One story of Romanticism (mostly true, however simplified) goes: some poets from 1790s onwards find their freedom in their capacity to imagine the world. It reflects a distortion and exaggeration of idealist philosophy: freedom arrives as man imposes his understanding onto reality.
The better, defensible, fruitful story about German idealism goes: in self-conscious actions and beliefs about the world, humanity finds its freedom. (That is the story that philosopher Sebastian Rödl tells, drawing attention to the temporal nature of such self-conscious thought). What would that story look like if applied to the poets?
Maybe: Romantic poets find their freedom in their receptivity to the world. Poesis would be, then, an activity not of making the world, but an act of self-conscious receptivity towards the world; the Romantic imagination is the self-consciousness of reception of the world, and Romantic poetry is the product and act of that imagination, finding in self-conscious receptivity the possibility of freedom in the world.
Such an adjustment entails some shift in how we look at what language is doing what work in the Romantic poets: self-consciousness about what is being received and how soon takes on a burden of criticism that is not itself novel in poetry (Pope is the obvious poet-critic), but that has now a new set of terms by which to judge, describe, and even identify what is being assessed.
Poets being what they are, the thought that self-conscious receptivity offers freedom is not sufficient; what of the terms in which self-consciousness is couched? Self-conscious receptivity might be what we are all of us doing all of the time when we think of what we are doing and think a thought at all (that is the philosophical account); but then, the poets might think, could not language in a poem, scrutinized, disoriented, set at new angles to the world, do something more, represent a greater receptivity, a more perfect freedom? If autonomy, the setting of a law for oneself, is possible through self-conscious acts (as Rödl reads Kant as saying), then might not poets, more self-conscious of their words than most, become exemplary legislators?
The philosophers would want no truck with such arguments about phrasing; but for poets, practitioners of the Romantic imagination, the thoughts that conventions of language must be jarred free from normal uses, into meter and rhyme, and that there is a way of getting something right, a reason for choosing one word rather than another, suggests that self-conscious receptivity can be refined, made greater or lesser, more or less potent.
Once that slope has opened for business, it is as slippery as any on which people live, and poets are faced with the burden of validating and justifying their self-conscious receptive acts with terms of critical appraisal that are not, as Pope’s often are, evaluations of a shared society, but evaluations of the conditions, act, and terms of receptivity itself; critical appraisal itself becomes one of those acts, and so Romantic poetry lends itself to being poetry about poetry. But because poetry is a mode of self-conscious receptivity to the world, and not only to itself, it must have some outlet beyond itself.
Romantic poetry shifts not because of what, from a 21st century perspective, Romantic poems are, or how they communicate to us, but because how they turn the terms of evaluation and assessment, and because of the significance they give the terms.
Tennyson’s critical refinement, his seeming-aestheticism, and his poetry as a whole can be understood in the light of such a Romanticism. He does not proclaim himself free much because he is a fatalist, and it might be his fatalism that, coming to support or be supported by (it’s not clear which) the Romantic imagination (the critically-scrutinizing self-conscious receptivity) that differs his verse from theirs.
(As a point of comparison, Browning’s poetry can be understood in the same tradition).
The self-consciousness is dramatized, often, for both, but the point of the dramatization is to show what the poets before had known: that self-conscious receptivity is not all apiece, that it can constrain as well as liberate, denigrate as well as ennoble.
Most of all, it is helpful to see Tennyson in the light of such a Romanticism because it alerts us to the work done in his verse by the extraordinary number of terms of critical evaluation; those, we should see are, moments of poesis, the exertions of a character’s self and freedom, even where that freedom is in other ways compromised; they are to be seen as successful acts of self-conscious receptivity.
“Ulysses” is a hero’s lament for wasted powers–but the heroism of those powers cannot, in the form of an idyll, be converted into action, even as they must, if the poem is to hold water and set sail, be somehow demonstrated. In this poem, we are in a world of honor, which might be thought a form of social status, akin to being born into the nobility, but won, additionally, through acts of valor. But Ulysses’ complaint is that such status is not enough: “I am become a name” is heavy with pride, and “name” there is a reduction rather than fulfillment of self. The point of setting sail is not to renew the name, not to restock its freight of acts and deeds, but something else; the proclamation of setting-forth is an occasion to open himself to the fulness of the world again:
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
. The oft-noted beauty of the opening lines to this stretch of the poem, a single striving period, is not only another effect of Tennyson’s sense of vowel-sounds, timing, and the halo words carry: it is a demonstration of the powers of Ulysses’ mind that he is able to appreciate the prospect of the world as he does, and it is in that appreciation that his promise of further discernment and understanding is found to be trustworthy. “Gleams” gives us not only the flash of light through the arch of experience, but it proves the speed and sensibility of the speaker’s perception, as the metaphor of the “arch,” however mildly, might be either the natural beauty of an arch extending from the cave of a cliff, or else the architectural measure of civilization; in either case, Ulysses makes them a frame in which his vision of future experience is placed and posed. His self-judgment is similarly established in terms that are dyed with the eye of the critic or connoisseur: “how dull” might express mere boredom, were it not for the “rust” of the next line, which suggests Ulysses himself is a blade, now dulled from inactivity. But the activity, the “use” to which he would be put, redeems the blade not so much for any end it serves (although a blade being intended for use could be said to be most happily itself regardless of what it slices), but by its shedding the rust so as to flash and to make a good appearance; he judges himself as he would judge a fine weapon. A Homeric warrior would take pleasure in the beauty of a sword shining in battle, as they would take pleasure in the beauty of shining armor; but it is also the case that in the beauty of armor, the distinction of cultural and social capital might be said to meet, and not least where the movement of a blade is a metaphor for the pursuit of knowledge. His self-indictment is ultimately that he is “vile,” the word moral, the thought that, like the addressee of Shakespeare’s sonnets, it would be failing humanity to squander his worth, but the word is also, as are a host of judgments in Shakespeare’s sonnets, inseparable from a sense of what is disgusting to the taste, to a sense of what is fair and becoming the beauty of an individual. To read the poem solely as a last desperate summoning of willpower is to risk ignoring the end that the willpower would serve–and to risk not seeing that, in his assessment of his situation, Ulysses has already asserted and affirmed what is essential to who he is, open to the world, and momentarily free in it, by the poetry itself.
The argument of the philosophers is not the argument of the poets; an assessment of a poet is not an assessment of the philosophy; but in the philosophy we might recover a way of describing what fictions sustain the poems, and refine the fictions we construct about them.