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To Sleep I give my powers away;
My will is bondsman to the dark;
I sit within a helmless bark,
And with my heart I muse and say:
O heart, how fares it with thee now,
That thou should’st fail from thy desire,
Who scarcely darest to inquire,
’What is it makes me beat so low?’
Something it is which thou hast lost,
Some pleasure from thine early years.
Break thou deep vase of chilling tears,
That grief hath shaken into frost!
Such clouds of nameless trouble cross
All night below the darken’d eyes:
With morning wakes the will, and cries,,
’Thou shalt not be the fool of loss.’
O Sorrow, cruel fellowship,
O Priestess in the vaults of Death,
O sweet and bitter in a breath,
What whispers from thy lying lip?
’The stars,’ she whispers, ’blindly run;
A web is wov’n across the sky;
From out waste places comes a cry,
And murmurs from the dying sun:
’And all the phantom, Nature, stands-
With all the music in her tone,
A hollow echo of my own,-
A hollow form with empty hands.”
And shall I take a thing so blind,
Embrace her as my natural good;
Or crush her, like a vice of blod,
Upon the threshold of the mind?
Calm is the morn without a sound,
Calm as to suit a calmer grief,
And only thro’ the faded leaf
The chestnut pattering to the ground:
Calm and deep peace on this high wold,
And on these dews that drench the furze,
And all the silvery gossamers
That twinkle into green and gold:
Calm and still light on yon great plain
That sweeps with all its autumn bowers,
And crowded farms and lessening towers,
To mingle with the bounding main:
Calm and deep peace in this wide air,
These leaves that redden to the fall;
And in my heart, if calm at all,
If any calm, a calm despair:
Calm on the seas, and silver sleep,
And waves that sway themselves in rest,
And dead calm in that noble breast
Which heaves but with the heaving deep.
Be near me when my light is low
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle; and the heart is sick
And all the wheels of Being slow.
Be near me when the sensuous frame
Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a Fury slinging flame.
Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing,
And weave their petty cells and die.
Be near me when I fade away,
To point the term of human strife,
And on the low dark verge of life
The twilight of eternal day.
Just like Dickens, Tennyson died rich and lionised by ordinary readers and officials alike, in 1892, and was buried in the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. While still living he was also knighted as first Baron Tennyson of Aldworth and Farringford. All this was in recognition to his great merits as a public poet. Today we may venture to read his official poetry for its documentary value if we want to study the ideas, environment, general mentality and lifestyle of the Victorian gentleman: the superior, gentlemanly ethics and refinement often voiced as a brand of chivalrous feminism as it happens in ”The Princess”, which very long poem bears the subtitle of ”A Medley”, as it allegorically sweeps through Victorian domestic and industrial life regarded in the light of Victorian culture as refinement and learning, Victorian colonial leisure, Victorian urbanity, Victorian fashion and sporting during a leisure day in the outing. As ”The Prologue” explains, the setting is a Victorian big house or mansion in the countryside which idylically recreates urban values, ambitions and intellectual debates from the elegant vista of Sir Walter Vivian’s little palace which seems to concentrate in little the whole Victorian material and intellectual universe. Facetiously and graciously then, this world will be counteracted by the poet’s ”fearful”, actually farcical fairy-tale or fable of the all-feminine University-Convent of the Princess Ida, a man-eater who threatened the male I of the story-teller Prince with her whole army of chaste women or cultural amazons.
From The Prologue
Sir Walter Vivian all a summer’s day
Gave his broad lawns until the set of sun
Up to the people: thither flocked at noon
His tenants, wife and child, and thither half
The neighbouring borough with their Institute
Of which he was the patron. I was there
From college, visiting the son, - the son
A Walter too,- with others of our set,
Five others: we were seven at Vivian-place.
And me that morning Walter show’d the house,
Greek, set with busts: from vases in the hall
Flowers of all heavens, and lovelier than their names,
Grew side by side; and on the pavement lay
Carved stones of the Abbey-ruin in the park,
Huge Ammonites, and the first bones of Time;
And on the tables every clime and age
Jumbled together; celts and calumets,
Claymore and snowshoe, toys in lava, fans
Of sandal, amber, ancient rosaries,
Laborious orient ivory shphere in sphere,
The cursed Malayan crease, and battle-clubs
From the isles of palm: and higher on the walls,
Betwixt the monstruous horns of elk and deer,
His own forefathers’ arms and armour hung .
And ’this’ he said ’was Hugh’s at Agincourt;
And that was old Sir Ralph’s at Ascalon:
A good knight he! We keep a chronicle
With all about him’ – which he brought, and I
Dived in a hoard of tales that dealt with knights,
Half-legend, half-historic, counts and kings
Who laid about them at their wills and died.
While the visitors are given a tour of the park, in which the reader may visually participate like in a documentary movie on today’s cable television, or like in a Zefirelli super-production set in the Victorian age, one feels overcome by the uninterrupted chain of gracious miracles and technological toys meant precisely for such a day of sporting, which playful miracles transform this park into a land of the 19th century fairies, or into an imagined International Exhibition of 1851 – only here imagined a few years in advance (as ”The Princess” was first published in 1847):
….round the lake
A little clock-work steamer paddling plied
And shook the lilies: perch’d about the knolls
A dozen angry models jetted steam:
A petty railway ran ; a fire balloon
Rose gem-like up before the dusky groves
And dropt a fairy parachute and past:
And there thro’ twenty posts of telegraph
They flash’d a saucy message to and fro
Between the mimic stations; so that sport
Went hand in hand with Science;
The same pairing of science with prowess, this time seriously rather than in jest, occurs in the strange poem ”Locksley Hall”, a confessive and didactic narrative and a thwarted love story yoking together feminism with progress:
”Here about the beach, I wander’d, nourishing a youth sublime
With the fairy tales of science, and the long results of Time
This poem contains some incredible injunctions, such as the following:
……………………. forward, forward let us range
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change (the heroic Homeric echo of ”the ringing plains of Troy” makes one vacillate between despair, disdain and mere laughter). But the poem continues with its heroic couplets in exactly the same incredibly encomiastic tone:
There methinks would be enjoyment more than in this march of mind
In the steamship, in the railway, in the thoughts that shake mankind
After all this praise of science and progress, we cannot wonder at the tone of Tennyson’s topical ”Ode Sung at the Opening of the International Exhibition”
Uplift a thousand voices full and sweet,
In this wide hall with earth’s invention stored,
And praise the invisible universal Lord,
Who lets once more in peace the nations meet,
Where Science, Art, and Labour have outpour’d
Their myriad horns of plenty at our feet
Analytically speaking now, Tennyson as a public poet is obviously full of contradictions, because his occasional verse should be capable of flexibly moving from required lyricism to grandiloquence, as the case may be; sometimes, his public service as a Laureate required him to be sentimental; at other times, didactic. When sentimentally grandiloquent, Tennyson writes idylls. As a kind of fixed allegorical poem, conventionally presenting a scene of rural, pastoral life, giving a sense of tranquil happiness ranging from serenity to euphoria (as J. A. Cuddon defines it in his ”Dictionary of Literary Terms and Theory”, Penguin, 1992) and again, conventionally transporting the reader to an idealized, remotely attainable past. When didactically grandiloquent, Tennyson writes odes (i.e., ceremonial, celebratory verse) dedicated to science and progress, to this or that member of the Royal Family , and even more particularly, to this or that historical victory on the battle fields of the Continent or at home, as at the opening of the International Exhibition in London in 1851. (the paeans of ”Locksley Hall” are precisely that, and you can read Tennyson’s explicit odes ”To the Queen”, ”A Welcome to Alexandra”, ”A Welcome to Her Royal Highness Marie Alexandrovna, Duchess of Edinburgh”, ”The Charge of the Light Brigade”, ”Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington” or ”The Third of February, 1852”) (All these occasional poems may be read as documents illustrating the age just like paintings in ”The National Portrait Gallery” in London, and then their highflown language is atoned for, and they will immediately assume a humbler and more acceptable position among the Victorian Age exhibits).
This classification of Tennyson’s official, ”collaborationist” or occasional poetry into idylls and odes, brings us to one of Tennyson’s most successful legitimating narratives in verse: his Arthurian ”Idylls of the King” (1859- occasioned by the death of Prince Albert, the Royal Consort). Written in order to dignify in retrospect the life of the Royal Pair and to console the Queen for the loss of the Prince , they identified the dead Prince with King Arthur (”The Passing of Arthur” being especially topical, while it was also followed by the already quoted ode ”To the Queen”) and inaugurated a parallel soon to become the fashion, between the Victorian society as a whole and the legendary knightly court of King Arthur et comp. In this way, the social and moral mythology of the inflated Victorian excellence and virtuous aspiration became a publically shared ideology. The epic thread of the twelve poems that make up the sequence has to do with the recognition of Arthur’s excellence in war and in marriage, his fight for the moral restoration of the knights who have lost their power and purity by a life of sin. There is an entire catalogue of allegorical virtues, vices and beneficial transformations high-mimetically connecting the Victorians with the Knights of the Round Table : thus, Sir Lancelot is the (sensual) good man who stands in need of being tamed; Queen Guinevere concentrates all the emotional hues of the human personality and points towards the need of controlling one’s self through reason; the Sword Excalibur is the exemplary straightener and repository of the guiding Spirit in general. A pattern of mutual explicitation obtains therefore between the literal and the figurative levels of the allegory, which enriches both levels in their signifying power.
The same lyrical themes and lyrical vein pervades Matthew Arnold’s poetry, equally showing a preference for sea imagery. Like the Tennyson of ”In Memoriam”, Matthew Arnold the poet is profoundly meditative. His memorable poems ”The Buried Life” and ”Dover Beach” define the Victorian anguish as well as Tennyson’s one hundred and thrity-one lyrics of ”In Memoriam”; these poems indicate the same decentered, alienated position that man was felt to occupy in the universe during the 19th century. In the poems mentioned, Arnold’s poetry constructs even more pathetically profound allegorical images of the Victorian loss of vitality, reaching down to a rather more archetypal – and so, more romantic – level of symbolism and imagery. His poetry is less discursive and more metaphorical in its expressiveness.
But here the parallel with Tennyson has to cease, as the narrative and occasional poet Arnold employs predominantly neo-classicist topoi on which he comments in a late classicist manner tinged by romanticism rather than employ the romance, mediaeval topoi and manner. Thus, Arnold’s poetry is less ”popular” or ”low-culture” in its mentality, much more intellectualised than Tennyson’s, less suited for either mere youthful enthousiasts or the public alienated from poetry which Bagehot had indicated as the typical Tennysonian readership.
Also, unlike Tennyson, Matthew Arnold chose as his social profession of faith the intellectual one, when he decided to break up the habit of writing (romantic) poetry to become a professional and professorial teacher of poetry, cultural and literary criticism. (Thus he was dealt with as a representative of Victorian liberal intellectualism in these lectures and not as a poet whose ideology is also expressed by his prose of ideas)
But in the economy of the entire course of Victorian literature lectures, this hasty comparison between Tennyson’s and Arnold’s poetry may function as a good example of the ”anatomical” difference between romance literature and the literature of Romanticism, which Frye justly discriminates in the first essay on historical literary criticism. Tennyson’s facile allegorical nature poetry and celebratory poetry perfectly illustrates the literary mode of romance in the Victorian Age with the natural historical and ideological affinities it revealed as existing between Puritanism and Mediaevalism in their shared assumptions. On the other hand, Arnold’s post - romanticism can be demonstrated to move back in a typical manner for Victorianism, while intellectually ”transcending” the idealistic mediaevalism of the Romantics and reaching towards the universal ideas with the help of the classical intellectual topoi and manner, which Arnold has already been shown to use in his meditations upon the opposition between man and nature, history and the cosmos, which represent his main theme not only in ”Dover Beach” and ”The Buried Life” but also in the curtly declarative sonnet ”In Harmony with Nature”. (to be read at the end of the lecture). By an archetypal figure of speech, Arnold’s poetry can be said to occupy the same middle position in the Victorian purgatory as the feminine Victorian novels or the later, more symbolic novels by Dickens, which converse on the same Romantic or at least romance topics and topoi but offer… ”lower and lower mimetic solutions” to the spiritual problems raised beforehand. In Arnold’s poetry, inspired by the classicist rationalism, romanticism is chastised and drawn into the precipice of its opposite pole, namely into the hellish precipice of satire and irony, as already stated in the introductory part of this lecture.
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