Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics

By Isobel Armstrong | Go to book overview

3

1832: CRITIQUE OF THE POETRY OF SENSATION

Poems (1832) sustains the almost breathtaking originality of Poems, Chiefly Lyrical. But it also begins to offer a critique of Hallam’s positions. Less than a year after it was published, Hallam died. Some of the exuberance disappears from this group, who were increasingly dispersed in the subsequent decade. However, letters indicate how Tennyson’s aesthetic evolved. The poetry of a number of friends - R. Monckton Milnes, R. C. Trench and the more distant John Sterling, friend of F. D. Maurice - indicates the pressures to which he responded. The movement to Poems (1842) is a movement of slow modification and adaptation. Some of the poems most heavily revised from 1832 to 1842 suggest in what direction Tennyson’s work was moving. The poems are increasingly concerned with labour, appropriation and power, and with the forms in which culture perpetrates violence. Where volition and change, the themes of 1830, come into play they are defined in a cultural context. The movement is from an analysis in terms of individual psychology in 1832 to a firmer cultural analysis in 1842, even though, sometimes, it takes a cruder moral form.

The poems of 1832 are enigmatic in the same way as those of 1830, not declaring their meaning, refusing immediate interpretation, requiring that ‘exertion’ which Hallam required to dissolve the ‘fortresses of opinion’. ‘The Palace of Art’, ‘The Lotos-Eaters’ and The Lady of Shalott’, were all much altered in 1842, and in particular The Palace of Art’. All these are double poems of a highly self-conscious kind, but they presage the destruction or decadence of the poetry of sensation and search both for another politics and a new aesthetic. It is proper to say that by 1842 subversive conservatism was in a quandary.

Written in answer to Trench’s reproach, Tennyson, we cannot live in Art’, The Palace of Art’ is too easily read as the journey of the solipsist soul from the aesthetic to the moral life. 1 It is described as ‘a sort of allegory’ in the dedication to Trench, but remembering the deceptive, indirect allegory of Tractarian aesthetics, akin to the aesthetics of Hallam in some ways, as has been seen, it would be best not to assume that it is immediately explicable. The Soul, a female figure whose feminine status will be examined

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