Maud "The Christless Code, That Must Have Life For A Blow"

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

"The Christless Code, That Must Have Life For A Blow"

Context: When the narrator of this long poem (which Tennyson called a "monodrama") was a small boy, he heard his father and the father of an as yet unborn child agree that, should the baby be a girl, the children shall marry each other when they are grown. But a few years later the narrator's father loses all of his money and dies, perhaps a suicide. Maud's father, on the other hand, grows richer; and the narrator is discarded as a possible husband for Maud because of his poverty–a favorite theme with Tennyson. Maud's brother has found what he considers a better match for her in the person of a newly-made lord, an over-dressed, supercilious, and proud young man. The brother, who is politically ambitious, gives a large dinner and ball for his constituents, from which the narrator is pointedly excluded. He and Maud, however, plan that she will meet him in the garden of her house at the conclusion of the dance. But hardly has she entered the garden, in all the splendor of her ballgown and jewels, than her brother arrives, bringing with him the "babefaced lord," and pours out "terms of disgrace" on his sister. The narrator replies with equal anger, until the brother strikes him in the face. This act, according to the code still prevailing as late as the 1850's, demands a challenge, which the narrator immediately gives; and in the duel which takes place within an hour, he kills Maud's brother. Tennyson uses this episode to express his detestation of the code of dueling.

And he struck me, madman, over the face,
Struck me before the languid fool,
Who was gaping and grinning by;
Struck for himself an evil stroke;
Wrought for his house an irredeemable woe;
For front to front in an hour we stood,
And a million horrible bellowing echoes broke
From the red-ribb'd hollow behind the wood,
And thunder'd up into Heaven the Christless code,
That must have life for a blow.
Ever and ever afresh they seem'd to grow.