as “blameless” and “decent” were not terms of disapprobation in the nineteenth century, nor would Tennyson have been denigrating Telemachus by pointing out that he worked best in the sphere of “common duties.” In fact, in his other poetry and in the writings preserved in Hallam Tennyson’s Alfred, Lord Tennyson: A Memoir, Tennyson clearly had great respect for men and women who served society at the expense of personal gratification. Precisely because the duties that Ulysses turns over to Telemachus are ones that Tennyson and his contemporaries considered important for the continuation of ordered society, Ulysses’ decision to abdicate them makes his motives questionable. It is at least possible to see that behind the hero’s rhetoric lies a clever scheme to convince his listeners, and the reader, that his actions are motivated by the highest intentions, when in fact he is abandoning a job he finds distasteful and difficult to pursue a lifestyle he finds more gratifying. Such a possibility makes it difficult to see Ulysses as a hero; rather, he appears to be an irresponsible villain for whom Tennyson and the critical reader can have little sympathy. That Tennyson would have held such a man in low regard is evident from his own remarks; as recorded in Hallam Tennyson’s Alfred, Lord Tennyson: A Memoir, he once told a young aspirant to university life that a man “should embark on his career in the spirit of selfless and adventurous heroism and should develop his true self by not shirking responsibility.”
In the light of this ambiguity, it is easy to construe Ulysses’ real decision as an affirmation not of life but of death, and to see his desire to journey forth again as a kind of death wish. Whether one adopts such a reading depends largely on the way one views the tone of the final segments of the poem, in which Ulysses states publicly his reasons for undertaking such a voyage. If this public harangue is merely a rhetorical pose intended to win over skeptical followers so that they will man the hero’s ship on this futile journey, then “Ulysses” is a poem of deceit and despair, a warning to the reader of the hypnotic power of such rhetoric to sway listeners into a mood of naïve optimism. On the other hand, if one is convinced of the hero’s sincerity in his call to strive, seek, find, and not yield, one cannot help considering “Ulysses” another of the many poems in which Tennyson offers hope and support to his fellow Victorians, tempering such optimism with the notion that one can never be absolutely certain whether the journey through life will lead to paradise or merely to death, adrift on an angry sea.
The dilemma may never be solved satisfactorily, for in “Ulysses,” Tennyson is experimenting with a relatively new poetic form, the dramatic monologue, in which ambiguity and ironic distance are characteristic. Although “Ulysses” does not possess all the formal qualities of the dramatic monologue, it does contain the essentials. Situation and action are inferred only from the speech of the main character, and the reader’s assessment of motives rests on his estimation of the character of the speaker. The hero’s exhortation is intended not only to be heard by his fellow mariners but also to be overheard by the reader; one feels compelled to judge the merits of the hero’s philosophy. What one brings to the poem—knowledge of the Odyssey or The Divine Comedy, or of Tennyson’s life—may help to determine whether one should accept or reject Ulysses’ call. In any case, the act of choosing demanded by the poem forces one to make a moral commitment of some kind. The need for making such judgments, and the complexities involved in making them, are matters that concern Tennyson in all his poetry. The ambiguity of the poem is intentional, reflecting the dilemmas faced in the real world by Tennyson and his readers.
The same concerns that one finds in Tennyson’s shorter compositions, such as “Ulysses,” are also reflected in the poet’s longer works. Tennyson wrote four long poems: The Princess, In Memoriam, Maud, and Idylls of the King. None of these is typical of traditional narrative poetry, and in several ways, they anticipate the long poems of the twentieth century. All four are fragmented in some way; none tells a single story from a consistent perspective. The Princess is the most tightly constructed of Tennyson’s long poems. In this medley, a group of seven young men and women each create part of a tale about a princess who has removed herself from the world of men to establish a college for women. Princess Ida and the prince who comes to “rescue” her and win her love are the products not of a single creator but of seven, as each young person participating in the game adds to both story line and character development. As a result, the poem is actually two stories—that of the princess whose tale is created by the young people, and that of the young people who are themselves very like the characters they create. Throughout the poem songs are interspersed to serve as counterpoint to the narrative and to highlight major themes.
Idylls of the King and Maud
Maud is also a medley. Here, however, the variation is in the verse form, and the fragmentary structure mirrors the nature of the hero, a man poised on the edge of disaster and dementia.
Idylls of the King, Tennyson’s Arthurian poem, consists of twelve separate pieces tied together by the overarching structure provided by the legend itself—the rise and fall of Arthur and his Round Table. Within this framework, individual idylls remain relatively self-contained units. The poet’s examination of the downfall of a society that abandons its ideals is carried forward through an intricate patterning of repeated images and parallel scenes.
Tennyson’s most fragmented long poem is the one for which he is best remembered and most praised. In Memoriam is a collection of more than 130 lyrics, composed by the poet over seventeen years and finally pieced together to record his reaction to the death of his dearest friend. Rather than being a continuous narrative, In Memoriam is a loosely assembled collage that, when read as a whole, reflects the varied emotions that one man experiences when prompted by the death of a loved one to face the reality of death and change in the world and the possibilities for life after death. Like “Ulysses,” the poem is inspired by Tennyson’s personal grief, yet it uses this personal experience as a touchstone for examining an issue that plagued all people of his era: humanity’s ability to cling to faith in God and an afterlife in the face of the challenges of the new science.
The “I” of In Memoriam is not always to be identified with the poet himself; rather, as Tennyson himself said, the speaker is sometimes “the voice of the human race speaking thro’ him [that is, the poet].” Nine years before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), Tennyson was questioning the value of the individual human life in the light of scientific discoveries proving that whole species of animals that once roamed the earth had long ago become extinct. In the much-anthologized middle section of In Memoriam, Tennyson’s narrator observes of nature, “So careful of the type she seems,/ So careless of the single life,” only to cry despairingly in the next lyric,
“So careful of the type?” but no.From scarpéd cliff and quarried stoneShe cries, “A thousand types are gone:I care for nothing, all shall go.”
Here is the “Nature, red in tooth and claw” that people of Tennyson’s age, nurtured on faith in a benevolent God, found impossible to comprehend.
Tennyson sees his personal dilemma over the loss of Hallam and the larger problem involving the conflict between the biblical account of creation and scientific discoveries as essentially similar. The speaker of In Memoriam passes through several emotional stages: from grief and despair over his loss; to doubt, which presumes that all is not lost in death; to hope, based not solely on blind trust but also on “intuition,” people’s sense that a higher person exists to guide their lives and the life of nature itself; to, finally, faith, an acceptance of the notion of immortality and permanence even in the face of changes in nature that the speaker cannot deny. In the poem, Tennyson’s friend Hallam becomes a symbol of a “higher Race,” a harbinger of a better life, one sent to earth ahead of his time to offer hope to all people that the changes and impermanences of life exhibit not chaos but rather a divine pattern of progress, a movement toward God himself. In terms that anticipate the twentieth century theologian and mystic, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Tennyson concludes his elegy with a tribute to his friend who appeared on earth “ere the times were ripe,” and who now lives with the beneficent God who guides this process of evolution, “who ever lives and loves,/ One God, one law, one element,/ And one far-off divine event,/ To which the whole creation moves.”
The note of optimism at the end of In Memoriam is achieved only after a great deal of agonizing doubt. In fact, T. S. Eliot believed that the strength of Tennyson’s elegy lay not in its final affirmation of faith, but rather in the quality of its doubt. The fragmentary nature of the poem allows Tennyson to explore that doubt with much greater range and intensity than would a more typical narrative structure. For example, Section LX begins with two lines that refer directly to the speaker’s grief over his lost friend: “He past; a soul of nobler tone:/ My spirit loved and loves him yet.” The remaining fourteen lines, however, are an extended simile, in which the speaker compares his grief to the feelings of a young girl for a boy who is above her in social status. The girl’s “heart is set/ On one whose rank exceeds her own.” Seeing the young man “mixing with his proper sphere,” and recognizing “the baseness of her lot,” the girl experiences jealousy, without knowing what she should be jealous of, and envy of those who are fortunate enough to be near her beloved. She goes about her life in the “little village” that “looks forlorn” to her, feeling that her days are “narrow” as she performs her common household chores in “that dark house where she was born.” From her friends, she receives no pity (they “tease her” daily), and she is left alone at night to realize the impossibility of ever achieving the union she desires: “How vain am I,” she weeps, “How should he love a thing so low?”
The link to the larger themes of the poem, the speaker’s grief over the loss of his friend, is found most obviously in the lyric’s opening lines. Once that link is established, the parallels between the feelings of the speaker and the young girl he describes in the remaining lines become apparent at numerous points. The different “spheres” in which the girl and her beloved live represent the difference the speaker sees between himself and his friend, whom he calls elsewhere the “herald of a higher race.” The “little village” is the speaker’s world, into which the dead friend will no longer come. The most important image used to link this lyric with the other sections of In Memoriam is the “dark house” in which the girl must pass her days. That image, first appearing in section 7 when the speaker stands before his friend’s house in London shortly after learning that his friend has died, recurs in several other sections and always suggests the loss the speaker feels at his friend’s death.
Section 60, then, is typical of many lyrics that Tennyson pieced together to form In Memoriam. In it, the speaker’s grief, inexpressible in its magnitude, is made realizable by comparison with feelings that immediately touch the reader. One develops a sense of the speaker’s loss, and his friend’s greatness, through the process of empathetic association with more familiar feelings of loss and pain experienced in the sphere of everyday life. Similarly, when the speaker begins to understand that the loss of his friend should not be cause for despair, but rather for joy, that joy is transmitted to the reader by associating the speaker’s feelings with traditional symbols of happiness—the three Christmas seasons that form important structural links within In Memoriam and the wedding celebration that closes the poem. The celebration of the wedding is a most appropriate close for this poem: the union of two lives to form a single unit from which new life will spring mirrors man’s ultimate union with God, “To which the whole creation moves.”