A short phrase binds an entire ream of Tennyson criticism: “the art of the penultimate.”
That Tennyson’s art looks forward with foreboding, that it does so with a burden of what has come before, is the spine supporting almost all major Tennyson criticism from the past forty years (and more).
But what if the phenomenon the phrase fits were to be fitted from another angle? As the art of the post-ultimate.
Franco Moretti’s The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture, the most incisive, sane, and zestful account of the genre I’ve read, struck me with the eccentric force of the obvious: Tennyson, who had “no gift for narrative at all” (Eliot dismissive, but not without grounds for dismissal), writes within that generic tradition, Bildungsroman.
The concern for using experience, for giving shape to a life (hence the worries about a life that is overworn, abou the poet’s wasted years, about the far-off inheritance of tears), is most apparent in the great poem that refuses shape, In Memoriam: but it refuses shape in part because it is an attempt at giving shape to what will always resist it: a life that will not, cannot, be lived. The poem is in the tradition of the Bildungsroman, though, in that it is fundamentally about Youth, the poet’s youth and also the youth of Arthur Hallam.
Moretti: “Youth, or rather the European novel’s numerous versions of youth, becomes for our modern culture the age which holds the ‘meaning of life’: it is the first gift Mephisto offers Faust.” And: “Youth is, so to speak, modernity’s ‘essence’, the sign of a world that seeks its meaning in the future rather than in the past.”
Saying that Tennyson’s poetry needs to be set against the Bildungsroman does not mean that it converts that genre to poetry—or that it competes against the novel on its own terms. The idea that the novel ‘crowds out’ poetry from the market should not be taken to mean that it forces poetry into tasks it would eschew, or that it forces poetry to adopt uncomfortably alien guises. Instead, Tennyson, like all of the great Victorian poets, were both pressured by the same set of circumstances that gave rise to the Bildungsroman and were also conscious of what novelists in Britain (and beyond) were doing (even though the term had yet to be coined) with that vehicle for imagining a youth’s possibilities and growth; it opened up new possibilities for getting time and the century’s quickened sense of time and change into lyric poetry, too, that most static of genres.
Perhaps a great deal of Victorian poetry besides should be read not within the conventions of poetic genre or tradition, but within the conventions of the the novel, and the Bildungsroman more specifically(conventions of historical awareness, temporal structuring, economy, attentiveness and education; these are not evidenced through the novel’s form, but might be expressed powerfully through poetry too). But whether or not that tradition is more broadly useful for Victorian verse, it is helpful for Tennyson.
Often, Bildung is what does not happen in the poetry, either because it is prevented by death or severe isolation or else because it is too late for it, and the poetry is always conscious of its not happening, of its already having happened or having irrevocably failed to happen.
Think of “Ulysses,” “Tithonus,” Maud, “Locksley Hall.”
The English Idyls sit elsewhere; not excepted from the openness from youth, but respites from its anxiety and promise alike, able to make songs of relentless change (“the sea wastes all…”; even “The Golden Year”), and to set them apart, in quotation marks on the page, remembered as having already been sung, so as to convert them already into aesthetic traditions.
But I was thinking most of those poems not of youth, but of lost youth, of adulthood-after-youth (adulthood shadowed by youth), such as “Ulysses” and “Locksley Hall” and Maud and “Mariana”: poems that are hopeful but not necessarily expectant of something more—and in this sense that are very much “of the penultimate”—but that are also belated, expressions of hope for change where change is no longer possible: maturity. (And this being also other than old age, where death is imminent or immediate). Change being a thing of Youth.
They are belated also in that they, following Herbert Tucker for instance, are too late to be Romantic: but British Romanticism too is not only an expression of poets who were youthful, but is itself all about the potential of youth: the open-ended future of revolution, the Revolution, met by the open possibilities of those years. Even though Wordsworth often writes about what it means to come to adulthood, his poetry most often, and powerfully, looks out onto the prospect of maturity without settling there: the Ode is a last hurrah, a gathering of resources, as are “Elegiac Stanzas.” Byron’s Don Juan, the poem that might or might not be the crucial exception to one American academic myth of Romanticism, is at any rate a satire on Romanticism not least because it is written from the perspective of a sardonic, disillusioned adult Byron: Juan’s education is not one of Bildung or development: there is no waste, no economy, no formation in his life: time does not open possibilities, or even close them down, it simply happens, event following event following event, historical or otherwise, flattened onto the plane. Moretti on the trend of nineteenth-century narrative: Narrative and history, in fact, do not retreat before the onslaught of events, but demonstrate the possibility of giving them order and meaning. Furthermore, they suggest that reality’s meaning is now to be grasped solely in its historic-diachronic dimension. Not only are there no ‘meaningless’ events; there can now be meaning only through events. Byron sensed the same; Don Juan makes a mockery of the situation.
It’s of course not the case that none of these poets wrote about adults—but poems about adults are not poems about adulthood.
But to return to Tennyson: his is the poetry of adulthood, facing the shock not only that it faces not just an end, but The End (of life, of time), but also facing the shock that it represents, in itself, an end: to the possibility of Youth and change that came before. Poor Tennyson, stricken by terror from both sides: terrified of revolution, of the change that will destroy; terrified of the end of change, of the debilitation that his terror of change can bring.
It’s poetry that, even as it looks forward to an end, realizes that it is written after an end has come, or rather that it is written from within an end-point, an ideal place for a poet like Tennyson to write. The question might be: what sort of end does Tennyson’s poetry inhabit? What does the end that is adulthood look like for Tennyson?
Moretti suggests that the Bildungsroman be divided according to its relationship to endings: either as a novel, as in English ‘family romances’ wherein “the meaning of events lies in their finality…events acquire meaning when they led to one ending, and one only.” This he calls the “classification principle.” It is opposed to “the transformation principle”: “what makes a story meaningful is its narrativity, its being an open-ended process…the ending, the privileged narrative moment of taxonomic mentality, becomes the most meaningless one here…a story’s meaning resides precisely in the impossibility of ‘fixing’ it.”
Tennyson’s poems, even the ones I’ve mentioned, represent the first of these options, as we would expect, following Moretti, from an English poet, but they do so with dissatisfaction. The two great dramatic monologues, “Tithonus” and “Ulysses,” written from and desperately against the positions of finality: each of the figures not only finding themselves in the classified ending of domesticity and marriage, but each representative of a class of men, each being a type or figura. Maud and “Locksley Hall” representing poems where the position of finality has been denied, where it remains the only possibility that might have given meaning, and where the open-ended continuation of life harbors few promises in itself. In the case of the first two poems (“Ulysses” and “Tithonus”), the finality of the ending of youth that is married adulthood leaves only death; in the case of the last two poems, the failure for youth to issue in an acceptable finality threatens to void the significance of the remaining years of life. The speaker of “Locksley Hall” questions the civilization of modern Europe, and only returns to it with dread, because there is no alternative but to move on.
We might read any of these poems as regret not only for lost youth, but also as a regret that the one ending was prescribed, that finality had to look like this, that the meaning of Bildung could not have remained unfixed. And even further: as poems that, regretting youth, regret not the possibilities that were missed, but regret that adulthood, still open to possibilities, is nonetheless not able to be changed by them, or to find change in them; that events may happen, may even be meaningful as markers of the course, but that they will not do anything to change the course from what one had already imagined it would be—or from what one, looking back, imagines one would have imagined it would be. Whereas Bildung must be concerned always with waste: possibilities, resources, opportunities, Tennyson’s poetry is nostalgic for a time when that concern was valid. It is not dissimilar from Milton’s nostalgia from an era when the nostalgia for the Classical world could be thoroughly felt.
In Memoriam is the strangest piece to the puzzle I’m proposing, and that because it has two heroes: Hallam, as remembered and as he-would-have-been, and Tennyson himself. Tennyson moves forward in time, desiring to remain young, for the sake of stasis, when Youth means change; Hallam dispelled from the time of the world, changed utterly, and no longer able to change further, is presented on several occasions as he would have been if he had been able to change; or Tennyson tries to assess the potential that never could manifest itself in change. A story of one who would no longer grow, who would remain in a time of life when growth is all, for the sake of one who cannot grow, the memory of whom will diminish, and whose life is meaningful only for the growth it promised and never achieved; for the one who has already ended (Hallam), the ending cannot provide meaning; for the one who must continue (Tennyson), a classifiable end (classifiable by evolution, or by God, or by human achievement—they are all assayed) is the best hope.