Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

How to Exist Where You Are: A Lesson in Lotos-Eating

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

How to Exist Where You Are: A Lesson in Lotos-Eating

Article excerpt

   Ever let the Fancy roam,    Pleasure never is at home.     --John Keats 

For over thirty years critics have tried Tennyson as an "imperialist of the imagination." To summarize their case: from a young age Tennyson immersed himself in travel literature to imagine a life far away from the unhappy, violent household in Somersby. This interest in remote experiences became a signature of his poetry, and his early works in particular abound in exotic details that we can trace back to his wide travel reading. In this Tennyson seems the aesthetic analogue of the imperial capitalist, venturing out in mind to some faraway land and returning with foreign resources to enrich his poetic hoard at home. And yet--as critics acknowledge--in using exotic imagery, Tennyson differs little from the poets who influenced him, such as Byron, Shelley, and Keats. What makes Tennyson's case distinct from theirs in the court of literary criticism is not his exoticism per se but rather his politics, which are as elusive in his early poems as they are hard to miss in his later. Thus the case against Tennyson depends in part on a developmental reading of his poetry, which detects his later commitments to British imperial policy as latent in his early reliance on exotic imagery. As Alan Sinfield alleges in the trial's opening argument, for Tennyson "the poetic spirit is the advance guard of capitalism and imperialism, and cannot escape this involvement." Subsequent critics, the most recent being David Riede, have developed or qualified Sinfield's accusation, but the majority verdict returns the same: guilty as charged. (1)

This essay is not a deposition for the defense. Tennyson himself admitted a fascination with things remote ("The words 'far, far away' had always a strange charm for me") that is hard to read as politically innocent. (2) And he did use exotic imagery for his own ideological convenience, as Sinfield accuses him of doing--this essay is partly about one of the ways he did so. But his situation is complicated: what Sinfield and later critics miss is that Tennyson was also deeply critical of an imaginative bias toward the far away--albeit primarily on aesthetic rather than political grounds. This aesthetic critique is my subject. By getting a better purchase on Tennyson's early aesthetics, we can more fully appreciate unusual formal choices that have been missed in the critical effort to discover a coherent political position in his early poetry. We will also come to suspect the developmental reading of his career.

The developmental reading states that before British imperialism was the imagination. That is, before "imperialism" became a recognizable political construct in the mid-Victorian era, the groundwork was laid by an aesthetic ideology that emphasized the imagination's preference for what lay apart from familiar experience: for the exotic, in the etymological sense of the word as demarcating what is outside. "Pleasure," as Keats's epigraph to this essay has it, "never is at home." Tennyson's early poems, which fly from Persia to Peru without ever obviously alighting in the poet's native Lincolnshire, would seem implicitly to further Keats's claim. But the very obsessiveness with which Tennyson imagines faraway places and stages and restages scenes of travel, discovery, or imperial conquest should make us hesitate. For if Tennyson's poetry can be read as the logical outcome of a particular imaginative ideal, it can also be read as a sustained investigation of that same ideal: that is, as challenging rather than confirming it.

I take up a set of interrelated early poems that critically analyze the attraction of the far away and counter it with a pleasure "Fast-rooted," "in its place" ("The Lotos-Eaters," 11. 83, 81): "The Merman," "The Mermaid," and "The Sea-Fairies" in Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830) and "The Lotos-Eaters" in Poems (1832). In reforming aesthetic pleasure around the nearby rather than the remote, these poems discredit imperialism after all, although not along the overtly political lines on which Sinfield and others would have them proceed. …

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