Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Framing Tennyson's Farewells: Authority and Materiality in "Morte d'Arthur"

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Framing Tennyson's Farewells: Authority and Materiality in "Morte d'Arthur"

Article excerpt

When the mouth dies, who misses you?

--John Berryman, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet

In a review of Tennyson's 1842 Poems, Leigh Hunt reacted strongly against the editorial ticks on display in the volume. Criticizing both the attention called to revisions of earlier poems and the narrative frames used to introduce others, Hunt saw in these gestures a problematic relationship between the poet and his audience:

   [Tennyson's] 'lettings out of the bag' of his dates and
   alterations, are a little too characteristic of a certain mixture
   of timidity and misgiving with his otherwise somewhat defying
   demands upon our assent to his figments and his hyphens, and that
   we have greater objections to a certain air of literary dandyism,
   or fine-gentlemanism, or fastidiousness, or whatever he may not be
   pleased to call it, which leads him to usher in his compositions
   with such exordiums as those to 'Morte d'Arthur', and 'Godiva'; in
   the former of which he gives us to understand that he should have
   burnt his poem but for the 'request of friends.'... Really this is
   little better than the rhyming fine-ladyism of Miss Seward, who
   said that she used to translate an ode of Horace 'while her hair
   was curling.' ... IT]his kind of mixed tone of contempt and
   nonchalance, or, at best, of fine-life phrases with better
   fellowship, looks a little instructive, and is, at all events, a
   little perilous. (1)

Hunt observes a close affiliation between the presentation of the text--dates, alterations, and hyphens--and an authorship by turn dandyish and "instructive." Associating framing devices with authorial address, Hunt is correct: Tennyson's defensive habits of contextualization do indeed tell us much about the poet's stance toward his audience and toward his own writing. Unwilling to let his compositions speak for themselves, Tennyson intervenes with apologies, epistles, and framing narratives in such a way that he seems to disown his works even as he attends closely to their future reception. Hunt's review describes Tennyson's interventions as a reduction of the poet's authority to the realm of the Poetess and the feminine toilet, a reduction legible in the forms and frames by which Tennyson situates each poetic address to his Victorian readers.

Many of Tennyson's contemporaries articulated similar critiques, yet few were as piqued as Hunt by the frames themselves. For many readers, the early poems revealed an author who preferred his figments, his knights, and fairy ladies, to the realities of Victorian life. Chastising Tennyson for his aloofness, Francis Garden insisted that "Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Dante, Milton, rightly or wrongly, were men in their whole course, warriors or statesmen, anything and everything except isolated from their fellows" (italics mine). Tennyson's fellow Apostle, John Sterling, worried at the inability of "Morte d'Arthur" to demonstrate "any stronger human interest." (2) Beyond charges of effeminacy and marginality, what links these critics with Hunt is their insistence on the intertwining of address and authorship, on the sort of "man" that can be adduced from the poetry's orientation toward its audience. In Renaissance Self-Fashioning, Stephen Greenblatt describes the self as "a characteristic mode of address to the world," and we might describe an author in much the same way. (3) From Byron's sneer to T. S. Eliot's whimper, authorship is bound up in characteristic modes of address through which the poet fashions his authorial self. In Tennyson's poetry, his critics, friendly or otherwise, found an author whose failures seemed representative of the very obstacles that occupied poets and critics in the early Victorian period: cultural marginalization and the endless discourse of poetic decline. As poetry slipped from its economic pinnacle in the 1820s, poets and critics wrote increasingly about the diminished prospects for poetry in an age of prose, and they figured their concerns most often as a broken relationship between poet and public. …

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