Tennyson

By Hughes Linda K. | Victorian Poetry, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Tennyson


Hughes Linda K., Victorian Poetry


Two book-length studies of Tennyson appeared in 2008 (the date of all works cited unless otherwise indicated). Substantial portions of two additional books as well as numerous essays--often focused on Tennyson's relation to other writers--made the ante-bicentennial year of Tennyson's birth a significant one.

In Tennyson's Name: Identity and Responsibility in the Poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson (Ashgate), Anna Barton adopts cultural, materialist, and formal analysis to assess anonymity and shifting signatures ("Alfred Tennyson," "Alfred Tennyson, D.C.L.; Poet Laureate," "Alfred, Lord Tennyson") throughout Tennyson's career. Barton's point of departure is J. S. Mill's A System of Logic (1843), which asserts that proper names have no inherent meaning (as Saussure later argued of signifiers generally), since parents' hopeful naming of children often comes to naught. While a poet could construct a proper name's connotations, Tennyson faced the challenge of sustaining a name signifying poetic merit in an era of emergent commodity culture and brand names divorced from substance. His poems' content, Barton argues, increasingly reflected his negotiation of names and naming.

"Naming the Dead" (chap. 3), for example, examines the disparate acts of poetic memorializing of In Memoriam and "Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington." In the first an intensely private memorial to a gifted youth cut down before making his name was transformed into compelling public poetry in part because Tennyson's recurring declaration of language's inadequacy freed him to write as much as he would and to demonstrate his poetic art in the process. The "Ode" paid tribute to a public figure whose famous deeds neither required elaboration nor could be ignored by Victoria's poet laureate, forcing Tennyson into the artifice of a public (rather than subjective Romantic) ode and elaborate phrasing that chimed with the excess of the public funeral. Only in the final line, "God accept him, Christ receive him," does Tennyson revert to the plain-spoken simplicity befitting the dead man rather than a vaunted public name.

"'General Names' and 'Small Names'" (chap. 1) contends that Poems by Two Brothers could not be "Tennysonian" because its verses were anonymous and derived authority more from printed books that supplied notes or epigraphs than from their author. Tennyson's first signed work, Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830), in contrast, turned on names in the female portraits which, lacking referential substance, could be filled in with the display of poetic craft that made Tennyson's name. The unnamed hero of Maud (the focus of chap. 4) likewise embroiders and lyricizes a woman's name--until the brother's arrival forces a confrontation with the meaning of family names. Ironically Tennyson's anonymous political verses of the 1850s parallel the self-indulgent speaker of 1855 insofar as they display minimal poetic craft and attack without naming opponents. Like Maud and the female portraits, the 1859 idylls (discussed in "The Commodified Name," chap. 5) were built around female names; but Elaine's name was substanceless, Lancelot abandoned his public name and was nearly killed, and Elaine died partly from fetishizing an object of desire (the shield) as in full-blown commodity culture. Barton also discerns in the focus on knights who win names through public deeds or lose them through dishonor Tennyson's anxiety about becoming a commodified brand name with merely arbitrary links to substance. Other chapters investigate "Inherited Names" in The Princess and Tennyson's late reflection in "To E. FitzGerald" on what had survived from his early days as an anonymous poet circulated through manuscript and supported by a friend's generosity.

Barton does not cite Kathryn Ledbetter's 2007 study of Tennyson's periodical poetry, which intimates Tennyson's willing self-commodification and provides evidence that Tennyson's targets of attack in anonymous political verse were readily identified by a newspaper-reading audience. …

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