Are we there yet?

Seamus Perry

When Auden announced in his preface to a new selection that Tennyson was ‘undoubtedly the stupidest’ of all the English poets he must have known that he was asking for trouble. Trouble duly came in the shape of Sir Desmond MacCarthy, who doggedly stood up in the Sunday Times for the quality of Tennyson’s mind, deplored Auden’s account of the great man as ‘very patronising’, then sought to out-patronise him in turn: ‘It reads as if Mr Auden had been feeling while he wrote it like a middle-aged schoolmaster preparing a report on little Alfred’s work and behaviour.’ That counted as rough stuff in 1946. The magazine English devoted its front-page editorial to an excited account of this ‘spirited controversy’, and Auden himself evidently felt he had been knocked about a bit. ‘Desmond MacCarthy took me to task severely,’ he told a young admirer back home in New York: ‘He’s the Grand Old Man of English criticism … now the publishers over there are advertising it as “that controversial volume”.’ Auden had endured controversy anyway since his move to the US shortly before the outbreak of the war: MacCarthy was springing to the defence of a great and loyal Englishman of the old style. ‘I became Public Cultural Enemy No 1 over the Tennyson preface,’ Auden wrote to a friend, ‘a little comic seeing that T is one of my favourite poets.’

Auden’s peppery remark is now more than half a century old but it remains one of the best-known things said about Tennyson and keeps a curious currency in the criticism. It was no doubt mildly disingenuous to pretend that ‘stupidest’ hadn’t been intended to frighten the horses, but the lasting provocation of his assertion must be down to more than its being especially rude or wrong-headed. On the face of it, of course, it cannot be true: T.S. Eliot said that he could think of several poets more stupid and Auden had to agree. No doubt Tennyson didn’t get to grips with Feuerbach or Hegel as did, say, George Eliot; and he could sound quite bluff about esoteric matters in his table talk. ‘If I were an old Greek,’ he told a professor, ‘I should try to combine the doctrine of Parmenides with that of Heraclitus.’ (Well, what a bright idea.) Matthew Arnold sniffily told his mother that Tennyson was ‘deficient in intellectual power’. But, for all that, Tennyson was perfectly assiduous in keeping up with major developments, including scientific discoveries (something of which Auden, who was also keen on science, might have been expected to approve), and he regularly kept company with some of the forbidding brains of the age. Jowett of Balliol sent the Tennysons a copy of his revered Hegel’s Philosophy of History. They read it to each other after dinner.

So what was Auden on about? For a start, he wasn’t bluffing about his fondness for Tennyson: his essay is full of admiration, and shows a deep acquaintance with his works. The critic Gerhard Joseph once suggested that Auden might have had in mind the old sense of ‘stupid’ as ‘stunned’ or ‘benumbed’ – as when Satan in Paradise Lost, momentarily struck as he gazes upon Eve, stands ‘Stupidly good, of enmity disarmed’. It was not innocence that stupefied Tennyson, though, according to Auden’s account, but bad experience, some early and formative desolation – ‘violence/A long way back’, in Larkin’s resonant phrase. ‘There was little about melancholia that he didn’t know,’ Auden announced in his essay; ‘there was little else that he did.’ Auden knew his Freud well, and by ‘melancholia’ he would have understood the ‘crushed state’ of dejection that Freud describes in ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, a state in which the ‘respect for reality’ that normally marks the end of bereavement is perpetually deferred. Christina Rossetti’s brother once wrote that she was ‘replete with the spirit of self-postponement’, and in that regard at least she resembled her more eminent male contemporary.

For Tennyson’s lyrics are repeatedly, charismatically preoccupied by the idea of lives on hold, each moment of them informed by an unfocused sense of utter dismay: ‘I am void,’ as one of his early speakers says, ‘Dark, formless, utterly destroyed’. Few of the great poems of the 1830s and 1840s – ‘Mariana’, ‘The Kraken’, ‘The Lady of Shalott’, ‘The Lotos-Eaters’, ‘Œnone’, ‘St Simeon Stylites’, ‘Break, break, break’ – show much ‘respect for reality’: these are all poems, as Adam Roberts says in the introduction to his generous paperback, about ‘withdrawal from the world’. They tend to turn obsessively in on themselves, repeatedly imagining scenarios of isolation and abandonment and evoking strange conditions of paralysed self-imprisonment. He must be the greatest English writer on what it is like to be stuck in a rut, Beckett – his only serious rival – being that rather different creature, an Irish writer. The precocious masterpiece ‘Mariana’, for instance, turns the formal convention of a poetic refrain into a mounting nightmare of incapacity:

She only said, ‘My life is dreary,

He cometh not,’ she said;

She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,

I would that I were dead!’

Those lines, or close variations on them, come back again and again like a thought that the poem can’t get over. Their studied repetitions (‘she said;/She said’) articulate Mariana’s stupefaction with a stuttering eloquence, dramatising a state of mind in which it is impossible for her to imagine that things could ever be otherwise.

Gerhard Joseph’s suggestion is a bright one because it takes Auden’s swipe about stupidity as a way of getting at something that he genuinely did cherish in Tennyson. But a genius for portraying mental trouble might not have been the only thing Auden saw and sympathised with. Desmond MacCarthy, who was a good critic, intuited exactly what was going on when he compared Auden’s attitude to Tennyson to the sort of feelings one might have about a child. ‘If Wordsworth is the great English poet of Nature,’ Auden remarked, ‘then Tennyson is the great English poet of the Nursery.’ In the light of that, you can see his showy talk of stupidity as a blokeish way of referring to a kind of immaturity in Tennyson, some incompleteness in the process of growing up, of acquiring the mental equipment of an adult.

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[*] Eliot’s observation was mentioned, too, by Frank Kermode in ‘Eliot and the Shudder’ in the LRB of 13 May 2010.

[†] ‘Somebody Reading’, LRB, 21 June 1984.