nlike the stationary political poems, these poems do show development. Anyone who reads through the poems chronologically up to about “Edwin Morris” or “The Golden Year” (both most likely written in 1839) will, I think, notice a steady improvement. From that point on, there is a decline that is just as steady, until one reaches the level of “Happy” or “Charity” (written between 1888 and 1890), exercises so perfunctory they seem to parody themselves. I do not pretend to know why such a curious decline took place: it may be that Tennyson lost interest in the form, did not need the therapy so much, learned to produce these popular things mechanically, or was simply draining off the sentimentality from the great, tough, and unsentimental Idylls he was writing at the same time. All of these reasons seem possible and none is very convincing. What is more interesting is the initial improvement, the movement through 1842 toward greater compression, subtlety, and obliquity. Though Tennyson begins with a very loose joining of pastoral, ballad, and novelistic traditions, for a brief time he achieves some minor but quite definite triumphs. This development also suggests that the domestic idyls are, on the whole, much more complex and [222/223] interesting than the political poems, which in motive and function (that is, psychological function) they perhaps resemble. The fact is that the domestic idyls are more than simple therapy; they touch on, and now and then join with, Tennyson's quite genuine apprehension of comedy, an apprehension which at the time was not being expressed in the major poems.
The earliest domestic idyls are so diffuse that diffusion seems to be their very essence. Some are vaguely happy, some are. vaguely sad; but they seem anxious to avoid raising any emotion at all which is sharpened or defined. They induce -or strive to induce -a pleasant sort of murky warmth that is much the same whether the subject is death or a picnic. They work by establishing a heightened mood through a dramatic event, and then gradually taking the edge off that mood by repetition, long digressions, gentle and ornate embellishments. One can see this diffusive process very clearly at work in the early and popular “The May Queen.” The potential harshness of the poem's reversal, from the girl's confident expectation of life in May to her equally confident expectation of death in December, is oddly muted by the long final section entitled “Conclusion.“
The poem had seemed already to have reached a fitting and symmetrical conclusion at the end of the second section (“New-Year's Eve“), where the first line of the poem is echoed with an obvious and melodramatic switch. Lively Alice is about to die. But in the Conclusion Tennyson almost risks humor by having little Alice still around in the spring, prosing on about angels, heaven, and God. This part, which seems at first glance, if not ludicrous at least superfluous, is longest of all the three sections, precisely because it has the most important job to do: it must drain off the effect of the melodramatic contradiction and the thought of youthful death. The conclusion softens the poem not so much by its talk of religious consolation, though that no doubt helps, but just by talk-and lots of it. The main effect of poems in the ballad tradition is exactly reversed here; in place of the heightening of shock we have the relaxation produced by verbosity. In fact, with the exception of unusual poems like “Dora” and “Forlorn,” these early idyls might be seen as the antithesis of the ballad. The ballad's tendency toward elliptical statement, suggestive gaps, and verbal irony is replaced by a tendency to explain everything several times, by fullness and elaboration. If there is any shock at all in these idyls,[223/224] or in “The May Queen” in particular, it is only a preliminary step on the way to lassitude.
Another early poem, “The Gardener's Daughter,” captures the same effect more subtly, this time by contrasting two styles: a superfluous ornateness with a deliberate use of rather flat clichés. Tennyson later added a headnote apologizing for the over-richness of the poem's language, but his apology is hardly to the point. It is not that lines like “She stood, a sight to make an old man young” (l. 140) or phrases like “She, a Rose/ In roses” (ll. 141-42) are too ornate; it is that they are unparticularized. Any emotion they might evoke is completely unfocused. Words like heart and love and rose occur over and over, floating along without a real context, seeking to call forth the most undifferentiated response possible. The poem is, in other words, a deliberate cliché. Take, for instance, its romantic climax:
Requiring at her hand the greatest gift,
A woman's heart, the heart of her I loved;
And in that time and place she answered me,
And in the compass of three little words,
More musical than ever came in one,
The silver fragments of a broken voice,
Made me most happy, faltering, “I am thine.” [ll. 224-30]
This is not “ornate;” it is simply the language of the Annuals, of the love sonnets of any haberdasher. The poem rises to a climax which is the most inclusive possible, since it asks for no particular response, just a pleasant sense of recognition. At the end of the poem the speaker suddenly reveals that the Gardener's Daughter is now merely a picture, alive only in memory: “the most blessèd memory of mine age.” It is pretty certain that no reader — Victorian or modern — has reacted to this last “shock” with any fundamental change of response. The fact of death is covered completely by the pleasant sentimentality of the speaker — who seems, like a mellowed or senile duke of Ferrara, rather to enjoy it all — and by the real ornateness of the closing language. Even the fragment quoted above-“the most blessed memory of mine age“-displays the blurring machinery at work, in the vague religiosity of “blessèd” and the deeply comforting “mineage.“
What these early poems aim at, then, is stasis and relaxation. [224/225] They work best when the theme is a cliché, when it is obscured as much as possible, or best of all, when there is no theme. Even if, as in “Lady Clara Vere de Vere,” there is a certain theme-marriage for money rather than love, a theme, furthermore, which presumably obsessed Tennyson-we can see that the poem does a good deal to occlude the issue by denying its logic. Most of the poem, it is true, develops the central idea that “Kind hearts are more than coronets, / And simple faith than Norman blood” (ll. 55-56) by depicting Lady Clara's coldness and haughty viciousness circling back to destroy her. But, instead of completing this circle and this theme, the poem turns from it at the end, first by terming as “pranks” (l. 64) actions that we thought were hideous, and then, in the last stanza, by exhorting Lady Clara to reform: “Oh! teach the orphan-boy to read, / Or teach the orphan-girl to sew” (ll. 69-70). Even the elementary pleasure of seeing the proud brought low is too specific, it seems, and we find it blunted by and mixed with that curious Victorian reaction to doing-good. It is as if Sir Willoughby Patterne had suddenly been struck with the virtue of humility. Lady Clara Vere de Vere is no villainess, it turns out, just another Miller's or Gardener's Daughter or Queen of the May.
For a time, though, Tennyson allowed his ironic instincts to mix with this form and thus brought it much closer to the symbolic indirectness of the ballad. Poems like “Walking to the Mail,” “Audley Court,” “Edwin Morris,” and “The Golden Year,” written in proximity to one another, achieve a quiet and understated suggestiveness missing from the earlier idyls. These are meditative and highly finished poems, whose theme is not blunted but hidden, and whose emotional quality is not diffused but subtle and difficult to locate.
“Walking to the Mail,” for instance, appears to be a kind of naturalistic experiment. Two men, whose principal interest, quite clearly, is simply getting to the Mail, pass the time walking there in idle gossip concerning a neighbor, Sir Edward Head, about whom they really do not know very much. He has run away, it seems, and they speculate about possible reasons, but with an air of indifference and with long and egoistic digressions that clearly show how vague and impersonal their interest is. He may have had trouble with his wife; he may have been driven to a kind of madness by the Reform Bill agitations and his fear for his position. It is hard to say, and it really does not matter much, not to these speakers. One of them, [225/226] James, offers a personal analogy to explain the problems connected with the Reform Bill. In a long digression he proceeds to illustrate, he says, the point that there are essentially only two parties: “those that want, and those that have” (l. 70). But what he really gives is a story that has nothing to do with genuine need or want. It is a tale of schoolboy callousness: robbing a farmer, being caught and flogged, and retaliating by stealing and hiding a sow and taking her young from her one at a time.
Behind all of this irrelevance and pointless arrogance lies the shadowy but always present figure of Sir Edward Head, who was driven by some unknown extremity to a desperate escape. The poem finally becomes a statement on the indifference, inhumanity, and egoism that divide man from man and make us, as John (the other speaker) says in summary,
mimic this raw fool the world,
Which charts us all in its coarse blacks or whites,
As ruthless as a baby with a worm. [ll. 96-98]
But John neutralizes even this wisdom by dropping all concern when more immediate issues press. His excited description of the Mail shows what really attracts them:
here it comes
With five at top: as quaint a four-in-hand
As you shall see-three pyebalds and a roan.
This is the first passionate utterance from either speaker; it ends the poem and quietly confirms its theme.
Even gentler is “Audley Court,” where the realization of the joys of pastoral beauty is played off against the quiet certainty that this vision of Eden cannot be maintained, that it is, in fact, already gone. The poem simply shows two friends on an uneventful picnic. They move through unexceptional political and topical discussions -sometimes agreeing, sometimes not-to a pair of songs that express a level of desire beyond reason and argument. The first friend sings of a life that rejects the external demands of war, commerce, politics, and marriage for pure liberation — “let me live my life” — while the second accepts a world of calm and love. Together, the two visions form a perfect comic union. But the day ends, and the friends walk toward the peaceful bay, which is now symbolic of an ideal completion but which also signals, one is led to suppose, a return out of the comic center to the world of everyday concerns. This day, it turns out, occurred once in the past, a time more leisurely and happy both for the speaker and his friend (see ll. 75-78). The present, by implication, is something very different. Still, the irony is gentle; the day is gone but it is deeply valued. The [226/227] poem ends with a simple affirmation of the value of that moment of happiness: “we were glad at heart.“
“Edwin Morris” achieves a similar balance and treats a similar theme. The pastoral -melodramatic narrative is distanced both by a frame, in which the narrator looks back sadly and wryly on the past, and by a mocking, even a self-mocking tone. The theme of the forced marriage is still there, and it is quite serious; but it is presented with controlled, often fine humor:
. . . “Leave,” she cried,
“O leave me!” “Never, dearest, never: here
I brave the worst;” and while we stood like fools
Embracing, all at once a score of pugs
And poodles yelled within, and out they came
Trustees and Aunts and Uncles. “What, with him!
Go” (shrilled the cotton-spinning chorus); “him!”
I choked. Again they shrieked the burthen — “Him!” [ll. 116-23]
Notice that the satire attacks not only the mob of galloping animals and trustees, but the speaker as well: his language is deliberately excessive, and the “worst” lie promises to brave turns out to be very little indeed, though it is enough to rout him. This poem returns to the diffuse elaborateness of the earlier poems, but it still achieves the ironic balance of “Walking to the Mail” or “Audley Court,” this time by allowing for a much higher degree of self-consciousness and a much greater tonal ambivalence. Even at the end, the speaker admits that Letty has been pardoned not, as we might sentimentally suppose, for her own sake but for the speaker's. In the midst of a dusty and ugly life, “those fresh days” have a real meaning and give real pleasure. These needs, then, work through memory and purify Letty.
After a long break, Tennyson again returned to these domestic idyls and very largely returned to his earlier manner. Poems like “Enoch Arden” and “Aylmer's Field” are more demanding than, but not fundamentally different from, “The Gardener's Daughter.” They seem to me, despite their length, popularity, and prominence, to represent interruptions in Tennyson's career. But they are very [227/228] close to being fine ironic poems. Particularly with “Aylmer's Field,” is it possible to make the poem sound much more interesting and effective than it is. The ironic ingredients are there, most notably in the structure arid even in many of the details, but they are. unfortunately neutralized by the tendencies of the early idyls toward expansion and diffuseness. Consider the poem's form: the image of dead stagnation with which the poem begins-“the same old rut” created by “the same wheel” (ll. 33-34) -is broken up by those who can bring new life to the land, Edith and Leolin, symbols of growth and flexibility (Edith's beauty, even, is remarkable for “varying to and fro” [l. 73])
By throwing their youth and life against this “dull sameness” (l. 115), however, they move into a trap. Those who might be saved turn on their rescuers (ll. 499-500) and finally destroy them. In true ironic fashion, then, the deaths are made meaningless; there is no redemption but only the bitter and arid recognition by the parents of what they have done in killing off their only hope for preservation. The climactic sermon serves to drive home the irony, to show that there is no hope, no lesson to be learned; only, as the text of the sermon repeats over and over, the awful image of a house made desolate. The story comes from a “grizzled cripple . . . / sunning himself in a waste field alone” (ll. 8-9), a grimly appropriate source for this tale of fruitless life and waste and desolation. This opening image of barrenness is picked up at the end: the Aylmer's house disappears, “and all is open field” (l. 853), leaving triumphant the wasteland, the droppings of hawks, field animals, “the thin weasel,” and “the slow-worm” (1. 852).
I think this is a valid outline, but it distorts the actual effect of the poem, which has almost no ironic force at all, though it might have if it were cut drastically-say by four lines out of every five. As it is, melodrama keeps intruding, especially in the long, long passages on the “Indian kinsman” and Leolin's pointless jealousy of him. The Indian kinsman does, of course, introduce the knife with which Leolin later stabs himself, but this sort of thing, surely, indicates the problem Tennyson had in trying to write “domestic tragedy.” Tragic incidentals must, it seems, not be softened but heightened enormously in an attempt to make tragic paraphernalia do for the lack of tragic heroism. It is Othello with the handkerchief, and perhaps Desdemona, but without Iago and the Moor. The specific [228/229] ironies become so resoundingly obvious that they are entirely of the surface, without resonance of any sort.
In addition, there is the old idyl tendency to cancel or subdue strong emotion. Thus, we have extended descriptions of Edith's ministering to the poor or, to choose the most absurd example, thirteen lines devoted to Leolin's program for maintaining physical fitness while studying for the law. Even the sermon takes care to minimize the general ironic pattern by reducing it to an exemplum of “pride,” which pretties up the theme and minimizes it by offering in its place very easy cliché alternatives. One cannot entirely ignore the power of the submerged ironic pattern or of fine details like the picture of the tyrant Sir Aylmer Aylmer finally seeing death as an “escape” from “his keepers” (ll. 838-39). But the old idyl is just as clearly reasserting its murky self.
“Enoch Arden“ is especially infected. A poem that moves toward several ironies becomes, in the end, a popular piece of sensationalism, with detachable set-pieces. It comes very close to being an attack on middle-class values” but ends by reinforcing them, The poem is deeply disappointing and perhaps needs to be attacked, but the most famous attack it has received, that by Walter Bagehot, seems to me to put us off the track. Bagehot's objections to the language of the poem are based on very na:ive assumptions about verisimilitude and “realism“: Tennyson, he says, “tells us a great deal about the torrid zone, which a rough sailor like Enoch Arden certainly would not have perceived.” (Bagehot, p. 352) All this seems mere unsophisticated snobbery, though Bagehot does perhaps hint, in his assault on the poem's ornate style, at what is indeed central: the ability of the poem to deny its ironies and make difficult things easy. This is not, as Bagehot suggests, a matter of diction or description; it is a matter of rhetoric: “Enoch Arden” uses all of the idyl's protective and covering devices.
Extension and elaboration are everywhere; heightened “tragic [229/30] ironies” that go nowhere and act to dilute the genuine ironic structure (the business with the seaman's glass and the misunderstood biblical prophecy are the most prominent) are made much of; secondary themes-particularly those involving popular religiosity -are introduced to counter major ones. And then there is Philip Ray, a character whose victory ought certainly to be a subject for irony, as he has nothing but the opposite of heroic qualities: extreme reticence, prudence, weakness, and the kind of morbid tenacity one associates with creeping plants. But he is, I suppose, made a hero.
Against all this, still, is the strong ironic frame, the attack on the materialistic and prudential values of the middle class. According to this reading, the potentially heroic Enoch falls victim to the bourgeois cliché, restraining his wildness and working carefully
To save all earnings to the uttermost,
And give his child a better bringing-up
Than his had been. [ll. 86-88]
The poem is filled with comfortable talk of riches, shops, security, and the like-all of which comes to nothing. Even darker is the hint that perhaps Annie's child died because. “her business often called her from it” (I. 263). Enoch, the faithful materialist, reaches a kind of materialist's hell, an Eden where nothing is missing but people.
Trapped in this “eternal summer” with the useless riches he went to find, Enoch is the image of the archetypal ironic victim. He is finally rescued, presumably, from this bondage and becomes “the dead man come to life” (l. 754). But it is a mock resurrection only; he moves into a more horrible trap at home, where he is more “lost” (l. 712) than he had been on the island. The final two lines — “And when they buried him the little port / Had seldom seen a costlier fidneral” — then, could be seen as a bitter and fitting completion of the pattern: the victory of slimy Philip Ray, whose money pays the undertakers, and the defeat of Enoch by the very money he sought.
Everyone recognizes, though, that this is a wild misreading. Philip is kind to children and loves to go nutting. Enoch is not really the archetypal ironic victim; he is not, it seems, even alone on that deserted island: he has “Spoken with That, which being everywhere / Lets none, who speaks with Him, seem all alone” (ll 615-16). These are among the clumsiest lines in Tennyson, but they do the job of tearing down the irony. Even when Enoch returns and the trap closes at home, “He was not all unhappy. His resolve / Upbore him, and firm faith, and evermore / Prayer from a living [230/231] source within the will, / . . . Kept him a living soul” (ll. 795-97, 800). One could argue that the popularity of the poem is (or was) a direct result of Tennyson's incredible skill in raising specters and then wiping them out, in turning the shock of irony into the mild and comfortable sensationalism of “domestic tragedy.“
In the later idyls, irony is less often present, so no denials are necessary. We are back to the straight presentation of the domestic, with one difference: Tennyson seems to be, perhaps with an unconscious humor, pushing the genre to its limits. The search for everyday events to make into tragedy becomes the search either for the bizarre, which naturally means the trivial, or else for the trivial, which it is necessary to heighten by the bizarre. What all these poems present is a kind of Ripley's “Believe It Or Not” irrelevance. Tennyson certainly understood the passage in Aristotle concerning the difference between fact and probability, but he desperately ignores it here, appending endless headnotes to assure us that poems like “In the Children's Hospital” (subtitled “Emmie“) are “true,” or were at least told to him by some highly reliable person who said they were true.
The picture of the Laureate riffling through newspapers for ghastly and embarrassing oddities is not edifying, but it may be accurate. There are not so many of these late idyls, of course, only seven or eight, but some of them must have made even Mrs. Tennyson gasp. “In the Children's Hospital” can be written off as typical Victorian sentimentality, but there is nothing at all typical about a poem like “Charity” (founded on a true story, he tells us) or, especially, “Happy: The Leper's Bride,” further than which one cannot go. In fact, it may be that the poem crosses the line, arguing a bit like Mark Twain's sardonic atheists, that “Now God has made you leper in His loving care for both, / That we might cling together, never doubt each other more” (ll. 91 -92), and achieving a morbid parody of sexual passion: “A little nearer? Yes. I shall hardly be content / Till I be leper like yourself, my love, from head to heel” (ll. 87-88). [231/32]
These two categories — the public and political verse and the domestic idyls — do not comprise all of Tennyson's minor poems, but they contain a great many and, more important, they demonstrate by their clarity and enforced simplicity some of the qualities that imbue the major poems, where these alternate impulses are joined. There is a third group of poems, which might be called Tennyson's satiric or funny works; but poems like “The Goose,” “To Christopher North,” or “O Darling Room” detain no critics nor, I gather, readers, There are, however, the dialect poems, which some admire very much. Sir Charles Tennyson, for instance, a very moderate and careful commentator on his grandfather's poems, presents an able defense of them and calls a poem like “The Grandmother” a triumph. All the same, with the exception of “The Northern Farmer” and “The Village Wife,” poems that are not so much comic as ironic anyhow, these dialect poems seem to me quite minor expressions of Tennyson's comic art.
Web version created March 2001
Last modified 8 August 2016