Nostalgic Narcissism in Comic and Tragic Perspectives: Elizabeth Bowen's Two Fictional Reworkings of a Tennyson Lyric

By Bidney, Martin | Studies in Short Fiction, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Nostalgic Narcissism in Comic and Tragic Perspectives: Elizabeth Bowen's Two Fictional Reworkings of a Tennyson Lyric


Bidney, Martin, Studies in Short Fiction


Tennis, anyone?" is the opening of Peter De Vries's delightful "Touch and Go (With a Low Bow to Elizabeth Bowen)," and its closing words arc "Tennyson, anyone?" (De Vries 30, 32). Surprisingly, "in conversation Miss Bowen said that she had not realized," until she read this parody, "how often she relied on Victorian poetry for her titles (e.g., `Tears, Idle Tears,' `The Happy Autumn Fields,' etc.)," according to William Heath's report in 1961 (Heath 166n2). Bowen was not necessarily disingenuous: the creative process arises from deep levels of pre-verbal awareness; memory is unreliable; influences operate deviously (creating and overcoming anxieties as they do so). What is important is the way Tennysonian allusive structures shed light on the two stories Heath has named. The fact that "Tears, Idle Tears" and "The Happy Autumn Fields" are both rewritings of the same lyric is of special interest, for it shows us Bowen's ingenuity and breadth of resource as she considers alternative ways to rethink a celebrated poem-and a provocative one.

Tennyson's "Tears, Idle Tears,"(1) a poem evoking the sense of strangeness, vivid freshness, and sudden melancholy brought on by memory, was lauded in an essay by Cleanth Brooks as rich in the ironic tensions beloved of New Criticism: "The days that arc no more arc deep and wild, buried but not dead--below the surface and unthought of, yet at the deepest core of being, secretly alive" (Brooks 174). Bowen's own "Tears, Idle Tears" has never been studied in detail, so far as I can find.(2) "The Happy Autumn Fields," with its title taken from line 4 of the same Tennyson lyric, has often been looked at, but never in a detailed Tennysonian context,(3) and never in concert with its Tennysonian companion piece (as we may call it). Yet the two short stories belong together, and not only for their shared Victorian allusions.

The theme of both tales, I suggest, is nostalgic narcissism--presented from a comic perspective in "Tears, Idle Tears," from a tragic one in "The Happy Autumn Fields." The ostensible theme of the Tennyson lyric is, of course, nostalgia: "So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more" (15). But the nostalgia develops from melancholia to morbidity by the poem's conclusion: "O Death in Life, the days that are no more!" (20). Though psychoanalysis of the speaker of such a brief (if evocative) lyric might perhaps seem risky, in a previous investigation of lyrical masterworks of a nostalgic kind (Goethe's "Kennst du das Land," Blake's "The Land of Dreams") I found a pattern suggesting the presence of narcissism at the heart of all nostalgia (Bidney 86-92). So it is appropriate that Tennyson's concentrated distillation of extreme nostalgic melancholia should have stimulated, in the psychological imagination of Elizabeth Bowen, brilliant fictional studies of narcissism--its potential pathology and (more surprisingly, given the gloom of Tennyson's lyric dirge) its possible remediation.

Bowen, I am suggesting, radically re-imagines in these two stories a Victorian lyric of nostalgic melancholia, and she does so in order to show how this condition fosters, and is fostered by, a regressive, narcissistic mind-set. In contrast to traditional Freudian theory, recent psychological scrutiny of the origins of narcissism has focused not on the oedipal struggles of father and son but on the child's first (pre-oedipal) relation to the primary caregiver, traditionally the mother. As Barbara Schapiro explains in summing up the work of Otto Kernberg, "Due to the unavoidable shortcomings of maternal care, the relationship with the mother as our first love object is primarily characterized by ambivalence," which also "results in a corresponding split in the ego" because the "child internalizes both the `good,' loving mother and the `bad,' frustrating one. If the relation with the mother imago is damaged" by some trauma such as "emotional rejection, the internal splitting becomes even more intense" (Schapiro ix-x).

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