"The supreme Caucasian mind" — a note to Tennyson's "The Palace of Art"

George P. Landow, Professor of English and the History of Art, Brown University

By "Caucasian" Tennyson means not "white European" but, as Christopher Ricks points out, "Indo-European (an early nineteenth-century sense)" (408n). The poet here alludes to the nineteenth-century realization that all Romance and Germanic European languages descended from Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language — thus the term "Indo-European." Pioneers of historical linguistics, including the Brothers Grimm, emphasized the similarities of Europe and South Asia when they discovered that some common words have remained essentially the same for thousands of years: Sanskrit "vatr" becomes Latin "pater," German "Vater," and English "father." Like Tennyson's allusions elswhere to details of physics and astronomy, this use of "caucasian" shows his awareness of contemporary intellectual developments.

[Back to the passage in "The Palace of Art"]

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Last modified 11 October 2005