A good example of a poem that appears to be but is not a "thesis poem" is "A Dream of Fair Women," which establishes its irony partly in reference to its apparent source, Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women. Tennyson's poem resembles Chaucer's only superficially; the earlier poet's comforting, stable framework is removed, and the cosmic resonance of the tales, comforting or not, is implicitly denied. Taking the place of Chaucer's coherent series of portraits of faithfulness, love, and tragedy, Tennyson's group emphasizes the discontinuity of history and the pointlessness of presumed grandeur. The catastrophes here are either paltry or uncaused. The ironic conjunction is put immediately in the deceptively limpid introductory lines:
In every land
I saw, wherever light illumineth,
Beauty and anguish walking hand in hand
The downward slope to death. [ll. 13-16]
What ties the portraits together is the "hand in hand" union of beauty and anguish. There is no further thematic point.
The dream itself takes place in the mocking familiarity of the narrator's memory, a continual symbol in Tennyson for comedy, here used to create a distorting framework: "The smell of violets, hidden in the green,/ Poured back into my empty soul and [24/25] frame / The times when I remember to have been /joyful and free from blame" (ll. 77-80). And all this happy nostalgia prefaces a nightmare. The first figure, Helen, begins by putting in clipped, disconnected, and very dramatic phrases the essence of her ironic function. Because she was beautiful, carnage resulted: "Where'er I came / I brought calamity" (ll. 95-96). Though the narrator naïvely tries to twist this into a romantic framework, claiming that he too would have died for such a face, such escapes are disallowed. He is soon overwhelmed by the march of hideous and meaningless deaths: Iphigenia relates the grim, realistic details of the knife moving "through my tender throat" (l. 115) in a sacrifice which led only to further desolation; Cleopatra reduces her potentially tragic position to ludicrous capriciousness, saying that death really is not so bad except that "I have no men to govern in this wood: / That makes my only woe" (ll. 135-36). She turns her grand suicide into an act of petty revenge: "Of the other [Caesar]: with a worm I balked his fame. /What else was left?" (ll. 155-56).
Jephtha's daughter, who follows, is the most complex case of all. Her sacrifice had depended on a grisly kind of gambling, her father having promised God that for victory over the children of Ammon he would kill the first person he saw leaving his house to meet him. Though she continues after death to defend her father and to proclaim the rightness of God's law, the narrator ignores all this and responds only to the monstrousness of the situation:
My words leapt forth: 'Heaven heads the count of crimes
With that wild oath.'[ll. 201-02]
The absurdity of Jephtha's sacrifice is that perceived by Browning's Caliban, for whom divine justice is represented by the decision to murder every twenty-first crab: "Let twenty pass, and stone the twenty-first, / Loving not, hating not, just choosing so." The girl's pathetic defense of her murderer is further undercut by a long simile comparing her voice to the sound of a "holy organ" in a cathedral. The Christian context mocks the Old Testament ruthlessness without offering any further hope, for the last sad portrait is of the Christian Rosamond, "whom men call fair" (l. 251).
The poem ends with a typical ironic capping: the naive narrator adds that he unfortunately woke before the good part of the dream, [25/26] before he was able to see Margaret Roper, Joan of Arc, or Edward I's wife, Eleanor, "who knew that Love can vanquish Death" (l. 269). The ingenuous persona blandly makes the point that all heroic and comic aspects of death are denied. The last gruesome twist is his complaint that poetic language is insufficient to describe his dream. Such language is too pure; it fails to provide adequate tension, particularly "to give the bitter of the sweet" (l. 286)-as if the terrible vision we have just seen has been "sweet."
Accompanying this irony is a persistent strain of comedy, which is found here in many poems, most of which are deliberately understated, self-conscious, and very light in touch. The self-parodying "O Darling Room" seems simply an extreme of this, not, as Croker assumed, too ridiculously self-indulgent and self-centered, but rather too detached, self-aware, and apologetically trivial. just as specialized and partial is the comic impulse behind a poem like "Lilian," which plays off against the slavish adoration implied in most of the poems in this extended female gallery — "Isabel," "Adeline," "Madeline," and so forth-by treating the tinkling laughter of the cruel "Airy, fairy Lilian" (l. 1) as a cause for irritation rather than romantic languor. Instead of being mastered by her gay coquetry, the lover adopts a masterful tone himself, warning her that lie is becoming so borcd with her laughing that if praying won't stop her he will stomp on her, "crush" her. There is a limited but genuine comic satisfaction provided here, not only in the burlesque of the essentially ironic lover-slave tradition, but in the bolstering of the human (especially the male) ego by suggesting that the will can control any emotion.
Last modified 28 March 2001