Wednesday 6 August 2008

Fatal Fluency

Andy Warhol would have been 80 today (and Robert Mitchum 91), but Alfred Lord Tennyson would be 199 - which means that next year will be his bicentenary.
I wonder how much fuss there will be. Tennyson certainly survives in the language, which remains peppered with inadvertent quotations ('Nature red in tooth and claw', 'Theirs not to reason why,' etc) and in the anthologies. Single poems such as Tithonus and Ulysses, Mariana and The Lotos-Eaters, and some of the shorter lyrics, have deservedly lasted and no doubt will last. With his extraordinary mastery of meter, he could certainly turn a beautiful line. Of the longer works, In Memoriam is surely classic and a truly great work, but its appeal is partly in its rawness - the Tennysonian high style is as yet unformed (the later Maud has a certain appealing rawness too). But who today would read Idylls Of The King from choice? Let alone the turgid dramas and experiments in dialect that bulk out his massive Collected Works... The broken music of Browning is more to our modern taste than the mighty organ note of Tennyson in full flow (and doesn't he just flow - talk about fatal fluency). Tennyson no longer seems, as he once did, our preeminent national poet, our English Virgil. I fear he might end up, like so many others of his time, largely the preserve of Academe. On the other hand, I still remember the thrill of first reading In Memoriam...


  1. OMG, Nige: My masters' thesis at Columbia was on "In Memoriam." I had two readers, John Rosenberg and Carl Woodring (both scholars of 19th-c Brit lit; Ruskin, Carlyle, Pater Rosenberg's specialty; Wordsworth, poetry, Woodring's). R. *hated* my thesis and W. *loved* it.

    What I did was use Kubler-Ross' stages of grief theory to analyze "In Memoriam." And it worked. He goes through all the stages -- denial, rage, disbelief, magical thinking and... finally... acceptance. And in some damn fine prose en route.

    Thank God Woodring gave me such a high score or I would not have made it into the Ph.D. program. Rosenberg said he was disgusted by my use of "pop psychology" to analyze classic literature.

    Ah, you bring me back....

  2. Damn fine verse I mean.

    Sorry. I am having insomnia probs and can't think striaght

  3. Ah yes - it's a thrilling poem I think, at its best - a word you can't apply to much else in Tennyson. Isn't there 'bargaining' somewhere in that grief system - or is that a later elaboration?

  4. Yes, that was there too, Nige. Bargaining. I'll do whatever you want, Lord, if you'll just bring him back....

    It's been 25 years, so I don't remember them all. I do now think Elis. K-Ross was a flake, too, but the essence of her theory was right. I think Rosenberg was disgusted by what I could not see at age 23 -- that K-R was a low-bro guru. He would have been much happier if I'd compared Tennyson to Homer, or Milton. I went forward in time instead of back, and that was a no-no.

    Woodring, on the other hand, thought it was an extremely clever idea. Good old Carl W. He edited the Columbia Encyclopedia of Poetry and he was the first person to turn me on to John Clare. I should check to see if he's still alive. He must be up in his 80s by now. J. Rosenberg IS alive, as I just saw him quoted on his memories of being a student of both Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun.

    Doubt if he remembers me, though. He couldn't believe a suntanned, Southern accented, surfer blonde from Florida could possibly be a scholar. I didn't fit his image (all my other female colleagues were dressed in black, hair cut severely short, no makeup, etc.), and that thesis just verified all his suspicions. At least he admitted I was a good writer. He would not be surprised to see I wound up a journalist in the end after all.

    I'm sorry to be wandering. I keep trying to sleep and can't. I need to get on Bryan's diet after all....

  5. Idylls Of The King and Collected Worms - erm, Works, were required by my headmistress to be read, inwardly digested and revered by all students at my school. I've managed to expunge my mind from almost all of it but my memories of how bored I was unfortunately still persists, approximately 45 years on!

    I found your blog through Richard Madeley's. I was expecting owls. Where are the owls? I promise I won't hurt them... Seriously!

  6. i liked the later books of the Idylls - where everything gets dark and gloomy and everyone gets killed or eaten by goats.

    But a lot of Tennyson is just Victorian sentimental pulp in verse.

  7. Mrs Captain is a great Tennysonian Nige. She thought of writing a book about him, and other poet laureates. Another one to discover in my dotage. You are right about TB by the way- the former PM not the disease. Every time I hear him I wince too.