aud pushes comedy to its ironic limit; it marks the end of Tennyson's attempt to work seriously with that form. After Maud, nearly all of his major poems are ironic. This is not to say that the comic vision failed Tennyson or vice versa; there was simply little more for him to do in that genre. Tennyson's moods or emotional states may or may not supplement his poetic instincts; they hardly exist on the same level. Most major nineteenth-century art was becoming ironic in form, a fact that seems far more important than anything that may have happened to Tennyson personally.
Still, there does seem to be in Tennyson a remarkable desire to resist the generic dominance of irony. His major poems after Maud are ironic, but there are not many of them that can be called major. Idylls of the King and a few dramatic monologues stand against a barrage of domestic idyls, political poems, occasional verse, and miscellaneous minor poems. “Lucretius” is counterbalanced by many poems like “De Profundis,” poems which are nominally comic but which restrict the range of their appeals very narrowly, to those who can, for instance, be moved by lists of paradoxes:
Of this divisible-indivisible world
Among the numerable-innumerable
Sun, sun, and sun, through finite-infinite space
In finite-infinite Time. [ll. 43-46)]
“De Profundis” is a poem that might be called technically happy:
Hallowed be Thy name-Halleluiah!-
Hallowed be Thy name-Halleluiah! [ll. 57-61]
One can recognize a kind of dusty exuberance here, the sort of pedantic flight one associates with amateur nineteenth-century metaphysics, which, of course, is exactly what this poem and others like it consist of. [134/135]
The remarkable quantity of the late comic poems is as important as their uneven quality. Tennyson did keep trying in comedy, but if not quite all the late poems that matter are ironic, the qualification is so trifling it can be ignored for now. Irony dominates the later major poems, so much so that it invades even poems which are clearly intended as positive statements. For instance, Tennyson obviously admired Sir Richard Grenville's lone fight against fifty-three Spanish ships. The poet's imagination was deeply stirred by the Hemingwayceque image of valor in defeat. But, while perceiving fully the heroic aspects of Grenville's endurance, Tennyson cannot entirely exclude from “The Revenge” 1a glimpse of the ironic extension of that heroism. He catches, therefore, both great determination and also mania, the sense that heroism itself is fascinating but unnatural. Grenville's full-toned speeches about not giving in are played off against flat details like: “But in perilous plight were we, / Seeing forty of our poor hundred were slain, / And half of the rest of us maimed for life” (ll. 75-77).
The poem even hints at a suicidal quality in the hero, a perverse delight in self-destruction, presented in such a way as sometimes to seem slightly callous, even absurd: “Sink me the ship, Master Gunner — sink her, split her in twain! / Fall into the hands of God, not into the hands of Spain!” (ll. 89-90). The heroism contains a touch of vulgarity, a crude and narrow irrationality at odds with the expansive serenity common to the heroic tone. Sir Richard Grenville's sacrifice, further, spares no one and therefore comes to seem a trifle wild:
And a day less or more
At sea or ashore,
We die-does it matter when? [ll. 86-88]
To any human being in his senses it matters a great deal. It matters very much, surely, to Grenville's men; they say so:
We have children, we have wives,
And the Lord hath spared our lives.
We will make the Spaniard promise, if we yield, to let us go. (ll. 92-94]
Not so anxious to fall into the hands of God as their leader, the brave men leave Grenville to die if he likes-and of course he does. This odd disagreement and separation of Grenville from his men at the end of the poem upsets the directness of its [135/136] predominant motive: the celebration of devoted and single-minded patriotism.
But irony is the enemy of the single-minded, and here mixes into the heroic celebration the token images of domestic comedy-children and wives. And the two cannot easily be mixed. The poem takes as its center the celebration of what we think of as modern qualities: the acceptance of defeat and isolation. Even so, the image of defeated nobility is too complacent for irony. Sir Richard Grenville is not satirized, of course; but very strategically, just at the end of the poem, we are made to question the real desirability of his virtues.
Irony is nearly omnipresent in these late poems. The deliberately or overtly ironic poems are not really improvements over those in the 1842 volume; in many ways they are not even fundamentally different from them. What is apparent in the later poems is a more intricate and also less dramatic irony. The same themes and situations are there and the same rhetoric, but they are developed with more complexity and quietness.
Such changes are, in a general way, to be expected; what is surprising is the extent of this development. Tennyson's assurance in the form is such that he is able to extend it and establish its essential parodies less obviously. In the case of some early poems that were revised and published later, we have a good basis for examining this change. Poems like “The Captain,” “The Voyage,” and even “Tiresias,” originally written in the mid-1830s though not published until much later, are interesting ironic poems, but they are, I think, quite simple in comparison with the other late poems.
“The Captain” is not an unsubtle poem, but the source of its power is blatantly clear. A certain beleaguered crew conspires to turn the tables on a brave but stern and generally unlikeable captain. When a roaring fight comes, they fold their arms and refuse to take part, grinning at the captain and gleefully dying: “over mast and deck were scattered / Blood and brains of men” (ll. 47-48). The poem pretends to supply a moral to the effect that severity is an ineffective tactic for leaders to adopt (ll. 1-2), but such [136/137] cautions are absurdly inadequate, failing entirely to explain the central action. The grotesque juxtaposition of such gory results with motives that are in every way childish defies any explanation. The poem emphasizes this pointlessness by picturing at its close both the ironic fellowship of the crew and captain “side by side beneath the water” (l. 67) and their final triviality:
There the sunlit ocean tosses
O'er them mouldering,
And the lonely seabird crosses
With one waft of the wing. [ll. 69-72]
The poem has a dark power, but its strategies are fairly simple.
Just as direct is the ironic structure of another of these early-late poems, “The Voyage.” Eleven of the poem's twelve sections present a virtually untroubled vision of the pursuit of the “Ideal,” a vision and a goal that are as soft and mellow as they are vague. These sections avoid giving any concrete picture at all but simply exude an atmosphere of warm acceptance. The final section none too subtly disrupts all this with some grim actuality: “Now mate is blind and captain lame, / And half the crew are sick or dead” (ll. 91-92). The conclusion picks up lines from the first section and echoes them with a loud, sardonic jeer: “We know the merry world is round, / And we may sail for evermore” (ll. 95-96).
“The Voyage of the Maeldune,” published in 1880 and written in the same year (Ricks, p. 1276), provides a good contrast to these two earlier poems. Though quite similar in its subject, the late poem demonstrates Tennyson's development toward compression and certainty of tone, largely by means of the technique of ambiguity he had mastered in the Poemsof 1842. On one level, “The Voyage of the Maeldune” presents a very clear picture: a progress through various temptations to a highly appropriate moralistic conclusion, the holy saint's rebuke of vengeance. The men of the Maeldune presumably learn, after passing through the symbolic ordeals of the Isle of Fire, the Isle of the Double Towers, and the rest, the virtue of forgiveness.
It is characteristic of Tennyson's later ironic poems that the obvious and non-ironic statement of the poem, like the one just outlined, should be given greater and greater strength: the ironic counterstatement is put with much more reserve than in the earlier poems. Here, the vengeance-forgiveness motif is not subverted at all; rather, it is rendered inadequate to explain the poem's details. It is not, finally, vengeance that causes the men to kill one another but simply life's experience. The islands themselves have no [137/138] connection to the purpose of vengeance (except for the first isle, and the wind blows them away from that one). These strange lands suggest, in their diversity, the complex of sensations and acts that make up all of life, particularly a good life. But all impulses act the same on these men, as they do on all men. Silence makes them yearn to kill each other; noise makes them actually do so. They are frustrated by the Isle of Flowers, but the fulfillment they find in the Isle of Fruits leads to something worse than frustration: “And we stayed three days, and we gorged and we maddened, till every one drew / His sword on his fellow to slay him, and ever they struck and they slew” (ll. 67-68). The Isle of Fire and the Paradise tinder the sea cause more deaths; even the Bounteous Isle, which encourages them to play, leads to war games and the inevitable result: “we slew and we sailed away” (l. 96).
This grim absurdity is climaxed in the episode of the Isle of the Double Towers, where, because there is some division, no matter how arbitrary, the men choose sides, naturally in order to kill one another; “and all took sides with the Towers, There were some for the clean-cut stone, there were more for the carven flowers” (ll. 111-112). The saint's verdict about forgiveness at the end, then, touches only a part of the problem. The final lines are brilliantly ambiguous, supporting the moralistic warning of the saint but also Suggesting that vengeance for these men is not so much wrong as superfluous after so much murder, that it is not morality but simple weariness that renders the whole quest pointless:
And we came to the Isle we were blown from, arid there on the shore was he,
The man that had slain my father. I saw him and let him be.
O weary was I of the travel, the trouble, the strife and the sin,
When I landed again, with a tithe of my men, on the Isle of Finn. [ll. 127-30]
The indirectness of this late irony is highlighted by comparison with one more of these early-late poems, “Tiresias.” This poem is a good deal more complex than poems like “The Captain” or “The Voyage,” perhaps because it was later revised more extensively; still, it does have a somewhat greater directness than is usual in poems composed later. The poem is partly about sacrifice; but the [138/139] form, structure, and context all call into doubt the nobility, even the purposefulness, of such a sacrifice. Presumably, Menoeceus will, by killing himself, appease Ares, end the slaughter, and create for himself an enduring fame. None of this is exactly denied, but the loud voice of heroism is accompanied by ironic whispers that tell us that Menoeceus's death merely supports a senseless and bloody order and ensures the extinction of his own name at the hands of a fickle populace.
Further, Menoeceus and his free sacrifice are clearly displaced from the center of the dramatic monologue, which is occupied by Tiresias and his bondage. Tiresias has been cursed, in Tennyson's version, for presuming to search for beauty and knowledge. He wanted to see “that more than man / Which rolls the heavens, and lifts, and lays the deep” (ll. 21-22). This aesthetic and religious longing takes him to the heart of life and to the center of all wisdom, where he finds the Goddess Pallas Athene. She reveals to him the principles on which the universe operates: malignity and pettiness. Because he dared to worship, Tiresias is made the subject of a vicious joke. His religious desires are cruelly completed: his inner sight is made perfect, while his outer sight is destroyed.
What more could a transcendentalist want? Because he now has 'the secrets of truth, Tiresias is effectively isolated from all men; there is no need for any further curse than the ability to see what is and will be. He call “only speak the truth that no man may believe” (l. 49). The phrase is significantly ambiguous. Tiresias speaks the sort of truth men will not believe; or he speaks the truth, and therefore [so that] men will not believe him. Tiresias is given the answer to all human prayers, but what a bitter and cynical answer it is. He sees all essential truth — that is, all “famine, plague, / Shrine-shattering earthquake, fire, flood, thunderbolt, And angers of the Gods” (ll. 59-61) — and therefore no one hears him.
Tiresias himself only partly understands that he has been cruelly tricked. He has slipped farther into the hands of the mocking gods than he realizes. He can still recall with pleasure the vision of Pallas Athene, that alien deity who denied all mankind by denying him. [139/140] There is, in other words, a dramatic irony working here that asks us to perceive Tiresias's position as even more terrible than he himself acknowledges. He fails to see, for instance, that Menoeceus's sacrifice really only allows Ares to win and thereby confirms what Ares, “whose one bliss/ Is war and human sacrifice” (ll. 108-09), represents. Ares can be satisfied with Menoeceus's sacrifice only because it is, in itself, an emblem of the senseless slaughter that delights him. Ares and Pallas Athene, the two deities mentioned in the poem, form a grim unity, supporting the principles of trickery and absurdity. Yet the climax of the poem is a paean to these gods, a hopeful vision, in fact, of an eternity spent in praising these agents who have made him such a pitiable victim.
On the other hand, Tiresias does see, though he can do very little about, the ineffectiveness of truth itself. But he blames this not so much on the gods, on the very nature of things, as on the people. Cosmic injustice becomes, in his blindness, a matter of political ranting against the stupidity of the populace. The poem is framed by these very important complaints. He early laments that casting “wise words among the multitude / Was flinging fruit to lions” (ll. 65-66), and argues bitterly near the end of the poem that “the wise man's word / [is] Here trampled by the populace underfoot” (ll. 165-66). Yet in the center of these attacks are his pious exhortations to Menoeceus to slaughter himself for the good of these very people.
It is interesting that he rests his appeal to Menoeceus so very little on altruistic or ethical grounds; almost his entire argument is based on Menoeceus's achieving fame with the people, and thereby a kind of immortality. These people, so unable to hear truth and so feeble, are suddenly, in this argument, endowed with wisdom, courage, and stability. Tiresias is forcing Menoeceus into art even more horrible version of the fate he himself has experienced: a useless public life. The heart of truth is deception, whether it lies in Tiresias or in the gods. Tiresias's greatest curse was not to be disbelieved but, in this one instance, to be believed. He has unwittingly but surely become Pallas Athene herself
The full achievement of the late ironic work, other than Idylls of the King, is represented very well by two poems, “Lucretius” and “Rizpah.” Both are essentially dramatic monologues; both demonstrate Tennyson's growing ability to manipulate the two rhetorical [140/141] poles of the dramatic monologue, sympathy and judgment, so as to include us more surely in the final irony.
The first thing to notice about “Lucretius” is Lucretius's wife, or more exactly, the frame of the poem in which she appears. Such frames almost always function in a dramatic monologue to add a necessary context and thus to strengthen the reader's judgmental response. These tactics are necessary in order to maintain the conflict between sympathy and judgment, to keep the poem from being rhetorically direct. When the central figure or the argument is implicitly outrageous, judgment is automatically brought into play; but when, as here, the speaker is given great intellectual power and dignity, it is necessary to do something more to call forth our judgment and ensure the proper tension. That something more, in this case, is the story of Lucilia and her passion, which surrounds, although it does not explain, Lucretius's tortured soliloquy. The incongruously flat, domestic opening of the poem “Lucilia, wedded to Lucretius, found / Her master cold” (ll. 1-2) — acts to focus our attention on the human passions and needs Lucretius is denying. Tennyson boldly uses the stock comic figure of the sterile pedant for very serious purposes. Lucretius's denial of the passions is seen, right from the start, as a denial of all that is human. We see, too, that his unnatural excision of passion, his rage for intellectual placidity, must inevitably evoke the retribution of nature and humanity, symbolized here by Lucilia's potion. The potion acts directly to check “his power to shape” (l. 23). The ordered, rational world of this heroic and potentially tragic philosopher is destroyed by the simple jealousy of his wife. As in In Memoriam, then, instinctual feeling overcomes controlled, rational system, the difference being, of course, that “Lucretius” completely burlesques In Memoriam'ssolution.
The force of this burlesque is maintained in Lucretius's soliloquy as well, though we do very much need the clearer ironies of the opening twenty-five lines of domestic actuality to alert us to the sad contradictions that control his life.4 He is caught in the indifferent [141/42] universe he has created-or rather perceived; for there is no indication that he is wrong about the universe or about the remoteness of the power that control it. What mocks him, at least in this central section, is the chaos that underlies all human life and makes ridiculous the ideal of calm indifference after which he has sought. “I thought I lived securely as yourselves” (l. 210), he cries to the gods, but such glorious serenity is denied to man. It is not that Lucretius errs in imagining the world as cold and atomistic; he miscalculates only in supposing that man has an integral part in that world. He prays to “The all-generating powers and genial heat / Of Nature” (ll. 97-98), but it is just this force which creates a mixed and unsettled life. In his dream he is haunted by visions of a universe whose genial heat has become a raging fire.
The most remarkable of these visions is that of the naked breasts of Helen overpowering and turning to the ground a threatening sword.5 Masculinity, particularly masculine control, is powerless in the face of utter sexuality, perhaps, but it is also “all that beauty” (l. 64), as he sees, which masters control and force. This is a completely ambiguous symbol. Furthermore, the power over out sort of violence — the sword-issues riot in peace but in another form of violence:
and as I stared, a fire,
The fire that left a roofless Ilion,
Shot out of them, and scorched me that I woke. [ll. 64-66]
For man, all beauty, desire, power, destruction, nurture, and murder are intermingled, not in real unity but in a wild, unmanageable chaos.
Lucretius is not satirized, then, nor is the heroism of his attempt to save a coherent universe denied. In trying to save humanity, however, he has abandoned it. His dying response to his anguished wife is the terrible issuance of the desire to make men gods: “Clasped, kissed him, wailed: he answered, 'Care not thou! / Thy duty? What is duty? Fare thee well!' ” (ll. 279 -80). This black denial of care, duty, and need is what comes of a philosophy that attempts to make sense of the universe and man's place in it. Lucretius is mistaken not because he adopted the wrong [142/143] explanation of coherence but because he tried to find coherence at all. He betrays human nature, to be sure, but the human nature we see in Lucilia is that of a murderess. Sympathy and judgment work together to keep before us with equal force the grandeur of Lueretius's attempt and the trivial but disastrous nature of his failure. His betrayal is our own, and he is, in another sense, betrayed by us, All our dreams of hope and meaning, the poem finally asserts, are canceled out by our glaring insignificance.
“Rizpah” works for a similar inclusiveness in its irony, though its rhetoric operates very differently. Despite a certain false staginess, the poem achieves an effect that is very rare in Tennyson's dramatic monologues. It is absolutely direct in its appeals, rejecting almost entirely the intricate imagistic and structural movement of the early dramatic monologues in order to force us into full identification with the speaker. There is no ironic structural order, no reversals, and no tricks in this poem, simply a linear movement of intensification, The images become more and more concrete, but all to the same purpose. In one sense, “Rizpah” supports Langbaum's arguments on the dramatic monologue: it makes us into the speaker. Most kinds of judgments are rendered trivial by the sheer emotional power of the mother's language and by the carefully arranged dramatic context.
By presenting her case to a Protestant do-gooder, Rizpah shows how desperately inadequate mere benevolence is. The general level of concern and understanding, she suggests, cannot touch flit primitive feelings that control human life. The charitable lady parodies genuine charity; she can only prattle on about sin, retribution, and election, abstract and meaningless catchwords when weighed against the concrete source of Rizpah's knowledge: feeling her son's bones move in her side (l. 54). The dramatic situation seems fashioned to disallow conventional responses. The visitor represents not so much the failure. of Christianity (the poem goes on to demonstrate that she understands Christianity as little as she understands maternal love), as the failure of social being, our conventional selves, The charitable lady constantly makes judgments, invoking the grand symbols of religious justice. But these have no meaning to Rizpah and do not touch her experience; like her, we are forced to leave them behind. Conventional judgment is made to appear callous and, most of all, blatantly superficial.
The poem carefully connects this conventional religious and [143/144] moral judgment to the legal judgment that has sentenced Rizpah's son. just as the Christian lady is removed from Rizpah's elemental reality, so is social and ethical justice remote from true justice. The law is invoked as an instrument of decision so cruel and indifferent to humanity that we must reject that judgment and the whole complex of social institutions it represents — for instance, the asylum where they beat the mother in order to cure her. This last, hideous nonsequitur is emblematic of all our customary responses and kindnesses. We must cast aside our social judgments and our social beings, it appears, in order to live with the elemental love and devotion of Rizpah.
But the rhetoric of the poem is not, I think, quite this simple. Though we do reject a whole range of judgments, we retain others. The tension in the dramatic monologue between sympathy and judgment is preserved, but the judgment evoked is of a very special kind. Unlike almost all of Tennyson's other dramatic monologues, “Rizpah” does not evoke a judgment from outside the speaker; there is no appeal to any of the normal responses that create the pole of judgment in “The Lotos-Eaters” or “Ulysses.” Here the speaker herself generates both the sympathy and the judgment. Though the poem appears to be stripping away our superficial, social facades, it is actually just selecting a possible social framework for us.
Rizpah counters the charitable lady's Calvinism not only with the terrible, chaotic image of a grim contest for her son's bones, which would in itself seem to repudiate all religions, but with a different religious interpretation. Rizpah has not turned her back on God; she has “been with God in the dark” (l. 79) — She has found the more basic arid real Christianity:
Sin? O yes — we are sinners, I know-let all that be,
And read me a Bible verse of the Lord's good will toward men —
Full of compassion and mercy, the Lord' — let me hear it again;
Full of compassion and mercy — long-suffering.' Yes, O yes!.
For the lawyer is born but to murder — the Saviour lives but to bless. [ll. 60-64]
We reject lawyers and Calvinism and asylum-keepers-that is, one formof existing social being but in its place we are given a different social plan: one of mercy, forgiveness, rewards, and happiness. The strict world of law is replaced by what, in its implications, is a comic world with comic order. Rizpah provides us with a new standard for [144/145] judgment, a new context which, though given only in outline, can easily be created in full by the reader.
The ironic tension, then, is provided by the split between the actuality of experience presented and the joyous vision of the Christian frame of values that is evoked. Only one kind of judgment, the comic kind, is appropriate to human life; but, then, what does comedy have to do with such things as scratching for bones? We are forced to see the absolute validity of two quite different worlds: the world of nightmare and the world of forgiveness and mercy. Instead of raising a critical judgment, this poem disallows criticism altogether. But it does preserve a more profound conflict between the judgment, or the image, of a comic world of desire, and the sympathetic identification with the terror of the world of experience.
There are, as I have said, many late poems that are probably comic, though one would not want to so classify such works as “The Ancient Sage” with much conviction. Virtually all these poems are generically incomplete, lacking the confident vision of harmony and the ability to project solutions that are both concrete and evocative. They tend to rely instead on sonorous abstractions: again and again we are asked to accept as a climax lines like
A deep below the deep,
And a height beyond the height!
Our hearing is not hearing,
And our seeing is not sight. [“The Voice and the Peak,” ll. 33-36]
Such generalized assertions may be presumed to have a cheering effect; they are a kind of transcendental “Good morning.” When Tennyson's late comedy does move toward specifics, it either degenerates into Polonius-like aphorisms — “Nor roll thy viands on a luscious tongue, / Nor drown thyself with flies in honied wine” (“The Ancient Sage,” ll. 267-68)-or else dissolves into the anomalous “sunnier side of doubt” (“The Ancient Sage,” l. 68) he often recommends. Cleaving to doubt, sunny or not, suggests a tentativeness which properly belongs to irony, not comedy. Tennyson developed the habit of adding question marks to nearly every affirmation he could bring himself to make in the late poems, for example,
A whisper from his dawn of life? a breath
From some fair dawn beyond the doors of death
Far — far — away? [“Far — Far — Away,” ll. 10-12)]
The best he can do now is to offer the hope that all is not quite lost — yet. [146/147]
The facts of existence seem to him so overwhelmingly uncomic that he can support comedy only by an act of faith, and a weak act at that. The happiest expression he can honestly find is a wary hope against hope:
Chaos, Cosmos! Cosmos, Chaos! who can tell how all will end?
Read the wide world's annals, you, and take their wisdom for your friend.
Hope the best, but hold the Present fatal daughter of the Past,
Shape your heart to front the hour, but dream not that the hour will last.
[“Locksley Hall Sixty Years After,” ll. 103-06]
This particular poem is a vivid illustration of the general inability of these late poems to find peace. Though Hallam reports that the poet had “endeavoured to give the moods of despondency which are caused by the decreased energy of life,” Tennyson himself said that “the old man in the second 'Locksley Hall' had a stronger faith in God and in human goodness than he had had in his youth.” (Memoir, 2: 329)
These explanations seem to me slippery at best. The old man who speaks in the second “Locksley Hall” tries very hard to put things in a positive light-at least some of the time — but he keeps falling back into the negations that dominate the poem. The uniquely personal comedy of the first “Locksley Hall,” where progress and the dynamic movement of the age were used to call the speaker out of himself, is now repudiated:
Good, this forward, you that preach it, is it well to wish you joy?
Is it well that while we range with Science, glorying in the Time,
City children soak and blacken soul and sense in city slime? [ll. 216-18]
The general solutions have failed, interestingly, not so much because of city slums and city slime, but simply because such solutions have not helped him:
Poor old voice of eighty crying after voices that have fled!
All I loved are vanished voices, all my steps are on the dead.
All the world is ghost to me, and as the phantom disappears,
Forward far and far from hence is all the hope of eighty years. [ll. 251-54]
As in the first poem, the focus is intensely personal; the speaker is [146/147] not asking for a social utopia (or really even for social improvement) but for some happiness. The pleasantest things he can find to say-“Follow Light, and do the Right — for man call half-control his doom” (l. 277)-hardly indicate the strong “faith” Tennyson ascribed to him, nor do they provide sufficient assurance to support a comic poem.
There are a few poems which, whether or not they are major, do manage much more certain comedy. “Vastness,” for instance, is an interesting late attempt to repeat the comic formula of In Memoriam. it puts irony on trial, allowing it to display its own climactic insufficiency. The ironic platitudes are given more than free play; they are presented in the harshest and most stinging way: “What is it all but a trouble of ants in the gleam of a million million of suns?” (l. 4). The compressed bitterness and, at the same time, the range of allusion represent ironic technique at its most effective. Still, the long line and the fast meter, made generally more regular and thus quicker as the poem proceeds, suggest a mounting frenzy, as does the increasingly frequent use of inclusive words like all and every: “Spring and Summer and Autumn and Winter, and all those old revolutions of earth; / All new-old revolutions of Empire — change of the tide — what is all of it worth?” (ll. 29-30). Such lines give a subtle hint of a loss of control that is less and less well hidden. Instead of the expected cool detachment, the tone becomes more heated, and after thirty-five lines of this the ironic momentum peters out.
In one line, then, only one-half of a stanza, the calm assurance of love is stated: “Peace, let it be! for I loved him, and love him for ever: the dead are not dead but alive” (l. 36). Exactly as in In Memoriam'ssection 57, the fury is silenced by the word peace, which allows a new tone and a new attitude to take over. In In Memoriam, of course, more than seventy lyrics go on to support and define this new tone; here, there is only this one line. The power of that line and the force of the comic solution depend, in a negative sense, on our perception of the mounting fury and weakness of the irony and, in a positive sense, entirely on the word love and its ability to evoke a whole range of experience and values contrary to those of irony. The assertion here is necessarily bald because it cannot be supported by logic or the emotional turmoil that accompanies irony. Love gives “peace,” as the poem says; therefore further words are superfluous, really impossible. Tennyson is, one could argue, [147/148] more tactful here than in In Memoriam, allowing the cumulative force of irony to backlash and to provide by inversion a borrowed energy to the comic term “love.“
This poem is, at any rate, a unique and, I think, successful comic experiment. What needs to be emphasized, however, is not the success of this sort of poem but its rarity in Tennyson's late work, Even here Tennyson had enormous difficulty persuading himself to put the last line in a positive form. Earlier versions arc strongly qualified or are stated negatively. We can see, in fact, each of the four versions (the last is the published one) growing gradually but surely stronger and slightly more affirmative, as if the poet were expending a great deal of effort to work himself up to write a single comic line:
Save for a hope that we shall not be lost in the Vastness, a dream that the dead are alive? MS 1st reading
Peace, for I hold that I shall not be lost in the darkness, the dead are not dead but alive. MS 2nd reading
Nay, for I knew thee, O brother, and loved thee, and I hold thee as one not dead but alive. MS 3rd reading
Peace, let it be! for I loved him, and love him for ever: the dead are not dead but alive. Published version [see Ricks, p. 1348]
Perhaps the almost pathetic hesitancy recorded here gives some indication of why there is so little comedy in Tennyson's late poems. “Demeter and Persephone,” in fact, seems to me the only fully realized comic poem written in conventional terms (unlike the very special form of “Vastness“). It is a mellow and, surprisingly, quite simple and undisturbed comedy. There are complex implications in the myth, of course, which is not simple at all, but Tennyson's presentation of that myth, even with his much discussed frame, follows a direct comic form. The poem may, as James Kissane points out (pp. 25-28), have some connections with an essay by Walter Pater, “The Myth of Demeter and Persephone.” Tennyson had a copy of this essay, which he marked rather carefully, noting, among other [148/149] things, Pater's suggestion that the image of Persephone “is meant to make us in love, or at least at peace, with death.“8
Such an attitude, we know, is not foreign to Tennyson; it is one major effect of “The Lotos-Eaters.” “Demeter and Persephone,” however, does a good deal more, celebrating not death but full and harmonious life. Even in her painful search for her daughter, Demeter finds that death and life, good and evil, are interrelated, not in conflict: “The Bright one in the highest / Is brother of the Dark one in the lowest” (ll. 93-94). Out of this basic unity the myth resolves itself by making Persephone queen of both life and death. This classic belief does not, however, fully satisfy Tennyson, who augments it with a vision of the future, where “kindlier Gods” (l. 129) will bring these related opposites of death and life into an even fuller and more complete unity:
Till thy dark lord accept and love the Sun,
And all the Shadow die into the Light,
When thou shalt dwell the whole bright year with me. [ll. 135-37]
The comic wholeness of the present is not denied, but it is made prefatory to the richer comedy to come.
All that remains are those short and highly evocative religious poems which are among the very last poems Tennyson wrote.9 The series of brief lyrics written at the end of his life are very different from anything else in the corpus. They have about them a quietness and peace totally absent from the earlier poetry. Poems like “Faith,” “The Dreamer,” and “The Making of Man” present solutions which are still general but have a solidity that is missing from the vague abstractions he had depended on in other late poems. Especially in “God and the Universe” he achieves a suggestiveness and confidence that recall the religious comedy of George Herbert and Milton:
Spirit, nearing you dark portal at the limit of thy human state,
Fear not thou the hidden purpose of that Power which alone is great,
Nor the myriad world, His shadow, nor the silent Opener of the Gate. [ll. 4-6)]
Tennyson thus continues, right up to the time of his death, to strive for comedy. But on the whole his late poetry after Maud really belongs to irony.
Web version created March 2001
Last modified 8 August 2016