36. (Alfred Lord Tennyson)

“What did Tennyson add to English poetry?”—a question, asked in idle conversation a few years ago. I’d no answer at all then (or rather, no answer at all beyond the technical mention of sonorously marmoreal and murmuring Virgilian English, blank verse, and metrical variety), and only an inkling now, but in the spirit of this blog to spill ink on such inklings. The intuition then told me, “Keats and stony coldness.” But that intuition is best bracketed away from what I’ve thought now, maybe to return; maybe not.

Now I think rather than Keats, the touchstone is Wordsworth. Three aspects of Tennyson’s poetry triangulate the novelty of the achievement, and each of these contrasts with the Pater familias of nineteenth-century verse, perhaps as a result of T’s conscious intentions.

The aspects: Landscape, Biddeness, Bildung. The former the dullest of prospects; the middle a word without much meaning for the vast majority; and the latter, a chance to cultivate and tinker with an earlier post. It’s in the relation of the three, though, that the answer lies.

Bildung first: Tennyson is a poet who does not do much by way of narrative, but whose poems are parasitic upon narratives that have already happened; whereas the bildungsroman records the possibilities of youth, the potential for waste encountered with every decision, the potential for self-flourishing and advancement similarly encountered, Tennyson’s poems are written at the moment when youth, and the possibility of bildung, has been shut down, or foreclosed. Much critical emphasis–for natural and good reason–has been placed upon their anticipatory horizons; his speakers speak from the penultimate position; but this is so when we measure the ultimate as death or a final change or release from human life. Within the span of human life, for many of Tennyson’s speakers, the ultimate is what has come before: they are left surrounded by the waste they have made (c.f. Eliot’s Middlemarch where Casaubon and Dorothea walk in the garden, after news of his poor health has been delivered by Lydgate), reckoning it, or ignoring it as best they can. Possibility for meaningful change has been foreclosed; but the poems bear with them the memory that it was not always like this, that a narrative of the Bildungsroman happened beforehand–even though that narrative is not much alluded to, in its particular cruxes and crises. (The dramatic monologue is especially suited for this moment, after the bildungsroman: a vantage point in time that the novel could not, or did not in Victorian Britain, ever much capture: think also of Browning’s most Tennysonian dramatic monologue, “Andrea del Sarto”).

I made a bolder claim in that earlier post: that Tennyson’s standing thus, in his lyrics, was itself a distinct feature that set them apart from his Romantic predecessors. I said Tennyson was, unlike Wordsworth et al, a poet of adulthood. This elicited on response, which I think misunderstood me, and also wrongly conflated things which need to be kept distinct. I was not accusing the Romantics of adolescent immaturity (and had I been calling them adolescent, it would not have been an insult; the right rejoinder to Eliot’s (adolescent) dismissal of Shelley’s adolescence would be Jarrell, or Auden’s, remark that adolescence isn’t a stage of life we move through and leave behind, but a set of resources for coping with the world that we ought to retain into maturity, even as mature adulthood provides us with other resources, better for other situations; we no more want to lose the resources of childhood). That, at any rate, wasn’t my point. It was that Tennyson writes poetry not only as an adult, from within the position of adulthood, but also about what it means to be an adult, as opposed to what it means to be a youth, where that difference depends on the closure or end of Bildung.

But, the objection ran, what about Wordsworth? Isn’t the entire great Ode, the shattering English poem of the century (Hopkins compares its effect to Plato’s dialogues), about becoming an adult and learning to recoup the losses of childhood. Yes, it is. But differences abound and identifying them, describing them, can help bring Tennyson into greater focus. For one thing, the Ode ends with Wordsworth on the verge of adulthood: looking out hopefully reconciled to the strength that remains, despite the waste. The Ode is a diary of the transition from one era of Wordsworth’s life to another: it looks out to other timely utterances, which he wrote around the same time (“Resolution and Independence”) and portions of the Ode are themselves timely utterances that effect Wordsworth’s altered outlook.

But the losses of childhood for Wordsworth are not at all the same as the losses of youth for Tennyson. For one thing, childhood is not youth as Tennyson understands it. Wordsworth is not writing against the background of Bildung at all: their sense of the course of a human life is different in so far as for Wordsworth youth and naivety and childhood are bundled together, whereas for Tennyson they are not: youth for Tennyson is the time when life holds forth adult possibilities, but those possibilities remain active, alive, unsettled.  And if anything, youth in this sense is, for Wordsworth, the time when custom hardens deep as frost on life.

For another thing, Wordsworth divides life into three: childhood, middle-age, and old-age. Tennyson is fascinated with old-age, the old-age of Ulysses and Tithonus, but that is because old-age, with its physical infirmities, exemplifies, in corporeal form, the infirmities of spirit and activity that set in once youth has passed: old-age for Tennyson is the ripening of stasis long-before commenced.  For Wordsworth, in the Matthew poems, in “The Old Cumberland Beggar,” in “Resolution and Independence,” in “Old Man Travelling,” old age has all of those qualities of stasis that Tennyson sees, but is always viewed from without and endowed with a spiritual grandeur–though Wordsworth is not so cheap as to confirm it (the poem’s are dramas of attribution, doubt, and outright disappointment of that grandeur). The essential point for present purposes is that in Wordsworth’s poetry, the elderly are not continuations of the middle-aged adult, but are separate, almost alien, beings (middle-age is for Wordsworth, in these poems at least, less reflective on becoming an adult than the Ode is, a period of befuddled inability to grasp what should be obvious; including, perhaps that the old and infirm do not grasp it in the way that the middle-aged think that they should). For Tennyson, after youth, continuity of adulthood.

Finally, returning to the Ode, Wordsworth differs most crucially from Tennyson in this: childhood for Wordsworth is not associated with a broadened scope for action, or an unsettled openness of possibilities for how to live, who to marry, etc; it is associated instead with a capacity for communion with the natural world, with a power of receptivity. These powers falter, then in adulthood, Wordsworth realizes he can tap nature still, to some extent. Tennyson moans (with one voice) about his lack of Faith in nature in In Memoriam, an extension of the Faith he feels has fallen from him more generally; but Tennyson’s sense of youth depends most of the time on another capacity entirely: the capacity for meaningful choice and willed action that can yield a stronger or fulfilled sense.

Tennyson is sometimes read as a poet inheriting Wordsworth’s vision of the natural world, or at least inheriting Wordsworth’s legacy of doing something with figures of the natural world; nature in Tennyson, these critics point out, is indifferent etc, red in tooth and claw etc.

But this gets something wrong about Tennyson: that he never cared as Wordsworth did about what nature could give him. The illustrative anecdotes follow: as a young boy, Wordsworth doubted the existence of rocks and trees; as a young boy, Tennyson repeated his name over and over again doubting the existence of himself. Wordsworth is possessed with the fears of solipsistic imagination; Tennyson fears something quite different, that he will be absorbed or lost into the environment and so he look inward, clinging to himself.

And, more fundamentally, but related, it gets wrong something else: Tennyson does not care much about nature—he cares about landscapes; and Wordsworth does not care much about landscapes—he cares about nature.

Dreadful to consign Tennyson to the parlor-room poetry of landscape description: prior to the happy painter, the happy poet? “Ut pictura poesis”—but not like this.

But Tennyson’s landscapes can be appreciate differently if read in contrast to Wordsworth’s nature, and against also the difference of Wordsworth’s sense of childhood losses and his own, Tennyson’s own that is, sense of youth’s lost possibilities.

Tennyson makes of those fine descriptions of landscapes, the slow-falling waterfalls of “Lotos-Eaters,” the ever-silent spaces of the east of “Tithonus,” the panoramas of “Locksley Hall,” and even the landscapes of the body: Tennyson’s inward look towards the flow of the blood and the beating of the heart becomes, with his sense of the possibilities of language, the opportunity for landscape writing of another sort, a landscape of physiognomy rather than geology.

That poem of which Tennyson was most pridefully defensive—even if he wouldn’t have been most proud—exemplifies his drift in this direction: in Maud, the description of landscape and description of blood and nerves is continuous, and not because the landscape serves, as Ruskin would have it, as a mirror of the mood of the moment, the pathetic fallacy, but because for Tennyson, the landscape becomes charged with the significance of youth’s lost possibilities, which are recorded also on the vestiges of the body’s former strength. (Maud is also the purest respond to the British Bildungsroman, at least as Moretti understands it, since the speaker’s entire sense of possibility is directed at marriage with Maud: the British Bildungsroman is closed). Hence lyrics like:

I have led her home, my love, my only friend.

There is none like her, none.

And never yet so warmly ran my blood

And sweetly, on and on

Calming itself to the long-wish’d-for end,

Full to the banks, close on the promised good.

“Full to the banks” is a small touch, but it brings the passage into contact with the ravines, gorges, and hollows of the poem, the geological landscape of suicide not reflected within the speaker’s body, but finding an equivalent there–and not just because Tennyson has the knack for it, but because the same speaker who invests the landscape, after long gazing, with such significance, is a morbid soul, inclined to find that curious distance from the self that accompanies the compulsion to self-fixated diagnosis.

I mention the descriptions of the body because I’m not content to separate that portion of Tennyson’s achievement from his descriptions of the landscape: both present genuine Aesthetic moments in Tennyson’s poetry: moments when the senses are called upon in an intensity that sets them apart from contemplation, memory, or anticipation; and both set the subject of utterance at a myopic remove, so that even when the sensory experience of it is felt to be inescapably surrounding and pressing against the poet, it is seen as something in the distance, that cannot be brought into entire clarity, despite the iteration and thickness of description; it is in part the inability to bring it into desired clarity that compels the description of landscape in the first place.

Bu the inability to bring it into clarity is a function also of just how much there is: landscape, unlike nature, is a culmination of specificity: not only specificity of place and time, but a specificity of the viewer’s history—the landscape holds more than the promise of confirming or even revealing what he or she feels at the moment; it promises, in its particularity, in its situation and placement and density, of confirming and validating and explaining who the speaker is: the landscape verifies that the speaker is still somebody.

The terror of Tennyson’s poetry, in relation to Bildung, is that, once youth and the possibilities of youth have passed, one not only ceases to be active, but one ceases to have any life as a meaningful self: “I am become a name” not only because Ulysses is the fame he was but because a name is not a person; to feel oneself as only a name is what Tennyson felt when he beat the ground and repeated his name. It is the last vestige of creation, because it is the first: given, along with breath, by the parents.  Or Mariana who would that she was dead: because she already is as good as, being herself, by Tennyson’s conscious doing in titling the poem with an allusion to a play in which she features as a non-entity beyond necessity of plotting, only a name.

“Ulysses” much less than Mariana is hardly a poem of landscape, but even in that poem, the magnificent lines describing the landscape seem to jolt Ulysses into a return to himself:

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.

The touch of description is a confirmation that a life retains a shape even when it seems to have passed the point of being able to shape itself, or even when it has lost the possibility for new shapes that it once had.

The landscape retains the self in Tennyson’s poetry, in both senses of the word “retains”: it holds the self in place, affirms that the self is there to have a world around her or him; but it also absorbs the selves of the various speakers, or characters, or figures, so that it affirms on their behalf whatever diminished sense they have left to them–sometimes, there is little there, but even in the descriptions of Mariana, there is a depth of grief in the domestic landscapes that could not, because of her thinness, be felt within, or attributed to, Mariana. So the landscape even there—and more clearly in other poetry—exists for the poem’s subject, and in so doing, deepens and solidifies subject beyond what he or she would or could otherwise have been.

The Lotos-Eaters are tempted to become a part of the landscape, not to lose themselves, but because they already have lost  so much of themselves; this seems the best way to preserve what remains, and also to find new possibilities in what remains, which would otherwise be lost in turn. (c.f. the ending of “Tithonus”–the poem is a turn from one landscape to another; the only thing the speaker can choose is which landscape to inhabit, and the possibilities of existence in either are only known through his descriptions).

The movement is quite the opposite from that of Wordsworth, where nature gives, rather than receives; where the self opens itself for and by nature. In Tennyson, particular landscapes opens themselves to and for the self.

Where Tennyson and Wordsworth meet is the means by which this is affected–or, without giving priority to form and content, to the means and the end–by the elevation and transubstantiation of language that coincides with landscape in Tennyson and nature in Wordsworth.

Hopkins–whose poetry, relating as it does an abrupt self to nature, would be the appropriate third figure for the discussion—provides the helpful term, his letters proving once again the richest quarry, if measured in sheer quantity of critical concepts that further and open discussions, of that century’s criticism, and Geoffrey Hill elaborates upon it, in relation to Wordsworth and Tennyson:

Hopkins: “Bidding”— the art or virtue of saying everything right to or at the hearer…and of discarding everything that does not bid, that does not tell…It is most difficult to combine this bidding, such a fugitive thing, with a monumental style.

Hill: It is the key to what is right and wrong in his own poetic method; to what is strong and weak in Keats’s poems of 1819-1820 (‘To Autumn’, the unfinished ‘Hyperion’); and to what, in Wordsworth or Tennyson, strikes as a noble simplicity rather than mere verbosity or canting.

Tennyson makes landscape monumental—and does so consistently—in a range of situations. As brilliant and sensual as Keats, as abstract and sublime as Shelley, as exuberant as some of the eighteenth-century verse, none is monumental: it is too immediate and not foreboding enough in Keats, it is too removed from concrete presence, too platonic, in Shelley, and it is too overgrown and picturesque in the eighteenth century to be monumental (monumental isn’t the best thing it can be; it’s one thing of value). And rather than say that Tennyson makes the personal experience of particular landscape monumental—which is true in a sense—I would say that Tennyson makes landscape monumental by investing it with the significance of being or having a self after the possibilities of selfhood have been lost or wasted: the landscape in Tennyson is monumental because of the language, of course, but the language is working in the service of something distinct and different. Tennyson had the technical prowess to bring it off; but he needed to feel that distinct and different resource in landscape in the first place to know where to direct the technique.

Likely Hill was not thinking of Tennyson’s descriptions of landscape when he spoke of bidding. But the direct simplicity, the telling, of bidding is present even in the descriptions of landscape, and this because when Tennyson describes a landscape he is telling us something essential and enduring about what remains of the poem’s eroded subject—and when a landscape is described by the poem’s subject, he or she is telling us, beyond the confines of their person, about what remains, and what possibilities might yet remain, beyond his or her person, of his or her eroded self.


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