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 part 7:
The woman’s cause is man’s; they rise or sinkTogether . . .For woman is not undevelopt man,But diverse. Could we make her as the man,Sweet Love was slain; his dearest bond is this,Not like to like, but like in difference.
It is argued in some modern readings, however, that the question of feminism here is being carried beyond the social sphere into psychosexual terms. The story might be characterized as one that traces the complementary movements of the princess toward “true” femininity and of the prince toward “true” masculinity. This sort of reading might help to explain Tennyson’s embarrassment or his conflicted tonalities, and also might explain the additional material and give a greater unity to the understanding of the poem.
In part 1, the prince is described as being “like a girl.” He and his friends, Cyril and Florian, are arrayed in female garb. To the prince’s taunting foes, it...
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is a case of “like to like.” To the prince’s father, it is simply a matter of effeminacy. These views oversimplify the prince. He reveals to the princess that he is not homosexual nor a “scorner of [her] sex/ But venerator.” Such veneration has led him to attempt to win Princess Ida by disguising rather than asserting his sexuality. The prince’s devotion to women is not generalized; he is devoted to one—his mother. As psychoanalyst Carl Jung theorized, this female image, the anima, is subsequently identified with other women, in this case Princess Ida, to whom the prince had been “proxy wedded” in childhood. Women, to the prince, are unassailable paragons.
The barrier to love is in Ida. She denies her femininity as much as the prince conceals his masculinity. Jung contends that the anima produces moods (the prince’s seizures) and the animus—the masculine element in women—produces opinions, to which the princess clings. Against this opinionated female mind, instinct prevails. After the prince is wounded in a fight, Princess Ida moves into her true element and begins to accept a part of her own nature that she had repressed, thus approaching selfhood. She tells her followers to lift up their natures. Eventually, she is kissed by the prince. After this taste of passion, Ida loses her contempt for conventionalized love poems; her reading the erotic “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” demonstrates her acceptance of and response to a different sort of love poetry.
The prince’s move toward selfhood requires that he cast off the crude self embodied in his father—the “manly man” his father wishes his son to become. As the prince reveals his full nature, he seems inclined to grant woman hers. He reminds his father that women have as many differences as do men, acknowledging in woman a wholeness lacking in “the piebald miscellany, man.” The prince’s tribute to distinctive womanhood in part 7 shows his progress from veneration of women to genuine appreciation.
The poem is a series of oppositions wherein the prince and the princess, in taking possession of each other and their selfhoods, represent a unity and wholeness. The prince tells Ida that “either sex alone/ Is half itself.” They look to a time when “The man [will] be more of woman, she of man.” This ideal is the reward of accepting sexuality instead of rejecting it. In The Princess, Tennyson, thus, takes a positive if somewhat culturally inhibited view toward sex. When viewed falsely, it separates man and woman. The prince expects that his marriage to Ida will “accomplish thou my manhood and thyself,” affirming their relationship as neither degrading idol worship nor a jealousy-ridden contest but as a mutual enterprise for self-knowledge and fulfillment.
At the time of its publication, the poem was labeled trivial, incongruous, and in poor taste. Later readings of the poem, however, show that Tennyson anticipated Jungian analysis and the coming of a day when women would be the social equals of men. Its failure as a cohesive poetic statement can be explained both in terms of Tennyson’s inner conflicted sexuality and also in terms of the cultural tensions in gender theory in mid-Victorian culture.