< Previous page | Home | Contents | Next page >

5. Victorian Poetry I: Lord Alfred Tennyson, the Paramount Victorian Poet

Followed by a Brief Comparison Between Tennyson’s and Matthew Arnold’s Poetry in General.

5.1. Introduction: The Victorian Zeitgeist . Mannerism and the Post-Romantic Heritage

    Just as the title suggests, in analysing the poetry of Lord Alfred Tennyson, a 20th century reader gains almost direct access to the Victorian Zeitgeist which he can be said to typify. This is mainly due to Tennyson’s sharing in the quality that most Victorian poetry has, that of being a form of fictionlised public letter-writing. This is striking for someone reading poetry after nearly one century of experimentally obscure lyricism in the symboliste key, or the surrealistic (dadaist) key, or, again, the factual classicism of the American imagism/vorticism - in short, after the modernist revolution in letters in general and in poetry in particular. Thus, Victorian poetry is complicated and difficult in a very different way from the complications/difficutlies  we have grown accustomed with in the 20th century. (This does not mean that, as it will be seen immediately, Victorian fashions in poetry have been entirely shed or forgotten nowadays; on the contrary, they have added up to the conglomerate of conventions behind which the common mind of the 20th century has been hiding. And it is the purpose of today’s lecture on Victorian poetry – and the others to follow - to make the readers aware of the Victorian heritage to the poetry and poets still cherished today in the space of the English language poetic craft).

     The first thing worth noting is that the same didactic vein pervading Victorian literature in an age of realism in fiction paradoxically makes Victorian poetry be anything but realistic. This comes from its quality as public poetry in an age when the dominant ideology dictated a dogmatic turning to the past for discovering spectacular models of public action and public feeling materialised as ”commendable, great literature”. In plainer terms, therefore, Victorian poetry, just like the Victorian essay, is obsessed by the great ideas of a fictionalised past, it functions as a popular encyclopedia or commentary to myth or folklore and it is, consequently, a fashionable manneristic commentary to a variety of ideas. Consequently, the primary task of the 20th century student is to identify the idea(s) which a particular Victorain poem illustrates and to discover the precise manner in which it achieves this. (This is, of course, in direct opposition with the warning launched by the 20th century American formalist critics, W. Wimsatt or Cleanth Brooks against ”the heresy of paraphrase”, cf. Cleanth Brooks ”The Well Wrought Urn”, 1947)

This leads to the second general observation about Victorian poetry: if it is lyrical, a Victorian poem is so in an oblique, indirect way. In his 1932 text ”New Bearings in English Poetry”, F. R. Leavis refers to ”the mischeviousness of the 19th century conventions of ’the poetical’ ” (apud Donald Thomas’s excellent file of illuminating contemporary and later criticism in Victorian poetry represented by the lost book of the British Council Library in Bucharest, ”The Post-Romantics” – which it unfortunately represents today in absentia.) Among these mischeviousnesses, Leavis enumerates:

- the dramatised poetic voice, which prompts to us here a jocose statement: poetry becomes ventriloquy (sic!) , being voiced through a mask;
 - poetry amounts to allegory, voiced as fairytale or as medieval legend. More often than not, the reader of Victorian poetry has to grapple with streams of historically obscure consciousness projected outwardly or packed for the use of the Victorian public, with the Victorian public’s own psychological or moral dominants. A pattern of double obliqueness or difficulty or, from the point of view of direct lyricism, double difficulty, underwrites any Victorian poem, whose sentiment hides behind two ”veils”: the historically remote one, classicist or medievalista, in Tennyson’s allegorical poetry and the, nowadays, remote veil of the intended Victorian lesson in spirituality. With Tennyson, the intended lesson in spirituality embraces the realm of art versus conventional life (in ”The Lady of  Shalott”) or the opposition between the man of aspiration, in general, as compared to the man of convention (in ”Ulysses”) and grotesquely so, between the sentimental craving of man and his limited life doomed to defeat, old age dwindling and ultimately, decrepitude (as typified in ”Tithonus”). Victorian lyricism in general is steeped in sadness and melancholy and seeks the weak consolations of oblivion, more often than not lethal oblivion. Orthodox Victorian poetry is, therefore, a kind of morbidly elegiac lyrical poetry, feeble, decadent and even – stuffy.

     The resulting lack in lyrical vigour, was translated by literary history into a label for Victorian poetry as a whole: ”Post-romantic poetry”. When analysing this label from the point of view of Northrop Frye’s ”Anatomy of Criticism”, the first essay, it is possible to detach a number of retained features that the Romantics had added to poetry, features that were not lost in Victorian verse.

– Regarding the poet, the Victorian poet, just like the Romantic, moves back in time and space, higher too and beyond the conventional experience, into a more imaginative order of experience. But whereas the Romantic remains lyrically elevated in/by that imaginative transport, the Victorian poet returns wiser and embittered, as a rule, to his present-day audience for whose sole benefit, it appears,  he has soared into the provisional infinite; hence the shared elegiac tone associated to Victorian lyricism (cf. the ending of Robert Browning’s poem ”Two in the Campagna”, that had masterfully uttered the cry: ”Let us, O my dove,/Let us be unashamed of soul” only to check itself and conclude: ”Only I discern-/ Infinite passion and the pain/ Of finite hearts that yearn”) On a formal level, this points to the difference between the romantic love of (organic) metaphor and the Victorian alternative love of allegory, simile and dramatic representation in general. It is not by accident that the Victorian poets selected the form of the dramatic monologue as their favourite form of self-expression. (But the dramatic monologue will be analysed later, in connection with its greatest Victorian protagonist, Robert Browning.)

– Regarding the formal features shared by the Victorian with the Romantic poets, Frye mentions the tendency of the Romantics to develop encyclopaedic, grand, long poems in the form of epics, which is retained in Victorian poetry. The structures and motivations of these long epics can only be elucidated when relating the poetry to the poet’s own design. The range of encyclopaedic epics includes:

-          Victorian replicas of mythological and religious or folk epics (respectively  in Tennyson’s Arthurian ”Idylls of the King”, 1859,  Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ”The Wreck of the Deutschland”, 1875 or Matthew Arnold’s longer verse narratives ”Empedocles on Etna”, 1852 and ”The Scholar Gipsy”, 1853 );

-           allegorical epics (such as Tennyson’s ”The Palace of Art” or the feminist fable of ”The Princess”);

-           psychological epics of all hues: extensive and comprehensive spiritual autobiographies in a major elegiac key (e.g. Tennyson’s peerless ”In Memoriam” or Matthew Arnold’s ”Thyrsis”); dramatised alienist confessions (Tennyson’s monodrama ”Maud” or Robert Browning’s long psychological and philosophical thriller ”The Ring and the Book” 1868-9

-          high-mimetic novels in plain verse (Elizabeth Barett Browning’s ”Aurora Leigh”, 1857)

But there are obviously missing features in the Victorian poems as compared to the Romantic ones: in addition to the above-mentioned failure of the Victorian poets to radically turn away from the contemporary social or public thinking, as the high Romantics had done, the nature poetry of the Victorians lacks the nature – inspired sense of power, and it is bland and outspoken or simply elegiac, where Romantic poetry had been mystical. As F. R. Leavis put it in the same text already quoted in Donald Thomas’s book: ”It was possible for the poets of the Romantic period to believe that the interests animating their poetry were the forces moving the world , or that might move it. But Victorian poetry admits implicitly that the actual world is alien, recalcitrant and unpoetical, and that no protest is worth making except the protest of withdrawal”). Lastly, the direct belief in the creative genius of the poet underpinning the fabric of any Romantic poem, be it great or small in size, is missing from each and every Victorian poem. This belief is translatable as a kind of repressed manifestation of a stunted when not downwardly ironic Victorian poet who is necessarily wearing a didactic, moralising mask. Even the least sophisticated Victorian poet puts on an allegorical mask - pastoral, professorial, clinical – in the verse narratives. (These can no longer be called ”ballads” because they are too learned to qualify for mere ballads; also they are by no means intended as lyrical, because they are learned allegories addressing well-informed gentlemen and ladies, as in Tennyson’s ”The Lady of Shalott” gathering for the purposes of poetic communion the typically elegant audience of ”Knight and burgher, lord and dame”) The more talented Victorian poet, however, has a correspondingly more difficult alternative: that of assuming the voice of a local persona who is heard speak in the dramatic monologue on a very partially visible scene. The last consequence of all this is that, as in Matthew Arnold’s poetry, the lyricism of the Victorian poet is, as the French would put it, ”déchiré”, or as Northrop Frye would qualify it, a (self-) ironic lyricism dismayed by the spectre of the Greek sparagmos, the tearing to pieces of man to whom ”heroism and effective action” are denied. Now, Frye decidedly considers that sparagmos is ”the archetypal theme of irony and satire” (”Anatomy…”, p. 139). This obviously leads one to the conclusion that as a whole and through its post-Romantic qualities, Victorian poetry exists within the horizon of the ironic mode. There is thus a major de-synchronisation that operates in the Victorian age: Victorian poetry, when lyrical, more decidedly manifests lay, modern man’s universal and personal despair as (tragic) irony, whereas fiction still toys with romance and the self-important high mimetic forms of realism. (And this ultimately, and ironically speaking, ”recommends” the Victorian age as a cultural age lacking in true, inherent stylistic and aesthetic greatness. The Victorian age is great as a modern commentator only, as an impersonator or teacher of traditions and counter-traditions fabricated by other ages and other people. All the more so is the Victorian age essential for a Romanian modern student of letters, whom it can equip with the cultural background and critical spirit compulsory for a metropolitan intellectual. In a way, the average Romanian student as a potential representative of a provincial, mass culture is in the position of  Matthew Arnold’s Philistine who is in need of major cultural instruction  or, as John Henry Newman would put it, of Liberal Education in a University).

5.2. Applying the General Features of Victorian Poetry to   Tennyson’s Poems

The first consequence of Tennyson’s transposition of Victorian orthodox ideas in the neo-classicist key superimposed upon the key of late medievalism is the idyllic tone of a pastoral poetry which is elevating before being lyrical. Secondly, Tennyson’s poems oscillate between a resulting epical grandeur (you can read here ”grandiloquence”) and  a picturesque artificiality meant to move even the less refined middle-class average readers in the otherwise busy entrepreneurial circles, in their spare time. Tennyson had  a magus-like power of instilling dignity and picturesqueness in the domestic, everyday Victorian life as well as in many a public occasion, when people were eager to rejoice or mourn in public. For such occasions Tennyson had ready many a pastoral allegory or elegy, elevating the factual above itself, rendering it closer to the ideal. All this means that Tennyson’s participative readiness fitted him, as a writer of occasional poetry  for complying with the consumerist taste that was shared by this first age of mass communication which the Victorian age was. (It is quite clear that the Victorian consumerism was of an intellectual brand, not the raw, material consumerism advertised in today’s media). As the contemporary Victorian literary critic Walter Bagehot put it in his review of Tennyson’s ”Idylls of the King”as excerpted by Donald Thomas in his book: there were ”two audiences for Tennyson’s poetry: those with more youthful enthousiasm, the poet’s admirers, and the wider public alienated from poetry”. Actually, from the common status he had as the fourth child of eight sons born – in 1809 -  to the Lincolnshire rector (in Romanian ”vicar”) of Somersby , Tennyson rose to the dignity of a national bard and the friend of the Royal Pair, being nominated ”Poet Laureate”, after Wordsworth, in 1850 and was chosen by Thomas Alva Edison to record his voice, among only three other famous 19th century voices (as Donald Thomas shows in his introduction to the Tennyson casebook in his ”Post –Romantics”). From the point of view of the 20th century reader, there are two poets Tennyson, one readable, the other unreadable today, respectively, the lyrical poet and the occasional, public poet. This is mainly due to the fact that we are a different audience for poetry today than the public Tennyson enjoyed in the 19th century. We are neither enthousiastic in the youthful, naïve sense, nor alienated from poetry in the same way as the Victorian wider public. Rather, we form a middle (but not ”middle-class”!) category of public who like to think of themselves as neither wide nor too enthousiastic readers of literature (this is the point of view of the average reader).

5.2.1. Tennyson the Lyrical Poet

Tennyson the lyrical poet fits almost perfectly the identikit portrait offered for the generic Victorian poet in this lecture’s introduction, under 5.1( this portrait might well remain an abstraction, were it not actually obtained by ad hoc extrapolation from Tennyson’s particular case). Anyone can follow extensively in Tennyson’s lyrical poetry what T. S. Eliot described in his essay on the Metaphysical poets  as  ”the dissociation of sensibility”, more and more refined language with feeling remaining more crude; or as Matthew Arnold complained, in the Preface to his First Edition of  ”Poems”, morbid sufferance, sufferance in excess to accompany just rudimentary human action. Tennyson’s poetry, which Walter Bagehot terms ”ornate”, exaggerates in all these ways the basic assumptions of lyricism. It is, just like Matthew Arnold’s poetry, poetry suffused in ”a universal note of sadness” (cf. the ending of the poem ”Dover Beach”, by Arnold). This vein pervades Tennyson’s poetry from his first volume, ”Juvenilia”, through the great elegiac sequence of ”In Memoriam” which poetically attempted to come to terms with the death of a beloved friend and it echoed forth in the ”Idylls of the King”. It has the power, praised by E. A. Poe in ”The Poetic Principle”, to offer ”the elevating excitement of the soul”, but it has two shortcomings: it is the only tonality of Tennyson’s lyrical poems, always written in the elegiac, sick key and it is derived from a predictable plot describing human and universal decline. This makes one read the same basic poem with few variations, irrespective of the title and the superficial accidents. It is worth comparing the feelings induced by the setting of the nature poem ”Song”, with the background of a poem about a dying swan in the same first volume, ”Juvernilia”, or with … ”other poems” in the later collections ”The Lady of Shalott and Other Poems” and ”English Idylls and Other Poems”:

Heavily hangs the broad sunflower

                     Over its grave i’the earth so chilly:

Heavily hangs the hollyhock,

                     Heavily hangs the tiger-lily.


The air is damp, and hush’d and close,

As a sick man’s room when he taketh repose

                     An hour before death;

My very heart faints and my whole soul grieves

At the moist rich smell of the rotting leaves,

                     And the breath

                     Of the fading edges of box beneath,

And the year’s last rose.

Heavily hangs the broad sunflower

                     Over its grave i’the earth so chilly:

Heavily hangs the hollyhock,

                     Heavily hangs the tiger-lily.


The wild swan’s death-hymn took the soul

Of that waste place with joy

Hidden in sorrow : at first to the ear

The warble was low, and full and clear;


And the creeping mosses and clambering weeds,

And the willow-branches hoar and dank,

And the wavy swell of the soughing reeds,

And the wave-worn horns of the echoing bank,

And the silvery marsh – flowers that throng

The desolate creeks and pools among,

Were flooded over with eddying song.

                                    (”The Dying Swan”)

or, at the beginning of ”The Lotos-Eaters”

In the afternoon they came unto a land

In which it seemed always afternoon.

All round the coast the languid air did swoon,

Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.

Full-faced above the valley stood the moon;

And like a downward smoke, the slender stream

Along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem.      

A land of streams! some, like a downward smoke,

Slow-dropping veils of thinnest lawn, did go;

And some thro’ wavering lights and shadows broke,

Rolling a slumbrous sheet of foam below

From this atmosphere, Tennyson awakens into existence equally melancholy shadows of characters, incarnations of sad, slothful dreams themselves:

The charmed sunset linger’d low adown

In the red West: thro’ mountain clefts the dale

Was seen far inland, and the yellow down

Border’d with palm, and many a winding vale

And meadow, set with slender gallingale;

A land where all things always seem’d the same!

And round about the keel with faces pale,

Dark faces pale against that rosy flame,

The mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters came.

Branches they bore of that enchanted stem,

Laden with flower and fruit, wherof they gave

To each, but whoso did receive of them,

And taste, to him the gushing of the wave

Far far away did seem to mourn and rave

On alien shores; and if his fellow spake,

His voice was thin, as voices from the grave;

And deep-asleep he seem’d , yet all awake,

And music in his ears his beating heart did make.

with these lines extending into a whole fable of languidness, forgetfulness and doom enacted through the story of the public orgy represented by the opiate lotus eating. It is as if, from this suffused, oppressing memory, the great Romantic dreams and visions are projected as pale phantoms onto the Victorian canvass destined for public shows and not for visions.

Then at the opening of the other Greek fable of ”Tithonus”, the climactic outpour of similar imagery:

The  woods decay, the woods decay and fall,

The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,

Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath.

And after many a summer dies the swan.

This overwhelming, nightmarish sentiment in the decadent romantic key will be further and systematically explored by Tennyson, and also to its ultimate transcendental implications, in the cumulative sequence of 131 philosophical lyrics forming ”In Memoriam”. These poems transmute the underlying phantom of death which haunted the Victorian universe of experience by directly confronting it. ”In Memoriam” thus functions as a great exorcising poem on death and the human limitation regarded against the wider canvass of the world and time, for this age that feared its own shadow, in Jungian terms. In poems such as III, XI and L, Victorian sentiments are expressed in the purest vein of lyricism, with a directness and clarity which amount the great action of coming to terms with experience rather than self-complacently toying with it. This last observation can be proved by comparing  Tennyson’s earlier sleep/languish poems, with the straightforward meditative discursiveness of poem IV in the sequence:


a There are various alternatively favourite histories in which Victorian artists manneristically find refuge. The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood painters and poets get transported to that period which marks the threshold between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which they identify from beyond its actual span as the period of the old Pre-Raphaelite school painters, Giotto, Angelico, Orcagna, John Bellini. The poet Browning - who was also a man of subtle artistic tastes - and Walter Pater, the Oxford don and art theorist -who influenced all the later generations of Victorian artists and aesthetic theorists - opened the windows of their contemporary Victoriansm into the Renaissance itself. Matthew Arnold proclaimed a more general standard or ideal in any ”epoch of expansion”, be it past or foreign, the period of Pericles’ century in Athens, the Elizabethan period in England, the period of French academism  which he saw to be successfully extended into the 19th century culture of France. Last but not least, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins selected as his private model age that of the Oxford eccentric Duns Scotus’s anti-Thomist scholasticism, which he revived through his militant devotional verse. In this way, Victorian escapism ends where it had started with Thomas Carlyle, namely in the Middle Ages of heroic ethics and enhanced vision.

< Previous page | Home | Contents | Next page >

© University of Bucharest 2003. All rights reserved.
No part of this text may be reproduced in any form without written permission of the University of Bucharest, except for short quotations with the indication of the website address and the web page.
Comments to: Ioana Zirra
Last update: March 2003
Text editor&Web design: Raluca OVAC