Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

What Is Haunting Tennyson's Maud (1855)?

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

What Is Haunting Tennyson's Maud (1855)?

Article excerpt

Alfred Tennyson's success with In Memoriam (1850) was exceptional: the poem helped define an age in poetry. But eventually it was a success that turned against him. Max Beerbohm's drawing "Mr. Tennyson reading In Memoriam to his Sovereign" (1904) made fun of the poet's special relationship with the Queen in a shared bond of grief, recognizing camp theatricality. Was the Queen, the caricature seemed to ask, as performative about her loss as Tennyson? Making fun of In Memoriam and setting distances between it and the new were, it may be, necessary acts of later generations. But it is easy to forget that Tennyson himself was, in distinctive ways, willing to distance himself from his lament for Arthur Henry Hallam. This is an essay about Tennyson's parodic and ironic energies after and against In Memoriam, and it suggests a wit and self-critical energy not often associated with his melancholy and sincere poetics. In Memoriam is anxious to discriminate between different understandings of how the dead might live after the tomb: it is a kind of critical encyclopaedia of forms of survival. But Maud (1855), embarrassed by the final commitment in the elegy to the possibilities of the return of living souls, diversely parodied its predecessor's most precious concerns, upturning them by placing them in the mouth of a man of uncertain sanity. Isobel Armstrong dismisses the emotional apex of In Memoriam with half a sentence. In "[lyric] XCV," she says, "the poet achieves a visionary, longed-for union with the dead." (1) That is all. Armstrong's comment is symptomatic of how hard it is for contemporary readers to deal with the strangest lyric of the elegy: it is too significant a moment to be considered so economically. Maud was partly organized to deal, in bold as well as in subtle encrypted ways, with the consequences of having claimed that the dead return, and with what, precisely, Armstrong's "visionary" instant really involved. Maud set a distance between Tennyson in 1855 and In Memoriam, and it was diversely self-conscious about the elegy's dealings with the deceased. Maud, I suggest, does not express, as recent critics have thought, an increase in Tennyson's scepticism about human values tout court. It implies doubtfulness about non-empirical experience, such as that which In Memoriam ventured. But this is scepticism that is closer to common sense or reasonableness. At its most affirmative, Maud is a poem expressive of the poet's desires to place his feet more firmly on the ground, a rebuke for an earlier inclination to yield to the chimerae produced by grief, and an effort to break from In Memoriam's public yearning for what seemed for a moment in 1855 like improbable reunion. Maud's palimpsest of In Memoriam was not the end of the story and Tennyson returned swiftly to the possibility of the dead's continuance. But that return makes Maud's pause even more intriguing and powerful.

The death of Arthur Henry Hallam in 1833 was, to his friends and family, devastating in part because it was premature. Hallam was twenty two, beginning a career in the law, and newly engaged to Emily Tennyson. Premature in one sense, the news of that death did not, in another, arrive early enough. By the time Henry Elton, Hallam's uncle, wrote to inform Alfred Tennyson, as the brother of Hallam's fiancee, on October 1, 1833, his nephew had been dead for more than two weeks. It was a letter before its time, and after. There had been little warning of the impending calamity. Hallam's ill-health had been inauspicious, no doubt. But the only other indication had been, the Tennysons claimed much later, the glimpse of a ghost. "Almost all instances of alleged supernatural appearances," confidently remarked Isaac Taylor, author of the Natural History of Enthusiasm (1829), a background presence in In Memoriam (1850), "may easily be disposed of." But "no such explanation will meet the many instances ... in which the death of a relative, at a distance, has been conveyed, in all its circumstances, to persons during sleep. …

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