Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Tennyson, Heidegger, and the Problematics of "Home"

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Tennyson, Heidegger, and the Problematics of "Home"

Article excerpt

"Never before had childhood become an obsession within the culture at large." (1)

This article began with my discovery, in the facsimiles of the Harvard Notebooks published in 1987 by Christopher Ricks and Aidan Day, of one Notebook, Number 4 (ms Eng 952, original page size 5 1/2 inches by 3 inches), devoted largely to a collection of forty-one Lincolnshire nursery rhymes, every one copied out painstakingly in Tennyson's own cramped hand-although, interestingly, that hand here relaxes and the writing becomes larger: perhaps the writer can be more expansive when copying words not his own. The Notebook is inscribed "A. Tennyson Esq. Trinity College Cambridge" and can therefore be dated from Tennyson's time at the university between November 1827 and February 1831, when, hearing that his father was dying in Lincolnshire, he returned home without a degree. Ricks and Day in their Introduction merely refer to the nursery rhymes in passing as a "delightful collection" and I have been unable to track down any sustained consideration of their significance, despite the increasing academic interest in nineteenth-century studies in the subject of childhood. The nursery-rhyme collection seemed to me to be unusual enough to merit careful examination; this led me to consider the place of childhood in Tennyson's mature poetry and to revisit W.H. Auden's famous condemnation of him as "the Poet of the Nursery." (2) Might there be positive things to be said about "the Nursery" and, by extension, about the notion of "the childhood home" beyond the usual blanket dismissal of this aspect of Tennyson's work as merely sentimental? The late Sally Ledger has shown how much we miss of Charles Dickens' work if we avert our gaze fastidiously from its melodramatic and sentimental aspects. (3) She has argued persuasively that Dickens uses the melodramatic and sentimental traditions as a means of addressing his deepest concerns. Might a study of similar aspects of Tennyson yield similar results?

In this article I want to look first briefly at Tennyson's own "childlike" qualities as a man, considering them in relation to the mid-Victorian cult of the child, then to consider the Heideggerian terms, "heimlich" and "unheimlich," as a context within which to read, first, the nursery rhymes themselves, and then Tennyson's own "poetry of childhood," focusing on the lyrics he added to The Princess. I will suggest that, throughout his work, there are elements of Tennyson's "sentimentality" which can profitably be re-read in terms of the unheimlich and of the schema of the nursery rhyme.

I

Auden's unflattering phrase, "the Poet of the Nursery" applied biographically rather than poetically, does have a certain rightness. As a child himself, Tennyson seems to have relished the childhoods of his younger siblings, as Hallam Tennyson's Memoir attests:

   My aunt Cecilia (Mrs Lushington) narrates how in the winter
   evenings by the firelight little Alfred would take her on his knee
   with Arthur and Matilda leaning against him on either side, the
   baby Horatio between his legs; and how he would fascinate this
   group of young hero-worshippers, who listened open-eared and
   open-mouthed to legends of knights and heroes among untravelled
   forests rescuing distressed damsels, or on gigantic mountains
   fighting with dragons, or to his tales about Indians, or demons, or
   witches. (4)

This account is borne out by William Allingham's diary for November 26, 1884: "In the evening Miss Tennyson [Matilda] reminded Alfred of the stories he used to tell his brothers and sisters [at Somersby]. One called 'The Old Horse' lasted for months." (5)

As a parent the evidence suggests that he enjoyed childhood all over again through his sons. He was a very unVictorian and indulgent father to two boys who were, it seems, seldom disciplined and who were kept at home much longer than other boys of their generation and class, often dressed in lace collared outfits anticipating Little Lord Fauntleroy. …

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