hile Tennyson's earliest poems are not unsophisticated, they are usually very uncomplicated, almost as if the poet had established for himself in each poem a single structural, thematic, or technical problem. It is remarkable how deliberately and continuously these poems use the clichés of irony and, to a lesser extent, comedy. Tennyson here serves his generic apprenticeship in public and presents a programme of his later progress in irony, where he will take the themes and techniques, isolated here, and combine them, reworking the clichés into poems that form the center of the developing conventions of irony.
As for comedy, he appears to have needed no apprenticeship. The Devil and the Lady, written when he was fourteen, is so assured in style and so easy in development that it is, as everyone who mentions it says, "astonishing." There are youthful excesses, certainly, but also a surprising maturity, particularly in the poetic vision that could produce such a troubled and potentially dark comedy. This is no piece of high-spirited merriment or confident satire, It begins in the Jonsonian manner, but Tennyson seems quite uninterested in corrective satire, even at this early stage, and the comedy soon moves beyond correction to a more unsettled and complex form.
With Poems by Two Brothers, comedy is made clearly subordinate, as the young poet begins to develop the materials of irony, Anyone reading through his contributions to this collection is bound to be struck by the poems' nearly uniform grimness. In only about one-fourth of them is any sort of comic spirit evident, and even [15/16] there it is often rather bizarre. All the others, I think, are deliberate and careful exercises in the ironic mode.
To cite just one example, "The Dell of E-" demonstrates Tennyson's experiments both with structural reversal and with the inversion or burlesque of comic principles. Exactly half of the poem asserts a unification of man and nature which is flatly denied by the other half The first stanza describes objectively the beauty the dell once possessed; the second moves us closer to its restorative, calming powers. There is then an abrupt switch to an image of desolation. Man, it turns out, has destroyed what he needed most. The final stanza goes on to climax this irony, suggesting that the trees may have been cut to build warships, that what once gave men joy now functions as their killers, bearing "terror round / The trembling earth" (ll. 51-52).
This double climax or "capping" is very common in Tennyson; he often adds a final and unexpected twist that brings the theme into focus abruptly and with a shock. That men set out to ravage their greatest friend is one irony; that they have transformed this friend into an instrument of death complements and intensifies the point. But the poem is quick to block any moralistic renderings of this perception. In fact, the real point of the poem is that there is no point. We are not asked to reflect that we ought not to do such things but to accept how sad and horrible it is that we do. The poem ends not with admonition, nor even with the ironic shock discussed earlier, but with the understated reflection that the trees really served better in their previous state, that, instead of being used to kill, it would have been
lovelier, had they still
Whispered unto the breezes with low sound,
And greenly flourished on their native hill. (ll. 52-54).
The delicacy and simplicity of lovelier are deliberate, and they contain most of the force of the poem. This is decidedly not corrective irony — It sees simply the loveliness of Paradise and the absurdity of its loss; it never suggests that this loss can be recovered. While such themes are less blatantly announced and such reversals generally less sudden in Tennyson's mature poetry, the basic principles are developed here in Poems by Two Brothers.
Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830) and Poems (1832) are both more sophisticated and much more varied than Tennyson's contributions to Poems by Two Brothers, but in the major poems of these two [16/17] volumes are the same dominance of the ironic mode and curious persistence of the comic that marked the earlier poems. What had been simple, however, now becomes more complex, and the deliberate separation of themes, images, and techniques now yields to combination and compression. Tennyson has mastered the rudiments of irony and begins in these volumes to experiment with the various technical and thematic possibilities it allows him. Though many of these poems are imperfect, a few are as successful as any poetry Tennyson was to write. Already with these early volumes, Tennyson reaches maturity in that form. His later ironic poems tend to become more subtle and even more experimental; they expand the genre itself by challenging its limits. These 1830 and 1832 volumes, however, do more than just prefigure Tennyson's major ironic work; they contain some of it.
But not much. That the apprenticeship stage of Poems by Two Brothers has not been left entirely behind is apparent in poems like "A Dirge," which deals starkly with the superiority of death to life, not in religious but in naturalistic terms. According to this view, life is so horrible that the coffin seems like freedom and the gnawings of "the small cold worm" (l. 9) comfortable. Though the poem somewhat confusedly mixes this startling perception with incongruously comic lines that suggest the unification of the body with nature, the urgent rejection of life overrides any assurances. The desire for escape from the tangled ugliness of the world to the peace of death is voiced over and over in Tennyson: those most sensitive to life's promise, he says, are those who are forced to reject what now passes for life. The apparent simplicity of "A Dirge," then, covers a very remarkable and extreme appeal, the same one that we recognize later, in its full development, in such poems as "The Lotos-Eaters." [17/18] the central word to describe the most prevalent motive of nineteenth-century irony. By redefining man as the creature with the power to suspend certainty, irony created the rootless man, not undefined but defined only by the trap lie is in, caught between equally unavailable or unattractive alternatives.
It is not, then, a thematic conflict between belief and disbelief that is presented so much as the state of suspension caused by that conflict. Tennyson displays here at its perfection a technique lie will often use to demonstrate that suspension between alien worlds. In the climax of the poem the speaker begins a prayer to God for mercy and enlightenment. At its start the prayer is graceful and undisturbed:
Let thy dove
Shadow me over, and my sins
Be unremembered, and Thy love
Enlighten me [ll. 180-83].
As the prayer goes on, however, the comic hope gradually modulates to bitterness, as the imagery becomes harsher and grimmer: "0 teach me yet / Somewhat before the heavy clod / Weighs on me, and the busy fret / Of that sharp-headed worm begins / In the gross blackness underneath" (ll. 183-87). The prayer thus contains its own hopeless antithesis and mirrors the stasis of the narrator's mind. Hope and despair are held together in the ironic suspension of doubt.
Adding to this tension, finally, is the rhetorical distance that is maintained.' Though the subject matter of the poem and much of the language are highly charged and highly personal, there is an extreme self-consciousness at work that keeps the narrator himself at a curious remove from the personality examined. The narrator's capacity for self-criticism almost certainly separates him from us and establishes a rhetorical tension between the strong quality of emotion and our sense of distance from it. Thus, much like the speaker, we are ourselves poised and unable to find an adequate release for the emotion raised.
Last modified 28 March 2001