To begin with the least complex of these poems, "Oenone," is to be presented at once with a picture of an ironic dilemma that seems very much like earlier ones: Oenone os trapped by her own fruitless passion, left in desolation, and forced to regard death as a victory. The constant reiteration of "Dear mother Ida, harken ere I die" comes to indicate to us how bound she is by circumstance and her own emotions [I am indebted for this point to Martin Dodsworth's "Patterns of Morbidity." See also James Walton]. But there is something new here, a further irony connected with point of view. Though the dominant current of the poem is Oenone's lament, a passionate song that involves us strongly, there is, at the same time, an inner contradiction that is crucial but that can be perceived only by suspending our involvement. Put briefly, the contradiction is this: Oenone's surrender to her emotions begins to look like that of her ostensible betrayer. Thus we see her as something other than a simple victim of Paris or the arbitrary power of the goddesses. She is also victimized by her own passion, perhaps finally by the absurdity and irrationality that rule in in human affairs.
Despite our participation in her cry of pain and injustice, then, we see that she too has been denied the gift of "self-reverence, self knowledge self-control" (l. 142). Pallas's offer, we are led to believe, is clearly the proper one for Paris or any other human being to accept:7 her appeals are the broadest and most conventionally moral; she appears to disdain rising any deceptive rhetoric to persuade Paris; her offer of law and freedom combines all basic human aspirations; and, most crucially, she has Oenone's direct support: "and I cried, 'O Paris, / Give it to Pallas!' " (ll. 165-66). [37/38]
But the acceptance of Pallas's offer seems, in the end, both necessary and impossible, as Oenone herself goes on to demonstrate. Oenone reacts to Paris's decision by echoing exactly the unreasoning feelings that had controlled her false lover. She does not rise to Pallas's counseled self-control but competes on the same grounds as the love goddess Aphrodite:
Fairest — why fairest wife? am I not fair?
My love hath told me so a thousand times . . . .
Ah me, my mountain shepherd, that my arms
Were wound about thee, and my hot lips prest
Close, close to thine" [ll. 192-93, 198-200].
Instead of adopting Pallas's "wisdom in the scorn of consequence" (l.148), she submits to and is ruled by consequence. Instead of self-reverence, she feeds on thoughts of self-destruction; instead of law, she thinks of revenge. The ironic climax comes when she stirs herself to live, not to change, and repent but to experience the grim consolation of seeing others go with her: "I will not die alone" (l. 253)
This is clearly a reading to which only a part of us attends; it ignores much of the poem and distorts our full response, but it is, I think, an approximation of our critical, judgmental reaction. That judgment is in constant tension with the vision of Oenone as a completely innocent victim. There is no way we can blame her for her passion; passion is all that works, and she has, in any case, no choice in the matter. The poem acts to deny us the comfort of a solution by making us live with the desolate and bewildered Oenone, who, like us, senses the rightness of Pallas's answer but who proves by her pathetic life the irrelevance of "self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control." We can be neither completely absorbed by the pathos of her life nor comfortably detached from it.
The tension is even more marked in "The Lotos-Eaters," another poem in which the removal of adequate or certain context makes judgment very difficult. The extreme argument presented, however, the attempt to persuade us that death is the ecstatic completion to any sane and sensitive life, seems to demand some kind of judgment. The result is a poem about release, the effect of which is to increase tension. We are unable to resist the appeal of the mariners and equally unable to yield to it. They "argue us out of any speck of reserve that may linger," says Langbaum (p. 90), but one is [38/39] bound to wonder if this is not overstated, if we really give up our inclination to judge so completely. Admitting the hypnotic power of the mariners' escape plan and the fact that we are likely these days to find an argument from ironic premises very apt, one can still acknowledge the barriers the poem erects against the complete surrender of the critical faculty.
There is, in the first place, at least the conscious repugnance one feels to having the attractive argument for lassitude pushed so hard and so far; there is also our awareness of the overall context of the mythic source in The Odyssey and that poem's celebration of impulses exactly the opposite to those encouraged here; there are possible moral contradictions or at least signals that alert moral judgment in the mariners' argument, particularly in their confession that it is unpleasant "To war with evil" (l. 94); there is a pervasive allusion to the argument of Despair in book 1 of The Faerie Queene which also creates a context for judging the mariners' actions as specifically blasphemous or un-Christian;9 there is the revised ending, whose bitterness is so strong that some feel it condemns the mariners (e.g. Buckley, p. 71); there is, finally, the first word of the poem, "Courage," which rings through the subsequent lines and perhaps modulates their arguments. The final irony is that both the courageous Ulysses and the mariners who eat the lotos have an easier time of it than the reader; they, at least, can make choices and dissolve the tension.
The balance of sympathy and judgment is carefully controlled throughout the poem. Despite all the negative indications, it is, at the same time, difficult to resist an appeal which is so shrewdly grounded in a comic impulse: the desire for peace and order. That the mariners are so fully aware of what they are doing and of the implications of their argument — "Give us long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease" (l. 98) — makes their quest seem only an extension, not a perversion, of comedy. They very deliberately reject a world of absurd and impersonal change for one of sameness, even if that sameness means death.
But it is not only quiet that they seek. The landscape is one "in which it seemed always afternoon" (l. 4), "a land where all things [39/40] always seemed the same" (l. 24). The use of seemed here develops the interesting suggestions that they are purposefully deceiving themselves and also that they are attaining a new level of apprehension, where what seems is what is: "And deep-asleep he seemed, yet all awake" (l. 35). This new state embodies not only lassitude but "ecstasy." — the term and this part of the argument are borrowed from Alan Grob, p. 124. From this point of view, the mariners are simply leaving behind the world of trivial care and objective reality, learning to "harken what the inner spirit sings" (l. 67). The Lotos-land is their Innisfree, and they are not cowardly suicides but imaginative poets, courageously giving form to what they hear "in deep heart's core." This argument can be carried only far enough to be suggestive, but the hint that, in some ways, the mariners are not beneath, but above, common concerns is strong. They are both advancing and retreating, condemned and admired.
The same uncomfortable mixture is stressed in the curiously appealing conjunction of the tendency to isolation and to union. Though the state the lotos-eaters attain seems to be that of the total solitary, and though "if his fellow spake, / His voice was thin, as voices from the grave" (ll. 33-34), they sing in chorus and they consistently use plural pronouns. The lotos allows complete self-absorption, yet somehow communion as well. The last line of the poem, with its appeal to "brother mariners," seems both sardonic and compassionate. They are, in one sense, guilty of the ultimate social insult, and they give very short shrift to the appeal of home and family (ll. 114-25); but their argument is put in such general and extrapersonal terms that it seems to be a generous act, a sharing of the secrets of a new perception and new solutions. They reject a community of activity, turmoil, waste, and life for one of quiet, consummation, and death. It is a strange fellowship, but one that is difficult to deny.
By far the dominant appeal of the poem, of course, is to the other half of the comic equation: the magnification of the isolated self. The major argument is that the self can here experience a perfect fruition: "The flower ripens in its place, / Ripens and fades, and falls, and hath no toil, / Fast-rooted in the fruitful soil" (ll. 81-83) This positive appeal to a subtle and luxurious self-indulgence is a chorus with variations [40/41] on the theme of bondage: first, that man, the supposed apex of creation, is the only creature who knows the sorrow and pain of toil (l. 69); second, that life as they know it is death (and, by implication, the death they are choosing is genuine life); third, that challenges lead nowhere since nothing is cumulative: "Is there any peace / In ever climbing up the climbing wave?" (ll. 94-95); finally, that their destination is here in any case, since their families view them as they now are — shadowy, imaginative beings sung of by minstrels (ll. 121-23).
The decision at the end to "lie reclined / On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind" (ll. 154-55) is not, then, stated as a justification but as the most coherent explanation of the order they perceive and the ironic solution to man's place in it. They meet cosmic indifference with an indifference of their own; in the face of nothingness they become nothing. What had begun as a local and particular sense of their own peculiar surroundings — "the wandering fields of barren foam" (l. 42) — becomes a general vision of all life, expressed in the same metaphor of waste and pointlessness:
an ill-used race of men that cleave the soil,
Sow the seed, and reap the harvest with enduring toil,
Storing yearly little dues of wheat, and wine and oil;
Till they perish and they suffer — some, 'tis whispered-down in hell" [ll. 165-68]
The final line of the poem is more than an appeal to the "brother mariners"; it is a direct appeal to the readers. It is the balance of the ironic rhetoric that ensures our being unable either to accept or to reject this invitation.
Qf all these poems, "Ulysses" seems to come closest to breaking this ironic tension, Though there is more to the poem than the "need of going forward" (Memoir, I: 196) Tennyson offered as his motive in writing it, the central power to which we respond is that of romantic heroism. There are complex modulations in tone, certainly, but for most readers the poem moves toward an expression of serene confidence:
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are (ll. 65-67]
But Ulysses is much more than another indomitable superman, beyond the reach of time and death. He, in fact, grants the power of circumstance, even of age and physical weakness. He does not stand above these forces but is caught by them, and he knows it. [41/42]
Yet he refuses to see himself as a victim and thus provides an answer to irony: the undefeated will; see Charles Mitchell, for a reading that emphasizes this point. The will accepts its own condition unflinchingly — "that which we are, we are" — but does not allow the force of external terror to negate it. In the face of death, the comic will asserts an irreducible ego; the acceptance of reality amounts to a triumph over it. The great modern hero is this old man, who has already had his heroic adventures and who now achieves his personality and defines the hope of ours simply by refusing not to be. The comic and heroic will is the poem's subject; its primary motive is the relaxation of ironic tension.
But the tension is relaxed only within, not outside, the poem; for Ulysses, but not for us. The view of heroism is made comprehensive as well as intense, and it is this completeness that causes the escape to be closed to us. The force of the will projected here is enormous, but it is also, we sense, highly specialized. The poem lacks entirely comedy's usual sense of inclusiveness. "Ulysses" deals just as powerfully and rigorously with what the hero cannot accept as with what he can; nearly half the poem is devoted to sloughing off the encumbrances that stand in the way of this narrow solution. Because the poem is so explicit about this pruning, we can see the magnitude and variety of the human spirit being sacrificed for its heroic but naked endurance. The result is the only heroism and the only solution to irony now possible, both compelling and impossibly restrictive. Despite the resounding, positive conclusion, the poem has worked to deny us the ability to participate in it uncritically. Though apparently an alternative to "The Lotos-Eaters," then, "Ulysses" operates in much the same way; it presents an answer that dissolves tension for the speaker and increases it for the reader.
The two poems also seem to have similar strategies for attacking the ironic dualism by heightening one-half of it: they both magnify the isolated, individual ego. Though the means of satisfying the ego are very different, perhaps even opposite, in the two poems, both solutions are equally exclusive and equally extreme. Some commentators, in fact, argue that these extremes meet, that Ulysses's desire for life is rooted in a desire for death," This reading, perhaps, [42/43] sacrifices too many important distinctions for this striking similarity, but it is true that both poems are very uneasy with social demands, especially the sense of social acceptance that is central to comedy. In place of this society they are forced to offer substitutes: the extraordinary fellowship of death in "The Lotos-Eaters" or, in "Ulysses," what appears to be some highly dexterous faking.
For "Ulysses" seems to insist absolutely on the final separation of the individual from communal values: the only hope for the existence of the self is in isolation. The rejection of community begins at once:
It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me. [ll. 1 - 5]
The values associated with unity, order, and harmony, with love, family, and nation, are treated with lofty and imposing contempt. "Little profits" catches exactly the sneer of aristocratic understatement that is so disarming and so insusceptible of argument or reproof. What strikes us here is the control and the breathtaking rapidity with which all these civilized values are swept aside by the rush of the demands of the primitive self. The correctives we might apply are based on moral and social values that have been made irrelevant.
Ulysess proceeds in the next lines with an expansive, positive tone that provides us with a kind of rhetorical breather. His affirmations of a life-hunger act as a form of flattery, emphasizing the indiscriminate richness and value of simple experience. But the real work of this second section (ll. 6-32) is to reinforce the independent power and value of the ego: "I have enjoyed / Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those / That loved me, and alone" (ll. 7-9). Love and all other mere externals are flattened and reduced to insignificance. The affirmations are all on the surface; [43/44] underneath, the paring away continues as we approach nearer to the pure, undisguised self.
When he turns to Telemachus, there is little disguise left. The naked scorn of the opening lines has simply changed to a more confident, if bored, patronizing. Ulysses "accepts" Telemachus and his duties, certainly, but he accepts them as inferior, hardly deserving of his attention. This sense of casual superiority is carried largely by his diction, which is weary, cliché-filled, "official" language. The tinge of parody is most apparent in his compliments: Telemachus is "most blameless" (l. 39) — that is, most mediocre. Ulysses's evident relief at having dismissed this tiresome subject — "He works his work, I mine" (l. 43) — emphasizes the enormous elevation he has attained. The key is "I mine." Ulysses has by now accomplished his own goal: the rigorous and careful definition of the heroic self.
The final section completes the pattern, presumably, by incorporating the triumphant ego of Ulysses into the fellowship of his mariners. From another point of view, he must now turn to the reader and include him in his plans. It is all rhetoric, both in the best and worst senses: it is eloquent persuasion and also mere cajolery. In these lines we hear must clearly the echo of Dante's sinner, who, after a stirring call to his comrades — "Ye were not form'd to live the life of brutes,/ But virtue to pursue and knowledge high" — turns and with a different voice entirely proudly announces the issue of his persuasive powers:
With these few words I sharpen'd for the voyage
The mind of my associates, that I then
Could scarcely have withheld them
[See Ricks, p. 561. The most interesting examination of the influences on the poem is by B. J. Leggett. Leggett views the influence of Byron as extremely important and notes briefly a parallel that supports the reading of the poem advanced here: "It is evident that in both the Byronic Hero and Ulysses the identification of the self with the external world is qualified by the exclusion of the remainder of mankind" (p. 153).]
There is more than a touch of this self-assured rhetorician in Tennyson's figure. Master of all experience and, by this point in the poem, master of his own situation, Ulysses proceeds to overpower his men — and he nearly overpowers us. But we sense the great [44/45] control and assurance in his language, the uniform public rhythms so very different from the jagged, varied movement earlier. Lines like, "It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, / And see the great Achilles, whom we knew" (ll. 63-64), are striking partly for their quality of heroic understatement, but also for the self-consciousness of this understatement. We apprehend the exhilaration of the lonely and triumphant ego behind all this, and the very magnificence of the language alerts, our critical sense and heightens the tension between sympathy and judgment.
Ulysses finally offers not comic union but absorption into his own ego. Everything in the poem has demonstrated how resistant he is to being reduced to "one equal temper of heroic hearts" (l. 68). The heroic will can triumph only by cutting itself off from the very values it now seeks to affirm. He has defined himself by casting away all communal, ego-reducing ties, and he thus leaves us with no real solution. The final lines sadly reinforce both the greatness and the inaccessibility of the hero. With a finer irony even than the lotos-eaters' appeal to their "brother mariners" to join them in oblivion and death, Tennyson shows the existential hero able to create by his supreme will a unity he cannot join simply because his will is supreme. Ulysses leaves irony behind, but he pays a great price for his escape. And he makes it impossible for us to go with him.
No one, I assume, has ever consciously wanted to join Tithonus, though the essential force of the dramatic monologue makes us live for a time with his dilemma. Tennyson talked of this poem as a "pendent" to "Ulysses," (Memoir, I: 459) but it is more than a companion or even a contrast to the heroic poem; it is a bleak parody of its impulses. "Tithonus" gives an embittered view of what lies "beyond the sunset" Ulysses had so grandly proposed as the heroic destination. It is, in fact, a total comic parody, not only of the proud defiance of "Ulysses", but also of the opposite pole, the regressive urge to be warm and protected expressed in "The Lotos-Eaters": instead of a luxuriant sensual escape, Tithonus laments, "I wither slowly in thine arms" (l. 6). [45/46]
Jacob Korg argues convincingly that "Tithonus" "demonstrate[s] the danger of fulfillment" (Korg, p. 9) itself. Thus, this complete inversion of comedy is instructive as a purified form of Tennyson's ironic art. The symbols of imprisonment, cosmic treachery, and death-in-life form the bases of his main ironic themes. The predicament is a variation on one the poet had worked out quite early: man is caught between his precisely equal needs to live and to die. In a further darkening of this point, Tithonus is made a slave to life, not death, suggesting the grotesque argument that man is born to shun the single friendly act of nature, his destruction.
Such an argument calls up very strong instinctive resistance, and the major artistic problem here is to generate sympathy in order to bypass our urgent need to judge. Most generally, Tennyson manages to do this by making the poem one of the most impassioned and self-absorbed of dramatic monologues. The speaker has very little perspective on his own situation and is mastered by his single obsession with release. Thus, we are not ourselves encouraged to find the detachment that more self-control or variety would allow. Even more important, perhaps, is the effect of the fine opening, where the "pure" poetry of incantation subversively draws us into the poem. The repetitions, the regular iambs lengthening into anapests 20, the very sense of natural acceptance implied in the repetitive ands — all tend to mask the subject of these lines and set us up for Tithonus's violent argument:
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes" [ll. 5-6]
The basic inversion has by now been accomplished, and Tithonus can proceed.
The tension between sympathy and judgment is further increased by incongruous echoes from the comedy of manners. The whole poem is cast as a lovers' quarrel, filled with bizarre flattery and sly wheedling, The simplest logic behind Tithonus's argument is the strategy of pure pressure: keeping up a steady stream of words, even the same words, until the opponent yields from exhaustion. The ending lines can be seen, in this light, as a grotesque bribe, combining flattery and an implied promise to keep still:
Release me, and restore me to the ground;
Thou seëst all things, thou wilt see my grave: [46/47]
Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn;
I earth in earth forget these empty courts,
And thee returning on thy silver wheels. [ll. 72-76]
The echo of the comedy of manners and its accompanying comfortable and assured values jars horribly with the genuine sound of Tithonus's anguish. He is forced to plead for precisely what cannot be granted, and he is subject to a caricature of renewal and growth, a daily reminder of his loss. He is tauntingly placed at the center of comedy, with sexual beauty, promise, light, energy, and eternal renewal. Of course these hopes do exist in the well-meaning and quite real Eos, but comedy here is the source of torment. "Tithonus" is Tennyson's purest irony: it confronts comedy directly and argues that the comic vision is itself the final trap,
"St Simeon Stylites"
"St Simeon Stylites" represents the extreme of this rhetorical irony. Even the tendency of commentators, from Leigh Hunt on, to treat it as a satiric poem, acting in one way or another to condemn its speaker, is expressive of the strength of the ironic tension in the poem and our desire somehow to resolve it. For the poem deals with a monstrous parody of Christianity, a parody that is both ludicrous and profound. "St Simeon Stylites" may present a blatant self-advertisement, but it is also a lament or confession, depending on our angle of vision. There is no single or easy response allowed. St Simeon is, of course, both disgusting and funny; the ways in which he gives himself away are so numerous and obvious they need not be recounted. But the absorbing energy of the poem and the great intensity of its speaker urge a sympathy and association that combat the satiric or judgmental response. The basic problem seems to be that St Simeon is not only bizarre but typical; he exists both at the end of the spectrum of human impulses and at its exact center. To view the poem as satiric twists it into a petty attack on a target [47/48] that is trivial and far too easy. It also oversimplifies by responding to the pride, the confidence, and the monstrous in St Simeon and ignoring the humility, the painful doubt, and the voice of simple humanity. The whole poem is a tortured utterance as well as a smug one.
To take just one example, the chief characteristic of St Simeon's language is enumerating excess:
Patient on this tall pillar I have borne
Rain, wind, frost, heat, hail, damp, and sleet, and snow [ll. 15-16]
There is a clear, naïve delight expressed here, a proud ticking off of torments. He has a childish faith in quantities, a belief that he can prove his case by sheer weight. He displays throughout an absurd dependence on numbers:
Then, that I might be more alone with thee,
Three years I lived upon a pillar, high
Six cubits, and three years on one of twelve;
And twice three years I crouched on one that rose
Twenty by measure; last of all. [ll. 84 - 88]
There is no end to his belief in the power of arithmetic. Or almost no end, for behind the jejune confidence is both a note of doubt — "I think that I have borne as much as this — / Or else I dream" (ll. 91-92) — and, even more important, a tone of petulant anger, as if the mere thought that all his trials might not be rewarded fills him with rage:
O Jesus, if thou wilt not save my soul,
Who may be saved? who is it may be saved? [ll. 45-46]
There is an incipient sense of injustice, then, that pervades his argument and lends a poignant and serious note, even to his enumerations. St Simeon is isolating and exposing to view a central tendency of Christianity, the exaltation of pain: "Show me the man hath suffered more than 1" (l. 48). He expresses the terrible logic of injustice that, as Camus says, pervades Christianity (Camus, p. 34): rather than erasing or explaining irrational torment, God demonstrates, by suffering Himself, that He too is subject to absurd pain. Suffering becomes a sign of sanctity, and beneath St Simeon's humorous surface is his dim perception of the fact that the comic symbol of mercy and forgiveness also becomes the ironic symbol of uncaused torture, the "life of death" (l. 53) that St Simeon typifies.
As is usual with the dramatic monologue, the ending of the poem climaxes this theme and its careful balance of the humorous and awful, the detached and immediate. This time there is not a single [48/49] ironic capping but a series of them. First, there is the reestablished image of the ludicrous side of St Simeon, now heightened by his assumption of the crown of Paradise and his exultant confidence (ll. 205-08). Then he is suddenly struck with a flash of pathetic doubt, a perception of impending trickery; "Ah! let me not be fooled, sweet saints" (l. 209). The immediacy of pity is soon qualified as St Simeon returns to his old habit of exact totting up, even in regard to his own death: "I prophesy that I shall die tonight, / A quarter before twelve" (ll. 217-18). In the very last lines he turns to the audience with a grotesque benediction and comment on his own rhetoric: "Let them take / Example, pattern: lead them to thy light" (ll. 219-20). On one hand, we certainly cannot accept this "example"; on the other, we cannot avoid recognizing it as the inescapable "pattern" of our lives. The case is both absurd and ironically true.
These ironic poems are accompanied by a new and very interesting development in comedy. The 1842 Poems presents Tennyson's first extended attempts to mix the two genres within a single poem. More and more, the comic resolution arises from — or is placed upon — an ironic situation, so as to provide a kind of negative comic catharsis. The sense of freedom is almost solely a sense of release from irony, produced not by the power of a comic narrative but by the mere snapping of tension. The feeling is not so much one of recapturing Eden as having been released from prison.
This is the general effect, I think, but there are, in fact, so many variations in the use of comedy to combat irony that our responses are bound to be more complex. There is even in these volumes at least one poem, "The Day-Dream", that is entirely free from irony. It seems completely pure, gentle, and untroubled, despite the fact that it rests on just the comic notion that is parodied in "The Lotos-Eaters," a notion now, of course, disguised:
Well — were it not a pleasant thing
To fall asleep with all one's friends;
To pass with all our social ties
To silence from the paths of men;
And every hundred years to rise
And learn the world, and sleep again. [L'Envoi, ll. 3-8]
[49/50] The individualistic extremism of "The Lotos-Eaters" is masked by the insistence on "all one's friends" and "all our so social ties"; the earlier argument for the dark fulfillment of death is modified to a wish for long intervals of quasi death to do away with boredom. The real appeal, of course, is clear: one wakes seldom and briefly and then, happily, is able to "Sleep again." "The Day-Dream" is fully successful in its aims, but it strives only for the quality called "charming." It is, in any case, a very rare instance of undisturbed comedy in this stage of Tennyson's work.
Much more common is the form of "The Palace of Art," which is poised between comedy and irony. Though the poem deals with a dilemma, it is rendered as a comic dilemma and therefore not the proverbially impossible one. The main body of the poem does seem to deal with a vision of life that is both wonderful and impossible; the life inside the palace is not condemned, but it cannot be maintained. Instead of the familiar ironic rhetoric, however, a new device and a new way out of the trap are introduced by the ending: the sudden arrival of an unexpected perspective that has few or no roots in the preceding matter but gives new possibilities, though not a solution. The new perspective simply leaves doors opened, suggests that the bondage is not complete, and thus releases the irony without really completing the comedy.
The concrete basis of the dilemma in "The Palace of Art" is clear, though there are many ways to characterize the impulse that is embodied in the description of the palace and its rooms, and the contrary impulse that finds expression in the recoil from the palace: art vs. life, pride vs. humility, "private sensation vs. vitalism," stasis vs. movement, isolation vs. communion with others. I put these views in this simplistic form not to depreciate them but to show how complementary they are and how, to my mind at least, they point to a problem within comedy itself. As in "The Lotos-Eaters" and "Ulysses," the drive toward gratification of the individual ego is made incommensurate with a public definition of self.
The disjunction of these once-joined public and private drives obsessed Tennyson, as it did many other artists, The Henry IV plays, for instance, are statements on this comic problem, just as many of [50/51] Tennyson's poems are. The "soul" in this poem is striving for the comic satisfaction of self-indulgence, which is pushed to the point where it not only lacks social resonance but can thrive only insofar as its distance from social concerns is marked and definite. Just to the extent that the demands of the primitive self are met, the demands of social being are ignored. The trap, of course, is created from the fact that the exclusive indulgence of egoistic demands leads not to satisfaction but to poverty of spirit.
But the separation strategy nearly works, and the initial irony of the poem depends absolutely on our perceiving the apparent perfection and convincing richness of the palace and the vision it embodies. The poem opens on an image of near anarchy, a life of ease, sensuality, and lawlessness. But the disorder is brought under control by the emphasis put on the power of the. palace's builder and by the tone: the key words, "all is well" (l. 4), give the sense that chaos yields to order. In fact, the life in the palace is remarkably integrated, carefully working against stagnation and excess:
Reign thou apart, a quiet king,
Still as, while Saturn whirls, his stedfast shade
Sleeps on his luminous ring. ll. 14-16]
The theme of discipline and control runs throughout; the palace stands finally as a symbol of the life of imagination, its ability to integrate and balance. Over and over again, the image combines order and chaos, art and nature. The four symmetrical courts, each with a "squarèd lawn" (l. 22), contain in their center dragons, spouting "a flood of fountain-foam" (l. 24). The regular cloisters are "branched like mighty woods" (l. 26) and echo the wild fountains. The emphasis is on presenting "a perfect whole / From living Nature" (ll. 58-59), creating, in other words, the ordered but vital world of art. Even the decorations in the palace are described so as to suggest in this union of energy and quiet in the dynamic balance of arrested action: "Or sweet Europa's mantle blew unclasped, / From off her shoulder backward borne" (ll. 117-18). The alliteration emphasizes the fact of movement, but that movement is held in [51/52] suspension by the erotic subject and by the skillful arrangement of the next two lines, which balance the realistic emphasis on motion with an alternate consciousness of the artificial and the stylized: "From one hand drooped a crocus: one hand grasped / The mild bull's golden horn" (ll. 119-20).
It is a world of pure and finished art. The soul's desire to include every landscape and every mood is not just the result of simple pride; it is the artist's need to rival God, to create that which, indeed, is superior to God's work in that it is not, like His, subject to decay:
Below was all mosaic choicely planned
With cycles of the human tale
Of this wide world, the times of every land
So wrought, they will not fail. [ll. 145-48]
The object is a grandly comic one, as heroic as Ulysses's and equally hopeful. It is the attempt to give life to the human soul, "joying to feel herself alive" (l. 178). The grand project fails, of course; joy turns to scorn, liberty to imprisonment. At the center if the fall is the basic image of ironic frustration:
A still salt pool, locked in with bars of sand,
Left on the shore; that hears all night
The plunging seas draw backward from the land
Their moon-led waters white/ [ll. 249-52]
But the ending of the poem refuses to complete this climactic irony:
So when four years were wholly finishèd,
She threw her royal robes away.
'Make me a cottage in the vale,' she said,
'Where I may mourn and pray' [ll. 289-92]
The movement toward repentance reveals an opening we had no idea was there. It also suggests that the trap was no trap at all, just a mistake which, in traditional comic fashion, teaches us a lesson so that we will know better next time. It may be, of course, that the alternative to isolation, the life in the vale, will create a new trap. But then it may not. The poem does not take a stand on this point, for it does not seem ultimately to be important. We have a release, and that is what counts.
This time, appropriately, there is a comic capping: the poem ends in a spirit of real generosity, tossing out yet another possibility and opening another exit:
'Yet pull not down my palace towers, that are
So lightly, beautifully built;
Perchance I may return with others there
When I have purged my guilt. [ll. 293-96]
If one extreme does not work, Eden is not lost, nor are we: we can try the other. If that does not work, combine them. There is a sort of jaunty irrationality here that is surely deliberate. No full [52/53] satisfaction is given; but then, the ironic forces have been, if not defeated, at least kept at bay.
"The Two Voices"
The Two Voices" utilizes the same device exactly to find a slightly more certain release and a fuller expression of comedy. The poem is a little less tentative than "The Palace of Art," but it still works primarily to relieve the torment caused by the problem, not to solve it. The dilemma faced is again caused by the ironic perspective, but here it is put almost solely in rationalistic terms. Instead of the full imaginative life of the Palace of Art, we have only a logical argument, very shrewd it is true, but not nearly so dangerous. The voice presses on the narrator a recognition of the undeniable gulf between the grand desires of the human will and the triviality of that same individual will in the face of the boundless cosmos and teeming, wasteful life.
This is a view that appears over and over in Tennyson, most notably in In Memoriam, but here it can be defeated by its own weapons. The single-minded irony doubles back on itself. Purely conceptual thought, the narrator admits, can never open jails; it always builds new ones:
in seeking to undo
One riddle, and to find the true,
I knit a hundred others new. [ll. 232-34]
Though this fact originally seems cause for despair, it gives him the perspective he needs to break the spell of the suicidal voice. When that voice finally reaches its climax of nihilism —
A life of nothings, nothing-worth,
From that first nothing ere his birth
To that last nothing under earth! [ll. 331-33]
— the narrator can resist with surprising ease.
By insisting on complete uncertainty and by attacking relentlessly the common assurances men live by, the dark voice has been supporting an absolute principle of doubt, a very slippery principle, of course, since it can just as well be used against the too-certain certainty of irony itself.
'These words,' I said, 'are like the rest:
No certain clearness, but at best
A vague suspicion of the breast' (ll. 334-36).
Ironic certainty is only a "vague suspicion"; so are conclusions based on evidence from the senses. Therefore, by irony's own argument, the comic belief has just as much validity. Though there is no more validity for the comic solution and though there may be no certainty at all, the tension of conclusive irony is relieved.
At this point, then, the poem has reached the openness and [53/54] uncertainty with which "The Palace of Art" closes. "The Two Voices," however, goes one step further. Having established and accepted a limbo in which ironic arguments have no final power, the speaker goes on to demonstrate the independent appeal of a comic vision. He immediately turns to the most fundamental point, that comedy ministers to life:
'Tis life, whereof our nerves are scant,
Oh life, not death, for which we pant;
More life, and fuller, that I want. [ll. 397-99]
There follows an extended closing symbol, the picture of the church-going family. And though one could wish that the descriptive adjectives — prudent, pure, grave, demure — were done away with, there is a fine aptness in the symbol's suggestion of permanence and calm. The placid life depicted here is a deliberate contrast to the negative, climactic hysteria urged by the dark voice. The comic alternative is made a deliberate cliché, simply because clichés endure. Against the temporary exhilaration of a suicide, Tennyson throws the consciously unexhilarating domestic comedy. The symbol is made to suggest a kind of permanence denied to irony.
"The Two Voices," then, moves closer to transcendence, arguing that inward evidence is far superior to the feeble conclusions drawn from the senses. But the poem returns in the last stanzas to a more tentative state, suggesting that one may, at best, choose between the comic and ironic perspectives, but that there is no necessary finality to the choice. The tension in the poem is released by an exercise of will, as William Brashear says. He also asserts that this power of will, as shown in the ending, makes life only "endurable," not,'meaningful" (Brashear, Living Will, p. 286). The life contained in the closing symbol clearly does, however, have a meaning, one just as clearly transmitted to the narrator; it is just that the meaning is not fixed. The voice of despair has not been stilled, but then it is not the only voice. Further, one is not merely suspended in meaninglessness but can find analogues and correlatives that give form and substance to comic perception. If the tomb and suicide are valid symbols, so are the family and the church. The very fact that they are balanced is, in this world, cause for joy.
At least one poem in this volume uses comedy not to suspend but to master irony. "Locksley Hall" makes it very easy to solve problems, suggesting that it is best to ignore them or, even better [54/55] never really to have them. It is, it seems to me, an almost purely psychological poem with a purely psychological and personal solution. Its social and philosophical solutions are trivial at best, since the answers, though highly satisfactory for the speaker, are very idiosyncratic ones. They are not, for instance, very rational. "Locksley Hall" shows how irony can be mastered by an ego that is so large it is invulnerable, easily turning back even the sharpest attacks, and refusing to give to problems the attention that would result in an emotion more profound than spite. The speaker never experiences any real depression, let alone despair, but he is very adept at ritualistic scapegoat exercises, whereby he bolsters his own ego and sense of control by rehearsing, with obvious satisfaction, problems that have already been solved or safety ignored. The "raving" is all carefully controlled; more than that, it is clearly lots of fun:
As the husband is, the wife is: thou art mated with a clown,
And the grossness of his nature will have weight to drag thee down.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
What is this? his eyes are heavy: think not they are glazed with wine.
Go to him: it is thy duty: kiss him: take his hand in thine. [ll. 47-48, 51-52]
This is a thin kind of comedy, perhaps, very close in its appeals to the childish pleasure of inflicting pain, but it is, for that very reason, genuine comedy. The speaker is unable to assert himself beyond a snarl, but that is enough for him. The pleasant retaliation that satisfies him is, in its private deviousness, just like that C. S. Lewis attributes to the arguments of Beëlzebub in book II of Paradise Lost: if your mistress is lost to you, poison her dog. 26.
The speaker of "Locksley Hall" is, in the end, entirely unselfconscious (though he does once [l. 63] pause and acknowledge that he "blusters," he quickly goes on to bluster some more), and he sprays accusations around with joyful spite, reveling in the waspish, imaginative pictures he can create. He finds greatest satisfaction in the search for the "causes" of his unjust treatment, and he sees them everywhere, particularly in the nature of Amy or of the social system. He arranges it so that the sources of his problems are all comic, at least in the sense that they are external and easily subject [55/56] to change. If irony can be connected, centrally and finally, to something as specific as the Chartist movement or even materialism, there is no real dilemma.
There is, however, one genuine problem, touched on here, the relation of the individual to progressive, especially statistically progressive, general development. The speaker's final solution, of course, is to connect himself to the march of time, to mix with action, and so forth, so as to spin down the ringing grooves of change with the "world." But what does the "world" have to do with him? There seems to be an enormous distance between the broad generalizations about progress and the detailed particularity of his personal problems. The narrator perceives this gap and asks, in the most poignant lines of the poem, how he can ever be touched by the "increasing purpose" of man:
Yet I doubt not through the ages one increasing purpose runs,
And the thoughts of men are widened with the process of the suns.
What is that to him that reaps not harvest of his youthful joys,
Though the deep heart of existence beat for ever like a boy's? [ll. 137-40]
His famous generalization on this point — "Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers, and I linger on the shore, / And the individual withers, and the world is more and more" (ll. 141-42) — is not so general after all. The center of the lament is: "I linger on the shore," the image of the lonely solitary, alienated by the impersonal and useless ("wisdom lingers") progress of time. If the individual withers in the process, the highly individual speaker can hardly hope for a solution from a development that annihilates all he seeks to preserve.
But he is not really touched very deeply by this or by any other contradiction. His comrades happily call to him in the midst of his troublesome musings on progress, and he is able to regain his driving, egoistic shallowness. Fittingly, the poem does not close with a "solution" but with an image of petty vindictiveness, the real motive and principle that have guided things throughout:
Comes a vapour from the margin, blackening over heath and holt,
Cramming all the blast before it, in its breast a thunderbolt.
Let it fall on Locksley Hall, with rain or hail, or fire or snow. [ll. 191-93]
"Locksley Hall" shows a way out of irony, a very amusing one. By raising grim problems in such a trivial way and for such primitive [56/57] reasons, the poem implies that these problems are not much as problems go, certainly no challenge at all for the childish but unshakable comic ego.
With these 1842 volumes Tennyson had developed his irony very fully, perhaps to the point where he could foresee little interesting progress. In any event, he turned to comedy and to various highly elaborate mixtures of comedy and irony. He, remarkably, moved away from a form he had mastered and sought to find in comedy a more satisfying, and certainly a more challenging, genre. We can see something of this movement in the poems of 1842, and it is apparent, too, in the very slight atmosphere. of deliberate exercise that hangs about The Princess.
Last modified 28 March 2001