In Tennyson's "A Welcome to Alexandra, March 7, 1863," celebrating the marriage of Princess Alexandra of Denmark to the Prince of Wales, he concludes:
For Saxon or Dane or Norman we,
Teuton or Celt, or whatever we be,
We are each all Dane in our welcome of thee. [lines 31-33]
Marion Sherwood rightly finds this conclusion "awkward" since it "appears to question the anticipated national unity" (94). Going further, we might also say that it questions the existence of "Englishness" per se. To signify the integration of Britain and Europe brought about by the marriage of Victoria's children into European royal dynasties, Tennyson deliberately stresses the mixed heritage and, in Victorian terms, racial diversity of the inhabitants of the British Isles. But how does this salute to diversity serve Sherwood's central argument that Tennyson's poems offer "idealized and exemplary portrayals of England and the English," which helped to fabricate "an exemplary realm -- to be encouraged at times of depression, division, and debate" (7)? Tennyson's poems, she suggests, imagine a relatively untroubled English nation embodied in Victoria and her poetic counterparts, the idealized English girls of poems like "The Gardener's Daughter," which deliberately evade such topics as domestic unrest, political radicalism, secularist and anti-monarchist movements, and the troubled expansion of the British Empire. Yet at the same time, poems like "A Welcome to Alexandra" indicate Tennyson's awareness that English identity was in itself a troubled and troubling concept.
Sherwood is far from blind to this point, but in relentlessly branding Tennyson as an apologist for England, she tends to slight the difficulties raised by his vexed conception of it. While she acknowledges critical and theoretical work that has complicated our notions of English and British identity in this period, she leans towards a homogenous view of England and English literature as clearly delimited entities. Early in her discussion, in suggesting that Tennyson placed himself within a specifically English literary tradition, Sherwood comments, Tennyson draws constantly on the English literary past. Despite earlier denials, his published "effusions" contain a great deal of what he described as "Miltonic, Byronic..., Moorish, Crabbick, Coleridgick etc fire." (13) Even in this abridged list, Thomas Moore is very definitely an Irish poet, and since Bryon's heritage and childhood were both Scottish, his Englishness is arguably ambiguous. Felicia Hemans, cited later in the same paragraph, regarded Wales as her home and has been discussed as a specifically Welsh poet. Given the influence of their writings in English, such writers may be accurately considered major contributors to an "English" literary past, but to call them simply English is to elide tensions that can help us understand how Tennyson made himself an English poet. Sherwood also fails to note that like the majority of Victorian writers, Tennyson was greatly influenced by the novels and poems of Walter Scott, whom she mentions briefly just twice. Though eponymically Scottish, Scott re-invented what became the foundations of Englishness: chivalry and a particular vision of the past, as discussed here. As a model for the study of Britishness rather than simply Englishness in the nineteenth century, Sherwood might have consulted books like Ann Rigney's excellent The Afterlives of Walter Scott: Memory on the Move (2012), which fully investigates the complexity of Scott's influence and his role in the creation of a British nation as well as a diasporic identity.
As for Tennyson himself, his relationships with Ireland, Wales, Scotland and other European nations and nationalisms have been deliberately considered in two essays on Ireland-- Matthew Bevis's "Tennyson, Ireland and the 'Powers of Speech'" (Victorian Poetry 39 ) and Matthew Campbell's "Letting the Past be Past: The English Poet and the Irish Poem" (VLC 32 ) --- as well as in Matthew Reynolds' wide-ranging study The Realms of Verse: English Poetry in a Time of Nation-Building (2001). These critical works and others show Tennyson's investments in more complicated questions of nation and nationality. Besides overlooking these questions, Sherwood underestimates the heterogeneity of England itself, which--as Victorian writers fully recognize-- includes local differences as well as similarities: London is not the same as Lincolnshire, Cornwall is entirely distinct from Cambridge, and the industrial towns of Manchester and Sheffield are far removed from Aldworth, Surrey, Tennyson's late retreat from the spread of urban growth and tourism. Ample proof of this diversity is Tennyson's interest in dialect, both the remembered speech of Lincolnshire and that of other regions.
Avoiding these complications, Sherwood's study takes a straightforward and largely chronological approach. Examining Tennyson's early poems up to the 1842 volume, with particular interest in their critical reception, it then moves on to what Tennyson does with the broader themes of monarchy, medievalism, and Empire. In particular, the three chapters on these topics follow the same approach: they summarize critical debates in the field, give an overview of the historical context, assess Tennyson's attitudes towards the themes under discussion, and then analyze a selection of poems that illustrate these attitudes. Along the way, they also briefly grapple with major themes, particularly with gender and race, but also with the shaping of the English language and landscape.
This approach should usefully serve those less familiar with Tennyson and/or the Victorian period, from undergraduates upwards, because it makes accessible a great deal of helpful and relevant biographical, contextual, and critical information. Sherwood also shows how often contemporary debates prompted Tennyson's poems -- including poems that have generally been neglected by critics -- even while the poems might seem to ignore such debates. It is important to see, for instance, how "Godiva" reflects the aims of the Young England movement, and to recognize that Tennyson's beautiful English landscapes of the 1840s appear at a time of agrarian unrest, famine, and anxiety about changes to the English countryside. But for specialists in Tennyson, this book offers little that is new, either in its arguments or its readings of the poems. While of course limitations of space preclude full engagement with any one topic in this book, it is hard not to feel frustrated by the brevity with which it treats hugely significant issues, by its missing of opportunities, and by its oversimplifications. In certain respects, Tennyson's views on England and Englishness may be easily identified and simple. But in their linguistic and formal signifiers as well as in the import they assumed in contemporary publications, his poems are not.
To take one example, Sherwood briefly mentions several times the relationship between Englishness and popular poetic forms, ballads in particular. "[I]n later years," she notes, "whenever Tennyson perceived a threat to England's stability, he reverted to ballad form" (46, see also 65). This is an important point, and Sherwood stresses it by citing a number of little-discussed patriotic poems. What should we make of Tennyson's turn to ballad-writing? "Reverted" is the word interestingly chosen by Sherwood, who also notes that "the most juvenile" poems in the 1832 volume are ballads (45). But she stops short of fully investigating what Tennyson does with this form. Recent critics have intensively discussed ballads, with particular focus on their way of framing nationality. Without trying to argue that Tennyson's jingoistic ballads are his finest work, I believe there is more to say about why he deployed this form and what he intended it to do.
And also about where he published these later poems in defense of patriotism. Following Kathryn Ledbetter's Tennyson and Victorian Periodicals (2007), Sherwood describes the periodicals and newspapers in which many of Tennyson's most fiercely patriotic poems -- often ballads or songs -- appeared. But I would have liked more discussion of how his formal and linguistic choices might have been steered by his sense of audience: setting out to write a poem for The Times, for instance, he knew that it would freely circulate through the national and provincial press and thus reach readers of all classes. In my own current research into newspaper verse in Scotland, Tennyson's "Riflemen, Form!" is the most republished poem in its year (1859) and one of very few "canonical" poems to feature in the more radical newspapers:
Let your Reforms for a moment go,
Look to your butts and make good aims.
Better a rotten borough or so,
Than a rotten fleet or a city of flames!
Form! form! Riflemen form!
Ready, be ready to meet the storm!
Riflemen, riflemen, riflemen form! ["The War," lines 15-21]
In thus addressing those involved in agitating for Reform, this poem speaks specifically to radicalized working-class readers as well as politicians and their cronies. Making the nation look threatened from without to create unity in the face of domestic trouble within ("a rotten borough") is a classic conservative move. Tennyson also uses the imperative "form" to play on "reform" as something to come later: first form, then reform. Political forms, the poem implies, must be bolstered by the physical, bodily formations of amateur soldiers, and it is of course through the stirring rhythms of the refrain, with their repeated stresses, consonance of "r" and "f," and strong rhymes, that Tennyson embodies a unifying national rhythm, a march in formation. Like the Rifle Volunteer movement itself, this poem was astonishingly successful across Britain. What then do we learn about the Englishness of 1859 from its appearance in avowedly liberal Scottish newspapers dedicated to working-class progress? What does this appearance say about how poetry itself functioned in shaping politicized actions, and how Tennyson acted -- deliberately -- as an (English?) political agent through the medium of populist verse forms? These are the kinds of questions that Sherwood's study gestures towards, but does not try to answer.
Instead she prompts more questions. Noting--among other things--that a quotation from "Ulysses" (text) furnished the motto for the 2012 Olympics, Sherwood observes that a study of Tennyson and Englishness is "timely." But England did not field a team in the London Olympics , and reading Tennyson as the poet of "Team GB" -- Great Britain -- is not quite the same as crowning him laureate of England and Englishness. How has the brand "Tennyson" come to signify a particular kind of national identity, even in the twenty-first century, and what kind of identity might that be? Perhaps still more important than asking how Tennyson's poems fabricated Englishness might be asking how they were used -- particularly though by no means exclusively in the late nineteenth and twentieth century classroom --to fabricate certain ideal versions of "Englishness" that retain their lingering effects today.
Marion Sherwood. The “Tennyson and the Fabrication of Englishness. Palgrave, 2013. vii + 230pp.
Last modified 25 June 2014