The Victorians, who were much taken with “progress,” were also, unsurprisingly, devoted to imagining its opposite: being left behind. In Tennyson’s poetry, abandonment recurs as the occasion for utterance: Oenone, Mariana and Angelo, Tithonus and Aurora, The Lotos Eaters (who would like to be left behind), Tennyson and Hallam, the speaker of Locksley Hall and Amy, the speaker of Maud…these are poems about people who are isolated from a world that goes on without them, without their being able to do anything about it (add Ulysses to the list). Their abandonment is accompanied by a sense that progress happens elsewhere.
From the perspective of literary history, Tennyson took to making poetry out of what the Romantics before him had left behind, the belatedness of his poetry a condition of its flourishing. And so his poetry and their subjects have about them an untimeliness, belated or out of step, pushed aside to the margins, left to a time of their own marking and making.
Whereas Wordsworth’s poetry registers, sometimes widening, sometimes reconciling, fissures between experiences of time, public and private, national and local, human and inhuman, monstrous and healthy, passive and active, Tennyson writes from the periphery of normal, national, healthy temporal experience; when Wordsworth’s characters wash up on those shores (and the image of the short is borrowed from Tennyson, whose frequent recourse is relevant to his experience of time), they fall silent, as Michael does, or else lack consciousness of their position, as the Leech-Gatherer. Tennyson’s characters have been left behind not just by others, but by time itself; they write from its inert edges, where it swirls and eddies without current, and so as they speak, often the current moment, the present, becomes indistinguishable from future and past, each snared up in the others.
This, I suppose, is another way of describing the curious impression created by the poetry, as if Tennyson is writing poems that do not so much move to an end, as sustain ending; when time has nowhere to go, it comes to a close, but the poems open from the closure, suspending it, and suspending themselves in it. Tennyson described Idylls of the King as possessing “parabolic drift,” and the asymptote to which it approaches is its own end, which it never will reach, like, it’s been imagined, time slows as an object enters a black hole. It’s not difficult to conceive of why the Victorians may have wanted to celebrate an author who could imagine such a temporal experience might be; it seems too easy, in fact, to think of the slowing horse exhausted alongside a train.
George Eliot’s novels likewise imagine what it means to be left behind, out of the currents of European thought (Lydgate, Casaubon), out of the reforms of a nation (Dorothea), out of a nation’s destiny (Daniel); because they are not about being abandoned, because they are novels and therefore social creations, they provide a corrective to a narrowly psychological understanding of Tennyson’s poetry; the fear and appeal of being left behind are not only felt by child crying in the night without a parent. The comparison with George Eliot is further helpful because she so directly addresses the question of whether there is anything to be made out of, or from a place upon, the temporal leftovers. Or perhaps rather than say that she addresses the question, it would be truer to say that she forces it, and in forcing it, she divorces judgments about a life, its actions, feelings, thoughts, from progress and ends beyond itself. It is not simply the case that the lives on the borders have been wasted, though they have been largely (time as not, as it were, collapsed; the possibility of some action and meaning remains to them); in the time they have available to them, or in the sort of time they have available to them, something else might be achieved, an undetermined standard of values may be discovered, and Tennyson and Eliot are capable, as well as gauging the tragedy of their figures, of following the urge to make that discovery, however tentative and unclear it will be.
The problem is directly one of style, or language, since the case for value at all would seem, in both authors, but also in general, to depend on our ability to offer a description, to help others see something in a certain light, or to see a particular aspect of something. Tennyson has recourse to the Classical. A friend of mine appealed to Walter Pater’s words about Verrocchio to describe the Classical (as opposed, he says, to the classicizing): “filling the common ways of life with the reflexion of some far-off brightness.” “Far-off” for Tennyson is the distance, which his myopic eyes muddled into a haze in the poetry; but it is also time, not just the distant future, but the current of time, which moving towards the distant future, is itself far-off from the speaker. But for all of the hopefulness that swells suddenly in Tennyson’s poems, even when they are most severed from the possibility of fulfilling hope, and for all of the imagery of gleams and glows cast from afar, the “far-off brightness” in the poetry that represents the emergence of value on the sedgy marges of time is really a function of the standards to which the poems and their speakers hold themselves: standards of decorum to which they are not properly beholden, being pushed aside as they are, being isolated from conditions in which transgression of decorum could have any consequences.
I’ve written about decorum in a few posts on Emily Dickinson (and Keats), struggling to work out the difference between the neutral sense of the word (appropriate to a situation) and the snobbish/tribal sense (the way the right sort of person—our sort of person—does things). The Victorians, fixated upon the contradictions of the Gentleman, even elevating those contradictions to divine magnitude, could appreciate both ends of the word: the appropriate behavior cannot be class-bound, but those of a certain class (the upper-middle/upper) define what normally counts as appropriate. Tennyson’s decorum, however, is not of its time, is itself an artificial, Classically informed creation, drawing also on Keats and Shelley, but not keen, as they are, to exploit the unsettling tensions between competing standards of appropriateness. Tennyson cannot afford to do that, since the purpose of the decorum he establishes is to reveal in his speakers, and their compromised standing in time, a dignified mode of address that jars against their helplessness, that keeps the time they have left to them, and even redeems it into an order and harmony that the time that has left them behind cannot be thought to possess. Their holding themselves, in their voices, to standard of decorum is an act of self-constitution wherein they exercise judgment and know what is appropriate for the conditions in which they speak; in so doing, they bestow dignity on those conditions.
In the novels of Dickens, the same effort to speak oneself into a better condition, is comedic or pathetic, the sign of bald and bad snobbery or else of near-total defeat. Tennyson’s speakers are not snobs, but they are near-defeated, and so the pathos of the poems is not totally different from what Dickens effects. But it is different because in Dickens the cracks in the language show under the strain; the near-defeat is too much for their words to bear, and they probably never had the talent, education, or capacity for a heroic decorum that would allow them to, as they speak, rise above their circumstances.
For Tennyson’s speakers, the near-defeat in time is too much to bear, but it is somehow not too much for their language to bear. A curious advantage, in fact, falls to the speakers, pressed to the margins of time as they are; if time has left you behind, then time has also left your language behind; you are free to speak in what is, in effect, a timeless language, being a language that is not situated in any moment of time, but that draws it strength and resources from throughout the times. From the perspective of a reader or critic, there is no doubt a very “Victorian” version of this timeless decorum, as there is an Augustan; in French, it’s been frequently noticed, the timeless decorous language is more frequently the mode for poetic expression than in English (Racine writes in it as Shakespeare does not; the great anti-Epic that is Don Juan is energized by rebelling against any supposedly timeless, but in fact—per Byron’s view, sham decorum of poesy, but Byron is also able, in the shipwreck scenes especially, to find a decorous language that is not sham) .
Milton might be thought to have invented it as successfully as any in English, but his having invented it means that it feels like an invention, which is not a criticism, but which means that other writers seeking to write in a language that does not fall into the history of language cannot neatly write Miltonic poetry without it seeming a throwback. They can learn from Milton and not seek a timeless view, as Wordsworth does in The Prelude, or they can yearn for the Miltonic as a timeless view from which they are excluded, as Keats’ Hyperion poems; but Tennyson does not invoke Milton out of proportion to other influences.
The decorum, the artifice of style, feels both timeless and Tennysonian; belonging to him because it feels borrowed from so many others, the erudition baked deep into the soft crust. It comes to the speakers via Tennyson in our world, but within the world of the poems, even the world of those poems like In Memoriam in which Tennyson is speaking, the strength of decorum, and the resources to meet it and by which it is known, seems to spring naturally from the ground beneath the speakers’ feet; he borrows this natural unnaturalness from Pastoral. In Theocritus, it is shepherds who speak with the erudition of the Hellenistic elite; in Tennyson, it is the temporally dispossessed who speak with the grandeur of heroes in the vanguard of time. Except that no vanguard as ever spoken that way any more than any shepherds spoke as Theocritus makes them. “Left behind” as they are, with a language that confers status and standing by the status and standing it claims for itself, Tennyson’s speakers and their speech alike are opposed to the vanguard that is the “Avant Garde” who proclaim themselves at the forefront of time’s march, darting and circling ahead; no wonder so many Modernist writers, however much they made use of the language that Tennyson made, mocked his pretensions. They did not see that the pretense was the point, the artifice of timelessness all that could be had by those for who lacked the luxury of time’s motion.