Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1198

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...

(This entire section contains 1198 words.)

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the brain.” Ever introspective, the protagonist thinks how the mind when overwrought with passion can fix its attention on an object otherwise unnoticed; he remembers a ring on the finger of Maud’s dying brother that he thought was his mother’s hair. Haunted by nightmares and the “abiding phantom” of Maud, the protagonist descends into madness. He thinks he is buried in a too-shallow grave, “Only a yard beneath the street,” and the horses’ hooves beat into his brain. Part two ends with the protagonist avowing to cry out for somebody to bury him deeper, “ever so little deeper.”

In part three, which consists of only fifty-nine lines, the protagonist has emerged from madness, transformed by a dream vision of Maud, who “seem’d to divide in a dream from a band of the blest/ And spoke of a hope for the world in the coming wars.” The pathological misanthropy and delusions of the protagonist have given way to a resolute determination “to fight for the good [rather] than to rail at the ill.” The poem ends somewhat summarily with the protagonist on board a warship in the Crimean War.

The unnamed protagonist is one of the more memorable characters of Victorian poetry, as much so as the characters of Tennyson’s more traditional dramatic monologues, such as “Ulysses” (1842), “Tithonus” (1860), and “Lucretius” (1868). In psychopathology, Tennyson’s protagonist is in the company of Robert Browning’s hateful monk (“Soliloquy of a Spanish Cloister,” 1842), sociopathic lover (“Porphyria’s Lover” 1836), and psychopathic nobleman (“My Last Duchess” 1842). Furthermore, Tennyson called Maud a “little Hamlet.” While the protagonist shares Hamlet’s introspection and emotional instability, he is but a shadow of William Shakespeare’s prince of Denmark, of necessity lacking Hamlet’s complexity and nobility of character as well as his incisive insights into human nature.

Considerable criticism has explored the biographical content of Maud, much of it speculative and hypothetical. Tennyson was the victim of a tainted heredity. He had a melancholy cast of mind and was subject to bouts of debilitating depression, particularly after the death of poet and close friend Arthur Henry Hallam in 1833. These psychological characteristics are reflected in Maud, as they are in many of his poems.

It has been suggested that Maud is a didactic poem used by Tennyson at the height of his powers to influence public opinion in favor of the Crimean War. However, such a suggestion seems unlikely in view of the pathological state of the protagonist. A number of elements in Maud recur in the body of Tennyson’s work: mental breakdown, including hallucinations; violence; death and a desire to communicate with the dead; criticism of established religion; interest in the cosmos and humankind’s place in it; the struggle for survival in nature; censure of the nouveau riche as greedy, calloused, and inane; and use of landscape to reflect psychological states.

The language of Maud is more in the tradition of William Wordsworth than in the neoclassical tradition. The clear, unadorned diction of the poem’s first line is characteristic of the whole: “I hate the dreadful hollow behind the little wood.” Tennyson uses image clusters to indicate the protagonist’s thoughts and moods, and he uses a wide variety of meters—trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter—to avoid monotony and to indicate the protagonist’s shifting nature of thought. Maud is often associated with light and flowers, while her brother, the “Sultan of brutes,” is associated with images of darkness and disease. Maud’s “dark father” is a “gray old wolf.”