The Pre-Eminent Victorian: A Study of Tennyson

By Joanna Richardson | Go to book overview
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THE PRINCESS was published in November 1847. 'I had the misfortune to be deeply intoxicated yesterday -- with Tennyson's new poem,' wrote Bayard Taylor, in New York, on February 13th. 'I dare not keep it with me. For the future, for a long time at least, I dare not read Tennyson ... His intense perception of beauty haunts me for days, and I cannot drive it from me.' In England, Macready was less complimentary. 'Hull,' he recorded. 'Read on my journey ninety pages of The Princess. I cannot say that I hold a very high opinion of it.'

The Princess has been defined, with some justice, as one of the last substantial poems of the Romantic Movement, the outcome of the transition in English thought between the Romantic and the naturalistic. Tennyson belongs to both schools, and so does The Princess. Vivian Place, with its squire, ancestral portraits and its 'Abbey-ruin in the park,' is a Romantic setting; and the fantastic tale of war and tournament, of ingenuous disguises and more ingenuous passions, is Romantic to the last degree. Yet it is equally clear that The Princess is a poem of transition. The higher education of women had been mentioned by Johnson in Rasselas, and discussed by Mary Wollstonecraft, but it is treated here at length, at a popular level; and it is significant that Tennyson considered the subject some thirty years before Girton and Somerville were founded.

But if The Princess elaborates the theme so dear to the next generation, it does not support the cause. Princess Ida's university of women finally crumbles; and from the moment that the Prince exhorts her:

Accomplish thou my manhood and thyself;
Lay thy sweet hands in mine and trust to me ...

the Victorian paterfamilias has taken control. Tennyson makes an excellent apology for marriage:


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