Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Egoist by George Meredith

George Meredith meant for The Egoist to be published as a three-volume novel, but when he gave his manuscript to his publisher, Charles Kegan Paul, he arranged for serialization in the Glasgow Weekly Herald in 1879. Meredith, however, indicated that he felt his work to be experienced as a single unit from the first. Furthermore, The Egoist was meant as a departure from and reaction to the traditional Victorian realist novel in a number of other ways, including its subtitled designation as "a comedy in narrative," its reliance on dialogue (much as in drama) for advancing plot, and its marked eschewal of sentimentality despite themes of courtship and romance.

The Egoist was by no means Meredith's most popular work (his most popular work was Diana of the Crossways). In a review for Blackwood's, Margaret Oliphant wrote that the work was far too long, and that Mr. Meredith himself fell into the trap of egoism: "Mr. Meredith's fault, however, is perhaps less weakness than perversity and self-opinion. He likes, it is evident, to hear his own voice—as indeed, for that matter, most of us do." The half-century after his death, however, The Egoist climbed its way to critical acclaim. In particular, E.M. Forster cites it as an example of a highly organized plot in his Aspects of the Novel.

The "comedy in narrative" begins with the engagement of Sir Willoughby Patterne ("The Egoist") to one Constantia Durham. Constantia manages to escape such a fate, however, running away with one Captain Oxford. In order to keep up appearances, Sir Willoughby soon seems to be courting Laetitia Dale, who has been a long time devotee of his. The town quickly supports Sir Willoughby's egoistic need to be in control of his situation by singing the praises Laetitia.

The months pass by, and soon Sir Willoughby takes a trip to see the world. Upon his return, it is revealed soon that he is no longer interested in Laetitia; the town gossips speculate that Sir Willoughby will meet with Mr. Dale in order to propose marriage of his daughter, but instead, he speaks to him only of renewing his lease of a cottage on his grounds. Meanwhile, Sir Willoughby goes to London, and brings back his cousin, Vernon Whitford, to serve as his secretary at Patterne Hall. A literary scholar, Whitford had very little money of his own, and so was forced to accept money from his rich Baronet cousin. At Patterne, Whiteford devotes his time to walking at times with Laetitia, and also with educating Crossjay Patterne, a young boy who is a relative of Sir Willoughby's living at Dale cottage. Whitford discerned that Crossjay's talents suited him for the navy, but the fees for such training were beyond his own resources. Sir Willoughby would spare no such expense either, for he wished Crossjay would be made into a gentleman.

Soon, Sir Willoughby makes the fateful acquaintance of the beautiful, young Clara Middleton. Sir Willoughby successfully woos Clara, and she is dazed into accepting an engagement. She protests, however, that she would like some time to see the world before marrying, but Sir Willoughby refuses. Hardly ever listening to Clara, Sir Willoughby talks to her about how they are above "the world" together, and seeks to win her into his egoistic orbit and subordinate all of her desires so that they accord with his. Clara protests that she would like to love "the world" and serve it so that it might be better, but Sir Willoughby discards such notions as naive and childish. He tries to exact an oath from Clara that she will be committed to him even if he should die, but Clara manages to refuse granting such an oath. It is clear that things are not going to be going as Sir Willoughby might wish them to go.

Meanwhile, Sir Willoughby has managed to secure the confidence of Clara's scholarly father, the Reverend Dr. Middleton. Dr. Middleton is every inch the well-meaning but out-of-touch scholar who speaks in jargon-filled phrases. Unfortunately, he has very traditional patriarchal ideas and does not listen to his daughter's pleas for traveling before marriage. Dr. Middleton becomes quite settled in, relishing the company of Vernon Whitford, and also Sir Willoughby's collection of expensive wines.

Thus, Clara's only comfort comes to be Crossjay, who, in love and in awe of her, seeks only to do her bidding and to make her happy (even when she leaves him under a tree and it begins raining, he does not budge because she has told him to stay). Things with Clara and Sir Willoughby take a turn for the worse when he refuses her counsel on Crossjay as suited for the navy.

When Clara makes the acquaintance of Laetitia Dale, Clara realizes that the devoted Laetitia would be a better match for the egoistic Sir Willoughby. Eventually, Clara goes to Sir Willoughby to apprise him of this and to petition for her own freedom, but Sir Willoughby sloughs off Clara's words as merely an instance of her jealousy of Laetitia. Try as she might, Sir Willoughby refuses to countenance that she might actually want to be free of him. Much to Clara's dismay, Sir Willoughby contracts a plan to marry Laetitia to Vernon Whitford so that he might relieve Clara of her supposed jealousy. Clara is supposed to apprise Vernon of this plan, but instead of doing so, she tells him about her predicament and wish for freedom. Vernon is not particularly responsive or encouraging of her freedom, and Clara becomes more and more distressed. Clara also unburdens herself to Laetitia (not to much avail, though Laetitia seems to begin to have an inkling of Sir Willoughby's egoism, feeling the "power" of Clara's speech against him).

At this point, Sir Willoughby's dashing friend, the Colonel de Craye comes to town in order to serve as best man in his wedding. When he comes to town driven in by the slightly drunk Flitch, the carriage is accidentally upset as Flitch swerves to avoid Clara on one of her walks. The porcelain vase which the colonel has brought as a wedding present is broken in this accident (the infamous Mrs. Mountstuart who is gifted at capturing people's characters in single phrases had once called Clara "a rogue in porcelain"; thus this incident signals that things do not bode well for Sir Willoughby). Indeed, the colonel walks the rest of the way to Patterne with Clara, and the two seem to strike up a friendly relationship. Furthermore, the colonel quickly perceives that all is not well with Clara and Sir Willoughby. Sir Willoughby, hit by suspicions of the colonel, imagines that perhaps Clara has not only spoken to Laetitia and Whitford of her dissatisfactions with him, but also with the colonel.

Unable to take her captivity any longer, Clara contrives to run away, first writing to her bridesmaid and friend Lucy Darleton to secure a place to stay in London. She tells her father that she merely needs a vacation, and at first, Clara manages to convince him to assent to it and also to talk to Sir Willoughby on her behalf. Unfortunately, Sir Willoughby manages to waylay the susceptible Dr. Middleton with expensive wine, and Clara's plans to leave with her father's blessing and companionship are foiled. Clara decides to run away anyways, and sneaks out to the railway station with Crossjay as a guide. A rainstorm follows, and soon the men of the house go off to try to find her. Whitford is the first to find her, and he does not force her to come home, but instead gives her some medicine to prevent her catching cold and then counsels her to think also on the cost of leaving behind her father and Crossjay. Clara is nettled, but still thinks to go through with her plan. Vernon consents, and even helps her out by distracting Mrs. Mountstuart, who was also at the station, meeting one Professor Crooklyn who will attend a dinner party of hers. It happens that the colonel also goes to the station, having guessed that Clara might be there. At the last minute, Clara decides to ride back to Patterne Hall with the colonel.

Though De Craye helps to cover for Clara, Sir Willoughby manages to find out from Professor Crooklyn that Clara had drank brandy with a certain gentleman at an inn. Sir Willoughby jumps to the conclusion that Clara was in love with De Craye, and that the two were plotting to run away together. Clara continues to ask Sir Willoughby for her freedom, but he continues to refuse. At long last, he is worn down and starts to convince himself that perhaps he should prefer Laetitia over Clara. After some mulling over this new thought, Sir Willoughby consults Laetitia on the matter at midnight one night and she refuses him, much to his surprise. Crossjay, who has been banished from Patterne because of his aiding Clara in her escape happened to have snuck back in that night and listened to the conversation between Sir Willoughby and Laetitia.

Crossjay's loyalty to Clara leads to his scheming to tell Vernon of what has happened. De Craye, however, gets to Crossjay first and manages to guess what he has to tell. De Craye lets Clara know, and she now has ammunition against Sir Willoughby when he once again tries to convince her to marry him. In front of her father, Clara tries to get Sir Willoughby to admit that he has proposed to Laetitia. Pushed into a corner, Sir Willoughby eventually has to give up his game. Because he (mistakenly) believes De Craye to be the "other man," Sir Willoughby tells Clara that she may be free only if she were to marry Vernon. It turns out that Vernon is actually in love with Clara, and so the two of them are engaged. Laetitia is eventually compelled to give in to Sir Willoughby, her father needing money and the rest of the town exerting further pressure on her. Still, Laetitia gets the last word in that she identifies Sir Willoughby as an egoist, and also vows that she does not love him. Upon Sir Willoughby accepting such conditions, she agrees to marry him. Additionally, she compels him to forgive Crossjay as well as the driver, Flitch (whom he has also banished). Sir Willoughby assents to all, and "salutes [his] wife!" True to comic form, the narrative ends with tidily with these two pairs.

E.M. Forster holds up Meredith as an exemplar when he talks about plot: "A Meredithian plot...rather resembles a series of kiosks most artfully placed among wooded slopes, which his people reach by their own impetus, and from which they emerge with altered aspect. Incident springs out of character, and having occurred it alters that character." More specifically to The Egoist, Forster is impressed by the mystery and suspense created by the "concealed emotion" of Laetitia Dale: Forster claims that the novel does not reveal the extent to which her mind has changed until the great midnight revelation in which she refuses Sir Willoughby.

Forster's admiration of Meredith rightly focuses on the importance of character changes in relation to their experiences, though I don't quite agree with his estimation of Laetitia (In the chapter which describes Laetitia and Clara in conversation, Laetitia ends the conversation with the observation, "Miss Middleton, you have a dreadful power"--this, I think rather obviously signals that Laetitia is headed towards enlightenment as far as Sir Willoughby is concerned). With other characters as well, I think that the trajectory of change isn't particularly unexpected or surprising, rather, their trajectories seem rather mapped out from the start and certain results seem inevitable: Clara is bound to become more and more frustrated as she repeatedly petitions for release (thus the "rupture" in her decision to run away is highly predictable), Sir Willoughby is bound to be brought to his knees when the situation unravels out of his control. Oliphant's review signals this sense of inevitability and predictability, though Oliphant deems The Egoist as hence a failure, because it drags on and on.

I argue, however, that the predictable changes in character are in part what make The Egoist an effective "comedy in narrative" (as Meredith intended) rather than a novel or a comedy in the dramatic sense. George Woodcock points out that the witty, dialogic nature of the work and also the somewhat ridiculous tying of loose ends with the double marriage at the end render it more akin to dramatic comedy like The Importance of Being Earnest. At the same time, however, the "comedy in narrative" has markedly "narrative" elements including a high dose of irony, especially when the narrator slips into moments of free indirect discourse, or he gets into characters' heads by other means. A particularly memorable moment is when the narrator describes Sir Willoughby playing out the entire scene of his meeting with Clara years later when she will repent of being a spinster, and he will welcome her back generously. Throughout the work, the narrator includes the reader in his position of ironic distance with first-person plural statements; as Virginia Woolf remarked, "Meredith imagines us capable of disinterested curiosity in the behaviour of our kind." From this position of distance, Meredith accentuates the ridiculousness of Sir Willoughby's egoism and the blindness which it places on him.   

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Middlemarch was serialized in eight parts for Blackwood's magazine from December 1871-December 1872. Following the completion of this serialization, Middlemarch was published as a four-volume novel. This format of serialization was one suggested by George Henry Lewes, Eliot's live-in partner and also agent, who thought that the length of the work would necessitate eight two-monthly parts at five shilling each, a method which Hugo used for Les Miserables. Middlemarch, subtitled "A Study of Provincial Life" was indeed a gargantuan undertaking for Eliot, who spent nearly 5 years completing the novel and researching extensively into the 1830s (when the novel was set) on important topics of the day, especially in relation to reform politics from the history of newspapers and elections to medical concerns. The writing of Middlemarch "crept on," in Eliot's own words to her John Blackwood. In November of 1870, she even abandoned the project and begun another, which she entitled "Miss Brooke"--later the pages of "Miss Brooke" would become the first ten chapters of Middlemarch. Eventually, however, Eliot found a way to tie together the different strands telling the lives of those connected to Middlemarch. Not surprisingly, as Eliot was already a successful novelist and public figure, Middlemarch was met with critical acclaim. (SOURCE: Ashton Introduction, Penguin). 

The novel fulfills its purposes as "A Study of Provincial life" in closely following the intersecting lives of characters from different class hierarchies in Middlemarch, a rising manufacturing town whose fortunes are inevitably connected to the political and economic turmoil of the 1830s centered in London. The volume edition divides the work into eight books corresponding to the serial parts; my summary will follow this scheme.

"Miss Brooke":
The novel begins with a scene between the two Brooke sisters, Dorothea and Celia, who live with their uncle at Tipton Grange estate. The two sisters are immediately distinguished by their relative interest in their mother's jewels, Dorothea deeming such things beneath her concern and Celia greatly drawn to them. Dorothea has a suitor, one Sir James Chettam, but she snubs him, only enjoying his company when he engages her on some plans that she has for cottages on her uncle's land. Meanwhile, Dorothea is fascinated by the scholarly Edward Casaubon, a man decades her senior who is working on his magnum opus, a so-called "key" to all mythologies. Dorothea, idealistically imagining Casaubon to be working on something of a deeper and higher truth than she could presently understand, accepts an offer of marriage from him, despite people in the town like the outspoken Mrs. Cadwallader (wife of the Rector at Tipton Grange) and Celia's misgivings. After Dorothea's marriage, she is accompanied by Celia and her uncle Brooke to Lowick Manor, where for the first time they all meet the young Will Ladislaw (a second cousin of Casaubon's) as he is sketching in the garden. Not much of an impression is made upon Dorothea, and Will in his turn misinterprets Casaubon's new wife to be cold and caustic. Before the close of this section, Tertius Lydgate, the new young doctor educated in London and on the Continent arrives to town, and Rosamond and Fred Vincy, the daughter and son of a manufacturing family are introduced. Fred, a rather dissipated young man, gets into a scrape with the old, ailing Peter Featherstone because he has ostensibly made some comments about paying off a debt with the old man's money. Rosamond has designs on Lydgate, attracted to him because he is not just a "Middlemarch man." Finally, the Garth family, headed by Caleb, an industrious but nevertheless not so well off businessman, are introduced, and an childhood attachment between Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, Caleb's daughter, is revealed.

"Old and Young":
Bulstrode, a wealthy banker who has built up a reputation through philanthropy and display of his pious Methodist beliefs, decides to collaborate with Lydgate on a new hospital. Lydgate, who has great ambitions to discover "the primitive tissue" (the material basis for all the different functional parts of an organism) by working in a provincial town (after all, it is much harder to retain one's independence in London), is pulled into politics when Bulstrode compels him to vote for one Mr. Tyke as the chaplain for the hospital instead of for Lydgate's friend, Mr. Farebrother. For the first time, Lydgate realizes that to be independent and to care only for one's scientific work wasn't such an easy thing to do. Meanwhile, Walter Vincy, Fred's father and brother to the wife of Bulstrode asks Bulstrode to clear his name to Featherstone. When Fred carries a letter to Featherstone from Bulstrode, he gets a small monetary gift from Featherstone. In Rome, Dorothea begins to feel isolated as Casaubon becomes absorbed in his scholarly pursuits; Will, who is also in Rome, speaks with Dorothea passionately on art, life, and poetry and a warm friendship is struck up between the two.

"Waiting for Death":
Fred Vincy gets into more trouble when he tries to sell an old horse to get out of debt: the new horse lames itself in an accident. Since he has borrowed money from Caleb Garth, he must tell the Garths what has happened and he is especially ashamed because the Garths are in a tight spot--Mary must give up her savings and they are also unable to send her brother Alfred to school. Fred soon falls ill, but Lydgate helps cure him proving more useful than the local doctor, hence stirring up jealousies. Meanwhile, Celia becomes engaged to Sir James Chettam, and Casaubon falls ill. Lydgate is the doctor again, and from him, Dorothea finds out that Casaubon is potentially near death if he overstrains himself. Brooke invites the young Ladislaw to Tipton, furthering the connection between the Brookes and Ladislaw, despite Casaubon's distaste towards Will.  Lydgate and Rosamond are engaged, even though Lydgate has not planned to become engaged until he had become established, he feels the social pressures placed upon him. As Peter Featherstone waist for his death, groups of his relatives swarm his home, each expecting a piece of his wealth. Before he dies, he tells Mary to destroy his second will, but she doesn't do it because there is no witness.

"Three Love Problems":
Unfortunately, it turns out that the first will left Stone Court to Fred Vincy. Meanwhile, Lydgate and Rosamond get married, Will takes a position as editor of the Pioneer via Brooke, who has recently bought up the paper. The people of Middlemarch regard Brooke's connection to Ladislaw, seen as a subversive and potentially radical foreigner for his polish roots, as deeply misguided. An incident with a hired laborer Dagley does not help Brooke's image--Dagley's son kills a hare and Dagley refuses to punish his son telling Brooke that he's a tightfisted landlord. Things are not going well for someone who might enter into the race for MP on the platform of Reform. Luckily for Caleb Garth, Brooke and Chettam respectively hire him to manage Tipton and Freshitt in order to address problems on their estates and the Garths become better off. In a strange, seemingly unrelated scene (but which the narrator explicitly remarks as crucially, though oddly, important), Joshua Rigg Featherstone, Peter's illegitimate son and heir to Stone Court, has a tense moment with his stepfather, the seedy and disagreeable John Raffles, who finds out that Nicholas Bulstrode has bought Stone Court.

"The Dead Hand":
Dorothea agrees to give money to Lydgate for the hospital, eager to be "doing good" with her money. The town's medical men are against Lydgate, however. As Casaboun gets sicker, he tries to get Dorothea to promise she will do as he wishes after his death, but she hesitates and he dies before she promises. It turns out that Casaubon has included a codicil to his will which forbids Dorothea from marrying Will Ladislaw, stipulating that she will lose the Lowick property should she do so. Chettam tries to conceal this codicil from Dorothea, wishing to send Ladislaw away, but Brooke refuses.  Soon Dorothea finds out about the codicil. Meanwhile, Brooke's first public appearance results in humiliation--opposition mounts an effigy of Brooke who repeats Brooke's inarticulate speech back to him. Things look up for Fred and Mary though--Fred sends the good vicar Mr. Farebrother to ask Mary if she loves him, and she says she does. Raffles visits Bulstrode and exacts money from him threatening something about Bulstrode's past; as he leaves, Raffles recalls that Bulstrode's stepdaughter married a "Ladislaw."

"The Widow and the Wife":
Will and Dorothea come close to confessing their love for each other, but Will decides to leave town because he is too proud to be thought of as marrying Dorothea for her money (he does not know about the codicil). Garth meanwhile decides to take on Fred in the management of estates and farms; Fred proves a willing apprentice since he knows that Mary would disapprove of his trying to become clergy. Lydgate has fallen into debt because of the expenses he has felt compelled towards by his marriage to the pampered Rosamond and so he tells Rosamond that they must sell their furniture. Rosamond, estranged from Lydgate, whiles away some time flirting with Will Ladislaw and tells him about the codicil. At an auction where Will is charged to buy a painting for Bulstrode, Will actually meets Raffles, who hints about his past. The narrator reveals Bulstrode's past: as a young clerk, he took over a pawnbroker's business, married a man Dunkirk's wife upon Dunkirk's death, thereby coming by his wealth. He concealed the knowledge of a stepdaughter Sarah's whereabouts so that he might get all the wealth after Dunkirk's widow's death--Raffles was paid to keep silent on this concealment. When Bulstrode offers money to Will, Will refuses to take money from him because of his pride and wish to remain unconnected to money come by unethically. Will takes leave of Dorothea once again.

"Two Temptations":
Lydgate tries to sell their house to the recently married Plymdales (Ned Plymdale had once courted Rosamond) but resentful, Rosamond secretly contradicts his action. Additionally, she secretly writes to Lydgate's uncle Sir Godwin, who snubs them. As a result, their marriage continues under strain, Lydgate becoming angry with Rosamond for meddling, and Rosamond feeling entitled to her meddling. Lydgate asks Bulstrode for money, and Bulstrode at first refuses as he plans to make an exit from Middlemarch due to his own impending fall from grace. Bulstrode tells Caleb Garth he might let Fred live at and manage Stone Court, but Garth finds Raffles sick at Stone Court who tells Garth of Bulstrode's past. Garth thus feels he must refuse Bulstrode's offer. Lydgate tells Bulstrode what to do with the ailing Raffles, and Raffles dies. Bulstrode, feeling the pressures of his moral failings, decides to lend Lydgate the money for his debts. Though Lydgate has no knowledge of Bulstrode's past, the people of Middlemarch assume that Bulstrode intentionally killed Raffles and that Lydgate took a bribe to keep silent.

"Sunset and Sunrise":
Dorothea, however, retains her faith in Lydgate. When Dorothea goes to try to help the Lydgates out by offering them the money to pay off their debts so that Lydgate might return Bulstrode's money, she sees Will and Rosamond together and runs out. Dorothea nevertheless overcomes her jealousy and resolves to go to Rosamond again, the two reach an understanding in which Rosamond is shamed into telling Dorothea that Will loves her best. Will comes back and Rosamond tells him that she settled things with Dorothea. Dorothea and Will decide to be together despite the loss of property. Bulstrode finally suggests Mrs. Bulstrode (formerly Harriet Vincy) to appeal to Garth to allow Fred to manage Stone Court. Garth agrees, and all ends well with Fred and Mary, as well as Dorothea and Will.

**Note on Prelude, and Finale: Both the brief "prelude" and "finale" focus primarily on the figure of Dorothea. In both, the narrator adopts a similar position, comparing Dorothea as a St. Theresa of Avila born during a time in which would not allow her "passionate, ideal nature" to flourish into a (historically) "recognizable deed." In a word, Dorothea Brooke is too great for Middlemarch in the 1830s; but perhaps too Middlemarch was too great for her: the finale gives that "there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it." Put this way, historical greats seem largely accidental. Nevertheless, the narrator ends with the praise of "unhistoric acts" (like Dorothea's, thought he same might be said of the Garths', or Mr. Farebrother's acts) which have perpetuated "the growing good of the world."

To contend with the criticism which has been produced on Middlemarch is probably much like trying to synthesize a key to mythologies and never having it coming to anything. Nevertheless, here are some (arbitrarily) selective thoughts:

First-Person Narration: Despite the expectations of a third-person narration based on the omniscient distance which seems to control Middlemarch, the narration is in first-person. Because this first-person narrator does not often make the first-person point-of-view apparent, the few inclusions of the first person singular or plural feel jarring and interruptive. Often, the effect seems a bit didactic, as with the most obvious example from the ending: "...and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs." At other times, the narrator asks readers for understanding when it comes to sympathizing with characters that the narrator anticipates as being not particularly sympathetic--Casaubon, in particular. The narrator seems to caution against the harsh judgment of readers as much as to critique the harsh judgments of Middlemarch residents against fellow neighbors. Sympathy for Eliot, as Rae Greiner points out in her essay "Sympathy Time: Adam Smith, George Eliot, and the Realist Novel,"is not so simply conveyed: in constructing characters like Rosamond who might "know" that others have different points of view but who nevertheless cannot perform the requisite act of imagination that will cause her identification with these other points of view, Eliot shows the limitations of "knowing" if the purpose is to sympathize. Thus, though the narratorial voice occupies every character's thoughts via free-indirect discourse, allowing readerly "knowledge" of all of these points of view, it seems that the narrator feels that further explication and emphasis is necessary, for characters which readers are not likely to readily sympathize with just because they "know" them.

Liberal Critique: Many of the characters in Middlemarch (inadvertently) express the liberal doctrine of "doing as one likes." Most comically, Brooke repeats this phrase in reference to things and people he can't hope to understand or control (e.g., Dorothea "does as she likes"). In Brooke's words, the phrase feels empty and funny because he turns his own lack of influence into a statement that suggests he wants to think that he is merely a trendy, indulgent, liberal guardian. Rosamond, too, wants to "do as she likes," to have everything turn out exactly in the way that she imagines, having been pampered all of her life. Lydgate, in his own way, wishes to "do as he likes" in his science without becoming mired in what he deems to be petty politics of social life. None of these characters, however, can really "do as they like," and Middlemarch seems a critique of an unchecked, doctrinally "liberal" position which believes so blindly in the individual's will and freedom. Yet, it isn't that free "will" isn't desirable (in fact, and probably not coincidentally, Will is the most desirable object for Dorothea, her foremost protagonist)--rather, Eliot suggests that it is naive to overestimate its functionality in the mired social networks of modern life.

History, Historical Evolution: The many references to Walter Scott (in the epigraphs which precede Eliot's chapters, and also Scott is popularly read by the residents of Middlemarch) serve to underscore the sense of social determinism and historical inevitability that largely controls the fate of individuals. As in Scott's historical novels, in Eliot's Middlemarch there is a sense that contingencies (historical and social) beyond an individual's control or purview generally dwarf an individual's will to power over his or her own life. It isn't however, that will doesn't count for anything--it's just that those who overestimate its effect in controlling our outcomes become greatly disappointed (Lydgate being the most obvious example, but Dorothea learns this lesson too). Those who do well in the novel (Mr. Farebrother, Caleb Garth, Mary Garth, and Dorothea at the end) are willing to scale their visions for their own lives according to new circumstances as they come up. (Dorothea makes an interesting accommodation with respect to marriage: in the beginning, she tells Celia that she would never say that she was merely "fond" of a man she would marry; at the end of the novel, she tells Celia that she is "fond" of Ladislaw).

Friday, December 24, 2010

In Memoriam by Lord Alfred Tennyson

Tennyson met Arthur Henry Hallam at Cambridge in 1829 and the two became inseparable friends and part of a coterie of men considered likely to be future leaders. Due to their close friendship, Tennyson invited Hallam to his childhood home at Somersby, where Hallam met Tennyson's younger sister Emily.  They were engaged to be married (at first, Tennyson's father forbade their seeing each other until Hallam turned twenty-one so in 1832 they renewed their engagement vows). Things seemed in place when Hallam came to London to study law upon his graduation. Unfortunately, Hallam would die of apoplexy in Vienna while on a tour of the Continent with his father in the summer of 1833. Tennyson received the news via a letter in October of 1833. Broken-hearted, Tennyson began writing a number of poems which indirectly dealt with death (including "Ulysses," "Tithonus," and "Morte d'Arthur"), and also began drafting a lyric beginning with "Fair ship, that from the Italian shore" which later became Canto IX of In Memoriam. 

The rest of In Memoriam, however, would be composed piecemeal over the next seventeen years. In the early part of 1850, Tennyson reluctantly allowed the work to be privately distributed amongst some friends. When he eventually published it, he left off his own name, although everyone knew he was the poet and knew it to be about Hallam. In Memoriam was immediately hailed as a masterpiece, and Tennyson's fame and laureateship followed close behind In Memoriam's success.

Tennyson's In Memoriam: A.H.H. Obit MDCCCXXXIII is written in envelope rhyme and iambic tetrameter, and divided into 131 cantos plus a prologue and epilogue. The abba rhyme has the effect of an envelope, wrapping back in on itself, or secure clasping (an image which recurs often in the poem). Tetrameter conveys sing-songy, personal, simple, and even playful effects (much as in the case of nursery rhymes, also often in tetrameter). This combination of rhyme and meter later came to be known as the "In Memoriam Stanza."

Somewhat unexpectedly, the prologue begins not with any mention of Hallam, but with the poet's general crisis of faith: "Strong Son of God, immortal Love, / Whom we, that have not seen they face, / By faith, and faith alone, embrace, / Believing where we cannot prove." In the prologue, the struggle for faith ends in asking for forgiveness about his doubt.

In general terms, the poem is structured by the passing of three Christmases following Arthur's death. The first section up until the first Christmas goes through a number of different stages, in which the poem muses on a great number of things, including the nature of grief, sorrow, sleep, and poetry, to name just a few. In Canto IX, the poet makes his first mention of Arthur by name, in describing how the "fair ship" would bring his remains home. The poet continues to muse on his grief a few more times, comparing it to the rise and fall of waves, and musing how even if politics or science might say that wallowing in grief in such times is a waste and idle, he feels that he must sing his sorrow. Near the end of this first section before the first Christmas, the poet also questions whether the idyllic nature of his memories is in fact accurate. The first Christmas is somber, "At our old pastimes in the hall, / We gambol'd, making vain pretence / Of gladness, with an awful sense / Of one mute Shadow watching all." A bit of hope is salvaged, however, as together those left behind muse on life after death. The poet thinks of Lazarus, who had life after death but none know the mystery of his resurrection.

The poet continues to muses on life and death, as well as the nature of faith. Specifically, in the canto following the ones on Lazarus, he imagines a brother and sister, in which the poet chides the brother for deeming the sister's faith less valid because it is based on form and less on the struggles of reason. Soon the poet is interrupted by Urania, who essentially tells him that it is not his place to speak on religious matters. The poem then elucidates some of his fears about the dead watching him in life, and how they might see all of his sins and shortcomings. Like God though, he hopes that they will make allowances (Canto LI). The poet launches into notions of eternal life and reaches a low point with respect to his belief in anything beyond the material contingencies of earthly life. Famously, the poet complains that Nature was "So careful of the type" and not the individual, questioning, "Who trusted God was love indeed / And love Creation's final law--/ Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw / With ravine, shrieked against his creed." He is unable to reach any answers, and he concludes Canto LVI, pessimistically, "O life as futile, then, as frail!"..."What hope of answer, or redress? / Behind the veil, behind the veil." Subsequently, the poet discusses sorrow as his bride, then his struggle with the gulf between the earthly and spiritual ream which Arthur might now inhabit (focusing on the metaphor that he feels as if one who was unable to marry someone of a higher social status--an allusion to his sister Emily?), the tragedy of one such as Arthur dying young since he could have become (politically) famous, and the inability of "modern rhyme" to accrue any lasting fame (though, he concludes, "To breathe my loss is more than fame / To utter love more sweet than praise." The second Christmas falls, and this time, sorrow has waned, and instead of falling "sadly," Christmas eve this time around falls "calmly."

In the next section, the poet continues to reflect on what could have been--how Arthur could have married Tennyson's sister, Emily, and how he himself would have been an uncle doting on their children. At one point he feels solace that Arthur might yet remain an influence in his life and his actions: "Whatever way my days decline, / I felt and feel, tho' left alone, / His being working in mine own, / The footsteps of his life in mine." The poet launches into memories of Cambridge when revisiting the place, idealizing their time there: "Where once we held debate, a band / Of youthful friends, on mind and art." He continues to oscillate on whether the dead continue to have an effect or not; he imagines Arthur's old letters touching him from the grave: "So word by word, and line by line, / The dead man touch'd me from the past." But soon he doubts again. This yet again becomes an issue of faith; in Canto XCVI, the poet encounters an unnamed "you" (thought to be his wife, Emily Sellwood), sparring with her notion that "doubt is Devil-born," contending that doubt, for Arthur, strengthened faith: "He fought his doubts and gather'd strength, / He would not make his judgment blind." The poet develops a rather strange metaphor to try to explain his love for Arthur, who is now of a realm that is incomprehensible to him--like a wife who is more limited in understanding than her husband in the ways of the world, the poet says, "I cannot understand: I love." Shortly before the third Christmas, Tennyson leaves his childhood home at Somersby for High Beech (north of London), and leaving these surroundings feels in a measure like Arthur dying again. In the new place, the third Christmas "strangely falls" because he hears bells that he is unfamiliar with. This seems, for the moment, a boon--following this description of a "strange" Christmas, is a canto wherein the bells "ring out" all bad things (falsity, grief, dying causes, feud of the rich and poor, want, care, pride, disease, etc). 

This final section of the poem begins on a less hopeful note, but gradually moves towards more optimism. The poet sings Arthur's praises and mourns his wasted potential, but soon finds that his desire for afterlife communion has surpassed desire come out of loss: "Less yearning for the friendship fled, / Than some strong bond which is to be." The remainder of the poem concerns itself with the nature of time, and evolution, the poet putting forth the view in Canto CXVIII that evolution is willful, and man in an individual life can aspire push the race forward. The poet's conception of evolution applies here more to the soul rather than to the body. This sense for progress lifts the poem to a much more optimistic level. Furthermore, just prior to the epilogue, the poet feels the power of love, which somehow reconciles between God, Nature, and human life: "Tho mix'd with God and Nature thou, / I seem to love thee more and more." 

The epilogue is a marriage lay which describes Tennyson's sister Cecilia and Edmund Lushington's wedding. Of Arthur, the poet writes, "Regret is dead, but love is more." He imagines Arthur to yet be present ("Nor count me all to blame if I / Conjecture of a stiller guest, / Perchance, perchance, among the rest, / And, tho' in silence, wishing joy") but his presence adds joy. Finally, as the poet happily thinks on the child that his sister and Lushington will have, he thinks on Arthur as one who was so much an improvement on the race of man that he was before his time, a "noble type" / Appearing ere the times were ripe."

The formal unit of the In Memoriam stanza might be, in miniature, a way of understanding some of the primary features of the poem as a whole. As mentioned above, tetrameter imparts a kind of spontaneous, personal effect much as with a ballad or nursery rhyme. Additionally, tetrameter as a kind of truncated meter (the more usual pentameter being a "complete" line) imparts a kind a sense of incompletion--as Erik Gray remarks,"Tennyson emphasizes the brokenness of the tetrameter stanza, the way that each line falls short of his emotion, as he insists throughout the poem." The poet's understanding of God, Nature, faith, and existence in sustaining this early loss might be analogized as such, always falling short, broken, and fragmented.

Yet, the fragmentation of the poet's thoughts and feelings throughout the poem are far from conveying hopelessness or total incoherence. Instead, I suggest that the "movement" of these fragments might be understood as coming in waves; at times the poet grieves and doubts, at other points he feels that sorrow has made him wiser and has faith. The envelope rhyme scheme follows a kind of wave pattern, cresting on the "b" rhyme and falling back to the "a." Gray interprets the abba rhyme scheme as somewhat paradoxical with respect to whether its effects are optimistic or pessimistic. "In one sense, the abba stanza conveys a sense of fulfillment: it begins with one rhyme sound, which is then temporarily lost as we move on to the couplet in the middle; but in the end the initial rhyme returns, clinching the stanza and seeming to redeem or justify the open-endedness of the beginning." However, in another sense, "[t]he same rhyme scheme also conveys the opposite sense, a feeling of not looking forward but of falling back." As Gray indicates, the meaning of Tennyson's stanzas convey both senses of envelope rhyme. 

The alternation between optimism and pessimism also suggests oscillation or undulation of waves, and while I suggest that the fragments of In Memoriam move as waves do, these waves seem ultimately productive in the same way as Tennyson's understanding of evolution tends to be. Drawing from Lyell's theories of geological gradualism, the poet envisions changes in the human soul to work analogously (slowly, but continuously) and that over time, the human race might reach a more perfect type. The poet's waves of faith and doubt slow the ultimate movement towards faith, but importantly the poem indeed ends on a note of faith (as well as an image of gradual, evolutionary perfection). Arthur Hallam is a "noble type" before his time, and all of creation moves according to the one, unalterable law of God. 

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence

Lawrence began the novel originally entitled The Sisters as early as spring of 1913. This project ended up being two novels - The Rainbow and Women in Love. Because of an obscenity trial following the publication of The Rainbow in 1915, there was a five year gap before Women in Love was finally published in 1920, and even then, its publication was limited to private publication in London (1921) and New York (1920). It was felt by many critics that Lawrence's portrayal of human desire was not appropriate, especially for the morale of a country in war. Both follow the fortunes of the Brangwen family; The Rainbow focuses on the marriage of Tom Brangwen, an English farmer, and a polish widow, Lydia Lensky. Lydia's daughter from her first marriage has relations with Tom's nephew, and the two of them become parents to Ursula and Gudrun. The relationships of Ursula and Gudrun are the major subject of Women in Love.

The novel is supposedly based on Lawrence's own close acquaintances: Ursula on his wife Frieda, Gudrun on Katherine Mansfield, Hermione on Lady Ottoline Morell, Gerald on Mansfield's husband and T.P. Barber (a Nottingham mine owner), and finally Rupert on Lawrence himself.

Since Lawrence's novels are meant as major departures from the nineteenth-century realist novel, one of the features of both The Rainbow and Women in Love is an absence of plot as traditionally defined. Women in Love is rather episodic, each chapter exploring aspects (both social and beyond) of some particular interaction between characters. As such, a "summary" of the major events of the novel would be hardly sufficient to describe the novel: in brief, Ursula, a schoolteacher, and Gudrun Brangwen, an artist and art teacher, become respectively involved in relationships with Rupert Birkin, a school inspector, and Gerald Crich, an industrialist whose father owns the mines in Beldover. The novel follows the course of these relationships; eventually Ursula and Rupert marry, but Gerald and Gudrun become estranged, and in the end, Gerald dies (perhaps having committed suicide) while out exploring the snowy Alps where the four had been vacationing. Major events along the way include: Birkin's relationship with his mistress, Hermione Roddice; the accidental drowning of Diana Crich, a younger sister of Gerald's; the death of Thomas Crich after falling ill; Gudrun's coming to teach Winifred Crich art; Gudrun's fascination with an artist named Loerke when the couples vacation in the Alps; Gerald's murderous attempt upon Loerke and Gudrun, and finally, Gerald's death in the snow.

Perhaps more useful than summary is a description of episodes in relation to the four major characters, since above all, Lawrence seeks to "get at" what's interesting about these characters beyond their social definitions. Because this involves the work of interpretation, I have included this these descriptions below.

In Lawrence's own words re: The Rainbow, "You musn't look in my novel for the old stable ego of the character. There is another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognizable, and passes through, as it were, allotropic states which it needs a deeper sense that any we've been used to exercise, to discover are states of the single radically unchanged element." Throughout the work, this "other" ego which he describes--usually "unknown" and beyond linguistic capacities of its characters, often provisionally described as "unconscious" or "subconscious"--manifests itself weaving through and encountering the "social" egos more familiar to the nineteenth-century realist novel. Thus, as Ken Newton remarks, it would be a "mistake to conclude that Lawrence's interest was only in psychological reality and not in social reality." These "realities" interact and struggle with one another and as criticism on Women in Love and The Rainbow has accounted for, Lawrence's Brangwen novels are very much involved with the "crisis" of Western civilization at the moment of the First World War, and the kind of destructive psychological impulses which define this "crisis."

Ursula Brangwen: Ursula Brangwen, the older of the two sisters, though capable, in moments, of desiring radical kinds of individual liberty that Rupert and Gudrun desire, is generally drawn to the comfort offered by the intimacies of love and marriage. While she seems to understand Rupert's position that there must be something greater than this kind of intimacy (which is tied down by social understandings of sex and gender and the power relationships which inhere in such understandings), Ursula seems doubtful whether this greater, inexpressible relation exists.

In conversation, Ursula wants "love" while Rupert wants something he expresses as "freedom together." In a tense conversation in which the interaction between a male cat and a female cat become a metaphor for what they talk about, Rupert insisting that the male cat's (violent) "desire to bring this female cat into a pure stable equilibrium, a transcendent and abiding rapport with the single male" would eliminate the otherwise "chaotic" nature of the female, Ursula rejects this as a fantasy which is actually selfishness which requires someone else to sacrifice themselves to his vision.

For Ursula, such radical freedom might only be available in death: in a chapter entitled "Sunday Evening" following the drowning of Diana Crich and the young doctor who tried to save her, Ursula muses on "[h]ow much cleaner and more dignified to be dead" and how "[t]here is no ignominy in death" for it "is beyond our sullying." I think that such observations which Ursula makes, narrated through the ironic lens of free indirect discourse, ultimately signal the unavailability for such a one as herself, of such extremes: "To know is to human, and in death we do not know, we are not human. And the joy of this compensates for all the bitterness of knowledge and the sordidness of our humanity." For Ursula, such musings signal that she thinks the only way to achieve the radical freedoms which Rupert fantasizes about is death, so the better alternative was that "love was everything" because there could be nothing else in life.

Rupert Birkin: Rupert's (ostensibly closest to Lawrence's own desires) articulations on "freedom" and "freedom together" are simultaneously made endearing to the reader and ironized. It seems that Lawrence truly thinks something of Rupert's yearnings for how one can live free while still alive and amidst all of what is expected of one from the society of others yet also feels humbled by the inexpressibility of such yearnings and the inevitably ironic "overblownness" of attempted expression. This irony becomes most manifest in the scene in Pompadour cafe in London, where bits and pieces of Rupert's letters are read aloud and mocked by a group of young bohemians. When he finally admits to loving Ursula, he is only able to say so with irony and mocking his own submission to a convention in which he does not wish to follow.

In fact, Rupert despises Hermione Roddice, his mistress, for her obsession with appearances and conventions, always trying to see herself as others see her, unhealthily preoccupied with self-reflexive. He criticizes Hermione for being like the Lady of Shalott, always seeing life reflected, as if in a mirror. Eventually, Rupert has tortured Hermione about this to the point where she tries to kill him by crushing a paperweight on his head. After this incident, Rupert runs out and lies down in the grass outside, naked, resenting his own fear at being discovered in this position and thinking on how the nausea of reflexivity might be "cured" if there were no other people in the world.

Finally, an important way in which Rupert differs from Ursula is that he believes in the need for fulfilling male-to-male relationships; he wishes to exact both a pledge from Gerald as well as Ursula, but he fails to exact one from Gerald. This failure, as critic Max Levenson has explained, is actually a crucial one, because it is this "aspiration beyond marriage that acts back upon the marriage itself" enabling a "passion of opposition" which is crucial to the most functional relationship in the work. (See "The passion of opposition" in Women in Love: none, one, two, few, many" in Modernism and the Fate of Individuality).

Gudrun Brangwen: Gudrun primarily views life in an ironic and playful manner; like Rupert, she wants also to escape from the trap of reflexivity. When she and Ursula go off to an island together during the Crich "Water Party," Gudrun becomes fascinated with dancing before a group of cattle because of the escape such an experience offers from the self-consciousness that inheres in being watched by other humans (especially men). Additionally, she becomes interested in the inaccessible life of cattle, an alien perspective apart from human consciousness. Predictably then, when Gerald interrupts, Gudrun is very angry at the interruption.

Gudrun becomes drawn to the artist/sculptor Loerke because he shares a fascination with non-human perspective. As Gudrun puts it, while in a discussion of art between herself, Loerke, and Ursula, "The two things [artist and his/her art] are quite and permanently apart, they have nothing to do with one another. I and my art, they have nothing to do with each other. My art stands in another world, I am of this world" (Italics are mine). Both Gudrun and Loerke see the making of art as a way to make something that, in its existence as a non-human thing, becomes an attractively alien perspective.

Gudrun's sense of radical freedom is to feel like she is never "giving herself away": life's a bit of a game for her, and to win is to prevent others from knowing aspects of her humanity (this becomes difficult, particularly in relation to Gerald, as she finds that she feels drawn to his violence, his need for her, and his need to conquer her--when Ursula looks disgustedly on Gerald violently subduing his mare, Gudrun is fascinated).

Yet, despite the certain aloofness which characterizes Gudrun's ironic and playful stance towards life, she also exhibits a kindness that other characters seem to lack. When Thomas Crich is dying, despite her belief that his faith in her as a mentor for Winifred, his favorite, she plays the part and submits herself to conventional ways of thinking in order to ease his heart as he slips away. At the Pompadour, Gudrun takes Rupert's letters away from the bohemians, feeling like she needed to save the ideas of a thinking individual from the mockery of those who do not understand.

Gerald Crich: Gerald is the most violent of the group, described as "mechanical" in his living and allegorized by his activity as an industrial magnate. He is also Cain, since as a young boy, he accidentally shot off a gun which killed his younger brother. This early violence seems to remain a latent aspect which Gerald maintains through his life.

The chapter entitled "Industrial Magnate" traces the fortunes of the Crich family mine through the generations and is as much a history of personal temperaments as a more generalized history of industrial capitalism in transition from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries. When the mines were under Thomas Crich, the ideal was a sort of love between the industrial master and his workers -- Thomas saw to it that the mines produced wealth that would then feed and nourish the workers; material progress would keep the workers connected to the fruits of their own labor and to their benevolent boss. Soon however, this would give rise to a knowledge of "democracy," the idea of "equality" and a sense that it was unfair that the boss should get a greater share. Riots ensued, and Lawrence describes how the people's adherence to "democracy" and "equality" become akin to a blind religious fervor; "equality" becomes a sort of totem for their war cry. Reacting to this, Gerald's governance represents late stage capitalism, where through sheer will to dominance, he brings about a new mechanical order where the will to greater and greater material production becomes the new religion for each and every man who is a cog in the machine. Gerald has created a "mystic machine" wherein human power (his own included) becomes invisible; in a word, man has become closer and closer to the perfection of the mechanical, and it is to this "new and terrible purity" that men now bow down. Committed to this terrible yet pure materialism, Gerald rejects Birkin's offer of a relationship with potentially spiritual dimensions.

Accompanying Gerald's materialism seems to be an animalism which motivates his pursuit of mistresses like the Pussum and then of Gudrun (whose sexual attraction for him includes a clearly maternal component). Still, this animalism seems limiting for Gerald; ultimately, he seems to direct himself towards the extreme of anti-humanism, the inanimate. His death by freezing and his inanimate, material body displayed before Birkin at the end suggest that he has ironically achieved such a state.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Selections from Alfred Tennyson

The first five stanzas (following a set pattern of ababbcbcc) provide a description of the land of the Lotos-eaters and narrate how the men become caught up: "We will return no more," they say,"Our island home / is far beyond the wave; we will no longer roam." Following the first five stanzas are the eight stanzas (irregular in rhyme, ending with a 29-line eighth stanza with triple rhymes, with the exception of the first two lines, it follows an aaa, bbb, ccc pattern) labeled as a "choric song" which is spoken from the first-person perspective of the men detained on the island. The men admit, "Dear is the memory of our wedded lives, / And dear the last embraces of our wives / And their warm tears" but convince themselves that "all hath suffer'd change" and morphed in to confusion such that they should "Let what is broken so remain." The poem ends with the slurred, soporific tones of these lines: "Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore / Than labour in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar; / Oh rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.

This poem was first published in 1832 and significantly revised in 1842. It is based on Book 9 of Homer's Odyssey in which the men encounter the Lotos-eaters, who feed on Lotos-flowers. Several of Odysseus's men are seduced into eating the Lotos-flowers and as a result lose their desire to return home. This poem has been read as indicating anxiety about poetic language's (and aesthetics', more broadly) capacity to lure readers away from industry toward idleness; as a critique of artists who retreated into aesthetic worlds to the exclusion of political involvement; as an allegory of alienated labor (Marxist reading), and most specifically, some have seen the Lotos-eaters as an image of the stalled movement during the passage of the Reform Act (1832).

"The Lady of Shalott"
"The Lady of Shalott" is a ballad in four parts. Metrically, the poem is generally in iambic tetrameter, usually associated with a playful, nursery rhyme-like feel. The fifth line of every stanza ends with "Camelot" and the final line (usually shorter, in trimeter) of every stanza "Shalott" (with the exception of one which reads "Sang Sir Lancelot"). 

The first part tells of the island of Shallot, and the Lady of Shalott in her tower. The second part goes through how "There she weaves by night and day" the subjects that she sees in her mirror, "Shadows of the world" including "surly village-churls, "red cloaks of market girls," "a troop of damsels glad," "an abbot on an ambling pad," "a curly shepherd-lad, and a "long-hair'd page in crimson clad." Sadly, she has no suitors, "But in her web she still delights / To weave the mirror's magic sights." The third part tells of Sir Lancelot's foray into Camelot: he bawdily alludes to Autolycus's song in The Winter's Tale singing "Tirra lirra," and immediately "She left the web, she left the loom." Once she looks directly down upon Sir Lancelot, her mirror cracks and she cries that "The curse is come upon me." The final stanza tells of her descent from the tower into a boat which she labels with her name, "The Lady of Shalott." She floats down the river and sings her last song, after which she freezes to death. The knights behold her corpse as she floats into Camelot, "but Lancelot mused a little space; / He said, 'She has a lovely face; / God in his mercy lend her grace, / The lady of Shalott." 

Like "The Lotos-eaters," "The Lady of Shalott" was published first in 1832 and then revised in 1842. It presents an episode from an Arthuriad. The poem has been seen in terms of a critique of separate spheres, the artist's relationship with the world beyond and the problematic situation wherein the artist dies if she looks upon the "real world,"or more politically specific as representing the plight of handloom weavers in the face of mechanizing society. "The Lady of Shalott's" mythic status in the Victorian era is echoed in the numerous images which artists produced of her.  

"Ulysses" is in the form of a dramatic monologue. Essentially, Ulysses narrates in iambic pentameter how upon his return home he cannot be but restless and desirous of travel once again:

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and lone; on shore, and when 
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart...

The first part tells of how his political domestic duties are not enough to satisfy his hunger for life experience offered by travel, and the second part tells of how he looks upon his vessel in the port and gets ready for yet another voyage.  

The form of the dramatic monologue enables an ironic distance between poet and the speaker. In this way, Ulysses's heroism is clearly suspect--critics have read his neglect of political duties as a critique of the Tory administration's indifference to reform. Ulysses's desire to go forth once again is often contrasted with the weary, belabored rhythm of lines like "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield" (the final line) suggesting that Ulysses himself might be inadvertently articulating his own weariness and revealing his heroism in old age as rather foolhardy. 

Tennyson himself offers a reading which substantiates a sense of struggle in the poem: Tennyson remarked that the monologue was written shortly after Hallam's death in order to demonstrate the need to move on and go forward in life despite the difficulty presented by loss.

"The Coming of Arthur"
STRUCTURE/SUMMARY: This is the first poem in a twelve-poem series (in blank verse) known as Idylls of the King (published between 1856-1885). King Leodogran appeals to Arthur to help him with the beasts and the heathen hordes that have been wreaking havoc in his kingdom. Arthur deals a defeat to all of these parties, and afterwards requests Guinevere's hand in marriage, because he says, "I cannot will my will, nor work my work" until he has been joined with her. Because Arthur does not dress like a king but just like another knight, Leodogran is doubtful about his lineage and hence hesitant. Leodogran receives different accounts of his lineage from different people including his chamberlain, Arthur's emissaries, and Arthur's half sister Bellicent. Finally, Leodogran has a dream (expanded into 18 lines) that Arthur has been crowned in heaven, and so he consents to the marriage. The poem closes with Arthur refusing to offer a tribute to the old Roman lords.

The poem's insistence (through Arthur) on the need to unite with Guinevere in order for him to rule is interesting as it has yielded much criticism on gender relations in the Victorian era. Arthur says:

"Shall I not lift her from this land of beasts
Up to my throne, and side by side with me?
What happiness to reign a lonely king,
Vext--O ye stars that shudder over me,
O earth that soundest hollow under me,
Vext with waste dreams? for saving I be joined
To her that is the fairest under heaven,
I seem as nothing in the mighty world,
And cannot will my will, nor work my work
Wholly, nor make myself in mine own realm
Victor and lord. But were I joined with her,
Then might we live together as one life,
And reigning with one will in everything
Have power on this dark land to lighten it,
And power on this dead world to make it live."

Arthur's belief in the ennobling impact of marriage and the role of women as to comfort, support, and uphold men in their public duties is commonly cited as particularly Victorian, patriarchal value. As Stephen Ahern writes, "identifications of the beloved with a promise of ennobling self realizations" are repeated throughout the Idylls. Of course, throughout the work as a whole, the above belief of Arthur's will be questioned (via Guinevere's affair with Lancelot, most obviously, but as Ahern argues, also by the predominance of Guinevere's voice in the rest of the narratives). 

"Tithonus" is a dramatic monologue given by Tithonus addressing Aurora over the plight of his immortality, which unfortunately does not mean eternal youth. The poem begins with a vision of the woods in the forests and men growing old. Tithonus, however, must grow old slowly in Aurora's arms. Still, he remembers when he was young and when he was young and asked her for eternal life. He now wants her to take the gift back. In the dark, Tithonus says that he has a "glimpse of that dark world where I was born," but when Aurora streaks across the skies, she does not answer his request to be mortal once again but merely sheds some tears as if suggesting that "The Gods themselves cannot recall their gifts." Tithonus then recalls his youth when in love with Aurora, unsure whether the youth who loved was in fact one and the same as his aged self now. He closes the poem with a final request that she "Release [him], and restore [him] to the ground" so that he need not suffer the daily humiliation of her revealing his old and decrepit form as she rises and shines upon him. 


In the Greek legend, Tithonus, the son of Lamedon (king of Troy) and Strymo (daughter of the river Scamander) was taken by Eos (Aurora) as a lover. Eos asked Zeus to grant Tithonus eternal life and Zeus consented, but unfortunately, she forgot to ask for eternal youth so eventually Tithonus aged into the form of a grasshopper. In Tennyson's version, Tithonus has asked Eos for eternal life, and it is she who has granted it thoughtlessly "Like wealthy men who care not how they give." Subsequently, "the Hours," goddesses who resent Tithonus's immortality, are the ones who subject him to aging. 

Tennyson's wrote first version of this poem, "Tithon" in 1833 (eventually it was revised for publication in 1859). The poem was intended as a complement to "Ulysses"--Ulysses desires more of life, but Tithonus, who receives eternal life, finds that it is in fact better to remain mortal along with the rest of mankind.

In blank verse and iambic pentameter, Tennyson retells the tail of Lady Godiva, who begs her lord the Earl to remove taxes that were too stringent upon his people. When he flippantly tells her that he would remove the tax if she were to ride naked through the town, she does so. "Clothed on with chastity," most of the townspeople stay inside and dare not look. "One low churl" chances to take a peep, but his eyes shrivel up into his head, "So the powers who wait / On noble deeds, cancell'd a sense misus'd."

"Godiva" was written in 1840 after a trip to Coventry, where the "Godiva pageant" yearly took place. Tennyson's version of the Godiva myth is highly Romanticized, and interestingly, as Daniel Donoghue points out, does the work of managing to resolve certain seemingly contradictory traits. Her nakedness is clearly sexualized and heightens reader prurience, while at the same time the poem insists upon her chastity. Furthermore, the peeping "churl" is punished by God, signaling the existence of a higher order which will ensure that "moral" and "immoral" are readily distinguishable.

"Lucretius" is written also in blank verse, iambic pentameter. The poem's structure is as follows: it begins and ends with Lucilla's (Lucretius's wife) actions, but for most of the poem, we get Lucretius's speech. In the beginning, Lucilla finds her husband devoid of passion for her, and so she brews a "philtre" which supposedly had  power "To lead an errant passion home again." This mixture disorders Lucretius's faculties, and in an extended monologue, he describes having terrible dreams of a sexual and violent nature involving female domination (he dreams of being suffocated by a circle of Hetairai, Greek prostitutes, and seeing the breasts of Helen shoot forth fire and wither away a piercing sword). He continues, calling out to Venus to help him, but soon coming to the conclusion that he cannot truly be "careless" and calm unless he kills himself: he envies what he perceives to be the god-like existence where "nothing to mar the sober majesties / Of settled, sweet, Epicurean life."Believing deeply in the Epicurean philosophy that as nothing but a collection of atoms, he need not fear death for it is merely dissipation, Lucretius kills himself. The poem ends with Lucilla rushing in and shrieking that she had failed in her duty to him.

That a poem entitled "Lucretius" begins with Lucilla ("Lucilla, wedded to Lucretius, found / Her master cold...) seems to offer a clue as to how to read the work. Indeed, Lucretius is "framed" by Lucilla in more ways than one--both in the structure of the poem, and by her actions. Lucretius has no idea that the how he applies his whole philosophical system and his life story here are controlled by Lucilla's philtre--little does he know that it is her action that have catapulted him into his dark philosophical musings. She is the source of his monologue, and though the poem closes with his words ("Care not thou! / Thy duty? What is duty? Fare thee well!"), they are broken words which dramatically underscore his limited understanding: fancying that he is above and beyond such moral codes as "duty," he is in fact actually undone by his own inattentiveness to his duties as a husband.

Maud: A Monodrama
The poem contains many metrical variations depending on the state of the speaker's mind. The "plot" of Maud is briefly as follows:

The poem begins with four-line stanzas in hexameter, in which the speaker tells of his father's suicide (crushing himself into a pit with a stone), his mother's death, and his general sorrow over his relatively low station in life. The tone and meter contribute to the rant-like quality of this section. When Maud, a childhood friend, returns to the Hall (where he lives), he vows not to be affected by her, telling himself that he will "bury [him]self in [him]self" because he feels that her wealthy father has been in some measure responsible for his own father's death. Soon he progresses to a slightly less vexed state of Epicurean philosophy, contending: "Be 
mine a philosopher’s life in the quiet woodland ways /

Where if I cannot be gay let a passionless peace be my lot."

Despite his best efforts, the narrator falls in love with Maud, and they meet frequently in a garden. In describing these blissful moments, the narrator lapses into a sing-songy, almost nursery-rhyme like meter:

Birds in the high Hall-garden
   When twilight was falling,
Maud, Maud, Maud, Maud,
   They were crying and calling.

The narrator, however, finds Maud's brother to be an enemy. He vows that he will bury his hate for the brother because of his love for Maud. He now even thinks that he ought to take care of himself, faltering, "If I be dear, / If I be dear to someone else." Unfortunately, at an upper-class dinner event which the narrator is not invited to, the brother discovers him in the garden and strikes him. Maud's brother is killed in the ensuing scuffle, and the narrator runs off, disordered again in his mind. 

At the end of the poem, after Maud's death, the narrator makes his final decision: to fight in the Crimean War. He gives the following justification:

Let it flame or fade, and the war roll down like a wind,
We have proved we have hearts in a cause, we are noble still,
And myself have awaked, as it seems, to the better mind;
It is better to fight for the good than to rail at the ill;
I have felt with my native land, I am one with my kind,
I embrace the purpose of God, and the doom assign’d

He expresses the above lines evenly and resolutely, with some metrical control and regularity of rhyme, yet such a conclusion smacks more of the fatalistic, ending after all with the "doom assign'd" despite the ostensibly  "noble" cause.

Tennyson's defined his designation of the poem as a "monodrama" thus: "different phases of passion in one person to take the place of different characters." In other words, Maud is a dramatization of a single character's different states of mind, much like (as Tennyson would mention also) in the case of Hamlet. This has seemed to be misunderstood in the poem's contemporary reception: Gladstone thought the poem  "catch-penny clap trap" and Charles Kingsley thought it unmanly, both harsh critics seemingly ignoring that Tennyson the poet is separate from the speaker of the monodrama and that inconsistencies in form meant to match the subject's changing states of mind.

Like In Memoriam, Maud concentrates on themes of love and loss, but next to the former poem's measured lines and stanzas, Maud seems more a dramatization of the effects of loss gone awry in an individual's mind. Whereas we get the sense that the speaker in In Memoriam reaches a certain calm and manages to transform loss into a means to reflect on human existence more broadly, the speaker in Maud ends up channeling his energy into the violence of war.

"The Ancient Sage"
The general structure of "The Ancient Sage" is a dialogue between a young man and an old sage, set in a time "a thousand summers ere the time of Christ." The old man reads the sentiments of the young from a scroll that the youth has been carrying. Thus, the poem reaches conclusions dialectically, oppositions providing the driving force for ideas.

The poem begins with the old man heading up to the hills, envisioning that "force is from the heights." The old man pauses to read from the young man's scroll, which muses on the "nameless power" that is "never seen or heard." The sage replies with an extended musing on that nameless power and suggesting the following:

For nothing worthy proving can be proven,
Nor yet disproven: wherefore thou be wise,
Cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt,
And cling to Faith beyond the forms of Faith!

The youth further questions this nameless power, and the sage articulates that it is feeling as opposed to knowing which is "highest." When the youth then turns to talking of time, the sage returns that the "with the nameless is nor Day nor Hour," that the nameless power is eternal. The youth then seems to plunge into a bit of despair over the limitations of man under the weight of time, to which the sage replies with the following metaphor: "Who knows? or whether this earth-narrow life / Be yet but yolk, and forming in the shell."

Yet the youth continues to find existence on earth to be dark, and the sage calls attention to the possibility that this "darkness" might be inside of man's own perception/subjectivity:

My son, the world is dark with griefs and graves,
So dark that men cry out against the Heavens.Who knows but that the darkness is in man? 

The sage's solution ultimately seems to be some sort of loss of self: "But utter clearness, and thro’ loss of Self / The gain of such large life as match’d with ours / Were Sun to spark--unshadowable in words, /
Themselves but shadows of a shadow-world." In losing the "self," lived through symbols including, perhaps most importantly, words, the sage claims he sometimes reaches a sense of the nameless. The youth replies that these seem "idle gleams," and that "still the clouds remain." These are the final words of the youth, and the sage closes the poem with remarks on the futility of such "counter-terms" in "endless war" as they are so much up to one's subjective perception. At the very end, the sage turns kind of didactic, telling the youth to return to his city and understand that such things are beyond what man in his present state can comprehend. The sage encourages the youth to "think well" because to do so is to open the way for doing well and if he should continue to humbly look to his blessings, he might pass beyond the "Night and Shadow" and "see / The high-heaven dawn of more than mortal day / Strike on the Mount of Vision!"

This later poem of Tennyson's (1885), was by Tennyson's own account "very personal" and supposedly indebted to his readings of Chinese philosopher Lao-Tze. It's ideas are fairly difficult and abstract--the reader feels, perhaps, as uncomprehending of the philosopher's abstractions as the youth.

Howard Fulweiler reads the turn towards the didactic moralism at the end as Tennyson's unification between "knowledge" and "virtue," terms that had generally come to be dissociated in the "modern" Victorian paradigms for life. I think this gives an important clue as to how to approach "The Ancient Sage"--in particular, Tennyson's casting his net towards ancient, and apparently non-Western philosophies in his admitted indebtness to Lao-Tze, seems to want to transcend the structures of Victorian thought. In a poem about reaching the "nameless" beyond the symbols (such as linguistic contradictions like light and dark, good and evil, or markers of passing time) by which we live and construct our "selves," Tennyson reaches across time and space to something ostensibly as remote from his own temporal and spatial framework as possible. Yet, the reference to Christ which begins the poem, and the sage's final injunction to the youth to return from whence he came signal the relevance of these contexts to the age in which Tennyson was living: it seems that Tennyson suggests this remote temporality and spatiality might help unify knowledge and virtue, and perhaps in doing so, then also revive Christianity within a modern context.

"The Palace of Art"
"The Palace of Art" consists of short, regular "abab" stanzas throughout. In the first part, the speaker/poet tells his audience, very simply: "I built my soul a lordly pleasure-house" (reminiscent of Kubla Khan's "stately pleasure dome"). There, his soul "would live alone unto herself" and "Reign...apart, a quiet King." The soul seems pleased by this, and the speaker goes on to proudly describe the many different rooms that he has constructed, "fit for every mood / And change of my still soul." Amidst these descriptions, the stanzas break out into a somewhat unsettling regularity, where each and every stanza begins with "Or" followed by whatever alternative scene of art it presents. The speaker brags that these are "Not less than truth design'd" and "Not less than life design'd."

The poem transitions into charting the soul's reaction to living in "The Palace of Art." In general, she is proud of her position: "I take possession of man's mind and deed. / I care not what the sects may brawl. / I sit as God holding no form of creed, / But contemplating all." The isolation feels powerful, and the "intellectual throne" thrilling.

After three years of living in this palace, however, "on the fourth she fell, / Like Herod, when the shout was in his ears, / Struck thro' with pangs of hell."The soul realizes that the isolation and solitude are in fact painful and it has become "A spot of dull stagnation" and nauseatingly reflexive: "Back on herself her serpent pride had curl'd." Unhappily, the soul asks the speaker/poet to make her a "cottage in the vale...where I may mourn and pray." The poem does not quite end so neatly, however -- the final stanza gives the soul telling the speaker not to destroy the palace towers, for "Perchance I may return with others there / When I have purged my guilt."

This was another one of Tennyson's earlier poems, written first in 1833 and republished in 1842. On the most basic level, the allegorical nature of this poem seems fairly straightforward, the moral clear. As contemporaries remarked, and as Tennyson himself confirmed, the poem is about the limits of the artist in isolation, the intellectual thinker who has lost his connection to real life. A slightly more complicated allegory might be one which warns against becoming seduced by the power of the Romantic "symbol," reveling in its poetic power and forgetting, perhaps, its essential connection to the human (After all the poem begins as Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" does) and hence its limitations in aiding the poet to reach something greater.

Tennyson's dedication to Richard Chevenix Trench, who is said to have inspired this poem, indicates the limits of a purely allegorical interpretation of his poem while not denying its general validity. Tennyson wrote, in 1832: "I send you friend, a sort of allegory / (You are an artist and you will understand / Its many lesser meanings ) of a soul...." These so-called "lesser meanings," I argue, complicate the allegory in important ways. Perhaps the most obvious complication is the final stanza, in which the soul repents of her pride engendered by living in the palace of art but yet thinks that she might return. "Perchance," she says, "I may return with others there" (italics are mine). What these lines seem to reveal, then, is that the sin is not in the attempt to reach an understanding which transcends contingencies of time and human suffering, but in the apartness, solitude, and isolation through which this transcendence has been pursued. The soul's "perchance," however, seems uncertain--how does one actually transcend contingencies of time and human suffering when one is with others? Or, does the soul mean "with other souls?" Wouldn't this be the same essential sin of isolation then?

This final stanza deliberately avoids answering such questions but it serves as an acknowledgment that even when the soul has "learned" she still desires and yearns for transcendent understanding. This desire seems as essential to the nature of the soul as its realization that it cannot be solitary and apart. While the poem offers no way of reconciling the two and definitely still critiques isolation, it doesn't suggest that one can or should simply give up on the desire for transcendence that drives the tendency towards apartness.
Another complication that might yield "lesser meaning" comes out of the strange detachment of the speaker from the soul. The regularity of the stanzas, the consistency of a rather matter-of-fact tone signal this detachment. The feminine gender also tends to further distance the speaker from soul (presuming most audiences would presume speaker is male knowing the poet to be Tennyson, and that such thoughts on art and the universal are generally appropriated only to men). The clinical attitude that the speaker has towards the progress of his soul lends to the poem is in deep contrast to the fluctuating emotions often in the dramatic monologues that Tennyson wrote. While the soul in the palace of art goes through the many moods depending on what room she inhabits, the speaker is oddly stoic and without tension. I would argue he almost seems (soullessly) sterile (especially in contrast to the female soul) to a fault. Yet, but paradoxically, he creates. This paradox perhaps critiques the detachment, suggesting that creation independent of the soul might be beautiful and transcendent, but ultimately rather stillborn, stagnant.