After the success of Poems (1842), Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s friends and reviewers encouraged him to address a theme of modern life. Tennyson settled on what might be called the woman question—that is, the role of education for women and their place in society—and wrote The Princess. As early as 1839, Tennyson had been interested in women’s education, which provides the theme and core of the poem. Using the Victorian notion of women’s proper rights and duties within a separate sphere, Tennyson attempts to enlarge on the social theme. The poem predates both the opening of higher education to women in England and the entry of middle-class women into the nursing profession, a move inspired by Florence Nightingale. To that extent, the poem is both topical and prophetic.
For all its intellectual ideas and the seriousness with which Tennyson treats them, however, The Princess reveals the poet’s inability to dramatize a poem whose social themes deeply touch him. The poet reverts to a mock archaic style that is at once evasive in its playfulness and deprecatory in its whimsicality. There is a stylistic conflict between the beautiful lyrics and the often quite banal narrative blank verse. The conflict suggests, on the one hand, the embarrassed romanticism of suppressed sexual desire, and on the other hand, a self-consciousness arising from Victorian gender typing and sexism. Both The Princess’s prologue and its conclusion are unpretentious in their naïve idyllic tone. The message is clear: universal harmony between classes and genders, between humankind and science and nature, and between all creation and “the Heaven of Heavens.”
Revisions to the original 1848 poem take some of the emphasis off the rather awkward treatment of feminist aspirations for learning. A subplot is introduced of a curse on the prince’s family, a curse of seizures. More important, Tennyson added six more songs to the original five lyrics. Many of these songs gained a popularity of their own, especially “Tears, Idle Tears” and “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal,” both being set to music and sung as individual compositions. The additional six songs have, it would seem, only a tenuous link to the narrative, but they give more credence to the poem’s subtitle, A Medley.
Ostensibly, then, Tennyson’s main concern seems to be the principal characters discovering and accepting gender roles that will liberate them and enhance the lives of their own genders. However, more modern readings see this concern in a more subordinate role; the real theme is the characters discovering their own sexual natures. The issue of women’s rights and the romantic love story both climax in the prince’s long conciliatory speech to Princess Ida in...
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