The Morbid Meters of Maud

By Dransfield, Scott | Victorian Poetry, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

The Morbid Meters of Maud


Dransfield, Scott, Victorian Poetry


From its very first and widely unfavorable reception, the distinguishing characteristic of Tennyson's Maud was its "morbidity." Readers and critics alike complained of what appeared to be an unrestrained indulgence in the pleasures of dark moods, frenetic outbursts and complaints, and introspective brooding, and perceived this quality to emerge not only from the unhealthy attitudes of the monodrama's speaker, but from the form and rhythms of the poem itself, which Tennyson described as representing "different phases of passion in one person taking the place of different characters." (1) The speaker's utterances in this unique form present a disjointed chronicle of his bitter disappointments in love and life, revealing an internal strife at such a pitch that readers clearly identified in these utterances, in the very tone of voice, an emotional and mental instability. This paper seeks to understand this connection between poetic utterance and morbidity in Maud, as well as the underlying ideologies of health that opened up to associations between poetic voice and disease. (2) I especially want to consider the affective function of the almost bewildering array of verse forms and meters in light of developments in prosodic theory occurring at the time of the poem's publication, for it is Tennyson's violations of the conventional expectations of poetic voice, performed through metrical innovation, that connect most soundly to perceptions of disease, and likewise, to the ideological underpinnings of expanding Victorian clinical understandings of the nerves and of nervous health.

Addressing a poem's "morbid meters" presents considerable challenges, however, not least of which is an attempt to reconstruct the experience of a poem that much of the reading public found so shocking. A vital part of this enterprise is first to come to terms with the meaning of "morbidity," an overused and imprecise term, but one that associated disease, physiologically understood, with the subjective apprehension of disease; in other words, "morbidity" not only denoted the physical presence of disease, but the mental and emotional states that inwardly sensed the presence of, or produced feelings of, disease or lack of well-being. (3) In many respects, "morbidity" signified in male subjects a loss of masculine nerve and will and became associated with a number of nervous disorders, mostly depression and hypochondriasis, in a culture that placed a high priority on manly health and discipline of feeling. (4) But these disorders were also seen as symptoms of larger causes. Tennyson's own comments on his poem offer particular insight: Maud is "the history of a morbid poetic soul, under the blighting influence of a recklessly speculative age"; "I took a man constitutionally diseased and dipt him into the circumstances of the time and took him out on fire." (5) The condition of the age, marked by its reckless speculation, bears a significant influence on the form of Maud, and the poet's purpose to explore the "strange disease of modern life" brings about the apparent necessity to give this disease a voice. As Tennyson's monodrama offers a unique voicing of diseased subjectivity, the history of Victorian medicine and the diagnosis and practice of nervous health present a critical context for Maud's morbid meters.

That Tennyson himself not only struggled with a variety of nervous ailments but knew them very well from a clinical standpoint is well documented. But so did much of the Victorian middle-class mainstream, and this knowledge not only colors the critical reception of the poem but also qualifies the rich experience that a reading of Maud offers. (6) Numerous reviews concerned the medical and moral implications of a poem that seemed to explore dangerously morbid sentiments, even though the tenor of these critical views differed. In a hostile review, for example, Walter Bagehot, who argued that the great critical objective in reading the poetry of his century was to detect "the healthiness or unhealthiness of unfamiliar states of feeling," objected to the poem's "bringing into prominence the exaggerated feelings and distorted notions which we call unhealthy. …

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