Tennyson's poetry 18822-1842: an examination of the sustained conflict between aesthetic detachment and social involvement and the poet's attempt at a reconciliation of the two

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University of Dar es Salaam
During the past forty-five years, the poetic career of Alfred Lord Tennyson has been repeatedly probed and scrutinized by a number of critics attempting to explain and interpret the Victorian Laureate and his work for the twentieth century reader. One consequence of these efforts at critical revaluation has been the development of a decided conflict among students of Tennyson concerning the poet's attitude towards the prevailing values and mores of England during the nineteenth century, and more specifically, concerning the question of to what extent, if any, Tennyson adjusted his own views and private insights to coincide with those widely held by his contemporaries. The first chapter of this thesis examines briefly the most prominent of these critical estimates and delineates from among them two major schools of Tennysonian criticism, one of which is deemed untenable while the other is adopted as the basis for the current study. The position recognized as definitive for this thesis is that Tennyson, throughout his poetic career, was an artist who continually tried to reconcile or at least hold in balance the ardent the school he attended in Louth. In addition to the se biographical details, Chapter Two also examines Tennyson's first published verses in Poems by Two Brothers as well as certain unpublished works: a play in blank verse, The Devil and the Lady, and the Unpublished Early Poems written during the Somersby period. Drawing upon both the events and experiences of Tennyson's childhood in Lincolnshire and the impressions and in sights revealed in his early poetic compositions, the chapter concludes by setting forth the fundamental elements of a nascent, though clearly discernible, dichotomy between the poet's profound concern for participation and involvement in the wider community of men and his wholly antithetical repudiation of any interest in society manifested in his complete and recurrent withdrawal into a private realm beyond the limits of time and space, a remote, mystical world the essence of which lay in the depths of his own imaginative being. The third chapter of this thesis continues the examination of those distinctive qualities of Tennyson's personality which were rooted in the Somersby experience and which were reflected in young Alfred's earliest poetic endeavors. It considers as well the influence of Tennyson's three-year tenure at Cambridge University upon the development of these qualities and upon the expanding range of his artistic competence. Recounting the loneliness and melancholy of his first months at Trinity College, his disenchantment with the academic curriculum and the anxieties arising from his growing religious doubts, the narrative describes a general malaise which haunted the young Lincolnshire undergraduate and which was not to be dispelled until he formed that abiding friendship with Arthur Hallam and subsequently became a member of the Cambridge Apostles. The effect of these two significant events upon Tennyson, both as a man and as a poet, is carefully considered and evaluated. Yet the major interest of this chapter lays not so much in biographical events as in a discussion of Poems, Chiefly Lyrical and the Unpublished Early Poems of this period. Accordingly, several lesser, though recurrent, themes of these volumes are reviewed briefly while a detailed analysis is made of the most prominent - that is, Tennyson's growing ambivalence towards society and his increasing uncertainty as to the role of poetry in the third decade of the nineteenth century, a problem exemplified by the fact that he sought to adhere simultaneously to two antithetical poetic ideals: the "Romantic" school, devoted to a subjective poetry of personal experience, and the "Classical" school, dedicated to an objective poetry dealing largely with religious, moral and political ideas. Chapter Four is almost exclusively devoted to a close examination of Poems, 1833, a volume in which were first published some of Tennyson's finest compositions: "The Hesperides," "The Lotos-Eaters," "The Lady of Shallot," "The Palace of Art," "Oenone" and "A Dream of Fair Women." While each of these poems possesses its own intrinsic qualities and while each lends itself to a variety of interpretations, many of which have a universal appeal, each at the same time reflects an aspect of the poet's own artistic predicament - the problem of bringing together into a cogent aesthetic order the conflicting principles of the poetry of reflection, concerned primarily with the palpable interests of contemporary society, and the poetry of sensation for which the only criterion is the desire for beauty in the creation of a sensitive expression of a deeply moving personal experience. In none of these poems, however, does Tennyson find a solution to his artistic dilemma. Instead, his best efforts simply state the problem of dialectical counterpoise, the holding in tension of two incompatible goals or ideals for which there seems to be no true synthesis. Chapter Four also includes a discussion of Tennyson's less accomplished contributions to Poems, 1833 such as "Fatima," "The Sisters" and "Mariana in the South" as well as "The Miller's Daughter" and "The May Queen" all of which are noteworthy because they explore concepts closely related to the poet's central problem of aesthetics. The fifth chapter of this paper is principally concerned with a careful review of the new compositions published in Poems, 1842, compositions which were written during the ten years' silence that followed the sudden and shocking death of Arthur Hallam in 1833. To a lesser degree the discussion dwells upon the revisions Tennyson made in the poems of 1832 which he republished in 1842. In the consideration of both the new and the revised works, attention is centered upon three major areas: Tennyson's growth as an artist, the profound effect which Hallam's death had upon the poet, and most importantly (and by no means unrelated to the former two), the subtle change in Tennyson's attitude towards his continuing artistic dilemma. This important shift in attitude was in spired by the poet's growing desire to communicate more readily with the nineteenth century reading public and his sincere wish to reconcile the sustained conflict between aesthetic detachment and social involvement. However, in his efforts to effect this reconciliation, Tennyson at times made concessions to contemporary literary fashion which involved a certain sacrifice of his artistic integrity. This is especially apparent in the "English Idylls." Yet in other poems of the 1842 collection, and indeed with increasing facility throughout his long career, Tennyson was able, if not to achieve a genuine synthesis of the two opposing ideals, at least to hold in balance to the satisfaction of his audience and himself both elements of the dialectic.
Available in print form, EAF collection, Dr. Wilbert Chagula Library ( THS EAF PR5581.J6)
Tennyson, Alfred Tennyson, Baron, 1809-1892, Lexicography, Vocabulary
Jones, Frank G. K (1969) Tennyson's poetry 18822-1842: an examination of the sustained conflict between aesthetic detachment and social involvement and the poet's attempt at a reconciliation of the two,Masters dissertation, University of Dar es Salaam, Dar es Salaam.