Maud is a tour de force, a work of considerable complexity and originality in form and content. For its time, it had been a strikingly original internal monologue, unlike any of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s other poems and anticipating by more than half a century the poetic technique of T. S. Eliot in his “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915). Although most contemporary critics disparaged Maud, Robert Browning proclaimed it a great poem and is reputed to have read it many times.
The hallmark of Tennyson’s poem is ambiguity, and questions abound. For example, is the protagonist speaking or thinking? How long ago did his father die? How did Maud die? Are her postmortem visitations supernatural phenomena or hallucinations? Did Tennyson incorporate specific autobiographical elements into the poem, as some have maintained? These ambiguities are further complicated by the poem’s narrative technique. Eschewing the linear narration that he later employed in Enoch Arden, and Other Poems (1864), Tennyson chose to tell his story in the manner of such near-contemporary verse novels as George Meredith’s Modern Love, and Poems of the English Roadside (1862) and Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book (1868-1869; 4 vols.). Maud is a story related by implication with unclear time intervals, unspecified scenes, and abrupt transitions.
When Maud was published in 1855, it was met by a barrage of hostile reviews. Critics castigated the poem for its obscurity, its dark melancholy, and the protagonist’s support of the Crimean War, used in the poem as a palliative for a depraved materialism. Always hypersensitive to criticism, Tennyson was devastated. He made revisions to moderate the more bellicose content and then turned from writing about contemporary society to the medieval world. The first four books of Idylls of the King (1859-1885) was his subsequent undertaking.
Maud is divided into three parts of widely different lengths. Each part is divided into units, or snapshots into the protagonist’s mind, varying in length from two to thirty-five lines. In part one, the units are sometimes further divided into subunits, making for a complex and, for some, a bewildering organization. Part one of this interior monologue takes the listener/reader into the mind of an extremely egocentric misanthrope, haunted by his father’s suicide and his mother’s “shrill-edged shriek.”
The protagonist rages continually against the heartless materialism of his age, a world in which “chalk and alum and plaster are sold to the poor for bread/ And the spirit of murder works in the very means of life.” The mind of the protagonist is a welter of heightened thoughts and emotions, sparked by his hatred of the aristocracy as embodied by Maud’s father and brother; his belittlement of organized religion, science, and poetry; his praise of war as a cleansing agent of a corrupt society; his feelings of complete self-abasement and nihilism; and his alienation, paranoia, and suicidal fancies. In the course of this longest section of the poem the protagonist falls desperately in love with Maud to the point of apotheosizing her, proclaiming that “Queen Maud” descended directly from “the snow-limb’d Eve” before the Fall. He proclaims that her gentle will has changed his fate and made his “life a perfumed altar-flame.” Part one ends with the often anthologized lyric “Come into the garden, Maud” on a note of high drama.
Part two opens with the protagonist’s remorse for having killed Maud’s brother in the “red-ribb’d hollow behind the wood,” ironically the very spot where his own father’s body had been found after his fatal fall. The protagonist is beset by a flitting shadow, either of Maud or “a juggle born of the brain.” Ever introspective, the protagonist thinks how the mind when overwrought with passion can fix its attention on an object...
(The entire section contains 1198 words.)
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- Critical Essays