Tennyson, winner of the Chancellor’s Gold Medal with the prize poem, ‘Timbuctoo’, at Cambridge in 1829, was already the contributor to a volume of poems before he arrived there, Poems by Two Brothers (1827) - actually written by three brothers, for Frederick Tennyson contributed to the volume as well as Charles and Alfred - and the writer of some precocious juvenilia. It is Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830), however, which startles with its experiments, coming out of an intellectual environment arresting for the boldness and intensity of its enquiries and insouciant originality.
Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, ends with a Heraclitean lyric to impermanence, ‘’, which is well aware of the Pyrrhic victory of scepticism: ‘All truth is change’.
All thoughts, all creeds, all dreams are true,
All visions wild and strange;
Man is the measure of all truth
Unto himself. All truth is change:
If we have faith in what we ‘dream’, and if ‘all things are as they seem to all’ (7), if all experience is representation, then there can be ‘Nor good nor ill, nor light nor shade,/Nor essence nor eternal laws’ (10-11). The paradoxically firm certainties and negations of this scepticism may owe something to Goethe’s Faust’s celebration of life as dream and representation at the end of Faust, but the consequences of the paradox are understood in the laconic footnote: ‘this very opinion is only true relatively to the flowing philosophers’. 2 The relativist position is itself subject to the relativist principle. The ‘true’ sceptic must accept that his own position can be undermined by relativism itself. The poem’s placing at the end of the volume throws the contents of the book retrospectively into flux and
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Publication information: Book title: Victorian Poetry:Poetry, Poetics, and Politics. Contributors: Isobel Armstrong - Author. Publisher: Routledge. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 1993. Page number: 41.
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