Articles for ‘Tennyson’

Practical Criticism: Tennyson’s ‘Crossing the Bar’

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

In this close reading, undergraduate Claire Wilkinson looks at a poem where Tennyson seems to be contemplating his own death. The poem contains moments of certainty and uncertainty, and the interplay between these things is vital to its effect.

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.  (1889)

In 'Crossing the Bar', Tennyson is speaking about his own impending death.  Within the poem, the image of the sea is used to represent the 'barrier' between life and death.  The construction of this metaphor centres on the image of 'crossing the bar'; a 'bar' is physically a bar of sand in shallow water.  The 'bar' which Tennyson must cross, however, can only be crossed in one direction.  This is made explicit in a couple of ways by the poet.

Firstly, we should consider the wider imagery of the poem.  The poem opens with the phrase 'Sunset and evening star', immediately placing the reader in a setting at the end of the day.  The metaphor can be extended to represent a late stage in the poet's life.  This reading is supported by the opening of the third stanza: 'Twilight and evening bell, / And after that the dark!'  Time is progressing as the poem develops, and after each reference to physical time, Tennyson makes a personal reference to his future:

'And may there be no moaning of the bar, / When I put out to sea'

'And may there be no sadness of farewell, / When I embark'

The clear reference to Tennyson's 'moving on' enables us to interpret the image of evening as representing old age.  The notion of passing time, evident in the physical darkening of the sky from 'sunset' to 'twilight' to 'dark' is echoed in the rhythm of the poem.  Clearly, the poem speaks about the sea, about a tide which 'turns again home'.  The tide, we are reminded, has done this before; its rhythm will not be interrupted by the death of the poet.  The lengths of the lines alternate between 10, six and four syllables with no fixed rotation:

10        But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
6          Too full for sound and foam,
10        When that which drew from out the boundless deep
4          Turns again home.

The differing lengths of lines evoke the movement of a tide washing upon a beach, something which we all recognise to be cyclic.

Secondly, in considering how the poet has constructed the 'bar' between life and death, we must look at the specifics of his language.  The poet is certain of his destination:

'When I put out to sea'
'When I embark'
'When I have crossed the bar'

The repetition of when makes it clear to the reader that the event the poet is discussing is firmly placed in the future; it will happen, but hasn't happened yet.  We can contrast this to the use of indefinite phrases in the poem:

'And may there be no moaning of the bar'
'And may there be no sadness of farewell'
'I hope to see my Pilot face to face'

Tennyson makes a clear distinction between events which he knows will happen, and events which he hopes will happen. He cannot assure that there will be 'no sadness of farewell', so he cannot solidify the matter within the poem itself.

The final stanza of the poem is particularly interesting, and deserves some consideration within itself:

For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

There are three aspects of this final stanza that are immediately striking; the capitalisations of 'Time', 'Place' and ''.  We capitalise proper nouns, such as names and locations, suggesting that Tennyson sees 'Time and Place' as a specific location, such as 'London', and 'his Pilot' as a personal figure.  This adds to the element of certainty in the poem: Tennyson has in mind a location in which he will end, and though he can only 'hope' to see his 'Pilot', he has an image he aspires to meet with.

To leave this piece on an interesting note: who or what could possibly be Tennyson's 'Pilot'? (If you have an answer to this question, or another thought about the poem you'd like to share, please leave a comment below.)

Further Reading

Claire Wilkinson has written an article on Tennyson and Religion for the Cambridge Authors site; it touches on this poem as part of its broader analysis of Tennyson's ideas about God. Click here to read the article, or use the menu to the left.

Further Thinking

How (if at all) might the following facts affect the way you read the poem? First: it was written three years before Tennyson died, when the poet was 80. Second: the story goes that he wrote it in twenty minutes on the Isle of Wight ferry. Third: he asked future editors to place it last in collections of his work. Perhaps the poem stands on its own, connecting with readers' lives rather than with the past; but perhaps we need to recognise how it came out of Tennyson's life before we can really understand it.

What do the poems rhymes add to its effect?

The precise implications of this word might be worth considering. A pilot is someone who navigates a ship, but it is most often used of someone with local knowledge who joins a ship to guide it into a port or through a difficult part of its journey. This kind of pilot is temporary and supplementary to the ship's usual officers, but very important: he or she brings the ship home

Practical Criticism: Tennyson’s ‘Break, break, break’

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

In this close reading, undergraduate Claire Wilkinson looks at the nostalgia and mourning that exist on and below the surface of this haunting poem.

Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

O, well for the fisherman's boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O, well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break,
At the foot of thy crags, O sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me. (1834)

'Break, break, break' is a short poem with an overridingly sad and nostalgic tone.  The poem presents a sea-side image, complete with a wild sea, playing children, fishermen and sailing boats, but Tennyson manipulates these elements to reveal a poem about death and loss.  How does Tennyson create this feeling?  If we look at the language used in the piece, we immediately detect the negative feeling which persists in the poem.  Line two of the opening stanza uses the following adjectives to describe the rocks onto which the sea breaks: 'cold' and 'gray'.  The use of these words defines the tone of the piece - imagine how different it would sound had Tennyson described the rocks as 'warm' and 'white'!  Indeed, the words used seem unwelcoming to the reader, lending the opening 'Break, break, break' a persistent and crashing air.  The sea, it seems, will 'break' upon the rocks relentlessly, as we are reminded by the repetition of the phrase at the opening of the fourth stanza.

The themes of memory and nostalgia feature heavily in the poem, and there is a distinct feeling that Tennyson is indeed evoking the memory of someone he has lost.  The use of the long vowel sound 'O' within the poem has varying effects.  In the first and fourth stanzas, the 'O' sounds as if it is in exasperation at the sea.  The effect of the 'Break, break, break' (repetitive, cyclic) joins with the 'O' to create an air of despair; the narrator calls out to the sea, but is met only with the familiar response of it crashing onto the rocks.  Aurally, the two 'O' sounds in the second stanza are like sighs, 'O, well for the fisherman's boy'.  The narrator cannot access the innocence or naivety enjoyed by the people he watches.  It should be noted that that Tennyson uses images of youth in this stanza, adding to the nostalgic tone of the piece: 'boy', 'play' and 'lad'.

The negative and nostalgic imagery all contributes to the developing theme of death and loss within the poem, however Tennyson also refers to this directly.  The metaphor in stanza three alludes to death:

And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;

The image of the ships 'go[ing] on' is interesting; the date of the poem (1834) informs us that it was written the year after Tennyson's friend Hallam died abroad.  The image of a ship, which would have both taken Hallam away and brought him home again, dead, was clearly poignant for Tennyson; it is not a difficult leap, from there, to imagine the ship as a metaphor for a life, now gone to its rest (or 'haven') out of sight - even, perhaps, underground, buried in earth.  The second part of stanza three is also interesting to consider in this light:

But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!

Is the vanished hand Hallam's?  It seems very likely that this is Tennyson's intention.  The opening stanzas make no such reference to the poet's deceased friend, but merely prepare the reader for the mention in stanza three.  Tennyson's technique of referring to 'a hand' and 'a voice' to represent a person is called synecdoche; a part is taken to represent the whole.  It is also possible, of course, that Tennyson was thinking of the regular nautical meaning of 'hand': a sailor in a crew (see OED, 'hand', n., 8b). In this reading, which continues the nautical metaphor of the ship-as-life, the poem seems to cry out for a particular man, whose identity ('voice'?) has already faded away; such a reading seems rather more likely when we consider that 'touch' (as a verb) could mean 'of a ship, or those on board: To arrive and make a short stay in passing at a port or place on the way', or (as a noun) 'the act of touching at a port' (see OED, 'touch', n., 1f, and v., 11). Thus, the mention of Hallam (if, indeed, we are correct in our presumption) is kept vague and inexplicit, and we must consider the poem's content for ourselves; and yet it seems clear that Tennyson urges the reader to try to recover an identity for the 'vanished hand', both in his nautical metaphor and in his use of synecdoche.

To finish, I'd like to look at the concluding lines:

But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.

The last line is very final - the word 'will' is modally definite, and the narrator is sure in his conviction.  Considering this next to lines 3 and 4 of stanza one, we can see a progression in the poem:

And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

Compare the 'would' of the first stanza to the 'will' of the fourth.  The 'would' suggests that the narrator might be able to utter the thoughts he wishes to express, whereas the 'will' implies that the preceding statement is final; 'the tender grace of a day that is dead' will not come back to the narrator. The suggestiveness of the middle stanzas is here concluded and cancelled, and the poem enacts its own, sad finality.

Further Thinking

(i) Are there any elements of the poem that you think are underestimated here? (If you have an answer to this question, or another thought about the poem you'd like to share, you can leave a comment below.)

(ii) Is there more to be said about the fact that this poem starts with a denial that the 'tongue' can express 'thoughts', and then gets going? Does it fully escape the initial problem of expression?

Music on the Web (3): ‘Set the Wild Echoes Flying’ in Tennyson’s The Princess (1847)

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

Mychael Dama, 'Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal'

Listen to 'Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal', a song which features in the 2004 feature-film version of William Makepiece Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair. Although the music is composed by Mychael Dama, the words are Tennyson's. Thinking again about Sir Charles Stanford's remark regarding the difficulty of setting Tennyson's poetry to music (discussed in Music and Meaning 2), it is useful to read 'Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white', as it first appeared within his longer work The Princess in 1847:

Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font:
The fire-fly wakens: waken thou with me.
Now droops the milkwhite peacock like a ghost,
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.
Now lies the Earth all Danae to the stars,
And all thy heart lies open unto me.
Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves
A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.
Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,
And slips into the bosom of the lake:
So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom and be lost in me.

What Sir Charles Stanford actually claimed is that 'the perfection of vowel balance' in Tennyson's poetry was so extreme 'that very little is left for actual music to supply'. Do you think that the singer, Custer LaRue, accentuates Tennyson's vowel sounds? Sir Charles also claimed that Tennyson was 'very particular about clear diction in singing': 'he knew that the poem should be the key to the work and should be so clearly enunciated that every word can reach the listener'. Do you think that Custer LaRue does so? Finally, Sir Charles claimed it was Tennyson's opinion that 'the composer must never over-balance the voice with the illustrative detail of the accompaniment'. If you listen to Mychael Dama's composition again, you will notice that the piano part is actually quite dominant and powerful. Do you think that this detracts attention from the meaning of the words or helps add to the meaning of them?

In Tennyson and the Doom of Romanticism Herbert F. Tucker considers this poem as part of the '' tradition. He claims that 'Tennyson's deliciously narcotic version bends this carpe diem tradition in significant ways'. As we know from thinking about medical narcotics, if something is 'narcotic' it soothes, relieves, or lulls. The idea of poetry being 'narcotic' might link this poem to Tennyson's Lotus-Eaters (see Music and Meaning 6), who sang 'sweet music' and seemed 'deep-asleep' even when they weren't. What Tennyson says about 'The Lotus-Eaters' might relate to 'Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal': is there perhaps a parallel between this narrator's call for another to slip inside his bosom and 'be lost' and the Lotus-eaters' call for the sailors to abandon their other commitments and remain effectively lost at sea? If so, what do you think is revealing about this parallel?

Do you think that Dama's musical version of 'Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal' is attempting to explore a 'narcotic' effect?

What, do you think, is the effect of the fact that a woman sings 'Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal' in the BBC's Vanity Fair production?

Tucker highlights how 'Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal' 'seems to generate itself out of the sounds of its leading verb'. According to him, 'the clustered consonants' of 'sleep' 'come back reshuffled' in 'palace', and every other verb in the poem ('droops', 'leaves', 'folds', etc.) similarly 'appears a phonetic permutation of "sleeps"'. Tucker is essentially saying that lots of the words in this poem sound alike. If this is true, though, then he thinks that we can also say something more, for 'Tennyson's phonemes [units of sound] function beyond this as sememes, units of sense'. Again, the very sound of the verse (or its music) might be seen to contribute to its meaning. How do you think this might be so and does this relation between sound and sense hold true in Dama's musical interpretation of Tennyson's poem?

'Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal' is just one of a few short 'lyrics' that are embedded within Tennyson's epic poem The Princess, others of which may also interest you because of their suggestions about 'music' and 'meaning' in Tennyson's poetry. These pages should have begun to illustrate how you might begin to think about the relations between poems and songs and the ways in which different (although possibly related) meanings are conveyed by different mediums.

Further Thinking

You might want to travel to the 'Reading Tears, idle tears' section of this site, which uses analysis of another lyric from The Princess to explore various questions concerning the 'meaning' of Tennyson's poetry and how we might discover it. Alternatively, to find out more about the relations between melody and thought in other poetry by Tennyson, you can try the complete 'Music and Meaning' resource by clicking here or following the links in the menu to the left.

This means 'seize the day' in Latin; these poems often encourage an addressee to make the most of the present. Very often that addressee is a lover, and the point of the poem is to persuade her/him to submit to the speaker's advances.

Music on the Web (2): Tennyson’s Voice and ‘Declamation’

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

[Tennyson reading 'The Charge of the Light Brigade']

We have Thomas Edison to thank for this recording of Tennyson reading his own poem, 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'. According to the BBC, 'Edison sent his agents round to the Poet Laureate's home to record his voice on wax cylinders in 1890', and the result of their visit was the pre-electronic recording that you're listening to now.

Listen to the voice of the eighty-one year old Poet Laureate and think about how you would characterise it: is it strong? Is it 'musical'? Considering how this voice was recorded (using 23 soft wax-cylinders), is it not surprising how powerful it sounds?

According to the 'Poetry Archive' webpage, 'Tennyson's voice comes through clearly, intoning the pounding dactylic rhythms of the verse which gives it a breathless momentum'. A dactyl is a type of metre in poetry, which (in accentual verse, like English) consists of one stressed syllable, followed by two unstressed syllables; can you hear this on the recording? What do you think it means to say that Tennyson intones this rhythm? Why might it be significant that this voice produces an effect of 'breathless momentum'?

In a chapter of The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry tellingly entitled 'Tennyson's Breath', the literary critic Eric Griffiths explores 'the centrality of respiration, and other physical motor-rhythms, to Tennyson's poetry'. Griffiths there summarises how Tennyson is often 'thought to be preoccupied with word-music, with fondling, as it were, the bodies of words, to the exclusion or detriment of responsible thought'. What do you think he might mean by this? How might this idea relate to Arthur Hallam's, that Tennyson is a poet of 'Sensation' as opposed to 'Reflection'?

If Tennyson is a poet of 'Sensation', then perhaps we might expect his 'word-music' to be less concerned about meaning than writing is in general and to be, therefore, irresponsible or intellectually empty. Griffiths develops a more complex argument about the nature of Tennyson's poetic thought and writing, however. For him, 'Tennyson thought in melody, and did so because his preoccupation with self-identity over time and beyond time drew him down repeatedly to an encounter with the human body itself as the crucial location of his thinking'. This suggests there is something very sensible about Tennyson's sensuousness. What do you think about this idea, that Tennyson might have been using his poems to make readers think about breathing and melody? It could be that Tennyson wanted his readers to realise that we are essentially embodied, breathing creatures, just as much as we are thinking creatures. Maybe it is precisely Tennyson's point that we, humans, are never purely intellectual beings: even as we think we breathe and even as we talk - as much as we might try to keep our minds on the matter at hand - our voices create melodies.

A young composer and friend of Tennyson's (by the name of Sir Charles Stanford) once described the poet's reading voice as one of 'deep and penetrating power, varied only by alternation of note and by intensity of quality'. 'Without being a musician', Sir Charles' essay on 'Music, Tennyson and Joachim' continues, Tennyson had 'a great appreciation of the fitness of music to its subjects, and was an unfailing judge of musical declamation'. Declamation being the public recital of an artfully prepared speech or piece of music, perhaps this might again be a sign that Tennyson cared as much about how his poetry sounded as he did about what it said. Indeed, according to Angela Leighton Tennyson 'pushes language almost as far as it will go into music': his 'rhymes and echoes ring on', she says, 'on the other side of sense'.

What does all this make you think about the 'music of' Tennyson's poetry? Do you think that Tennyson believed that it didn't matter what one said so long as it sounded beautiful, or do you think he might have been using his verse to suggest something more complex about the interdependence of music and thought?

Highlighting his verse's 'musical qualities', Tennyson's composer friend claimed that 'it is the perfection of vowel balance which makes his poetry so difficult to set to music satisfactorily. So musical is it in itself that very little is left for actual music to supply'. Click on this link and listen to Loreena McKennit's version of 'The Lady of Shalott' []. Thinking about how Loreena McKennit's song sounds, do you agree with Sir Charles that 'all that music has to do [in support of Tennyson's poetry] is to illustrate the surrounding atmosphere, and to leave the poetry to tell its own story with its declamation and inflectives accurately preserved'.

Once you've finished thinking about what the musical quality of Tennyson's poetry might suggest about the relationship between music and thought, click on 'Next', below, and we'll finish by exploring the relationship between a particular poem by Tennyson and a particular song that has been directly inspired by it.

[Go to Music on the Web (3): 'Set the Wild Echoes Flying' in Tennyson's The Princess (1847)]

Music on the Web (1): Tennyson and Aestheticism

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

In 1830, Tennyson's friend Arthur Hallam (whose death would later be the subject of In Memoriam) wrote an important review of Tennyson's first independent anthology of poetry, Poems, Chiefly Lyrical. In that review, Arthur contrasted his friend with Wordsworth and related him to Shelley and Keats, characterising Tennyson as a poet of 'sensation' and Wordsworth as a poet of 'reflection'.

The Cambridge-based literary critic Angela Leighton, in her book On Form, suggests that Hallam's review provides 'the key' to understanding Tennyson's 'unofficial reputation' as 'the most powerful, undeclared voice of English aestheticism'. Aestheticism was an artistic movement spearheaded in Victorian England by artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who created the black and white illustration for Tennyson's poem 'The Lady of Shalott' that you can observe by following this web-link []

What is striking about Tennyson's 'unofficial' connection with this movement is that 'Aesthetic' artists like Oscar Wilde and Dante Gabriel Rossetti generally believed that it was art's function to provide refined sensuous pleasure, as opposed to conveying the sort of moral or sentimental message that we might expect Queen Victoria's Poet Laureate to convey, and which Tennyson to some extent did convey.

As you work your way through the 'Music and Meaning' resources, you will come across some remarks that Tennyson's friend Hallam made about the 'sensuousness' of his poetry, and you will discover what some important literary critics have had to say about the relationship between Tennyson's poetry and music. As you read the extracts from In Memoriam, 'The Lotus-Eaters' and all the other famous poems by Tennyson that you'll be encountering over the next few pages, think about whether you agree with Arthur Hallam's idea that Tennyson is a 'Poet of Sensation'.

As well as Tennyson's poetry and ideas about Tennyson's poetry, you'll also encounter lots of pieces of music and artworks, like this song by Loreena McKennit [], this illustration by Dante Gabriel Rossetti mentioned above [] and this very famous painting by John William Waterhouse []. All three of these artworks are called 'The Lady of Shalott' and are inspired by one of Tennyson's poems, which also has this title. Search for a copy of Tennyson's poem on the internet or in any modern collection of his poetry and think about how reading it makes you feel. Do this song, this illustration and this painting make you feel the same way as you do when you are reading the poem, or do they make you feel something different? Artists belonging to the Aesthetic movement are generally interested in creating 'synaesthetic' effects, which means that they enjoy making or highlighting correspondences between words, colours and music. How do you think this relates to Tennyson?

Next: by thinking about (and listening to) the way in which Tennyson read his poetry, we'll start considering some possible answers to these questions.

[Go to Music on the Web (2): Tennyson's Voice and 'Declamation']

Tennyson: Music on the Web

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

These three pages have been extracted from the larger 'Music and Meaning' resource (see the menu), which aims to explore how Tennyson thought about the relationship of sound and content in his poetry. Making use of Tennyson-related recordings available on the web, these pages explore questions about the musicality of Tennyson's poems, and how that relates to their meanings and functions. If you want to work your way through the complete 'Music and Meaning' resource, click here; otherwise, use the menu below to try this shorter, selected set of resources.

1. Music on the Web (1): Tennyson and Aestheticism

2. Music on the Web (2): Tennyson's Voice and 'Declamation'

3. Music on the Web (3): 'Set the Wild Echoes Flying' in Tennyson's The Princess (1847)

You can go straight to any of these, but it will all be more coherent if you can work through from the beginning.

Music and Meaning (13): ‘Other Songs for other worlds!’ in ‘Parnassus’ (1889)

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

Andrea Appiani's depiction of Mount Parnassus, the home of the muses, features the nine muses, all depicted in a manner appropriate to the art they represent, with Apollo in the middle.,_Andrea_Appiani_(1811).jpg

What be those crowned forms high over the sacred fountain?
Bards, that the mighty Muses have raised to the heights of the mountain,
And over the flight of the Ages! O Goddesses, help me up thither!
Lightning may shrivel the , but mine would not wither.
Steep is the mountain, but you, you will help me overcome it,
And stand with my head in the zenith, and roll my voice from the summit,
Sounding for ever and ever through Earth and her listening nations,
And mixt with the great of stars and constellations.
What be those two shapes high over the sacred fountain,
Taller than all the Muses, and huger than all the mountain?
In those two known peaks they stand ever spreading and heightening;
Poet, that evergreen laurel is blasted by more than lightning!
Look, in their deep double shadow the crowned ones all disappearing!
Sing like a bird and be happy, nor hope for a deathless hearing!
Sounding for ever and ever? pass on! the sight confuses -
These are Astronomy and Geology, terrible Muses!

Whereas the opening stanza celebrates an ideally efficacious 'voice' that hopes to sound 'for ever', the narrator's initial idealism is countered in the second stanza, which highlights how modern science in general (and 'Astronomy and Geology' in particular) threaten to blast the poet's laurel with 'more than lightning!' 'The poem has moved', says Cornelia Pearsall, 'from the inevitable disappearance of the ludicrously over-reaching poet to the more startling disappearance of the poet whose lips, though touched with fire from the altar of Pieria (home of Orpheus and the Muses), are also to be silenced in time, and by it.' Consider whether or not you agree that 'Parnassus' does undergo such a radical shift as Pearson suggests in the transition from its second to its final stanza:

If the lips were touched with fire from off a pure Pierian altar,
Though their music here be mortal need the singer greatly care?
Other songs for other worlds! the fire within him would not falter;
Let the golden Iliad vanish, Homer here is Homer there.

Parnassus closes by questioning whether a singer or poet 'need... greatly care' whether or not 'their music here' be merely 'mortal'. 'Although he dismisses the idea of poetry's immortality,' claims Pearson, 'Tennyson maintains the primacy of the poet's memorable words over any other kind of speech.' Having made your way through this resource on 'Music and Meaning' in Tennyson's poetry, do you think the 'singer' in Parnassus has cause for concern? What do you think Tennyson was attempting to achieve through his poetry, and how do the ideas of reading poetry aloud and appreciating its musicality relate to this? Was Tennyson a poet of Sensation as opposed to Reflection? Did Tennyson believe that poetry might be able to establish 'one music' or meaningful synthesis between various human bodies and souls, and if so, how permanent do you think any such synthesis might be? Hopefully this web-resource should have enabled you to think about (and possibly, to answer) a few of these key questions.

Further Reading

The ways that music and poetry resemble one another and work together, but also differ, and contrast, are by no means only pertinent to Tennyson. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a poet for whom the idea is never suggestive. The way to follow this up, then, is to think of other poets, whether ones whose works have been set to music, or who were writing songs all along, or ones for whom music is a telling metaphor running in parallel to their work. Shakespeare Sonnets 8 and 128 both concern music being heard or played; T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets have a music title and various kinds of musicality; countless poems call themselves 'songs', and not all of them have actually been sung. Pretty much anywhere you read, the way of thinking developed here will have something to offer.

Laurel wreaths were traditionally worn by great poets and Roman emperors; Mount Parnassus is a place where the poet's wreath counts for more.
'The music of the spheres' refers to an ancient belief, credited originally to Pythagoras, that the movements of heavenly bodies (sun, moon, planets) were harmonious in the way that music is.

Music and Meaning (12): Building to Music in Idylls of the King (1872)

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

Victorian artists produced many works on Arthurian themes. Edward Burne-Jones's 'The Beguiling of Merlin' is a pertinent one to compare with this section. You can find it in the 'Possession Illustrated' section of this website, and it is easy enough to Google.

Lord, there is no such city anywhere,
But all vision.

According to Cornelia Pearsall in her book Tennyson's Rapture: Transformation in the Victorian Dramatic Monologue, 'Tennyson's cities reflect the airy gorgeousness of towers built to music, in their origin, and therefore lyrical in their insubstantiality'. 'So it is', Pearsall states more specifically, 'with Camelot': in Tennyson's Idylls of the King a knight called Gareth 'doubts the evidence of city walls that appear and disappear before a traveller's eyes. But Tennyson sees these visionary cities everywhere,' Pearson reiterates, 'trusting to the evanescent presence, endorsing Merlin's teasing explanation'. Let's now join Gareth and his cohort as they encounter the mystical city of Camelot in Tennyson's Idylls of the King, considering how this city's connections with music might help us to formulate a few final thoughts on the interrelated matters of meaning and music:

Then those who went with Gareth were amazed,
One crying, 'Let us go no further, lord.
Here is a city of Enchanters, built
By fairy Kings.' The second echoed him,
'Lord, we have heard from our wise man at home
To Northward, that this King is not King,
But only changeling out of Fairyland,
Who the heathen hence by sorcery
And Merlin's .' Then the first again,
'Lord, there is no such city anywhere,
But all vision.'

At this stage Gareth responds to his men 'with laughter,

swearing he had glamour enow
In his blood, his princedom, youth and hopes,
To plunge old Merlin in the Arabian sea;
So pushed them all unwilling to the gate.
And there was no gate like it under the heaven.
For barefoot on the keystone, which was lined
And rippled like an ever-fleeting wave,
The Lady of the Lake stood: all her dress
Wept from her sides as water flowing away...
And in the space to left of her, and right,
Were Arthur's wars in weird devices done,
New things and old co-twisted, as if Time
Were nothing, so inveterately, that men
Were giddy gazing there.

Remember how the medium of Hallam's language was shown to have enabled the poet to reach 'empyreal heights of thought' and catch the sound of 'Aeonian music measuring out / The steps of time.' Here an ability to transcend and observe time's steps and the experience of catching harmonious music are intricately linked once again; just as Gareth is observing these representations of 'Arthur's wars' (in which 'new things and old co-twisted, as if Time/ Were nothing'), a sudden 'blast of music' rings out of the city and Merlin appears:

And Gareth likewise on them [these depictions of the wars] fixt his eyes
So long, that even to him they seemed to move.
Out of the city a blast of music pealed.
Back from the gate started the three [knights], to whom
From out thereunder came an ancient man,
Long-bearded, saying, 'Who be ye, my sons?'
Then Gareth, 'We be tillers of the soil,
Who leaving share in the furrow come to see
The glories of our King: but these, my men,
(Your city moved so weirdly in the mist)
Doubt if the King be King at all, or come
From Fairyland; and whether this be built
By magic, and by fairy Kings and Queens;
Or whether there be any city at all,
Or all a vision: and this music now
Hath scared them both, but tell thou these the truth.'
Then that old Seer made answer playing on him
And saying, Son, I have seen the good ship sail
Keel upward, and mast downward, in the heavens,
And solid turrets topsy-turvey in air:
And here is truth; but ,
Take thou the truth as thou hast told it me.
For truly as thou sayest, a Fairy King
And Fairy Queens have built the city, son;
They came from out a sacred mountain-cleft
Toward the sunrise, each with harp in hand,
And built it to the music of their harps.
And, as thou sayest, it is enchanted, son,
For there is nothing in it as it seems
Saving the King; though some there be that hold
The King a shadow, and the city real:
Yet take thou heed of him, for, so thou pass
Beneath this archway, then wilt thou become
A thrall to his enchantments, for the King
Will bind thee by such vows, as is a shame
A man can keep; but, so thou dread to swear,
Pass not beneath this gateway, but abide
Without, among the cattle of the field.
For an ye heard a music, like enow
They are building still, seeing the city is built
To music, therefore never built at all,
And therefore built for ever.

'The city is built / To music', says Merlin, 'therefore never built at all,/ And therefore built for ever'. What do you think Merlin (and also Tennyson) might mean by this? Parallel to this suggestion that music is at once that which makes things perpetual, and that which makes them false, Merlin also makes this ambiguous statement about truth: 'here is truth; but an it please thee not, / Take thou the truth as thou hast told it me'. Music and myth appear to offer man access to a transcendent realm - revealing a higher reality - but many men believe this revelation to be false, and this offer to be one that they would be better off without.

Let's now take one last look at another of Tennyson's late poems, the title of which - 'Parnassus' - directly refers to the mythical home of the . Is music ultimately meaningful and is its meaning ultimately accessible or lasting? What - if he offers one - is Tennyson's final word?

[Go on to Music and Meaning (13): 'Other Songs for other worlds!' in 'Parnassus' (1889)]

Relating to the God Apollo in Greek mythology. He is associated with music and poetry, and with order, amongst other things. Here the point is mainly that these cities are artistic and fine. In Greek mythology the city of Troy was built with Apollo's help.
Archaic form of 'drove', i.e. past tense of 'drive'.
This word did not acquire its modern meaning until the 20th century. In Tennyson's time it meant a magic spell.
Here 'an' is another way of saying 'if', so this phrase means, 'if it does not please thee'.
The nine muses in Greek mythology were minor goddesses who represented nine different arts: usually epic poetry, lyric, tragedy, sacred song, choral song, love poetry, history, comedy, and astronomy.

Music and Meaning (11): ‘Aeonian Music’ in In Memoriam (1850)

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

At the beginning of this 'Music and Meaning' web-resource (in Part 1), we noted that Angela Leighton (in her book On Form) has described Tennyson's as one of the nineteenth century's 'most memorable, sensuous, aesthetic voices'; according to Angela Leighton, it is Tennyson 'who pushes language almost as far as it will go into music, whose rhymes and echoes ring on the other side of sense'. Furthermore, she says, 'this musical compulsion is not a search for metaphysical self-validation, but a feeling for form as a thing to be held as literally as possible against the threat of formlessness'. Considering how Leighton's perspective (in which Tennyson's music does not respond to metaphysical questions but simply celebrates 'form') might relate to or differ from Griffiths' or Tucker's, take a look at this single stanza from lyric 114 of In Memoriam and consider what it might be suggesting about the idea of 'form':

Who loves not Knowledge? Who shall rail
Against her beauty? May she mix
With men and prosper! Who shall fix
Her pillars? Let her work prevail.

Encouraging readers to think about 'the attitude towards form expressed in the poem itself', the literary critic J.C.C. Mays highlights passages like the one above and claims that 'Tennyson's attitude towards form in general applies to poetic form in particular'. What do you think 'the attitude towards form' expressed in lyric 114 might be and how do you think this attitude might apply to 'poetic form in particular'? Interestingly, this stanza both asks 'who shall fix... [Knowledge's] pillars' and refuses to 'fix' sturdy structural pillars of its own: at the end of each of its first three lines, Tennyson employs a poetic device called enjambment, which means that its sentences do not end where its lines end, but rapidly flow on to the following line (in 'Who shall rail / Against her beauty?' for example). By making use of enjambment in this way, as he expresses this claim about the beauty of knowledge, what do you think Tennyson might be suggesting about the relationship between faith and form?

Throughout this very hopeful stanza in lyric 114 (a stanza in which the speaker expresses some hope that 'Knowledge... may... mix / With men and prosper') the poem's form is not restrictively fixed; formal constraints, such as the need for units of sense to be completed by the end of each line, do not obstruct this faithful outburst. At the same time, however, that physical intelligence which structures the poem in this way (using enjambment so as to formally reflect the speaker's faithfulness) does seem to possess that positive 'feeling for form' to which Angela Leighton refers: this stanza does not have a fixed form, but it does have a fitting form, a structure that suits or a music that matches its meaning. The unfixed form of the stanza we've considered in lyric 114 celebrates the developing spiritual strength of the poet. What do you think Tennyson's attitude, then, towards poetic 'form' and its relation to spiritual 'faith' might be?

To help us think about this problem, let's consider another lyric from In Memoriam, within which Tennyson contrasts his own formless kind of faith with his sister's more orthodox Christianity: 'O thou', the poet addresses himself:

that after toil and storm
Mayst seem to have reach'd a purer air,
Whose faith has centre everywhere,
Nor cares to fix itself to form,
Leave thou thy sister when she prays,
Her early Heaven, her happy views;
Nor thou with shadow'd hint confuse
A life that leads melodious days.'

In these stanzas from lyric 33 of In Memoriam, Tennyson seems to be suggesting that some people find fixed forms to be necessary in enabling them to lead 'melodious days'. It appears that beautiful forms must first be sustained if individuals are ever to be able to find faith (and keep hold of it) at all. If certain forms are to be maintained purely because they enable people to live 'melodious days', it would appear to be the case that Tennyson values music more than meaning; even as some individuals (including the poet, for example) neither find themselves able to overcome their urge to ponder metaphysical questions, nor believe it to be necessary to commit themselves to traditional forms of faith, the ultimate goal for everyone appears to be to attain some kind of harmonious formal composure. The speaker neither has the ability to live 'melodious days' that his sister has, nor believes himself able to attain equilibrium by the same formal means (the same simple Christian faith) as has enabled her to attain that ability. At the same time, however, the speaker does not think it would be right to 'confuse' his sister's harmonious state by voicing his own doubts to her, and sets about (especially in lyric 114, as we saw above) attempting to acquire an equivalent state of harmony by fittingly developing new forms (both of faith and poetry) of his own.

According to J.C.C. Mays, 'one of the themes' of In Memoriam 'is a winning through to confidence in form, to an ability to sustain it by faith'. Moreover, 'Tennyson's gradual winning of confidence in form and all else is presented dramatically, as it happens, and not as an imposed conclusion'. Let's take a look at lyric 87 of In Memoriam and begin to think about how it might be presenting 'Tennyson's gradual winning of confidence in form... dramatically'. In this lyric, Tennyson is describing having listened to Arthur Hallam's voice when they were both Cambridge students, a few years before Arthur died. As you read it, think about what the lyric might be suggesting about the speaking voice, about music, and about the process of developing faith in 'form':

A willing ear
We lent him. Who, but hung to hear
The rapt oration flowing free
From point to point, with power and grace
And music in the bounds of law,
To those conclusions when we saw
The God within him light his face,
And seem to lift the form, and glow
In azure orbits heavenly-wise.'

Here Tennyson seems to be bringing together a lot of the ideas that we've been considering throughout these In Memoriam web-pages: the speaker gives 'a willing ear' to another's speaking voice; Tennyson again uses enjambment as a means of dramatising a flux of faith, as the voice of Hallam is said to be 'flowing free / From point to point, with power and grace/ And music'; just as it was measured language that, in lyric 95, enabled Tennyson to bridge the gap between the land of the living and that of the dead, so here it is the spoken word which enables 'the God within' Hallam to 'light his [mortal] face'. Keeping in mind what the poem appears to be suggesting about both music and artistic form's relation to faith, let's now compare what Tennyson suggests about the development of 'music in the bounds of law' in the lyric above, with what he suggests about measured (and measuring) 'Aeonian music' in the ninety-fifth lyric (which we looked at on the second of the In Memoriam web-pages):

So word by word, and line by line,
The dead man touch'd me from the past,
And all at once it seem'd at last
The living soul was flash'd on mine,
And mine in this was wound, and whirl'd
About heights of thought,
And came on that which is, and caught
The deep pulsations of the world,
Aeonian music measuring out
The steps of Time - the shocks of Chance -
The blows of Death. At length my trance
Was cancell'd, stricken thro' with doubt.
Vague words! but ah, how hard to frame
In matter-moulded forms of speech,
Or ev'n for intellect to reach
Thro' memory that which I became.'

'Form' - according to J.C.C. Mays - 'seems a necessary evil: faith can express itself only through form, and yet form circumscribes and distorts the expression of faith'. Do you agree? As was observed at the beginning of our study of In Memoriam, Tennyson suggests that his words are 'vague' and claims that it is 'hard to frame' authentic expressions of faith in 'forms of speech' that are 'matter-moulded'. Conversely however, lyrics 87 and 95 have both suggested that it is only 'word by word', 'line by line' and 'from point to point, with power and grace' that language (and language only) can enable individuals to develop and experience faith in the first place. Just as it is only Hallam's (measured) speaking voice that creates 'music in the bounds of law' in lyric 87, so it is only Hallam's 'matter-moulded words' that enable Tennyson - at last - to catch the sound of 'Aeonian music measuring out / The steps of Time' in lyric 95.

In Memoriam does appear to be suggesting that Time's steps really are measured out by 'Aeonian music', and that this in turn is keeping human life within 'the bounds of law', just as its own iambics are measured out by the poem's fitting form. However, this lyric is representative of In Memoriam as a whole in that it dramatizes the general difficulty, as well as the transitory possibility, of acquiring faith through confidence in form. 'Tennyson's whole meaning', we may want to conclude with J.C.C. Mays, 'is that faith is not a constant'. Whereas this analysis of In Memoriam has thus brought us very close to the end of our exploration of music's relation to meaning in Tennyson's poetry, it will now be useful to consider briefly how the ideas that have been uncovered are in fact developed and adapted within two poems Tennyson wrote in the final stage of his career: 'The Idylls of the King' and 'Parnassus'.

[Go on to Music and Meaning (12): Building to Music in Idylls of the King (1872) ]

Relating to heaven, and in mythology a name for the highest part of heaven.

Music and Meaning (10): Tennyson’s ‘Speaking Voice’ in In Memoriam (1850)

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

Over the previous two sections we've begun to think about how what Tennyson says about music, speech and language in In Memoriam might reveal some important facts about his thoughts and feelings concerning questions of immortality and the nature of human progress. Indeed, in an important chapter, 'Tennyson's Voice', of a book called The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry, the Cambridge academic Eric Griffiths claims that 'the metaphysical debates of Tennyson's time did... stir the surface of his verse...; his musicality is attuned to the time's questioning, remote as that music is from the public manners of intellectual exposition'. What do you think Eric Griffiths means here? In saying that Tennyson's poetry is quite literally 'attuned' 'to the time's questioning', he appears to be suggesting that there is a link between the 'music' of Tennyson's poetry and the general search for 'meaning' which characterises the nineteenth century.

'Most particularly', Griffiths continues, 'the music [of Tennyson's poetry] asks, "what is it to be embodied?"'. 'Tennyson's voice sounds as if the body thought'. In this section we'll be taking a look at two more In Memoriam lyrics, numbers 86 and 7, and asking what it might mean to consider the body as thinking and how it might be possible for music or poetry to present the human body in this way. It is pertinent that Eric Griffiths says that In Memoriam celebrates 'such skills of embodied persons as the having of good lungs'. You could try reading this next lyric aloud and thinking about how both its form and its content might be functioning:

Sweet after showers, ambrosial air,
That rollest from the gorgeous gloom
Of evening over brake and bloom
And meadow, slowly breathing bare
The round of space, and rapt below
Thro' all the dewy-tassell'd wood,
And shadowing down the horned flood
In ripples, fan my brows and blow
The fever from my cheek, and sigh
The full new life that feeds thy breath
Throughout my frame, till Doubt and Death,
Ill brethren, let the fancy fly
From belt to belt of crimson seas
On leagues of odour streaming far,
To where in yonder orient star
A hundred spirits whisper "Peace."'

According to Eric Griffiths, this section 'is hard to read aloud'. Did you find it difficult to read aloud, and if so, why do you think this was? Griffith says that it is difficult 'because it has to be taken in one breath and requires good lungs.' 'Consider the effect of attempting to speak this poem in a single breath', he continues; if you haven't already, perhaps you could try this now. 'Even the best lungs will be weary at the close of the section', Griffiths says; even the best lungs 'will have the air left only to whisper the word which is the destination of this eloquent trajectory, "Peace"'. Griffiths continues: 'breathing the reader's last, the word can sound like the peace that death is, the peace of "Rest in peace"'. As he sees it, Part 86 of In Memoriam expresses, 'in the metaphysical depths of melody nineteenth-century philosophers often heard in music, the longing to be out of Nature, to be dead, and expresses simultaneously a billowing delight in the performing breath as a sign of life'.

So as to extend our analysis of the possible meaning of music in In Memoriam, let's now briefly consider the seventh lyric in the poem, in which the speaker discusses the absence of his beloved friend. As you read the lyric, think about how it might be responding to the question that Griffiths raises, namely 'what is it to be embodied?':

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,
A hand that can be clasp'd no more -
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.
He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro' the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

Throughout the first two stanzas and in the opening line of stanza three, Tennyson's emphasis is on Arthur's absence and his own inability to act without the presence of this loved one: the poet's heart 'used to beat / So quickly' whenever he visited this house, but now that Arthur has gone it does not. In the second line of the third stanza, however, 'the noise of life begins again'. 'What revives', according to Griffiths, 'is not the friend... but the beat of regular iambics and the "noise of life", the daily round, they represent.' The music of the poem (its metre) revives, but the 'beat' of the lonely figure's heart does not; indeed, according to Griffiths 'the metrical impetus disappoints his hopes even as it reasserts compositional skill'.

[Go on to Music and Meaning (11): Aeonian Music in In Memoriam (1850)]

Iambic rhythm is based on the metrical unit known as the iambus, which has an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.