Table Of Contents
- About the author(s)/editor(s)
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- List of abbreviations
- Part I The Victorian Twilight
- § 1. Mapping English literature from 1870 to 1901
- § 2. An outline of British history from 1870 to 1901
- § 3. Tennyson after 1874 I: Tennyson after 1874
- § 4. Tennyson after 1874 II: Poems from 1880
- § 5. Tennyson after 1874 III: Tiresias and Other Poems. Prophecy and exoticism in the age of the Third Reform Bill
- § 6. Tennyson after 1874 IV: Poems from the last five years
- § 7. Tennyson after 1874 V: The plays
- § 8. Tennyson after 1874 VI: Idylls of the King I. Exit Victorian Britain
- § 9. Tennyson after 1874 VII: Idylls of the King II. King Arthur. The redeemable world
- § 10. Tennyson after 1874 VIII: Idylls of the King III. The tragic idylls
- § 11. Tennyson after 1874 IX: Idylls of the King IV. Guinevere and Lancelot
- § 12. Tennyson after 1874 X: Idylls of the King V. The fall of the Round Table
- § 13. Browning after 1869 I: Untangling the skein
- § 14. Browning after 1869 II: Balaustion’s Adventure and Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau
- § 15. Browning after 1869 III: Fifine at the Fair. A Donjuanesque remake
- § 16. Browning after 1869 IV: Red Cotton Night-Cap Country. A case study of religious and erotic morbidity
- § 17. Browning after 1869 V: Aristophanes’ Apology I. The dispute between comedy and tragedy
- § 18. Browning after 1869 VI: Aristophanes’ Apology II. Aristophanes’ redemption, Euripides’ revenge
- § 19. Browning after 1869 VII: The Inn Album
- § 20. Browning after 1869 VIII: Pacchiarotto. Lashing the literati
- § 21. Browning after 1869 IX: La Saisiaz and The Two Poets of Croisic
- § 22. Browning after 1869 X: From Dramatic Idyls to Jocoseria and Ferishtah’s Fancies
- § 23. Browning after 1869 XI: Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in Their Day. Seven oneiric evocations
- § 24. Browning after 1869 XII: Asolando
- § 25. Arnold after 1870 I: Works of reductionist biblical criticism
- § 26. Arnold after 1870 II: Literature and Dogma I. The Bible rewritten and updated for the masses
- § 27. Arnold after 1870 III: Literature and Dogma II. Faith and Aberglaube
- § 28. Arnold after 1870 IV: God and the Bible and other theological writings
- § 29. Arnold after 1870 V: Non-Marxist egalitarianism
- § 30. Arnold after 1870 VI: Essays on the Irish question
- § 31. Arnold after 1870 VII: Discourses in America
- § 32. Arnold after 1870 VIII: The position of science in the liberal curriculum
- § 33. Arnold after 1870 IX: The second series of Essays in Criticism I. The role of poetry in a destabilized world
- § 34. Arnold after 1870 X: The second series of Essays in Criticism II. The immaturity of Romanticism
- § 35. Arnold after 1870 XI: The second series of Essays in Criticism III. The demise of Arnold’s Francophilia
- § 36. Arnold after 1870 XII: Short requiems for the dead
- § 37. Ruskin after 1869 I: Biography
- § 38. Ruskin after 1869 II: Apocalypse and redemption
- § 39. Ruskin after 1869 III: The Queen of the Air
- § 40. Ruskin after 1869 IV: Fors Clavigera I. Objectives and phobias of Ruskin’s third masterpiece
- § 41. Ruskin after 1869 V: Fors Clavigera II. Polysemous resources of fors
- § 42. Ruskin after 1869 VI: The Eagle’s Nest. The aesthetics of the 1870s
- § 43. Ruskin after 1869 VII: Three works on medieval Florentine art
- § 44. Ruskin after 1869 VIII: Works of botany, ornithology and geology
- § 45. Ruskin after 1869 IX: St Mark’s Rest
- § 46. Ruskin after 1869 X: Other writings of art criticism
- § 47. Ruskin after 1869 XI: The Bible of Amiens
- § 48. Ruskin after 1869 XII: Essays and lectures of the penultimate decade
- § 49. Thomson B. V. I: Prophecies of a nihilist
- § 50. Thomson B. V. II: Thomson’s voyage au bout de la nuit
- § 51. De Tabley
- § 52. Trollope after 1870 I: The political novels. The historical and imaginary backdrop
- § 53. Trollope after 1870 II: Can You Forgive Her? Passionate Romanticism recalled to responsibility
- § 54. Trollope after 1870 III: Phineas Finn. The political and sentimental education of the second hero
- § 55. Trollope after 1870 IV: The Eustace Diamonds. The sensational variant
- § 56. Trollope after 1870 V: Phineas Redux
- § 57. Trollope after 1870 VI: The Prime Minister. From pro- to anti-Semitism
- § 58. Trollope after 1870 VII: The Duke’s Children. Trollope’s version of the Victorian twilight
- § 59. Trollope after 1870 VIII: Mastery and experiment in the later fiction
- § 60. Trollope after 1870 IX: Lady Anna
- § 61. Trollope after 1870 X: Harry Heathcote of Gangoil
- § 62. Trollope after 1870 XI: The Way We Live Now I. The monetized universe
- § 63. Trollope after 1870 XII: The Way We Live Now II. The bastion of country feudalism
- § 64. Trollope after 1870 XIII: The American Senator
- § 65. Trollope after 1870 XIV: Is He Popenjoy?
- § 66. Trollope after 1870 XV: Studies of bigamy
- § 67. Trollope after 1870 XVI: Ayala’s Angel. A Romantic-Decadent female hypostasis
- § 68. Trollope after 1870 XVII: Mr Scarborough’s Family
- § 69. Trollope after 1870 XVIII: Final novels and short stories
- § 70. George Eliot after 1872 I: Daniel Deronda I. The world saved by Judaism
- § 71. George Eliot after 1872 II: Daniel Deronda II. The unextinguished Sehnsucht
- § 72. George Eliot after 1872 III: Daniel Deronda III. The wanderer repatriated
- § 73. George Eliot after 1872 IV: Impressions of Theophrastus Such
- § 74. Wilkie Collins after 1868 I: The post-1868 decline
- § 75. Wilkie Collins after 1868 II: Final novels
- § 76. Meredith after 1871 I: Horizons of Meredith’s novels in the Imperial Age
- § 77. Meredith after 1871 II: Beauchamp’s Career. The naïve radical dreamer
- § 78. Meredith after 1871 III: The essay on comedy
- § 79. Meredith after 1871 IV: The Egoist I. Portrait of the sentimental egoist
- § 80. Meredith after 1871 V: The Egoist II. Dramatic clashes
- § 81. Meredith after 1871 VI: The diptych of novels inspired by news items
- § 82. Meredith after 1871 VII: Poetry up to 1888
- § 83. Meredith after 1871 VIII: The short stories
- § 84. Meredith after 1871 IX: One of Our Conquerors. The second and controversial high point of Meredith’s art
- § 85. Meredith after 1871 X: Lord Ormont and His Aminta. Reforming the school curriculum
- § 86. Meredith after 1871 XI: The Amazing Marriage
- § 87. Meredith after 1871 XII: Final poetry collections
- § 88. Meredith after 1871 XIII: Celt and Saxon
- § 89. Lewis Carroll I: Eccentricity and pathology of a tormented cleric
- § 90. Lewis Carroll II: Biography
- § 91. Lewis Carroll III: Youthful works and minor sketches
- § 92. Lewis Carroll IV: Alice in Wonderland I. Parody of genres and language games
- § 93. Lewis Carroll V: Alice in Wonderland II. The oneiric journey
- § 94. Lewis Carroll VI: Through the Looking-Glass
- § 95. Lewis Carroll VII: The Hunting of the Snark
- § 96. Lewis Carroll VIII: Sylvie and Bruno. A novel of communicating vessels
- § 97. ‘Mark Rutherford’. The liberation theologian
- § 98. Mrs Ward. The anti-dogmatic and anti-Jesuit novel by Arnold’s niece
- § 99. Shorthouse
- § 100. ‘ Baron Corvo’
- § 101. Butler I: Fantasies of an iconoclastic joker
- § 102. Butler II: The Erewhon diptych
- § 103. Butler III: Teleological evolutionism
- § 104. Butler IV: The Way of All Flesh. The Victorian ethos on trial
- § 105. Hardy I: ‘The ingenious machinery contrived by the gods for reducing human possibilities of amelioration to a minimum’
- § 106. Hardy II: Biography
- § 107. Hardy III: The three debut novels
- § 108. Hardy IV: A Pair of Blue Eyes
- § 109. Hardy V: Far from the Madding Crowd. Three suitors for a fatal woman
- § 110. Hardy VI: The Hand of Ethelbertha
- § 111. Hardy VII: The Return of the Native. In and around the moors
- § 112. Hardy VIII: Transitional novels
- § 113. Hardy IX: The Mayor of Casterbridge. A self-punishing soul
- § 114. Hardy X: The Woodlanders. The non-reciprocity of loving
- § 115. Hardy XI: Tess of the d’Urbervilles I. The tragedy of puberal seduction
- § 116. Hardy XII: Tess of the d’Urbervilles II. Atavistic determinism
- § 117. Hardy XIII: Jude the Obscure. Hardy against the institution of marriage
- § 118. Hardy XIV: The Well-Beloved
- § 119. Hardy XV: The short stories
- § 120. Hardy XVI: The Dynasts. A polyptych of the Napoleonic era
- § 121. Hardy XVII: The poetry
- § 122. Gissing I: The stateless aesthete, test subject of the serial
- § 123. Gissing II: The proletarian novels
- § 124. Gissing III: New Grub Street. Sociology and hallucination
- § 125. Gissing IV: Return to the Biedermeier
- § 126. Moore. A cosmopolitan Irishman
- § 127. Stevenson I: The shadow of evil in the sunny spirit of adventure
- § 128. Stevenson II: Biography
- § 129. Stevenson III: Stevenson traveller and diarist
- § 130. Stevenson IV: The New Arabian Nights
- § 131. Stevenson V: Epics of the kidnapped boy
- § 132. Stevenson VI: Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The failed exorcism
- § 133. Stevenson VII: The demonic tales
- § 134. Stevenson VIII: The Master of Ballantrae. Family feuds in the times of the Jacobite Rebellion
- § 135. Stevenson IX: The poetry
- § 136. Stevenson X: The Ebb-Tide. Damnation and redemption in the South Seas
- § 137. Stevenson XI: Weir of Hermiston
- § 138. Hope
- § 139. Exotic, sensation, crime and horror fiction, and feuilletons
- § 140. Schreiner
- § 141. Travel literature. Doughty, Flecker
- Part II The Second Pre-Raphaelitism and Decadence
- § 142. The second Pre-Raphaelitism and Decadence
- § 143. Morris I: The ‘idle singer of an empty day’, thunderstruck by Marx
- § 144. Morris II: Early prose writings and The Defence of Guenevere
- § 145. Morris III: The mythological tapestries
- § 146. Morris IV: Love Is Enough and Sigurd the Volsung
- § 147. Morris V: Art for socialism, socialism for art
- § 148. Morris VI: The Dream of John Ball and News from Nowhere
- § 149. Morris VII: Poems by the Way
- § 150. Morris VIII: The fantasy adventures
- § 151. Other poets of the second Pre-Raphaelitism. O’Shaughnessy, Marston
- § 152. Swinburne I: The venereal, sacrilegious and libertarian poetry of a disciple of Sade
- § 153. Swinburne II: Biography
- § 154. Swinburne III: The early plays and the two novels
- § 155. Swinburne IV: Atalanta in Calydon and Erechtheus
- § 156. Swinburne V: Poems and Ballads. Emulation and defiance
- § 157. Swinburne VI: Songs before Sunrise and Songs of Two Nations
- § 158. Swinburne VII: The second series of Poems and Ballads
- § 159. Swinburne VIII: Poems from 1880 to 1889
- § 160. Swinburne IX: Poetic collections after 1890
- § 161. Swinburne X: The Mary Stuart trilogy and other plays
- § 162. Swinburne XI: Critical works
- § 163. Pater I: An essayist by vocation, the alleged father of Victorian aestheticism
- § 164. Pater II: The theorist of the relativity of modernity
- § 165. Pater III: Typologies and relevance of Pater’s fiction
- § 166. Pater IV: Pater and the twentieth century
- § 167. Pater V: Biography
- § 168. Pater VI: Dispersion and compactness of Pater’s canon
- § 169. Pater VII: The Renaissance I. Paganism and Christianity reconciled
- § 170. Pater VIII: The Renaissance II. Mystery and melancholy in the Renaissance painters
- § 171. Pater IX: The Renaissance III. How culture works
- § 172. Pater X: The Renaissance IV. Aesthetic relativism and perceptive experientialism
- § 173. Pater XI: ‘The Child in the House’. The genesis of Pater’s autobiographical narrative
- § 174. Pater XII: Marius the Epicurean I. ‘Modernity’ in Imperial Rome
- § 175. Pater XIII: Marius the Epicurean II. Epicureanism and natural Christianity
- § 176. Pater XIV: Marius the Epicurean III. The aesthetized primitive Christianity
- § 177. Pater XV: Marius the Epicurean IV. The religion of the eye and of the word
- § 178. Pater XVI: Imaginary Portraits I. The irretrievable Golden Age
- § 179. Pater XVII: Imaginary Portraits II. The court painter and the Spinozian nihilist
- § 180. Pater XVIII: Imaginary Portraits III. The twilight of the pagan gods
- § 181. Pater XIX: Gaston de Latour I. The second act of the aborted trilogy
- § 182. Pater XX: Gaston de Latour II. The historical frame and the unpublished chapters
- § 183. Pater XXI: Appreciations I. The essay on style
- § 184. Pater XXII: Appreciations II. The essays on prose writers and on Shakespeare
- § 185. Pater XXIII: Appreciations III. Theory and practice of Romanticism
- § 186. Pater XXIV: ‘Emerald Uthwart’ and ‘Apollo in Picardy’
- § 187. Pater XXV: Plato and Platonism I. Plato Paterianized
- § 188. Pater XXVI: Plato and Platonism II. The prismatic legacy of Platonism
- § 189. Pater XXVII: Greek Studies
- § 190. Hopkins I: Isolation, ostracism and detente
- § 191. Hopkins II: Poetry as communicative urgency
- § 192. Hopkins III: Hopkins inside and outside his cultural type
- § 193. Hopkins IV: Biography
- § 194. Hopkins V: The university diaries and essays. The ‘rhyme principle’
- § 195. Hopkins VI: The two prophetic representational clusters
- § 196. Hopkins VII: Silence and utterance
- § 197. Hopkins VIII: ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ I. The oxymoronic God, creator and destroyer
- § 198. Hopkins IX: ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ II. Probare, docere, movere
- § 199. Hopkins X: ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ III. The parallelistic texture
- § 200. Hopkins XI: The theophany of nature
- § 201. Hopkins XII: ‘The Windhover’. Resurgent temptations of absolute art
- § 202. Hopkins XIII: Hopkins and Duns Scotus
- § 203. Hopkins XIV: The poetry up to 1885
- § 204. Hopkins XV: The ‘terrible sonnets’ I. Wrestling with God
- § 205. Hopkins XVI: The ‘terrible sonnets’ II. The word unheard
- § 206. Hopkins XVII: Time’s eunuch
- § 207. Bridges I: The Apollonian priest of beauty
- § 208. Bridges II: The Growth of Love
- § 209. Bridges III: Prometheus the Firegiver and other plays
- § 210. Bridges IV: The prime of Bridges’s lyrics
- § 211. Bridges V: The new manner
- § 212. Bridges VI: The Testament of Beauty
- § 213. Hopkins’s circle. Dixon, Dolben
- § 214. Thompson I: The ‘shy volcano’, the second greatest late nineteenth-century English Catholic poet
- § 215. Thompson II: The poet of childlike candour, the victim of God’s persecution, the high priest of nature
- § 216. Meynell
- § 217. Wilde I: The face behind the masks
- § 218. Wilde II: The assertiveness of the aesthetic theoretician and the artist’s aporias
- § 219. Wilde III: The lord of words
- § 220. Wilde IV: The poetry from 1881
- § 221. Wilde V: The early plays
- § 222. Wilde VI: Genesis, forms and motifs of the short fiction
- § 223. Wilde VII: Lord Savile’s Crime and Other Short Stories. Adonis and the voice of conscience
- § 224. Wilde VIII: The Happy Prince and Other Tales. The utopian reformism of the boy king
- § 225. Wilde IX: A House of Pomegranates and Poems in Prose
- § 226. Wilde X: ‘The Portrait of Mr W. H.’. A Shakespearean fantasy
- § 227. Wilde XI: The critical essays I. Apprenticeship
- § 228. Wilde XII: The critical essays II. Anti-realism and individualism of art
- § 229. Wilde XIII: The critical essays III. ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’. Dreams and distortions in Wilde’s socialism
- § 230. Wilde XIV: The Picture of Dorian Gray I. Wilde the plagiarist and self-plagiarist
- § 231. Wilde XV: The Picture of Dorian Gray II. Held in the grip
- § 232. Wilde XVI: The Picture of Dorian Gray III. The aesthetic man in the attic
- § 233. Wilde XVII: Lady Windermere’s Fan. To be or to appear
- § 234. Wilde XVIII: Salome. Voyeurism and perversion
- § 235. Wilde XIX: A Woman of No Importance. The pure and the Puritans
- § 236. Wilde XX: An Ideal Husband
- § 237. Wilde XXI: A Florentine Tragedy and La Sainte Courtisane
- § 238. Wilde XXII: The Importance of Being Earnest. The parody of dilemmatic theatre
- § 239. Wilde XXIII: De Profundis. From one pedestal to another pedestal
- § 240. Wilde XXIV: ‘The Sphinx’ and ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’
- § 241. Dowson I: The brothel and the cloister. A penitent’s journey
- § 242. Dowson II: The tragicomedy of masks
- § 243. Johnson. The legend of the holy drinker
- § 244. Minor aestheticism. Gray, Symons
- § 245. Counter-aestheticism. Blunt, Watson
- § 246. Davidson. The doom of Calvinism
- § 247. Playful and erudite poets
- § 248. Women’s poetry
- Part III British Literature from 1901 to 1921
- § 249. Some reflections on literary nomenclatures in the first quarter of the twentieth century
- § 250. From the Boer War to the Great War
- § 251. Housman I: Sleeping fires
- § 252. Housman II: A Shropshire Lad
- § 253. The Celtic Renaissance and Irish literature
- § 254. Yeats up to 1919 I: ‘Hammering thoughts into unity’. The secret teleology of Yeats’s art
- § 255. Yeats up to 1919 II: The symbolist poet and the prophet of the Irish Renaissance
- § 256. Yeats up to 1919 III: Myth and folklore
- § 257. Yeats up to 1919 IV: Idolatry and objectivity
- § 258. Yeats up to 1919 V: Biography up to 1919
- § 259. Yeats up to 1919 VI: The need to dream in the poetry before the end of the century
- § 260. Yeats up to 1919 VII: Prose up to the post-war years
- § 261. Yeats up to 1919 VIII: The middle phase
- § 262. Yeats up to 1919 IX: The playwright
- § 263. Synge. Residual paganism in the Irish countryside
- § 264. Kipling I: Writing from the margins
- § 265. Kipling II: Biography
- § 266. Kipling III: Stories and poems at the turn of the century
- § 267. Kipling IV: The novels
- § 268. Kipling V: The fairy-tales
- § 269. Kipling VI: The nightmare of the Zeppelins
- § 270. Henley, Newbolt
- § 271. Conrad I: Parables of alienation
- § 272. Conrad II: Biography
- § 273. Conrad III: Almayer’s Folly and An Outcast of the Islands. Mental unhingement in the Malaysian station on the river
- § 274. Conrad IV: The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’. In thrall to the witch-doctor
- § 275. Conrad V: Tales of Unrest
- § 276. Conrad VI: Lord Jim. A cowardly hero in search of redemption
- § 277. Conrad VII: Heart of Darkness. The sibylline and whitewashed investigation into continental colonialism
- § 278. Conrad VIII: Nostromo. A political fantasy on human corruptibility
- § 279. Conrad IX: The Secret Agent
- § 280. Conrad X: Under Western Eyes
- § 281. Conrad XI: Chance
- § 282. Conrad XII: Victory. An Adamitic tale
- § 283. Conrad XIII: The Shadow Line
- § 284. Conrad XIV: The stories
- § 285. Turn-of-the-century drama. Jones, Pinero
- § 286. Gilbert
- § 287. Shaw up to 1921 I: Paradox and provocation
- § 288. Shaw up to 1921 II: Biography
- § 289. Shaw up to 1921 III: Plays Unpleasant
- § 290. Shaw up to 1921 IV: Plays Pleasant
- § 291. Shaw up to 1921 V: Plays for Puritans
- § 292. Shaw up to 1921 VI: Man and Superman
- § 293. Shaw up to 1921 VII: Topical farces
- § 294. Shaw up to 1921 VIII: Two interludes
- § 295. Shaw up to 1921 IX: Pygmalion
- § 296. Shaw up to 1921 X: Heartbreak House
- § 297. Shaw up to 1921 XI: Back to Methuselah
- § 298. Barrie I: Impossible utopias
- § 299. Barrie II: The quartet of major plays
- Index of names
- Thematic index
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Volume 1 F. Marucci, History of English Literature , vol. 1, Oxford 2018.
Volume 2 F. Marucci, History of English Literature , vol. 2, Oxford 2018.
Volume 3 F. Marucci, History of English Literature , vol. 3, Oxford 2018.
Volume 4 F. Marucci, History of English Literature , vol. 4, Oxford 2019.
Volume 5 F. Marucci, History of English Literature , vol. 5, Oxford 2019.
Volume 7 F. Marucci, History of English Literature , vol. 7, Oxford 2019.
Volume 8 F. Marucci, History of English Literature , vol. 8, Oxford 2019.
List of periodicals
CL Comparative Literature
EIC Essays in Criticism
ELH A Journal of English Literary History
MFS Modern Fiction Studies
NCF Nineteenth-Century Fiction
PMLA Publications of the Modern Language Association of America
PQ Philological Quarterly
SP Studies in Philology
TLS The Times Literary Supplement
VP Victorian Poetry
Note. Except for the above abbreviations, full publication information of cited works will be found in the bibliographies for each author. Critical works cited in abridged form in the discussions of Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Ruskin, Trollope, George Eliot, Wilkie Collins and Meredith are listed in full in the bibliographies for them in Volumes 4 and 5.
By way of providing a short and reasoned summary of the topics of this Volume 6, Part I will initially include the discussion, left interrupted before the 1870 break in Volume 4, of writers who survived and continued to be active after that date: in poetry Tennyson and Browning; in critical prose Arnold and Ruskin; in fiction Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Meredith and, only for her Daniel Deronda, George Eliot. Having completed this section, I shall dwell on the fiction of the realists, of the pessimists and on its counterpart, the adventure novel, entertainment and popular fiction, which are balanced precariously between the demands of the market and aesthetic autonomy. The volume will close with the second-generation Pre-Raphaelites and with the Decadents. The themes at the centre of late Victorianism can be singled out as follows: the awareness of a demarcation, which pushes writers towards a historical perspective, and generates the sense of an ending, or a transition to modernity (or a more marked modernity); the ensuing feeling that the world is to be saved, and thence an apocalypticism, optimistic and purposeful on one hand, pessimistic and negative on the other; the debate on faith and science; an interest in myth and mythological literature. British culture of the late nineteenth century is a culture of complexity, and complexity itself becomes for the scholar – especially against the grain of a past critical tradition – an interpretative key of the literary history of the period. The theoretical context of the century’s last thirty years is the dialectic between fixed points and perennial change, the ‘chaos into cosmos’ according to Carlyle’s antithesis. Arnold wrote in The Function of Criticism at the Present Time that ‘the life and the world’ in modern times are ‘very complex’, and that the real critical spirit consists in seeing phenomena in the entirety of their implications. The main investigator and theorist of complexity, and founder of the ensuing relativism, is Walter Pater. Relativism, detectable in many fin-de-siècle writers, is therefore underpinned by a firm and widespread epistemological foundation. Pater, in his essay on Coleridge, points to it as a mark of modern thought, as opposed to the worship of the eternal and immutable, which are characteristics of ancient thought: ‘nothing is, or can be properly known, if not relatively under certain conditions’. Inconstancy and fluidity are the hallmarks of modern thought, which ← 3/I | 4/I → spreads over external objects gaining only ‘unstable, intermittent, inconsistent’ impressions which will soon expire in ‘perpetual flight’. Life is for Pater an observation of shapes – especially those of beauty – which become perfect, but only for a moment; to live is to live for a handful of ‘pulses’. This dérèglement is also of time and space, and in Marius the Epicurean late imperial Rome resembles the ruins of medieval Paris, while the refinements of the archaic Adrian can be equated to the ‘Gothic Revival’; and the Rome of Marcus Aurelius is already modern Rome. The protagonist of that novel is himself an elusive and indefinable character, in perpetual torment, unable to reach, and firmly get anchored to, fixed points: he symbolizes an opening to the manifold just when he would strongly adhere to the univocal. Pater’s revisitings of the past are subjected to what he calls the ‘enchanted-distance fallacy’, an optical error of the perceiver and critic who makes every past period, however unattractive, appear in a different, and more pleasant, light. ‘Complex’ means for Pater multifaceted, prismatic, a metaphor that crops up regularly in The Renaissance, which is ‘a complex, many-sided movement’. Pater usually incorporates the prismatic metaphor in the form of this adjective – many-sided – that reverberates and re-emerges in his work on almost every page, from The Renaissance to Marius the Epicurean. One also notices his penchant for adjectives that lose metaphorical precision but not the connection with the manifold, the plurivocal (any attentive reader will realize how often adjectives such as ‘many-hued’, ‘many-syllabled’, and others recur). Even Browning – especially Browning – among those active after 1870, does nothing but obsessively meditate on the conflict between the eternal and the transient, between the fixed and the relative, a connecting thread that counterbalances the unsystematic nature of his poetry after 1870. To late Victorian pessimism we may ascribe writers such as Hardy, Thomson B. V., Gissing, and others, in contrast with the vitality of Stevenson, who is at the same time the explorer of the abysses of the unstable psyche. Scientific speculation, after Darwin, did not allow euphoria, and undermined the primacy of man and any step forward,1 even if we find Herbert Spencer’s variant (in Samuel ← 4/I | 5/I → Butler in particular) of a cosmos proceeding to a goal. Several Victorian poems and novels represent a conservative bulwark against new ‘pernicious’ ideologies. The evils that writers set out to combat were the loss of faith, secularism, materialism, atheism, and they fought this battle according to different principles and proposals that were either fundamentalist or mediating, messianic or trivial, myopic or far-sighted. The ultimate end was to save civil society and its most unhappy and oppressed members, the workers; to save the status quo by straightening it, avoiding revolutionary and bloody adventures; to readmit to a changed and more equitable community the poor classes, thanks to firmer political actions targeted to the adjustment of the economic system. In this case too, radicals acted against moderates, with Morris as the writer who had more revolutionary leanings than anyone else and advocated revolution, though not an armed one, and a new socialist order; and with Trollope, who still identifies the axis of the nation as being in the bourgeoisie and in the feudal order, masking also his fairly superficial acceptance of the attractions of the medieval model. Finally, the objective of many was to save a world marred by the industrial smog, injured and disfigured by the tracks of the railroad, and therefore polluted: only the English could pre-empt today’s environmentalists and ecologists, longing for the return to a clean nature.2 A form of planetary salvation, ← 5/I | 6/I → the liberation from the ideological constraints of a Christianity that has reached its terminus, is the provocative proposal of Daniel Deronda. George Eliot suggests that ostracized Judaism may regenerate dying Christianity, while saving itself in the process. The great historic duel of the two main confessions – Catholicism and Protestantism – resumes its hostilities in the renewed context of the relative and the absolute, with various novels of self-liberation – Mrs Ward’s, Rutherford’s, Shorthouse’s – from the loops of too constrictive religious education; at the same time these novels reflect the exegetical re-examinations of those confessions’ respective credentials in a strictly theological debate.3 ← 6/I | 7/I →
2. The identity of the typical English writer after 1870 is and cannot but be the same as that after 1832. Ruskin, for instance, feels even more dramatically invested by a spasmodic need to reach and communicate with his reading public. Before 1832 there had been the advent of the press – and, to a certain extent, of the literature – for everyone, and it was this democratization of culture and speech to cause concern; after 1870 the responsible writer becomes aware that some of the evils he feared have come true and that remedies are needed: the press, hitherto something beneficial, has become something dangerous, because it has fed into the minds of the newly educated the idea of a divisive state. The education policy of the early Victorian governments has its counterpart in the comprehensive Education Act of 1870, which integrated the measures of the 1830s and increased the level of literacy, opening up new possibilities for the written word, especially for second-rate literature of entertainment or propaganda. After 1870, literature and art must be put even more urgently to the service of the people: hence, the campaign and protest literature in Ruskin, and even that insistence on the communicative function in poetry – the necessity of the appeal to the reader – which is so vibrant in Hopkins, who, however, had sentenced himself to silence. Morris too acts on the basis of an aesthetic of entertainment which is a mediated form of intervention for the people, before he decided to give up any discursive filter. Decadence is the apocalypticism of abstention, of the withdrawal from a world in danger, tottering on the abyss, to an oasis of temporal paralysis. The Victorian twilight is not a self-satisfied nor a cheerfully reckless apocalypticism, but one nostalgic and sad. It is the sense of a painful parting, the perception of an agony and of the impending death of a cultural model. Marxism does not take root in England, except in Morris, who is an optimistic and fully fledged Marxist. Only a few writers resonate with an authentic and religiously orthodox apocalypticism, that is to say the expectation of the fabled ‘second coming’, which on the other hand is also glimpsed – by Ruskin and Hopkins – as the divine punishment for an age that has gone astray and rebelled. Among the Decadents, the sense ← 7/I | 8/I → of an ending is something else, and will require a new and more accurate framing when introducing them.
3. The theme par excellence of poetry, and of most non-fiction, and to some extent also of late Victorian drama, is myth. Ancient myths are reprised, revised, rewritten, and retold: a little of the Egyptian myth, a great deal of the Greek, much of the biblical and Christian myth – the Fall and the Expulsion from Eden. Among modern myths the Arthurian – the most popular after the Greek – outweighs the Nordic, the Eddic and the Nibelungian. A small appendix concerns the remakes of two major western myths, those of Faust and Don Juan. The class of mythological poets includes Tennyson (Greek, Arthurian and biblical myths), is expanded with Arnold and Morris (Greek and Eddic myths), and closes with Swinburne and Wilde. Morris looms large as the most conscious and accomplished Victorian looter of myths, understood as a repertoire which has no limits of time and space. In philosophical and fictional prose, Pater implements, in his Imaginary Portraits, an original variation on Heine’s motif of the Greek gods in exile, and traces historical development as regulated by a Dionysian-Apollonian systole and diastole. In summary, the adaptation of myth is tripartite: a) pure decoration with a narcotic function, where myth is a fairy-tale that distracts and entertains; b) myth makes epic, and paradigmatic, tensions, dilemmas, aporias, utopias and dreams of modernity: in Arnold, Tennyson, Browning and Pater one finds germs and anticipations of T. S. Eliot’s and Joyce’s mythical method; c) myth as purely anthropological research (practised in academic writing by Max Müller and Frazer) on the fractureless continuity of religious feeling in different historical epochs – a panorama in which Christianity too figures, yet with no position of leadership, and as one among the many creeds or superstitions. This sheer speculation becomes poetry, that is personal stimulation and arbitrary response, in Ruskin, who, somewhat like Blake, has his own mythical theories which deform and render largely visionary his discourse on myth. Mythic poetry is at the same time a reflection of the curricular studies of classicists and philologists who graduated from the universities. At the close of the century, Yeats bursts onto the scene having unearthed a new mythology: tired in particular of Avalon, and of Lancelot and Guinevere, as he said in a poem, he resurrected the Irish ← 8/I | 9/I → myths of Cuchulain, Conchubar, and Maeve, with a fourth goal, that of founding in this indigenous myth, unrelated to any other, the diversity and therefore the historical and cultural identity of Ireland. Strictly speaking, the aesthetics of the serial had shot itself in the foot, undermined as it was in practice by stylistically more refined and more polished novels and stories, which were also shorter; but it was Yeats and the Irish who, in the last two decades of the century, became the advocates of a little revolution in the literary genres that led to the rebirth of drama, in Ireland and especially in England. The range of subgenres of prose fiction after 1870 remains very ample, the only difference being that writers, previously only supported by instinct, now possess a theoretical awareness that is expressed in sophisticated arguments that demonstrate, at the same time, the high level of competence achieved by the magazines where they were published. Utopian and science fiction prospered, together with the adventurous romance, the fairy-tale for children (albeit with a great many innuendos for adults), the neo-Gothic novel, and above all, a reflection of the times, the colonial, imperialist or anti-imperialist and exotic novel.
1 For the essay by Max Nordau on ‘degeneration’, of which he is one of the main theoreticians, see Shaw the Fabian’s response in § 287.3.
2 The novels of the enfant prodige and virtually self-taught Richard Jefferies (1848–1887) – the son of peasants, he came to the public eye at only fourteen in 1872 when he sent a long letter to The Times on the situation of the agricultural workers of his Wiltshire – were pour cause utopian and ecological. The visionary tale After London (1885) imagines an England regressed to the barbaric state, and complements the epic fairy-tale of Sir Bevis in Wood Magic (1881) and Bevis (1882). This diptych, in the long run rather cloying, anticipates Carroll and Kipling with its talking animals, and Barrie for the savage-child who, like Peter Pan, does not want to grow up. Bevis is a monarch-child who suffers the laws of the world of adults (the only representative of this class is a farmer), or a little Adam who must not cross the fences set to his Eden, or a Noah with his ark. He is Solomon the legislator and the judge that adjudicates disputes, irons out petty jealousies and acts of vanity, tricks and conspiracies, and wars in an animal microcosm modelled on the human, but incalculably more innocent. Edward Thomas, a similar, nostalgic singer of uncorrupted nature, wrote a monograph on Jefferies.
3 Parody is a further symptom of resistance to the new. William Hurrell Mallock (1849–1923), a tough polemicist of proven and traditional Anglican faith, and the historical enemy of socialists and liberals, is mainly remembered as the author of The New Republic (1877), a satirical conversation piece in the manner of Peacock or a conte philosophique with a key, and a real tour de force in carrying on for pages and pages debating séances leaning on no plot whatsoever. The setting is vague. An impartial host invites a clique of friends to his villa with a view to having a gentlemanly clash of opinions, according to a daily agenda; each speaker hides a cultural or literary personality, more or less known at the time. One must at least acknowledge Mallock’s insight and imagination in putting in touch – and in a dialectical relationship and therefore in dialogue – maîtres-à-penser who in their written production did not cite, and even pretended not to know, each other. The new Republic, with a reference to Plato, is the society that is in preparation, given the premises of the time and the criss-crossing of mutually exclusive ideas at stake in the late nineteenth century. These could be summarized as those of progressive agnosticism, atheistic scientism, traditional Anglo-Catholicism, ‘broad’ and rationalistic faith and finally art and art for art’s sake. There isn’t a proper referee in this dialectical arena, even if the author is disguised as a judicious Mrs Ambrose who complains that dissolution is impending. He is unmasked by showing greater benevolence towards a Mr Herbert, alias Ruskin, who throws his ire against the degenerated aristocracy and urban pollution, and extrapolates some ideas on the community of St George from Fors Clavigera. Mallock hits only tangentially, in a Mr Rose, the man who many usually misunderstood to be his main target, Walter Pater. In that company of conversationalists and lecturers Rose speaks very little, silenced and overwhelmed as he is by the alter egos of Ruskin and Arnold. The latter, disguised as a Mr Luke – the first name of another evangelist after all! – dilates on his own ‘culture’, so that each eminent Victorian has attributed to him, in this intermittently tasty pastiche, a well-known epigraph of his thought.
The year 1870 represents for England a political and cultural watershed, as a result of the Franco-Prussian War, the fall of the French Empire of Napoleon III and the advent of republican France. The British had been pro-French and pro-Napoleon – also, secretly, the nostalgic admirers of Napoleon I – rather than philo-Prussians. Prussia aroused fear because it loomed like a second hegemonic power that threatened to subjugate the world; and it soon became known that the war, though declared by the French, was really one of aggression on the part of the astute Chancellor Bismarck. It was, in other words, the end of a cycle of romantic and ‘Romanesque’ Europe born in the Middle Ages. True, it was a myth, but one ardently believed in by Hopkins and Ruskin. Even Arnold suffered a blow. Most English writers, until E. M. Forster, would be anti-Prussian. Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, which was after all an understatement to establish a competitive European aegis against the British, had at least one major literary repercussion, albeit indirectly: the German anticlerical laws of 1875 led five Catholic nuns to leave their country; their vessel, the Deutschland, ← 9/I | 10/I → being shipwrecked near the English coast was the inspiration for Hopkins’s eponymous poem.1 When in 1882 the Triple Alliance was signed, England was isolated, and Berlin tipped the scales. The downside was, in domestic policy, the serious awakening of socialism. Socialism – no longer a vague ideology, and a nebulous and ineffective state theory that nowhere made headway, and which was snubbed everywhere, so that one could even collude with it, pretend to be deeply affected by it, even supportive of it, as was Ruskin – firmly took root among the masses and asserted itself in a short space of time. Republicanism had been implemented in the streets of Paris with the Commune; the people in power could upset the balance, the monarchy was in danger, the world was about to be turned upside down.2 Among the internal unrests of major proportions, the one on 13 November 1887 that started as a demonstration in Trafalgar Square was harshly repressed by the police; that day would later be remembered as ‘bloody Sunday’. According to some historians, however, national discontent was firmly under control, and was not such as to generate fear of repercussions from the French events; furthermore, radicalism had always been unrealistic in England. After the inexorable fading away of Chartism, a period of political lull ensued; the 1880s and the 1890s represented the nadir of class consciousness and registered increased political apathy within the working classes, due to a fall in prices from 1875 until around 1905, and to a stable rise of wages happening in parallel. The reins of unionism were held by the radicals, who were republican as to the form of government, atheist in religion, and liberal in economics. Up to the end of the century they founded cells and party sections across Britain. From the columns of their magazine, The Fortnightly, they had however been strong supporters of the interim French government after the defeat of France in 1870, ← 10/I | 11/I → and harshly protested against the nickname ‘the scum of society’ given to the Communards. The aristocrat Henry Mayers Hyndman founded the radical federation, but in 1914 he joined the imperialist camp, and Engels considered him a ‘miserable caricature’ of Lassalle.
2. After 1868, with the first Gladstone government, the abolition of the state Church of Ireland, compulsory primary education and some changes over land ownership in Ireland had been launched. From 1874 to 1880, Disraeli, again Prime Minister, pursued a reformist policy and a strong colonial expansion. From 1880 to 1885 the second Gladstone ministry passed the agrarian reform in Ireland and extended the suffrage for the third time in the century. His early bills on Irish Home Rule and the redemption of land by farmers, however, were so bold that they caused his downfall. A fringe of the Liberal Party, which was founded in 1877, broke away at that point to form the Liberal Unionists, who became allies of the Tories from 1886 until 1906 in Conservative Unionist coalitions which, without neglecting internal affairs, also accelerated colonial expansionism. The British reaction to Prussian advancement was not the development of industry, whose main sectors after 1870 were steel, ships, chemicals, electricity and motor vehicles,3 but colonial greed. In almost all the colonial theatres the number of annexations increased, and any seeds of rebellion were promptly quashed. The first theatre of war was the Russo-Turkish conflict of 1876, when 12,000 Bulgarian Christians were massacred by the Turks, a barbarity denounced by William Morris. In 1878 Cyprus was acquired and in 1882 Britain imposed a protectorate over Egypt. But in the occupation of Sudan, in 1885, General Gordon was killed with his entire Anglo-Egyptian army. That was also, and above all, the age of exploratory expeditions to the heart of Africa: the age of the missionary David Livingstone, who went missing in the equatorial forests and was found dying by the explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley, who had gone in search of him. ← 11/I | 12/I → It was the age – in the symbolic domain of Joseph Conrad – of the creation of the International Society of Africa under the aegis of Belgium. Colonial expansion in Africa was mainly the work of Cromer in the North and of Cecil Rhodes in the south, with the creation of Rhodesia. This fearless dreamer planned a railway from the Cape to Cairo, but the idea ran aground because the railway line crossed a German territory. British colonies flourished in the centre of Africa, and Britain strengthened existing domains, extending its influence over Egypt; Kitchener’s victory at Omdurman in 1898 secured the Sudan. It was Rhodes who in 1890 prepared the conquest of the Boer states, brought to a close with the war of 1899–1902, though not without upsetting public opinion. An army of half a million troops was in fact sent to quell the insurgency of a far smaller number of settlers, who nevertheless gained some autonomy in the end. The departure for Africa of English militiamen, long inactive and rusty from lack of wars, was saluted by the patriotic songs of Kipling, Henley and Newbolt.4 The Minister of Colonies, Chamberlain, in office from 1895 to 1903, promoted rearmament and gave up free trade, entering into a compromise with the United States. Thus he prepared the formation of the Commonwealth, which would bind Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland and the South African Union to Britain. The Empire afterwards consisted of protectorates, colonies and dominions. Ireland remained and would long remain a thorn in the side and the classic litmus test for any government. Many of those who were hostile to the granting of Home Rule to Ireland did so because an exit of Ireland, or parts of Ireland, from the Empire would have triggered – according to them, and to Hopkins – a chain reaction: Ireland would have been closely followed by Scotland and by Wales. Parnell, who launched the parliamentary obstructionist tactics, in 1881 had already tried to gain the support of Victor Hugo for the cause of Irish independence; ← 12/I | 13/I → but life was not easy for him in his own island, because, as a Protestant, he faced opposition from the Catholic clergy.5
3. Some writers, nominally on the side of the workers, built a bridge between that class and the capitalists, prompting the latter to grant small and harmless concessions, and providing the basis of the theory of an achievable harmony between employers and workers. Many were latent chauvinists and imperialists, besides those who openly declared themselves as such, and joined in the celebration of Queen Victoria’s two jubilees: gold in 1887 and diamond in 1897. Meredith, who like many others tremblingly feared Prussia’s climbing over Britain, had called for ‘national defence’ and conscription since 1885, and he was therefore – as his poetry after that date shows – an advocate of rearmament. Like Kipling, he believed, at least in part, in the ‘white man’s burden’. Meredith’s imperialism was however mainly defensive, rather than missionary. Radicalism, too, came gradually to support imperialism. The Salvation Army, founded by General Booth, and inspired by his book,6 had a paramilitary organization and, as we know from Shaw,7 admitted women in its cadres, and they could aspire to the whole range of military grades. It openly supported the colonial and imperialist policy. Since 1874 women had obtained reforms that limited their work in factories and a more extensive protection of their conjugal rights, and were now admitted to university colleges – even though the movement for women’s vote had not, for all its marches and demonstrations, obtained its objectives.
1 §§ 197–199. Bismarck’s Kampf was for Hopkins, and for all those who thought like him, a ‘fight against culture’, not ‘for’, according to the flexibility of German compounds (MIT, vol. III, 709).
2 This panic in the aftermath of the Paris Commune surfaces in the story The Battle of Dorking (1871) by G. Chesney (see Volume 7, § 59), in which Britain expressly fears a German invasion. Also the later poems of Doughty, such as ‘The Cliffs’ and ‘The Clouds’ (§ 141.2 n. 3), voice this threat.
3 There was a dramatic decline of agriculture, with extensive redevelopment of peasants farmers into growers (as is evidenced by Hardy’s novels), and the urbanization of large sections of rural population. In 1871 London had 3,200,000 inhabitants, and was the largest city in the world; the City was also the pivot of the world’s economy. The population of London would rise to 4,500,000 in 1911.
4 The Boer general, and President of the Republic of Transvaal, Paul Kruger, was a poorly educated Huguenot Puritan, a devoted daily reader of the Old Testament, and an expansionist missionary. He wanted to civilize the savages in the name of God, but his real goal was to expand the borders of his Transvaal at the expense of the British.
5 The Irish internal affairs will be dealt with more fully in § 253.
6 Darkest England (1890), in which he denounced the miserable conditions of women forced into prostitution, and compared proletarian England with wildest Africa.
7 § 293.2.
Five collections of poetry, seven plays and the completion of his second masterpiece, the Arthurian epic in twelve acts Idylls of the King, constitute Tennyson’s production until 1892, the date of his death. If ‘Enoch Arden’ had made Tennyson the poet of the people, Idylls made him, as soon as the first series came out in 1859, the poet of the educated ← 13/I | 14/I → middle classes; but popular success was not matched by critical acclaim. Tennyson’s works aroused increasingly conditional and perplexed praise, and finally loud dissent as generational turnover took place and the limelight was increasingly stolen by poets and critics now avid for everything new. The aesthetic gap between the first and second Tennyson was even more apparent by the twentieth century. With the partial exception of Idylls, virtually after 1855 and Maud there occurred a steep decline in critical interest in Tennyson; almost dead silence enveloped the copious production of single poems, not to mention his dramas. The majority of the compositions from this period are of an occasional nature, extemporaneous or purely public, and the formula of each of the five collections is miscellaneous and even chaotic, as had been the case only in the poet’s early youth. In this chaos, however, Tennyson could always embed a gem of his creative or recreative art. Among the literature of this genre are some classical myths rewritten for the present, which return to the form of the poetry of mood; or ingenious dramatic monologues and exotic tales that disguise metaphysical questions. Formally, the most remarkable, indeed rather amazing, innovation of octogenarian Tennyson is a poetry that takes up once again such questions in a series of lyrical and epigrammatic fragments. Tennyson perhaps imitated Browning and his ventriloquism, which allowed him a large refraction of intellectual positions and evaluations, and in particular a wide range of oscillating moods. After 1874 it becomes almost impossible to capture the most authentic Tennyson – just as it is impossible to capture the authentic Browning – under all the contrasting and conflicting masks he adopts, and under assertions that seem definitive and peremptory but in fact are immediately called into question. There is in the two poets, and especially in the late Tennyson, an accentuated, baffling and annoyingly long zigzagging; the stupid Tennyson was not stupid in these poems, but played seriously at hide and seek.
2. Tennyson felt very deeply – indeed, judging by ‘Morte d’Arthur’ of 1842, he was one of the first to feel – the sense of an ending and the apocalypse of the world and of the Victorian cultural model, mainly because of the new deterministic and positivistic ideologies, and of new scientific, especially Darwinian, theories. His disorientation in front of the modern is often disguised as the result of a love disappointment experienced by an alter ego, offset by a plunge into action, one that frequently becomes, as in Maud, a war. Surpassed only by the rising Kipling, Tennyson ardently ← 14/I | 15/I → believed in the civilizing mission of the Empire and in a European and even cosmic balance, of which the English monarchy was for him the main guarantor, armed if necessary. Unable to compete with the novel, which to a certain extent fed only on the reflection of the present, his poetry made small incursions into topical events, while continuing to turn instinctively, as a counterweight, to the rural world. The new socialist ideas and the tenets of aestheticism emerge subtly in Tennyson, but end up being rejected and mercilessly satirized. Two emblematic cases are those of a pretentious disciple of Pater – the Hamlet-like seducer, not devoid of charm, though entirely negative, who is the protagonist of The Promise of May – and of the ‘conclusion’ of ‘The Ancient Sage’. This conclusion, entrusted to a ventriloquist’s voice, discards with neat and almost literal echoes the hedonistic and unlimitedly experientialist message of another conclusion, that of Pater’s The Renaissance. In the idyll ‘Vivien and Merlin’ and in the monologue ‘Happy’, Tennyson even mimics Wilde (in the first case he chronologically precedes him) when he shows characters fascinated by the horrid or by the decomposed beauty of old age.
None of the poems in the 1880 collection, which also contains highly skilled translations from Old English, is really new; they all repeat and resume, but rarely surpass, previous examples. Tennyson had indeed become so drained of ideas that in each case he needed a literary precedent or a news item, often sensationalist or moving, which he would rework into poems which are formally polished and impeccable, though terribly anonymous. The most elaborate and ambitious poems are marred by excessive discursive ease and accompanied and surrounded by other examples of purely superficial and routine poetry, sometimes by veritable poetic jottings on occasional events, such as epitaphs and verses of greeting on request or spontaneously bestowed as Poet Laureate, which Tennyson for the first time did not refrain from expunging from his definitive editions.1 ← 15/I | 16/I →
2. One of these greetings was addressed to the Princess Frederica whose marriage had filled with joy her blind father George V of Hanover. Another was inspired by the death of Princess Alice, caused by having kissed her child who was sick with diphtheria. It seems to have been specially written to commemorate the fact that the princess had wanted her coffin to be draped in the Union Jack. At the same time Tennyson was composing historical dramas introduced by high-sounding sonnets celebrating the fierce English resistance to foreign powers and to all forms of foreign interference in later ages. In the wake of these dramas are memories of ancient heroic episodes that often, perhaps as a reaction to the Irish turmoil and to the incipient imperial separatism, exalt, with no pacifist equivocation, British imperialism especially in an anti-Catholic key. Both ‘The Revenge’,2 a commemoration of the heroic resistance, in the time of Elizabeth I, of a single British warship against an entire Spanish fleet, and ‘The Defence of Lucknow’, on a tamed mutiny in India in 1857 at the cost of many human lives, exude pompous patriotic sentiment.
3. The distinguishing mark of this collection is the re-adoption of the dramatic monologue of a mimetic kind, fragmentary and opulent, perhaps as a late response to the successes that Browning had garnered unchallenged in previous decades. At least two of them seem animated by a spirit of competition if not imitation, and both are dedicated to two historical figures. The first is spoken by old Falstaff, purged of Shakespeare’s ‘falsifications’ and reinstated to his more truthful historical features; the second by Christopher Columbus, who is to end his days in prison. Both demonstrate once again the only presumed objectivity of this highly successful genre, because they result in a tendentious and indeed explicitly anti-Catholic polemic. Tennyson had become, politically, an even more intransigent and conservative patriot, and he could afford to take easy if not demagogically populist stances that attracted the favour of the lower strata of his readers. This stance was reflected, from a religious perspective, in an equally explicit support for Dissent by means of the celebration of some of its most representative historical figures. ‘Sir John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham’, which ← 16/I | 17/I → especially in the beginning has some strong dramatic and mimetic effects before stranding in a series of too precise and thus obscure reminiscences, is intended to celebrate the explosive and revolutionary work of Wyclif, the first translator of the Bible into the vernacular. One of his followers was Oldcastle, the historical prototype of Falstaff, who died martyred on the orders of the same King Henry V who had been his companion for pranks and rascality. Tennyson rehabilitates Oldcastle, who died a heroic death while waiting for aid which was promised but not forthcoming, and honours his fierce anti-Catholicism. The dramatic monologue ‘Columbus’ is directly modelled on the best of Browning’s, especially on those featuring dying people who have fallen out of favour and who are recalling past glories. However, after a happy start – when Columbus confesses to a silent gentleman visiting him in secret in prison – it too gradually loses bite in long and lengthy sections of history. Tennyson intended to represent a Columbus who is both the champion and the victim of a suspicious and ultimately reprehensible Catholic mysticism that led him to believe that he was predestined, according to the prophecy in Revelation. Towards the end of the monologue Tennyson cleverly uses his hero, as Browning also often does, to denounce the Church through the words of one of his sons, targeting in particular the barbarity and the atrocities of Spanish colonization.3
4. The didactic and sentimental vein reaches its climax in two compositions that were much admired by his contemporaries and which are now, by contrast, unrivalled examples of bad taste. Tennyson wrote ‘Rizpah’, which among militant critics received only isolated and delirious praise from Swinburne, basing it on a true story almost a century old which seemed ← 17/I | 18/I → an almost exact repetition of a biblical episode:4 a woman now dying tells a visitor how she collected and buried in consecrated ground the bones of his son who was sentenced to death. The biblical solemnity dissolves in the frantic and fragmentary wailing of a woman of the people who is hallucinating like a psychic and smugly lingering on macabre fantasies. Its novelty lies rather in its ‘enlightened’ denunciation of the inhumanity of the prison system and the death penalty, which anticipates a controversy that will intensify with Wilde. As in Wilde’s ballad,5 Willy, the son, is a naïve thief who is forced by society, or corrupted by bad company, to commit a robbery; he then throws the stolen purse to friends, not knowing what to do with it; sentenced, he is exposed to public ridicule. Like Wilde, Tennyson and the woman comment that the word of God resides in forgiveness and not in punishment, that God blesses and does not kill, and that there is an innocence of the spirit that is not the one decreed by the courts of justice, whose verdicts will not coincide with those made on the Judgement Day. Tennyson indirectly confirms, as in Maud, the therapeutic and restoring value of war, having the woman regret that the child had not enlisted. ‘In the Children’s Hospital’, narrated by a pious nurse, is the first case in which Tennyson ventured to describe contemporary scenes that were not those of his rural Lincolnshire; it is also the work of Tennyson the committed humanitarian. But what a holy picture, what stereotyped contrasts, what blatant didacticism, with the doctor for whom not even prayers can save a hopeless case and little Emmie who raises her arms to a God that takes her away one night! Tennyson’s xenophobia causes the callous young doctor to have studied in France, unlike the ‘old’, far more human doctor.
5. The rejection of the modern and the suspicion of aseptic science is also highlighted by a new set of rural idylls, some of them in Lincolnshire dialect, and modelled, without adding special points of interest, on many previous examples, and in some cases largely inferior to them.6 A whiff of the novels of Hardy, which were just beginning to appear, can be found ← 18/I | 19/I → in the idyll ‘The First Quarrel’, with its premarital intrigues, quarrels and misunderstandings of conjugal life, including the, once very wholesome, life of the peasants and honest workers. ‘The Voyage of Maeldune’ is a reworking of ‘The Lotos Eaters’ and reprises the vein of fable and of the mythical of youthful Tennyson. Maeldune is an ancient Irish hero who goes to sea to avenge those who killed his father, helped in the enterprise by brave comrades belonging to the oldest race on earth. The trip is actually a cruise that touches a circle of enchanted islands, each distinguished by a different natural characteristic, and during which the original purpose evaporates into an exhausted swoon, so much so that when at the end the hero finds the murderer he forgives him rather than taking his revenge. This ballad is a parable of the creation of civil society, and in particular of the superseding of the law of retaliation: every stay in the enchanted islands closes with a hint, immediately suppressed, of fratricidal struggle, to symbolize the wildness of the company and the progress of civilization. The delay in the revenge is clearly a pretext to linger on the magic of the places visited, and highlights Tennyson’s purely descriptive vein. The review of natural sorceries, of the inviting dens, of the half-naked seductresses, is interrupted, as in Tennyson’s early poetry, by the stern warning of a saint.7
1 Tennyson’s bombastic and swollen anthem ‘De Profundis’, which dates back to 1852 (but later improved), welcomed the birth of his son Hallam, demonstrating that deaths were to Tennyson much more congenial than births.
2 This title alludes to both the name of the ship and to the action of the atmospheric elements that punish the Spaniards and make the waves swallow their fleet.
3 Columbus opened a door to a ‘scoundrel scum’, that is, the Spaniards. This monologue was commissioned by American friends and inspired by Washington Irving. A hint that brings us back to ‘Enoch Arden’ (Volume 4, § 98.4–5) is the serenity of the ‘bare islands’, not yet civilized, which the Spaniards would soon put on fire. Echoing Browning and his Bishop at Saint Praxed’s, the poetic ‘I’ hopes that perhaps the Spaniards will repent, exhume the remains of Columbus and acknowledge his merits.
4 2 Samuel 21, 8–10.
5 § 240.2.
6 As with ‘The Sisters’, a slow and conventional poem on the partly tragic stories of two sisters in love with the same man.
7 For the sake of literary coincidences it is worth mentioning that this poem was inspired by a book called Old Celtic Romances published in 1879, whose author was a P. W. Joyce. This short story has indeed many elements in common, and a vague analogy in plot, with Joyce’s Finnegans Wake: the avenging warriors, in the several islands that they reach, kill the time singing ‘the triumph of Finn’.
The only two truly remarkable and challenging compositions in the collection Tiresias and Other Poems (1885) are the monologue ‘Tiresias’ and the moral fable ‘The Ancient Sage’; they synthesize Tennyson’s writing practice in the 1880s and the dichotomy between the public and the personal. ‘The Ancient Sage’ deals with the disturbing and resurgent metaphysical quest, no longer camouflaged and objectified in allegorical or highly concentrated metaphorical forms, but rather carried out far too ← 19/I | 20/I → verbosely despite the exotic setting. ‘Tiresias’ is, at least in its main contention and under the veil of a recreation and adaptation of a classical myth, a pronouncement on a collective code of conduct. The two poems are almost the only ones whose meaning is oblique, overwhelmed as they are in this collection by a poetry that takes in and absorbs directly the occasional, the anecdotal, the crude news item, where Tennyson purely becomes the poetic commentator of current events. We find for instance an abundance of concise but more often cumbersome epitaphs that he was urgently required to provide, the usual poems of greeting and welcome to England for scions of royal blood, and sometimes actual political suggestions inspired by a creed of firm moderatism. The politician who Tennyson believed suitable to face a moment of renewed internal troubles – such as the one that preceded the Third Reform Bill – had to be endowed with qualities such as balance and impartiality in a rapidly changing world. Tennyson, averse to a further enlargement of the franchise, simply sent coded messages to the ‘helmsman’ Gladstone, suggesting that he should not dive recklessly into the ‘cataract’, but should instead follow a gentle, bending route that could save many days of travel. Even before the Third Reform Bill, Tennyson believed British ‘freedom’ to be far greater than that of Greece and Rome,8 and Britain a political model to which the whole civilized world should look up to, one that had to be defended, exported, even imposed by arms: ‘That man’s the best cosmopolite / Who loves his native country best’. The stentorian and delirious chants celebrating private and collective heroism, such as that of the ‘heavy brigade’ in a phase of the now distant Crimean War, could no longer mask the reality of a poetry by now openly belligerent. Could or should poetry celebrate war and even incite to war? Tennyson answers – in the epilogue of ‘The Charge of the Heavy Brigade’, in the form of a dialogue between the poet and the personification of peace – that everyone would sincerely like to sing peace, but that Evil has destroyed it, and that to have peace one must make war. An ontological pessimism suggests that an act of injustice, or an improper exercise of the will in pre-human worlds, ← 20/I | 21/I → now requires atonement in this world. That was the same historical motivation, equivocal and sinister, of much warmongering cloaked in pacifism.
2. A celebration of heroism is at least one of the goals and of the meanings related to the present in ‘Tiresias’, a dramatic monologue whose gestation was very long and complex, and dating back in its first draft to as early as 1832–1833. The poem exhibits credible solemnity and a dramatic power of its own. The peroration of the blind seer Tiresias, who barely mentions the risqué circumstances of his punishment at the hands of Athena who also gave him in exchange a higher prophetic power, closes with Young Menoeceus’ assent, mutely symbolized by a hot tear running down the old man’s hand. Thebes will be saved thanks to the sacrifice of one of her sons, whereas the insensitive mass did not listen to the old sage; the apostrophe closes on the motif, also dear to Ugo Foscolo, of the ‘graves of the strong’. The monologue is therefore a manifesto of political balance. It is also, in its exhortation to translate the ‘virtues’ into ‘action’, and an action that could even be deadly but was still aimed for the salvation of his country, one of the first viaticums offered to the young and often effeminate Englishmen who came out of public schools and university colleges. Their moods of weakness and prostration were similar to those which, for Tennyson, followed the death of Hallam, when the monologue was first sketched. At the same time, with quite different chords and reverberations, it is yet another investigation into metaphysical questions and a continuation of ‘Lucretius’.9 Tiresias’ blindness is a symbol of man’s inability to investigate and scrutinize the ‘secrets of the gods’, who, if we are to judge from daily experience and from misfortunes that mankind has been given by fate, are gods who are slow to forgive, cruel and even vindictive. The divine intentions remain obscure even to this stubborn, Ulyssean investigator, at least in that he longed for ‘larger glimpses of that more than man / Which rolls the heavens’, and that as a young man he climbed ‘the highest of the heights / With some strange hope to see the nearer God’.
3. The ‘salutary’ outcome of war is once again, at least in absentia, a form of salvation and almost oblivion of a widespread social malaise ← 21/I | 22/I → which affected the lower classes, which had even lost the comfort of traditional faith. The married couple of ‘Despair’,10 derived from a piece of news, wish to put an end to their life, letting themselves be drowned in the sea; the attempt succeeds only partly because while the wife perishes the man is driven back to the shore by the waves, and then rescued by the minister of a dissenting chapel who has failed to instil the necessary faith in life into the two aspiring suicides. The chief and most evident defect of this monologue, which must be imagined as told by the man to his own saviour, is a lack of verisimilitude and a stark fracture between the content of the story, which often coagulates in lapidary pessimistic formulations, and the credibility of the narrator: such a well-polished and so eloquent debater hardly throws himself into the sea by instinct. Its importance lies in the intuition with which Tennyson duly captures a sign of the times, that cosmic pessimism into which social and ideological Victorian optimism was ignominiously fading and degenerating, and that sowed in some, Tennyson himself included, a real apocalyptic terror.11 The uninterrupted, nihilistic lament of the failed suicide, a favourite character of much early poetry by Tennyson, rightly led many critics to mention the name of James Thomson B. V. Hopkins too, for altogether different reasons, wrote in the 1880s his ‘terrible sonnets’, whose agonizing questions resurface as diluted and more sedate in the story of Tennyson’s rescued suicide.12 At the same time, Tennyson’s suicide touches or echoes some points of the socialist and even Marxist propaganda which was supplanting religion, so that this poem may even be, e contrario, a demonstration of the pernicious effects of a new, and still not well digested ‘faith’. He rails against all creeds ← 22/I | 23/I → which have oppressed and paralyzed peoples, acclaims the radiant dawn and denounces a world of ‘arrogant opulence’, dominated by violence and wrong. It should be borne in mind that his wife was driven to suicide because her son, like that of Rizpah, committed a capital offence – if, the speaker adds, this is really a crime – and was hanged; and she also asks whether the son was ‘crowned by a virtue, or hanged for a crime’. Religion too lies in the dock, becoming one the major defendants. Tennyson provides the same end point both for the mythological sage Tiresias and for his poor proletarian contemporary, whose crippling Christian faith still preached a ‘God of eternal rage’, or a ‘merciful God that should be’ but that is not, if he allows for the existence of hell. Hell, however, is not that of eternal damnation after death, but the world itself and earthly existence. Like Browning’s Caliban, Tennyson’s suicide envisages a ‘great god’ who should curse and dethrone the inferior god of love and hell.
4. Tennyson impersonates the faux naïf in ‘The Ancient Sage’, composed along the lines of those little fables by Browning which are seemingly dull and almost childlike while they mask bleeding metaphysical questions and are also rife with only slightly veiled contemporary allusions. The Eastern sage, based on the figure of the philosopher Lao-tze, speaks to the young disciple of problems which are in every way western, and may therefore be considered the equivalent of Browning’s Ferishtah, but also of Cleon and Karshish as representatives of pre-Christian thought.13 Both were debtors to Nietzsche, whose Zarathustra leaves the community and chooses solitude. Tennyson, like Browning, by putting himself in the shoes of supposed ancient sages, repeated the intellectual journey towards a threshold which those sages could not pass, having lived before the Revelation. It was a path that led them to see a world originating from and ending in a higher power, if even only vaguely sensed. The figure of the sage and the exotic scenario serve therefore to set forth an investigation – in other ways and with other terms – into the absolute and the intuition of the divine; a god is already there, all that is necessary is finding a name. The wise old man communicates his ← 23/I | 24/I → knowledge to a young, sceptical disciple who is composing delicious little lines about a nature that seems to him self-created, to which the doctrine of the unnamed god is opposed. The traces of this god are scattered ubiquitously in creation, in the smallest grain as well as in the infinity of heaven: this is the last recurrence, and happily resolved, of Tennyson’s ‘two voices’. The drawback noted by Tennyson is that, even for the sage, the Unnamed is perceptible but not provable,14 so that everything hinges on doubt, everything is doubt, methodical doubt that can only be overcome by Pascal’s wager: that is, relying on the ‘sunnier’ side of the doubt, and choosing faith. The poem ends – too easily to be really and completely convincing – with the formulation of an unequivocally positive existentialism. The nihilistic observation of the disciple, that everything wanes into nothingness, is countered with abundant evidence by that of the master, that everything is instead connected, that movement is designed to an end, that ‘the world is wholly fair’.
5. The last word of the ancient sage, not very different in substance from that of Tiresias to Menoeceus, is an invitation to the disciple to return to the dark city and to do good works. The conclusion, highly prescriptive, was perhaps a polemical response to the famous and hotly contested one by Pater in The Renaissance, which in 1885 had already been re-included. It announces a Victorian decalogue of humility and responsibility; it advocates a life made of alms, of kindness, of active commitment in the human community; it disowns the Paterian ‘fiery gems’, the selected and refined pleasures of Des Esseintes, and urges not to confuse life with pleasure. A perfectly western voice, the unmistakable one of the preaching of dissenters, draws a Bunyanesque allegory of the Christian life (‘Do-good’ climbing the Mount of the Blessings); the disciple, ‘richly dressed’, recalls at the same time the rich young man of the Gospel asking Christ what is needed to enter the kingdom of heaven: ‘and make thy gold thy vassal not thy king’. Tennyson has the ancient sage prophesize and pronounce truths of the utmost importance that are precise answers to ideologies and trends of the moment, and even disguises himself as a ← 24/I | 25/I → modern sage addressing a young disciple or Paterian nihilist. With a rare and therefore most effective stroke of genius, in another poem15 he symbolically makes us see a dead and even mocked prophet, whose foul deeds are openly divulged, and who, we discover, is the revered Carlyle. We are hearing perhaps, in this poem as well as in the painful confession of the inanity of his prophecies by Tiresias, the awareness of the waning of that ‘vatic’ function that the Victorians attributed to the poet, and of the crisis of contemporary ‘prophetism’.
6. Tennyson’s narrative monologues on current events and the rural idylls, including one in Irish dialect, are characterized by a more precise and stronger tragic emphasis evident in stories of frustrated love and failed marriages. In ‘The Wreck’ he tries again, but with an unsuitable form – that of the sentimental monologue overloaded with spasms and effusions – the representation of an event of contemporary life which is offered once again by the press (a woman runs away with her lover and is saved from a shipwreck while the man perishes). Here what is most superficial and false is the representation of the guilty conscience of the woman, who, being a Catholic, is to Tennyson obsessed with sin and damnation. A Tennysonian vein of madness and possession tortures the protagonist of ‘The Flight’, a belated rehash of the theme of the love-ban related to the youthful flirtation with Rosa Baring. The poem is in rhyming quatrains, and suffers from an open clash between the static formal dressing and the furious excitement of a monologue that communicates reactions and decisions that then result in actions.
8 ‘To Virgil’, written for the nineteenth centenary of the death of the Mantuan poet, contains a belated hint to the freshly won Italian independence, after Tennyson had been totally deaf to the Risorgimento.
9 See Volume 4, § 99.2–4.
10 Tennyson considered this poem too bold, and it did cause a real scandal in the circles of evangelicalism. Seven years later he wrote and published, as a pendant, ‘Faith’. In the meantime, however, and in the same 1885 collection, he inserted, as the inaugural poem, ‘To E. FitzGerald’, to reaffirm the afterlife at least just as a desired hypothesis (‘If night, what barren toil to be’).
11 ‘all massacre, murder, and wrong’ is the world. See Volume 4, § 58.3, on the assumption of the imminent end of the universe put forward by astrophysics.
12 ‘We are all of us wrecked’. Hopkins too uses sea images of ‘shipwrecking’, humanity adrift, a ‘generation’ that is ‘fast foundering’, and one which no light can save, because his wreck is only and totally spiritual.
13 See Volume 4, § 122.6–7.
14 Sinfield 1986, 57–64, helpfully observes, from a deconstructive perspective, that the poem overshadows the final ‘inability of language’ to formulate the notion of being.
15 ‘The Dead Prophet’.
A reading in succession of Tennyson’s poems from the last five years of his life, collected in Locksley Hall Fifty Years After (1886), Demeter and Other Poems (1889) and Akbar’s Dream and Other Poems (1892), leaves one with the impression of an insoluble and disconcerting counterpoint. This is partly due to a formal imbalance between pure and sober lyricism, new in Tennyson, and residual dramatic and mythological adaptations, as ← 25/I | 26/I → well as superficial anecdotal erudition; it is also an imbalance between truly sharp brevity – metrically simplified and played out in unadorned images – and lengthy diffusion. The gap is also between a public voice and a private one that openly contradict one another, ranging from a low-spirited to an exuberant tone, at times doubtful and sarcastic, at times boldly frantic and triumphal. It is perhaps not necessary to dwell again on the issue of Tennyson’s honesty, but rather on his mood swings: as in his very early work, this is a poetry that, no matter how diluted and objectivized, is an expression of his moods, his states of mind, even his whims, which Tennyson, like Browning, safely attributed to his fictional alter egos and masks. The most obvious fissure in these last works is represented by the facile and inflated optimism of several public celebration poems, and, at the opposite end, by the painful universal pessimism, or at least hesitation, of others, more private and disguised. But there is a way to reconcile these two extreme voices in Tennyson’s poetry, a way that could appear daring if it were not shared by some of his contemporaries: the public Tennyson applauds, albeit with chilling superficiality, the same ‘complete apocalypse’ that was taking shape much more painfully in Hopkins’s poems, which had been sung in Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus and in a few other authentically apocalyptic Victorians. Tennyson extols the moral regeneration of the world that comes invariably and primarily from an ideal of good governance which coincided ipso facto with that of the British monarchy and the Empire, the only form deemed capable of ensuring the fairest democracy. From this perspective, the most pessimistic poems hark back to that ‘incomplete’ apocalypticism that can only contemplate destruction and the end of everything, with no sign of hope for a transformation of the status quo; in this group of poems Idylls of the King can also, ultimately, be included.
2. In the poem that celebrates the opening of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886, Tennyson welcomes the loyalty of the Indian periphery flooding London with its exotic products, and even recognizes the error of the ‘fathers’, who expelled that lively Puritanical community from whose fervour the American federation would be born. He does so in order to confess that the imperial unity was no longer there or was ultimately crumbling: ‘must we part at last? […] Sons, be welded each and all, / Into one imperial whole’. In the poem commemorating the jubilee of Queen ← 26/I | 27/I → Victoria in 1887, optimism would sound triumphant but for some minor reservations, like the need for increased efforts to remedy obvious distortions, such as the inequitable distribution of wealth, the scarcity of hospitals, the degradation of suburban areas. Every dark cloud would soon be dispelled, however, and the poem ends with a shrill cry: ‘Fifty years of ever-broadening commerce! / Fifty years of ever-brightening Science! / Fifty years of ever-widening Empire!’. ‘Locksley Hall Sixty Years After’, a lyric surveying the current situation but still haunted by Tennyson’s indelible memories of his youthful infatuation with Rosa Baring, took contemporary readers by surprise. They were able to see through the thin dramatic disguise – defended by Tennyson with almost naïve statements – a clear and complete reversal of his optimism. The poem, which is the most famous example of the binary and companion-type composition in Tennyson, represents the same characters and the same situation, except sixty years later than the previous one with the same title from 1832:16 now aged, the rejected lover reminisces while speaking to his grandson who, under a family curse it would seem, is himself a rejected lover. However, the protagonist refers back not just to his young self: he is like a composite figure of all the Tennysonian characters who are disappointed by love, of all or almost all the Tennysonian lovers, who in some cases do find the will to live on, but more often succumb to insanity. The pathological fixation of this character makes him a successor or at least an ideal brother of the madman in Maud, the major difference being however his complete lack of will to heal and detoxify; quite the opposite in fact: his delight in suffering again prevails. Tennyson did not succeed in merging and credibly interconnecting the two voices in the poem. One of them, the lover’s, flows in a sequence of happy memories, snapshots often linked by association, while the other bursts into a sarcastic and rhapsodic monologue steeped in phrases used just for effect. The Victorian political, social and spiritual model that this second voice rails against is the same that Tennyson welcomes with enthusiasm in other poems of this period, judging it fit for export to the rest of Europe. The very apocalyptic evolutionism, ‘complete’ and finalistic, is the ← 27/I | 28/I → subject of a series of pressing and deeply open questions. Only through a dramatic filter does Tennyson manage to expose what is often a recurring personal doubt: the twilight of an era of strong and genuinely ‘romantic’ passions and chivalry, now overwhelmed by opportunism, materialism17 and a blind, fanatical belief in a progress that reveals itself to be an empty cry. It is almost a third ‘voice’, sounding exactly like that of contemporary radical propaganda, which lays bare the shortcomings and injustice of the political system, and calls for a complete renewal of the ruling class. In this monologue, the old man in love coincides with Tennyson, at least in his metaphysical shudders, because, like Tennyson, he does not know how to cling to other-worldly hope, aware that all human ideals will turn into dust if the belief in the eternity of the soul were to be discarded. Through him, Tennyson reiterates the painful and unresolved, and for him almost insoluble investigation into the finality of man and the world, an investigation marred by the evolutionary and scientific threat of the ultimate extinction of the species.18 Tennyson wrote his Ecclesiastes with ‘Vastness’, one of his most compact and impressive expressions of existential despondency and unmasking of the illusions of life. It is organized in an almost asyntactical string of telegraphic, bitter announcements, the solemn chorus of a Greek tragedy or a vaguely blasphemous litany.19 It is the same evolutionist note ← 28/I | 29/I → that echoes again in this poem, the awareness of a diminished and degrading role for humans, ever more like ants or midges before the infinite universe.
3. What was that ‘modern framework’ that Tennyson pointed out in ‘Demeter and Persephone’, one of his last and by now repetitive revisitations and recreations of classical mythology in his poetry, a myth which had prompted his first poetic attempts? Contemporary anthropology had long been studying the figures of myth both as materialization of the numinous and inexplicable forces of nature and their subsequent co-optation and adaptation by Christianity. In the same years, Pater had devoted a long essay to Demeter highlighting how she heralded the mater dolorosa, the pain of the Madonna for the crucified Son: ‘But when before have Gods or men beheld / The Life that had descended re-arise, / And lighted from above him by the Sun?’.20 Tennyson was not simply interested in an anthropological and cultural perspective: the modernity of this poem rests precisely on the close relationship between Demeter’s assumptions on nature and on the workings of the gods of her time, and the religious anxieties of Tennyson himself. Like Browning in the same years, Tennyson was interested in the Euripidean revisionism of mythological gods; he breaks the inflexibility of the gods of classical myth by making it Christian, which was not far from the rigorist concept of the Puritanical God. Although she is a goddess – albeit, as is pointed out repeatedly, an ‘Earth-Goddess’ – Demeter condemns the cruelty of the supernal gods that have taken her daughter; her question about an obscure word of the Fates – a ‘Fate beyond the Fates’ – contains the remote prefiguration of the fall of the gods, and both the advent of other more benevolent ones and the establishment of a new law that will overturn the pagan religion: ‘Gods / To quench, not hurl the thunderbolt, to stay, / Not spread the plague, the famine’. These words refer to the Victorian ambivalence about God, a cruel but – hopefully – at the same time mild God; Tennyson has his heroine rebel against the ‘hateful fires / Of torment’ of the Christian hell, and the idea of eternal damnation. The last of Tennyson’s adaptations of classical mythology is ‘The Death of Œnone’, which continues and re-elaborates one of the most ← 29/I | 30/I → famous works of early Tennyson.21 Though not one of his most complex recreations, it is one of his most fluent and ‘neoclassical’, especially because it was not planned as a dramatic monologue but as a concise poetic narrative in the third person, and because the goddess’s pain is ultimately muted and repressed, rather than poured out in apocalyptic invectives, as in many other poems on abandoned heroines. The ‘Death of Œnone’ is the last paraphrase of ‘The Lady of Shalott’, because even in this case the woman obeys the call of her repressed and frustrated sexual instincts by taking refuge in a lonely existence in a ‘cave’, where she can see from afar the valley of Troy, with her naked eye and direct gaze, albeit veiled by the mists. Her masochistic and sterile solipsism is broken by an action that, in the given situation, cannot be, once again, but self-destructive. The ‘adulterer’ Paris, mortally wounded by a poisoned arrow, and having visited her to be healed, is driven out by Œnone with two blunt lines that do not allow any objections. Œnone then goes to the pyre where the body of her lover is burning, and throws herself in. In the background, as in Demeter, we hear the typically modern theological leitmotiv of destiny persecuting helpless humanity, the oppressive sense of Gods that ‘Avenge on stony hearts a fruitless prayer / For pity’.22
4. Lined up against solipsistic mysticism and in favour of a faith that is translated into charitable actions for the greater good of humanity, various poems, among Tennyson’s last, have somewhat unexpected and unusual exotic settings, and do not always succeed in infusing erudition with poetry. ‘St Telemachus’ is a pendant to ‘St Simeon Stylites’, as Tennyson himself pointed out, but only in the sense that it overturns it. From the hovel where the hermit spends his life ‘deedless’ in penance, red flashes in the sky and a mysterious voice guide him to Rome, where he enters the Coliseum and, even though stoned to death, he puts an end to the ← 30/I | 31/I → gladiatorial shows once and for all. Like Œnone, he lives in a ‘cave’ and is yet another character driven out of unproductive solitude, and whose death, albeit not immediately, will set a fruitful example precisely because it results in a corrective and socially useful action. Another providential liberating action is seen in Kapiolani, a legendary ruler of the Sandwich Islands who dethrones the ferocious worship of a goddess by walking on fire and throwing into it the berries, sacred to the gods, which no one could touch. Tennyson, who roamed so freely, both geographically and through history, in search of symbols for his activist religious humanism, ended up again in the East with ‘Akbar’s Dream’. The idea and documentary material were supplied by Jowett, who had become a sort of welcome prompter for Tennyson in the last few years, and someone who provided him with anecdotes old and new that he could rework into his poetry. Akbar, the sixteenth-century Indian mogul, had ruled over fifteen vast provinces as an enlightened but also original sovereign. He had adopted a most unusual policy of maximum tolerance that was inspired by a natural religiosity and a bold intent to unite all Muslim sects and Christian confessions into one faith. He had therefore abolished all forms of persecution. The poem is another unsuccessful collage of historical sources, too esoteric and encrypted, as Tennyson himself realized, since he included long explanatory notes. That it was Jowett, one of the leading figures of Broad Churchism, to provide Tennyson with this idea, is not accidental, because behind this new mask the poem reassesses with frankness, originality and even a certain amount of heresy, some fundamental issues of Christian faith and theology. At the end of the nineteenth century, Tennyson perceives, like Pater before him, the need to settle for a timid and minimal faith, one that, precisely because of these qualities, becomes a common denominator that all believers can identify with: ‘I can but lift the torch / Of reason in the dusky caves of Life, / And gaze on this great miracle, the World, / Adoring That who made, and makes, and is, / And is not, what I gaze on – all else Form, / Ritual, varying with the tribes of man’.23 Akbar is one of the last representatives in Tennyson of a problematic belief that, while recognizing ← 31/I | 32/I → its limitations, is fighting for a good cause and achieving results. He is not only a forerunner of ecumenism which expressly prohibits any persecution, but also a severe critic of every sceptical inactivity: to worship ‘Alla’ is ‘to do according to the prayer’, but ‘the prayers, / That have no successor in deed, are faint / And pale in Alla’s Eyes, fair mothers they / Dying in childbirth of dead sons’.24
5. Tennyson’s final five years present other examples of folk poetry, ever more sensationalist though not devoid of some disquieting elements of novelty, albeit rather forced. He sings rural England, the integrity of the farmers who stoically put up with injustice but do not refrain from having a dig at the political class, in a nursery rhyme dedicated to a dog that saves a child from the flames. The setting and topic of ‘Happy’ are utterly far-fetched. In this dramatic monologue set in the Middle Ages, a woman yearns to approach her leper husband, segregated in a hut, to kiss him and give him roses. While rivalling a lyric by Swinburne with a similar title, the poem barely precedes, especially in its Decadent sensibility, Wilde’s Salome, and provides an example of a Romanticism that revels in the corruption of the flesh and leans to the sordid and the disgusting. Like Salome infatuated with Jokanaan, the woman wants to recline her head on the ‘leprous breast’; she morbidly yearns to be infected by her husband’s illness, through which her beauty will emerge intensified (‘My beauty marred by you? by you! so be it […] I shall hardly be content / Till I be leper like yourself, my love, from head to heel’). These most evident Decadent tremors, and the Wildean kiss that closes the poem, are partly offset by the realization that the flesh is ephemeral after all. Tennyson begins ‘Romney’s Remorse’ by following in Browning’s footsteps and challenging the reader to guess the situation depicted: the last, hectic moments in the life of the late eighteenth-century ← 32/I | 33/I → painter, lovingly assisted by his wife who has rushed to his bedside, even though he had left her to devote himself entirely to art, and now barely recognizes her. It is among the most anguished dramatic monologues ever written by Tennyson, and undoubtedly the pinnacle of his mimetic art. However, Tennyson was irremediably late, by at least forty years, and he cannot compare with Browning especially for his inherent inability to follow the dramatic principle to the end. This poem, too, is essentially a veiled response to the precepts of aestheticism: it is the retraction of an artist who rejects the absolute pre-eminence of art over life, which was celebrated by a chorus of voices by the time the monologue was composed: ‘My curse upon the Master’s apothegm, / That wife and children drag an artist down!’ Tennyson offers again the portrait of an integrated artist – primarily into his family affections – who relativizes the artistic imperative and reproves Art as a ‘seductive harlot’. ‘The Ring’ is interwoven on a story, fictional in itself and even far-fetched, too full of coincidences and mishaps and mixed with harmless supernatural elements. The poem’s suspense is also expressed through the rhythmic blowing of the ‘icy breath’ coming from the tomb of the protagonist’s dead wife; but there are also minor lapses into the mawkish and the maudlin, such as the wedding songs for the bride, to whom the story is told, and the recollection of her carefree childhood in the countryside, among flowers and pleasant hills. On the other hand, the supernatural is gradually contained and ultimately domesticated: Tennyson specifies that the time has come to cut off every mystical contact with the deceased woman.
6. Even in seemingly laudatory and occasional poems, Tennyson, already seriously ill in 1888, imperceptibly felt the imminence of death, which appeared to him like a journey by land, or more often by sea, whose arrival point he could not glimpse with certainty. Between this life dotted with joys and pains, and the other life, if any, that lay ahead, there was a ‘dim gate’25 that could possibly turn into an insuperable barrier. The proof of an afterlife rested not so much on cold adherence to a dogma, but on the purely emotional certainty that someone was waiting for him in that ← 33/I | 34/I → world, someone who had been passionately loved by him in this world, which he was about to leave. The intensity of love for a dead person on earth involved and demanded that this love would not end, that it lasted forever – a theme amply focused on in In Memoriam. Arthur Hallam was always there waiting for him, but he was now surrounded by Tennyson’s relatives or close friends, the last of whom was his son Lionel, who had perished several years before in India, and whose body – like Hallam’s – had been transported to England partly by sea.26 Brief and flashing lyrical snapshots are the bequest that Tennyson too quickly included in the 1889 collection three years before his death; among them the four intense quatrains of ‘Crossing the Bar’27 stand out, which Tennyson asked to be placed as the closing poem of all future editions of his poetry. Like many contemporaries, he could not take the leap with absolute confidence; at most he could do it with equanimity, and hopeful of what lay ahead: ‘I hope to see my Pilot face to face / When I have crost the bar’.28 The last collection of 1892 is punctuated by feeble ‘voices’, even by whispers, so subtle as to seem sometimes to be ‘silent voices’. They are certainly not the two or more voices I have discussed so many times, but those of the deceased, who were calling him to join them in the afterlife – or so he thought. But these were simultaneously his own voices, the words, literally the barely heard whispers with which he responded to the call. Misleading titles of the highest possible abstraction are followed by poems that are extremely essential in metre, syntax, images and development. The metaphor, or simply the image of the voice, dominates these brief and intense compositions. Tennyson was not always sure that the voice that ‘spake out of the ← 34/I | 35/I → Sky’ was confirming man’s immortality; sometimes it was an inductive certainty, almost a cold syllogism or a counter-demonstration;29 at other times it was a simple and pious desire not to ‘doubt any longer’, while recognizing that human beliefs are ‘lower than the heart’s desire’. Tennyson speaks of death in terms of a higher and blinding illumination, of a space travel to be undertaken without nostalgia for this life and without fear of losing one’s ‘tiny spark’ in the vast interstellar space, where instead of being blinded and crushed it would be merged and taken to the depths of the heavens. However, Tennyson died without having freed himself from the remote fear, indeed the conviction, that the ‘Ghost of the Brute’ was still looming large in man, and that the journey to the complete separation of man from the beast was still incomplete. The evolutionist question had not really been answered for him. One such poem is significantly entitled ‘The Making of Man’, and it expresses a process not completed but still in the making, and points to the residues of ‘moods of tiger, or of ape’. In the last poem he wrote,30 he was still bitterly aware that he was not leaving a world inherited by the ‘meek’ of the Gospel, but rather one dominated by falsehood, tyranny and authoritarianism; a world only to be redeemed in a dream, by singing the easy and deafening refrain of ‘all’s well that ends well’.
16 Volume 4, § 88.2.
17 The nobility of the past is embodied in the figure of the gentle and consoling Edith, the companion of the character who speaks, and of the father of his grandson, a sailor who died at sea sacrificing himself for others. In contrast, the grandson was jilted by a girl who preferred a richer party. Edith is the one who ‘linked again the broken chain that bound me to my kind’.
18 The evolutionary and nihilistic perspective is substantially discarded in ‘By an Evolutionist’, which, almost echoing the ingenious metaphors of the Metaphysicals, discusses, but rejects, the temptation of an amoral life. It is not, however, wittily forgotten that at birth the beast was separated from man, so that now there is less weight to lift onto the ladder leading to heaven. In ‘Cephalis’, two wives face each other, being the allegories of the degraded sensual life and of the spiritual life.
19 The gloomy pessimism is attenuated in the end by an abrupt and hasty transition, when death is declared life, and life gets its meaning from the afterlife. The guarantee of this discovery is a ‘he’ now received in the sphere of the dead and the living, maybe Tennyson’s brother Charles who was recently dead at the time of this poem; or more likely, Arthur Hallam.
20 Life and Sun, capitalized, betray or explicitly denote a symbolic or allegorical foreshadowing.
21 See Volume 4, § 84.1.
22 The protagonist of ‘Charity’, the latest modern variation on the abandoned lover (by a man who chooses a rich ‘heiress’), is a woman who only contemplates suicide, and is cured of her madness by the very woman who was married to the man she loved. There is no hate between the innocent victims, and indeed Tennyson posits solidarity between them, but he targets betrayal and ingratitude.
23 ‘Forms’ are, however, a necessary ‘silken cord let down from Paradise’.
24 Akbar’s traditionalist theologians also debate about the ‘torment of the damned’ that Tennyson, and Akbar with him, did not believe that God could mete out to the deceased. A distorted and indirect echo of religious latitudinarianism can also be read as a secondary motif in the dialect poem ‘The Church Warden and the Curate’, where a sacristan relates that he moved away from the Baptist sect because that was not the surest way to salvation. Tennyson had to vibrantly insist on the fictional nature of the poem to counter charges of a low opinion of the Baptists or of sacristans!
25 ‘To Mary Boyle’.
26 ‘To the Marquis of Dufferin and Ava’.
27 It was actually written during the crossing of a stream. The ‘moaning’ of the sandbank in the first quatrain may be explained as the result of the confluence of two rivers and their meeting the sea.
28 Tennyson’s poetic ‘gleam’, after a long and fruitful wandering on earth, was ready to reach its ultimate goal in heaven (‘Merlin and the Gleam’). In another testamentary poem, ‘Parnassus’, he declares that the treasures of the poets will not be affected by the advent of the new sciences, such as astronomy and geology, which will demonstrate how laughable are the scientific, and a fortiori mythological and legendary foundations of their works: Homer was, in other words, imperishable.
29 If there were no immortality after death one would never give alms to the poor (‘A Voice Spake Out of the Sky’).
30 ‘The Dreamer’.
While Browning wrote for the theatre in the beginning, Tennyson’s seven plays were written and put on stage during his maturity and old age, over a period of time that spans more than twenty years: from 1872 when Queen Mary was drafted, to 1892 when, after his death, Becket was staged. Three of them are vast historical dramas in several acts devoted to crucial episodes and figures in English history; they are routine works, rarely gifted with flashes of genius. The remaining four, much shorter and less ambitious, occasionally deploy the comic, humorous and elegiac mode with various degrees of success. Tennyson’s drama is thus chronologically close to the rebirth of English theatre. Some of these plays precede Wilde’s by only a ← 35/I | 36/I → few years, while others are from the same time or later. Tennyson’s drama, like Browning’s, did not meet with public acclaim and left no lasting mark, because even in the best of cases it was too outdated, too out of step in its representation of the present. Like Browning, he had not realized what Wilde and Shaw were quick to understand: a new drama had to finally shelve historical, exotic or far-fetched settings, and reflect current events. Tennyson could not of course effect this renewal, no matter how small, because it implied a dissociation from the bourgeois society to which he belonged; because it implied an attitude of ironic detachment and disenchantment or even a scathing attack on that model that only the Decadents could flaunt and make their own. Besides, Tennyson glorified the very essence of Victorianism too unswervingly and monolithically to even come up with a dramatic work of a satirical nature. The Promise of May is the closest to his times, but it keeps prudently at a distance from the metropolis and from the representation of the urban bourgeoisie; it is set in a sort of no-man’s-land, the Lincolnshire countryside, an area where in many respects time had stopped, and where Tennyson found himself on home ground.
2. In the three historical plays, Queen Mary, Harold and Becket, all fitting tributes to the tradition of the British monarchy, Tennyson systematically extols patriotism and nationalism, especially in their embryonic forms, while targeting those who put personal or political aims before the genuine interests of the nation. No way out is provided for characters that support or tolerate foreign interference, which is historically identified with the Catholic Church and the Pope.31 As an openly democratic monarchist, Tennyson rejects the divine right of the royals and attributes their election and their investiture, as well as the possibility of their deposition, to the popular will. As an anti-Norman, he defends from the start the ancient Saxon civilization, the root and the most authentic and primordial mark of the English character – fatally mongrelized with the Conquest – and supports England’s ‘splendid isolation’. Punctilious and completely slavish is his fidelity to the real course of events, compliant with the most reliable ← 36/I | 37/I → sources and traditions, to the extent that often one gets the impression of a mere transcription and adaptation in dramatic form of a history chapter.32 ‘Dramatized history’ was Henry James’s judgement of Queen Mary (published in 1875 and staged in 1876), the longest and most substantial among Tennyson’s plays. James was referring to the excessive time span covered (from Mary’s coronation in 1553 to her death in 1558) and the disconcerting plethora of minor characters and extras, whose stage presence is inevitably limited and yet irreparably damaging to the unity of the play, as they break up the storyline into myriads of stand-alone scenes. The sheer vastness of the plot invokes in fact the kind of thinning out of characters and action that Shakespeare had so admirably carried out in his time, with his unsurpassed ability to select, and consequent gains in psychological characterization and dramatic effect. In Tennyson the characters are mostly intent on imparting practical orders, in commenting and possibly warding off the uncontrollable whirlwind of events; they formulate proposals or unravel plots, and have absolutely no time for self-enclosed monologues embellished with rhetorical figures. With the exception of Mary, Elizabeth and Archbishop Cranmer (predictably presented in the moments before his execution), who are given due psychological prominence, all the others are merely men of action. The England left by the child monarch Edward VI is described by Tennyson as the stakes of a game of chess (this image is used at length in Act I) between Spain and France, a game that leaves no room for genuine feelings, since it places national interest before everything else. The historical moment was also one of furious theological disputes, and in the background, in obedience to a more and more unintentionally ‘bloody’ Mary, we see many heads fall, among them Lady Jane’s, who had dared to claim that the Host was nothing but the work of a baker. Tennyson has no preconceived bias against the Catholics, and recognizes the right to be a Catholic for those who at the time were so; what he does not tolerate, though, are papist Catholics, the servants of Rome and ipso facto the enemies of England. The official leading figure of popery is Cardinal Pole, who is redeemed, however, when the ← 37/I | 38/I → Pope’s policy changes and he himself stands on trial before the Inquisition. Tennyson effectively shows that Mary fell because the Pope abandoned Spain to join France’s side, and because Mary of Scotland, upon her marriage to the Dauphin, had suddenly become an important player. Again, it is only in the national interest – to prevent French ambitions on England through Mary Stuart – that Mary must appoint Elizabeth as her successor. Though Tennyson understands Mary and sympathizes with her, he portrays her as unequal to the task and unable to control the crossfire of the events and the pressure she is under, too engrossed in dreams when she should have coolly analysed the circumstances. She is, too, one of the victims of Tennyson’s solipsistic inaction. He does not spare her the burden of feeling, deep down, more Spanish than English, but among many Machiavellian politicians, hers is a true love, with romantic and morbid touches added to it.33 The play takes us up to her old age and her death, which Tennyson surrounds with an aura of pathos that does not however reverse his overall assessment. Luckily, Elizabeth was ready to take her place, and her few appearances in the play are enough to make us sense, if anything, her independence, wit, and impudent nonchalance despite her young age. Tennyson puts on stage the powerful, but like Shakespeare, he also gives us short collective scenes where we hear the voice of the people, their jokes and naïve comments, often lively and trenchant.34 The people embody the most natural feelings, which for Tennyson were almost on principle feelings of suspicion towards the Catholics and of hostility to the marriage of Mary to Philip of Spain. The integrity of the people is pure and simple common sense or a sense of self-preservation: when blood begins to be shed, what the people care about most of all is peace, not so much who will be the winner between the rebels and the queen.
3. Similar remarks can be made about Harold (1876), a historical play in four acts: too many supblots, too much historical information slavishly ← 38/I | 39/I → followed and crammed into it; the time span covered is too long and the moments devoted to psychological and lyrical exploration too sparse. The historical interpretation at work in the play is announced by the sonnet in the dedication: Harold is the legitimate Saxon sovereign, the direct ancestor and progenitor of the present queen, and the Normans are the invaders and usurpers. The external interferences are, in this case, those exerted by the Normans and by the pro-Norman party: Edward the Confessor is guilty of leaving behind, after his death, a perfectly Normanized England. Tennyson, as usual, is suspicious of mysticism, and contrasts it with the pragmatic but bold British integrity of Harold. However, Harold has a second enemy, his brother Tostig, responsible for the division of the Saxon forces which caused the defeat at Hastings in 1066. Even Harold has to bend in the national interest, if just this once, when he takes a wife he does not love, in order to secure the support of the Danes. But he does not bend to the will of the Pope, who has decreed that England must go to William. He answers the monk who informs him of the decision with words that leave no room for objections. An interminable and wordy drama, with absolutely no bite, is Becket, Tennyson’s third, in a prologue and five acts, published in 1884 and staged in 1893. Even wider is the time span covered, from 1162, the year when Archbishop Theobald dies, to 1170, the year when Becket is murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. A far better compression, thanks precisely to the selection of historical material and a greater unity of time, would be achieved by T. S. Eliot in Murder in the Cathedral, half a century later. Tennyson faces the difficult task of representing and supporting a positive hero who defends with his martyrdom the sovereign rights of the Church against the independence of the Crown. It is a difficulty that Tennyson solves by turning Becket, too, into a national hero and an ‘internal’ critical voice of Roman corruption, albeit one plagued by Hamletic doubts. Becket’s supposed weakness acted, relatively speaking, as a force in a world of corruption and compromises: ‘If Rome be feeble, then should I be firm’.35 The development of the play is foreshadowed and summarized at the beginning, in one of the few truly successful scenes, when ← 39/I | 40/I → Henry and Becket are playing chess and – perhaps recalling Middleton’s A Game at Chess – in their dialogue the real bishops become indistinguishable from the pawns in the game. Becket is mainly redeemed by his genuine love for justice – which Tennyson makes him define as an even greater Church – and for the people. Immediately after his election as archbishop, there is a scene in which Becket, his friends having deserted him, offers a banquet to the poor, as in the Gospel parable, and the poor unknowingly save his life in the first assault of the four assassins; shortly before his death it is comforting for Becket to know that the people, the thieves and the robbers of the forest are on his side.36
4. Tennyson’s four non-historical plays, which are much more agile and not devoid of original elements, show that he possessed an unexpected humorous vein as a comedy writer. Two of them are still historical, in a sense, but it is a purely imaginative or legendary history. The first, set during the Roman Empire, has a truculent plot that weaves together the punishment of ambition and stoic sacrifice; the other is an adaptation of the romance of Robin Hood and Maid Marian. As for the other two, one is a free re-interpretation of one of Boccaccio’s tales, and the other is a work set in a contemporary rural community populated by realistic figures drawn in the round, and echoing with great accuracy certain pernicious ideologies that cover up mere opportunism. Tennyson, who had already drawn on Boccaccio in the fourth part of his early The Lover’s Tale,37 in transposing ‘Federigo degli Alberighi’ into The Falcon38 (staged in 1879 ← 40/I | 41/I → and published in 1884) made a humorous and elegiac, rather than tragic, dramatization which is far removed from the sombre tones of the source. Ample space is given to secondary characters like Filippo, Federigo’s brother, and to Elizabeth the maid, whose Tuscan idioms are rendered, sometimes perhaps too artificially, with an archaic English veneer reminiscent of George Eliot’s Romola. The Cup (staged in 1881 and published in 1884), an exotic play that precedes Wilde’s Salome by a few years, is a bold attempt to depict the passionate and bloody Orient. The attempt fails mainly because of the plot’s lack of verisimilitude and its excessive density with respect to dramatic time. The protagonist is the former tetrarch of Galatia, a kind of Shakespearean villain who comes back home incognito among the Roman ranks, with the dual aim of returning to power and stealing the new tetrarch’s bride, with whom he is madly in love. Bloodshed and cunning tricks, aided by the naïvety of the meek tetrarch, facilitate the rise of the fugitive, who is acclaimed by all. However, on the day of the coronation, the woman, who had pretended to indulge his passion, poisons herself and the impostor. The Promise of May39 (staged in 1882 and published in 1886) juxtaposes another swindler, and his airs of homme fatal and his display of philosophical theories, with the farmers’ shrewd integrity. With this drama in prose, Tennyson returned to the hortus conclusus, the timeless Eden of the English idylls and their rejection of customs and traditions of urban civilization in favour of strong and primeval feelings, only temporarily disturbed by intruders. The juxtaposition is however above all linguistic. The two sisters Eva and Dora, and the intruder and impostor Edgar, are the only characters expressing themselves in English and attracted by that magnetic outside world of which they speak the language; all the others speak in dialect and celebrate, with their songs at sunset, the simple joys and hardships of life in the fields. Edgar represents Tennyson’s negative and suspicious response to a confused and ill-digested ← 41/I | 42/I → mass of irrational, socialist, proto-decadent and evolutionist ideologies, as well as subversive and with radical leanings, which in the 1880s were threatening to overturn traditional ethics, but here appear as the pure and empty screen of a seducer who ends up duly exposed and punished. This man is a miserable Paterian dilettante and a hapless and pessimistic Hamlet who, aware that destruction alone is the rule of nature, longs to seize the moment and fade away.40 He first seduces and then abandons one of the old farmer’s two daughters, causing her to fake her own suicide; he then returns years later, believing not to be recognized, to woo the other sister. The play opens with birthday celebrations for the old farmer, who, as an enlightened master, is giving a banquet for the farm workers; this scene suggests the harmony reigning in a hard-working and long-standing patriarchal world to which Edgar is a stranger. His rival, the young farmer Dobson, eventually rewarded for his obstinacy, is at the same time a shrewd detective who unravels the situation and channels the drama to its happy ending. Unmasked by him,41 Edgar ends up prostrated and humiliated in front of Dora, who teaches him a harsh lesson. The Foresters, staged and published in 1892, once again denounces unworthy and corrupt monarchs and extols the people and those who fight in their favour. Despite not being a monarch, Robin Hood is the prototype of many sovereigns of the future, different from King John whom the barons forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. The spirit of the play, however, is mainly that of a fairy-tale made into a comedy set in the woods, replete with humorous effects and grotesque ingredients. Any serious hint of precise historical and anti-Norman ← 42/I | 43/I → controversy is undermined and diluted in the surreal and merry atmosphere of the forest, which is filled with fun-loving witches and includes a short pantomime inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Among the most delightful scenes is the prank at the expense of King John and the Sheriff played by Robin Hood (who, in disguise, offers them brown bread and wild honey, the food of the poor), and the mockery of the abbot and the king, forced to dance by atrocious bites on their ankles.
31 See Harold’s explicit statement (addressing a monk urging him to yield to the will of the Pope who assigned England to the Normans): ‘When had the Lateran and the Holy Father / To do with England’s choice of her own king?’.
32 In the introductory sonnet to Becket Tennyson hints at the problem of any theatrical adaptation of a fact or a historical figure: ‘And on me / Frown not, old ghosts, if I be one of those / Who make you utter things you did not say’.
33 The scene in which Mary lovingly cradles the portrait of Philip before the wedding forms an effective dramatic contrast with the one in which she, disillusioned, tears it.
34 The play opens during the parade of the queen, on a squabble between some peasants over the meaning of the word ‘bastard’, an allusion to the issue of the illegitimacy of the two daughters of Henry VIII, and attributed to one and then to the other for not entirely perspicuous reasons.
35 This hostility is also entrusted to the forced introduction on stage of the poet and anti-papal medieval goliard Walter Map, whose several speeches are dressed up with pretentious language games and extravagant tropes.
36 Along with this main plot Tennyson develops laboriously other subplots, including that of Henry’s extramarital love for Rosamund, who lives with her son, segregated by Henry in a secret hiding place, until she is found and forced to flee by Queen Eleanor. This plot, unnecessary and even harmful, proves however functional at the end, when Rosamund brings to Becket, her benefactor, news of the conspiracy, and closes the play with a lament over his dead body.
37 Volume 4, § 85.3.
38 Frederick describes the flight of the falcon in terms very similar to those of the ‘The Eagle’ (see Volume 4, § 95.1): the majestic, arrogant, cruelly beautiful bird ready to its lethal descent. This description matches strikingly that of Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’, a poem that, written in 1877 but unpublished until 1918, Tennyson could not know.
- XIV, 894
- ISBN (PDF)
- ISBN (ePUB)
- ISBN (MOBI)
- ISBN (Hardcover)
- Publication date
- 2019 (July)
- English Literature Victorian the Great War
- Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. XIV, 894 pp.