Tennyson as A Representative of Victorian Age

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      "No age of poetry can be called the age of one man with such critical accuracy as the later nineteenth century is with us, the age of Tennyson", said Saintsbury. In Tennyson's poetry are writ large not only the broad tendencies of the Victorian Age, but also the prejudices and obtusenesses of the classes that counted in politics, 'society' and public opinion. If the Age stood in galvanized fascination before the march of science with its 'fairy tales', so did Tennyson — like the dithyrambic speaker in Locksley Hall. It exulted in the apoplectic expansion of commerce, the inrush of wealth accumulated in the hands of a handful at the top, the power and glory of empire, the magnificence of London, it found its poet to celebrate that exultation with the resources of his harmony and the telling framework of classical symbolism. If the age saw in the Empire an opportunity and excuse to take up "the white man's burden to civilize lesser breeds without the law", it heard its imperialistic consciousness echoed by its Laureate with pontifical authority. Victorian England had its full share of that national self-glorification which few countries, if any, were entirely free from. And Tennyson to a large extent embodied it in his work.

Political Views

      In regard to the central political movement of the century the struggle for the substance of individual liberty and the broadening of the franchise, Tennyson passed from an early suspicion of democracy, through a wholesome dislike of democracy to a loathing of democracy so fierce and so violent that it "upset not only his health and his temper, but even his prosody," says Nicolson. What he meant by Freedom was the attitude that took enslavement and political subjection as part of the permanent order of things, which may change, slowly, in "ten thousand years". To agitate for rights, to disturb the placid flow of daily life for liberty or for the decencies of life were, according to him, treason to the Goddess of Freedom as he understood her. The prospect of the proletariat rebelling for bread and better life fills him with a vague apprehension:

Slowly comes a hungry people, as a lion creeping nigher,
Glare at one that nods and winks behind a slowly-dying. (Locksley Hall)

      In In Memoriam, he goes out of his way to condemn "the red fool-fury of the Seine". He is never tired of denouncing "the falsehood of extremes". Tennyson's political views are those of a hide-bound Victorian Tory who believed in maintaining the power of the old landed squires and distrusted the rising power of the new commercial aristocracy.

Attitude to Women

      Early and Middle Victorian England, like the other epochs and countries, looked upon women as man's inferior in mental power and station. Her sphere was the home and her function was the propagation of the race. Of course, there was a great deal of "mock chivalry" but that was all gilding. When the King in The Princess says,

The bearing and the training of a child.
Is woman's wisdom...

      He speaks out the general Victorian view of the matter. The father maintained the discipline of the home, very often with an iron hand, but from progressive minds there came to be heard more and more audibly, views that challenged the supremacy of the lordly male and affirmed the rights of women, to be treated intellectually and morally on the same footing as man. There was afoot, too, a project for a Women's College. In his The Princess, we see Tennyson hunting with these Liberal hounds and running with the Conservative hares, and making the best of both the worlds. In the same breath, he took care to please reactionary prejudice and his other self by rigorously confining man and woman to their respective spheres:

Man for the field and woman 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.

      This makes us wonder if it is not young Tennyson himself who speaks through the lover in Locksley Hall:

Nature made them blinder motions bounded in a shallower brain!
Woman is the lesser man, and all thy passions match'd with mine
Are as moonlight unto sunlight, and as water unto wine—

      The Victorian husband looked upon marriage as an institution meant for securing his own comfort and satisfaction.

      The typical Tennyson heroine is meek and submissive like Amy (in Locksley Hall) 'whose eyes hung with a minute observance', dreaming night and day of the hero of her heart and perishing of unrequited love.

Science and Religion

      Perhaps no other age witnessed so acute an anguish in the minds of earnest men, to whom faith is an eternal spirit summing up all values was an inner necessity, as did the Victorian Age. It is this anguish of his age that is enshrined with an imperishable interest in Tennyson's poetry.

      Science from different points of the compass, and progressively as a series of catastrophes, had pulled down the universe as people had conceived of it in the West, from the first syllable of recorded time. As Astronomy revealed the terrific vastness and wildernesses of space dotted with millions of uninliabited worlds of mere dead matter, Geology unfolded aeons of time in which the story of life was only a scene, and the story of man but a passage in that scene. Biology came in to blow up faith in the creation of man by a benevolent Providence. The structure of animal forms, the appearance of species and all the wanton wastage in nature, gave no support to the belief in a benign purpose or omniscient design. If one wants to understand the nature of the appalling void that gaped in men's minds one has only to read cantos 34, 35, 36, 54, 55 and 56, of In Memoriam, The Two Voices, The Ancient Sage, and Vastness.

      The issue or the central problem round which the minds of thoughtful men were coming to revolve, can be very simply stated: "What was the standing of personality, the finite human personality, in a world which every year was revealing itself more clearly as a process of perpetual flux? We may perhaps forget, among our own more pressing concerns, how formidable an attack on human dignity and personal values, the ground of all Western philosophy and religion, was implicit in the new conceptions of geological and biological time." The answer that Tennyson gave to these problems may, or may not, satisfy us today, but it did win for thousands "in the season of their distress the guidance and assurance for which they asked." Tennyson declared again and again that evolution, instead of taking away purpose and meaning from the world, opened out endless gradation of higher and higher forms of intelligence and goodness, to the highest of which man can climb if only he would will aright. Man, "the seeming prey of cycling storms" can turn the myriad shocks of evolution to his spiritual gain if he will but

Arise and fly
The reeling Faun, the sensual feast,
Move upward, working out the beast
And let the ape and tiger die (In Memoriam)

      His exhortation "to cling to the faith beyond the forms of faith" appealed to philosophical minds who recoiled from many of the dogmas of religion. The conflict between "Faith and Doubt" in Tennyson's mind was the reflection of the same conflict in the foremost minds of the time. He did not depart from his own convictions to offer to his contemporaries a working solution of their theological difficulties. Profound or shallow, tossed between head and heart, he remained true to his inner promptings. His moments of faith soothed others, while his moments of inner anguish reflected the anguish of Victorian thought.

Select University Questions

1. How far does Tennyson's poetry represent the ideas, tastes and prevailing currents of thought of Englishmen belonging to his generation?
2. How far is Tennyson the prophet and interpreter of his age?
3. What do we learn of the general intellectual and political tendencies of the nineteenth century from reading Tennyson's poetry?

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