But cease to move so near the Heavens, and cease
To glide a sunbeam by the blasted Pine,
To sit a star upon the sparkling spite;
And wine, for Love is of the valley, come,
For Love is of the valley, come thou down
And find him; by the happy threshold, he [sect 7, ll. 180-85]
“Ask me no more: thy fate and mine are scaled: / I strove against the stream and all in vain: / Let the great river take me to the main.” These lines occur in the last of those intercalary songs which Tennyson called “the best interpreters” (Memoir, I: 254) of The Princess. I am not, by the way, speaking of the blank verse lyrics, like "Tears, Idle Tears," which are part of the main body or the poem, but of the six intecalary songs added in 1850.One would expect these climactic lines, then, to interpret the solution that is about to come. Insofar as they do, however, they expose how the comedy, The Princess, nearly turns into an irony, The Defeat of Ida. Overcome by the powerful forces against her, the heroic Ida sadly accepts her fate and abandons all resistance.
The obvious plan of the poem seems to make such a response perverse. Ida is not defeated but finds her way into a triumphant union. Such a union will allow her both to fulfill her distinctive femininity and to fight more effectively for her ideals. She is not sacrificing her heroic identity, it is supposed, but making it communal and thereby strengthening and guaranteeing her selfhood. Read in this way, the poem steers a course between the futuristic and abstract goals of the female university and the conservative, brutally concrete and instinctive views of the men. Lady Blanche and the prince's father represent extremes of these alternatives.
On one side is the primitive male conception that sees human [58/59] relations in terms of hunting, mastering, killing:
Man is the hunter; woman is his game:
The sleek and shining creatures of the chase,
We hunt them for the beauty of their skins;
They love Its for it, and we ride them down/; [5, ll. 147-50]
These lines expose, with remarkable bluntness and precision, the secrets of the male position. The argument is not unique to the stupid old king, however; we can see it reflected in Cyril's aggressively obscene song, and especially in such unconsciously patronizing actions as Walter's patting Lilia's head. “We ride them down” is not a peculiar but a universal masculine attitude, one that the poem vigorously rejects.
On the other side, so the plan implies, is the equally dangerous counter-reaction: Lilia's primitive anger and its projected symbol, the university. This university represents a response on the same impossible grounds of battle and conquest; the women isolate themselves in protective hatred and strike out in wild, impotent fury. Thus, each party is, in the old sense, “humor-ridden,” dominated by basic male or female humors. The action, as in all humor comedies, breaks the rigidity of these humors by ridiculing them and proposing a new being that is flexible arid humane.
But this balancing action is not unopposed, and the poem is not so simple. Princess Ida is much closer to genuine heroism than to humorous Amazonism; her position demands a respect never given to the male argument. As her world begins to crumble from within and the external pressures mount against her, she begins to appear more a symbol of defiant and heroic will than a mere spoiled, petulant girl. Beneath the overt pattern, then, runs a counter-theme which embodies, in the battle between Ida and the world, a profound conflict between two forms of comedy, The Princessrepresents an attempt to forge a new genre by putting in opposition heroic and domestic comedy, the aloof princess and the voice of “Come down, 0 maid,” the visions of “Ulysses” and “The Miller's Daughter.“
[Gerhard Joseph's chapter on The Princess, pp. 75-101, also provides a reading in terms of "a contest of genres, exploring the range of comedy in two directions" (p. 81). Joseph's two types of comedy, however, are quite different from the ones discussed here. He describes Tennyson's exploration of "the spirit" of two poles of Shakespearean comedy, "the late dark comedies and the earlier romantic ones" (p. 79). The Princess, he maintains, does "begin in a festive spirit of Love's Labour's Lost . , . and gradually darkens toward the mood of near tragedy, as in The Winter's Tale" (p. 81) The chapter is a suggestive one and forms a good alternative in the argument presented here.]
Tennyson is again dealing with the dilemma that dominated the [59/60] 1842 poems: the inability to merge the fully matured and complete human ego with the communal values demanded by comedy. Like “The Two Voices,” “A Vision of Sin,” and “The Palace of Art” before it, The Princess attempts to bridge this gap. It is no longer enough, however, just to dissolve this irony. Here Tennyson attempts to solve the problem by re-forming and redefining the central comic symbol: marriage. The poem tries to make the heroic vision yield to the domestic without sacrificing the heroic emphasis on personality. Marriage becomes a literal growth toward a oneness which does not obliterate difference. But it is very difficult, for us and for the poem, to grasp this unique argument very firmly or for very long. The Princess fails to sustain the purity of comedy and finally becomes another mixture of comedy and irony. The domestic vision is as fully embodied here as in any poem in the language, but by being directly juxtaposed to the heroic, its defects are strangely highlighted. The poem insists on being true to both sets of values and thus cannot escape giving a curious sense that its solution is both a victory and a defeat. Ida gains a great deal, but the poem is unwilling to ignore what she must leave behind: the lofty, appallingly cold but magnificent height of the undefeated personality.
Criticism of the poem has certainly not ignored evidence of basic conflict or disunity, but it has generally located that conflict only in the poem's tonal diversity and has almost without exception seen that diversity as a weakness. In many ways the definitive criticism on this point is given within the poem, when the narrator comments in the Conclusion that he had, in order to please both “the mockers and the realists” (l. 24), arranged the narrative “as in a strange diagonal, / And maybe neither pleased myself nor them” (ll. 27-28). Though the poet later argues that excesses in action and, by implication, in tone, point toward eventual harmony, this positive verdict has had little support, either outside the poem or within. Most critics agree, instead, with the “Tory member's eldest son,” [60/61] who, though a fool whose general views are specifically repudiated, provides a most influential comment on the poem's tone: “Too comic for the solemn things they are, / Too solemn for the comic touches in them” (ll. 67-68).
The point is worth belaboring simply because the tone is so intimately related to theme. The Princess'sattempt to reconcile warring social, psychological, and generic elements is symbolized by the effort to bring together alternate demands as to the poem's tone. The “maiden aunt” first pompously asks for a tale which is “Heroic . . . / Grave, solemn!” (Prologue, ll. 207-08), a notion that invokes the instant ridicule of the young. Later, the contest becomes one between the mocking men and the serious women, whose silent influence “had ever seemed to wrestle with burlesque” (Conclusion, l. 16). The traditional war between old and young and between men and women becomes, thus, a challenge to poetic tact. Insofar as the tone can harmonize such contraries, the extremes of youth and age, the future and the past can blend into a mature present; more radically, the differences between men and women can be resolved into “the single pure and perfect animal” (7, 1. 288). By suggesting that the resulting poetry “maybe” pleased neither faction, then, the poet is suspending the entire movement of the poem and confirming the tentative quality of its solution. The problem of tone is here a problem of total vision; it is, in this sense, the only problem of the poem, and it can be solved only by examining the thematic and generic issues it is made to include.
But one preliminary point needs to be made: the usual argument that the poem begins as “mock-heroic” and then changes abruptly to the serious distorts both the nature of the burlesque and the nature of the tonal change. In the first place, the mockery is not of the heroic. Only the excesses of false heroism are mocked, and that [61/62] is done only to ensure the protection of the legitimate form of heroism. The banter protects and moves us closer to Ida, the figure of genuine heroism, by reducing her detractors. The two old kings, for instance, attack her so bluntly and stupidly that potential criticisms are invalidated. The prince's father puts the antifeminist position in the crudest possible terms, arguing that women are inferior but useful animals to be hunted and tamed, subdued, if all else fails, by the misery of child-bearing and child-rearing:
A lusty brace
Of twins may weed her of her folly. Boy,
The bearing arid the training of a child
Is woman's wisdom. [5, ll. 453-56]
His obscene diction threatens to give the game away; he puts the common male position so bluntly it cannot be accepted, instinctive objections to Ida are thus dismissed.
Similarly, the sting is removed from her own father's criticism. It is cast in the form of anti-intellectualism that is so feeble it is simply silly: her “awful odes,” he says, are called “masterpieces: / They mastered me” (1, ll. 144-45) — Any force the parody of Ida's odes might carry and any objections based on a more pervasive anti-intellectualism are blunted by repudiating their source. Finally, even her brother's mild criticism of her, “She flies too high” (5, 1. 271), is balanced against his admission that he may be too crude to understand her and also against his rough but fine sense both of her stature and of the basic justice of her cause: “She asked but space and fairplay for her scheme” (5, 1. 272). Throughout, then, Tennyson exercises various rhetorical means to promote our regard for heroism and for its advocate, Princess Ida. Even such direct burlesques of the school as those connected with the “daughters of the plough” are deliberately separated and kept distant from Ida, and thus they suggest only aberrations, not basic faults, in the heroic scheme.
The usual interpretation of tone denies even the linear development implied in “diagonal” and argues for an abrupt change from one mood to another. While the threats to comic fulfillment, which demand a solemn tone, are somewhat more strongly emphasized and also more protracted in this comedy than in most, the tone in all romantic comedies develops away from the banter that is necessary for the preliminary attack on the humorous, blocking characters toward the calm acceptance that comes with the victory of resilience. The movement from attack to acceptance is most marked in those. comedies we are likely to think of as warm and [62/63] optimistic, A Midsummer Night's Dream, for instance. “Jest and earnest working side by side” (4, 1. 541) is the traditional slogan of integration, not dislocation.
The attempt to find the point of this presumed alteration in the poem, then, seems to be self-defeating. Edgar F. Shannon, Jr., for instance, points to the interlude between sections 4 and 5 as a “transparent” means by which Tennyson “sharply marked the shift from levity to sobriety.“(p. 128) But section 5, far from being sober, seems easily the most humorous of all, opening in “unmeasured mirth” (l. 17) at the sight of the men disguised as women, and moving to the must extensive funny attack on the two old fathers and such slapstick episodes as that between the unfortunate male herald and the eight daughters of the plow. The tone moderates, but it does not change abruptly; neither does it become “dark.” It moves toward serenity, the mood that combines joy and earnestness. Whether it quite achieves this union is questionable, but that is a matter which must be settled by considering more than just tone.
The major problem remains: the conflict of the two impulses of comedy and the effort to harmonize them. Though the poem finally attempts to solve the dilemma by leaning heavily on the concept of the natural, it also maintains the image of the heroic princess, whose heroism is defined largely as her ability to resist for so long the lure of the natural. It is a comedy of normality, but in its secret heart it seems to lament the failure of the grandly abnormal. As a result of this disjunction, almost everything in The Princess carries with it contrary signals: positive acts are negative; victories are also defeats.
This complex dualism is apparent throughout the poem in its images and themes, perhaps most obviously in its action. Even the most ludicrous action of all, Ida's plunge into the river, cuts in two directions. On one hand, it functions as well-deserved ridicule of her pretensions, her slightly absurd readiness for tragic death:
We were as prompt to spring against the pikes,
Or down the fiery gulf as talk of it,
To compass our dear sisters' liberties. [3, ll. 269-71]
The stage is set for the comic catastrophe, the comeuppance. She is brought low, significantly, by a trivial event, Cyril's ribald song; she [63/64] does not spring against the pikes but clumsily misses the plank and rolls into the river. Instead of finding glorious martyrdom, she must suffer an inglorious rescue by a man she hates.
On the other hand, the ridicule is so extreme that it suggests not so much corrective action as a brutal assault. Why, for instance, does Cyril do such a gross and stupid thing? It is one of the issues the poem ponders — and ponders very awkwardly (4, ll. 230-38) but cannot resolve. The obscene song seems merely a meaningless assertion of male supremacy, a primitive attack on femininity itself. From this point of view, Ida is not only ridiculed but trapped, not for any particular purpose, but simply by some basic malignity. Heroism is completely denied by the episode but to no real educational purpose, and the result can as easily be to increase our sympathy for Ida as to ridicule her. The action is as absurdly meaningless as it is comically justifiable.
This same mixture also attends the central symbol: the pursuit of knowledge. Ida's university is legitimate, as is her dedication to learning; but tier scheme invokes not only the support of heroic comedy but the ridicule of domestic comedy and its insistence on the physical and intuitive as opposed to the cerebral and rational. The university, then, is its most fundamental enemy; the union of learning and implied asexuality in the female college is simply a variation of the usual anti-intellectual equation of pedantry and sterility. Turning the pedant into a woman simply reinforces the primitive appeal by invoking the atmosphere of locker-room masculinity. It makes our own response all the more tense and ambiguous.
Further, Ida's search for knowledge involves the creation of a new society, a world that is specifically utopian, bringing with it a divided response to utopias. She is, however, made specifically heroic by her loneliness and by the suggestion that she is bringing order where there was chaos, taming the beast. The parallels between Ida and the quite unambiguous King Arthur of the Idylls are clear, But Ida's new society, heroic as it is, liberates only in order to impose new restrictions. We hear a great deal about discipline and duty, virtues that are perhaps necessary but that are invoked almost always in comedies as enemies of the free and flexible human spirit.
The prince begins the action of the poem by disobeying his father and following the “voice” of nature (1, ll. 96-99), thus outlining the [64/65] whole course of the action of domestic comedy, the rejection of the artificial, the planned, and the rigid for the values of nature and spontaneity. It is the wily and dishonest Lady Blanche who is constantly mouthing the principles of obedience — “And she replied, her duty was to speak, / And duty duty, clear of consequences” (3, ll. 135-36) — but it is the undutiful and disobedient Lady Psyche whom we are asked to approve of Rules must always be broken in the spirit of anarchic comedy, and duty wan with love. The prince accuses Ida of barring “Your heart with system out from mine” (4, l. 443). It is Ida's devotion to system that creates the heroic world and also the enemy of that world.
At the center of this difficult mixture of irony and comedy is Ida herself, the most fully developed and yet the most problematic character in the poem. For, despite the apparent ridiculousness of her plan, she is not portrayed as ridiculous. Even her plan, in the end, is seen as absurd only in the sense that irony renders all the best hopes pointless. The princess is conceived of as remarkably calm and rational, considering how deeply she perceives injustice and how firmly she believes in her cause. She almost never rants, and her speeches exactly invert the rhetorical pattern common to fervent crusaders. Instead of building to more and more excited flourishes, even Ida's official speeches of indoctrination begin with rhetorical excess and move to greater simplicity, clarity, and moderation. Since her lieutenants, Lady Blanche and Lady Psyche, both employ the more traditional strategy of gradually increasing the voltage, Ida's comparative calm is made even more noticeable. The rhetorical pattern of her speeches suggests the development beyond the mere excrescences of format radicalism to a genuine heroic simplicity. She always ends with a position that is so moderate it is made to appear emphatically sensible.
Even the purpose of the university is not what we would surely expect in a burlesque, that is, the reversal of tyrannies and the creation of a new race of Amazons; rather, Ida wants to do away with tyranny, or at least to minimize it. Her university does not seek to combat marriage but to make it just a little less like slavery. She is not preparing celibates or man-haters but those who “may with [65/66] those self-styled our lords ally / [Their] fortunes, justlier balanced, scale with scale” (2, ll. 51-52). This goal seems almost pathetically limited, but it brings down on her in full force the. world of men. Whatever she herself may be, her institution is hardly antisocial; she seeks only a readjustment in society, a movement toward balance. Ida herself never speaks of dominance. She offers merely a chance to “lose / Convention” (2, ll. 71-72), that is, to revive and free society. But it is precisely the moribund convention that men live by, and her very reasonableness thus incurs their most instinctual wrath. If she were more radical, she would be less of a threat; The Princess would be a more straightforward comedy but a much less interesting poem.
Ida's refusal to be satisfied with ranting marks her deep seriousness. It guarantees the. validity of the promise she holds out: “O lift your natures up:/ Embrace our aims: work out your freedom” (2, ll. 74-75). The “freedom” here is very much like the inner freedom Ulysses finds in the face of the external inhibitions of old age and death. She really means to make a new world, not by re-creating society but by providing to others the secret of rebirth she herself has found:
We touch on our dead self, nor shun to do it,
Being other — since we learnt our meaning here,
To lift the woman's fallen divinity. [3, ll., 205-07]
She hopes to give back to women the individual Edens they have lost.
Tennyson is very careful to give Ida no motive other than simple heroism. The other possibilities, her being spoiled by her weak father or perverted by the teachings of the sexually frustrated Lady Blanche, are entertained only to be dismissed as trivial. Her offer to her students is precisely that of Ulysses to his mariners, and she has Ulysses's insight into the necessity for absolute devotion to the unfettered, noble self. “Better not be at all / Than not be noble” (2, ll. 79-80). The human will is made triumphant by assertion, and women, Ida promises, who are now “laughing stocks of Time” (4, l. 496), may be conquerors of time and death. Heroic comedy allows a destruction of the ultimate trap.
The question is, then, why the plan is so easily upset. Ida resists courageously, but the rest of the university topples with absurd readiness. One answer, given before, is that the university is too rigid, too schematically conceived, a sure sign in ail comedy of vulnerability to the forces of nature. Ida holds things together, as Lady Psyche says, with her “iron will” (2, l. 185); it is clear that her [66/67] system gains coherence only from laws and rules. And comedy hates all rules. Still, there is more to this “iron will” than simply a violation of comic precepts. We sense that Ida's will is hardened because there is little genuine response to her heroism. Her enemies are not only the men without but all that is selfish, cowardly, and indolent within. In one revealing scene, the narrator discusses the flow of students after lectures and very quietly provides the proper diagnosis of the university's illness.
The picture begins with “One walk[ing] reciting by herself' (2, 1. 430), then one who “In this hand held a volume as to read, / And smoothed a petted peacock down with that” (ll. 431-32). Then, however, the view shifts from the single figures to large groups of students, who are clearly not interested even in faking seriousness: some run to row on the water or merely to sit in the shade under the bridge, or in the thickets, or on the lawns. The more energetic toss a ball back and forth. The climactic picture in this gallery of presumed spiritual revolutionaries shows how ridiculously impossible the task is: the
older sort” “murmured that their May
Was passing; what was learning unto them?
They wished to marry; they could rule a house;
Men hated learned women. [ll. 439-42]
The new world is ruined not by Ida's excesses, clearly, but by a sad mistake she has made in trying to share and make communal her own heroism. She has never had a chance, and all the flurry of the wars is the result of a ludicrous hysteria on the part of men who really have no cause for fear. Nothing can throw off the dead hand of convention.
The chief enemy, therefore, is time, most specifically the past. Ida wants to pull free from this bondage, but she is defeated by its attractions. She cannot combat the psychic force of time., the power and passion engendered by the most important of the lyric songs in the poem, “Tears, Idle Tears,” The poem, as Ida recognizes, offers, a kind of melancholy luxuriance that is regressive and imprisoning. The past sings with “so sweet a voice and vague, fatal to men” (4, l. 46). In her view, the poem has power, but of an inferior and dangerous kind. It is a sentimental poem, masking as ironic honesty an appeal to self-indulgent introspection and maudlin self-pity. It is, she says, “a death's-head at the wine” (4, 1. 69), a trembling poetry that is contemptible. “Let the past be past; let be / Their cancelled Babels” (4, ll. 58-59), she proclaims, but no one hears her, Even the prince, who might have understood a little, carries with [67/68] him in his invasion certificates of the imprisoning past, the absurd contract made long ago by the two fathers.
The past controls in the most outrageous forms, and eventually the prince-or his father-or time-wins. There is, from this point of view, no possibility of change. Ida fails not because she has been rigid, but because she strove to free us from the days that are no more. Her insistence that women are “Not vassals to be beat, nor Pretty babes / To be dandled, no, but living wills, and sphered / Whole in ourselves and owed to none” (4, ll. 128-30) is both self-evident and ridiculous. By asserting so clearly the importance of the human will, she has demonstrated its impotence against tyranny, convention, instinct, and, most generally, the past. Since she cannot shut out the forces of the past, then, all she can do in her desire to liberate is to build a new prison.
This invasion of the past that turns her comic world into an ironic one conics, in its most insidious form, as a “voice“-not only the passionate voice of “Tears, Idle Tears” but the tired one of all conventional language. One of her most perceptive and most impossible wars is a linguistic one. When the disguised men are first presented to her, Cyril takes the opportunity to remind her of the old kings' contract, saying that the prince is “The climax of his age! as though there were / One rose in all the world, your Highness that, / He worships your ideal” (2, ll. 36-38). Ida is indignant, not about the prince but about the language, the frozen clichés that come from equally frozen attitudes:
We scarcely thought in our own hall to hear
This barren verbiage, current among men,
Light coin, the tinsel clink of compliment.
Your flight from out your bookless wilds would seem
As arguing love of knowledge and of power;
Your language proves you still the child. [2, ll. 39-44]
Ida sees that the language of men is just like, indeed is, the imprisoning voice of the past. Love songs, she says, “mind us of the time/When we made bricks in Egypt” (4, ll. 109-110), The platitudes of love have within them the deceptive lures of slavery. They
lute and flute fantastic tenderness,
And dress the victim to the offering up,
And paint the gates of Hell with Paradise,
And play the slave to gain the tyranny. [4, ll. 111-14]
She tries to [68/69] counter this conventional language with a new one, forging Valkyrean hymns or songs of prophecy, urging that
Is duer unto freedom, force and growth
Of spirit. [4, ll. 122-24]
The academy is primarily a school of new poetry, hoping above all to remold the language: “And everywhere the broad and bounteous Earth / Should bear a double growth of those rare souls, / Poets, whose thoughts enrich the blood of the world” (2, ll. 162-64). But it is the old unpoetic language that tears apart the university. Ida is defeated by voices, by words.
So that we do not miss the force of this theme of imprisonment in language, Ida's own downfall is foreshadowed by an exactly parallel defeat of Lady Psyche. When she discovers the identity of the three men and resolves to tell the princess, the men turn on her with their world of words. They deliberately combat her new self with stereotyped images of a generalized female. The prince begins the assault with, “Are you that Lady Psyche?” and proceeds to cite a fixed image, a portrait that hangs in his father's hall, an idealized version of womanhood (2, ll. 219-27). This tactic is so obviously the right one for their purposes that each speaker uses it in turn, picking up with a repeated “Are you that Lady Psyche?” when his predecessor has run out of breath. She is thus recalled to an imaginary, womanized, selfhood, quite at odds with the independent woman she has, with Ida's help, presumably become. She is pushed toward an unreal past, toward sentimental images of marriage, nurturing care, and passivity. The men finally entrap her so firmly in tire assumptions contained in this world of conventional language that she paces about “like some wild creature newly caged” (2, l. 281) and at last yields to their absurd conception of what she is, thus betraying Ida. She had broken away with her princess into a new freedom and a new tongue, but here she is “newly-caged” in the old clichés of sentimental tyranny.
In a similar fashion, then, Ida herself is beaten down by words, by the relentless assault (6, ll. 147-248) of the most instinctive of men: her brother and the two kings. She is threatened, flattered, denounced, but the one image before her always is that of “woman“: tender and submissive. “O if, I say, you keep / One pulse that beats true woman, if you loved /The breast that fed or arm that dandled you” (6, ll. 163-65), Cyril begins, and the others chime in with similar appeals, climaxed by Gama's sentimental evocation of Ida's mother on her deathbed gasping out, with her [69/70] last breath, "Our Ida has a heart” (6, l. 218). She is simply dragged down:
But Ida stood nor spoke, drained of her force
By many a varying influence and so long.
Down through her limbs a drooping languor wept:
Her head a little bent. [6, ll. 249-52]
Having forgiven Lady Blanche, the princess is then vulnerable to the same tactics, a point the prince is not slow to grasp. He realizes the efficacy of repetition and pressure:
Nor did her father cease to press my claim,
Nor did mine own, now reconciled; nor yet
Did those twin-brothers, risen again and whole;
Nor Arac, satiate with victory. [7, ll. 72-75]
Nowhere is the ironic image of the lonely hero ingloriously assaulted more firmly set than in this theme of language and its culmination in Ida's fall.
But the ironic defeat is also a comic victory, depending on our angle of vision and whether we respond more fully to the collapse of the heroic or to the fulfillment of the domestic comedy. This ambiguity is apparent even in the figure of the child, a symbol Tennyson used quite deliberately, strengthening it through the various revisions, presumably to clarify the meaning of the poem. “The child is the link thro' the parts,” he said (Memoir, I: 254), and indeed that is true. It is the most important and complex symbol in the poem and thus the most important key to interpretation. From the point of view of domestic comedy, the child is an essential and nearly perfect symbol. It can be used both statically, as a symbol of innocence, or dynamically, as a symbol of growth and development. The actual child, Aglaïa, is a static image used to evoke responses of tenderness and maternal warmth in Ida, but the symbol has much broader applications in the poem that suggest process and an acceptance of change.
Disturbances, then, can be almost automatically set aside as youthful excesses, not only excusable but valuable as educational preludes to growth. This is the exact argument used by the narrator at the very end to explain the poem's relevance:
This fine old world of ours is but a child
Yet in the go-cart. Patience! Give it time
To learn its limbs: there is a band that guides. [Conclusion, ll. 77-79]
Ida's utopian radicalism is thus reduced from a threat to a mistake, and not a serious mistake at that. All of comedy's charity and generosity (even if, as here, it is an evasive, patronizing generosity) are thus implied by the child symbol, which clearly gives very useful support to one side in the comic battle. [70/71]
The support to domestic comedy is not only useful; it is continuous. The child is central to most of the songs that link the sections and anticipate so sharply some of the issues about to be raised. Tennyson's comment that the importance of the child was “shown in the songs which are the best interpreters of the poem” (Memoir, I: 254) may, however, be misleading; for while the appropriateness of the songs is usually clear enough, they often seem far more simple than the action they are presumably interpreting so well. They distort things a great deal, though they are still noteworthy for the half-light they throw.
The first, “As through the land at eve we went,” presents the major and reiterated use of the child symbol in the songs. Here the couple who have fallen out “kiss again with tears” (1. 9) when they see the grave of their child. The child acts as a force for unification and reconciliation. It is also, here. and in the main action of the poem, a natural and physical symbol, inciting the kisses in this song and Ida's reawakened sexuality. Apart from this, the child also suggests that unity is even stronger after the experience of disunity: “And blessings on the falling out /That all the more endears” (ll. 6-7). This notion supports the argument of domestic comedy to the effect that Ida's experiment is valuable when abandoned because, though abnormal and therefore to be rejected, it acts to expand the boundaries of life, to extend what we think of as normal- Ida, of course, might very well call this song sentimental and evasive; and she would, no doubt, be right.
But she is allowed no direct comment, and the next linking song, “Sweet and low,” is much more subtle in its evocation of the child as a binding force between man and wife. The father is drawn back from the “dying moon” to home and new life, apparently not by the wife in the first stanza, but by the child in the second. “Father will come to his babe in the nest” (l. 13), even if he resists the call of his mate. There is the mildly subversive suggestion that the only genuine male response is to a child, since men themselves are children; but the principal linking is of the child with love and unity.
The third song, “The splendour falls on castle walls,” does not specifically mention a child, but it does deal directly with the associations developed around that symbol. The song expressly [71/72] denies the power of fame to combat time (that is, it denies Princess Ida's argument), as well as the sustaining power of heroism. The terms associated with the heroic vision here-splendor, castle, wild cataract, cliff, sea -evoke echoes that diminish as time passes. Against this decay is the personal, introverted domestic love whose power grows as time goes on and thus is served by time, not defeated; “Our echoes roll from soul to soul, / And grow for ever and for ever” (ll. 15-16).
In the next two songs, which belong among the least effective lyrics Tennyson ever wrote, the child symbol is reinforced without much development. In “Thy voice is heard through rolling drums,” the warrior gathers courage and strength from imagining “his brood” (l. 6) and then goes out and hacks his enemy to pieces. There is in this song, as in the narrative itself, a curious connection between children, men, and barbarism, but it is not developed. The last song to deal with a child, “Home they brought her warrior dead,” simply reaffirms the child's ability to minister to life, love, and personality. Rather than committing suicide, the newly widowed woman looks at her child an her knees and weeps sustaining, life-saving tears. It is easy, as I said, to see that poems like this have some bearing on the problems Princess Ida faces, but it is not easy to see bow they are the “best interpreters” of these problems. They seem, rather, to give support, less and less effectively as the poem goes on, to those aspects of the child symbol that serve the argument for domestic comedy.
But there is another side and another argument. From the standpoint of heroic comedy, the child is associated with regression, defeat, and deadly traps. Against the arguments of domestic comedy for the natural and ordinary in marital affairs, heroic comedy insists that the present relation between men and women is grotesquely perverted and unnatural:
they had but been, she thought,
As children; they must lose the child, assume
The woman. [1, ll. 135-37]
Time and again the child image is brought up not in reference to sweetness and tenderness but in reference to ugly containment. Ida's chief aim, one might say, is to invert the values that collect around this symbol and to rob it of its enormous sentimental force.
In order to mature, to “lose the child,” women must abandon, not children of course, but the tradition of falsifying sentimentality associated with that image. And that tradition is located exactly [72/73] with domestic comedy. Again like Ulysses, Ida's stern realism refuses to ignore the fact that heroic life is a life of exclusions; the comforts and values of domesticity are among those things excluded. The child, as the emotional center of domestic life, is the central trap, and Ida uses the symbol in reference to all her enemies. Even in attacking the barren language of love she refers to this symbol: “Your language proves you still the child” (2, l. 44). The child which can, in one way or another, promise eternal life for domestic comedy is seen by Ida as the very prototype of the time-bound. In her most impassioned speech she admits the force of the symbol, arguing that it is because the suggestions that surround children are so powerful that their appeal must be resisted: “Yet will we say for children, would they grew / Like field-flowers everywhere! we like them well: / But children die; and let me tell you, girl, / Howe'er you babble, great deeds cannot die” (3, ll. 234-37).
“But children die” is the difficult admission at the heart of her heroism. She rejects the sentimental illusion of permanency which, to her, is all normality can offer, and she sets out really to destroy time, not evade it. When men use. children as weapons — “Children -that men may pluck them from our hearts, / Kill us with pity, break us with ourselves” (3, ll. 240-41) — they are instinctively denying not only heroism but genuine life to women. They are pulling them back into the shadowy world of ignorant childhood, where there are. only hints and counters of basic being. The famous advice of the prince's father — “Man for the field and woman for the hearth: / Man for the sword and for the needle she: / Man with the head and woman with the heart” (5, ll. 437-39) — explains just why Ida must pursue life away from men. They are out to kill her.
Finally she collapses: “Her iron will was broken in her mind; / Her noble heart was molten in her breast” (6, ll. 102-03). But this climactic fall, strangely enough, bears no overt relation to the child. The removal of Aglaïa softens her up, but her will cracks only when she sees the prince and imagines him to be dead. The capitulation of Ida and her followers is symbolized by their all becoming nurses, not directly of children but of men. The princess, it seems, has lost one child, Aglaïa, only to have her replaced by another, the prince, her future husband. The basic relationship imaged here is clearly not that between man and woman but between mother and child. Men expose their childlike natures to trap women and perhaps [73/74] form them into children too. Ida is defeated not by the bloody war, the image of man's might, but by his prostration and weakness. Wanting so much to lose the child, Ida is attacked by one, and she loses her heroism: “azure pillars of the hearth / Arise to thee; the children call” (7, ll. 201-02).
At the end, when the prince argues for the wonderful new state they can achieve together, one cannot help wondering how exactly to take his many references to children. It is one thing to urge women not to lose their “distinctive womanhood” (7, l. 258), but he defines that distinguishing quality as the ability not to fail “in childward care, / Nor [to] lose the childlike in the larger mind” (7, ll. 267-68). Beneath all the fine words is a deeply regressive tendency. Perhaps we are traveling right back to where we began.
We cannot really know, I think, since the form of the poem is finally as ambiguous as its central symbol; but there are some possible answers given in the crucial seventh section. At the beginning of this last section, Ida's new Eden is shown transformed into a wasteland: “So blackened all her world in secret, blank / And waste it seemed and vain” (ll. 27-28). Her isolation now is arid and she succumbs to the lure of the valley. The conclusion presents a brilliant case for domestic comedy, but it does not allow the arguments to remain unopposed even there.
The most effective arguments for domestic comedy are not really “arguments” at all but the two seduction songs in this seventh section, “Now sleeps the crimson petal” and “Come down, O maid.” These mark both the occasion and the cause of the princess's final yielding. The first song is, most obviously, a celebration of sexual release and fulfillment,9 appropriate since, as the force of domestic comedy becomes more and more dominant toward the end, Ida is seen less as an idealist and more as a virgin.10 But the song also operates to urge. an openness to all experience, not just sexual experience. Ida's isolation now appears to be fearful withdrawal. As a counter to this assumed fear, the poem offers very [74/75] elementary reassurance, soothing her and promising that comic existence is both beautiful and, more important, secure: “So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip / Into my bosom and be lost in me” (ll. 173-74) — It offers both excitement and protection. The poem's emphasis on now, the word that begins each of the four stanzas, creates a tone of sweet urgency to the reassurances and defines the movement of the new comedy away from the bondage of the past and futuristic abstractions alike. The present, both in its intensity and comfort, its combined images of waking and sleeping, and its unification of the remote and the transient (“the silent meteor,” l.169) with the immediate and permanent (“be lost in me,” l. 74), is the basis of the new solution.
This solution is reemphasized and completed in “Come down, O maid,” which directly follows “Now sleeps the crimson petal.” The poem presents most clearly the opposition between the two kinds of comedy: the heroic world of the cold and splendid mountain, and the domestic, pastoral world of the valley. It is also a fine and subtle rhetorical work, of course, which seeks to demolish the world of heroic comedy; its “splendour” (l. 179) is granted, but it is a splendor that is alien to man and to nature-finally to life. Heroic comedy, it suggests, may move “near the Heavens” (l. 180) and elevate man to the company of the stars, but it is not pleasant: “What pleasure lives in height (the shepherd sang) / In height and cold” (ll. 178-79). 'the simplicity of the appeal is deliberate. Against the grandeur of isolation is placed mere comfortable joy.
Death, ice, and blasted pines, wild eagles, and especially the image of great waterfalls that break up a mighty stream into diffusive foam “that like a broken purpose waste[s] in air” (l. 199) make up the pointless, lonely world of irony. Domestic comedy offers fulfillment, sexuality, and, most of all, an integral place in teeming life. All nature awaits the maid's coming and participates in her welcome. The final promise is contained in the merging of the sweetness of her own voice with the sweetness and abundance about her. The poem embodies the unified harmonies it discusses and thus revivifies pastoral clichés. The new comedy, in fact, works by asking that clichés be deliberately accepted as such, just as Ida accepts the cliché of feminine tenderness, the child, and the prince accepts the cliché of masculinity, “the blind wildbeast of force” (5, l. 256). The clichés are not confirmed but made over, so that [75/76] childhood and age merge into maturity, the past and future into the eternal present.
The best part of the new solution, certainly, is that Ida does not completely abandon her dream:
She still were loth to yield herself to one
That wholly scorned to help their equal rights
Against the sons of men, and barbarous laws. [7, ll. 217-19]
Tennyson wants still to keep alive the hope of heroic comedy. Both the Poem's greatness and its major difficulties are due to this insistence. The fullest argument for the reconciliation of the two comic principles is found in the prince's long closing speech, but even that does not make such an impeccable case as one could hope for. He maintains, as one would suppose, that they should forget the past and all wasteful opposition between the sexes. “The woman's cause is man's,” he says; “they rise or sink / Together, dwarfed or god-like, bond or free” (7, ll. 243-44). But the prince goes further: this unification is to be accomplished by a preservation of important differences.
Man and woman should each protect his “distinctive” uniqueness (thus the child and the war) in order to form a more perfect bond: “Not like to like, but like in difference” (7, l. 262). By doing so, they will quite undeliberately become more like each other, rising toward the ultimate goal:
The single pure arid perfect animal,
The two-celled heart beating, with one full stroke,
Life. [7, ll. 288-90]
Opposites are reconciled not by superficial, overt compromise but by a crystallizing act of the creative imagination. Their universality is ensured by their being most fully realized in their finite particularity; the poet attains to full creative participation in the universe not by denying but by fulfilling his personality. The prince's paradoxical solution may baffle us, but it would have made good sense to Shelley and Keats.
The prince ends this climactic argument with a benedictory “May these things be!” (7, l. 280). One would suppose that all that remained would be an “Amen” and a wedding. But there is neither. The harmony is disrupted by the most startling and important lines in the poem: the princess responds to the prince's hope that all these things will be accomplished with a sighing “I fear / They will not” (7, ll. 280-81). The prince argues some more, but the princess again sighs and calls it “a dream” (l. 290). He then becomes less abstract, citing his mother as the type of perfection that can be realized in Ida and completed in marriage. Still, she resists: “It seems you love [76/77] to cheat yourself with words: /This mother is your model” (ll. 314-15). The old theme of language reappears at the end to reassert the ambiguity of the situation and to hint at the final irreconcilability of the two comic modes. Ida suggests that the rhetoric is wearing a little thin, that the deceptive language can create a trap for them both. Ida cannot easily be mother or child to this child-man, She does not deny him, of course, and the fact that all her objections are put “tremulously” (l. 313) at the end does suggest that she is about to yield.
But her questions are never answered, and her doubts remain unresolved. The prince simply reasserts the vision of glorious comic existentialism- “all the past / Melts mist-like into this bright hour” (ll. 333-34)-and stops arguing. The final line of the narrative proper reinforces only the ambiguity: “Lay thy sweet hands in mine and trust to me” (l. 345). This is not what we would expect as the inauguration of “the single pure and perfect animal.” We never hear Ida's answer. The poem thus ends on a question mark, with this image of the prince's condescension taking us back to the very source of all the trouble, indeed of the poem itself.
Asked Walter, patting Lilia's head (she lay
Beside him) 'lives there such a woman [as the feudal warrior] now?' [Prologue, ll. 124 26]
The poem that arises from an act of condescension may, then, close with one, hinting at an ironic circularity that mocks the ostensible educational progress of the poem's narrative. Perhaps no one learns anything. These questions concerning the poem's efficacy, as well as its cause and relevance, are, surprisingly, points dealt with by the poem itself. The Princess'sframe, the elaborate modern idyl, not only surrounds the story of Ida but also explains it; The importance of the frame is also kept before us by Lilia's interruptions midway through the poem, between sections 4 and 5. By maintaining an extensive series of parallels to characters and themes in the narrative, the frame acts as a commentary on that narrative and as a confirmation of its final ambiguity.
The prologue, the first hall of the frame, provides a strong impetus to the argument for domestic comedy. It presents an image of discontinuity contained within and yielding to a larger continuity, the union of diverse elements in a single unit. The poem opens on a scene of harmony: the broad, sunny lawns of Sir Walter Vivian [77/78] are given over to his tenants. The house itself is a unified medley of styles, of places and times. It provides, a sense of continuity and control, of complete mastery: fossils become ornaments; lava is made into “toys” (l. 18). The images of nature's awesome destructive power are thus made safe and manageable in the domestic atmosphere. Though the tenants are there partly to learn, the comic pedantry later to be associated with Ida's scheme is carefully removed from these lessons. There are references to teachers and “facts,” but the real purpose is enjoyment. The “patient leaders of their Institute” (l. 58) collect all manner of scientific equipment, but it is used for quite unscientific purposes. The telescopes show beautiful views, the electrical demonstration unites a group of girls in a dancelike ring, and so forth. Sport and science are joined (ll. 79-80), with sport, clearly, out in front. There is thus a good deal of light cast forward, anticipating the power of the domestic comedy later to be fulfilled
But against this background of harmony is the disharmony among the young people, who forecast the tension and disunity of the tale of Princess Ida. The argument among them is caused by their response to a legend of female heroism, a story of a lady fighting to preserve her will: “O noble heart who, being strait-besieged / By this wild king to force her to his wish, / Nor bent, nor broke” (ll. 36-38). Objectified by history, such a person becomes a pleasant joke to the men, but she is a serious figure indeed to the women. The resistance of the historical lady to the wild king's desire to “force her to his wish” is subtly echoed in Lilia's contempt for Walter's pat on her head. As in the main body of the poem, women struggle against the smothering assumptions of male dominance. Male courtesy is equated with brutal power, war with love songs. The central conflict between heroism and gentle submission is thus begun. The group becomes an image of ironic tension yearning for resolution, divided against each other and against themselves
The plan for the medley is a brilliant idea, for it promises to provide an end to the quarrel and a new unity of time: “Why not a summer's as a winter's tale?” The seven men are to speak as one, with the women's voices separate and distinct but harmonious, foreshadowing the unity of the prince's final argument. There is also, in the very spontaneity of the poem's composition, a strong echo of domestic comedy's insistence on natural development, natural values. Finally, the light-hearted sense of game or interlocking dance [78/79] is also suggested, providing a context that is implicitly critical of solemnity, isolation, and rebellion.
But the ancient tale itself does not so single-mindedly support the values of domestic comedy. The historical lady, forced against her will, is the type both for the lonely figure of the princess, hammered at by men and held to a contract she considers “invalid, since my will / Sealed not the bond” (5, ll. 393-89), and also for little Lilia, who alone resists the aggression of the seven men. The ambiguity of the young people's position is made apparent immediately on the ending of the narrative in the Conclusion, where, after a moment of quiet, Walter, the male supremacist who had begun the conflict, is stirred to a deep and startlingly compassionate insight: “I wish she had not yielded!” (l. 5). All the prince's rhetoric has not been enough to erase from his mind the image of heroism dragged down. That Walter, of all people, should be the one to represent this response shows how deep the generic split has become and how impossible has been the task of merging heroic and domestic comedy.
The Conclusion proceeds, then, to the feud over tone and the decision to remold the work so as to find a unifying attitude toward its subject. Interestingly, Lilia, the frame's parallel to Ida, takes no part in the dispute but sits musing, plucking the grass, and wondering. Her sudden question to the aunt, “You-tell us what we are” (l. 34), is left unanswered, both because the workmen are now noisily taking their leave and because no answer would help. The lovely vision of harmony and satisfaction, then — “The happy valleys, half in light, and half/ Far-shadowing from the west, a land of peace” (ll. 41-42) — is mocked by the unsettled dispute, the inadequate solutions, and the unresolved questions.
The poem focuses on Lilia for its close: “Last little Lilia, rising quietly, / Disrobed the glimmering statue of Sir Ralph / From those rich silks, and home well-pleased we went” (ll. 116-18). The feminine silks are removed from the noble Sir Ralph. The heroic and the domestic, male and female, thus safely disjoined, we could perhaps be “well-pleased,” were it not for the fact that the poem has illustrated the price we pay for the easy pleasure of domestic comfort. Like Walter, we are haunted by Ida's fall and by the poem's refusal to evade the consequences of that fall: the sacrifice of the heroic will.
Web version created April 2001
Last modified 8 August 2016