Sunday, August 16, 2009

Week 10, Matthew Arnold and Alfred Tennyson

Notes on Matthew Arnold

“The Buried Life”

This poem brilliantly analyzes what Arnold posits as a universal need to look within, to trace the operations of our inner being and to express them in a language commensurate with that inner life. In other words, Arnold is writing about the very stuff of romantic expressivism. The first few stanzas make it clear that the poet is unable in the present instance to make the connection with another he later posits as being necessary to the insight he seeks. In spite of that, the poem is one of Arnold’s more optimistic efforts. A power he simply describes as “Fate” (30), has kept “The unregarded river of our life” from plain view to protect us from our own destructive frivolity, but this river of authentic being flows on nonetheless. The poet explains that no individual, looking only within, can truly gain access to the inner springs of life and thought. Acting on our own, we cannot know from whence we have come or where we are going; we cannot grasp the purpose of our lives. And we cannot, it almost goes without saying, express a purpose we are unable to apprehend. From lines 55-66, the speaker suggests that most of what we do is a kind of self-deception—what we do and say, that is, conceals far more than it reveals about what we really are inside. Society demands no less of a charade. Even so, the speaker is not downcast: there are those rare moments when the voice, the gaze, or the touch of a beloved person gives us access to our being in all its authenticity. Arnold casts the result of this rarity in Wordsworthian terms: “The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain, / And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know” (86-87). So it is possible on rare occasion, and with the help of another, really to look within and to express what we see there. Especially for a gloomy poet like Arnold, that is a cheerful thought, and it bears comparison to Wordsworth’s lines from “Tintern Abbey,” “with an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things” (47-49). It is possible to achieve an epiphany of the self and to express the insight flowing from it. What is captured is not something static but rather dynamic and flowing, as the poem’s persistent river metaphor indicates. Some may find a note of hesitancy in the poem’s final lines, “And then he thinks he knows / The hills where his life rose, / And the sea where it goes” (96-98). But I don’t think the word “knows” connotes doubt in this case; the conjectural seeker may or may not know the last word about his origins or destination, but that seems less important than the knowledge of his present self the poem says can, in fact, be attained. We should not expect from Matthew Arnold a brash statement such as John Donne’s “She is all States, and all Princes, I; / Nothing else is.” What we get, instead, is a sort of quiet, wistful optimism in the midst of so many melancholy and contemplative utterances by this earnest mid-Victorian.

Dover Beach”

The poem opens with the description of a beautiful natural scene, a seascape. Apparently it is a clear night in patches because the speaker can see the nightlights of France across the English Channel . And he catches something eternal about humanity in the effects of natural process—Sophocles, the poet says, heard the same sound attentively long ago, the sound of pebbles tossing back and forth in the surf with the tide and the waves. (In the play referenced—Antigone—the Chorus speaks of something much harsher—the low moan that accompanies gale force winds as they beat against the seashore, a sound compared to the ruin and devastation of Thebes’s royal house thanks to the anger of the gods.) what our speaker hears is the melancholy retreat of simple religious faith, a retreat that leaves Western civilization all but naked. It is evident that Matthew Arnold does not draw the same sustenance from nature that Wordsworth, a poet he much admires, was able to draw. Both the natural and human world before him in prospect are described as beautiful illusions—sights that seem to promise certitude and intelligibility, a sense that there is meaning out there, that there is “a place for us.” But the speaker is unable to put his faith in anything he sees or hears. He remains disillusioned, I think, even though he tries to cheer himself and his lover with the injunction, “let us be true / To one another!” The world remains hostile, dreary, and violent. It makes no sense in itself, and the knowledge that we can at least temporarily make a genuine human connection with someone else, and thereby create the meaning we seek, does not satisfy the speaker. This poem might be described as what Meyer Abrams would call a Greater Romantic Lyric—it begins in meditation, goes on to analyze a spiritual problem, and attempts to offer an emotional resolution. The tenuousness of that resolution gives the poem its distinctive Arnoldian quality. The couple remain isolated from the world, withdrawn from the violence and confusion surrounding them. Religion no longer offers solace in such a situation, at least not for this particular Victorian couple.

General Notes on Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold actively resists what John Stuart Mill the Utilitarian philosopher had called the “hostile and dreaded censorship” of middle-class ascendancy: the smug self-satisfaction exhibited by average English citizens in their own unexamined views and values. Arnold insists that we need to promote culture and criticism as a means of combating such censorious mediocrity. He counsels intellectuals and thoughtful people generally to step away from politics and social controversy, wherein ideas are bought, sold, and bandied about with more concern for their effects on the balance of power than for their inherent truth. Ideas, Arnold says, should be examined in a “disinterested” manner—that is, in a calm and reasonably objective way, with no regard for one’s own personal biases or for the biases of the social and political groups that may claim one’s allegiance. Arnold’s emphasis is that of a man imbued with the “dare to know” ethos of the Enlightenment as well as with a classical drive towards self-development and self-perfection. Against the increasingly powerful middle-class utilitarian notion that life is all about chasing after pleasure and material comfort, Arnold asserts (as did J. S. Mill himself) that “doing as one likes” is hardly an adequate description of life’s goal; it is of great consequence what things give us pleasure, and the sources we should favor, he thinks, will come to us by way of sound education and self-cultivation, without which we are brutes. Many have pointed out Arnold’s flaws as a thinker—his fondness for repeating himself, his reliance on certain privileged cultural texts (often Greek classics) as irreducible “touchstones” of excellence, and even a certain strain of ivory-tower elitism. But Arnold surely deserves respect for his persistent support of Enlightenment integrity. We seldom seem to realize how fragile our humanity is—a quick scan of the daily papers, with their relentless recountings of twenty-first century brutality, ignorance, intolerance and persecution worthy of the Dark Ages, should convince any rational person that our best tendencies and highest potential must be constantly encouraged and guarded, not taken for granted and left at the mercy of “time and chance.” The Victorians were sometimes too willing to believe in facile assurances about the progress of humanity, but Arnold’s writings show him to be remarkably self-reflective about the pitfalls of such assumptions. At times, what Arnold calls “culture” seems little short of a miracle, given the conditions within which it must develop.

Finally, Arnold addresses some very modern problems—first, the status of art and culture in relation to economic and class arrangements. We find in him both a strong instance of what’s sometimes called the paradox of Anglo-American humanism: while he insists on the great value of humanistic study, he feels compelled to divorce that study from the immediate flow of worldly affairs. As Milton might say, “they also serve who only stand and wait”—and who only “read, study, and observe.” Or to state the dilemma more crudely, culture and criticism can only help us by not promising to help us, at least for the present. The paradox consists in defending the arts and criticism while simultaneously rejecting the suggestion that they should be immediately useful on a broad social scale. Second, Arnold offers a worthwhile examination of the relationship between art and criticism—a concern of much interest to theoreticians today.

Preface To Poems (1853)

Overview: Evidently, Matthew Arnold believes that the romantics, as some wag said about Thomas Carlyle, “led us into the wilderness and left us there.” Arnold seeks a balance between poetic form and expression; art should be oriented towards action, he believes, and it should not wallow in Hamlet-like, self-centered anguish or luxuriate in fine phrases and images. That kind of self-indulgence, he believes, has been the tendency since the early modern period. Shakespeare is wonderful, but Matthew Arnold doesn’t advocate taking him as your model if you want to be a writer. Modernity is a threat since it leads us away from what is permanent in us, and away from a unified sensibility and coherent outlook. The Greeks, according to Arnold, are the best artistic models because they can help us fight modernity’s worst aspects: its threat of incoherence and its predilection for the part over the whole, its penchant for selfishness over what benefits the individual most genuinely and serves the community as well. The Greeks offer clarity, rigor, simplicity, and a balanced perspective on life. Like so many Victorian sages and culture critics, Arnold reasserts humanity’s need for some principle of excellence by which to think and live.

1375. “The dialogue of the mind with itself has commenced,” says Arnold . This dialogue cannot be wished away, but he is concerned about its negative effects on consciousness. Complexity is part of modern life, and the question is how to deal with it. Arnold declares himself against any representation that is, as he says, “vaguely conceived and loosely drawn.” We demand accuracy and precision in art; we demand that it should “add to our knowledge.” Or at least, that is what Arnold says we should demand of it; only if this is done, he implies, will it do what it really ought: “inspirit and rejoice the reader.” As always, Arnold draws much from German enlightenment and romantic authors—his descriptions, as he makes clear, are derived from Friedrich von Schiller, a great disciple of Immanuel Kant. The passage he cites is followed by The claim that the best art facilitates the free play of all the mind’s powers: “Der höchste Genuß aber ist die Freiheit des Gemüthes in dem lebendigen Spiel aller seiner Kräfte.”

Unfortunately, in his view, this sort of spirit-expanding free play is exactly what much modern art does not encourage. Instead, modern poetry gives us representations “in which the suffering finds no vent in action; in which a continuous state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope, or resistance; in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done.” This sort of artistic representation is not tragic in the high classical sense; it is not uplifting but is, he says, merely “painful.” The bottom line is that art should not give in to or merely reflect a particular era’s worst tendencies; it should challenge them, and generate a counter-balancing effect.

1376-77. Arnold insists that “The date of an action… signifies nothing.” There is no reason why we cannot derive as much pleasure and enlightenment from ancient works of art as from modern ones. This is no different from what many critics have said in their own way. Samuel Johnson, after all, wrote that the best art consists in “just representations of general nature” that have been highly esteemed for long periods of time, and he insisted that a painter should not “streak the leaves of the tulip” but should rather provide us with a general, universally recognizable representation. And Percy Bysshe Shelley, of course, writes in his “Defense Of Poetry” that poets write from a perspective beyond particular places or historical epochs. So the claim that art should deliver to us something of universal and eternal significance is nothing new. Arnold is asserting his neoclassical bent here: he derives from Aristotle’s Poetics the notion that literary art should be about “action,” about the construction of plot and story. Emotional expression is secondary to this imperative. As usual, Arnold is in dialogue with William Wordsworth, whose poetry he much admires but whose poetics he does not always agree with. We recall that Wordsworth, in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, said that expression was the prime consideration and that action should simply be made to suit the expression. For Wordsworth, poetry is mainly an expressive vehicle; for Arnold , such a prescription is liable to result in morbid, unbalanced poetry. Somewhat like Thomas Carlyle, Arnold is telling us, “Close thy Byron, open thy Goethe.” As for the moderns in comparison with the ancients, Arnold writes that “with us, attention is fixed mainly on the value of the separate thoughts and images which occur in the treatment of an action. They regarded the whole; we regard the parts. With them, the action predominated over the expression of it; with us, the expression predominates over the action.” It is action, not expression, that delivers to us a sense of an intelligible cosmos. Arnold is therefore very interested in the formal qualities and integrity of a given poem; he emphasizes craftsmanship over intensity of expression.

1378-79. At this point in his argument, Arnold offers some rather harsh words about his fellow critics. He says that they not only allow unhealthy practices, they promote “false aims.” Such critics, he says, are mostly interested in “detached expressions,” and are quite an interested in demanding a sense of the whole in any particular poem. They treat poetry like what we would call “sound bites.” But to treat words and indeed entire works of art this way is to divorce language or whatever medium we are dealing with from the realm of action. While Matthew Arnold is a great believer in the integrity and autonomy of art, he does not promote the idea that the composition of a literary work should amount to navel-gazing on the part of the artist. We do not, he insists, or rather we should not, favor a kind of art that amounts to “A true allegory of the state of one’s own mind.”

Also on this page, Arnold returns to the idea that a young writer must find suitable models. This advice obviously rejects the romantic idea that we can more or less dismiss our predecessors if we find them uncongenial and create something almost from nothing. What Arnold describes is not so much “the anxiety of influence” that, as Harold Bloom would say, caused romantic poets to struggle mightily against the overwhelming influence of John Milton. Rather, Arnold is pointing out that the sheer “multitude of voices counseling different things” threatens modern authors with a profound sense of incoherence when they most need clarity and balance. This is a prominent strain in Arnold’s thinking on art and culture more generally, and even on politics. I think we can understand him without too much trouble because we live in a time with an even larger “marketplace of ideas” from which we may choose. So many ideas, many of them utterly incompatible—how is one to choose amongst them? To use a contemporary phrase, Arnold suggests that modern humanity is beset by “information overload.”

1380-81. But what about Shakespeare as a model? Why not make the greatest of English literary artists our model? Well, Shakespeare’s gift of “abundant… and ingenious expression” may be remarkable, but it is not what we need. In Arnold’s view, Shakespeare was a bit too much in love with beautiful language and fine expression, so much so that it sometimes leads him away from sound construction and concentration on the actions with which his plays are concerned. Criticism on Shakespeare is punctuated by such gentle barbs—Ben Jonson essentially said he wished Shakespeare had had a good editor, that the man had “blotted out” more lines than he did. And Samuel Johnson lamented that the Bard was too fond of silly quibbles, too willing to let semi-obscene puns and the like mar the dignity and moral tenor of his dramas. I think what Arnold is getting at is that Shakespeare was a man of unparalleled artistry and genius who could give us both a complete action and fineness and intensity of expression, but when the other artists attempt to imitate his methods, the results fall short of the original’s mark. (By way of example, he mentions John Keats’s “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil.” It is a poem full of beautiful lines, Arnold suggests, but what is it really about?) Even so, I wouldn’t deny that Arnold is offering a pointed criticism: he says explicitly that Shakespeare’s “gift of expression… rather even leads him astray, degenerating sometimes into a fondness for curiosity of expression….” If this fondness proceeds too far, by implication, we will end up with a work of art that is more eccentric than universal in its appeal. He caps this argument with Guizot’s delicious quip that “Shakespeare appears in his language to have tried all styles except that of simplicity.” If we admire and emulate what is least worthy of such attention in Shakespeare, his art may please us, but it may not improve us or give us a holistic view of life; it may not contribute to our development as whole human beings.

1382-83. Most of all, Arnold recommends the classics, for their “unity and profoundness of moral impression.” Furthermore, he writes of the “steadying and composing effect upon . . . [the] judgment, not of literary works only, but of men and events in general” (1382) that stems from reading classical literature. Perhaps that’s partly why Alexander Pope said Virgil found that “to study Homer was to study Nature.” Arnold’s argument isn’t a diatribe against the modern world; he admits that “The present age makes great claims upon us” and that his classicists “wish neither to applaud nor to revile their age; they wish to know what it is, what it can give them, and whether this is what they want.” He concludes with the thought that progress is a threat mainly if it ignores what is best and most permanent about humanity; the “touchstone” of human nature must be retained amidst the Heraclitean flux of the modern world. His exhortation to fellow poets and readers is that they ought to “transmit to [future generations] the practice of poetry, with its boundaries and wholesome regulative laws,” even if his own generation is comprised mainly of dilettanti who find themselves unable to equal the ancients in their artistic brilliance or their power of thought and feeling. The argument he makes is paradoxical in that what he describes as permanent and natural in us seems to be threatened with extinction by the forces of modernity. As so often, we find a cultural critic dealing with the dilemma posed by the disjunction between broad social imperatives and individual needs and aspirations, and not finding any easy answers. But in his view, ancient art at least gives us some sense of the tranquility, nobility, and excellence of which we are capable.

Notes on Lord Alfred Tennyson

“The Lady of Shalott”

This poem shows Tennyson to be self-consciously late-Romantic. The first several stanzas play with temporal and spatial references, but it is clear that “down” is the way to Camelot, the world of medieval romance and violence, of immersion in time as symbolized by the flowing river. The Lady will experience this immersion as a rupture. Everyone else’s life is her death once she tries to make the passage from the island to the mainland. The poem raises the question of art’s relation to other areas of life, an issue of much concern to Tennyson himself. If poetry is a vocation, to what social end does one honorably pursue it?

Parts 1-2. Poetic devices involve us in the aesthetic way of perceiving. Early on, the plot is enveloped by form; we are entranced by the Lady’s image-weaving, even though we “see” her images spun. The Lady weaves a magic web—is the text another such web? In the fifth stanza of Part 2, the Lady shows little regard for anything but her weaving, and is not yet troubled by desire, it seems. The metaphors of mirror and loom may refer first to the barrier between life and art, and second to the imaginative process. What is woven may represent the real world, but remains distinct from it. But Tennyson seems to be referring also to Plato’s Parable of the Cave, when he writes “Shadows of the world appear.” The Lady does not see the world outside directly—she sees shadows, just like Plato’s cave-dwellers.

The final stanza of Part 2 says the Lady “still delights / To weave the mirror’s magic sights….” Refer to Freud’s essay “Creative Writers and Daydreaming,” where he argues that art is mainly wish-fulfillment. Here the Lady weaves what appears in the mirror, so her web represents representations. What exactly are the “shadows” of which she is “half-sick”? Well, she is tired of seeing things at one remove, and wants direct access to life, to the world of experience.

Part 3. Here the Lady gets her wish when Lancelot punctures the barrier, breaks the magic spell, with a riot of color and sound. The two young lovers in particular (of the final stanza in Part 2) have readied her for this intrusion. Towards the end of the third part, the magic stops, representation ends and experience begins. Lancelot’s phrase “tirra lirra” has as one prominent possible source a song of Autolycus in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale 4.3:

Act 4.3 of The Winter’s Tale: the rascal Autolycus sings:

When daffodils begin to peer,
With heigh! the doxy over the dale,
Why, then comes in the sweet o’ the year;
For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale.
The white sheet bleaching on the hedge,
With heigh! the sweet birds, O, how they sing!
Doth set my pugging tooth on edge;
For a quart of ale is a dish for a king.
The lark, that tirra-lyra chants,
With heigh! with heigh! the thrush and the jay,
Are summer songs for me and my aunts,
While we lie tumbling in the hay.

Part 4. Is that “publish or perish,” or “publish and perish”? The Lady writes her one poem on the prow of the boat that will carry her to her death; the poem is her name. The villagers hear her singing, and she dies “in her song” (this means that within the context of the poem, she really dies, but the phrase is slippery—what does it mean to “die in your song”? Doesn’t that mean you never existed outside of it since you lived in it too?) This leads to another reading of the poem as being about the wall between consciousness and the outside world—a more directly philosophical interpretation that might be taken as going against Romantic self-expression. Is it that self-expression can’t succeed because the self dies in the act of speaking, singing, writing, in the course of the poem? That isn’t a new idea, but the third part sets it forth strongly. On the whole, I’m inclined to read the poem in light of Walter Pater’s later comments about “that strange, perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves.” The value of expression becomes central in that case—what good does it do? The Lady dwells in her own interiority and can neither remain satisfied with spinning her own world nor enter the world of time and experience.

The townspeople try to interpret the poem, but feel only dread. That’s one possible response to art; the other is Sir Lancelot’s more favorable one—he blesses her beauty and asks God to lend her grace for its sake. He does not, like the villagers, try to ward off the Lady’s effect on him as if she were a vampire—he welcomes her power even if he doesn’t fully understand where it comes from, the story behind the pretty but dead face.

“The Lotos-Eaters”

In Memoriam
Lyric 5 says that “A use in measured language lies / …Like dull narcotics, numbing pain,” a thought that seems apt when connected with the present poem. Odysseus joins his crew after only one line—they all “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” as Timothy Leary the 1960’s LSD guru would say. He upsets the principle of rank and falls away from heroism into apathetic song. There will be no more heroism, no more need to remain obedient to the gods. The verse form brings home this worst possible peril for a Greek hero who is, after all, responsible for standing up to his fate even though he can’t alter it.

Tennyson’s borrowings from Keats’ sensualism lend the poem its languidness: “A land where all things always seemed the same.” In Keats, we find autumn stillness, but here that stillness becomes a trance-inducing stasis. Odysseus had sent scouts in Homer’s version, but here it seems that the Lotos-Eaters themselves just show up with their magic plant.

Choric Song: What lesson do the Mariners learn from nature? Character isn’t set off from or challenged by nature, as it should be. Where are the gods? Words lose their proper orientation towards action, and the Mariners surrender to mellow nature. We find no striving, no wandering, no strength—only rhetoric that justifies inaction. The Mariners have become irresponsible poets, and Odysseus is one of them—in Homer, of course, the captain’s men served in part as foils for his heroic survival. By the sixth stanza, we can say, “so much for the homecoming.” Wandering has lost its purposive edge, and expression has become divorced from action.

The eighth stanza of the Choric Song shows a change in form—this part is deceptively translation-like since the lines are long enough to look like Homer’s dactylic hexameter. Homer kept Odysseus from spending much time on the Lotos-Eaters episode—he surely wanted to emphasize the danger that Odysseus might have given in, and makes Odysseus conscious of that—he’s retelling the story as long past for his Phaeacian host Alcinous. When the Mariners refer to the “Gods together, careless of mankind (155), the line reflects Tennyson’s interest in the Epicurean notion of the gods set forth by Lucretius—they are said to be distant, not particularly active (they didn’t even create the Cosmos—random movement of the atoms did), and unconcerned with human affairs. The eighth stanza draws out into song the dangerous spiritual error that this dilatory poem has been exploring. Lucretian materialism is meant to bring comfort to humanity, taking away their fear of death and the gods. But Tennyson (who liked Lucretius) finds this un-Greek or unheroic. Perhaps the entire poem is psychological realism on Tennyson’s part—an admission that strong desires beget or are linked to strong counter-desires: authentic heroism is twinned with strong nihilism and the desire to forget.


Tiresias had told Odysseus that he must leave Ithaca one last time to propitiate the gods, so Tennyson’s idea comes from Homer. Here we find a modern mind confronting Greek striving. In Homer, all the wandering was for the sake of getting home and re-establishing order on Ithaca. But here the point seems to be that adventurism is its own purpose. Mixed in is a sad tone, an almost Hamlet-like musing on the sum total of it all—I’ve done all these things, but what’s the point of it if they become only memories? Ulysses laments that he has “become a name”; his words are no longer oriented towards action, and he has to cheer himself and others up to find that sense of direction again. What he says about experience is almost Paterian—Ulysses, too, wants “to burn with that hard, gem-like flame,” to expand life into a continual moment of great intensity, blotting out the ordinary or transforming it. The second, more public, part of the poem—”This is my son, mine own Telemachus…” implies a rejection of the task Homer set for his hero. Tennyson isn’t interested, I suppose, in the historical element of Odyssean lore—the “task” of the Odyssey was to revitalize a more domesticated land with its former heroic values.

But in Tennyson’s recasting, revitalization evidently means rejecting the domestic life and setting out again as a wanderer towards death. Ulysses stands apart from his son, to whom he would gladly cede the task of ruling over the human herd animals of Ithaca. When Ulysses addresses his old comrades, he sounds like Satan in Paradise Lost—his will is “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” This is a very general directive, not a call to strive towards some specific goal.

If you want to get beneath this poem’s Victorian call to heroism, focus on the subtler side of it—as with Walter Pater, desire for beauty and experience is the obverse of the gods’ absence and fear of death. Tennyson’s is an aesthetic sensibility inclined to escape from or transfigure the ordinary things in life, but not in a way that implies commitment to impending social change. He often comes up against the possibility that his poetry is bound to be received as a compartmentalized, special kind of labor. Does Ulysses’ heroic language differ from his internal dialogue? Is he a false counselor to others, as Dante labels him in one of the later cantos of Inferno? The relationship between art and other areas of life becomes a problem to be explored, not something to be resolved presently. Exploring psychological states is one of Tennyson’s main enterprises, and one might say the same of Browning and some other Victorian poets. Isobel Armstrong’s thesis about Victorian poetry is partly that it constituted an alternative realm where more nuance could be developed regarding the issues that prose authors were writing about

In Memoriam A.H.H.


I. Drawing upon Tennyson’s remark that he had organized the poem by means of the three celebrations of Christmas it records, A. C. Bradley (“The Structure of In Memoriam,” in Robert Ross, ed., In Memoriam, New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1973) and E. D. H. Johnson (“In Memoriam: The Way of the Poet,” in Robert Ross, ed., In Memoriam, New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1973) suggests the following structure:

1. (1-27) Despair: ungoverned sense (subjective)

2. (28-77) Doubt: mind governing sense, i.e., despair (objective)

3. (78-102) Hope: spirit governing mind, i.e. doubt (subjective)

4. (103-31) Faith: spirit harmonizing with sense (objective)

The four-part division in relation to Tennyson’s theory of poetry:

1. Poetry as release from emotion

2. Poetry as release from thought

3. Poetry as self-realization

4. Poetry as mission (or prophecy)

II. The poet also explained to a friend (Knowles) that the poem had nine natural groups of sections: 1-8, 9-20, 21-27, 28-44, 45-58, 59-71, 72-93, 94-103, 104-131. Can you sum up or characterize the organizing principle of each group?

III. Structure of motifs created by paired sections, such as 2 and 39, 7 and 119, and so on, and by repetition of images, metaphors, and paradigms, including hand, door, ship, time, and dream.

IV. Patterns of conversion, turning points, and climaxes: 95, one of the longer sections of IM, contains its most famous climax and moment of conversion, but it is only one of several, for those sections concerning poetry and the role of poetry, the fate of Tennyson’s sister, and the conflict of science and religion all have their contributory climactic structures.

V. Patterns provided by types, biblical and biological (see sections 1, 12, 33, 53-56, 82, 85, 103, 118, 123, 131). Playing upon two competing meanings of the term type, Tennyson parallels and contrasts the biological and the religious. Although he admits that man as a type (species) may well disappear like the dinosaur, a fossil in the iron hills, he finds in Hallam a type (prefiguration) of both the reappearance of Christ and of the higher form (species, type) of humanity—a reassurance that time, evolution, and human life have meaning.

The Poet’s Three Main Areas of Concern:

1. The need to find an appropriate way to express sorrow and hope—a way that will not trap the speaker in those states, but that will not deny their necessity, either. In Memoriam deals with Romantic themes—grief, isolation, the poet’s anxiety over the expressive capacity of language. But Tennyson’s elegiac poem is highly structured and formal, too—a working-out of his emotions. Formal elegy (poetic ritual) helps him establish distance from the recurrent rawness of his grief and affords him an opportunity to express and explore painful interior states. Wordsworth, too, saw meter and poetic devices as ways of establishing meditative distance, ways of blanketing otherwise too-intense events and feelings with a layer of unreality. (This insight is as old as Aristotle—he says we can contemplate things with pleasure in art that would cause us unbearable grief or horror if they really happened.) In Tennyson’s cycle, Sorrow will be personified, negotiated with, listened to, and overcome. But grief is not an easy thing to leave behind; its persistence is signaled in Freud’s phrase “the work of mourning.”

2. The need to wrestle with religious doubt, whether this doubt comes from the pain occasioned by the loss of a dear friend, or from what John Ruskin would later call “the dreadful clink of the hammer” in one’s brain—i.e. the chipping away of faith caused by the advancing sciences of geology (Lyell), biology, chemistry, etc. These sciences were at work even before Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution intensified “Victorian doubt.” Many Victorian intellectuals also had problems with the more severe formulations of Christian theology—Calvinist pre-election or damnation, and so forth.

3. The need to reconsider the “Romantic” regard for nature’s value as a source of moral intelligibility and comfort. But the concept of nature is itself undergoing change—even Lyell’s uniformitarianism (the forces that shape the earth today have been shaping it the same way for millions of years) leads to a sense of “deep time” or “geological time.” The death of Hallam shocks Tennyson, but this long sense of time threatens to overwhelm any sense of human significance—see the fine set of lyrics 54-56 on this issue.

The Prologue

George Herbert’s poetry is an influence on Tennyson. Herbert, like Milton and others, felt the need to justify his habit of writing poetry—is it a genuine calling, or self-indulgence? Refer to 1 John 4:21: “And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.” The remark implies that it if poetry is to be an authentic use of one’s time, it should perform some social function—not just amount to private expression, venting, or some other selfish thing. Herbert also wrestled with movements of spirit that may be less than accepting of God’s will. This is not a matter of doubt, however, as it is with Tennyson—with Herbert, the issue has to do with the mind’s attempt to order contrary passions and align self and will with the will of God. In this sense, poetic language might serve to mediate between one’s better self and unruly thoughts and desires.

Stanza 1. The first stanza introduces a big issue—what is the relationship between faith and knowledge? Another eminent Victorian, John Henry Newman, captured this issue well when he wrote that there is “certitude,” and there is logical proof. In matters of faith, he suggests, the idea isn’t to look for scientific or logical proof—the right attitude has more to do with a deep feeling of certainty in the truth of Christian doctrine.

Stanzas 2-4. The speaker asserts that Providence (God’s plan) encompasses everyone and everything. He says that man “thinks he was not made to die,” and claims that he draws certitude from that. If we have such a strong feeling that something of us survives, well then, something must—why else would we have such a feeling? God made us, and must have given us the capacity for that feeling, so he will have the thing so. The third and fourth stanzas insist that despair—something IM explores—must be cast away along with sorrow.

Stanza 5. The speaker says, Carlyle-like, that “Our little systems have their day.” They are only “broken lights” of God’s divine and radiant Truth, so human knowledge will never replace God.

Stanza 6. The poem will make a search for the true ground of being and faith. The “beam” of light in the darkness could refer to any number of biblical passages, but Christ’s “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” would be a good candidate. (John 8:12)

Stanzas 7-8. Knowledge will grow until mind and soul, knowledge and faith, unite again.

Stanzas 9-11. The speaker apologizes for the torturous Romantic path of self-exploration and doubt that makes up the lyric progression of IM. He accuses himself of an excessive grief that might imply lack of trust in God’s plan. As Claudius says to Hamlet concerning his father’s death, “why stands it so particular with thee?” The speaker’s “wild and wandering cries” are, however, rhetorical and dramatic utterances. They explore, vent, contain and direct “powerful feelings.” Tennyson’s craft as a poet helps him arrange his emotions and gain perspective on them.

Lyric 1
(Stage 1 = 1-27, Near-Despair, ungoverned sense, subjective)

Loss should lead to growth, but perspective is an acquisition of time—a slow, sorrowful process. The speaker begins his exploration of sorrow’s psychology—grief is necessary and human. He rejects stoic indifference to grief—he is not yet ready for “calm of mind, all passion spent” (a line from Milton’s Samson Agonistes).

Lyric 2

Over time, the tree obliterates the names of the dead, effacing our attempt to memorialize them. Nature envelops the person’s dust, and shadow envelops our entire lives. The speaker betrays a strong desire to put an end to answer-seeking and self-consciousness. Carlyle’s sense of mystery hovers over this poem, but provides no comfort. The tree itself is rooted in eternity, ultimate perspective. In the final stanza, the speaker wants to lose consciousness and merge with the tree’s mysterious presence. We might also say that the tree is one of Wordsworth’s “beautiful and permanent forms of nature.”

Lyric 3

The poem objectifies sorrow to gain perspective on it, but this tactic does not always work. In the first sent stanza, the speaker tries to gain perspective on his grief—towards what path of thought will Sorrow lead the speaker? In the second stanza, Sorrow says that we inhabit a blind universe—Carlyle’s steam-engine universe—and that there is, therefore, no divine providence and no purpose to life. In the third stanza, she says that Nature is void of meaning or hope; there is no source or ground for being, no anchor for the expression of emotions. In the fourth stanza the speaker raises the possibility of rejecting the Wordsworthian religion of nature, but does not do so.

Lyric 4

This poem shows that the speaker suffers from a divided consciousness, as in Lyric 2.

Lyric 5

The speaker questions the expressive transparency of language, its ability to convey feeling. He questions Romantic optimism about the vital role of language as mediator from one soul to another. But the lyric’s rhythmic language helps to still the speaker’s pain. It distances him from his own emotions—but is a narcotic effect the same as perspective or therapeutic value?

Lyric 54

In the final stanza, the carefully ordered rhetoric of faith is described as a dream, and the poet’s language as a cry. But a cry does not give us the moral understanding we crave; we want to assert that purpose governs the universe.

Lyric 55

In the second stanza, the speaker asks if God and nature are at war with each other. He may be thinking of Sir Charles Lyell’s principle of uniformitarianism, which says that consistent forces operating over vast periods of time have shaped the earth. If the species or type is all that matters, what consolation is that fact for individuals? Can science offer us satisfying knowledge? Or even bearable knowledge? In the final two stanzas, the speaker sounds like Shelley in “O World, O Life, O Time.” Life is cast as an arduous path, with the speaker groping for purpose and meaning. Science has been destructive of faith, disintegrating the individual psyche and the sense of community.

Lyric 56

In the first stanza, Nature says she cares not even for the type—geological strata convey in cold stone the passing even of the species. Evidently, Nature can betray the heart that loves her. In the fourth stanza, the speaker says we trusted that love was God’s primal impulse and ordering principle—Aristotle’s final cause (purpose) and first cause (God) conjoined. In the sixth stanza, the speaker raises the problem of self-consciousness. We “look before and after and pine for what is not,” as Shelley says. We try to establish a hierarchy of beings, but geological time does not respond to our efforts in a comforting manner. I recall Pascal’s remark that “the silence of these infinite spaces” terrifies him. Tennyson’s speaker says we cannot be satisfied thinking of ourselves in purely material terms—it crushes our sense of worth and even humanity. The final stanza brings in a Carlylean sense of history again—put on the veil and stop asking questions.