Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Week 05, Lord Alfred Tennyson

Notes on Alfred Tennyson

“The Lady of Shalott”

This poem shows Tennyson as self-consciously late-romantic. The first several stanzas play with temporal and spatial references, but it is clear that “down” is the way to Camelot, the world of medieval romance and violence, of immersion in time as symbolized by the flowing river. The Lady will experience this immersion as a rupture. Everyone else’s life is her death, once she tries to make the passage from the island to the mainland. The poem raises the question of art’s relation to other areas of life, an issue of much concern to Tennyson himself. If poetry is a vocation, to what social end does one honorably pursue it?

Parts 1-2. Poetic devices involve us in the aesthetic way of perceiving. Early on the plot is enveloped by form; we are entranced by the Lady’s image-weaving, even though we “see” her images spun. The Lady weaves a magic web—is the text another such web? In the fifth stanza of Part 2, the Lady shows little regard for anything but her weaving, and is not yet troubled by desire, it seems. The metaphors of mirror and loom may refer first to the barrier between life and art, and second to the imaginative process. What is woven may represent the real world, but remains distinct from it. But Tennyson seems to be referring also to Plato’s Parable of the Cave, when he writes “Shadows of the world appear.” The Lady does not see the world outside directly—she sees shadows, just like Plato’s cave-dwellers.

The final stanza of Part 2 says the Lady “still delights / To weave the mirror’s magic sights….” Refer to Freud’s essay “Creative Writers and Daydreaming,” where he argues that art is mainly wish-fulfillment. Here the Lady weaves what appears in the mirror, so her web represents representations. What exactly are the “shadows” of which she is “half-sick”? Well, she is tired of seeing things at one remove, and wants direct access.

Part 3. Here the Lady gets her wish when Lancelot punctures the barrier, breaks the magic spell, with a riot of color and sound. The two young lovers in particular (of the final stanza in Part 2) have readied her for this intrusion. Towards the end of the third part, the magic stops, representation ends and experience begins.

Part 4. Publish and perish—the Lady writes her one poem on the prow of the boat that will carry her to her death; the poem is her name. The villagers hear her singing, and she dies “in her song” (this means that within the context of the poem, she “really” dies, but the phrase is slippery—what does it mean to “die in your song”? Doesn’t that mean you never existed outside of it since you lived in it too?) This leads to another reading of the poem as being about the wall between consciousness and the outside world—a more directly philosophical interpretation that might be taken as against romantic self-expression. Is it that self-expression can’t succeed because the self dies in the act of speaking, singing, writing, in the course of the poem? That isn’t a new idea, but the third part sets it forth strongly. On the whole, I’m inclined to read it in light of Pater’s comments about “that strange, perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves.” The value of expression becomes central in that case—what good does it do? The Lady dwells in her own interiority and can neither remain satisfied with spinning her own world nor enter the world of time and experience.

The townspeople try to interpret the poem, but feel only dread. That’s one possible response to art; the other is Sir Lancelot’s more favorable one—he blesses her beauty and asks God to lend her grace for its sake. He does not, like the villagers, try to ward off the Lady’s effect on him as if she were a vampire—he welcomes her power even if he doesn’t fully understand where it comes from, the story behind the pretty but dead face.

“The Lotos-Eaters”

Refer to In Memoriam Lyric 5: “A use in measured language lies / …Like dull narcotics, numbing pain” (1234).

Odysseus joins his crew after only one line—they all “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” as Timothy Leary the 1960’s Professor of LSD Studies would say. He upsets rank and falls away from heroism into apathetic song. There will be no more heroism, no more need to remain obedient to the gods. The verse form brings home this worst possible peril for a Greek hero—who is, after all, responsible for standing up to his fate even though he can’t alter it.

Tennyson’s borrowings from Keats’ sensualism lend the poem its languidness: “A land where all things always seemed the same.” In Keats, we find autumn stillness, but here that stillness becomes trance-inducing stasis. Odysseus had sent scouts in Homer, but here it seems that the Lotos-Eaters themselves just show up with their magic plant.

Choric Song: What lesson do the Mariners learn from nature? Character isn’t set off from or challenged by nature, as it should be. Where are the gods? Words lose their proper orientation towards action, and the Mariners surrender to mellow nature. We find no striving, no wandering, no strength—only rhetoric that justifies inaction. The Mariners have become irresponsible poets, and Odysseus is one of them—in Homer, of course, the captain’s men served in part as foils for his heroic survival. By the sixth stanza, we can say, “so much for the homecoming.” Wandering has lost its purposive edge, and expression has become divorced from action.

The eighth stanza of the Choric Song shows a change in form—this part is deceptively translation-like since the lines are long enough to look like Homer’s dactylic hexameter. Homer kept Odysseus from spending much time on the Lotos-Eaters episode—he surely wanted to emphasize the danger that Odysseus might really have given in, and makes Odysseus conscious of that—he’s retelling the story as long past for his Phaeacian host Alcinous. When the Mariners refer to the “Gods together, careless of mankind (155), the line reflects Tennyson’s interest in the Epicurean notion of the gods set forth by Lucretius—they are said to be distant, not particularly active (they didn’t even create the Cosmos—random movement of the atoms did), and unconcerned with human affairs. The eighth stanza draws out into song the dangerous spiritual error that this dilatory poem has been exploring. Lucretian materialism is meant to bring comfort to humanity, taking away their fear of death and the gods. But Tennyson (who liked Lucretius) finds this un-Greek or unheroic. But perhaps the entire poem is psychological realism on Tennyson’s part—an admission that strong desires beget or are linked to strong counter-desires: authentic heroism is twinned with strong nihilism and the desire to forget.


Tiresias had told Odysseus that he must leave Ithaca one last time to propitiate the gods, so Tennyson’s idea comes from Homer. Here we find a modern mind confronting Greek striving. In Homer, all the wandering was for the sake of getting home and re-establishing order on Ithaca. But here the point seems to be wandering itself. Mixed in is a sad tone, almost Hamlet-like musing on the sum total of it all—I’ve done all these things, but what’s the point of it if they become only memories? Ulysses laments that he has “become a name”; his words are no longer oriented towards action, and he has to cheer himself and others up to find that sense of direction again. What he says about experience is almost Paterian—Ulysses, too, wants “to burn with that hard, gem-like flame,” to expand life into a continual moment of great intensity, blotting out the ordinary or transforming it. The second, more public, part of the poem—”This is my son, mine own Telemachus…” implies a rejection of the task Homer set for his hero. Tennyson isn’t interested, I suppose, in the historical element of Odyssean lore—the “task” of the Odyssey was to revitalize a more domesticated land with its former heroic values. But in Tennyson’s recasting, revitalization evidently means rejecting the domestic life and setting out again as a wanderer towards death. Ulysses stands apart from his son, to whom he would gladly cede the task of ruling over the human herd animals of Ithaca. When Ulysses addresses his old comrades, he sounds like Satan in Paradise Lost—his will is “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” This is a very general directive, not a call to strive towards some specific goal.

If you want to get beneath this poem’s Victorian call to heroism, focus on the subtler side of it—as with Walter Pater, desire for beauty and experience is the obverse of the gods’ absence and fear of death. Tennyson’s is an aesthetic sensibility inclined to escape from or transfigure the ordinary things in life, but not in a way that implies commitment to impending social change. He often comes up against the possibility that his poetry is bound to be received as a compartmentalized, special kind of labor. Does Ulysses’ heroic language differ from his internal dialogue? Is he a false counselor to others, as Dante labels him in one of the later cantos of Inferno? The relationship between art and other areas of life becomes a problem to be explored, not something to be resolved presently. Exploring psychological states is one of Tennyson’s main enterprises, and one might say the same of Browning and some other Victorian poets. Refer to Isobel Armstrong’s thesis about poetry as an alternative realm where more nuance could be developed regarding the issues that prose authors were writing about.

In Memoriam A.H.H.


I. Drawing upon Tennyson’s remark that he had organized the poem by means of the three celebrations of Christmas it records, A. C. Bradley (“The Structure of In Memoriam,” in Robert Ross, ed., In Memoriam, New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1973) and E. D. H. Johnson (“In Memoriam: The Way of the Poet,” in Robert Ross, ed., In Memoriam, New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1973) pointed out the presence of the following structures:

1. (1-27) Despair: ungoverned sense (subjective)
2. (28-77) Doubt: mind governing sense, i.e., despair (objective)
3. (78-102) Hope: spirit governing mind, i.e. doubt (subjective)
4. (103-31) Faith: spirit harmonizing with sense (objective)

The four-part division in relation to Tennyson’s theory of poetry:

1. Poetry as release from emotion
2. Poetry as release from thought
3. Poetry as self-realization
4. Poetry as mission (or prophecy)

II. The poet also explained to a friend (Knowles) that the poem had nine natural groups of sections: 1-8, 9-20, 21-27, 28-44, 45-58, 59-71, 72-93, 94-103, 104-131. Can you sum up or characterize the organizing principle of each group?

III. Structure of motifs created by paired sections, such as 2 and 39, 7 and 119, and so on, and by repetition of images, metaphors, and paradigms, including hand, door, ship, time, and dream.

IV. Patterns of conversion, turning points, and climaxes: 95, one of the longer sections of IM, contains its most famous climax and moment of conversion, but it is only one of several, for those sections concerning poetry and the role of poetry, the fate of his sister, and the conflict of science and religion all have their contributory climactic structures.

V. Patterns provided by types, biblical and biological (see sections 1, 12, 33, 53-56, 82, 85, 103, 118, 123, 131). Playing upon two competing means of the term type, Tennyson parallels and contrasts the biological and the religious. Although he admits that man as a type (species) may well disappear like the dinosaur, a fossil in the iron hills, he finds in Hallam a type (prefiguration) of both the reappearance of Christ and of the higher form (species, type) of humanity—a reassurance that time, evolution, and human life have meaning.

The Poet’s Three Main Areas of Concern:

1. The need to find an appropriate way to express sorrow and hope—a way that will not trap the speaker in those states, but that will not deny their necessity, either. In Memoriam deals with romantic themes—grief, isolation, the poet’s anxiety over the expressive capacity of language. But Tennyson’s elegiac poem is highly structured and formal, too—a working-out of his emotions. Formal elegy (poetic ritual) helps him establish distance from the recurrent rawness of his grief, and affords him an opportunity to express and explore painful interior states. Wordsworth, too, saw meter and poetic devices as ways of establishing meditative distance, ways of blanketing otherwise too-intense events and feelings with a layer of unreality. (This insight is as old as Aristotle—he says we can contemplate things with pleasure in art that would cause us unbearable grief or horror if they really happened.) In Tennyson’s cycle, Sorrow will be personified, negotiated with, listened to, and overcome. But grief is not an easy thing to leave behind; its persistence is signaled by Freud’s phrase “the work of mourning.”

2. The need to wrestle with religious doubt, whether this doubt comes from the pain occasioned by the loss of a dear friend, or from what John Ruskin would later call “the dreadful clink of the hammer” in one’s brain—i.e. the chipping away of faith caused by the advancing sciences of geology (Lyell), biology, chemistry, etc. These sciences were at work even before Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution intensified “Victorian doubt.” Many Victorian intellectuals also had problems with the more severe formulations of Christian theology—Calvinist pre-election or damnation, and so forth.

3. The need to reconsider the “romantic” regard for nature’s value as a source of moral intelligibility and comfort. But the concept of nature is itself undergoing change—even Lyell’s uniformitarianism (the forces that shape the earth today have been shaping it the same way for millions of years) leads to a sense of “deep time” or “geological time.” The death of Hallam shocks Tennyson, but this long sense of time threatens to overwhelm any sense of human significance—see the fine set of lyrics 54-56 on this issue.

The Prologue

George Herbert’s poetry is an influence on Tennyson. Herbert, like Milton and others, felt the need to justify his habit of writing poetry—is it a genuine calling, or self-indulgence? Refer to 1 John 4:21: “And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.” The remark implies that it if poetry is to be an authentic use of one’s time, it should perform some social function—not just amount to private expression, venting, or some other selfish thing. Herbert also wrestled with movements of spirit that may be less than accepting of God’s will. This is not a matter of doubt, however, as it is with Tennyson—with Herbert, the issue has to do with the mind’s attempt to order contrary passions and align self and will with the will of God. In this sense, poetic language might serve to mediate between one’s better self and unruly thoughts and desires.

Stanza 1. The first stanza introduces a big issue—what is the relationship between faith and knowledge? Another eminent Victorian, John Henry Newman, captured this issue well when he wrote that there is “certitude,” and there is logical proof. In matters of faith, he suggests, the idea isn’t to look for scientific or logical proof—the right attitude has more to do with a deep feeling of certainty in the truth of Christian doctrine.

Stanzas 2-4. The speaker asserts that Providence (God’s plan) encompasses everyone and everything. He says that man “thinks he was not made to die,” and claims that he draws certitude from that. If we have such a strong feeling that something of us survives, well then, something must—why else would we have such a feeling? God made us, and must have given us the capacity for that feeling, so he will have the thing so. The third and fourth stanzas insist that despair—something IM explores, must be cast away along with sorrow.

Stanza 5. The speaker says, Carlyle-like, that “Our little systems have their day.” They are only “broken lights” of God’s divine and radiant Truth, so human knowledge will never replace God.

Stanza 6. The poem will make a search for the true ground of being and faith. The “beam” of light in the darkness could refer to any number of biblical passages, but Christ’s “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” would be a good candidate. (John 8:12)

Stanzas 7-8. Knowledge will grow until mind and soul, knowledge and faith, unite again.

Stanzas 9-11. The speaker apologizes for the torturous and “romantic” path of self-exploration and doubt that makes up the lyric progression of IM. He accuses himself of an excessive grief that might imply lack of trust in God’s plan. As Claudius says to Hamlet concerning his father’s death, “why stands it so particular with thee?” The speaker’s “wild and wandering cries” are, however, rhetorical and dramatic utterances. They explore, vent, contain and direct “powerful feelings.” Tennyson’s craft as a poet helps him arrange his emotions and gain perspective on them.

Lyric 1 (Stage 1 = 1-27, Near-Despair, ungoverned sense, subjective)

Loss should lead to growth, but perspective is an acquisition of time—a slow, sorrowful process. The speaker begins his exploration of sorrow’s psychology—grief is necessary and human. He rejects stoic indifference to grief—he is not yet ready for “calm of mind, all passion spent.”

Lyric 2

Over time, the tree obliterates the names of the dead, effacing our attempt to memorialize them. Nature envelops the person’s dust, and shadow envelops our entire lives. The speaker betrays a strong desire to put an end to answer-seeking and self-consciousness. Carlyle’s sense of mystery hovers over this poem, but provides no comfort. The tree itself is rooted in eternity, ultimate perspective. In the final stanza, the speaker wants to lose consciousness and merge with the tree’s mysterious presence. We might also say that the tree is one of Wordsworth’s “beautiful and permanent forms of nature.”

Lyric 3

The poem objectifies sorrow to gain perspective on it, but this tactic does not always work. In the first sent stanza, the speaker tries to gain perspective on his grief—towards what path of thought will Sorrow lead the speaker? In the second stanza, Sorrow says we inhabit a blind, purposeless universe—Carlyle’s steam-engine universe—there is no Providence and no purpose to life. In the third stanza, she says that Nature is void of meaning or hope; there is no source or ground for being, no anchor for the expression of emotions. In the fourth stanza the speaker raises the possibility of rejecting the Wordsworthian religion of nature, but does not do so.

Lyric 4

This poem shows that the speaker has a divided consciousness.

Lyric 5

The speaker questions the expressive transparency of language, its ability to convey feeling. He questions romantic optimism about the vital role of language as mediator from one soul to another. But the lyric’s rhythmic language helps to still the speaker’s pain. It distances him from his own emotions—but is a narcotic effect the same as perspective or therapeutic value?

Lyric 7

This poem explores the psychological state of disbelief, mourning.

Lyric 11

The speaker is out of joint with natural calm; his perspective does not match that of nature personified. Are we to understand calm here as the peace that passes understanding? The speaker also confronts in his imagination the still body of his friend. He is preparing to reckon with the body’s silence and its transformation into a thing of dead nature.

Lyric 14

In the final stanza, the speaker is again preparing himself to let go of Arthur’s life-image. Viewing the body is necessary if we are to accept death.

Lyric 15

In the third stanza, the speaker refers to the ship’s motion—the apparition is the ship bearing his friend’s body. See Job 37:18. For the final stanza, see Revelations 15:2. Will the speaker’s interior state lead him to ultimate vision, to the meaning of Arthur’s passing?

Lyric 28

This poem, written early, marks the beginning of the second stage that runs through Lyric 77: doubt, mind governing sense, objective. The speaker is wrestling with doubt—that eminently Victorian problem. In the second stanza, he hears the bells, symbols of religious faith at its simplest and finest, implying harmony among mankind. In stanza five, the bells recall him to a former state of simple faith, a sense that the world is morally intelligible. As in Wordsworth’s poetry, past feelings rekindle new emotions of a similar kind. But bells are not words. The last two lines reverse Shelley’s formula in “We are as Clouds”—the bells bring “sorrow touched with joy.”

Lyric 30

In stanza seven, the speaker says that there is a spirit moving through the universe. The imagery here is similar to Dante’s, or to Shelley’s in Adonais. Is Arthur moved now by the divine or primal love? I should also check Lucretius’s references to the soul wandering into infinity.

Lyric 34

The speaker describes an alternate poetics—your expression without the need for progress or arrangement of the passions to serve moral ends. But he does not embrace this alternate poetics, as we can tell from the conditional mood of the final two stanzas.

Lyric 39

This poem should be compared with Lyric 2. In the first stanza, the speaker sees the tree as truly animate—it is part of nature’s regenerative cycle. But then Sorrow takes away the speaker’s believe in the regenerative power of nature, implying that the comfort we take is imported, a function of anthropomorphism.

Lyric 54

In the final stanza, the carefully ordered rhetoric of faith is described as a dream, and the poet’s language as a cry. But a cry does not give us the moral understanding we crave; we want to assert that purpose governs the universe.

Lyric 55

In the second stanza, the speaker asks if God and nature are at war with each other. He must be thinking of Sir Charles Lyell’s principle of uniformitarianism, which says that consistent forces operating over vast periods of time have shaped the earth. If the species or type is all that matters, what consolation is that fact for individuals? Can science offer us satisfying knowledge? Or even bearable knowledge? In the final two stanzas, the speaker sounds like Shelley in “O World, O Life, O Time.” Life is cast as an arduous path, with the speaker groping for purpose and meaning. Science has been destructive of faith, disintegrating the individual psyche and the sense of community.

Lyric 56

In the first stanza, Nature says she cares not even for the type—geological strata convey in cold Stone the passing even of the species. Evidently, Nature can betray the heart that loved her. In the fourth stanza, the speaker says we trusted that love was God’s primal impulse and ordering principle—Aristotle’s final cause (purpose) and first cause (God) conjoined. In the sixth stanza, the speaker raises the problem of self-consciousness. We “look before and after and pine for what is not,” as Shelley says. We try to establish a hierarchy of beings, but geological time does not respond to our efforts in a comforting manner. I recall Pascal’s remark that “the silence of these infinite spaces” terrifies him. Tennyson’s speaker says we cannot be satisfied thinking of ourselves in purely material terms—it crushes our sense of worth and even humanity. The final stanza brings in a Carlylean sense of history again—put on the veil and stop asking questions.

Lyric 75

In this poem, we find the Shakespearean theme of immortality through verse. This conventional sentiment leads us to the fuller transition of Lyric 78. The third stage through Lyric 102 is marked by Pope, with spirit governing intellect and doubt. It is a subjective stage, as was the darker stage one. With Lyric 103, the fourth stage arrives—that of faith, with spirit harmonizing sense and intellect and feeling. It is an objective part of the poem.

Lyric 108

The speaker will seek solace in social interaction—not in religious speculation. He has begun to pull back from Arthur, and there is a hint of a feeling of abandonment in the final stanza.

Lyric 118

In the second stanza, there is probably a reference to Jean LaPlace’s idea of the earth as a fiery discharge from the Sun. The rest of the lyric sets forth the idea of inner evolution—the animal in us is chaos that must be overcome and left behind. Human nature is satyr-like, and requires acts of will, self-overcoming.

Lyric 123

These are very rhetorical poems with conventional themes coming to the forefront, along with a reassertion of the Carlylean sense of mystery. The theme is something like “life is a dream,” but the ordering power of the language works against that notion. In the final stanza, the speaker implies that to affirm the inconstancy of all things human, the delusional state in which we dwell, does not satisfy or convince. It is only the initial move on the way towards faith. God lies at the end of the path of doubt and faith alike.

Lyric 124

The speaker, in stanza 2, says that he does not find God in arguments about “intelligent design.” This is the sort of thing that abstract reasoning cooks up. In the final stanza, a sense of mystery puts an end to the speaker’s searching—the light comes from darkness.

Lyric 126

This poem looks back to George Herbert, who sometimes portrays Christ as a great lord in a court. The “faithful guard” is the Church. The speaker begins to feel protected, encompassed by Anglican ceremony and faith.


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