Tennyson loved Byron first; the story, propagated by Tennyson’s laureate self, of the young Alfred sobbing at the great poet’s death (and carving Byron’s name in rock) both acknowledged the depth and disavowed the persistence of his feelings. In the anecdote, they are made to seem juvenile, adolescent, even infantile. But through adulthood Tennyson was, in his own mind, the infant crying and with no language but a cry, and so what he may have wished to cast out as infantile we may wish to suspect he never outgre
But detecting Byron in Tennyson’s verse is not as easy as the idolatrous story suggests. The Byron, we assume, that Tennyson admired was the hero (or anti-hero). Here, though, I will suggest that Byron matters for Tennyson in another way: in his relation to rhetoric or, more properly, to attitude and posture in figure as well as figure of speech. Not in the Byronic attitude or posture itself, that is, but in Byron’s attitude towards attitudinizing and posturing, we can discern how Tennyson, in his great works of the 1830s especially, finds in Byron an inspiration for his poetry.
Though the Byron of Tennyson’s fandom was likely the Byron of “Conrad,” “Lara” and “Childe Harold” chiefly, the Byron that matters here is that of Don Juan;given the poem’s popularity, it seems safe to say that Tennyson, even if not the Tennyson of age 12 and 13, would have absorbed it also. My critical touchstone on that poem is a remark by Christopher Ricks in a review of Philip Larkin’s Required Writings (Ricks’ piece is collected in Reviewery ): The balance and sustenance of alternate tones are often in Larkin, as they were in Byron, a balance and sustenance of alternate rhetorics, neither of which is authentic in itself but which in conjunction and mutual critique can be magnanimously right. (The inauthentic in Byron is usually a matter of Cant; the authentic of Cant on Cant). Byron to Tennyson to Larkin: a strange, but not hopelessly far-fetched genealogy.
The Byronic playfulness of Don Juan is pretty near absent from Tennyson’s poetry, where both sonorous mordancy and morbid stridency are the dominant (and effecting) notes. But I am proposing that these latter two are in fact indebted to the verse of Don Juan in a more profound and vital way than they are indebted to the more obvious Byronic sources of gloom, such as Manfred. And this because Don Juan is, as Tennyson’s poetry was to be after it, a poem of doubt. The animating doubt is not for Byron–nor even, I think, despite T.S. Eliot’s famous remark, for Tennyson–essentially theological. Instead, it is a doubt about what language can do. That doubt must have befuddled and bedeviled all poets at some point, so it behooves me to be more precise.
Not the failure of language to communicate; not the failure of language to do justice to the world; but the doubt whether language can do other than compromise the utterer lies beneath Byron’s attitude in Don Juan. He does not reject the authenticity of Wordsworth, but he rankles at the attitudes and postures that become our authentic selves not despite language, but on its account: we speak and so we are, and what we speak comes from the ways that others speak, the ways we expect they want us to sound. Byron was keenly aware of the publicity of utterance, the showmanship not only of poetry but of talk, and his poetry is a way of striking those chains of phraseology and sentiment against one another so that we recognize the genuine urge to speak out that lies beneath them, at the same time as we hear their constraining force that almost always prevents meaningful speaking out from taking place. The comedy of the poem is not from Byron’s perception of the world as a comic place; it arises because for Byron, the world becomes comic because our ways of speaking so often impress that mode upon it. There are tragic moments in the poem–the wreck of the Medusa, for instance–but these are only the occasions where Byron decides to do something other than dramatize the comedicizing propensity of speech, talk, and cant; on those moments when he does so, the sense that tragic speech would be more suitable stirs beneath and rises up what he actually says (as during the siege of Ismael).
Tennyson, I propose, inverts the process, and especially in the poems where the Victorian attitudes of progression and despair ring the loudest. The poems, in other words, where he owes the greatest debt to Carlyle, are those where the Byronic debt is also most apparent. Carlyle, though, even at his most ironic, does not release the words from his earnest mordancy; his intentions are an unchallenged sovereign force in his writings, so that even where the leash is lax, where the words trip fancifully forward, we feel that they are at the mercy of some greater purpose of criticism and censure. In Byron, the criticism and censure is felt in the way that the words coerce the poet; all he can do he does by way of juxtaposing and clashing the inauthentic strains, like a handcuffed fighter making a weapon of his own incapacity.
Tennyson’s inversion gives the poems a tragic air. “Lockley Hall” is the touchstone here. But it’s tragedy is so near that of melodrama, even comedy, just as Byron’s comedy is so near that of tragedy. Whereas Byron’s speaker is constrained by tones that cannot but seem inaptly insouciant, or possessed only of the genuineness of feeling found in an aristocratic party-goer, Tennyson’s speaker is constrained by gravitas, by the early rumblings of the Victorian public sage. This, the poems sigh, is how one must speak. But Tennyson’s great poems, “Lockley Hall” especially, but also In Memoriam, and “Ulysses” and any of the masculine (sage-like) aspiration, persistently doubt the sage’s rhetoric and public posturing.
For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;
Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples plunging thro’ the thunder-storm;
Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.
There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.
So I triumph’d ere my passion sweeping thro’ me left me dry,
Left me with the palsied heart, and left me with the jaundiced eye;
Eye, to which all order festers, all things here are out of joint:
Science moves, but slowly, slowly, creeping on from point to point:
Slowly comes a hungry people, as a lion, creeping nigher,
Glares at one that nods and winks behind a slowly-dying fire. (ll. 119-136)
I do not know how the Victorians would have read these lines–many with a sense of self-committed thrill, no doubt–but I cannot imagine taking them seriously except in the way that we take Byron seriously: the sudden swerve from optimism to uncertainty to pessimism is, if not comedic, at least driven by the same self-loathing, in the case of poets a self-loathing of rhetoric, that motivates Byron’s verse. Byron and Tennyson have the temperament of the comedian (a temperament that fascinates the early 21st century, when stand-up comedians are revered in excess of their powers as much as any second-rate Victorian sages; the earnest underpinnings of comedy are not that far from the explicit earnestness of sage-writing), though Tennyson’s temperament is turned inwards; he never left the fens, whereas Byron never left the London scene.
At any rate, I find that I can be moved by the extremity of any of these couplets for the reason that I can thrill in Byron’s poem: they sense that each unit is about to onto another, the extremity of which could often not be anticipated by it, but which corrects it. That is not to say that the only thrill lies, as in a cheap mystery, in expectation fulfilled or disappointed, but in the structuring of transitions, we need to feel each time, the particular incline of the slope that is any of these couplets.
There is also in Byron and Tennyson a similar metrical and formal virtuosity, differently manifested: the pleasure of asking how they will fit these things into the formal orders. For both poets, it heightens the awareness that it is a performance. Oddly, after enough rounds, the pleasure of the In Memoriam stanza becomes not unlike that of Don Juan: where will the rhymes fall? In the case of Don Juan, the reader is left asking what more will happen, what narrative twist the stanza will sustain and carry forward; in the case of In Memoriam, the reader wonders how the stasis of mourning will be prolonged, or how the movement forward will be prevented.
And in general, In Memoriam might be read alongside those stanzas from “Locksley Hall”: a reminder that the former is to be appreciated for the doubt it throws on any one way of speaking: its despair is no more genuine than its hope. What we are to feel instead is that Tennyson grumbles against either way of putting things; he tries them on, and then casts them off, their grizzled surfaces unable to satisfy or console. That poem, like “Lockley Hall,” is a record of a man forced into postures with which he is more or less dissatisfied (albeit nowhere as extremely dissatisfied as is the speaker of “Lockley,” locked in as he is to poses and attitudes).
Maybe another great difference between Tennyson and Browning lies here: in the latter’s writing dramatic monologues in which the speakers assume the postures as means to achieve desires; whereas in Tennyson, the speakers assume the postures as means that are inadequate ends in themselves: moth-eaten coats for weathering the storms, but not ways out of it.