Alfred Lord Tennyson: Treatment of Love & Women in Poetry

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      Just as one of the most crucial points about a pact is his treatment of Nature, so again; his view of woman affords a key to the character of his mind and the quality of his genius, the love poetry of the world is one of the most fascinating inheritances. Love has always furnished tlie strongest impulse to poetry. Burns displays his highest genius in his love lyrics. Rossetti lives in the vision of womanhood. Even Wordsworth kindles the vision of love. It is true that he sees the ideal woman not with any heat of passion but as a calm and spiritual radiance suffering the spirit and purifying the heart. Perhaps the only poet least affected by the enchantment of love is Mathew Arnold. But even he has written love poems. Love has always been the theme of poetry; love has inspired some of the greatest poetry of the world. In English language, Shakespeare, Donne, Shelley, Byron, Browning, etc., are some of the greatest of love-poets.

      Tennyson is also a great love-poet, and his treatment of love is unique in many ways. "Tennyson is so far from an exception that love forms the great motive pre-eminence and influence of woman." He has mastered the feeling of love, even how to write voluptuously, and yet retain the bloom of a delicate and almost virginal purity. He knows how to be passionate but his passion never betrays any weakness. In this he stands nearer to Wordsworth than to Keats and Burns. But Wordsworth's woman has no commanding position and is forgotten in the presence of nature. But, Tennyson's woman is pre-eminent and the fascination of woman is as strong as the charm of Nature. The following characteristics of his treatment of love are especially noteworthy.

A Poet of Conjugal Love

      He is primarily and mainly a poet of conjugal love. As Compton-Rickett points out, "Tennyson elected to treat love, not with Byron as an elemental force, or with Shelley and Browning as a transcendental passion, or with Rossetti as a mystic mingling of sense and spirit, but as a domestic sentiment."

      In his treatment of love and sex-relationship, Tennyson is a typical Victorian. The Victorians had to effect a compromise between the unprecedented licentiousness of the previous age, and the Christian assetic ideal of the complete negation of sex. Sex was a fact and they could not shut their eyes to it. Moreover, it was necessary that the British race should be propagated, so they affected a compromise, elevated the biological necessity of propagation into a moral virtue, and evolved the idea of domestic love and marriage. Tennyson in his poetry fascinated domestic love, he cast over it from the glow of romance.

His Purity in Love

      The dominant characteristic of Tennyson's love is its conspicuous purity. It is highly unchivalrous and extremely reverential. He sees it in its spiritual working and not in its fleshly form. With few exceptions he shuns the fleshly aspect of love. It is married love which Tennyson extols; he has no use for passion which is not sublimated into conjugal love. Tennyson's treatment of love is not only manly; it is also eminently wholesome. He placed high value on law and order, on discipline and self-control, and his conception of love is but an expression of his emphasis on law and self-control. It may be that he himself was not exposed to physical temptation, or it may have been that he suppressed the animal with in him.

Reverence for Womanhood

      The reverence for womanhood is marked in all his works. "Woman as he conceives her is the divinely purifying element in human life. Chivalry to the sign-manual of every noble soul. The appreciations of women are more delicate than men's, her instinct is surer, her instruction more certain, her spirit more gracious, more tender, more divine." However, Tennyson's idealisation of domestic love does not mean that passion and the ecstasy of passion are entirely absent from his poetry. There are poems in which passion leaps out with all its intensity. Thus in Fatima the expression of love is infused with passion and sensuousness:

Last night, when some one spoke his name,
From my swift blood that went and came
A thousand, little shafts of flame
Were shiver'd in my narrow frame.
O Love, five! once he drew
With one long kiss my whole soul thro,
My lips, as sunlight drinketh dew.

Woman's Place

      Tennyson's woman may inspire and lead man, but she does sit by her own distinctive qualities. She may indeed govern man, but it is not by the right of superior intellectual endowments, but the force of the nobility of her soul. Her passions matched with man's -

"Are as moonlight, unto sunlight, and water unto wine"

      He elucidate womanhood with Victorian mode of thought. The following lines explicitly points out his liking for women's domestic involvement.

Man for the field and women for the hearth;
Man for the sword and for the needle she;
Man with the head and woman with the heart:
Man to command and woman to obey:
All else confusion.

      It was a dishonest and selfish theory evolved by man for the greater comfort and satisfaction of his own sex. Marriage was the be-all and end-all of life for woman, and if she was ever inclined to question this arrangement she is advised to repeat to herself, 'I cannot understand I love'.

      The central point of the whole argument in The Princess is that woman was never meant to wrestle with man in the arena of intellectual pre-eminence or the active business of the world. He will reverence her to the utmost, but he will not abdicate in her favour. Man rules through brain; woman through heart. If man is to be ruled by woman, it can only be by a spiritual rule, not an intellectual one. The power of woman is not to be wasted in vulgar strife with man for social pre-eminence; it is too subtle, too ethereal. That power finds its highest exercise in moulding man to morality and imparting the spirit of purity. Three is no strife between man and woman -

The woman's cause is man's; they rise or sink
Together dwarfed or Godlike, bound or free.

His Treatment of Love and Passion

      As already mentioned above, Tennyson is opposed to lawless love and passion. He wrote a number of love-poems. But most of them deal with pure married love or higher spiritual love. According to him, only married love is sacred and must be respected. There is no place in his poetry for sensuality and impure or illicit love. Generally the love he deals with is different from the elemental passion of Byron's poetry, or from the transcendental passion of Browning. His love is purely domestic. His love consist of courting, wedding and the cheerful blessings and preoccupations of married life. Even in Maud which has been characterised by Stephen Gwyn as a "triumph of sustained love". Tennyson has taken care to avoid the sensuous aspects of love and to emphasise only the spiritual side of it:

And most of all would I flee from the cruel madness of love
The honey of poison flowers and all the measureless ill

      Tennyson calls love — "strong son of God, immortal love". In the Idylls, he emphasises the spiritual love of king Arthur and condemns the rainfall love of Guinevere. The girls in Tennyson's poetry are shadowy figures, and do not have the beauty of actual life. They are imbued with higher feelings of love and are purely idealised figures.

      A rare glimpse of Tennyson's passionate treatment of Love can be seen in Fatima where the lover kisses his lady love as intensely is the scorching sun absorbs dew.

Tennyson's Delicate Woman

      Among the delicate, subdue heroines of Tennyson princess Ida in The Princess stands out for her sternness. According to Tennyson beauty of woman lies in her delicacy as explained in the lines:

A simple maiden in her flower
Is worth a hundred coats of arms.

      Tennyson's portraits of fanciful "maidens in the early poems are all touched with romance of a somewhat dilettante sort. The very names, Claribel, Marina, Oriana, Madeline, Rosalind, Fatima, are redolent of romance. But these 'airy fairy', 'ever varying', 'faintly smiling' or 'rare pale' damsels are all shadowy and unreal, they are not 'for human nature's daily food'."

'Strong woman' and 'Suffering maiden' in Tennyson's poem

      In Tennyson's early poetry we find predominance of two kinds of woman — the 'strong woman' and 'suffering maiden'. Both the types resurfaced in the later part of his career. The strong woman is not benevolent in nature but, rather malicious, callous in her intentions. Thais, in Persia, leads the mob to the palace of Persepolis. She shows no consciousness for her wrongful act. Tennyson made her woman in Lisette 'half-coquette' who with her scheming hands wants to play with love. Juxtaposed to this 'a suffering maiden' Laura in A contrast is subjected to torment inflicted by emotional pangs.

      These two types of woman emerge again in some of his later poems. Mariana is the epitome of 'suffering maiden' in sharp contrast to 'cruel little Lilian'.


      These two type of women somehow indicate Tennyson's dichotomy. In subconscious level Tennyson tends to indulge in sensual pleasure but the moral guardian within him, in a true Victorian mould, tries to suppress that desire. His unfulfillment gets the expression in characterisation of 'suffering maiden'. His other part represents the strong, confident woman.

Select University Questions

1. Discuss Tennyson as a Poet of Love and Marriage.
2. What is the role woman plays in Tennyson's poetry?

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