In a famous passage, the narrator of Middlemarch expresses the central point of nineteenth-century irony:
We do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence." [p. 144]
hen every life becomes tragic and the element of the special case is removed, human existence itself becomes ironic. Catastrophic disillusionment and destruction are not the lot of the godlike hero, invoking by his stature the terrible laws of retribution, but of every ordinary person going about the business of common life. There are, consequently, no heroes; there are no cosmic laws to be broken; there is no possibility of fixing our pity and fear on the suffering hero. We are all victims, incapable of being "deeply moved" by what is common, uncaused, and without meaning. The tragic emotions are not released but focused and contained, and we are forced, in ironic art, to see ourselves as victims of the trivial, both trapped and released into the "illimitable inane" ("Lucretius," l. 40). We are all caught in the same incoherence, experiencing, as Melville's Ishmael says, the contradictory ironic states, floating isolation and total bondage ("And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?"). Increasingly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we find a myth that stresses the two images of man as caught, wriggling on the deterministic pin, or loose, accidental, with only a vague hope "that nothing walks with aimless feet. [1/2]
But this is not the only myth. There was, after all, the world of Mr. Pickwick, of Jane Austen, and much of Wordsworth: the world of liberated order, settled and humane values, sanctified and full life. The comic vision stood as an alternative to the ironic, dissolving the unrelieved tension of irony by reaffirming the dignity and power of the human will, the possibility of joy, and the continuity of all life. Comedy offered a means of surpassing the insistent "facts" of irony. Against the ironic insistence on the isolation of man, comedy posed the symbol of marriage; against the contrary insistence on bondage, it posed the symbol of the dance or the party: Christmas at Dingley Dell or Bob Cratchit's, the Mad Tea Party, cucumber sandwiches with Ernest Worthing.
The comic vision gradually becomes more difficult to sustain, perhaps, but it never dies entirely. The nineteenth century was much closer to Eden, and even its irony contains within it always the clear picture of what is lost. As Matthew Arnold says, the pain of isolation is not just increased, it is partly caused, by the memory or at least the legend of a union that once had been: "Who order'd, that their longing's fire / Should be, as soon as kindled, cool'd?" ("To Marguerite - Continued," ll. 19 20).
The comic thus stands against and enriches the ironic myth. Just so, irony begins to move to dominate all art, not necessarily because artists chose that myth, but because for serious writers of the last century or so, "irony is . . . much less often a rhetorical or dramatic strategy which they may or may not decide to employ, and much more often a mode of thought silently imposed upon them by the general tendency of the times." (Muecke, p. 10) But, by a striking further paradox, those artists most conscious of the advancing prevalence of the ironic view were precisely those who most aggressively resisted it. Those most sensitive to the present were also most deeply sensitive to the past: they saw that the comic life was lost but still remembered it most vividly. They continued to ask, with Hardy, "And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?" because they in part believed in — or at least remembered — the grand artistic, religious, and political hopes of the past.
The most crucial problem for these artists was contained in the perception that the present, the only thing really alive is void of meaning, while the past, which is dead, alone contains the meaning [2/3] that can give life. The past is both immediate and beyond reach The comic vision refused to yield completely to the ironic, and we find, in artist after artist, these forms existing side by side. One could argue, in relation to the past, from full and resonant comic grounds:
The Present is the vassal of the Past:
So that, in that I have lived, do I live,
And cannot die, and am, in having been —
A portion of the pleasant yesterday. ["The Lover's Tale," ll. 115-18]
Here our bondage to the past is made cause for an extension of personality throughout time, so that our being "a portion of the pleasant yesterday" helps define us in relation to time and insures that we "cannot die," implying not only that we have life in the past but that we will, by irrational but very compelling analogy, continue to live in the time that has defined us.
But "portion of the pleasant yesterday" recalls nothing so firmly as the grim lines from "The Lotos-Eaters": "All things are taken from us, and become / Portions and parcels of the dreadful past" (ll. 91-92). It is not just that this "pleasant" past has become "dreadful"; time the protector has become time the ravager. This transformation locates for us the center of Tennyson's major poetry: the interplay and conflict of the comic and ironic modes. No other nineteenth-century writer is more responsive to the intense presence and distance of comic life, the memory that seems to make life possible in its promise of continuity and yet turns it into a mockery of genuine life, a literal death-in-life.
Tennyson's career can be seen as a and courageous resistance to the demands of ironic art, an art he had, moreover, mastered very early. If one sets aside his minor poems - the political and public verse, his English and domestic idyls, and his dialect and humorous poems — something like a semicircular pattern may be traced. The Poems by Two Brothers and the volumes of 1830, 1832, and 1842 all contain a few comic poems but show, in the main, a steady development toward more compact and rich ironic statement. Beginning with The Princess however, and continuing through In Memoriam and Maud, Tennyson tries various and often unique comic strategies, only to return to irony in the late poems, and particularly in Idylls of the King, surely the major ironic work of art of the century. This development is neither simple nor pure - comic and ironic forms are used throughout his career but the main outlines seem reasonably clear.
This suggested pattern differs markedly from that implied by [3/4] what was once critical orthodoxy: the view that Tennyson and his poetry could best be apprehended by a series of contraries. Harold Nicolson made an admirably strategic division of the lyric, morbid, and mystic Tennyson from the public bard, and we have had, since, a good many developments and refinements of this view4. At present, critics frequently deny the dualism and assert one or another unity in its place. It is, however, surely just as dangerous to ignore the tension in Tennyson's poetry as to go on inventing new labels for it. One can, of course, see how apt and expressive descriptions such as "life-weariness," "despair, frustration," or "melancholia" 6 are in explaining the basis of Tennyson's art. Even more basic, it seems to me, is a larger formal battle carried out in his poetry between two alternate myths. One of these, irony, does express itself in the form of balanced, but unreconciled, opposites; the other, comedy, takes a firm, single direction. The first myth has often been approached indirectly by means of the dualistic view mentioned before; the second has largely been ignored.
Last modified 28 March 2001