Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics

By Isobel Armstrong | Go to book overview

10

TENNYSON IN THE 1850s

New experiments in conservative poetry and the Type

FROM GEOLOGY TO PATHOLOGY - IN MEMORIAM (1850) TO MAUD (1855)

The gap between In Memoriam and Maud seems as decisive as the huge breaks and fractures Lyell sees as constitutive of geological structures in The Principles of Geology (1830-3). They belong to different kinds of history. To speak of them together appears to commit what Lyell described as the fundamental intellectual mistake of creating artificial connections between different geological phases by transposing the temporal sequence evident in one area of the world to fill in the break existing at the same time in another. All that they share is the fact of succession in time, and ‘will therefore no more enable us to trace the signs of a gradual change in the living creation, than a fragment of Chinese history will fill up a blank in the political annals of Europe’. 1 Lyell’s recognition of the culturally specific nature of experience and knowledge here is a reminder that In Memoriam and Maud were written in radically different historical circumstances. The watershed of the Crimean war, with the consequent reconceptualising of Britain’s relation to Europe and of Europe itself, divides them.

Lyell’s modes of ‘gradual change in the living creation’ are negotiated in the movement of In Memoriam itself, which uses the myth of geology structurally as well as absorbing its language. It is partly the incipient problems of this model which create a fracture that makes possible the new rhetoric of Maud. But this way of understanding the change from one mode of writing to another in terms of transition from the Tennysonian ‘norm’ of In Memoriam to an aberrant text, Maud, constitutes another kind of misreading. It is much more plausible to think of In Memoriam as the exceptional text. For this memorial poem to Arthur Hallam reneges on his principles. On one reading it abandons the poetry of ‘sensation’, which is the solvent of habit and the defamiliariser of ideology, and appears to turn towards the poetry of ‘reflection’ of which Hallam had been so critical. It

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