he narrative pattern of irony, what Northrop Frye calls "the mythos of winter," (pp. 223-39) frequently been characterized in discussions of "open" or "general" irony and distinguished there from the "specific" or "closed" irony that is more properly thought of as a technique. This general irony is noncorrective, presenting, like all irony, some conflict but insisting always that the conflict cannot be resolved. This is the irony of the impossible situation, an irony that includes us all as victims — characters, readers, even the ironist.
Art rooted in "unidealized existence" (Frye, p. 223) is likely, then, to formulate its structural principles and its narrative patterns in reference to general irony. There are no heroes and no heroic action; worse, there is no coherence to support any purposeful action whatever. Such heroism and such coherence are, however, often recalled in this irony in order that they may be parodied. In fact, parody seems to be the basic principle of this narrative irony. It feeds on the affirmations contained in the other traditional patterns: romance's idealizations, tragedy's cathartic sacrifice, comedy's liberation. Practicing always a rhetoric of deception, this pattern forces us to anticipate resolutions that never come. Such rhetoric is deliberately unstable, seeking to disarm us, to include its audience with its victims. The characteristic themes are of disillusionment and meaningless defeat, the fall from freedom into bondage.
While there is some specific irony in Tennyson — one thinks of "The Last Tournament" or the verse epistles — he is, clearly, not [5/6] Donne. But he does utilize extensively the more general narrative pattern, especially in the depiction of dominant opposites which cannot be coordinated or made to cancel, but which demand equal and contradictory responses. The tension between the religious, hopeful symbol on the one hand, and the tragic or melancholic symbol on the other, marks the center of Tennyson's poetry, the point being that his irony is not merely gloomy, almost never simply macabre. The contraries exist together, as brothers, an early poem says, stealing "symbols of each other" ("Song [Every day hath its night]").
The result is that no emotion can flow outward from us. The comfort of comedy and the perverse comfort of decisive negativism are alike denied, and the reader is suspended between alternate emotional and intellectual responses to alternate, unreconciled themes. Whatever Tennyson may have meant by his cryptic remark that "what the public do not understand is that the great tragedy is all balance throughout," (Memoir, 2: 226) " the "balance" he achieves and transmits is the ironic one presented in Moby-Dick, where the Pequod, tilting dangerously to one side under the weight of a whale's head lashed to it, hoists another on the opposite side, thus regaining her "even keel; though sorely strained, you may well believe." Ishmael goes on to point out the usefulness of this image as a symbol for the human mind, poised and paralyzed and unable to "float light and right." Irony, it may be said, causes so much horizontal strain that it makes any free forward movement impossible.
At its most obvious, Tennyson's ironic vision did insist directly and openly on the alternate truths: death is all, life is all — "All Things Will Die ... .. Nothing Will Die," as the poems from 1830 put it. But we find the unresolved oppositions in much less dramatic and ostentatious form throughout his career. In the beautiful poem, "To the Marquis of Dufferin and Ava" (1889), for example, he deals with both the greatness of the Indian Empire (Lord Dufferin had been governor-general of India) and the sense that India was the treacherous fate that drew his son Lionel to his death. Toward the end of the poem, these views coalesce as Tennyson dwells on the terrible fact that his son died so far from him, with strange rites and in a strange sea: [6/7]
Not there to bid my boy farewell,
When That within the coffin fell,
Fell-and flashed into the Red Sea,
Beneath a hard Arabian moon
And alien stars. [ll. 42-46]
The strong romantic associations packed into "Arabian moon" and "stars" are juxtaposed against the brutality of "hard" and "alien." But the romantic associations are not canceled by the adjectives, just as the speaker's belief in the Indian enterprise or in the continuation of life through death is not shattered. The lines describing the death are, after all, contained in a tactful public utterance, which celebrates first the virtues of a good colonial ruler and ends in a vision of love in this life and the next. The poet-and the reader-perceives both visions with equal force: the private, despairing clarity of the image of a remote death, suggesting the alien universe and the absurd, causeless nature of life, along with the public, hopeful vision of reasonable and kindly political activity and a religion of love. Neither wins. It is the great virtue of Tennyson's art that, as he matures, the diffuse and obtrusive "All Things Will Die" Nothing Will Die" dichotomies become compacted into phrases as suggestive and haunting as "hard Arabian moon."
Irony does not dominate all of Tennyson's poetry, but it does control the early poems (up to 1842) and many of the late ones, most prominently Idylls of the King. In the great middle period, the period of The Princess, In Memoriam, and Maud, Tennyson searched for means to transcend the ironic tension of vividly presented but unreconciled opposites. Transcendentalism helped, of course, and we find lively statements of it attributed to him: "Nothing worthy proving can be proven" (The Ancient Sage, l. 66) or "Poetry is truer than fact," (Memoir, 2: 219) for instance. But transcendentalism is likely only a small part of the major cause of Tennyson's liberation, which is the discovery of the possibilities of comedy. In fact, it could be argued that transcendentalism was convenient not primarily for its doctrine but for its ability to provide a happy surprise behind every false appearance, exactly paralleling the ending of comedy, where the disguises come off and reveal familiarity and promise. In any case, Tennyson spent the central part of his career writing comedy, imaging the very form he could also parody so completely. The movement from liberty to bondage was for a time reversed, as Tennyson sought to forge a unique and lasting comic vision. [7/8]
Last modified 28 March 2001