Articles for ‘Tennyson’

Music and Meaning (9): ‘Measured Language’ and In Memoriam (1850)

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

Take a look at this extract from Part 5 of In Memoriam, and ask yourself what Tennyson is suggesting about 'words':

I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel;
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.
But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.
In words, like weeds, I'll wrap me o'er,
Like coarsest clothes against the cold:
But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more.

If Tennyson here suggests that he sometimes finds it sinful to express his grief 'in words', if words always 'half conceal the Soul within', and if words can only ever convey what a person intends to communicate 'in outline and no more', then perhaps 'measured language' ought to be written off as a severely limited 'form' of expression? If you think this might be what Tennyson is suggesting in Part 5 of In Memoriam, what do you think about these four stanzas from Part 95 of the poem, in which Tennyson describes his experience of re-reading a piece of writing that Arthur Hallam composed before his death?:

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 empyreal 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.

The poet does again assert that his own 'words' are 'vague' or inadequate, in the last of these four stanzas. However, Tennyson claims that it was 'word by word, and line by line' that his dead friend's living soul was 'flash'd' upon his own. What do you think Tennyson is trying to communicate about this mysterious 'medium', language, which half reveals and half conceals the soul; that is both inescapably 'vague' and yet is the only force which can enable real communion between the living and the dead? Furthermore, what is the significance of Tennyson's claim that his 'forms of speech' are 'matter-moulded'?

Most importantly for us perhaps, how - in this ninety-fifth part of the poem - does Tennyson relate the idea of ' music' to that experience which is mediated through language, and how, in turn, might this music and this experience be related to the idea that  'mind and soul' might be brought into better accord, to make 'one' vaster 'music'?

Click to go on, below, and we'll start both to explore some possible answers to these questions and to think about what relates them to our broader ideas on Music and Meaning in Tennyson.

[Go on to Music and Meaning (10): Tennyson's 'Speaking Voice' in In Memoriam (1850)]

Although this sounds a bit like it might relate to a variety of Greek art (like 'Ionian' would), this derives from the word 'aeon', and means something that is everlasting, or at least lasts for aeons.

Music and Meaning (8): One Music of ‘Mind and Soul’ in In Memoriam (1850)

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

Let knowledge grow from more to more,
But more of reverence in us dwell;
That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music as before,
But vaster.

How do you think these lines, from the seventh and eight stanzas of the Prologue to In Memoriam relate to everything we've so far considered concerning Music and Meaning in Tennyson? How does Tennyson suggest this 'one music' might be made, and what do you think he means?

In Memoriam - the most famous of Tennyson's poems - is a tribute to Tennyson's Cambridge friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who suddenly died of cerebral haemorrhage in Vienna, 1833. As is clear from the above quotation, this 131-part poem also tackles some much broader questions concerning nineteenth century religion and science (for more information on these issues see the 'Tennyson in Context' section of the website).

Keeping in mind what Tennyson says about letting 'knowledge grow from more to more' in the poem's 'Prologue', let's now take a look at the opening stanzas of the first part of poem itself:

I held it truth, with him who sings
To one clear harp in divers tones,
That men may rise on stepping-stones
Of their dead selves to higher things.
But who shall so forecast the years
And find in loss a gain to match?
Or reach a hand thro' time to catch
The far-off interest of tears.

If Tennyson is saying - in this first part of the poem - that he no longer believes 'men may rise on stepping stones... to higher things', do you think this complicates his hope that knowledge may 'grow from more to more' and make a 'vaster' music than before? Over the next few web-pages, we'll consider what In Memoriam might be suggesting both about the relation between faith and form (forms of religious faith on the one hand, and literary form on the other) and about the nature of language.

[Go on to Music and Meaning (9): 'Measured Language' and In Memoriam (1850)]

Music and Meaning (7): ‘Set the wild echoes flying’ in 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 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 this '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. You could leave the 'Music and Meaning' resource and travel to another part of this site which uses analysis of another lyric from The Princess ('Tears, idle tears') to pose and respond to various questions regarding how we can go about discovering the 'meaning' of Tennyson's poetry.

Meanwhile it will be useful to take a quick look at one of the final Princess lyrics, 'The splendour falls on castle walls'. With its internal rhyme, between 'falls' and 'walls', even this poem's title is musical; it is appropriate then that its opening stanza closes like this:

Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

Look at the final line of this first stanza and you'll notice that only the first word, 'Blow', is monosyllabic (has just one syllable): 'bugle', 'answer', 'echoes' and the three 'dying's each have two syllables. They are not connected to form an actual sentence. It might again be the case that how this line of poetry sounds is just as important as (or more important than) any abstract meaning we might want to extract from it. Possibly, as well as registering how they express particular meanings alone, Tennyson wants us to feel that - when vocalised together - these words meaningfully embody the idea that 'wild echoes' have been 'set... flying' in the previous line of the poetry.

'Our echoes roll from soul to soul, And grow for ever and for ever.' So Tennyson states in the two lines immediately before the closing couplet of the poem. The poem's various echoes, that 'roll from soul to soul', recall Arthur Hallam's claim that 'music' provides a medium through which emotions 'pass from heart to heart'. In order to consider these thoughts further, let's take a closer look at what Tennyson both says and demonstrates about music in In Memoriam, a poem that responds to the death of Arthur Hallam himself.

[Go on to Music and Meaning (8): One Music of 'Mind and Soul' in In Memoriam (1850)]

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 and Meaning (6): ‘The Lotus-Eaters’ as ‘A Tale of Little Meaning’

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

You can see a painting of the mythical land of the Lotus-eaters here:

The artist, Robert Duncanson (1821-1872), was American - the son of a Canadian father and an African-American mother. During the Civil War he went to Canada, and then to England, where he exhibited this painting to much acclaim.

Tennyson's poem 'The Lotus-Eaters' is split into two parts: five initial stanzas which tell the story of some mariners that battle against the sea, then arrive on an island which turns out to be inhabited by many 'mild-eyed melancholy Lotus-eaters'; then the mariners themselves sing eight further stanzas of ' song', having contemplated returning to their Fatherland and decided to 'no longer roam'

As the enchanted mariners begin to taste the fruits of the Lotus-island, the omniscient narrator of the opening stanzas remarks that 'the gushing of the wave' begins to seem like it is 'mourn[ing]' and raving 'on alien shores' and the voices of their fellow mariners begin to sound 'thin, like voices from the grave'; finally, 'music in his ears his beating heart did make'. Remembering the importance for Tennyson of sociability, of avoiding stasis, and of the human voice, think about what he might be suggesting about both mankind and music in this opening stanza of the sailors' song:

There is sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass,
Or night-dews on still waters between walls
Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass;
Music that gentlier on the spirit lies,
Than tir'd eyelids upon tir'd eyes;
Music that brings sweet sleep down from blissful skies.
Here are cool mosses deep,
And thro' the moss the ivies creep,
And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep,
And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep.

These eleven lines present a sustained attempt to express the nature of 'sweet music': its fall is 'softer' than a petal's; it lies 'gentlier on the spirit' than tired eyelids on tired eyes; 'sweet sleep [is brought] down from blissful skies' when one listens to 'sweet music'. The last four lines have both similarities and differences with one another.

They are similar because they all rhyme: the final words in each line are 'deep', 'creep', 'weep' and 'sleep'. Given that music has already been said to be sleep-inducing in the earlier lines, perhaps we already start to think about the word 'sleep' as soon as we encounter the word 'deep'; if so, perhaps expectation that we will encounter this word increases as we first go on to encounter further words that rhyme with it, 'creep' and 'weep', at the ends of the next two lines. Maybe then when we do at last arrive at the word we have been thinking about and expecting to arrive at, this too - like falling music - lies gentler on the spirit 'than tir'd eyelids upon tir'd eyes'? We are expecting the word sleep to come and so it soothes us when it does arrive. However, each line is longer than the previous one: the first line has five stresses, the second seven stresses, the third nine, and the fourth has eleven. Here each line is two stresses longer than the last, whereas each of the lines that precede them have, uniformly, nine stresses. What do you think is happening here? What do you think Tennyson is attempting to achieve through the form of this poem?

Perhaps after describing the condition of music in the opening lines of this poem, Tennyson attempts to dramatise this condition in the final four? As soon as we read the word 'here', it is as if we are there (in the land of the Lotus-eaters) ourselves, and we are immediately disoriented by the fact that this line is so much shorter than we are expecting (five stresses in stead of nine). In much the same way as we saw might be the case regarding our anticipation of the word 'sleep', here we might start anticipating a return to the nine-stress line, especially after the encounter of a seven-stress after the short, five-stress line points us in this direction. What actually happens, of course, is that we are given the nine-stress line we've been expecting but then also a further eleven-stress line, which ends in the soothing word 'sleep', on top of this.

Remembering how the music described in the earlier lines lay gentler 'on the spirit... than tir'd eyelids upon tir'd eyes', maybe Tennyson intends to create the impression that the four last lines are soothingly giving us even more than what we'd expected or anticipated. Both the music and the poetry show off their ; moreover, by the time we arrive at the end of the eleven-stress line we are glad to have come to the end and be awarded a break, just as the singers in the poem are encouraging the sailors to feel. The effect of Tennyson's lines on the reader parallels the effect of the song on the sailors. But what do you think Tennyson's meaning is here, regarding both music and poetry? Is it good, do you think, that music and poetry can soothe and subdue us in this manner? Should the sailors be listening to sweet, soothing music or should they be getting back to their work and trying to return to their families by setting out to sea? Should we be doing something more active than reading poetry?

'Surely, surely', the singers eventually conclude, 'slumber is more sweet than toil'. 'Surely, surely, slumber...' Here the word repetition and alliteration (repetition of the soothing 's' sound) create the impression that we, like the sailors, are being forcefully, persuasively hypnotised: the singers 'surely' want us to believe them, that 'slumber is more sweet than toil'. Eventually the mariners are persuaded, and they do decide to remain in the 'hollow Lotus-land', living there 'like Gods together, careless of mankind'. What do you think about the fact that Tennyson refers to this place as the 'hollow' Lotus-land? Is it 'careless' to swap 'toil' for 'slumber'?

Near the end of the final stanza, Tennyson's narrator describes the original Lotus-eaters one last time. Despite 'blight', 'famine', 'plague', 'earthquake' and all kinds of disaster, they are smiling:

But they smile, they find a music centred in a doleful song
Steaming up, a lamentation and an ancient wrong,
Like a tale of little meaning tho' the words are strong;
Chanted from an ill-used race of men that cleave the soil.

Such 'music' as the lotus-eaters find and sing is 'like a tale of little meaning': its power is 'strong', like the words and effect of a meaningless tale might be, but the power of such music would appear to be, at best, amoral or ethically neutral. At worst, as we have seen this poem appears to imply, the aesthetic power of words and music may in fact distract us from what is humanly meaningful (the real task of the mariners, to get back to work, sea and family).

[Go on to Music and Meaning (7): 'Set the wild echoes flying' in The Princess (1847)]

I.e., 'like [the song of] a chorus'.
The noun from 'superfluous', which means unnecessary and excessive

Music and Meaning (5): Memnon’s Breathlessness in ‘The Palace of Art’ and ‘A Fragment’

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

In lines 159-160 of 'The Palace of Art', the narrator declares how his soul 'sat betwixt the shining Oriels, To sing her songs alone.' Melodies arise 'from her lips', the poet then recounts,

... as morn from Memnon, drew
Rivers of melodies.

According to Greek mythology, Memnon was the son of , and still today there is a statue (possibly erroneously) named after him in Thebes. Take a look at Bernard Picart's illustration [] as you re-read the short extracts from 'The Palace of Art' that are presented above. Why do you think Picart has focussed so much attention on the sun, which he depicts as rising from the left-hand side of the artwork, and what does Tennyson mean when he says that songs rise from the soul's lips 'as morn from Memnon, drew / Rivers of melodies'?

Both of these things can be explained by the fact that (as legend has it) the statue of 'Memnon' in Thebes makes music whenever it is struck by the rising sun. Keeping this legend in mind, what do you think Tennyson is trying to say about the connection between human minds and aerial music in these closing lines of an earlier poem about Memnon - 'A Fragment [Where is the Giant of the Sun]' - which he published in 1830?

Thy Memnon when his peaceful lips are kist
With earliest rays, that from his mother's eyes
Flow over the Arabian bay, no more
Breathes low into the charmed ears of morn
Clear melody flattering the crisped Nile
By columned Thebes. Old Memphis hath gone down:
The Pharaohs are no more: somewhere in death
They sleep with staring eyes and gilded lips,
Wrapped round with spiced cerements in old grots
Rockhewn and sealed for ever.

With its declaration that Memnon no longer 'breathes low into the charmed ears of morn' and its closing image of pharaohs being 'wrapped round', 'rockhewn' and 'sealed [away] for ever', this 'Fragment' would suggest that mankind is becoming less able to hear aerial melodies, not more (as was confidently hoped in 'To Poesy'). In 'The Palace of Art' as well, of course, the soul loses her ability to sing like Memnon. What do you think Tennyson is suggesting about the power of poetry in both of these cases?

[Go on to Music and Meaning (6): 'The Lotus-Eaters' as 'A Tale of Little Meaning']

EOS, goddess of the dawn, loved TITHONUS, a mortal. One myth relates that Eos asked Zeus to make her lover immortal, but she forgot to request eternal youth as well. Tithonus lived, but his body continued to age. Tennyson's poem 'Tithonus' tells the story

Music and Meaning (4): Living in ‘The Palace of Art’

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

When Tennyson published Poems, Chiefly Lyrical and Arthur Hallam reviewed it both were students at Trinity College Cambridge and, as Christopher Ricks remarks in the Longman Poems of Tennyson, 'the large claims for poetry [which 'To Poesy' expresses] reflect the high-minded opinions current in Cambridge'. One day R.C. Trench (another of Tennyson's student friends at Trinity) turned to the young poet and said 'Tennyson, we cannot live in Art'. Years later (in 1832) Trench received a poetic letter from Tennyson, attached to which was a longer work entitled 'The Palace of Art'. This is what Tennyson said to Trench in the letter:

I send you here a sort of allegory,
(For you will understand it) of a soul,
...That did love Beauty only, (Beauty seen
In all varieties of mould and mind)
And Knowledge for its beauty; or if Good,
Good only for its beauty, seeing not
That Beauty, Good, and Knowledge, are three sisters
That doat upon each other, friends to man,
... And never can be sundered without tears.'

Tennyson claims that 'The Palace of Art' is allegorical: although the poem tells a literal story about a beautiful palace, it is also intended to express a more meaningful indirect message, about the interdependence of beauty, goodness and knowledge. Tennyson also claims that Trench 'will understand' the allegory. Remembering both that Trench was a fellow Cambridge student and that he made that comment about not living in 'Art', how might what we know about Tennyson and Trench help us to interpret this allegory?

Tennyson's letter to Trench is explicitly critical of 'a sinful soul... That did love Beauty only'. As you read and think about these extracts from 'The Palace of Art', consider how Tennyson's poetry itself appears to be responding to Arthur Hallam's idea that the 'predominant motive' in the best modern poetry (sensuous, not reflective, poetry) is 'the desire of beauty'. Do you agree with Hallam and, more importantly perhaps, does Tennyson?

'I built my soul a lordly pleasure-house, / Wherein at ease for aye to dwell'; so states Tennyson's narrator in the first two lines of 'The Palace of Art'. To begin with this 'pleasure-house' appears spectacular: 'I built it firm', says the poet (line 9), and its 'light aerial gallery' (just one of many attractions) perpetually burns 'like a fringe of fire' (47-48). Let's focus in on one important stanza (the fifteenth stanza in the revised version of the poem which Tennyson published in 1842):

Full of great rooms and small the palace stood,
All various, each a perfect whole
From living Nature, fit for every mood
And change of my still soul.

Does this initial description of the 'palace' seem appealing, and if so why? Remembering that this is a palace 'of Art' and thinking again about the poem 'To Poesy', do you think that this later poem suggests that art is able to convert Mind's 'aerial' beauty into firmly-grounded human form? The poetic voice does initially claim to have converted many different parts of 'living Nature' into various 'perfect whole[s]', with each of these separate 'whole[s]' being one individual room within the palace; on top of this, the speaker claims that together these 'rooms' are 'fit for every mood / And change of [his]...still soul'. As we read on we'll discover that these self-sufficient 'rooms' do not independently suffice to satisfy the soul, however, and perhaps there is already a hint of this idea in stanza fifteen's unusual double-emphasis on 'living Nature' and 'change' on the one hand, and stillness and stasis on the other.

Compare stanza 15 (quoted above) with this much later stanza, the thirteenth from last in the poem:

A spot of dull stagnation, without light
Or power of movement, seemed my soul,
'Mid onward-sloping motions infinite
Making for one sure goal.

By the end of the poem the narrative voice appears to have entirely changed its perspective: whereas before it seemed that the narrator had managed to perfectly contain all of 'living Nature' within the 'rooms' of his 'palace', now both the palace and the soul appear to be entirely divorced from living Nature: in fact, Nature itself now appears to be making for 'one sure goal', and it is by contrasting such 'power of movement' with its own stagnant state that the soul now recognises the limitations of its (previously beautiful) stillness. Of course, stillness has been subtly associated with stagnancy all throughout this poem: to give just one more example, we feel slightly disconcerted when during the narrator's grand tour of the palace he directs us into one room where 'world-worn grasped his song, / And somewhat grimly smiled'.

Remembering how the 'Aestheticism' movement held art's function to be to provide refined sensuous pleasure in direct opposition to performing ethical functions, and how Angela Leighton links Tennyson to Aestheticism via Arthur Hallam, what are the implications of the fact that Tennyson explicitly states that 'The Palace of Art' is an 'allegory' about a 'sinful soul... that did love beauty only'? If Tennyson's poem is stressing the importance of something other or greater than beauty, might this mean that he never fully agreed with Hallam? How appropriate do you think it is to refer to Tennyson as 'a poet of sensation'?

Concluding our analysis of 'The Palace of Art' in the following session, we should be able to tackle these questions more directly and effectively by focussing on what 'The Palace of Art' has to say about music in particular. Interestingly, it is precisely when his poet's soul is 'singing', that the narrator says she is 'joying to feel herself alive':

Lord over Nature, Lord of the visible earth,

Lord of the senses five.'

On February 13th 1831, Arthur Henry Hallam wrote a letter to W. B. Donne, stating that 'Alfred [Tennyson] is wont to say' an artist 'ought to be lord of the five senses'; 'but', Hallam then elaborates, 'if he lacks the inward sense which reveals to him what is inward in the heart, he has left out the part of Hamlet in the play'. What might Hallam mean by this?

In actual fact, both Hallam as the theorist and Tennyson as the poet 'of Sensation' (Hallam in his letter to Donne and Tennyson in 'The Palace of Art') appear to be suggesting that the artist's use of an internal sense (perhaps so as to hear the Mind's 'aerial melody') is more important than the use of his external ones. Tennyson moreover seems to be suggesting that a person cannot possibly cultivate this 'internal sense' in total isolation; 'this poem', Tennyson also said of 'The Palace of Art', 'is the embodiment of my belief that the Godlike life is with man and for man'. Ultimately, the soul in the poem is dissatisfied because it builds a home unto itself. 'No voice breaks through the stillness of this world', the soul shrieks, ten stanzas from the end of the poem; then, six stanzas from the end, 'Far off she seemed to hear the dully sound / Of human footsteps fall'. Tennyson's paradoxical implication seems to be that an artist cannot cultivate their inner sense apart from by communicating with humans: one cannot hear aerial melodies unless one listens to the human voice. To discover what Tennyson's allegory might thus be suggesting, click the link below and we'll conclude out analysis of 'The Palace of Art'.

[Go on to Music and Meaning (5): Memnon's Breathlessness in 'The Palace of Art' and 'A Fragment']

Dante Alighieri (c.1265-1321), perhaps Italy's greatest poet, is most famous for his Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy), portraying a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.

Music and Meaning (3): Mind and Melody in ‘To Poesy’ and Poems, Chiefly Lyrical

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

The following extract comes from one of two poems entitled 'To Poesy' that Tennyson wrote at the age of nineteen, in 1828. 'O God, make this age great', the poem begins, and Tennyson exclaims in its subtitle. The narrator then proceeds to petition God to 'raise up Mind,

Whose trumpet-tongued, aerial melody
May blow alarum loud to every wind,
And startle the dull ears of human kind!

How does this early poem relate to what has already been said about a possible interrelation of music and thought? Bearing in mind how Tennyson suggests that 'Mind' itself creates an 'aerial melody' (if only 'dull', 'human' ears would hear it), would you agree that this poem supports the various claims we have considered concerning the central importance of music to Tennyson's verse?

Addressing 'Poesy' (or poetry), Tennyson concludes this early poem by asserting 'thou art all unconscious of thy Might'. However, 'I, even I', the poet has just asserted, 'Am large in hope that these expectant eyes/ Shall drink the fullness of thy victory'. At the age of nineteen then, Tennyson appeared to be extremely confident that such 'aerial melody' as already existed in the godlike 'Mind' would, through the medium of verse (presumably including his own), soon become mortally audible.

Let's now compare the confidence of 'To Poesy [O God, make this age great]' with the beautiful fragility of a poem called 'The Dying Swan', which Tennyson would publish in his Poems, Chiefly Lyrical anthology two years later. The first two stanzas of 'The Dying Swan' introduce a grassy plain and describe how 'a dying swan' begins to 'loudly... lament' as it runs down the river beside it. Then, at the beginning of the third stanza:

The wild swan's death-hymn took the soul
Of that waste place with joy
Hidden in sorrow: at first to the ear
The warble was low, and full and clear;
... But anon her awful jubilant voice,
With a strange music and manifold,
Flowed forth on a carol free and bold;
As when a mighty people rejoice
With shawms, and with cymbals, and harps of gold,
And the tumult of their acclaim is rolled
Through the open gates of the city afar,
To the sheperd who watcheth the evening star.
... And the wave-worn horns of the echoing bank,
And the silvery marish-flowers that throng
The desolate creeks and pools among,
Were flooded over with the eddying song.

So the swan dies and 'The Dying Swan' closes.

To some extent 'The Dying Swan' might be seen as a confident poem: just as 'To Poesy [O God, make this age great]' declares that God will 'raise up Mind', so the dying swan's 'death-hymn' here '[takes] the soul... with joy'. This swan is literally dying, however, and although there is 'joy' to be experienced in hearing its 'awful jubilant voice', this joy is explicitly 'hidden in sorrow.' Contrasting it with the strongly-sounded 'aerial melody' of 'To Poesy', what do you think about the 'strange music' and 'eddying song' of this later poem?

It was in his review of Poems, Chiefly Lyrical that Arthur Hallam called Tennyson a 'poet of sensation'. According to Hallam, 'the whole being' of such poets is absorbed 'into the energy of sense'. Thinking about how vividly this poem does or does not make you feel about the dying swan (how - if it all - it makes you think the bird looks and sounds), ask yourself what you think about Hallam's remarks concerning the sensuous qualities of this early anthology of poetry. According to Hallam's essay, 'shades of fine emotion... leave signatures in language', such that when 'strong musical delight' and 'painful feeling' are made to coexist in poems like 'The Dying Swan', beautiful emotions 'find a [musical] medium' which enables them to 'pass from heart to heart'. If this is true then it appears that 'Poesy' really does provide a means of conveying an otherwise inaudible 'aerial melody' of 'Mind' to 'the dull ears of human kind!', but do you think that this is actually what is happening in Tennyson's poetry?

As the literary critic W. David Shaw explains in his 'Conclusion' to Tennyson's Style, 'Tennyson's poetry is "diatonic", not "chromatic"'. 'In music', Shaw explains, 'the diatonic scale omits half notes'; likewise then, 'instead of advancing in a continuous chain-like process of visual mergings, Tennyson's poetry usually severs its links. Seldom smoothly transitional, it abounds in broken parallels and antitheses, like the discontinuous planes of painting'. It is not easy to follow the way in which Shaw moves across the techniques of music, poetry, and painting, but again we can see ideas about music, and a stylistic connection between Tennyson and painters like Rossetti, are being used to suggest something important about the emotional effect of Tennyson's poetry.

In The Victorians, another of Tennyson's critics, Philip Davis, also appears to use ideas about music to express something similar about Tennyson's poetry. Quoting , Davis declares that there are 'two utterly different musics known to men: one "loud and bold and coarse" like public noise in the social dance, the other "soft and low", near-silent, hard to hear, and yet easy to forget'. What is most striking about Tennyson, according to Davis, is that '[he] can find the poetry of the soft and ghostly even within the loud Parnassian cries of lament'. In Greek mythology, Mount Parnassus was the home of the muses and also - therefore - the home of poetry, music, and learning; analysing Tennyson's late poem 'Parnassus' (1889), we will later explicitly question what it might mean to characterise Tennyson's poetry as 'Parnassian'. For now though, the main thing that Davis appears to be stressing is that Tennyson's poetry can be simultaneously loud and soft, full-bodied and ethereal, coarsely communal and intimately personal. Think again about how Tennyson's 'melody' of the 'Mind' is both 'trumpet-tongued' and 'aerial' in 'To Poesy', and about how Tennyson emphasises the co-mixture of joyfulness and sorrow within the 'awful jubilant voice' of 'The Dying Swan'. This gets us close to what Davis is suggesting when he says that Tennyson's poetry is both 'loud and bold' and 'soft and ghostly'.

Through discussing these two early poems, we've highlighted some central questions about music and poetry: is it too ambitious to imagine that the language of men (even when wielded by poets) can convey or contain the aerial melodies of the Mind? What, moreover, are the relations between Mind and emotion and between painful feeling and aesthetic delight? Ultimately, if the 'music' of Tennyson's poetry is both coarse, loud and Parnassian and soft, introspective and ghostly, is his music 'diatonic' (such that it constantly shifts between styles) or is it rather somehow always all of these things at the same time? All of these questions become increasingly important as we continue to chart the course of Tennyson's poetic career.

[Go on to Music and Meaning (4): Living in 'The Palace of Art']

The name derives from the group's belief that art should be freed from the classical elegance and formal technique they felt was prevailing in art theory and education at the time. They traced this back to the Italian painter Raphael - Raffaello Sanzio, 1483-1520 - and themselves aimed to emulate the freer, vivid, complex vision of earlier Italian painters.
Clough (1819-1861) was a poet with a taste for unconventional religion and revolutionary politics. His most famous work is a long Scottish-based pastoral entitled The Bothie.

Music and Meaning (2): Tennyson’s Voice and ‘Declamation’

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

[Tennyson reading 'The Charge of the Light Brigade', from the Poetry Archive; start the recording and then tab back to this page to read on.]

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'. Now click on this link and listen to Loreena McKennit's version of 'The Lady of Shalott' []. Thinking about how this 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 the link and we'll begin exploring what Tennyson actually says about music in his poetry.

[Go on to Music and Meaning (3): Mind and Melody in 'To Poesy' and Poems, Chiefly Lyrical]

Music and Meaning (1): Tennyson’s 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 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 on to Music and Meaning (2): Tennyson's Voice and 'Declamation']

Tennyson: Music and Meaning

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

Tennyson thought deeply about how his poetry could tackle profound topics and how it could communicate its discoveries to others. The possibilities of its sounds, or its various kinds of music (actual and metaphorical), were part of that consideration. Making use of the multi-media resources available on the internet, and introducing the key contexts for appreciating the music of his verse, this extended resource opens up the sound of Tennyson's poetry. Graduate editor Simon Calder gives the reader a great deal to think about by undertaking close analysis of Tennyson's poems, exploring critical opinions, illuminating Tennyson's intellectual and social background, and most of all by posing questions throughout.

The 'Music and Meaning' resource is divided into thirteen pages, which you can access in any order from the menu below (or, from within the resource, by using the menu to the left). Obviously the experience will be most coherent if you work through the pages consecutively, starting at the beginning.

1. General Introduction: 

2. Tennyson's Voice and 'Declamation'

3. Mind and Melody in 'To Poesy' and Poems, Chiefly Lyrical

4. Living In 'The Palace of Art'

5. Memnon's Breathlessness in 'The Palace of Art' and 'A Fragment'

6. 'The Lotus-Eaters': 'A Tale of Little Meaning' and Mellower Tone

7. 'Set the Wild Echoes Flying' in The Princess (1847)

8. One Music of 'Mind and Soul' in In Memoriam (1850)

9. 'Measured Language' and In Memoriam (1850)

10. Tennyson's 'Speaking Voice' in In Memoriam (1850)

11. 'Aeonian Music' in In Memoriam (1850)

12. The City is built to Music, therefore never Built at all': Tennyson's Idylls of the King, 'Gareth and Lynette' (1872)

13. 'Other Songs for other worlds!' in 'Parnassus' (1889)

There are also two different abridgments of the 'Music and Meaning' material, which might work as tasters for the whole thing, or which you might choose because they reflect your particular interests.

1. Tennyson and Music: On the Web

These three pages are parts of the larger 'Music and Meaning' resource. They make use of Tennyson-related recordings available on the web, and they use these to explore questions about the sound of Tennyson's poems, and how that relates to their meanings and functions.

2. Music and Meaning: The In Memoriam Pages

These four pages are parts of the larger 'Music and Meaning' resource. They explore the ways in which sound and sense relate to one another in In Memoriam, Tennyson's poem about the death of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam. At times here the music of poetry seems capable of making profound connections; but this can also seem a fleeting hope.