Tennyson

By Hughes, Linda K. | Victorian Poetry, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview
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Tennyson


Hughes, Linda K., Victorian Poetry


Close reading and formal analysis, sometimes coupled with psychoanalytic theory, came to the fore in work on Tennyson in 2005, extending his links to aestheticism (as in Angela Leighton's "Touching Forms: Tennyson and Aestheticism," 2001) and emphasizing Tennyson's dialectical imagination and skepticism. Tennyson's term "new-old" (from "To the Queen" and "Vastness") might describe some of this work: it reprises methods and some findings of scholarship from the 1970s and 1980s but reinvigorates them.

Alfred Tennyson (Northcote House), by Seamus Perry, focuses on the degree to which lyric melody and form are the media through which Tennsyon thinks, so that his verbal "magic" is not so much ideological mystification as form crystallized out of a customary resistance to certainty, a sense that a sole perspective can never fully articulate a feeling or condition. For Perry the defining moment in Tennyson is not one of aftermath (as Herbert Tucker suggests) but of "pending," of suspension between alternative claims and possibilitites. A highlight of Perry's elegantly written, deeply engaging study is his opening chapter entitled "Returns." Poetry's intrinsic repetitions in meter, rhyme, and stanzas, according to Perry, enable Tennyson to probe the dilemma of the self in time, which brings loss and a sense of fragmented selves yet also a sense of abiding identity; too great an emphasis on permanence, however, threatens the self with stasis. "Tears, Idle Tears" marks a return, a resistance to going on, in its very phrasing, as does the repeated "no more." The reiterations are uttered amidst shifting contexts in each stanza, semantically registering both continuity and the recurring change that brings loss. The reiterated "all along" of "In the Valley of Cauteretz" similarly invokes the permanent (Tennyson has loved Hallam "all along") and the physical traversing of space that repeatedly forces the poet to confront terrestrial and psychic change. Perry's modus operandi mirrors Tennyson's insofar as his argument and method (close reading) are inseparable, which makes summarizing his work problematical. Still, chapter two assesses Tennyson's Burkean politics, his imaginative disposition to welcome change so long as it remains subordinate to continuity, and his inclination to couple decisive action with a protagonist's mental instability (as in Maud and "Locksley Hall"). Chapter three argues that Maud is Tennyson's sole narrative to succeed, since a poetic bent toward pending moments is incompatible with narrative's forward movement. Maud's formal brokenness, however, is in keeping with its psychologically disturbed protagonist. The final chapter on In Memoriam likens the elegy's stanzaic form and recursive structure to a Petrarchan sonnet that never reaches the turn in the sestet and notes Tennyson's ability to invoke classical and Miltonic elegy while resisting the resolutions of "pastures new" and Christian belief. As Perry argues, the "inimitable greatness" of In Memoriam "lies in its honest incapacity, as though registering in the disappointment of genre the spirit of an unpropitious age" (p. 140). Readers familiar with the work of Christopher Ricks and Eric Griffiths will recognize the indebtedness that Perry takes care to announce, but Perry's stylistic grace and intellectual verve are his own.

Perry's book shares elements with Tennyson's Scepticism (Palgrave Macmillan), by Aidan Day, another "new-old" study (especially since it reprints articles from 1982-83 and 1992 alongside newer work). Whereas Perry links Tennyson's skepticism to his imaginative disposition, Day emphasizes the triple legacy of Romanticism, Christianity, and the Enlightenment and the impossibility of seamlessly reconciling them. Day, like Perry, also proceeds by means of deft close readings, but his study is more propositional than Perry's. Though acknowledging Tennyson's desire for transcendent truth, Day seeks to qualify the role of representative Victorian conservative sometimes thrust upon Tennyson and instead posits skepticism as a touchstone of his career.

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