Tennyson

By Hughes, Linda K. | Victorian Poetry, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Tennyson


Hughes, Linda K., Victorian Poetry


2009 marked the bicentenary of Tennyson's birth and elicited an outpouring of work: over 60 essays and 7 books with one or more Tennyson chapters. Most often this work, much of it excellent, revolves around intertextuality, culture, and/or media--Tennyson seen in relation to other formations rather than as an entity unto himself. Since 43 of the essays were gathered into three bicentenary collections, I provide an overview of these before exploring strands of Tennyson scholarship in detail.

The Tennyson Society Publications Board suggested the focus of the 22 essays in Tennyson Among the Poets (Oxford Univ. Press, hereafter TP), ed. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst and Seamus Perry; and the Tennyson Society also helped support the beautifully illustrated Tennyson Transformed: Alfred Lord Tennyson and Visual Culture, ed. Jim Cheshire (Lund Humphries, hereafter TT), a collection of 6 essays accompanying an exhibition catalogue. If the books have unifying preoccupations, the 15 essays in "Tennyson at Two Hundred," the VP special issue guest-edited by Herbert Tucker (47, no. 1: 1-347, hereafter "TTH"), range widely as befits a scholarly journal, though new historicism and culturally inflected formal analysis are recurring frames of reference. Christopher Ricks and Herbert Tucker contribute forewords to the collections (Ricks to both books), but alas no full-length essays, and they are missed. Still, their brief comments are worth seeking out, Ricks for his contention that even irreverent parodies testify to Tennyson's "unique unignorability" (TP, p. vii), Tucker for his nuanced comparison of the early "posy" for Rosa Baring ("TTH," p. 3) with "Roses on the Terrace" as he briefly considers Tennyson's anniversary poems. The bicentenary editors have very artfully organized their volumes, especially the longer collections, so that juxtaposed essays, like much of Tennyson's poetry, proceeds dialectically and with rich results. The year's work tout ensemble in fact testifies to the maturity of Tennyson studies and its extraordinary vitality.

Since poetry's embeddedness in other literary and cultural formations was a recurring feature of 2009 work, I begin with scholars who consider intertextuality itself. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst ("Introduction," TP) notes that Tennyson's reverberating echoes could signify a grand culmination of English poetic tradition, a profoundly collaborative writer, or a derivative writer of limited talent. Douglas-Fairhurst opts for Tennyson as an authentic poetic talent seeking to establish an audible voice in a media-saturated culture, as in "Mariana": "old voices" and footfalls resound in Mariana's room, but amid this entrapment "the blue fly sung in the pane," the stark monosyllables sounding an audibly unique rhythm issuing from a tiny voice within a chamber thronged with voices. Christopher Decker's title ("Tennyson's Limitations," TP) seems to confirm the dour implications of Tennysonian echoes (as Dinah Birch's skeptical yet sensitive essay, "Tennyson's Retrospective View" [TP], ultimately does). If Birch and Decker agree that Tennyson's narrative suspensions and recycling of precursors' language or situations were central to his poetic method, these features pinpoint what is most interesting in Tennyson according to Decker. For him, Tennyson's multiple allusions are a formal counterpart to simultaneous doubts about and fierce need to believe in the afterlife. Allusion, notably, often signals underlying anxieties, as in "he works his work, I mine" in "Ulysses," which Decker traces to the perverted father/ child relationship of The Cenci ("He does his will, I mine," 4.1.139). Concurrently, allusions indicate a hopeful desire to burst texts' limits and affirm abiding relationships with great precursors.

Eric Griffiths ("On Lines and Grooves from Shakespeare to Tennyson," TP) problematizes allusion and intertextuality when these are conceived as two poets speaking directly to each other since many intervening factors--textual editing, linguistic change, the projects of Standard English and heritage--reshape what is transmitted. …

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