THROUGHOUT his life Tennyson was subject to trance-like fits of abstraction in which the veil of sensory appearances seemed to draw aside and the inner life of things to stand revealed. It was largely on the testimony of such fleeting intuitions that the poet based his faith in spiritual being as the ultimate reality. A friend, Mrs. Marian Bradley, wrote that Tennyson remarked, after reading the Grail Idyll aloud: "Yes, it is true. There are moments when this flesh is nothing to me, when I feel and know the flesh to be the vision, God and the spiritual the only real and true-depend upon it, the spiritual is the real, it belongs to one more than the hand and the foot." The records of the poet's life contain many statements of a like nature; for instance, near the end of his life Tennyson told an acquaintance: "Sometimes as I sit here alone in this great room I get carried away out of sense and body, and rapt into mere existence, till the accidental touch or movement of one of my own fingers is like a great shock and blow and brings the body back with a terrible start." Yet Tennyson had inherited his full measure of the family's black blood with its susceptibility to prolonged periods of moroseness and depression. When these were on him, he distrusted all irrational promptings from the beyond as delusory snares, and tended to fall back for support on more conventional religious ideas.

Since Tennyson's temperament was at all times and to an [3/4] unusual extent characterized by a variability between the extremes of exaltation and despair, it is small wonder that the enigma of human consciousness with its conflicting intuitions should from the outset appear as a dominant motif in his poetry. Already in his earliest writing a polarity is observable, represented by two kinds of poetry, one showing morbid preoccupation with the artist's subjection to his times the other marked by a refusal to accept any such restriction. Thus, among Tennyson's Juvenilia one group of poems, prevailingly pessimistic and low-spirited in tone, exhibits a paralyzing sense of insecurity with regard to the outside world. The opening lines of the rejected "Perdidi Diem" sound a typical note:

I must needs pore upon the mysteries
Of my own infinite Nature and torment
My Spirit with a fruitless discontent . . .

More explicit is the "Supposed Confessions" of a "Second-rate Sensitive Mind" in which the poet reproaches himself for having abandoned the "common faith" bequeathed by his mother. He speaks of his "gloomed fancy" and makes significant reference to his "damned vacillating state" and to "our double nature." As if in guilty acknowledgment of the penalty attached to denial of God, he cries: "I am void,/ Dark, formless, utterly destroyed."

In a contrary mood, however, Tennyson is aggressively disposed to repudiate the world and to seek immunity from its disturbances in the depths of his own imaginative being. The most arresting early example of such self-withdrawal is the poem entitled "The Mystic," omitted after the 1830 volume. Possession of the visionary power has set the central figure apart from his fellows: "How could ye know him? Ye were yet within/ The narrower circle." While one hesitates to make out a case for Tennyson as in any sense a true mystic, this poem written before he was twenty-one is penetrated [4/5] with strange insights and shows a remarkable grasp of the experiences which it purports to describe. In his condition of "still serene abstraction" the mystic transcends the boundaries of normal being and stands outside the limitations of time and space:

He often lying broad awake, and yet
Remaining from the body, and apart
In intellect and power and will, hath heard
Time flowing in the middle of the night,
And all things creeping to a day of doom.

It may be noted in this connection, however, that the levels of intuitive awareness in Tennyson's poetry, as identified in the third section of the present chapter, very closely conform to the categories of mystical experience analyzed by William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience. Likewise, the four characteristics of the mystical habit of mind listed in Bertrand Russell's essay, "Mysticism and Logic", might be illustrated by innumerable passages from Tennyson.

Another poem, published in 1830 but not thereafter, ascribes equal authority to the revelations of the individual imagination. This is [Greek title], based, as its title indicates, on the Heraclitean doctrine of flux:

All thoughts, all creeds, all dreams are true,
   All visions wild and strange;
Man is the measure of all truth
   Unto himself. All truth is change.
All men do walk in sleep, and all
   Have faith in that they dream:
For all things arc as they seem to all,
   And all things flow like a stream.

There is no rest, no calm, no pause,
   Nor good nor ill, nor light nor shade,
Nor essence nor eternal laws:
   For nothing is, but all is made.
But if I dream that all these are,
   They are to me for that I dream;
For all,things are as they seem to all,
   And all things flow like a stream.

That the youthful Tennyson lived more intensely in his dreams than in the world around him is apparent from such [5/6] a work as the prize poem "Timbuctoo," which incorporates material from a still earlier poem, "Armageddon." Here the imaginative faculty is symbolized by the Seraph, whose function it is to "visit his eyes with visions." And to the vision of the fabled city thus vouchsafed the poet ecstatically gives himself up, deliberately postponing until the end of the poem any recognition of discrepancy between the actual and the ideal. The most remarkable passage in "Timbuctoo," however, is the following in which Tennyson again undertakes to present a version of the mystical experience, but now in such a way as to infer that the seer and the poet have a common source of inspiration:

I felt my soul grow mighty, and my spirit
With supernatural excitation bound
Within me, and my mental eye grew large
With such a vast circumference of thought,
That in my vanity I seemd to stand
Upon the outward verge and bound alone
Of full beatitude. Each failing sense,
As with a momentary flash of light,
Grew thrillingly distinct and keen. I saw
The smallest grain that dappled the dark earth,
The indistinctest atom in deep air,
The Moon's white cities, and the opal width
Of her small glowing lakes, her silver heights
Unvisited with dew of vagrant cloud,
And the unsounded, undescended depth
Of her black hollows. The clear galaxy
Shorn of its hoary lustre, wonderful,
Distinct and vivid with sharp points of light,
Blaze within blaze, an unimagind depth
And harmony of planet-girded suns
And moon-encircled planets, wheel in wheel,
Arch'd the wan sapphire. Nay — the hum of men,
Or other things talking in unknown tongues,
And notes of busy life in distant worlds
Beat like a far wave on my anxious ear. [6/7]
  A maze of piercing, trackless, thrilling thoughts,
Involving and embracing each with each,
Rapid as fire, inextricably link'd,
Expanding momently with every sight
And sound which struck the palpitating sense,
The issue of strong impulse, hurried through
The riven rapt brain. . .

The volume of poetry published in 1832 affords grounds for a still clearer differentiation between the two opposing tendencies manifested in the tentative compositions of extreme youth. Thus, Tennyson's lapses into self-doubt provide the theme of "The Two Voices" with its dramatic representation of a "divided will." Although the voice of faith eventually carries the day, it is the voice of doubt which may well seem the more persuasive to modern readers. The poet's awareness of the interdependence between state of mind and artistic productivity underlies the whole debate. Because be has lost religious conviction, he feels that he can no longer devote his talent to the services of mankind as in other days, "When, wide in soul and bold of tongue,/ Among the tents I paused and sung." The first voice, denoting the materialism which has laid waste the human spirit, mocks the quest for spiritual absolutes:

Much less this dreamer, deaf and blind,
Named man, may hope some truth to find,
That bears relation to the mind.

Playing on Tennyson's uncertainty about the mysterious ways of the mind, the Mephistophelean voice continues:

If straight thy track, or if oblique,
Thou know'st not. Shadows thou dost strike,
Embracing cloud, Ixion-like...

In the shadow of suicidal despair the poet tries to controvert the tempter by appealing to the "mystic gleams" which, despite the inherent "baseness in his blood," have from time to time brought intimations of a controlling and beneficent purpose in life. But evidently Tennyson himself [7/8] was not sufficiently convinced by this argument to make it the basis for affirmation. The poet quite simply has no internal resources equal to the task of vanquishing doubt. This is accomplished for him by the voice from outside which speaks for conventional Christian faith. Through intuitive sympathy with the pious church-bound family, as well as with the beauty of the natural world, the poet discovers a need to identify himself with the life around him. And in this way hope is reborn under sanctions which have traditionally given the individual release from a too oppressive sense of his limitations.

The artistic success of the 1832 volume, however, derives from poems which celebrate the life of the imagination. In the greater objectivity of these compositions and in the skill with which their creator has mastered new and complex techniques for the projection of theme, we can measure Tennyson's progress towards a clearer realization of his genius. There is present, for example, an increased complexity of meaning, conveyed not by explicit statement, but through structural and textural devices of considerable subtlety. The poet conceives many of his poems on a centrifugal or wheel-like principle, the crux of the situation being the hub around which, like spokes, the contributory actions are in constant rotation. Paradoxically, it is the apparent immobility of this hub in contrast to the encircling play of circumstances which holds the reader's attention focussed on the center. Tennyson began to experiment with this method as early as "Recollections of the Arabian Nights," where we follow the poet into the heart of Haroun Alraschid's enchanted garden, led on by the song of the nightingale, or rather

Not he, but something which possess'd
The darkness of the world, delight,
Life, anguish, death, immortal love,
Ceasing not, mingled, unrepress'd,
  Apart from place, withholding time...

A similar contrast between an outer, temporal, and shifting sphere of activity and an inner, timeless, and fixed core of [8/9] apprehension is developed in other early poems, such as "The Hesperides and The Sea Fairies." In its aesthetic implications this technique approximates very closely the concept of art as stasis.

Tennyson's increasing control over the formal elements in his poetry is observable in such a poem as "The Lady of Shalott" (text) where structure supplies the key to meaning. A spell has entranced the lady and confined her to one room in her remote and silent castle. As if to emphasize her isolation from all human affairs, we are made conscious of the unceasing flow of life around the island of Shalott. The road runs by, the aspens quiver, the waves run, the slow horses trail the heavy barges, the shallop flitteth. The condition of the lady's enchantment is that she shall sit all day weaving into a tapestry similitudes of the life of this outer world as reflected in a mirror. Her dedication to this unworldly task is brought into vivid contrast with the multifarious concerns of the wayfarers on the road to Camelot — the village-churls, the market girls, the troop of damsels, the abbot, the shepherd-lad, and the knights. Her web is the shadow of a shadow, presenting an idealized version of the actuality which will destroy her when she meets it face to face. For everything is changed by the arrival within the mirror of Lancelot's image. No longer able to endure an existence of make-believe, the lady turns to the window and so invokes the curse. At once the web floats free and the mirror cracks; these are, we realize, metaphors for the creative imagination which has been shattered by the intrusion of direct experience. Appropriately, the world which the lady enters has been drained of the color and animation lent by fancy; and the manner of her dying symbolizes the extinction of the vitalizing imagination within her.

The discrimination between two ways of life, the one of artistic detachment, the other of emotional involvement, is construed in more general terms in "The Lotos-Eaters." Again the poet makes brilliantly effective use of contrast. The restless dark-blue sea which environs lotos-land reminds the mariners of their homes and families, of warfare, and of all [9/10] the strenuous claims of social existence. Within the charmed circle, however, there is surcease from care. For the lotos eaters, just as for the Mystic and the bewitched lady of Shalott, time and space have ceased to have any meaning; the mariners have come to "a land where all things always seem'd the same!" The fruit of the lotos induces a dreamlike state of irresponsibility in which "the inner spirit sings." The choric song itself is dramatic in conception. The odd stanzas, lyric and descriptive in quality, weave the spell of the lotos, while the even ones follow a rhetorical pattern suggestive stive of the conflict within the consciences of the speakers. Furthermore, the successive stanzas (as rewritten for publication in 1842) tend to increase in length as if to imply a growing recognition of all that is at stake. Then, after the swooning magic of the seventh stanza has taken the senses captive, the meter of the last stanza* changes (following the introductory invocation to the lotos) to express the final troubled moment of decision when the mariners make their choice not to return to the outside world.

Yet persuasively as Tennyson could present the ideal of individual self-fulfillment, it is apparent from other poems in the 1832 volume that he was not completely happy in this aesthetic position. Membership in the Cambridge "Apostles," and especially the selfless example of Hallam. had brought him into closer touch with the spiritual predicament of the Victorians. Did not his absorption in the beauties of literature and of the Somersby countryside amount to an egocentric evasion of the obligations which the age imposed on its promising young artists? Friends and critics were at one in their insistence that the imagination could not be allowed to remain a law unto itself, but must be submitted to a higher tribunal. The Paris of Enone is lost through hearkening to Aphrodite's invitation to sensual self-gratification rather than to Pallas Athene's grave exhortation:

  Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control,
These three alone lead life to sovereign power.
Yet not for power (power of herself [10/11]

Would come uncall'd for) but to live by law,
Acting the law we live by without fear;
And, because right is right, to follow right
Were wisdom in the scorn of consequence.

The same voice sounds in "The Palace of Art" (text) so insistently as to suggest a revision of the creed exemplified in "The Lady of Shalott" and "The Lotos-Eaters." The dedication makes clear that this poem was intended to be a refutation of art for art's sake, though one can hardly fail to note that the attack on that concept is conducted in such equivocal terms as to leave some doubt about the poet's perfect good faith. Once again, as in "The Lady of Shalott," the focus of attention is an isolated consciousness; but in "The Palace of Art," unlike "The Lady of Shalott," the reader sympathizes with the external forces which break in on the soul's self-possession.

The soul's motive in alienating itself from the world is one of aristocratic disdain for humanity. This it frankly admits in such a way as to reveal a total absence of any sense of social responsibility:

O Godlike isolation which art mine,
   I can but count thee perfect gain,
What time I watch the darkening droves of swine
   That range on yonder plain.

The palace of art symbolizes the many-chambered life of the imagination, furnished with all the treasures of natural [11/12] beauty, myth (including Christianity), the arts, literature, and the accumulated learning of scientists and philosophers. To the soul, seclusion among its hoarded possessions seems justifiable because of the artistic response which they evoke. It sings, but sings alone, untroubled by the fact that there is no one to hear its song:

No nightingale delighteth to prolong
   Her low preamble all alone,
More than my soul to hear her echo'd song
   Throb thro' the ribbed stone. . .

But after three years of unruffled self-absorption, disillusionment sets in. Despair brings on "deep dread and loathing of her solitude," and then the spectres of incipient madness, portrayed by a series of powerful and disturbing images. Driven at length to expiate its guilt, the chastened soul returns to the world and communion with its kind; but the end of the poem remains somewhat ambiguous in its implications. The palace of art is not destroyed, but remains intact against the time when the poet will return, bringing others to enjoy its felicities. Presumably, then, we are to believe that Tennyson would not altogether discredit the life of the imagination, but rather would insinuate that the artist must become aware of the responsibility to communicate his insights.


Victorian Website Overview Alfred Lord Tennyson Aesthetes & Decadents Contents Next

Last modified 16 July 2002.
Thanks to a reader from New Zealand for reporting scanning errors