Breathing on the British public

Danny Karlin

  • Tennyson and the Doom of Romanticism by Herbert Tucker
    Harvard, 481 pp, £29.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 674 87430 7
  • Browning the Revisionary by John Woolford
    Macmillan, 233 pp, £27.50, November 1988, ISBN 0 333 38872 0
  • Poetic Remaking: The Art of Browning, Yeats and Pound by George Bornstein
    Pennsylvania State, 220 pp, £17.80, August 1989, ISBN 0 271 00620 X
  • The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry by Eric Griffiths
    Oxford, 369 pp, £35.00, January 1989, ISBN 0 19 812989 0

Nine years ago Herbert Tucker wrote an excellent first book, Browning’s Beginnings; like many first books it gave the impression of being a labour of love. Tucker’s second is a tremendous disappointment. It has all the inflated idea of itself that the title suggests. Browning’s Beginnings was short, keen and suggestive. It used Post-Structuralist approaches with verve and point. It was, in nothing but the good sense of the word, a modest book. Tennyson and the Doom of Romanticism is not short, neither is it modest. It is the Big Book which American academics must ‘produce’. The brilliant close readings which distinguished the earlier book can still be found, but their context has altered: they emerge against the grain of the argument, not as part of it. Exit Young Tucker, Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota; enter Tucker Senior, full Professor at the University of Virginia. And Tucker is robed in professorial garb from head to footnotes.

Part One of his book, which covers Tennyson’s career up to the Poems, is founded on a reading of Tennyson’s encounter with, and transformation of, the poetics of Romanticism. He terms it ‘specifically literary biography’, which he distinguishes from ‘the doggedly contextual historicism that has stood in the way of interpretation and disabled our estimate of a great writer’. Tucker views Tennyson locked in abstracted colloquy with the mighty dead, a prey to his reading rather than to his cultural or family history. Tucker’s neo-Bloomian narrative is narrow in scope and stifling in atmosphere, and is marred by disturbing instances of misreading and distortion. In his discussion of ‘Recollections of the Arabian Nights’ he makes great play with its ‘gently fanciful jokes’, among which he cites the lines,

So, leaping lightly from the boat,
With silver anchor left afloat,

commenting: The “silver anchor” has aroused objections, but the fact that Tennyson leaves this prop afloat suggests that he is having rather more fun with his mechanical ballet than some readers want to tolerate.’ It is not the ‘anchor’ which is afloat, but the ‘boat’, left afloat with (by means of) its anchor instead of being drawn up on the bank. More serious than this is Tucker’s selective use of Tennyson’s original and revised texts. Since the argument in the early chapters concerns the development of Tennyson’s poetics, it might seem crucial to quote as a matter of course from the first-edition texts. But Tucker does so only when it suits him; on other occasions, in discussions of the 1830 and 1832 poems he quotes from the revised versions of 1842, without telling the reader that he is doing so and without remarking its effect on what he is saying. The effect is damaging when, for example, he quotes the 1842 version of two stanzas of ‘the Lady of Shallot’ as showing ‘the new direction’ of Tennyson’s 1832 poems, or says that the fourth stanza of the poem ‘re-opens the ambiguities of the third’, which it may do in 1842, but not in 1832, where, besides the changes in the text, the order of the stanzas is reversed. Comparing ‘Mariana’ with ‘Mariana in the South’, Tucker states that when the southern Mariana ‘sees images pass her door in stanzas six and seven, they are far more substantial and sociable than their northern counterparts: they stop, look and let themselves be quoted.’ Not in 1832, they don’t: both these stanzas were added in 1842, and were probably, as Christopher Ricks suggests, ‘precipitated by the death of Hallam’.

The oddest features of Tucker’s method of ‘specifically literary biography’ is that it is confined to Part One of the book. He sees Tennyson’s career divided into a phase of post-Romantic self-making, followed by a phase of cultural engagement. In Part Two, as Tucker promises, historical context is allowed back, and the book becomes both more interesting and more persuasive: but it never fully recovers from this distinction. The idea that Tennyson’s early work is ‘neutral’ with respect to culture and history is simply preposterous. Even were Tennyson himself to have declared as much, it would prove nothing. The poems which Tucker chooses to discuss from Poems by Two Brothers (1827) are ‘I wander in darkness and sorrow’ and ‘Midnight’: but this collection also included ‘Exhortation to the Greeks’ and ‘Written during the Convulsions in Spain’. And this is only to take the notion of cultural engagement at its most literal and specific. It is characteristic of Tucker’s approach, in this connection, that among literary influences that of Byron is slighted in favour of ‘Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats’; Tennyson, Tucker solemnly informs us, read Byron at Somersby before he encountered these other more significant figures, and ‘subsequently repudiated’ him as ‘an adolescent infatuation’. But Tucker should know better than to take Tennyson’s word for that: it is just that Byron suits his project less well than the others. For that matter, the political side of the Romantic poets to whom Tucker does attend (Wordsworth and Shelley in particular) gets short shrift: the number of occurrences of the word ‘politics’ in the index is none. Carlyle is mentioned twice; Wellington, Gladstone, Disraeli are absent. The author of ‘Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington’, not to mention the ‘The Penny-Wise’ (refrain: ‘Arm, arm, arm!’), ‘Riflemen, Form!’ and ‘Britons, guard your own’, is the occulted, Jamesian double of the one in Tucker’s book. Of The Princess, Tucker remarks: ‘Tennyson manages warfare here as he does in the occasional “Charge of the Light Brigade” and the mythic Idylls of the King: by transforming the sacrifices of war into musical offerings.’ If that were really the case, we might come to the point of asking what the point was of reading Tennyson at all.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in