Sooner or later I too may passively take the print
Of the golden age — why not? [pt. I, ll. 29-30]
Maud, the last of Tennyson's major comedies, is by far the darkest. Like The Princessand In Memoriambefore it, Maud keeps at its center the symbol of the reconstruction of the human personality; it traces a similar movement from isolation to social acceptance. But here what has hitherto been the symbolic annihilation of the old self becomes almost literal, and the society into which the hero is reborn is neither very loving nor very promising. Tennyson's three comedies are progressively more 'complicated and more extreme. They form a continuum, each beginning with a rejection of the solutions arrived at previously. The Princess defeats a humor-dominated world and unsociable heroism by reformulating the clichés of domestic sociability. But the power of these clichés derives from an assumption of a unified, harmonious creation, and this assumption is canceled by the images of fragmentation and meaninglessness which dominate the first part of Tennyson's next comedy, In Memoriam. The answers of The Princessmust be cast aside so that the rehabilitating force of love may operate.
Maud, however, sees love, especially romantic love, as a problem not a solution, and must move beyond it. All three poems ask essentially the same question:1 how is it possible for an individual to live in a world that makes unjust or unreal demands on him? In The Princesslove does not so much remake Ida as correct her and allow her to move back into a world which, if seen property, has always been sane and loving; in In Memoriam, love, clearly must [110/111] transform both the narrator and his world. But in Maud, love does not release the narrator from self but imprisons him in it. The perception that ironic dilemmas, even though they may not be solved, can be rendered trivial by love provides the narrator of In Memoriam with the key to new being and new life. When the same perception appears in Maud, it comes not at the conclusion and as an answer but midway, in the midst of the hero's conflict, bringing him only loss and anguish. Behind both In Memoriam and Maudlies the pattern of death and resurrection, a pattern whose personal focus increased just as its general historical and mythical power (at least in religion) declined: it is not a God but an individual ego that is crucified and reborn, Maudaccepts this personally focused myth, but very hesitantly. That it accepts it at all makes the poem, despite everything, comic; its extreme reluctance to do so, however, leads us to a very dark side of comedy.
Along with other great comic poets, Tennyson moved away from a pastoral or Edenic vision toward one which, while darker, is also more tolerant and accepting. The narrator of Maud, like the hero of In Memoriam, experiences nothingness, but that experience allows him merely to live in the world, not to transform it. Maudgives the sense of being either more cynical or wiser than In Memoriam. It is, in any case, an answer to the earlier poem, suggesting that its demands are too absolute, too pure, too egocentric.
Just as In Memoriamshows the natural relationship of irony and comedy, so does Maud. But in the former, domestic or romantic comedy, by growing out of irony, provides an answer to that irony; here it merely continues and confirms it. Maud shows the development of protective, simple irony into romantic comedy, then into chaos, a nightmare of complex irony that no longer protects but assaults, and finally into a liberal but undemanding comedy of accommodation. The ending shows comedy at its most ironic, just as the early love lyrics in the poem had shown comedy at its most romantic (see Frye for a discussion of the relationship of comedy to irony and to romance). What is missing is the common middle ground, an area that Tennyson has obviously lost faith in entirely. Maudis an exploration of comic extremes. It is, like the two major poems preceding it, modeled on a generic battle; but instead of the mild conflict in The Princessbetween two different forms of comedy or In[111/112] Memoriam'scontest between irony and comedy, Maudpresents a doubled movement: irony —> comedy; irony —> comedy. The first development from irony to comedy is only apparent growth; the second is real.
All this can be made somewhat less opaque by restating it in reference to the hero and the plot. While it is not very fruitful to begin by trying to explain the hero by means of the psychic shock caused by his father's death [as an example: Weiner], it is clear that his problems have a sexual component or even a sexual basis. He connects all images of male power with deadly aggression, animalism, and corruption. A male-dominated commercial system is, thus, not only corrupt but murderous. Women — his own mother, Maud's mother, Maud herself — are made to carry all the opposite associations: calmness, purity, and civility, He creates in fantasy a complete and quite simple division in the world and its concerns: there are those (the men) who are corrupt and those (women) who are not. He, of course, is one of the pure. That he is a man and the son of his father makes for an awful contradiction and an impossible dilemma. He is, as he says, “At war with myself and a wretched race, / Sick, sick to the heart of life, am I” (I, ll. 364-65). His war with himself, it turns out, is quite different from and infinitely more important than his mock battle with the “wretched race” of man. He must accept his own manhood, his own wretchedness, and this involves an inner struggle that almost destroys him.
His first impulse is to make peace with himself by loudly proclaiming his separation not only from manhood but from all men. He does this by becoming an ironist, a simple ironist. That is, he uses specific irony as a tool, thus protecting himself from irony's real force. He can attack with biting and indiscriminate irony all that is connected with manhood and even with mankind in order to assure himself of his separateness. He deliberately emphasizes and builds his own inhumanity in order to protect himself from the corruption that he sees around him and that he fears to see in himself. He thus occupies himself in constructing a psychic model of the real world, a model that simplifies and purifies in order to protect. The other side of this attack on the masculine is an equally unreal idealization of the female. The irony called into service to bolster and, at the same time, to camouflage identity creates its [112/113] comic component. This, then, is the end of the first development from simple irony to romantic comedy.
By accepting love with Maud, the narrator is not really changing his fantasies, but he does attempt to force these once private fantasies onto the external world. By seeking to confirm his world in this way, he exposes himself; and by seeking to draw Maud away from her complex self and into the world of his own false Paradise, he violently destroys both her and his fantasies. Instead of romantic fulfillment, he discovers genuine and complex irony.
He can find his way out of this general irony only by creating a new being. He must accept his own corruption in order to join the fallen world. The terms that define his restoration are those of the unity of male and female, energy and stasis, death and life, purity and corruption, honor and dishonor.4 The easy contraries of The Princess (male and female) or even the more difficult ones of In Memoriam (death and life, energy and stasis) no longer exist; we now find a nearly cynical balancing of the opposites that control the world as il is, untransformed and untransformable. The poem thus duplicates the early movement from irony to comedy, but this time it is an unprotective, complex irony and an unromantic, mature comedy. Now, Maud, who had seemed so separate and unique, is one with her brother, and they divide their parents' traits equally: Maud's brother is both animalistic and tender; Maud is a gentle singer of war songs. The lovely shell found by the narrator suggests beauty and endurance but also death and waste. War, the last and most difficult symbol, is both honorable and dishonorable, restorative and deadly. This frightening, disunified world, the poem insists, is all there is. It cannot be transcended by fleeing into mystic states of purity, but must be accepted. The real enemy and the real dangers, Maud claims, are not from evil or complexity but from the rigid and simple expectation of good.
Insofar as the poem is an investigation of the active limits of moral purity, it is, incidentally, a fable for our time-a conservative fable, certainly, but an apt one. It shows how dangerous are both the self-serving cynicism of irony and the self-exalting absolutism of romance. It proposes in their place a tough maturity, able to endure [113/14] an uncomfortable status quo. It is a poem about the pathos and terror embedded in the self-delusions of purists, revolutionary or otherwise. The extremely sophisticated conclusion finds its source in a rugged humanistic tradition that runs from Chaucer to Camus.
It might be objected that if such universality does attend the poem it would have been more widely recognized and appreciated. One barrier to acceptance by modern critics was erected, I think, by Tennyson's extremely unfortunate remark, “This poem is a little Hamlet.” (Memoir, I:396) G. Wilson Knight's deliberately perverse, “corrective” reading of Hamlet happens to fit Maudvery well, which goes to show how little correspondence between the two works there really is. The crucial and obvious difference is that Hamletis a tragedy and Mauda comedy. Tennyson thus invites all manner of unsound and spurious comparisons.
But a chance comment of Tennyson's, no matter how unfortunate, could hardly account for the violence of the reactions of Tennyson's contemporaries and of ours. Leslie Stephen called the hero “not only morbid, but silly,” (Stephen, 2:237) and even Tennyson's friend Gladstone could not hide his initial repulsion: “the effort required to dispel the darkness of the general scheme is not repaid when we discover what it hides.” (Gladstone, p.460). The twentieth-century version of this distaste is given voice by T. S. Eliot, who provides a whole list of pronouncements on the poem's emotional unreality, its “feeble violence.” (pp. 193-194). The poem has had its defenders, then and now, but the ferocity of some responses is not easy to understand.
Tennyson may have been writing a poem that was more psychologically topical than he knew, portraying the moral and psychic fantasies of a puristic culture with more accuracy than was healthy for sustained popularity. “Sir, I used to worship you, but now I hate you. I loathe and detest you. You beast!” (Memoir, I:400): thus began a letter from an apostate admirer of Tennyson's. It might have been written by the narrator of Maud himself in his early days, when he [114/115] too believed in a world of purity and impurity, a world that allowed only extreme responses like the worship or hatred mentioned here. He might also have signed himself, as did the erstwhile fair, “Yours in aversion.“
There are, of course, other reasons for the poem's unpopularity. One of these is not, however, that it is shrill or frenzied. These and similar catchwords crop up in all attacks and in many of the defenses. What is granted as a fine coalition of form and substance in In Memoriamis for some reason denied here, though it seems clear that Tennyson achieves throughout the poem a sense of great passion which is at the same time ordered and controlled, a tension between extreme, even chaotic diction and artful, intricate metrical and stanzaic patterns. The control provided in In Memoriam by the repetition of the same stanza is accomplished here by drawing our attention to elaborate, often even ostentatious, rhythms. The one exception to this ordered tension is the deliberate rhythmic disorder of the mad scene. “Frenzy” seems to me a very weak charge to bring against the poem and a very woolly substantiation of a critical view.
The most crucial problem surely lies with the ending, not just with the curious use of the Crimean War but with the more general treatment of the hero's rehabilitation. The poem so mistrusts absolutism that it is bound to mistrust absolute and ultimate cures. The war is therapy, not a final solution; it suggests the most extreme demand society can make on a person's tolerance and ego. It asks not so much for self-sacrifice as for the expansion of egoistic morality even to the point of allowing that honor may come from slaughter. War also represents a public and social version of the cathartic horror the narrator has experienced. The ending suggests that society as a whole should undergo the same process of reduction and annihilation so that it may live with itself and its corruption. But these are only suggestions; the ending only points toward a solution: it does in no sense embody one. Again, Tennyson is somewhat distrustful of his own answers. The tone is very bleak; war is an uncertain symbol; even the cynical comic solutions remain unfulfilled. The poem is not only dark but generically frustrating. No wonder it is unpopular.
Tennyson's final division of Maud into three parts is reasonable [115/116] and obviously sound. I will use Tennyson's term "part" for the three main divisions of the poem; the lyric divisions within each part will be called "sections" and given Tennyson's numbers. The first part presents the complication; the second, the crisis; the third, the resolution. In the terms outlined earlier, the first part presents the original and false movement from irony to comedy, the hero's attempts to maintain his fantasies of purity; the second moves him into the genuine irony of madness; and the third presents the final comedy. The discussion that follows will preserve this order, with one slight change: I wish to divide the first part in half, treating the ironic and comic movements separately and assuming a division between the two at section II, “O let the solid ground,” where the narrator gives in to the romantic impulse lie has thus far resisted. Such an extra division should obscure neither the fact that the narrator fluctuates between cynicism and romantic love more or less throughout the first section nor the more important fact that the irony and comedy reflect there a single frame of mind and no real development.
The poem opens with the narrator luxuriating in the perverse comfort of cynicism, particularly in the escape from coarse life that cynicism provides him. As in In Memoriam, the fact of death is physically present, but here death is made terribly concrete, almost in the vaguely sensual way common in Poe or bad horror movies. The narrator may be terrified by the death of his father, but he is also drawn to it and feels a strange comfort in dwelling on its details: “Mangled, and flattened, and crushed, and dinted into the ground” (I, l. 7). He has been shocked into a morbid and perilous self-sufficiency, yet he has no real self. His father's death has violently brought to him a perception of fundamental awfulness in the world, and he has no ability either to accept or to escape that perception. What he tries to do is to dodge it: “Villainy somewhere! whose? One says, we are villains all. / Not lie: his honest fame should at least by me be maintained: / But that old man, now lord of the broad estate arid the Hall” (I, ll. 17-19).
Since there is clearly villainy abroad, he feels compelled to locate it, but not because he is Hamlet, searching out causes to correct. There is “villainy somewhere,” but not in his father or in him; that is nearly all that counts now. The voice that says, “We are villains all” offers one of the most basic truths the poem contains. The interlinking of evil and good is a principle the narrator must later [116/117] accept, but now it is an unthinkable suggestion. He must protect his weak and undefined self, and he does so by creating various simplicities, namely, a world in which the pure and the impure arc separated by a wide gulf — the gulf of irony. By making himself into a simple ironist, the narrator can assure himself that however black things are in general, he himself is undefiled. In fact, the strength of his purity is in direct proportion to the darkness he can find-or invent-outside him.
His favorite exercise — and therapy — therefore, is ranting. Whenever troublesome ideas like “we are villains all” come up, he turns to the world at large, projecting his own fear of corruption on all externals. The carefully arranged witticisms, the heavy alliterations, the conscious excesses, the sacrifice of accuracy to neat parallelisms and superficial rhetoric, all suggest the self-flattering tinniness of a political speech, a kind of neurotic showing off.
While another is cheating the sick of a few last gasps, as he sits
To pestle a poisoned poison behind his crimson lights.
When a Mammonite mother kills her babe for a burial fee,
And Timour-Mammon grins on a pike of children's bones. [I, ll. 43-46]
These and other such denunciations are sometimes taken very seriously by critics; Valerie Pitt argues that Maud is really Tennyson's “central political poem” and that the hero's illness is caused by social corruption.” (Pitt p. 179) The vision of social corruption seems to me not to be part of the disease, except insofar as it is a dangerous medicine. The hero uses these outbursts time arid again to reinforce his pathetically inadequate identity and to avoid looking for genuine problems. He is not angry but smug: “Sooner or later I too may passively take the print / Of the golden age-why not?” (I, ll. 29-30). He is not the spasmodic but the dandy, suggesting with jocular insincerity that the world's evil may, in the end, be powerful enough to include even him. And in the end the world does include him), though now, being unsuited for it, he can in his loneliness and confusion only shout at it.
These dramatic ironies, which really forecast eventual resolution, are reinforced by several references to war and peace, the social Conditions that will finally determine and symbolize the hero's restoration. Again he articulates the solution without realizing it. War is evoked as a grim and obviously undesirable image-“the [117/118] heart of the citizen hissing in war on his own hearthstone” (I, l. 24) — in order to attack the present commercial peace. In his fury, he can think of nothing worse to say about society than that its spirit of competition is really viler than actual war. There is no rational reason for saying so, one might suppose, but to the narrator anything that is cloudy, mixed, or complicated is an enemy. Peace that partakes of war is too difficult a complexity to comprehend.
He must have clear, well-marked villains; the current condition is “underhand, not openly bearing the sword” (I, l. 28). This clarifies at least one reason why war is attractive here and, sadly, even a little so at the end; it is direct, primitive, uncomplicated. Also, he argues that war would ennoble even the tradesman, that if England were — happily — invaded,
the smooth-faced snubnosed rogue would leap from his counter and till,
And strike, if he could, were it but with his cheating yardwand, home. [I, ll. 51-52]
In such a case, unity of a kind would be provided, a unity of all the world with him and his purity. He is, as it turns out in the poem, right in viewing war as an extreme but effective unifying force, but he has the terms backwards. He wants to bring the world into unity with his own ego; he must, in fact, renounce his own ego in order to regain it and bring it into harmony with the world. All this may seem like the process at the heart of most Romantic dream-vision poems, but here the world remains untransformed; the central vision is one of hell, not of emperors and clowns.
The ironies at the beginning of Maud, then, emphasize the distance that separates the. narrator from true identity. He is lonely and hesitant; so he uses the loud, glib cynicism of specific irony to evoke a strong being he does not have. That he is a man without a vital center, without will or control, is made apparent when, after more than fifty lines of ranting, fie tells us he has made a law that he will be above such things: from now on, no more brooding on his father's corpse, on “a wretched swindler's lie” (I, l. 56), or on social evils. He can make laws for himself, but he has no power to enforce them. Behind the ironist we see a large irony, of which he is unaware. His shouts of liberation are entirely defensive, coming as they do from within a prison. His decision at the end of the first section, to “bury myself in myself” (l. 75), indicates the necessity he feels to entomb his secret wishes as deeply arid securely as possible.
The narrator is so defensive that he fears, even before he sees her, that Maud “may bring me a curse” (I, l. 73) She does, in a sense, [118/119] but only because he makes her a part of his protective fantasy of incorruptibility. He instinctively fears the menace of comedy. It offers him the necessary final solution but it also threatens him with exposure. It demands that he sacrifice the paralyzing neurotic life he is leading, but he is not sure he can. The battle that follows is between Maud and the narrator's fantasies. They both lose in the end, as he tries for an impossible conjunction between love and fantasy
The hero's first impulse, though, is to resist her and her immediate assault on his neurotic sanctity. He finds himself able to reach absurdly final conclusions after a single glance at her:
Faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null,
Dead perfection, no more; nothing more. [I, ll. 82-83]
Contrary evidence, which he cannot help sensing, must be blocked, for it would upset his egoistic view of things. So he tries to fit Maud into a melodramatic formula: the beautiful but heartless aristocratic lady. But she simply is not Lady Clara Vere de Vere. The impulse she stirs cannot be contained within any single image; her presence threatens to change the world and, more important, to change the narrator. Section 4 begins with a vision of loveliness and bounty in nature so powerful that it begins to arouse the hero to wish himself a part of it. This movement toward comic union and humility is so frightening to him, though, that he desperately retreats back to the therapy of simple irony.
For the next fifty odd lines lie vigorously tries to erase the danger of the gentle attraction of love and to protect his old identity. He turns to the first thing in the scene that catches his eye, the village, and hysterically exaggerates its inhabitants' actual frailties a love of “gossip, scandal, and spite” (l. 109)-into gross and total malignity: “And Jack on his ale-house. bench has as many lies as the Czar” (l. 110). Here, surely, the neurotic base of his absolutism is clearly exposed. He makes no distinctions at all; a lie is a lie. Lies are especially dangerous to him since they again stand in the way of his reductive “let's find out” (i.e — “let's not really look“) attitude. He is a truth-teller, he thinks, and a rigorous moralist, operating under the confused but prevalent theory that by ignoring obvious distinctions moral values can be somehow clarified. If one has the acuity and uncommon penetration to perceive murderous evil in Jack's lazy and presumably harmless lies, it will hardly do to question the morality of the moralist. The psychology of moral [119/120] absolutism is thus exposed, not in anger but in pathos. The narrator really has no choice at all.
He can respond only with more ironic platitudes:
For nature is one with rapine, a harm no preacher can heal;
The Mayfly is torn by the swallow, the sparrow speared by the shrike,
And the whole little wood where I sit is a world of plunder and prey. [I, ll. 123-25]
He strikes out angrily at the nature which has tempted him away from himself And though there is a superficial resemblance between these attacks and the cosmic ironies in In Memoriam, here the tone is not one of fear but of almost greedy relish. Nature is attacked; it does not attack him. It is easy to say “We are puppets” (l. 126) when the tone so clearly indicates that we really means they. The dilemmas created by scientific discoveries and by the implications of the scientific method are genuine problems in In Memoriam, but here they merely present the narrator with a chance to fulminate and thereby to prove his superiority to the scientist; “The man of science himself is fonder of glory, and vain,/ An eye well-practised in nature, a spirit bounded and poor” (I, ll. 138-39) The general ironies on time, nature, and man, in other words, simply have no personal force. The narrator thinks it would be best to be what he most certainly is not, a calm stoic or epicure teaching himself “not to desire or admire” (I, l. 142). He protects his ego by allowing it no direct experience whatsoever; the ironies are merely sarcasms. He must attack all experience, not only that which suggests evil. In fact, “most of all would I flee from the cruel madness of love” (I, l. 156). Love and Maud are the greatest dangers because they demand the most involvement.
Maud's battle-song, in section 5, is her most important utterance, even though it is not, as the narrator repeatedly says, so much Maud that he hears, as a “voice.” It is a voice “singing an air that is known to me” (I, l. 164) — really a song that is within him, arising from the deep and unconscious sense that only in full acceptance of all life can he live. It is the voice of comedy, which is here vitally connected to Maud herself. She announces the fully realized self and calls the narrator, not just to masculinity — though, as in The Princess, this may be a small part of it — but to participation in a world of unified contraries. She sings “in the happy morning of life. and of May” (I, l. 168) of men who march gaily, “with banner and bugle and fife” (I, l. 171) but who march “to the death” (1. 172). “Her exquisite face” (1. 173) is combined with her “wild voice” [120/121] (I. 174), and she sings “of Death, and of Honour” (1. 177) “in the light of her youth and her grace” (I. 176). All opposites unite here in this realization of liberal and accepting comedy. Because this unity is such a threat to the narrator, he must now deliberately silence it (l. 180) lest it open him to the world. But at the same time he instinctively realizes that this completeness in Maud is what he needs, and he later recalls her specifically in reference to this martial song: “I wish I could hear again / The chivalrous battlesong” (I, ll. 382-83). Though he must finally sacrifice Maud to gain the hope she symbolizes, he does gain it.
But before the hero can rebuild himself and join the mixed, impure world, he must complete the puristic logic of separation. He is stirred by Maud's song, but he wants comic rewards without the comic sacrifice of ego. He is willing for the world to be wholly fair as well as wholly gross, so long as his neurotic absolutism is not affected. Maud's song exposes him to the limitations of such easy optimism, to nature's attacks on purism:
Morning arises stormy and pale,
No sun, but a warmish glare
In fold upon fold of hueless cloud,
And the budded peaks of the wood are bowed
Caught and cuffed by the gale:
I had fancied it would be fair. [I, ll. 1. 190-95]
His “fancy” for fair weather, however, shows that he will not long resist a simplified romanticism, that he will, if all else fails, rearrange or reinvent the elements. Though he tries again to assert the pose of the cynic, imagining that Maud is merely trying to lure him out of hiding in order to torture him, the brighter vision is beginning to win. In order to protect himself and still accept the promise of love, however, the narrator manages to ignore Maud's battle-hymn, the symbol of sacrifice and comic realism, and to substitute in its place a soft romantic comedy that is substantiated by nothing but his fantasies: “If Maud were all that she [121/22] seemed, / And her smile were all that I dreamed, / Then the world were not so bitter / But a smile could make it sweet” (I, ll. 225-28).
The notion that the world, which is “bitter,” can be so simply made “sweet” is a terribly attractive one, and it gradually captures his imagination completely, so that “sweetness” and Maud are inextricably linked, joined in an incantatory, romantic union. The magic phrase transforming the world is picked up again later; in fact, from this point on, the adjective sweet nearly always appears when Maud does. It is the same sweetness that had typified and controlled the domestic comedy in The Princess: “sweet is every sound, / Sweeter thy voice, but every sound is sweet” (7, ll. 203-04). Yet pure love simply will not transform the world envisioned in this poem.
The attempt to separate Maud from her battle-song is the disastrous attempt to wrench her from her own natural world and transplant her in the alien ground of the narrator's mind. This dislocation is symbolized most fully in the relationship between Maud and her brother. When the hero first saw the two together, he found it necessary to effect some separation: “I met her today with her brother, but not to her brother I bowed” (I, l. 115). In order to worship Maud, the narrator must utterly detest her brother, “her brother, from whom I keep aloof' (I, 1. 235).
Aloof is exactly the right word; he cannot admit that this “Assyrian Bull” (1. 233) has any relation to him or to any other human. Maud's brother represents everything vile: energy, sexual power, male animalism. His presence allows (or forces) the narrator to purify Maud by draining all negative human characteristics onto him. The brother, he suggests, has been the result of some genetic magic whereby he has inherited only from his father, who has
heaped the whole inherited sin
Of the huge scapegoat of the race,
All, all upon the brother. [1, ll. 484-86]
Maud, by the same token, is “only the child of her mother" [1, 1. 483]. What he cannot face is their kinship, the plain fact that they combine the traits of both their parents: the power and sexuality of the wolfish father, the tenderness and sweetness of their mother.
Even the hero's hope for Maud's love is based on a contract made long ago by their fathers, so that in approaching Maud, he is, in effect, approaching her father. To shield himself from this troubling complexity, he keeps at his side a raven who croaks, “Keep watch and ward, keep watch and ward, / Or thou wilt prove their tool” [122/123] (I, ll. 247-48). He still feels the need to defend himself with simple irony, particularly when, as here, he admits the possibility that Maud and her brother are connected. He almost never speaks of them together, and the use of the plural their suggests why he very much needs the raven at his side. It allows him convenient and necessary retreats into petty attack: he invents a jealousy of a “new-made lord” (section 10) whom he only supposes he saw riding with Maud.
Again, the sheer irrelevance of the spite and the self-consciously witty language alert us to the real motive here, which is not social criticism but protection from society and its concerns:
Seeing his gewgaw castle shine,
New as his title, built last year,
There amid perky larches and pine,
And over the sullen-purple moor
(Look at it) pricking a cockney ear. [I, ll. 347-51)]
The narrator settles quickly into the regressive comfort of sarcasm and returns again, significantly, to his favorite theme, “the bad times.” His extremism and absolutism lead him again to the crucial symbol of war and the attack on the peace-monger, “This broad-brimmed hawker of holy things” (I, l. 370). Whether or not this is a reference to John Bright — As a matter of fact, it surely is not; see Ricks edition, p. 1059 — it does represent the psychic processes of the narrator very well. This peace advocate is stained, naturally, by contact with the world, with money and manufacturing.
Using a wild generic fallacy, then, the narrator proceeds to argue that the advocate's stains discredit peace itself ' War, he says, is the honest symbol of this society and its natural passions — “so don't tell me about peace!” Everyone has been in arguments where lie has heard (and used) such unanswerable non-logic. The narrator is not making a statement about war and peace at all; the only real subject is himself. If society were perpetually engaged in war, he could at least understand that, since war seems to him the inevitable sign of the world's profound corruption. Peace is a more highly advanced state, one that is far too complex for him to grasp. He demands simplicity at any price:
Ah God, for a man with heart, head, hand,
Like some of the simple great ones gone
For ever and ever by,
One still strong man in a blatant land, [123/24]
Whatever they call him, what care I,
Aristocrat, democrat, autocrat — one
Who can rule and dare not lie. [I, ll. 389-95]
Autocracy is the same as democracy, so long as there is pure power without deception or complexity.
As it turns out, this hysteria is the last strong upsurge of his therapeutic sarcasm. From now on, it will appear more and more rarely and never with much strength. The hero has moved beyond simple irony into the beginnings of romantic comedy. But with disastrous ingenuity he will file down comedy itself and fit it into his simplistic mental frame. With section II, this narrow comedy takes over and begins to dominate. Even the wild section to had ended on a calm note, with hope for rebirth: “And ah for a man to art see in me, / That the man I am may cease to be!” (ll. 396-97) — This hope will be accomplished in the end, but only by the murder of “the man I am.” The romantic comedy he now proposes offers no real change and no hope at all.
But it seems to. The hero does appear to be moving out of himself into a recognition of community. He vows to experience “what some have found so sweet” (I, l. 401), the love that is assured, not by private experience but by social bonds. The world, he again believes, can be re-created with all its bitterness removed by the sweetness of love. Love can bring him into unity with the world in which he lives, thereby assuring both the power of love and the firm reality of the narrator's personality: “O let the solid ground / Not fail beneath my feet” (I, ll. 398- 99). Love will provide a reality that, presumably, can contain the hero and make him “solid” too. In the first flush of this grand hope, the narrator recognizes at once the vital and beautiful connections between man and nature: “For her feet have touched the meadows / And left the daisies rosy” (I, ll. 434-35). If passionate purity and warmth connect all things, he can realize his own being by opening himself to this harmony: “if I be dear to some one else, / Then I should be to myself more dear” (I, ll. 531-32). The romantic imagination is seen as the central agency both of redemption and of creation.
The problem, finally, is that the imaginative powers remain fixed on the self; they operate, in Keats's terms, entirely in the [124/125] Wordsworthian and never in the Shakespearean sense. The narrator is the “egotistical sublime,” seeking to make all the world over in the image of himself. He lacks entirely the power of “negative capability,” the facility of rendering himself nothing in order to enter other states and other beings. Despite appearances, then, he is not moving out into the world; he is swallowing the world whole. Even Maud, or that part of her he can accept, will become a part of him: their fathers, he says,
On the day when Maud was born;
Sealed her mine from her first sweet breath.
Mine, mine by a right, from birth till death.
Mine, mine-our fathers have sworn. [I, ll. 723-26]
The world, thus artificially sweetened, seems fit for consumption. That things are not, in fact, so universally sweet or so simple to accept is made clear by the reappearance of Maud's brother. Do what he can, the narrator is unable to ward off this powerful specter. He wildly asserts that “Maud to him is nothing akin” (I, l. 481), but he can never dislodge her from a connection with this brother. The narrator continuously links Maud with gardens, addressing the cedar tree as the descendant of the trees that grew in “the thornless garden” (I, l. 625), “Shadowing the snow-limbed Eve from whom she came” (1. 626). Eden, finally, is the only world in which he can live. The attempt to bring Paradise back by recreating another Eve lies at the mythic heart of much romantic comedy, particularly that of the nineteenth century. But here Eden is beyond recall; if there are any Paradises now to be found, they are beyond death-or in the private world of insanity.
The narrator, however, is a great artist, and his egoistic imagination has great powers. He not only insists that Maud is Eve but tries to make her so. Her brother is allowed all energy and motion, since they are associated with the Corrupting influences of power and sex; Maud is made static, in her “own little oak-room” (I, l. 497), “like a precious stone / Set in the heart of the carven gloom” (ll. 498-99). The past in which the narrator is trying to live, the powerful and dangerous image of perfection, must lead to death. The desire to fix firmly and protect an absolute beauty and an absolute innocence must, in the world envisioned in this poem, logically lead to murder. The narrator fulfills symbolically the action which Porphyria's lover performs directly. Both the narrator of Maud and Porphyria's lover give overt expression to what we all secretly know-what every amateur photographer, for instance, [125/126] knows in his heart: the desire to preserve life shares lodgings with the desire to freeze it.
The most ecstatic utterance of the narrator's love, “Go not, happy day,” section 17, is an expression of this static unity, contained entirely within his puristic fantasies. The day is to he preserved so that it can partake of one grand unity-the rosy warmth of a blush. Despite the wonderful incantatory language, we see that the world is fully imaged, as the last line says, in her “mouth” (l. 598); it is the old, simple notion of the world being made sweet by a smile all over again. The principle of unification, the blush, seems reductive, not so much because it is coy as because it is so static and pervasive. There is no consummation here, no real hint of motion or of life. The ecstasy is created not by the thought of her eventual yielding but by the image of a perpetual and universal shyness. The world is fixed in a delightful “attitude” only. All the narrator wants is the smile that will make the world sweet, a confirmation of purity that sanctifies not the world but himself.
It is interesting that, as Christopher Ricks points out (Composition, p. 216) this lyric was originally intended for The Princess. Ricks suggests that this accounts for the fact that the poem, with its odd, “nursery-rhyming” style, seems out of place in Maud. Tennyson seems to me, rather, to have made a totally appropriate rearrangement. The values of domestic comedy implicit in The Princessand in this song are precisely those which the narrator now needs to express. The simple nursery-rhyme scheme supports the sense of release (false though it is), the childlike joy, and the irrational nature of the emotion we sense as important at this point in the poem and in the general movement of Maud.
The answers of The Princessfill him with such confidence that the narrator can now raise ironic ghosts for sport. The serious images that he had once used to insulate himself from a corrupt society become toys he can play with, only to discard. He turns melodramatically to the stars and the perceptions of “sad astrology“:
the boundless plan
That makes you tyrants in your iron skies,
Innumerable, pitiless, passionless eyes,
Cold fires, yet with power to burn and brand
His nothingness into man. [I, ll. 634-38]
We sense, as before, a secret relish in these lines, but the pleasure now comes from tossing the hissing, searing ironies off as unimportant. [126/127] They may, as they did not before, include him in their force, but their force, after all, is nothing at all: “But now shine on, and what care I” (I, 1. 639). “What care I” may seem a remarkably balanced attitude, but its assertion here is premature. The pose of benign solidity recalls the similar pleasant sarcasm in In Memoriam: “What matters Science unto men, / At least to me?” (120, ll. 7-8).
The parallels to In Memoriamare, at this point in the poem, deliberate and startling. Irony is now defeated by comedy, not disproved but made unimportant by the force of love, which, “in this stormy gulf” (I, l. 640) provides man with “the countercharm of space and hollow sky” (1. 641). Exactly as in In Memoriam, love defines the meaning and value of life and, more importantly, of death. He vows that he would die for his love —
for sullen-seeming Death may give
More life to Love than is or ever was
In our low world. [I, ll. 644-46; compare In Memoriam, 81]
He imagines Maud saying, “The dusky strand of Death inwoven here / With dear Love's tie, makes Love himself more dear” (I, ll. 658-59)- In Memoriam'sbenedictory “All is well” is picked up here too: “Let all be well, be well,” (I, l. 683). In Memoriam'sanswers and consolations appear, then, only to reinforce the deadly promise of romantic comedy. They are part of the problem, not a solution. Even Maud's“Let all be well, be well” is no longer the calm, reassuring voice of God but the narrator's own frightened attempt to disguise “some dark undercurrent woe” (I, 1. 681). And instead of the benediction acting to dismiss the problem and close the poem, it is interrupted by a flat statement that rudely burlesques all assurances: “Her brother is coming back tonight, / Breaking up my dream of delight” (I, ll. 684-85).
The narrator's only alternative to the complexity represented by this brother is to create a fantasy love by which Maud is separated from her brother, which means separating her from her own true self. He denies Maud's full humanity because he denies his own, and egoistic romantic love leads directly to destruction. At the climax of their love, Maud vainly urges him to accept her brother:
And [she] wishes me to approve him,
And tells me, when she lay
Sick once, with a fear of worse,
That he left his wine and horses and play,
Sat with her, read to her, night and day,
And tended her like a nurse. [I, ll. 754-59]
The brother is “rough but kind” (1. 753), not so much Maud's complement as a total human being like herself, male and female, pure and impure, “nurse” and [127/128] “bull.” The hero does try to bury his hatred but cannot. Even his self-confident vows of liberation lead directly to imprisonment:
So now I have sworn to bury
All this dead body of hate,
I feel so free and so clear
By the loss of that dead weight,
That I should grow light-headed, I fear,
But that her brother comes, like a blight
On my fresh hope, to the Hall tonight [I, ll. 779-86]
The finale of this acceptance of romantic love, “Come into the garden, Maud,” section 22, represents the definitive act of separation. The narrator, “here at the gate alone” (l. 853), urges Maud to leave social life and, clearly, genuine comedy: “She is weary of dance and play” (l. 871). But the narrator offers, in the place of the life. of comedy, dance, and play, only egoistic absorption. He taunts the “young lord-lover” (l. 878) for sighing after one who is not his, “But mine, but mine . . . / For ever and ever, mine” (ll. 880-81). The hero imagines an Eden that is gone; he calls Maud into a dead world to play a dead Eve. His romantic ecstasy rises steadily until, in a final, unconsciously prophetic metaphor, he asserts the power of his love for Maud to triumph even over the grave: “My heart would hear her and beat,/ Were it earth in an car-thy bed” (ll. 918-19). Though he does not know it, he must undergo the death of the heart in order to live again, not with Maud but with the real world and with himself.
“O dawn of Eden bright over earth and sky, / The fires of Hell brake out of thy rising sun” (2, ll. 8-9). Hell rises out of Eden; it is the natural consequence of the narrator's mad insistence on purity. Part 2 of Maudportrays the necessary counter-reaction to protective irony and delusory romantic comedy. The duel that has taken place between part 1 and part 2 is the inevitable result of the narrator's neurotic logic. Unnatural attempts to decontaminate life bring all natural forces of life against him. The assault of Maud's brother is the action of an outraged Nature rejecting the narrator's perverse demands. The first words of part 2 exonerate the brother, proving his nobility and expansive being. Even in death he is generous, [128/129] claiming, “The fault was mine.” By insisting on perfection and order, the narrator opens himself up to the darkness and chaos within. He ironically duplicates the action of Maud's wolfish father and finds in himself the animalism he had been so vigorously denying. He is taught that full humanity requires an acceptance, not a dangerous repression, of corruption — The fact that Maud must die to further his education makes the poem move close to tragedy. The focus is not, however, on Maud but on the narrator; so rehabilitation, not sacrifice, is the main theme.
But the hero must first lose himself in order to find that rehabilitation. He struggles, early in part 2, to retain a grasp on his earlier fantasies, his earlier weak self, but he can no longer do so. He tries the cynicism that had once worked so well-“Strike dead the whole weak race of venemous worms, / That sting each other here in the dust; / We are not worthy to live” (ll. 46-48) — but it now lacks all efficacy. He finds an image for what he must accept and what he must become in the lovely but empty shell, the deliberately planted symbol for his destruction and renewal. Tennyson himself claimed that “the shell undestroyed amid the storm perhaps symbolizes to him his own first and highest nature preserved amid the storms of passion.” (Memoir, I:404)
One must allow that as one possibility, but there are many others, some of which seem a good deal more consonant with the poem. The shell also suggests remarkable beauty, now wasted and lifeless, an image of lovely desolation that mocks picturesque views of life (such as the one in which the world is one large blush). It is also a rebuke to his earlier self in other ways: this “miracle of design,” so “exquisitely minute” (ll. 56, 55), attacks his crude simplifications; the fact that its beauty simply exists, in defiance of any mere name (ll. 57-60), mocks his earlier need to classify and catalogue all experience. Most important, the shell unites beauty, delicacy, and strength, the components that combine to form all successful human life. The acknowledgment of this strange coalition leads him to think directly of Maud's brother and the lock of his mother's hair that the brother had kept in a ring.
Maud, her brother, and the shell all combine opposites and directly refute simple Edenic notions. The shell is a fine, ambiguous symbol, which acts as a lesson to the narrator on his past mistakes [129/130] and as a promising sign, a vision of his wasted past and his future hope, a direct image of himself and a sarcastic image of what he is not. The fact that the shell is empty, a tomb, “forlorn / Void of the little living will / That made it stir on the shore” (ll. 61-63), provides a symbolic connection to himself that he cannot now accept. He insists that as long as Maud lives and loves him, he will preserve, “however weary, a spark of will / Not to be trampled out” (ll. 104-05). Maud's death is necessary, then, to complete the analogy to the shell, the final destruction of the human will so that a new will and a new self can be born. He passes through that which is more than death (l. 140) in order to emerge on the other side-not cleansed, but at least prepared to live.
Before this experience the hero takes one last look at comedy. Section 4, “O that 'twere possible,” is the compositional germ of the entire poem and contains, in many ways, its central emotion: the sense of useless loss. He recalls again the sweetness that had once seemed to permeate all life:
We stood tranced in long embraces
Mixt with kisses sweeter sweeter
Than anything on earth. [ll. 148-50)]
And he dreams of the early delight he had found with Maud: “Do I hear her sing as of old, / My bird with the shining head, / My own dove with the tender eye?” (ll. 184-86). But these dreams are shattered as Maud's song becomes, in the next line, a scream: “But there rings on a sudden a passionate cry” (l. 187). She is not just a tame and passive “dove,” but, as her battle-song should have told him, a complete being.
The narrator's inability to accept that fact cuts off the song and brings him to a new desolation:
The day comes, a dull red ball
Wrapt in drifts of lurid smoke
On the misty river-tide” [ll. 205-07]
There is no longer any comfort in irony, and certainly no protection. Instead of separating him from mankind by reinforcing his sense of superior purity, irony now isolates him by insisting on his extreme and unique guilt:
Through the hubub of the market
I steal, a wasted frame . . .
And. on my heavy eyelids
My anguish hangs like shame. [ll. 208-09, 213-14]
At the center of this episode he loses his reason and his old self. In section 5, he buries himself in himself, in his own corruption. He is now as much beneath the world as he previously was above it; even the horses' hooves are on his head. He is being punished by that which he most offended: the fallen world. It is the vital connection between evil and good, purity and impurity, between Maud and [130/131] her brother, that still tortures him most. He has visions of his very mind being violated by this impurity, of all his secrets being ,,Shouted at once from the top of the house” (l. 288). He now feels that he has no separate self, that social forces invade his most private being: “Everything came to be known. / Who told him we were there?” (ll. 289-90).
The inability to separate himself from society — “Everything came to be known” — is exactly his final inability to separate Maud from her brother, the him who somehow knew where Maud was and went with her. By entering the real world the narrator unconsciously and inadvertently has entered the world of Maud's brother and has left his isolated self behind. He must now return to that self to see how much damage has been done. The more the better; there will be no repairing, only the completion of the necessary destruction. At the end of this section, he asks for a deeper burial, a fuller immersion in this old self, so that he may, paradoxically, understand and live with the corruption within and without.
The comic solution to Maud, given in part 3, presents many critical problems, not the least of which is that it is so short. Comedy generally gives a brief but very firm image of its final disposition of things, but here the brevity nearly becomes negligence. There is more to this problem even than the mere number of lines; Maud almost strikes one as an unfinished work, as if Tennyson had died before he could tell us what effect the initiation by means of the Crimean War could have. The poem ends with the hero about to begin his growth. But no destination is given in Maud, only a vision of a world and a self in motion. It is a motion that implies a definite but unclearly defined unity. The image of Maud supporting the war “lightened my despair” (3, 1. 18), he says, and the war itself will presumably complete the process, but in just what way it is difficult to see.
Another difficulty is that this symbol of war carries such an enormous weight in providing the resolution. The resolution is almost entirely symbolic, which is not a fault but may allow for more ambiguity than is usual in comedy. It is also, to the narrator, a highly personal solution. One real question is whether or not the symbol can provide the universality and the social resonance demanded of all comic endings. It is even possible to argue, as Roy P. Basler does so very well, that the hero at the end has only traded [131/32] absolutisms: “He is not completely cured of psychic illness, but has merely exchanged one obsession, self-destruction, for another, self-sacrifice in a noble cause.” (Basler, p. 154) According to this reading, the form of the poem becomes ironic; the hero's presumed liberation is only another trap. Thus, for Basler, the war symbol has no generalized relevance, nor is it intended to have. It does not release but ensures the narrator's neurosis. The “official” explanation, given in the Memoirand in R. J. Mann's Tennyson's 'Maud' Vindicated is that military war is a lesser evil than commercial war (Memoir, I:401; Mann, p.74). But this is an answer that serenely evades any genuine questions, and the questions are very real. The hero does seem to be in some measure returning to a form of his early purism, cleaving, as he says, “to a cause that I felt to be pure and true” (1. 31).
At the same time, however, war is never presented as a symbol of his final position, but as a device by which he may be reintegrated. It is a transitional form that fits very well into the pattern of denial-acceptance in which comedy works. Having rejected the true, fallen nature of the world and its union of opposites, he must reenter that world through its most elemental and extreme coalition. He must accept the existence of honor in murder, life in death, purity in hideous slaughter. If his statements on war as a “pure and true” cause were all we had, one might indeed agree with Basler and see the hero's acceptance of war as another neurotic evasion. But the narrator also sees that “many a light shall darken, and many shall weep / For those that are crushed in the clash of jarring claims” (ll. 43-44). He does not misunderstand or “pretty up” war; he realizes that this arbitrary and meaningless suffering is a part of a “pure and true” cause.
War, thus, is the nearly absurd but legitimate demand that society makes on those who would be accommodated to it; it stands as the final rebuke to all absolutists. The narrator can finally learn to live with his own dark self when he can learn to live with the darkness of war. A kind of critical and moral absolutism of our own, then, has perhaps obscured the artistic appropriateness which this symbol can rightly claim. It is a dynamic, though transitory, symbol that will lead the narrator into a society which itself will be [132/33] undergoing, in war, the same restoring movement through death and back into life that the narrator himself has experienced. The absence of a final resolution and a fixed symbol is confusing and tempts us to misread the symbol of war. The poem does not claim that war is better than peace. But in this bleak world one can live with peace only after he has been initiated by war.
The comic solution, then, shows a growth not only away from insanity but from the prison of the private self. The hero now can accept society's most terrible contradictions, mixing his breath with and giving life to a concept of “a loyal People” (ll. 34-35), united and one. He realizes communal life and a communal self: “I have felt with toy native land, I am one with my kind, / I embrace the purpose of God, and the doom assigned” (ll. 58-59). The echo of In Memoriam is probably accidental, but it is highly suggestive all the same. Insofar as In Memoriamrests on the power of “I have felt” as a solution to despair (and to a great extent it does), it is a private poem with a private answer. Maudpicks up the same words to rebuke In Memoriam'ssubjectivism: now, “I have felt with my native land.” He ends by saying that he accepts “the doom assigned.” Eden has been lost and dismissed long ago; now, in the final line of the poem, individual freedom is renounced for God and the larger doom. It is hard to imagine a conclusion that would be darker yet still remain comic. Maud, at its very close, has already invaded the territory of irony.
Web version created March 2001
Last modified 8 August 2016