Maud: by Alfred Tennyson - Summary & Analysis

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      Maud was published in 1855, and took many of Tennyson's admirers by surprise, causing indeed consternation in some quarters. In place of the gravity of In Memoriam, a strident and querulous voice was heard, raging against its disappointment, and anathematising the corruption of commercial England, with its financial speculations and its lies about peace, its marriage markets for the rich, and its poor huddled in their dreadful dwellings.

      The variety of its versification reflects the rapidly shifting moods of the unstable speaker, who goes mad after the death of his beloved Maud and apparently recovers his sanity only by devoting himself to the national cause in the Crimean War with Russia. As has been suggested, it is an audaciously experimental work. The twisted single vision of reality which it embodies is both a modern view, and a modern mode.

Maud was published in 1855, and took many of Tennyson's admirers by surprise, causing indeed consternation in some quarters. In place of the gravity of In Memoriam, a strident and querulous voice was heard, raging against its disappointment, and anathematising the corruption of commercial England, with its financial speculations and its lies about peace, its marriage markets for the rich, and its poor huddled in their dreadful dwellings.


      Maud starts with the hero alone in his house on the moor, raging against the corrupt age which has destroyed his father, calling for war, as more honourable than what is now called peace, and declaring his intention of burying himself. With the appearance of Maud, whom he knew as a child and who is the daughter of the man who has ruined his father, this resolution is broken. He struggles against love, thinking her proud and hard, but yields to his recognition of her kindness. His fears return, with the appearance of a titled wooer of whom her arrogant brother seems to approve. This brother, who ignores him ('Gorgonized me that is, turned me to stone from head to foot/with a stony British stare') is now seen as the inheritor of the sin of Maud's family, who apparently ruined and rejected his family. It seems only Maud is pure, by some 'peculiar mystic grace' her mother's child only. In spite of all his suspicions and fears, she confesses her love for him, without her brother's knowledge. He passes into an ecstatic dream of happiness, looking forward eagerly to seeing her after the ball, in her rose-garden. Their meeting is interrupted by Maud's brother, with 'the babe faced lord' who stands 'gaping and grinning by'. Harsh words are exchanged, and a blow is struck. The inevitable duel follows within the hour, in the pit or hollow where the body of the hero's father was found, and Maud's brother falls dying. Maud is stricken with grief, and the hero escapes to France, where he wanders in Brittany, tormented by remorse. He hears of Maud's death, and returns to London, oppressed by the roaring of the wheels', and 'the squares and streets,' And the faces that one meets, 'Hearts with no love for me'. The end of the second part is the famous madhouse scene, in which his old desire for burial finds strange expression, and in which the incidents of the story are distorted in his crazed mind.

      The third and last part must be considered to be a failure. It is easy enough to see that Tennyson is trying to bring the wheel full circle, with the reminiscences in it of some of the early sections. It is possible to argue that although he said of his hero that he was now sane, though shattered, he is merely exchanging one obsession for another, with his desire to atone by taking part in what is presented as a national struggle against Russia. But although the sinking of his individuality in a national cause is typical of a modern tendency to simplify life by associating oneself with a national movement—a tendency to which the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century bear witness — Tennyson's apparent willingness to believe in this solution suggests that there were things in Maud which were too close to him to be expressed even in a form of drama. Imperfect, technically dazzling, as firmly rooted in contemporary reality as in mental instability, Maud will always remain as typical of Tennyson in one way as In Memoriam is in another.

      The tendency to suicide in Maud is strong, and its conclusion represents a kind of suicide, since the hero looks forward to his death as will as his service, as a form of atonement. Suicide, the death of the individual as a solution and release, is a recurring theme in Tennyson.


      In comparison with In Memoriam, Maud has been called the antiphonal voice to In Memoriam, which seems to imply a comparison rather than a contrast. Both poems are the sustained expression of serious and largely unhappy states of mind. Both strike one as being to a great extent personal. Both trace a spiritual progress into the heart of darkness from which they emerge with some positive assertions of faith and purpose. But a contrast also has to be made. For a while In Memoriam maintains dignity and control even in its most troubled expressions of doubt and grief Maud voices a black, raging despair and, with it, a kind of ecstasy that is almost equally beyond the control of reason. This contrast is made more forcible by the differences of technique. In In Memoriam the unity of verse-form helps to control the emotion; by contrast with Maud this is a classical, regulated expression, submitting itself to a fairly rigorous discipline imposed by metre and rhythm. Maud, however, recognises no law of composition: it is a medley of styles and forms, the verses varying in response to the mood. This gives free rein to the moodiness of the narrator, the I of the poem; and so, in a much more romantic, undisciplined way, the poem can be an expression of personality, raging in a fierce, exclamatory kind of verse, swooning ecstatically in long lines or tripping along daintily in short ones as the mood takes it In Memoriam speaks to us, across the gap of a hundred years, from a position at the centre of the Victorian world picture. Maud is still a nineteenth-century grotesque: a vivid, often beautiful freak.


      Maud is described in the sub-title as a Monodrama', a form half-way between play and dramatic monologue. We are spectators of a sequence of events; or rather, we see them, as in the off-stage happenings of a Greek tragedy, through the eyes of a narrator. What we view at first hand is the narrator's mind. Maud is a play, all soliloquies; or, perhaps, a sequence of connected sketches performed by one of those highly skilled artists who can stand on the stage alone and fill it with objects and people, all invisible, all magically vivid. But the centre of interest remains the speaker himself, and if we go further than merely finding an 'interest', we must be able to feel a strong sympathy with him. The poem can have a powerful emotional effect, but only, if the 'I' is felt as a character whom we can like and pity.

Hostile Reception

      The hostility to Maud had several causes. One of them was the quite genuine difficulty of dealing with an unfamiliar kind of writing. Tennyson makes his reader work. We are not always told in so many words what has happened or where we are: the fact of Maud's death, for example, is not made explicit, but has to be conjectured. The charge of 'obscurity mistaken for profundity' was not a surprising one under the circumstances. The other criticism is represented by the phrase, 'a vulgar war Whoop.' The National Review said 'No prominence to the cause and principle involved can make war a duty and a blessing. In so doing he (Tennyson) is echoing and furthering one of the evils of a war — the danger that it should be loved for its own sake. Now there is no doubt that the character, the 'I' of Maud, is open to this charge.

      The idea that the best comes out of man under the red reign of war was powerfully urged by Mussolini and Hitler. The emotional attractiveness of feeling oneself as part of a huge patriotic movement was so exactly, what Hitler's mass rallies exploited that we must look at it all with suspicion and distaste. When we read the history of the Crimean War with its incalculable suffering and wastage, the exultant welcome given to it in Maud registers as idealistic silliness of a particularly dangerous kind. To this extent the strong reaction against Maud is to the Victorians' credit.

      But, of course, Tennyson had a ready answer. It was that the hero of Maud was not to be taken for Tennyson himself, and that the hero's attitude to war was not necessarily the poet's own. One would like to be able to see Maud as an objective, imaginative exploration into a neurotic, diseased mind, in which the 'solution' that the character finds to his troubles is itself a part of the disease. This would be possible, for as a psychological 'case' the hero of Maud is thoroughly consistent and credible. It is quite consistent that he should think he has found a solution to his own troubles and to the world's, when in reality he is pursuing a romantic illusion, licking a sweet that is his (and the world's) poison. The trouble is, there is too little evidence that Tennyson saw it that way. On the contrary, all the biographical evidence as well as the feeling of the poem suggests that Tennyson saw in the last part of Maud the regeneration of his hero and a source of inspiration to his countrymen.

Regeneration Theme and Social Criticism

      Regeneration, national and moral, is an important theme in Maud. The need for it is acutely felt throughout. Introverted, self-pitying and unstable as he is, the hero of Maud is nevertheless a telling social critic. Tennyson certainly stands behind his character when he is denouncing the evils of commercialism and the industrial towns (Part I, 1, 9 and 10): Capitalism, he sees (Part 1, 10, 1), has brought with it conditions of servitude where wealth is made for the mine-owner by:

Grimy nakedness dragging his trucks
And laying his trains in a poison'd gloom.

      Nor does so much sweated labour contribute to a fine way of life even for the class that profits from it. Instead, the commercial motive is everywhere, poisoning life and making peace a mockery (Part I, 1, 6 and 7). This much is trenchant social criticism and, allowing for rhetorical exaggeration, it is also just. Mammon is represented as being England's false god, and the narrator (Part III, 1, 2) looks forward to a time when:

The glory of manhood stand on his ancient height,
Nor Britain's one sole God be the millionaire.
No more shall commerce be all in all.

Autobiographical Elements and Objectivity

      In all the social criticism the narrator's opinions are almost certainly Tennyson's also.

      A further degree of closeness between Tennyson and the hero of Maud is suggested in a recent study called Tennyson's Maud, The Biographical Genesis by R.W. Rader. Rader argues that Maud is 'an autobiographical expression', and he shows convincingly that there are many connections between the poem and events in Tennyson's life. The narrator's father, for instance, would 'rage in his mood' much as did Tennyson's own father. In Maud’s father, the 'old man now lord of the broad estate and the Hall', there are several affinities with Tennyson's grandfather; and in the Hall itself, 'gill with the hand of A millionain', is a suggestion of the ostentatious homes of richer branches of I he family. Maud, Rader believes, is 'an image in which were blended Tennyson's memories of all three of the women whom he had successively loved'. Rader believes, there is an autobiographical reference when Maud, who has been associated with rose and lily various points in the poem, is described as 'Queen lily and rose in one'. Her nature has the beauties of the girls, and the deficiencies of neither. She is in fact virtually 'true woman-hood' as Tennyson found it in Emily Sellwood. 'The peace of God came into my life before the altar when I married her', said Tennyson years later. The hero of Maud was never so fortunate: he did not come to the altar and if he found the peace of God at all it was through warfare. But in creating him, Tennyson has relived much of his own life: his family troubles, his loves and private sufferings. As In Memoriam expressed all the disturbances, emotional and intellectual, which Hallam's death brought with it, so in Maud Tennyson expressed the joys and sorrows he had known through love. Both, then, are very personal poems, and it begins to look as though Maud, is after all the more personal of the two. 'Biographically', says Rader, 'Maud is a crucial document.' He calls it 'a recapitulation of the inner and outer circumstances of his tortured early life, a deeply rooted act of spiritual self-definition and affirmation by which, after the commitment initiated by marriage and the Laureateship, he moved from his earlier to his later career; it is the swan song of the bitter and troubled young poet, the inaugural hymn of the Laureate.'

      All told, then, there seems to be a large measure of identification between Tennyson and the character he has created in the narrator. When he defended himself from the charge of warmongering, saying that it was a mistake to assume that the author thought as this character thought, he was no doubt being quite sincere; he hardly suspected how much of himself was in what he had written.

      Tennyson also has created a real world for the drama to be set against. The wood, with its red-rimmed hollow; the garden, the stream, the Hall; later the cobbled streets of a Breton town, and the basement a yard beneath the street all are vividly present, parts of a conscientious artistic creation. During the process of composition his mind would have been essentially involved in this: not self-expression, but creation. It is not likely that he would be conscious of half the personal impulses and experiences that were guiding the creation, and he must have thought it exasperatingly naive of his critics to assume that the narrator of Maud was a mere 'front', a mouthpiece for the poet's own opinions. But in a deeper way than was probably suspected by those critics or by himself, he was 'giving of his own substance' in this poem. If we look at Maud as an object, a work of art with an existence complete in itself and independent of its author's, shall we not say that it is remarkably consistent and convincing as a psychological study? The 'solution' is part of the diseased mentality. The poem presents 'the madness', national and individual, from first to last: this is what it accomplishes. That is what those particular words in that particular order do for us. The accident that we happen to know something about the author does not alter those words and that order. Whatever the author's intention may have been (and we can never really know this), he has presented us with a remarkably vivid and interesting character in this narrator. If he had devised a 'satisfactory' form of regeneration, then we might have had cause to complain, for the man is clearly too deeply neurotic to make for himself anything that we might regard as a healthy solution. As it is, Tennyson is consistent and we have no reason for criticism.

      It would be unfair to leave Maud without giving credit for objective characterisation too. The accents of madness are well caught and particularly well-done is a kind of high-pitched excitement, with an odd mixture of naivety and cunning in its exaltation. Tennyson was in some measure able to stand aside and create a real character, like himself in part, yet not himself. He could broaden his scope, making 'the madness' a social theme as well as a matter of individual psychology: the madness of the peace that is no peace, where a supposedly Christian society is 'a world of plunder and prey' as surely as is the untamed world of nature.


      The poem has marked limitations. It fails to rise to the needs of the climax. 'Come into the garden, Maud' is brilliant, neat, and exciting in its rhythmic drive, but still not really worthy of its position as the crown and climax to the first 850 lines. Other limitations derive perhaps inevitably from the character of the speaker: the shrillness in denunciation, for example, which weakens the effectiveness of the social criticism. And there is also the radical inadequacy of judgement (whether Tennyson's or the character's) in the idea that through warfare and strong nationalism regeneration is possible.

      'The peculiarity of Maud', Tennyson said, 'is that different phases of passion in one person take the place of different characters'; and the effect of his own recitation was to set this conception and significance of the linked monodies, combined with the vivid musical rendering of a pathetic love-story. The first spark of love kindles rapidly into heat, and the emotion rises by degrees of intensity to the rapture of meeting Maud in the garden, falling again suddenly to the depths of bitter despair; until the luckless youth again recovers heart and strength in the stir and rumour of national war, and determines, as many have done before him, to stiffen his nerves by a course of energetic activity, and to try the bracing tonic of real danger.

      The poem in its development strikes all the lyrical chords, although it cannot be said that all of them are touched with equal skill. Probably the sustained and perfect execution of such a varied composition would be too arduous a task for any artist, since it is no easy matter to substitute, dramatically, different phases of passion in one person for different characters. Some considerable mental agility is needed to fall in with the rapid changes of mood and motive which succeed each other within the compass of a piece that is too short for the delineation of character: ranging from melodramatic horror in the opening stanzas to passionate and joyous melodies in the middle part, sinking into a dolorous wail, rising into! frenzy, and closing with the trumpet note of war. The mono drama has in fact its peculiar difficulties of execution; the speaker has to introduce himself and to explain the situation in a kind of indirect narrative that must be kept up to the lyrical pitch by effort and emphasis.


      In spite of limitations, Maud remains one of Tennyson's major achievements. The wooing and the winning of her, the rapid growth of a mutual passion, the stolen meetings, the plighting of troth, the ecstasy of his adoration, the waiting for her in the garden after a ball, are told in a series of exquisite lyrics, of which it may be said that the English language contains none better than the very best of them. The subtle influences of sight and sound of dawn and twilight,

the voice of the long sea wave as it swelled
Now and then in the dim grey dawn

      The call of the birds in the high Hall garden, the spreading cedar, the glance of an evening sun over the dark moorland, the chilly white mist falling like a shroud, mingle with and heighten the romance of their secret love passages, and bring shadowy presentiments of danger.

      It has been said that Maud's hero is like Hamlet. However, the two characters, Hamlet and Maud's lover, will not bear a moment's comparison from any point of view. But delirium is far less manageable in a poem than in a play, where violent scenes and speeches are admissible; and if we allow for this inevitable difficulty of execution, it may be agreed that the wandering incoherent mind of Maud's lover in his madness is effectively rendered. One may add that neither irony, nor fierce invective suits Tennyson's genius very well; they carry him too near to the perilous domain of rhetoric. It is to the lays of love and heart-rending lamentation in Maud, with their combined intensity and refinement, that unqualified praise may be accorded, to their romantic grace and their soft cadences, in which the melody seems inseparable from the meaning.

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