[Note to secondary school students: this is review is rated PG or maybe R.]

decorated initial 'T'his is a book that begins with a bang and ends with a whimper. Garrett Jones claims that Alfred Tennyson and Arthur Henry Hallam, whose death was the occasion for writing In Memoriam, were in some sense homosexual lovers, and that Hallam was a promiscuous homosexual whose father sent him to Cambridge, separating him from his Eton friends as a way of curtailing his son's inclinations (a curious, rather naive strategy, one might think!). For most of the book, he gives the impression that the two friends had an intense homosexual relationship that must have included physical acts. However, on p. 192 out of 199, he announces the following:

EITHER they had to knuckle under and settle for a "sublimated", more-or-less disembodied, spiritualized passion . . . . OR they could plunge and risk martyrdom. They must have agreed that they had no taste for martyrdom — or even Byronic exile. . . . It is clear they both knew, in their heart of hearts, they wanted to express their love for each other in a physical way; yes, even in a sexual way — Love and Duty is eloquent testimony to that. But both of them knew in the prevailing moral climate . . . there seemed to be no possibility of love between males that would not incur hysterical opposition. . . . There is not much doubt, had they wanted to take the sexual path and do so openly, they would only have wanted the kind of sex which they felt about each other. [192]

Given that no one has ever doubted that Tennyson had some sort of "disembodied, spiritualized passion" for Hallam, this conclusion comes as rather a painful anticlimax. Like most texts that use "it is clear," "not much doubt," "must," and "of course" too much, Alfred and Arthur provokes the reader's suspicions, since so little evidence actually exists to settle such matters that almost nothing is clear or without doubt. As the previously quoted passage suggests, Jones often combines a desperation to believe his thesis with the assurance that he knows not only what both men really felt and thought but also exactly in what kind of sexuality Tennyson would have partaken, had he dared to do so. Thus he can assure us that "even had he been alive to-day, I suspect Alfred would have drawn the line at anal sex . . . [because] he had a deep intuitive awareness of his androgyny but was concerned to maintain the distinction between a 'man-woman' and a 'woman-man'" (177) and that Tennyson's "dominant sexual orientation" was homosexuality (even though he later seems to suggest he was bi-sexual). Jones really does seem to believe that he knows better than Tennyson: commenting upon the poet's dislike of effeminate men, he responds anachronistically by chiding his subject for not realizing that some men need sex change operations, after which he then mentions "Alfred's anxiety to establish androgyny is [sic; meaning "as"?] the norm" (127)

When I became aware that the men's supposed homosexuality provided the main thrust of Alfred and Arthur, which reads Tennyson's poems only as covert expressions of his homosexual desire, I wondered why he self-published it instead of having a major commercial or academic press bring it out. The influential books by Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick, D. A. Miller, and others, and courses and departments centering on gender studies have made the study of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and now transgendered sexuality a very fashionable area for scholarship and criticism. I have no vested interest in believing that either man was heterosexual, and a convincing argument that they were lovers would almost certainly do a great deal to increase the poet's popularity with today's undergraduates — just as the discovery that Dickens had a mistress made readers at mid-twentieth century willing to see him in a new light. Of course, the fact that members of Tennyson's family succumbed to madness, alcoholism, and drug addiction already has made some readers aware that, like so many other Victorians, he should be taken down from a pedestal and join the rest of us. But think of the stir if one the greatest poems of the nineteenth century, one which has major influence on poets as different as Whitman and Eliot, turned out to be chiefly a gay lover's lament! Therefore, given current willingness to examine proposals such as Jones makes, publishers would find this a very hot topic, one that would sell books. The reason Jones self-published, I soon found out, was that although he writes quite clearly, he wants so desperately to believe in the homosexuality of these two Victorians that he unconvincingly interprets all texts and events important in this relationship as if he has a secret key and never even mentions contrary explanations. He isn't, in other words, convincing at all, and he argues largely by assertion rather than demonstration.

Anyone who advances such an unorthodox and provocative thesis has to convince the reader to give it a hearing, and one of the chief means of doing so involves demonstrating one's accuracy and ability to interpret difficult things, whether texts or events. Unfortunately, Jones fails to convince that he has full control over his materials. He reports, for example, that after Hallam sent Edward Moxon one of friends to publish, "Moxon was delighted with it and keen to publish. Moxon, until his death in 1852, went on to publish every subsequent poem that Alfred wrote, becoming a wealthy man in the process" (60). Not quite: Moxon, who died on 3 June 1858, six years later than Jones reports, was almost bankrupted by the so-called Moxon Tennyson, the 1857 volume of poems that stands as a landmark in British book illustration.

Many times Jones seems to base his claims on very uncertain evidence. For example, in discussing a letter by Hallam to one William Henry Brookfield, a Cambridge acquaintance who later married one of his cousins, he deduces from the two phrases — "it was not well for us to be too entirely together" and "resolutions I had formed" — the following: "It seems reasonable to suppose Arthur's estrangement from Brookfield is motivated by two fears: on the one hand, his fear of homosexual involvement; on the other hand, his fear of the relative promiscuity of his own affections compared with the monogamous intensity of Alfred's" (72). There are many reasons why two men don't get along together or one man might not want to be in the other's company. The problem here is that we have no evidence that Brookfield was gay or, if he was, that he had had a physical relationship with Hallam.

At times his desire to make every bit of textual evidence fit the procrustean bed of his thesis plunges him into absurdity, as when he quotes another of Hallam's letters to Brookfield, this one about his passionate love for his bride-to-be. Here's part of the letter:

Every shadow of — not doubt, but uneasiness . . . that Alfred's language . . . sometimes cast over my hope is destroyed in the full blaze of conscious delight with which I perceive that she loves me. And I — I love her madly: I feel as though I had never known love until now . . . . I feel above consequence, freed from destiny, at home with happiness . . . Alfred is, as I expected, not apparently ill, not can I persuade myself anything real is the matter; his condition is altogether healthier. He is fully wound up to publication. [76; all ellipses in Jones's text, except that after "until now]

What does Jones have to say after this paean to heterosexual love? "This is the only surviving evidence of tensions between Alfred and Arthur arising from Arthur's love for Emily" (76). One has to be absurdly committed to one's thesis to ignore Hallam's assertion of ecstatic love for his fianceé. Part of Jones's problems are rhetorical: he never bothers to offer the obvious interpretation of a text before advancing his own. In this case, we can think of many explanations why Tennyson did not tell Hallam that his sister loved his friend as intensely as she later told him that she did, among them either that she had not confided completely in her brother or that her love grew more intense once Hallam visited her again at the Tennyson home.

According to Jones, In Memoriam is "the most flagrantly amorous poem about a man by a man in the English literary tradition" (116) — a somewhat odd judgment given that we have gay and lesbian erotic poetry. His chapter on the great poem takes the form of interpretive summary as for more thirty pages he quotes a dozen or more lines and then appends a brief commentary of a sentence or two, all in the service of charting that part of the poem that records the poet's relation to his dead friend. This reading is fine as far as it goes, but it omits all of Tennyson's theological, biological, geological, and literary themes. As I have argued elsewhere, In Memoriam, throws down a gauntlet to the literary tradition, challenging both the traditional elegy, which he finds falsifies the experience of grief, and the theogony from Dante to Milton and Pope as he tries to justify God's ways to man. Using multiple chains of images, takes us through both the stages of grief and of a poet's justification of his vocation. In keeping with its experimental nature, In Memoriam contains many points of formal and thematic resolution, one of the most important involving a response to geological evidence that major species, such as dinasaurs, have become extinct — and man might well become so, too. Making a play on the word "type,"which can mean "species" as well as "divinely ordained pre-figuration of greater things to come," he concludes that Hallam is a type of the higher form of humankind and that God would only let the human race perish, if he replaced it with something finer.

The narrowness of Jones's approach soon becomes a major rhetorical problem. Whenever Tennyson employs an image, myth, or symbol that could be taken to suggest homosexual passion, Jones leans heavily on it, but he ignores other images with other implications. In Memoriam, a poem of many voices and personae, conveys grief from many points of view. For example, Tennyson not only speaks in the voice of a widow, which Jones takes as proof of a homosexual relationship, he also several times describes himself an infant. Are we therefore to conclude either that he literally sees himself as an infant crying for its mother or that his sexual preferences involved dressing up as an infant? Sorry, I don't think so.

After stressing the men's homosexuality for so many pages and then shift his focus belatedly to bisexuality, he concludes with an interesting point by performing a Derridean deconstruction of gender difference:

Decriminalizing sex between males has been a long overdue change for the better but the price paid for this new freedom has too often been a polarising of "gays" and "straights", with little or no recognition that most of us are somewhere in the middle. The same applies to militant feminism; insofar as it has gained a political voice for women and shaken off the chauvanist assumption women should be happy to subordinate their lives to men, it has again brought about many overdue reforms. But insofar as it has led to a battle of the sexes and a polarising of men and women, it has often been destructive of good stable, relationships. [198]

Although I find it hard to agree that feminism polarized relationships between men and women — I suspect it just revealed often obscured imbalance of power — I respect the balanced views with which Jones ends his book. Would that the book itself had more of such balance.

References

Jones, Garrett. Alfred and Arthur: An Historic Friendship. Hertford, U.K.: Authors OnLine, 2001.


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Last modified 13 October 2005;
Thanks to Noah M. Landow for spotting a typo.