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]

decorative initial 'W' 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 Introductionnever 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.

Tennyson's Irony

decorative initial 'T' he narrative pattern of irony, what Northrop Frye calls “the mythos of winter,” (pp. 223-39) frequently been characterized in discussions of “open” or “general” irony and distinguished there from the “specific” or “closed” irony that is more properly thought of as a technique. This general irony is noncorrective, presenting, like all irony, some conflict but insisting always that the conflict cannot be resolved. This is the irony of the impossible situation, an irony that includes us all as victims — characters, readers, even the ironist.

Art rooted in “unidealized existence” (Frye, p. 223) is likely, then, to formulate its structural principles and its narrative patterns in reference to general irony. There are no heroes and no heroic action; worse, there is no coherence to support any purposeful action whatever. Such heroism and such coherence are, however, often recalled in this irony in order that they may be parodied. In fact, parody seems to be the basic principle of this narrative irony. It feeds on the affirmations contained in the other traditional patterns: romance's idealizations, tragedy's cathartic sacrifice, comedy's liberation. Practicing always a rhetoric of deception, this pattern forces us to anticipate resolutions that never come. Such rhetoric is deliberately unstable, seeking to disarm us, to include its audience with its victims. The characteristic themes are of disillusionment and meaningless defeat, the fall from freedom into bondage.

While there is some specific irony in Tennyson — one thinks of “The Last Tournament” or the verse epistles — he is, clearly, not [5/6] Donne. But he does utilize extensively the more general narrative pattern, especially in the depiction of dominant opposites which cannot be coordinated or made to cancel, but which demand equal and contradictory responses. The tension between the religious, hopeful symbol on the one hand, and the tragic or melancholic symbol on the other, marks the center of Tennyson's poetry, the point being that his irony is not merely gloomy, almost never simply macabre. The contraries exist together, as brothers, an early poem says, stealing “symbols of each other” (“Song [Every day hath its night]“).

The result is that no emotion can flow outward from us. The comfort of comedy and the perverse comfort of decisive negativism are alike denied, and the reader is suspended between alternate emotional and intellectual responses to alternate, unreconciled themes. Whatever Tennyson may have meant by his cryptic remark that “what the public do not understand is that the great tragedy is all balance throughout,” (Memoir, 2: 226) ” the “balance” he achieves and transmits is the ironic one presented in Moby-Dick, where the Pequod, tilting dangerously to one side under the weight of a whale's head lashed to it, hoists another on the opposite side, thus regaining her “even keel; though sorely strained, you may well believe.” Ishmael goes on to point out the usefulness of this image as a symbol for the human mind, poised and paralyzed and unable to “float light and right.” Irony, it may be said, causes so much horizontal strain that it makes any free forward movement impossible.

At its most obvious, Tennyson's ironic vision did insist directly and openly on the alternate truths: death is all, life is all — “All Things Will Die ... .. Nothing Will Die,” as the poems from 1830 put it. But we find the unresolved oppositions in much less dramatic and ostentatious form throughout his career. In the beautiful poem, “To the Marquis of Dufferin and Ava” (1889), for example, he deals with both the greatness of the Indian Empire (Lord Dufferin had been governor-general of India) and the sense that India was the treacherous fate that drew his son Lionel to his death. Toward the end of the poem, these views coalesce as Tennyson dwells on the terrible fact that his son died so far from him, with strange rites and in a strange sea: [6/7]

Not there to bid my boy farewell,
When That within the coffin fell,
Fell-and flashed into the Red Sea,
Beneath a hard Arabian moon
And alien stars. [ll. 42-46]

The strong romantic associations packed into “Arabian moon” and “stars” are juxtaposed against the brutality of “hard” and “alien.” But the romantic associations are not canceled by the adjectives, just as the speaker's belief in the Indian enterprise or in the continuation of life through death is not shattered. The lines describing the death are, after all, contained in a tactful public utterance, which celebrates first the virtues of a good colonial ruler and ends in a vision of love in this life and the next. The poet-and the reader-perceives both visions with equal force: the private, despairing clarity of the image of a remote death, suggesting the alien universe and the absurd, causeless nature of life, along with the public, hopeful vision of reasonable and kindly political activity and a religion of love. Neither wins. It is the great virtue of Tennyson's art that, as he matures, the diffuse and obtrusive “All Things Will Die” – “Nothing Will Die” dichotomies become compacted into phrases as suggestive and haunting as “hard Arabian moon.“

Irony does not dominate all of Tennyson's poetry, but it does control the early poems (up to 1842) and many of the late ones, most prominently Idylls of the King. In the great middle period, the period of The Princess, In Memoriam, and Maud, Tennyson searched for means to transcend the ironic tension of vividly presented but unreconciled opposites. Transcendentalism helped, of course, and we find lively statements of it attributed to him: “Nothing worthy proving can be proven” (“The Ancient Sage,” l. 66) or “Poetry is truer than fact,” (Memoir, 2: 219) for instance. But transcendentalism is likely only a small part of the major cause of Tennyson's liberation, which is the discovery of the possibilities of comedy. In fact, it could be argued that transcendentalism was convenient not primarily for its doctrine but for its ability to provide a happy surprise behind every false appearance, exactly paralleling the ending of comedy, where the disguises come off and reveal familiarity and promise. In any case, Tennyson spent the central part of his career writing comedy, imaging the very form he could also parody so completely. The movement from liberty to bondage was for a time reversed, as Tennyson sought to forge a unique and lasting comic vision. [7/8]

Tennyson's Comedy

decorative initial 'C' 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 Memoriamis 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 Talebut 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.

Tennyson's Minor Poems

decorative initial 'T' here are, of course, other forms and other developments in Tennyson. It is a given that he wrote some extraordinarily interesting poems and some quite uninteresting ones, not that many would agree on which are which. It is not important to draw exact lines, though it is important to attempt an explanation of why poems like “The Spinster's Sweet-Arts” or “English Warsong” affect its as they do: with irritation or not at all. Most of these minor poems are striking for their simplicity, their grim single-mindedness and relentless narrowing of emotion and focus. They stand in marked contrast to the complexity, suggestiveness, and expansiveness of the other poems. One way to think of them is as a relaxation from the great tensions of irony and the difficult sort of comedy Tennyson wrote. It may seem odd to speak of “tensions” being produced in this way, but we have seen for some time that Tennyson was caught between the worlds of Pride and Prejudice and Hyperion, between the practical, novelistic world and the visionary, mythical world. The tension I am discussing, though not coincident with the other, ties over it and surely makes it understandable that simple poetic reductions might occasionally be inevitable. In any event, those poem which seem to me reductive fall into three [12/13] groups: the political and public poems, the domestic idyls, and the humorous and dialect poems. Some of these poems are excellent in their way, but they do not, I think, constitute the major part of Tennyson's achievement, nor do they contribute a great deal to his present reputation.

When Tennyson's first child died at birth, the poet wrote to John Forster, describing the event with his strange and characteristic mixture of the naïve and the sophisticated, the immediate and the detached:

The nurse dressed up the little body in pure white. He was a grand massive manchild, noble brow and hands, which he had clenched in his determination to be born. Had he lived, the doctor said he would have been lusty and healthy, but somehow he got strangled. I kissed his poor pale hands and came away and they buried him last night in Twickenham churchyard. [Charles Tennyson, p. 262]

Notice how Tennyson uses the typical locutions associated with nineteenth-century sentimentality — “the little body,” “pure white,” “poor pale hands” — while suggesting the very opposite of sentimentality. The “core of toughness” always discernible in Tennyson's best poetry here controls and mutes the potential sentimentality by encasing it in accents of reserve and detachment. The bleak and naked quality of “but somehow he got strangled” or “they buried him last night in Twickenham churchyard,” the staccato sentences, and the use of coordinations that simply string statements together, give the impression of artlessness, the refusal to rearrange, subordinate, and heighten — in fact, to interpret at all. The major impression is that of inexplicable awfulness temporarily mastered, of unbearable grief not overcome but suspended. The mixture of tones, in other words, provides a subtle and moving irony.

One way to look at the domestic idyls, the humorous poems, and the political poems is in terms of a dislocation of this ironic conjunction. The “core of toughness“ is exaggerated into the uncontrolled energy and exhibitionistic release of the political poems; the tenderness and sentimentality become the humorous [13/14] poems or the static and hazy idyls of the hearth. All represent a relaxation from the strain and difficulty of the ironic or comic modes one finds in the major poetry. One notices, for instance, that Tennyson seemed to find it necessary to write the domestic idyls only during periods when his major poems were ironic in form. The domestic idyls begin to appear in the 1830 volume, there are some dozen of them in the Poems of 1842, and he begins writing them again in about 1860, just one year after the publication of the first installment of Idylls of the King. During the comic period, between The Princessand Maud, these poems virtually disappear. There is one exception: "The Brook" appeared in the Maud volume of 1853. Them were one or two, added to later editions of the 1842 poem too, but except for "The Brook," none was written in the "comic period," ie. between The Princess and Maud. There was apparently no need then for this therapeutic exercise, but they increase in direct proportion to the seriousness and dominance of his ironic vision.

Setting aside these minor poems, then, we are left with the poems that constitute Tennyson's claim to our attention, along with some revealing and interesting preliminary work. From The Devil and the Lady to Idylls of the King, the poet worked with irony and comedy, testing, reordering, and trying new combinations in an attempt to find an adequate form. In one of those irresponsible but penetrating remarks with which W. H. Auden filled the famous introduction to his edition of Tennyson's poems, he calls Tennyson “the great English poet of the Nursery.” There is not much truth in this, but there is some. Tennyson's poetry hardly seems to “deal with human emotions in their most primitive states,” (Auden, p. xvi) but it does express our most fundamental plights and hopes with an intensity and honesty that only a half-asleep Auden would ever call “stupid.”

Web version created April 2001

Last modified 8 August 2016