THE introduction to this book suggested that in the poetry of Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold provision must be made for a double awareness. Their problem was to find a middle ground on which to arbitrate the divided allegiance of the modern artist, who, Janus-like, would face two ways at once, both outwards towards society and inwards to the life of the imagination; who would live up to the public responsibilities of the man of letters, while at the same time giving free play to his native sensibilities. To the success of these poets as cultural forces, the Victorian age bears ample testimony. Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold are the last English poets of whom it can be said with any confidence that they widely influenced contemporary thinking and behavior. But once again it may be argued that for the sake of prestige they were willing to capitulate to the superficial values of their world. Readers who hold with this view will maintain that the very nature of the success which the three poets enjoyed as men of letters entailed their failure as artists. To some such verdict the twentieth century has very generally subscribed. Yet one wonders, after all, whether the failure is attributable so much to the poets themselves as to a reading public whose demands were in due course to become so intolerable as to discourage in the serious artist every inclination to compromise.
All things considered, it is remarkable that Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold should have put so much of themselves into their poetry as they did, and still commanded the admiration of their age. Three possible explanations for this popularity may be proposed. Either the Victorians, like Browning's Caliban, were self-infatuated to the extent of making over their poets in their own image. Or we today have inherited a very distorted conception of Victorian habits of mind. Or, finally, Victorian artists were more successful in communicating with their audience on a high imaginative plane than has been recognized. Probably there is a measure of truth in each of these assumptions. In any event, we are [215/216] left with the realization that a body of poetry, ostensibly aimed at its age, carries in its depths an enormous burden of implication alien to that age.
If the sources of poetic imagination in Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold have been located with any degree of definiteness in the foregoing chapters, then it must surely be agreed that these poets cannot be made to conform to any conventionalized pattern of Victorian thought. Indeed, from their individual points of vantage, each singled out only to repudiate certain alarming tendencies which were shaping contemporary society. Tennyson's mysticism, however vague and ill-defined, was, nevertheless, a direct denial of the cynical materialism, the religion of hard facts that had put power in the hands of the Gradgrinds. By his celebration of intuitive being Browning set his face against the Benthamite psychology, with its teaching that man is a knowable mechanism and hence capable of being tinkered into perfection. The Arnoldian ideal of classical wholeness could not but oppose the emphasis on specialization in a competitive social order, such as had grown out of the Industrial Revolution.
Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold, then, were temperamentally too much at variance with the spirit of their age ever to endorse its basic ideology. As men of letters, however, .they, were sensible of the need to win public sanction for perceptions which had died stillborn in the too personal idiom of their early poetry. Tennyson, therefore, turned to his English Idyls in an endeavor to invest scenes of everyday life with something of the strange ambiguity which disturbed his inner consciousness. Through his dramatic monologues Browning analyzed familiar types in such a way as to derive a code of behavior from purely intuitive and often anti-social motives. With neither the originality nor the narrative and dramatic talents of Tennyson and Browning, Arnold appealed to tradition, reminding his age that it had lost touch with the best part of its heritage.
Yet, after the problem of communication had been met, there remained the artist's need to give original expression to his imaginative vision. Because their inner poetic awareness [216/217] sorted so incongruously with the world about them, Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold, the critic is tempted to argue, became conformists from a want of self-reliance; but this imputation is as far from the truth as the rival theory that they were overly conscientious in playing up to their audience and so lost the ability to distinguish between the mask and the face. Either course would have involved an act of self-betrayal, and the consequent drying up of those springs of inspiration whose underground flow we have traced in the work of the three poets. If they assumed the guise of contemporaneity, it was not primarily with the intent to conceal or falsify, but rather to actualize and so inculcate insights which the public had either ignored or reprehended in original, undisguised form.
This process of sublimation, traced through the preceding chapters, is thus to be construed as an artistic endeavor on the part of each poet to assimilate his inner awareness into poetry addressed to the Victorian reading public. This accounts for the curious ambivalence in so much of the writing of Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold. The expressed content has a dark companion, its imaginative counterpart, which accompanies and comments on apparent meaning in such a way as to suggest ulterior motives. However earnestly they address themselves to the normal routines of existence, Tennyson's characters lead a double life; their submerged natures are haunted by dreams, madness, and visionary incitements to unearthly quests. In the same way, the intuitional basis for conduct in Browning's worldly dramas challenges those systems of social convention which warp the individual will to power or love or creativity. And Arnold's myths are really studies in alienation, where the protagonists suffer in all innocence for their superiority to the Time Spirit.
In retrospect we can see that these attempts to bring a double awareness within the compass of a single imaginative vision were destined to failure. Modern society has made the roles of man of letters and artist mutually irreconcilable without a loss in commitment on one side or the other. The fact of communication presupposes a common language; and as [217/218] Arnold knew, it is the business of the man of letters to help formulate that language, whereas the artist must speak with his own voice. Under the favoring circumstances of a homogeneous culture (for which Arnold's term was an "epoch of concentration"), the artist may find his public waiting; but when the center falls apart, the dialogue of the mind with itself sustains him. By seeking their audience rather than letting it find them, Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold split their allegiance and partially disengaged themselves from the life of the imagination. The resultant access in prestige and influence involved a fatal loss in artistic status. Their inherent poetic resources only serve to accentuate how great this loss was.
If the uncritical adulation of the age was what they had had most at heart, then, at least, it could be demonstrated that Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold rested on their achievements as men of letters. Like Paracelsus, they were to learn that there are many ways to attain and many levels of attainment. Their later years were embittered by the indiscriminate vagaries of contemporary fame. They were admired, it is true, but for all the wrong reasons; the mask had, after all, got mistaken for the face. Haughtily aloof, Tennyson reverted to his early manner and wrote mysterious poems out of his inner mind. Browning turned crotchety and dissipated his talents in futile disputation, trying to defend the anti-rational on rational grounds. Arnold, wiser, abandoned poetry for expostulatory prose. Meanwhile, the succeeding generation of poets was making the choice that the great Victorians had declined to make. It is arresting to note how unerringly the Pre-Raphaelites and their associates in the aesthetic movement singled out the vital elements in the work of their predecessors. As the early illustrations of Tennyson's poems show, the Pre-Raphaelite painters penetrated to the heart of the poet's imaginative being. One thinks also of Swinburne's admiration for Maud and of Edward Fitzgerald's lifelong insistence that the best of Tennyson was to be found in his early compositions. It was Rossetti who discovered and brought Pauline back to life after twenty-five [218/219] years of oblivion, just as it was Browning himself who persuaded Arnold to republish Empedocles on Etna.
But the real influence of Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold has operated subterraneously. If their outer awareness took undue cognizance of the surface ripples of Victorian life, they were inwardly aware of the deep ground-swells of change. The individual perceptions, whose concealed operation we have identified in their poetry, were to become the leading motifs of subsequent literary movements. Tennyson's "other life" of dreams foreshadows psychological theories of the imagination and accords with modern thinking about the creative process. Through his reduction of human behavior to its instinctual components Browning anticipates the emergence of modern primitivism. And Arnold's account of the deracinated artist continues to be an obsessive theme in contemporary writing. But such insights were alien to the pretensions of the society which gave rise to them. Because, however hard they tried, they could not simultaneously inhabit the worlds of the imagination and of Victorian society, a split opened, dividing the artistic awareness of Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold. Their failure to close this breach confirmed the alienation of the modern artist.
Last modified June 2000