Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1155
First published: 1864
Type of work: Poem
Type of plot: Sentimental romance
Time of work: Late eighteenth century
Enoch Arden, a shipwrecked sailor
Annie Lee, his wife
Philip Ray, his friend
Miriam Lane, a tavern keeper
To some modern readers the language of ENOCH ARDEN may seem stilted and the story of his unselfish love mawkishly romantic, but we must remember that it was written during a period when unrequited love and unselfish devotion to one's family were favorite subjects of the reading public of England and America. Tennyson has one virtue not shared by all of his contemporaries; his poems are easily read and understood. He expressed better than any other poet of his time the essential character of the English people of the nineteenth century.
Annie Lee, Philip Ray, and Enoch Arden played together as children. Sometimes Philip was the husband, sometimes Enoch, but Annie was always the mistress. If the boys quarreled over her, Annie would weep and beg them not to quarrel and say she would be a wife to both of them.
As they grew older and ceased their childish games, Enoch and Philip grew to love Annie. Enoch told her of his love, but Philip kept silent. Philip was the miller's son and a rich boy; Enoch was a poor orphan. He bought a small boat and became a fisherman. He sailed aboard a merchant ship for a full year before he had enough money to make a home for Annie. When he reached his twenty-first year he asked her to be his wife. While the two lovers talked together, Philip looked down on them as they sat at the edge of the wood. He went away quietly, locking his love for Annie deep in his heart.
For seven years Enoch and Annie lived in health and prosperity. They had two children, a girl and a boy. Then misfortune came. Enoch slipped and fell and lay months recovering. While he was ill, a sickly child was born, his favorite. There was no money and the children were hungry, and Enoch's heart almost broke to see his family in want.
The chance came for him to sail again on a merchantman bound for China. He sold his fishing boat that he might get a small store of goods and set Annie up as a trader while he was gone, so that she and the children might not be in want before his return. Annie begged him for their children's sake not to take this dangerous voyage. But Enoch laughed at her fears and told her to give all her cares to God, for the sea was His as well as the land, and He would take care of Enoch and bring him safely home. Annie cut a lock of hair from the sickly child and gave it to Enoch when he sailed.
For many months Annie waited for word from Enoch. Her business did not prosper; she did not know how to bargain. In the third year the sickly child died and Annie was crushed by grief.
After the funeral Philip broke his silence. He begged to send the children to school and care for them for the sake of his friendship with her and Enoch. Enoch had been gone for ten long years before Philip asked Annie to be his wife. He had not spoken before because he knew that she still waited for Enoch's return. Annie asked him to wait one year more. Six months beyond the year passed before she and Philip were wed. But still she feared to enter her own house and thought that one day she would see Enoch waiting for her. It was not until after she bore Philip a child that she was at peace with herself.
Enoch had been shipwrecked and cast upon a desert island. Although he did not lack for food and shelter, his heart was heavy with loneliness and worry about his wife and children. One day a ship came to the island and took him aboard. When he returned to England he was old and stooped and no one knew him. Finding his old house empty, he took lodging in a tavern kept by a widow, Miriam Lane. Not knowing who he was, Mrs. Lane told him of Annie and Philip and their new baby. Enoch could only murmur that he was lost. Watching from a high wall behind Philip's house, he saw Annie and the children in their happiness. He knew he could never shatter that new life.
He lived quietly and did what work he could and told no one his name or from where he came. At last, sick and dying, he called Mrs. Lane to his bedside and told her his story. He asked her to tell Annie and Philip and the children that he died blessing them, and he sent the lock of hair to Annie so she would know he spoke the truth. His was a great unselfish love until the end.
Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:
In ENOCH ARDEN, Tennyson relies on heavily adorned treatment of rather simple subjects. The plot as well is relatively straightforward: the problem of money or the lack of it accounts for much of the action. Enoch fears that his family will be reduced to a miserable existence because of their financial situation and Annie comes to know the misery of his fears when she has to face poverty alone when he goes to sea. Tennyson reaches the height of his power to evoke pathos and sentiment, however, in two scenes that balance each other. The first is at the beginning of the poem when Annie rejects the suit of Philip, the rich boy, for that of Enoch, the poor but noble fisherman. The second, which reverses the situations, comes near the conclusion: Enoch experiences Philip's earlier deprivation after he returns from the sea to discover that he has lost his family and his wife. In both scenes, Tennyson is at his best; they are realistic, restrained, and lacking the sentimentality that characterizes the majority of the poem.
It was precisely this sentimentality, however, that Tennyson's Victorian audience clamored for. Living in an age of emotional repression in which sentiment and feelings were to be masked by dedication and earnestness, the middle class looked in their literature for unabashed emotionalism. Sharing their need, Tennyson, along with Dickens, for example, supplied it unashamedly. ENOCH ARDEN possesses all the ingredients to supply the feelings his readers were seeking: the vivid contrast of rich and poor; the pain of unrequited love; the stoical man, Philip, unable to express his love; and, of course, the sufferings of children. But with all their demand for vicarious pain, the Victorians also needed to be reassured, and Tennyson, therefore, offered his bittersweet conclusion: the happiness of the new family is blessed by the dying husband.