There are instances of much fuller and genuinely liberating comedy in these volumes, most notably in the lovely paired poems, "The Mermaid" and "The Merman." These poems confront explicitly the image of the isolated self and move to the celebration of joy and union. Both poems open with a brief stanza that is part invitation, part pure song, emphasizing both the beauty (thrones, golden crowns or curls) and the loneliness ("Sitting alone, / Singing alone") of the magical state enjoyed by, the mer-creatures. The second stanza not only admits the isolation but emphasizes it, carefully restricting it, however, to the daytime, to the rational, dutiful part of the merman's life, and the self-absorbed alienation of the mermaid. This admission out of the way, the full force of the [26/27] poem can fall on the nighttime life, the life of the complete imaginative self, of irrational fulfillment:
Oh! what a happy life were mine
Under the hollow-hung ocean green!
Soft are the moss-beds under the sea;
We would live merrily, merrily. ["The Merman," ll. 37-40]
It is true that the merman and mermaid envision somewhat different nighttime paradises: his is free, open, promiscuous — "I would kiss them often under the sea, / And kiss them again till they kissed me" (ll. 34-35) — while hers is quieter and more controlled"But the king of them all would carry me, / Woo me, and win me, and marry me" (ll. 45-46). But there is no real conflict here; the discrepancy is part of the gentle joke, bringing up the extra force of the comedy-of-manners sexual battle to support the principal Edenic comedy. More important, this compartmentalization of the solitary from the communal self is an important strategy and an important part of comedy's answer to irony. The poems here admit the argument that all men are isolated, but they see that isolation simply as a past of a multiplicity of conditions, a multiplicity, furthermore, which contains not only isolation but happiness and freedom. The ironic strategy is to focus and solidify; comedy's is to expand and free, to reject entirely the absolutism of irony.
But comedy is just as susceptible to attack from irony, and it is certainly more usual in Tennyson to find the comic solution subverted. The ironic poems are often generically pure; the comic poems very seldom are. One may offer plausible biographical or sociological reasons for this fact, but simpler reasons are implicit within the forms. Irony is based on parody and thus is, in a way, parasitic. It is, further, defensive and hides its premises; comedy, at its best, is expansive and exposes all its secrets. When the two modes are competing, as in Tennyson, it is difficult for comedy to survive. Irony with a comic twist results in the sheer peculiarity of "Mariana in the South"; comedy transformed to irony results in the uniform power of "Mariana."
This ability of irony to attack comedy is more clearly illustrated in the contrasting poems, "The Poet" and "The Poet's Mind." "The Poet" is certainly a comic poem, though exclusively public and social in its emphasis. Still, it provides a strong and effective image of the force of poetry, expressed in the specifically comic terms, "hope," "youth," "spring." The grand object is to recapture. Eden, not just for the poet but for the entire world: "Thus truth was [27/28] multiplied on truth, the world / Like one great garden showed" (ll. 33-34)- It would be an Eden ruled by the expansive goddess of comedy, "Freedom" (l. 37).
But "The Poet's Mind" shows a garden that is shrunken and delicate, threatened by a very dangerous enemy: the rational mind, the dry and shallow wit of the "dark-browed sophist" (l. 8), The flowers "would faint" (l. 15), the plants would be blighted, the "merry bird" would be killed (ll. 22 23) if the sophist were to enter. Most important, the source of all this life and joy, the large fountain in the center, fed "from the brain of the purple mountain" (l. 29) and recalling the great symbol for poetic energy in "Kubla Khan," would itself "shrink to the earth if you came in" (l. 37). Great images of power, lightning and thunder, are associated with this fragile and threatened fountain
In the middle leaps a fountain
Like sheet lightning,
With a low melodious thunder. [ll. 24-27]
But there seems to be only an illusory union of power and beauty, only a faint echo of the confident and unendangered voice of Wisdom set loose by the garden in "The Poet": "Her [Wisdom's] words did gather thunder as they ran, / And as the lightning to the thunder . . . / So was their meaning to her words" (ll. 49-50, 53). "The Poet's Mind" is thus an inversion of "The Poet"; it suggests the ironic trap that may await the too-certain vision of comedy.
Though comedy never entirely disappears and though it later reaches full expression in Tennyson's poetry, it is irony which came to dominate his writing of this period. It controls Poems by Two Brothers, the volumes of 1830 and 1832, and, to an even greater extent, Poems of 1842.
Last modified 28 March 2001