The Breathing Space of Ballad: Tennyson's Stillborn Poetics

By Ruderman, D. B. | Victorian Poetry, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The Breathing Space of Ballad: Tennyson's Stillborn Poetics


Ruderman, D. B., Victorian Poetry


In April 1851, on Easter Sunday, Alfred Tennyson's first child was stillborn. The child, a boy, was apparently strangled by the umbilical cord. Christopher Ricks reports that the poet never forgot this "'great grief.'" (1) Rather than send a death notice to the newspaper, Tennyson took it upon himself to "write some 60 letters" to inform friends and family of the news. What follows is representative:

   My dear Robert,

   I am quite sure you will feel with me. My poor little boy got
   strangled in being born.... I have suffered more than ever I
   thought I could have done for a child still born.... [H]e was the
   grandest-looking child I have ever seen. Pardon my saying this. I
   do hOt speak only as a father but as an Artist.... [H]e looked ...
   majestic in his mysterious silence. (2)

Those accustomed to the poet's guarded epistolary style may be surprised to read such a direct and open expression of grief: "I have suffered more that ever I thought I could have done." Tennyson speaks as an artist and a father perhaps in order to justify the intensity of his attachment to the child, but his claim also suggests an inchoate aesthetic judgment, itself in the process of being born. According to this aesthetic, it is neither character nor action that determines the beauty of the stillborn child, but rather his arrested and unrealizable potential.

Tennyson's need to apologize--"Pardon my saying this"--is complicated. While he seems anxious on one hand to control the perception that parental bias may have skewed his evaluative judgment, there is also a sense in which his speech risks shattering the "mysterious silence" that uniquely marks the child's majesty. It is as though he feels compelled to speak. This compulsion at once results in and precipitates an intense identification. I say that identification is both cause and effect of a compulsion to speak in order to foreground the ways in which the poetic description of a stillborn infant tends necessarily toward prosopopoeia. Any attempt to grant potential or futurity to the stillborn child breaks down the binaries of living-dead, speaking-silent, and subject-object. And although the grammar suggests a linear relationship between the son's passivity (got strangled) and the father's active and ongoing suffering (he suffers because the son got strangled), the participles describing that relationship--"strangled" and "suffered"--are almost interchangeable. The more or less identical places they occupy in their respective sentences work toward destabilizing the causal, in this case filial, link. Additional mirrorings and reversals, implicit and explicit, occur throughout the passage. The roles of the father (pater, creator, "majestic," sovereign) are hived off and given to the son, whereas the conventional positions of the son (admiration, identification, supplication) are assumed instead by the father. Even the fixed roles of the percipient and the perceived are tenuous, liable to subtle shifts. Thus, the "grandest-looking child" seems capable of looking back at his father--he "looked...." This confusion--this fusing with--reproduces the mutability of object boundaries ascribed both to the state of infancy in nineteenth-century philosophy and natural science, and to the poetry of immediate experience in aesthetic theories from the period. (3) Finally, Tennyson's multiple connections to the child allow the reader an oblique identification--"I am quite sure you will feel with me." In other words, Tennyson's overflow of emotion interrupts and facilitates our empathetic identification with the child, with the result that his mediation (between stillborn child and reader) is at once transparent and thick.

Tennyson maintains these slippages and reversals as well as this emotional pitch (a strained and strangely objective subjectivity) in nearly all the extant letters, repeating several times how beautiful the child was, how he kissed his "poor, pale hands," and expressing his open embarrassment at being so moved: "I am foolish [i. …

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