The Poetry of Tennyson

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

It is a commonplace of literary and cultural studies to claim for every age since the medieval period, that it is modern. Thus the Renaissance is modern because of the appearance of the modern vernacular and the disappearance of the old theologically centered universe, while the Metaphysicals are acclaimed as the first modern poets because of a blend of thought and feeling which is supposed to be characteristic of the present day. Likewise, the Neo-Classical Age is modern because here first appears the scientific rationalism so associated with the present; and the Romantic Age is modern because it rejects the materialism of the preceding age and because it springs from revolution.

There is, of course, some truth in all of this—even if it is only the truth of the difficulty of defining or describing modern. But if by modern we mean, fairly straightforwardly, an age that would be recognizable by a citizen of today, then we must admit that the Victorian Age is that age. If our modern citizen were transported, say, to the London of 1850, he might notice the absence of automobiles and airplanes, but a look around him, a glance at the newspapers, and a visit to a substantial bookshop would probably make him feel as though he never left home.

With the one exception of the possibility of total and instant obliteration by the atomic bomb, the Victorian world is our world in both fact and thought. All the problems of the big city, for example, with which we are so familiar, first faced the Victorians: the flight from the countryside, slums, welfare, pollution, property redevelopment, even traffic jams. Those intellectual issues which still bedevil us were first formulated and stated in modern accents by the Victorians: the death of God; science versus religion; technology versus the human spirit; the growth of the state and the central government; the destruction of the countryside; the growing cleavage between the haves and the have-nots.

All this is, of course, simply saying that the Victorians were the first ones who had to face squarely the results of the Industrial Revolution. The Romantic poets appeared as the Industrial Revolution appeared; they faced it, despised what they saw, rejected it, and went their own ways. But this the Victorians could not do; the Industrial Revolution (and all its works) was literally too much with them, and it was clear that it would not go away. Therefore, all the major Victorian writers, who are really Romantics at heart, albeit frustrated, must find some way to come to terms with their world, a world which, as they perceived it, was growing more and more uncongenial to poetry and art (and poets and artists), a world which listened less and less to poets and artists.

It is a cliché (but nonetheless true) that the Victorians were brilliant at analyzing the intellectual, moral, social, and religious questions of their day—and abysmally poor at providing answers, which were typically characterized by impracticality, wishful thinking, and downright silliness. But it is only an age which has learned little from the past that would think that it has done much better. It has been the common fashion for the past fifty or sixty years at least to condemn the Victorians for their compromise, for their sexual hypocrisy, for their class-ridden mores and their getting-on. Victorian is commonly today an adjective of opprobrium, suggesting old-fashioned and hypocritical, or an adjective of dismissal as irrelevant.

Of this age, then, Tennyson was to his own day and is to our own day, the great representative. And as the age has suffered so has he. Probably no poet stood so high in repute at the end of his life; but then he who was so bound up with his age fell with it. Much more than Browning and Arnold, he was found to be unacceptable to more modern fashions; he was held up as the representative of all that the post-World War I generation found false and objectionable in literature. His diction and imagery were not hard and clear; his portrayal of women was unreal and bloodless; he was a moral coward who waffled on the great moral issues of his day; he was a hopeless thinker; he was a prig.

Fifty or sixty years is a long time to be throwing stones; some of the glee of lambasting the Victorians has faded; Lytton Strachey is a bit old hat. As, in the course of time, such things happen, a reaction to the reaction has set in, resulting in a more sympathetic, if not absolutely exculpatory, view of the Victorian Age and its eminent men. To this reevaluation, which has in fact been under way for some few years now, Professor Culler has, with the present volume, made a major contribution. It is a major contribution because it is not a “defense” of Tennyson. It is a sign of the state of study of that age that Culler does not feel compelled to take up one by one the usual strictures against Tennyson and demolish them. Except obliquely, he never mentions the catalogue of Tennyson’s supposed sins, but, with objectivity...

(The entire section is 2055 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Choice. XIV, December, 1977, p. 1357.

Library Journal. CII, November 1, 1977, p. 2262.

New York Times Book Review. September 11, 1977, p. 20.