omedy" here is taken to mean the mythic pattern, not that which is funny. In this sense it duplicates in quality our sense of the term "irony"; that is, it is a narrative pattern, supported by an appropriate formal but unstated convention (or conventions). It clearly emphasizes liberation, freeing the ego from traps which are external and, especially, internal so that it may find, in its rejuvenation, a more or less exuberant social and personal life.
Comedy finds its source at the close of the basic myth, in the resurrection of the dead god and his restoration of fertility happiness to the community. It transforms an inhibiting condition, usually a social condition — symbolized by an unjust king, law, parent, personal vice or illusion — to a clarified and liberated one: from "law to liberty," as Frye says (p. 181).
Comedy is especially satisfying because of its sense of completeness, its location at the very end of the myth, but also because of its magical way of solving problems that hinge on the contrary demands of the private self and of society. It takes as its hero a figure who confronts an unjust law boldly, and endures a period of neglect or even hostility in order finally to overcome injustice and gain recognition and reward from his society. By means of a focus on the liberation and rewarding of the hero, comedy feeds the isolated egos of us all. At the same time, by attacking relentlessly all misanthropic and overtly egoistic tendencies and by regarding all extroverted and social traits as laudable, comedy supports community.
This union of the personal and the communal is effected partly because we can easily identify both with the egoistic hero and with the society he redeems, but it is also true that comedy works very carefully to keep that heroic ego within certain bounds. One must, it suggests, be expansive in one's joy and, above all, charitable. Charity and forgiveness take the place of tragedy's iron justice and retribution and often stand in conflict with them. Comedy emphasizes the miraculous and improbable; tragedy the necessary and inviolable. Thus, the hero is rewarded with gifts that will tend to social expression: marriage, which supports and prolongs the social order, and money, which is seen almost entirely in terms of its allowing the hero to give gifts, hold parties, and the like. In other words, if we are willing to define ourselves socially and accept [8/9] certain minor restrictions on our pride and our tendencies toward tyrannical or blind behavior, we can be rewarded with gifts that are both social and personal. After all, in comedy marriage implies a beautiful lady.
Comedy thus works against social definition seen broadly and impersonally (i.e. in terms of modern social science or the nineteenth century's political economy) and supports social definition seen narrowly and personally. Finally, comedy's position at the end of the myth means that, with the shadow of death and sacrifice behind it, it retains a very strong feeling about the preciousness of life itself and is always dedicated to it.
It is not often recognized that Tennyson's poetry contains a large element of this zest for experience, usually expressed indirectly but often coming to the surface in lines like, One only joy I know, the joy of life (Life, l. 14). As Georg Roppen very perceptively argues, "Tennyson's obsessive preoccupation with death is the
negative aspect of an insatiable life-zest which informs a considerable part of his poetry and seeks expression in various directions. His craving for immortality . . . is not an aspiration to beatitude, but to continued, happy life." But the comic sense that controls the major poems of the middle period is often realized in ways both
puzzling and unique. The comedy is maintained only in the midst of difficulties so large that the form and even the values must be continually won and re-won. The conventional certainties of comedy are very difficult for Tennyson to accept, despite the fact that he had a strong artistic — and certainly personal — instinct to do so.
As a result, we have comedies which are not only highly specialized but which are haunted by their inverse: very sophisticated parodies of that comedy. The comic vision is never as purely expressed as is the ironic, and its tentative quality checks the resounding confidence that is usually necessary to bring off comedy's miraculous, nonlogical leaps. I am not suggesting that ordinary comedy can work only by establishing a mindless euphoria, but it seems clear that very little comedy is as dubious of its own affirmations as is Tennyson's. This very distrust, however, can make the affirmations all the more striking. Easy as it is to make jokes about Queen Victoria's comparison of In Memoriam's comfort to that [9/10] of the Bible, no one can doubt that the queen spoke sincerely and out of the depths of real need. It is no small thing to offer hope in the face of death; comedy has always tried to do just that.
But the tentativeness of Tennyson's great comedies helps to explain why he was never fully comfortable in that form. Despite the fact that In Memoriam, for instance, is a finer poem than "Rizpah," the latter is more unified and generically resonant. Tennyson could growl on with "grim affection" about "Bones" (Charles Tennyson, p. 189) — it is a fully finished and formed utterance — but he apparently disliked talking of In Memoriam — partly, I suppose, because he was so close to it, but also because it is so highly complex, almost generically mystifying, offering various directions for our emotions, only to pull them together at the end with a resolution that has not seemed fully satisfying to many. In Memoriam is Tennyson's version of The Divine Comedy, but it lacks entirely the total confidence and the resultant easy coherence of Dante's poem. Tennyson, one feels, could have written ironic poems like "Rizpah" forever. It is a wonder and perhaps a clue to his greatness that he tried with such skill and against such odds to write a poem about a world that could be rescued for sense, loyalty, and love.
It is a great wonder principally because Tennyson seemed unable to delude himself, except in minor poems. Even Dickens could bluff-witness John Harmon and Bella Wilfer in Our Mutual Friend — if the genre so demanded. But Tennyson, in his major poems, is always turning over the comic coin, seeing if the affirmation can stand its own negation. This ironic tendency in his comedy is both remarkable and unsettling. Every comic generalization stands, but not on very steady legs.
First of all, while Tennyson could accept completely the necessity and even the beauty of a social or domestic life Come down, O maid," for instance, is one of the most complete lyric expressions of domestic comedy in our literature — he perceived at the same time that this vision could operate as a trap, killing the spirit of man and encasing him in deadly trivia. There is a strong sense of this opposition in The Princess, "Ulysses" is a full statement of the problem, and Idylls of the King explores the pressures of the social life as subtly as Middlemarch and with very much the same view.
Second, Tennyson felt most uneasy about the principle on which [10/11] comedy reverses tragedy: time's renewal. Time triumphs not only in The Winter's Tale but in every comedy, by having its linear march expose the false, restricting society, by its realization of a transcendent joy that lies outside time, or by its denial of time's dominion: they lived happily ever after. Tennyson's ambiguous attitude toward the past has already been mentioned; it seems, however, that there was a larger ambiguity, involving change, which he could see both comically and ironically. For instance, the comic expression asserts that change is comfortable, that it is for the better, and, most important, that it does not alter our real being: "We are all changed by still degrees, / All but the basis of the soul" (" 'Love thou thy land, with love far-brought,' " ll. 43-44). The comic view of stasis and change takes as its symbols, respectively, eternity and regeneration. Turned about, however, these assurances become the two ironies that dominate much of Tennyson's poetry: comfortable change is transformed into meaningless flux; solid and unchanging being becomes an image of man trapped and unable to help himself.
Further, though comedy always has managed its defeat of time by a projection into future it has generally done so successfully only by convincing us of the powerful happiness realized in the present, "They lived happily ever after" has meaning only if they are happy now. Tennyson seemed constitutionally unable, however, to imagine genuine and full comic happiness materializing for a long, long time; sometimes, one gathers, not until a few eons have passed. It is a peculiar comic satisfaction that one can obtain from waiting for evolution to solve problems. Evolution is not nearly as rhetorically persuasive as, say, sex. Still, this is to oversimplify a more complex issue that involves what Spedding called Tennyson's "almost personal dislike of the present, whatever it may be." (Memoir, 1: 154). Existentialism is a modern term, but all effective comedy has contained more of it than Tennyson could muster.
Tennyson's tendency to complicate the comic mode is apparent even in very minor issues. His use of repetition, for instance, is, on the surface, highly appropriate to comedy, where the recurrence of events gives us a sense of the deep continuity of life and growth. In Tennyson, however, the lulling reassurances contained in the repetitions of "Come down, O maid" can just as easily become the [11/12] compulsive, desperately negative "Let us alone" of "The Lotos-Eaters" or "Tithonus," where the suggestions of life, ever awakening in similar patterns, are made hideous by burlesque. Similarly, there is in Tennyson a distrust of the comic principle of prodigious abundance, of wild, almost uncontrolled generosity. He spoke of being appalled by "the lavish profusion . . . in the natural world . . . from the growths of the tropical forest to the capacity of man to multiply, the torrent of babies." (Memoir, 1: 314).
Still, though it is complicated and even tortured, comedy is central to Tennyson's vision, so remarkably strong that it could be maintained and find long and continued expression despite ironic pressures from without and within. It is the interplay of these two forms that I wish to examine. Tennyson mediates between the two great myths that have become the dominant modes of modern artistic expression.
Last modified 28 March 2001