"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