Valerie Pitt on Tennyson

James R. Kincaid, Aerol Arnold Professor of English, University of Southern California

Note 7 to the Introduction of the author's Tennyson's Major Poems, which Yale University Press published in 1975. It has been included in the Victorian Web with the kind permission of the author, who of course retains copyright.

One book, Valerie Pitt's Tennyson Laureate, does not ignore the second generic direction, nor does it insist on any simple dualism in Tennyson. Her statement on the central position of Tennyons's poetry seems to me exactly right: "There is in his work a true dialectic, a tension between the insight of the solitary and the sense of the common and the social. An awareness of the romantic wastes, the fluent and unshaped, appears through, and sometimes is imposes upon, an intense realisation of normal activity and order" (p. 18).
If one substitutes "comedy" and "irony" for Pitt's "sense of the common and the social" and "insight of the solitary," respectively, he will find a rough correspondence to what I have been trying to say. I can only express my admiration for Tennyson Laureate - it seems to me far and away the best critical book on Tennyson - and add the disclaimer that my emphasis is quite different: Pitt sought really to deal with Tennyson's public poetry and his public rate, asking, as her central question, "How did the poet of a purely private emanation become the poet of a public order?" (p. 15). That she has answered this question so well is reason enough not to ask it again.

I do think, though, that her final estimation of Tennyson and especially her reasons for that estimation suggest that new questions ought to be asked: "Tennyson does not approach the tragic resolution because, although he knew the tragic disaster, he had never realised the tragic guilt. It is perhaps this that always we seem to miss in his poetry, perhaps this which in spite of his range and his skill make him went at times less than the really great" (p. 246). The hidden assumptions about generic rankings (tragedy, naturally, being best) are as distorting as the overt trick of basing final judgments on such standards as the presence or absence of "tragic guilt." I agree that Tennyson did not deal with tragedy at all, but that fact should imply no value judgment.

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Last modified: 28 March 2001