hile Tennyson's earliest poems are not unsophisticated, they are usually very uncomplicated, almost as if the poet had established for himself in each poem a single structural, thematic, or technical problem. It is remarkable how deliberately and continuously these poems use the clichés of irony and, to a lesser extent, comedy. Tennyson here serves his generic apprenticeship in public and presents a programme of his later progress in irony, where he will take the themes and techniques, isolated here, and combine them, reworking the clichés into poems that form the center of the developing conventions of irony.
As for comedy, he appears to have needed no apprenticeship. The Devil and the Lady, written when he was fourteen, is so assured in style and so easy in development that it is, as everyone who mentions it says, “astonishing.” There are youthful excesses, certainly, but also a surprising maturity, particularly in the poetic vision that could produce such a troubled and potentially dark comedy. This is no piece of high-spirited merriment or confident satire, It begins in the Jonsonian manner, but Tennyson seems quite uninterested in corrective satire, even at this early stage, and the comedy soon moves beyond correction to a more unsettled and complex form.
With Poems by Two Brothers, comedy is made clearly subordinate, as the young poet begins to develop the materials of irony, Anyone reading through his contributions to this collection is bound to be struck by the poems' nearly uniform grimness. In only about one-fourth of them is any sort of comic spirit evident, and even [15/16] there it is often rather bizarre. All the others, I think, are deliberate and careful exercises in the ironic mode.
To cite just one example, “The Dell of E-” demonstrates Tennyson's experiments both with structural reversal and with the inversion or burlesque of comic principles. Exactly half of the poem asserts a unification of man and nature which is flatly denied by the other half The first stanza describes objectively the beauty the dell once possessed; the second moves us closer to its restorative, calming powers. There is then an abrupt switch to an image of desolation. Man, it turns out, has destroyed what he needed most. The final stanza goes on to climax this irony, suggesting that the trees may have been cut to build warships, that what once gave men joy now functions as their killers, bearing “terror round / The trembling earth” (ll. 51-52).
This double climax or “capping” is very common in Tennyson; he often adds a final and unexpected twist that brings the theme into focus abruptly and with a shock. That men set out to ravage their greatest friend is one irony; that they have transformed this friend into an instrument of death complements and intensifies the point. But the poem is quick to block any moralistic renderings of this perception. In fact, the real point of the poem is that there is no point. We are not asked to reflect that we ought not to do such things but to accept how sad and horrible it is that we do. The poem ends not with admonition, nor even with the ironic shock discussed earlier, but with the understated reflection that the trees really served better in their previous state, that, instead of being used to kill, it would have been
lovelier, had they still
Whispered unto the breezes with low sound,
And greenly flourished on their native hill. (ll. 52-54).
The delicacy and simplicity of lovelier are deliberate, and they contain most of the force of the poem. This is decidedly not corrective irony — It sees simply the loveliness of Paradise and the absurdity of its loss; it never suggests that this loss can be recovered. While such themes are less blatantly announced and such reversals generally less sudden in Tennyson's mature poetry, the basic principles are developed here in Poems by Two Brothers.
Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830) and Poems(1832) are both more sophisticated and much more varied than Tennyson's contributions to Poems by Two Brothers, but in the major poems of these two [16/17] volumes are the same dominance of the ironic mode and curious persistence of the comic that marked the earlier poems. What had been simple, however, now becomes more complex, and the deliberate separation of themes, images, and techniques now yields to combination and compression. Tennyson has mastered the rudiments of irony and begins in these volumes to experiment with the various technical and thematic possibilities it allows him. Though many of these poems are imperfect, a few are as successful as any poetry Tennyson was to write. Already with these early volumes, Tennyson reaches maturity in that form. His later ironic poems tend to become more subtle and even more experimental; they expand the genre itself by challenging its limits. These 1830 and 1832 volumes, however, do more than just prefigure Tennyson's major ironic work; they contain some of it.
But not much. That the apprenticeship stage of Poems by Two Brothershas not been left entirely behind is apparent in poems like “A Dirge,” which deals starkly with the superiority of death to life, not in religious but in naturalistic terms. According to this view, life is so horrible that the coffin seems like freedom and the gnawings of “the small cold worm” (l. 9) comfortable. Though the poem somewhat confusedly mixes this startling perception with incongruously comic lines that suggest the unification of the body with nature, the urgent rejection of life overrides any assurances. The desire for escape from the tangled ugliness of the world to the peace of death is voiced over and over in Tennyson: those most sensitive to life's promise, he says, are those who are forced to reject what now passes for life. The apparent simplicity of “A Dirge,” then, covers a very remarkable and extreme appeal, the same one that we recognize later, in its full development, in such poems as “The Lotos-Eaters.” [17/18] the central word to describe the most prevalent motive of nineteenth-century irony. By redefining man as the creature with the power to suspend certainty, irony created the rootless man, not undefined but defined only by the trap lie is in, caught between equally unavailable or unattractive alternatives.
It is not, then, a thematic conflict between belief and disbelief that is presented so much as the state of suspension caused by that conflict. Tennyson displays here at its perfection a technique lie will often use to demonstrate that suspension between alien worlds. In the climax of the poem the speaker begins a prayer to God for mercy and enlightenment. At its start the prayer is graceful and undisturbed:
Let thy dove
Shadow me over, and my sins
Be unremembered, and Thy love
Enlighten me [ll. 180-83].
As the prayer goes on, however, the comic hope gradually modulates to bitterness, as the imagery becomes harsher and grimmer: “0 teach me yet / Somewhat before the heavy clod / Weighs on me, and the busy fret / Of that sharp-headed worm begins / In the gross blackness underneath” (ll. 183-87). The prayer thus contains its own hopeless antithesis and mirrors the stasis of the narrator's mind. Hope and despair are held together in the ironic suspension of doubt.
Adding to this tension, finally, is the rhetorical distance that is maintained.' Though the subject matter of the poem and much of the language are highly charged and highly personal, there is an extreme self-consciousness at work that keeps the narrator himself at a curious remove from the personality examined. The narrator's capacity for self-criticism almost certainly separates him from us and establishes a rhetorical tension between the strong quality of emotion and our sense of distance from it. Thus, much like the speaker, we are ourselves poised and unable to find an adequate release for the emotion raised.
“Mariana” likewise portrays and engenders a suspended position. The poem is, in the first place, remarkably adrift from its presumed Shakespearean source. As John Stuart Mill said, “There is no mere amplification; it is all production, and production from that single germ” ("Review"). It is certainly “all production,” developing from an intense [20/21] and single-minded imaginative speculation on the short and evocative phrase, “Mariana in the moated grange.” By separating Shakespeare's character so completely from the play, Tennyson achieves the intense focus that also makes the desolation seem uncaused. There is no point in looking to Measure for Measurein order to find out why “he will not come,” much less to determine that he will, as he does in the play, come after all, Here there is no narrative movement at all, the whole point being that Mariana's love is senselessly denied, that her fruition is cut off without reason. At least, by restricting the poem to her baffled ignorance, Tennyson makes it clear that any reasons are radically disproportionate to the implications of pointless imprisonment. “He cometh not” is all that matters, and the poem thus develops die purity of a cosmic statement of irony.
For though the poem is often treated as a picture of sheer desolation, a “giving in” to melancholy, our response is surely not so simple and very definitely not so easy and relaxed as the word melancholy would suggest. The poem seems to move to a climax, but it actually mocks climactic structures. The picture of a bondage that cannot be broken is created and reinforced by all the details of the poem: the thick, clogged opening lines, for instance, or the metrics of the refrain, where the quick, regular movement of “She only said, 'My life is dreary,/ He cometh not,' she said” is interrupted by the unexpected sluggishness of the next line-“She said, 'I am aweary, aweary' — a line which not only suggests the very hopelessness and weariness it is talking about but also retards and thus emphasizes the decisive last line of the refrain — “I would that I were dead!“
One should also note the brilliant way in which Mariana's heightened sensitivity is suggested: she both sharpens small details and obliterates the distinction between large ones. She knows all about the patterns on the bark of the single poplar tree but confuses waking and sleeping states (11. 3o, 61). The distortion here [21/22] resembles that of nightmare, with its horrifying clarity of detail and its absolute lack of boundaries, its absence of familiar context. Similarly, her stasis is supported even by the slight ambiguity of “she only said,” repeated in every refrain and suggesting either that this was all she said, or that all she did was to say this. It is an arresting ambiguity that goes nowhere. There are no choices to be made; either meaning is equally appropriate, or equally inappropriate. The notion of her doing nothing all day except saying this, or the notion that the terror of her situation evoked only this minimal response, strike us as uncoordinated but equally applicable meanings.
But in the image of desolation and weariness finally is balanced by the poem's remarkably strong support of Mariana's associations with youth, growth, and hope. The poem's irony is defined by the pressure of the undeniably just claims of love and comic promise against the equally undeniable fact of denial. The positive side is, of course, implied very strongly by the enveloping situation: Mariana's youth and hope are supported by the fact that she is waiting for a lover, as they are also by her connection with a pastoral landscape (somewhat distorted, of course) and with romantic terms like “casement.“
Primarily, though, the positive level is presented by inverting the usual images of comedy and the pastoral. The poem is filled with references to beauty, order, and hope-all, of course, bitterly distorted but nonetheless there. The opening lines give a parody of a beauty that is ordered and controlled. Man's capacity for both enjoying and arranging nature is mocked in the image of sluggish decay overcoming the flower-plots, rust and disorder invading the carefully controlled growth of the ornamental pear tree. The image of man as master of nature's beauty is thrown against that of man as victim of nature's anarchy.
Mariana, it must again be insisted, is not caught by this last image only; she is caught between the two. On one hand there is the “blackest moss” but on the other is the poplar tree, one of the poem's most important symbols. In the midst of the dark and stagnant waters of the marsh grows a single poplar tree, “all silver-green” (l. 42), the only relief in “the level waste, the rounding gray” (l. 44). One entire stariza (ll. 49-60) is devoted to the shadow of this tree and the implications of this teasing symbol of the growth [22/23] and promises that are denied her but are everpresent to her, falling “Upon her bed, across her brow” (l. 56), and making itself a part of her mind. It is a symbol of genuine hope that can be neither claimed nor forgotten; it stands for all that makes release impossible for Mariana. Also supporting this mocking, positive side of the poem is the recurrence of the day's cycle, with each morning bringing a renewal of the bitter knowledge of what is not there and, more important, the taunting reference to “the sweet heaven” (I. 15), a heaven of which she is constantly aware, even though it is closed to her.
This same conjunction of illusory hope and a knowledge of hopelessness is mirrored in the intricate structure of the poem. The only motion is the merely apparent one within actual stasis. Though the refrain does suggest a genuine development in its change from “He cometh not” to “He will not come,” we recognize that these are not really separate perceptions, that they simply state the tension that defines her entire existence, the waiting with the certain knowledge that there is no point in waiting. And we see, too, that is poem is narrated from such a distant perspective as to describe not a climactic movement but a slice of life, a typical day with its recurrent hopelessness, rising to a finality that will be dissolved by the renewed hopeless hope of a new day. The action, then, is ironically recurrent, not tragically complete. The tragic simplicity of a climax is distorted to a conclusion only of a mouse squeaking and a fly buzzing. The tragic sensibility has now only these materials; only trivia surround her.
This poem is a prototype of Tennysonian irony, formulating [23/24] many of the techniques and attitudes that appear later, but it is also a highly instinctive form of a vision which, even in later poems, is often put more obtrusively. When the ironic dilemma is stated more overtly, the poetry appears more obviously thematic, sometimes even thematically “divided.” Because of this, it is easy, but I think wrong, to approach it as merely dualistic. Such an approach ignores the potential unity provided by ironic tension. Tennyson is not on one side of the argument or the other; like all ironists, he is on neither side-and both.
“A Dream of Fair Women,“
A good example of a poem that appears to be but is not a “thesis poem” is “A Dream of Fair Women,” which establishes its irony partly in reference to its apparent source, Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women. Tennyson's poem resembles Chaucer's only superficially; the earlier poet's comforting, stable framework is removed, and the cosmic resonance of the tales, comforting or not, is implicitly denied. Taking the place of Chaucer's coherent series of portraits of faithfulness, love, and tragedy, Tennyson's group emphasizes the discontinuity of history and the pointlessness of presumed grandeur. The catastrophes here are either paltry or uncaused. The ironic conjunction is put immediately in the deceptively limpid introductory lines:
In every land
I saw, wherever light illumineth,
Beauty and anguish walking hand in hand
The downward slope to death. [ll. 13-16]
What ties the portraits together is the “hand in hand” union of beauty and anguish. There is no further thematic point.
The dream itself takes place in the mocking familiarity of the narrator's memory, a continual symbol in Tennyson for comedy, here used to create a distorting framework: “The smell of violets, hidden in the green,/ Poured back into my empty soul and [24/25] frame / The times when I remember to have been /joyful and free from blame” (ll. 77-80). And all this happy nostalgia prefaces a nightmare. The first figure, Helen, begins by putting in clipped, disconnected, and very dramatic phrases the essence of her ironic function. Because she was beautiful, carnage resulted: “Where'er I came / I brought calamity” (ll. 95-96). Though the narrator naïvely tries to twist this into a romantic framework, claiming that he too would have died for such a face, such escapes are disallowed. He is soon overwhelmed by the march of hideous and meaningless deaths: Iphigenia relates the grim, realistic details of the knife moving “through my tender throat” (l. 115) in a sacrifice which led only to further desolation; Cleopatra reduces her potentially tragic position to ludicrous capriciousness, saying that death really is not so bad except that “I have no men to govern in this wood: / That makes my only woe” (ll. 135-36). She turns her grand suicide into an act of petty revenge: “Of the other [Caesar]: with a worm I balked his fame. /What else was left?” (ll. 155-56).
Jephtha's daughter, who follows, is the most complex case of all. Her sacrifice had depended on a grisly kind of gambling, her father having promised God that for victory over the children of Ammon he would kill the first person he saw leaving his house to meet him. Though she continues after death to defend her father and to proclaim the rightness of God's law, the narrator ignores all this and responds only to the monstrousness of the situation:
My words leapt forth: 'Heaven heads the count of crimes
With that wild oath.'[ll. 201-02]
The absurdity of Jephtha's sacrifice is that perceived by Browning's Caliban, for whom divine justice is represented by the decision to murder every twenty-first crab: “Let twenty pass, and stone the twenty-first, / Loving not, hating not, just choosing so.” The girl's pathetic defense of her murderer is further undercut by a long simile comparing her voice to the sound of a “holy organ” in a cathedral. The Christian context mocks the Old Testament ruthlessness without offering any further hope, for the last sad portrait is of the Christian Rosamond, “whom men call fair” (l. 251).
The poem ends with a typical ironic capping: the naive narrator adds that he unfortunately woke before the good part of the dream, [25/26] before he was able to see Margaret Roper, Joan of Arc, or Edward I's wife, Eleanor, “who knew that Love can vanquish Death” (l. 269). The ingenuous persona blandly makes the point that all heroic and comic aspects of death are denied. The last gruesome twist is his complaint that poetic language is insufficient to describe his dream. Such language is too pure; it fails to provide adequate tension, particularly “to give the bitter of the sweet” (l. 286)-as if the terrible vision we have just seen has been “sweet.“
Accompanying this irony is a persistent strain of comedy, which is found here in many poems, most of which are deliberately understated, self-conscious, and very light in touch. The self-parodying “O Darling Room” seems simply an extreme of this, not, as Croker assumed, too ridiculously self-indulgent and self-centered, but rather too detached, self-aware, and apologetically trivial. just as specialized and partial is the comic impulse behind a poem like “Lilian,” which plays off against the slavish adoration implied in most of the poems in this extended female gallery — “Isabel,” “Adeline,” “Madeline,” and so forth-by treating the tinkling laughter of the cruel “Airy, fairy Lilian” (l. 1) as a cause for irritation rather than romantic languor. Instead of being mastered by her gay coquetry, the lover adopts a masterful tone himself, warning her that lie is becoming so borcd with her laughing that if praying won't stop her he will stomp on her, “crush” her. There is a limited but genuine comic satisfaction provided here, not only in the burlesque of the essentially ironic lover-slave tradition, but in the bolstering of the human (especially the male) ego by suggesting that the will can control any emotion.
"The Mermaid" and "The Merman"
There are instances of much fuller and genuinely liberating comedy in these volumes, most notably in the lovely paired poems, “The Mermaid” and “The Merman.” These poems confront explicitly the image of the isolated self and move to the celebration of joy and union. Both poems open with a brief stanza that is part invitation, part pure song, emphasizing both the beauty (thrones, golden crowns or curls) and the loneliness (“Sitting alone, / Singing alone“) of the magical state enjoyed by, the mer-creatures. The second stanza not only admits the isolation but emphasizes it, carefully restricting it, however, to the daytime, to the rational, dutiful part of the merman's life, and the self-absorbed alienation of the mermaid. This admission out of the way, the full force of the [26/27] poem can fall on the nighttime life, the life of the complete imaginative self, of irrational fulfillment:
Oh! what a happy life were mine
Under the hollow-hung ocean green!
Soft are the moss-beds under the sea;
We would live merrily, merrily. [“The Merman,” ll. 37-40]
It is true that the merman and mermaid envision somewhat different nighttime paradises: his is free, open, promiscuous — “I would kiss them often under the sea, / And kiss them again till they kissed me” (ll. 34-35) — while hers is quieter and more controlled“But the king of them all would carry me, / Woo me, and win me, and marry me” (ll. 45-46). But there is no real conflict here; the discrepancy is part of the gentle joke, bringing up the extra force of the comedy-of-manners sexual battle to support the principal Edenic comedy. More important, this compartmentalization of the solitary from the communal self is an important strategy and an important part of comedy's answer to irony. The poems here admit the argument that all men are isolated, but they see that isolation simply as a past of a multiplicity of conditions, a multiplicity, furthermore, which contains not only isolation but happiness and freedom. The ironic strategy is to focus and solidify; comedy's is to expand and free, to reject entirely the absolutism of irony.
But comedy is just as susceptible to attack from irony, and it is certainly more usual in Tennyson to find the comic solution subverted. The ironic poems are often generically pure; the comic poems very seldom are. One may offer plausible biographical or sociological reasons for this fact, but simpler reasons are implicit within the forms. Irony is based on parody and thus is, in a way, parasitic. It is, further, defensive and hides its premises; comedy, at its best, is expansive and exposes all its secrets. When the two modes are competing, as in Tennyson, it is difficult for comedy to survive. Irony with a comic twist results in the sheer peculiarity of “Mariana in the South;” comedy transformed to irony results in the uniform power of “Mariana.“
This ability of irony to attack comedy is more clearly illustrated in the contrasting poems, “The Poet” and “The Poet's Mind.” “The Poet” is certainly a comic poem, though exclusively public and social in its emphasis. Still, it provides a strong and effective image of the force of poetry, expressed in the specifically comic terms, “hope,” “youth,” “spring.” The grand object is to recapture. Eden, not just for the poet but for the entire world: “Thus truth was [27/28] multiplied on truth, the world / Like one great garden showed” (ll. 33-34)- It would be an Eden ruled by the expansive goddess of comedy, “Freedom” (l. 37).
But “The Poet's Mind” shows a garden that is shrunken and delicate, threatened by a very dangerous enemy: the rational mind, the dry and shallow wit of the “dark-browed sophist” (l. 8), The flowers “would faint” (l. 15), the plants would be blighted, the “merry bird” would be killed (ll. 22 23) if the sophist were to enter. Most important, the source of all this life and joy, the large fountain in the center, fed “from the brain of the purple mountain” (l. 29) and recalling the great symbol for poetic energy in “Kubla Khan,” would itself “shrink to the earth if you came in” (l. 37). Great images of power, lightning and thunder, are associated with this fragile and threatened fountain
In the middle leaps a fountain
Like sheet lightning,
With a low melodious thunder. [ll. 24-27]
But there seems to be only an illusory union of power and beauty, only a faint echo of the confident and unendangered voice of Wisdom set loose by the garden in “The Poet“: “Her [Wisdom's] words did gather thunder as they ran, / And as the lightning to the thunder . . . / So was their meaning to her words” (ll. 49-50, 53). “The Poet's Mind” is thus an inversion of “The Poet;” it suggests the ironic trap that may await the too-certain vision of comedy.
Though comedy never entirely disappears and though it later reaches full expression in Tennyson's poetry, it is irony which came to dominate his writing of this period. It controls Poems by Two Brothers, the volumes of 1830 and 1832, and, to an even greater extent, Poems of 1842.
Web version created March 2001
Last modified 8 August 2016