Finding the Modern Frames in Tennyson's Final Classical Poems

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As a young child, Alfred Tennyson received an education in Greek and Latin literature that was unusually rigorous, even by the standards of the early nineteenth century. In the years before he was sent to Louth Grammar School and later to Trinity College, Cambridge, Tennyson's father gave his son a thorough classical training that included regularly translating into English the copious passages of Latin commentary in both his Greek and Latin texts, and memorizing lengthy passages of classical verse, including at one point all four books of Horace's odes. Such an early inundation with classical poetry and prosody necessarily left an indelible imprint on Tennyson's ear as a poet.(1) Moreover, throughout his career, Tennyson found his broad knowledge of Greek and Latin literature to be an endless source of thematic material, particularly in the composition of his classical dramatic monologues, such as "Ulysses," "Tithonus," and "Lucretius."(2)

Tennyson began experimenting with classical stories as early as his first poetic endeavors, many of which were included in the early collections, Poems by Two Brothers (1827) and Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830). Many decades later, in the final stages of his life, Tennyson continued to be profoundly affected by his background in the classical languages. His last three volumes of poems bear witness to a particular resurgence of interest in recasting classical material; each volume carries the title of a classical poem in the collection: Tiresias, and Other Poems (1885), Demeter and Other Poems (1889), and the posthumously published The Death of Oenone, Akbar's Dream, and Other Poems (1892). Tennyson did not believe, however, in returning to classical stories and myths simply to recast them for contemporary audiences. When considering the composition of his monologue "Demeter and Persephone" (1886-87), Tennyson said, "I will write it, but when I write an antique like this I must put it into a frame--something modern about it. It is no use giving a mere rechauffe of old legends."(3) Tennyson did not see the value of retelling a story simply for its own sake, and he only returned to familiar classical material when he felt he had something distinctly novel to do with it.

That Tennyson had a clearly defined sense of his classical poems as original in their refashioning of traditional source material is evident from his attitude towards contemporary criticism of his work. Tennyson was very much concerned that his readers acknowledge the merits of his poems in their own right, and he was often quite petulant on this point. An example of Tennyson's attitude toward his critics' tracing of literary allusions without a proper acknowledgement of originality can be found in his copy of an article, "A New Study of Tennyson," published by John Churton Collins in the January 1880 edition of the Cornhill Magazine, which is now housed at the Tennyson Research Centre in Lincoln, England. Throughout the article, Tennyson made hand-written responses to the allusions which Churton Collins points out, writing "No," "Nonsense," "Not known to me," or simply placing exclamation points next to the critic's citations of passages in Tennyson's works indicating the influence of earlier authors. Tennyson's annotations become angrier as the article progresses, and they culminate with a sentence scrawled at the bottom of the last page of the article, stating that, "I will answer for it that no modern poet can write a single line but among the innumerable authors of this world you will somewhere find a striking parallelism. It is the unimaginative man who thinks everything borrowed."(4)

Of course poets throughout British literary history tended to be well schooled in the classical languages, and many of them experimented with translating classical works or composing English poems based on material from classical myth. One thinks, for example, of such predecessors as Milton, Pope, Thomson, Wordsworth, Scott, Byron, Moore, Campbell, Shelley, and Keats. …