Tennyson. (Guide to the Year's Work)

By Hughes, Linda K. | Victorian Poetry, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Tennyson. (Guide to the Year's Work)


Hughes, Linda K., Victorian Poetry


Tennyson's relation to aestheticism, public politics, and twentieth-century literature were lively sites of investigation in 2001. I begin with aestheticism since that enables me to discuss the most important essay of the year, Angela Leighton's "Touching Forms: Tennyson and Aestheticism," in the TRB (7, no. 5: 223-238; reprinted in EIC 52, no. 1 [January 2002]: 56-75). Leighton's essay is wide-ranging, its prose luminous--an aesthetic pleasure in itself. Tennyson, she argues, explored the elusive, even reversible relation between soul and body that was so important to Pater and Wilde at the fin de siecle, a proposition that involves abstract immateriality versus sensuous palpability in Tennyson's form, language, philosophy, and theology. As have Alan Sinfield, Herbert Tucker, and Erik Gray, she undertakes close readings of Tennyson's diction, tracing its sinuous shifts and implications; like Christopher Ricks and Matthew Campbell, she investigates recurring words, rhythms, and associations (as with the sudde n flash that so pervades his work); drawing on the prior scholarship of Donald Hair and Isobel Armstrong, she returns to the Victorian materialist-idealist debates about language; and like James Hood (in Divining Desire, 2000) she reconsiders relations between the transcendent and carnal in Tennyson's poetry. Leighton thus works within some of the most important recent contexts of Tennyson scholarship while also extending it.

Noting Tennyson's early preoccupation with isles on which the voyager merely touches, Leighton moves on to the larger role of touching and the body in his poetry. Characteristically, gestures toward transcendent meaning and purpose are suspended by the near approach of a physical body--as when the dead body as well as living voice of Hallam seem to touch the speaker before Hallam's soul is suddenly flashed on his own in Section 95 of In Memoriam. Even at his poetry's most transcendent moments, Leighton argues, Tennyson is never unmindful of sensuous palpability or language's materialist drift--just as "form" itself might signify the abstract immateriality of beautiful style or the touchable human body. If Tennyson's resonating diction and rhymes pushed his poetry toward a condition of pure music early in the century, his resort to Lucretius was another link between his art and late-century aestheticism. Lucretian atomism and materialism obviously chimed with nineteenth-century science and Pater's foregroundin g of transience and sensuous experience. But Leighton also reminds us that Lucretius was an important influence on Arthur Henry Hallam and the source of the Epicurean gods in "The Lotos-Eaters" as well as the whole of Tennyson's 1868 dramatic monologue. Lucretius taught that only what could be touched was real and relevant to human life (hence the irrelevance of Epicurean gods). Leighton then re-reads In Memoriam in light of Lucretian materialism, which constantly brought into question the poem's reach toward transcendent spirituality and posed the suggestion that sensuous perception of art as an entity unto itself might be the one thing certain.

In Aestheticism and Sexual Parody 1840-1940 (Cambridge Univ. Press) Dennis Denisoff focuses on Tennyson's reception more than his poetics or philosophical underpinnings. Denisoff's larger aim is to show that mainstream authors and literary critics contributed to aestheticism's sexual ambiguity and anti-bourgeois identities by circulating its outre elements even when attacking or parodying aesthetes. Earlier in the century, however, before "effeminacy" was linked to the emergent construction of homosexuality, reviewers could align Tennyson with aestheticism and effeminacy without provoking anxiety. Arthur Henry Hallam called Tennyson an exponent of "sensation"; John Wilson Croker thought "O Darling Room" a girlish effusion; writing anonymously, Bulwer Lytton contended that Tennyson's effeminacies comprised a "'eunuch strain"'; George Brimley first used "aestheticism" in discussing "The Lotos-Eaters" (1856); and Alfred Austin argued that Tennyson had a feminine muse. …

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