Prologue. The poet and three college companions join their friend Walter Vivian on his father’s estate. Sir Walter Vivian has opened his grounds to the nearby village and a neighboring educational institute, of which he is patron. A number of mechanical inventions are on display. A book of family history relating the courage of a female ancestor inspires Lilia, Walter’s sister, to speak out for women’s rights, particularly to higher education. Walter mentions how at college the friends tell chain stories to pass away the time; Lilia suggests that they tell such a story now. Walter agrees and decides that Lilia will be the heroine—“grand, epic, homicidal”—and the poet, who will begin the story, the hero. Each of the seven people in the group, which includes a maiden aunt, who shares Lilia’s views, will narrate part of the story.
Part 1. A country is divided into a southern and a northern kingdom. The young prince learns that the princess to whom he was once betrothed as a child now rejects him and wishes to “live alone/ Among her women” in a castle set aside for a women’s college just over the border in the southern kingdom. He begs his father to be allowed to investigate her refusal, but the warlike king, believing a binding treaty is being broken, replies that they will settle the dispute by war. Driven by an inner conviction, the prince rides off to the southern kingdom, accompanied by his two friends Cyril and Florian. At a town near the castle, the prince obtains women’s clothes for Cyril, Florian, and himself, and they enter the college disguised, despite the gates stating that any man shall enter on pain of death. The prince bears a letter of introduction from King Gama, the princess’ s father, whom he has earlier met.
Part 2. The college porter leads the disguised males to Princess Ida, who greets them as new students and explains the rules to them: For three years they must not correspond with home, leave the boundaries of the college grounds, or converse with men. Ida tells them they must give up their conventional thinking and work for the freedom of women. She seems surprised when the newcomers extravagantly praise the prince, her former suitor. The men next encounter Florian’s recently widowed sister, Psyche, Ida’s favorite tutor. They admire Aglaia, Psyche’s daughter, while Psyche lectures them on feminist history. When Psyche recognizes her brother and the others beneath their disguises, she nearly betrays them, but her natural affection overcomes her duty to Ida. Melissa, the daughter of Ida’s other tutor, Blanche, also learns their identity but refuses to reveal their secret.
Part 3. Ida invites the newcomers to go on a geological field trip with her. The prince acts as his own mock-ambassador in trying to acquaint Ida with his passion for her and with her unnatural attitude toward men; he alludes to her missing “what every woman counts her due,/ ’Love, children, happiness.’” Ida reiterates her dedication to her ideals, claiming that while children may die, “great deeds” cannot.
Part 4. A maid sings “Tears, Idle Tears,” but Ida remains unmoved by the expressed sentiment of love. The prince replies with his song, “O Swallow,” but Ida spurns his “mere love poem,” saying she admires only art addressed to great ends. At this point, Cyril, half-drunk, sings a bawdy song that discloses their true identity. The women flee in panic, and Ida in her haste falls into the river. The prince rescues her but is captured by her retinue.
Part 5 . The...
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prince and his companions, whom the princess has released out of gratitude, are expelled and stumble into the camp of the prince’s father. He has taken King Gama as a hostage to force the issue of the marriage. They argue about how to win Ida’s hand; the king being in favor of attacking, but Gama and the prince suggesting peaceful means. Taunted as a coward by Ida’s brother Arac, the prince agrees to a tournament, with fifty knights on either side. He fights bravely but is defeated, and falls into a deep coma.
Part 6. Ida in her triumph sings “Our enemies have fallen,” then opens the castle as a hospital for the wounded. Her insistence on ascetic withdrawal and her unnatural contempt for men remain evident. After gazing on the wounded prince, however, she begs the king to allow her to care for him. She embraces Psyche, whom she has dismissed as a traitor, and restores Aglaia to her. Over Blanche’s objections, Ida disbands the college until peace is restored.
Part 7. The palace becomes a hospital where the young women with sufficient training nurse the wounded. Ida is heartsick because her ideals have been frustrated, but she finds peace in aiding the wounded men. As she tends the prince as he lies in his delirious state, she begins to love him and, casting off her falser self, kisses him. That rouses him from his coma, and he fall into a blissful sleep. That night, he awakens to find her reading the poems “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” and “Come Down, O Maid.” In the second poem, love is described as being of the valley, not of the mountain heights where Ida’s idealism has carried her.
Ida admits her lack of humility and her desire to achieve power rather than truth, yet she continues to regret the collapse of her idealistic plans to help women achieve status. The prince, who respects her idealism, replies that they would work together for her goal. He tells her that women are not “undevelopt” men and that they should join with man in love; from this union, the man gains “sweetness” and “moral height,” the woman “mental breadth” without losing “the childlike in the larger mind.” Either gender alone is “half itself,” and together in marriage each “fulfils/ Defect in each.” The prince attributes his rebirth into a better life to Ida.
Conclusion. At Sir Walter’s estate, the gates are due to close. Walter is praised as an enlightened benefactor, and the storytellers are thoughtful as they disperse.
Bailey, Albert Edward. Notes on the Literary Aspects of Tennyson’s “Princess.” 1897. Reprint. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1973. A book-length study of the literary aspects of Tennyson’s The Princess, written at a time when the values of the Victorians were being harshly assessed and revamped. Useful in comparing the sentimentality of the Victorians with the author’s more secular age.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Alfred Lord Tennyson. Modern Critical Views. Edgemont, Pa.: Chelsea House, 1985. A collection of modern essays that demonstrate how Tennyson voiced the doubts, beliefs, and clouded hopes of a generation of men and women faced with secularism, political turmoil, industrialization, and “the woman question.”
Hall, Donald E. “The Anti-Feminist Ideology of Tennyson’s The Princess.” Modern Language Studies 21 (Fall, 1991): 49-62. Argues that Tennyson’s poem, while purporting to be a solution to “the woman question,” is essentially antifeminist in its approach to this topic.
Killham, John. Tennyson and “The Princess”: Reflections of an Age. London: Athlone Press, 1958. Historical, book-length, critical study of The Princess. Captures the mood of the times during which the poem was written, offering a prefeminist reading.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Tennyson’s Princess: One Bride for Seven Brothers.” In Critical Essays on Alfred Lord Tennyson, edited by Herbert F. Tucker. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1993. A reading of The Princess based on Sedgwick’s specialized gender-and feminist-based critical approach.