Tennyson – Shorter Poetry

General: Tennyson graduates form sensibility in Poems, Chiefly Lyrical to critique of sensibility (realism) in Poems (1832) to something like national poet in In Memoriam (writing to an audience) and finally to something like an Arthurian  bard in  Idylls of the King.

“Supposed Confessions” (1830) – Iambic tetrameter with heavy caesura. Expresses poet’s anxiety over the weight of natural decay and death. Tracks the emergence of “This excellence and solid form / of constant beauty.” Ends with a  romantic outburst: “O weary life! O weary death!” What makes it different is the way in which it is a “vacillating state,” not one easily defined according to  chronological status…Life is not measurable in terms of a single life. Relate both to definition of Victorian age (in term of the life of Queen Victorian), and the objectification of life in both EB Browning and Dickens.

“The Kraken” (1830) – A sonnet with fifteen lines. Rhyme scheme is sorta Petrarchan, but with variations. The sestet is extended into seven lines and is therefore able to squeeze in a couplet. It returns to the sounds and images of the opening quatrains in such a away that it forestalls development, confirming the elusiveness of the sea-beast that is less visible than the various polypi that crowd the vision. The image of coming to the surface only to die (“In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die“)  connects with the larger trope of belatedness that runs throughout Victorian poetry, but here in 1830, it is particularly poignant–Tennyson has somehow missed the Romantic movement (Byron dead, etc.). The surface/depth image also marks out a mode of representation AND interpretation that distrusts surface and appearance. Connect with Carlyle’s belief that all surface is (a very important) deception.

“The Lady of Shallot” (1832/1842) – The 1842 collection is obsessed with the excluded middle between sensation and reflection. Whereas Wordsworth claims primary sensation inheres in rocks, stones and trees, Hallam (and later Tennyson) will claim that by unlocking the Real (something deeper, psychological) we can then be granted access to these sensations “primary sensations”…but they are always mediated by a reflective process.

Crazy rhyme scheme: AAAABCCCB. The narrative is: Lady of Shallot is in her room,weaving, while looking at her mirror  which reflects the outside world. But when she hears Camelot sing “Tirra Lirra” she turns from her mirror, looks down to Camelot:

Out flee the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The lady of Shalott

Here Lady Shalott’s “I am half sick of shadows” leads her to forgo the modes of representation that bind her to a detached mimesis–the cracked looking glass therefore looks forward to both Wilde and to Joyce. In the fourth part, her name gets converted into the graphic symbol on the side of the boat (she is not longer the maker of textiles, but is herself textualized), on which she is passing to Camelot. Indeed, we can imagine this journey from Shallot to Camelot as as running against the grain of the rhyme: “Camelot” and “Shallot” are the ‘B’ rhymes for the rest of the poem. What it takes to get from B to B is the formal mechanical rhyming, almost mind numbing…the expectation of “lot” at the end each stanza has become engrained. Yet this mechanical propulsion forward (rhyme) is contradicted by the action being described (journey down river)..from Camelot to Shalott.  The inadequacy of the form to the content is mirrored by the inadequacy of Arthurian romance itself, when Lancelot casually dismisses the death of the Lady with “She has a lovely face.”

“The Two Voices” (1842) – a long poem (460 lines or so) comprised of tercets of all rhyming endings. Think of as response to Pope’s Essay on Man, but one that is so mechanical that it undercuts itself. The question: What will happen if Tennyson keeps writing like 1830 while in in 1842—along the way, begins to critique sensibility.

“The Palace of Art” (1832-53) – A compartmentalization of aesthetic history. Tennyson wrote: “It is the most difficult of all things to devise a statue in verse.” And “When I first conceived the plan of the poem, I intended to have introduced both sculptures and painting into it.” There is an accretion of images that forces a rather strained comparability between everything and everything else, thereby threatening identity. The logic of the “Or” is introduced, a sort of bad seriality, interchangeable. After romping through the many wonders of the aesthetic, the nameless “She” that stands in for art itself undergoes a slef-imposed diminution, seeking redemption by casting off the opulence of the palace in favor a rustic cottage “Where I will mourn and pray.” But the last stanza asks that the palace not be torn down: “Perhaps I may return with others there / When I have purged my guilt.” The aesthetic can remain despite the withdraw of the subject…..

Ulysses (1842) – Written soon after Arthur Hallam’s death, expressing Tennyson’s desire to move forward despite the death of his friend. Offers a curious pairing with Lotos-Eaters as a portrait of Life. It is imaged in terms of consumption “I will drink life to the lees” (a technical terms that literally means drinking those parts of wine that are usually refined out of the end product). Ulysses refuses to rest, discontent with “Life piled on life,” the redundancy of mere breathing. The final line, however (“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”) with the perfect meter (mono syllables make the stresses incredibly clear, the words lock into the metter) seems to call attention to the very conventions that Ulysses is going forward to fulfill. So ending could be an attempt to synthesize epic adequation, but the potential dissonance introduced into the epic is that Ithaca has itself become conventional, much like the final line is conventional.

The Lotos-Eaters (1832, 1842) – Starts our with a lazy rhyme : land = land. Much of the poem explores the potentially deadening effects of poetic practice:

                                        and if his fellow spake,
His voice was thin, as voices form the grave;
And deep-asleep he seem’d, yet all awake,
And music in his ears his beating heart did make.

This is the frightening mirror image of Mill’s definition of poetry: overhearing a conversation with oneself. This produces a “mild-eyed melancholy” that is content to have too successfully internalized and then expunged the object of desire. Eating of the Lotos therefore makes good on the promise of the aesthetic as imaged by Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment: the promise of happiness before or beyond the demands of self-preservation and reproduction (this is why some Europeans eat candied violets, he says). Can connect this also with Empson on Shakespeare and Pastoral:

The flower ripens in its place
Ripens and fades, and falls, and hath no toil,
Fast-rooted in the fruited soil.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94 describes the flower’s power as inhering in its very vulnerability. Yet here, the imposition of a toil-less existence is explicitly aligned with aesthetic deception and danger. The final section, number 8, bursts into lines with eight feet in order to describe the carnage of a world that the mariners have decided to forget. There is also an excess of three line rhymes (connect to “Two Voices”), which seems to in some ways bridge the deathless repetition of the mild-eye melancholics with the cycles of destruction that characterize life on earth.

This poem raises the question of what sort of work poetry does. Is poetry the absence of work? Connects with something like Lady of Shallot, where the mere rhyming propels us a forward. I Poetry working when it means the most or the least? When we say things without knowing why (the rhyme, etc.)

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