Academic journal article Chicago Review

Pastoral and Elegy in the Early Poems of Tennyson1

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Pastoral and Elegy in the Early Poems of Tennyson1

Article excerpt

The feeling that life is essentially inadequate to the human spirit . ..is naturally at home with most versions of pastoral.

- William Empson

Pastoral and elegy resemble each other in obvious ways. Each juxtaposes a complex with a simple condition of being; the simple way is usually valued above the complex and considered as lost - or, at least in pastoral, precarious. Their temporal sequence is also alike in that the good is placed in the past and used to help the mind make sense of the present. In this essay, I shall consider their co-occurrence in Tennyson's work up to In Memoriam and show how they are used consistently to modify each other. It is often difficult to say whether a poem is pastoral or elegy, though this should be a simple matter, since elegy mourns death. A poem like "Oenone," however, is a sort of elegy before death, and hovers uncertainly between elegy and pastoral. All pastoral poetry need not be unhappy, but a Tennyson poem that is happy pastoral is rare. "The Miller's Daughter" and "The Gardener's Daughter" are the only two happy pastorals that spring to mind, although many early poems are neither happy nor unhappy. Of these, "Claribel," "Isabel," and "Madeline" are typical; it is surely wrong to blame these poems for being "unerotic";2 they are rather the working out of a mood in which descriptive and lyric verse are fused in the contemplation of an imaginary female figure. The attributes of this figure are such as are appropriate to the verse and eroticism is inappropriate.

"Claribel," subtitled "A Melody," shows this distancing from human particularity at its purest;3 Claribel' s only action is the topographical one of situating the landscape to be described; she "low-lieth."4 The pastoral landscape is then left to develop on its own; the initial invocation of the human being having served its purpose in providing a separation of the world of the poem from that of everyday Ufe outside the poem. This is, of course, the canonical function of the pastoral swain: to translate the complexity of the alternative mode of existence into the simplicities of country landscape. But it is important that this should involve no reductionism of the complexity; it must be matched by an elaboration of the simple. Immediately the question appears- against what alternative mode of existence is the reader to test the pastoral success of poems such as "Claribel"? How are we to see if its complexity is reproduced in the simplicity of the poem? A clue may be found in the implications behind the particular aspects of landscape that the poet has chosen to invoke; seasons and times of day are intermingled. There is no obvious seasonal progression, but rose leaves are falling, which suggests late summer, while the oak tree is still in leaf:

Where Claribel low-lieth

The breezes pause and die,

Letting the rose-leaves fall:

But the solemn oak-tree sigheth,

Thick-leaved, ambrosial,

With an ancient melody

Of an inward agony,

Where Claribel low-lieth.5

First, the implications not dwelt on. The "inward agony" is not related to anything to which these words might point in another context, nor is it developed thematically in the rest of the poem; it is simply an extension of "sigheth." The same is true of the pausing, dying breezes: they do introduce a note of nostalgic elegy, but this is not fully developed; the elegy is all in the pastoral distancing.

Thus we see how the simplest procedure of pastoral can perform the simplest function of elegy if the pastoral merely contains words that suggest melancholy, even if these words are not developed beyond the suggestion. An initial level of complexity among the simplifications of the pastoral landscape is therefore introduced.

The artificiality of the diction introduces another level of complexity, for it establishes - indeed insists on - the separateness of the poet's mind as seen through his choice of words and the landscape the words are used to describe. …

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