The Princess: by Alfred Tennyson - Summary & Analysis

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INTRODUCTION

      The Princess, published in November, 1847, owed much to contemporary literary doctrine. One of the doctrines held that poetry must contribute to the solution of social problems. So, in The Princess Tennyson takes up the subject of education for women. It is a very strange poem indeed. Partly a burlesque, it tells a tale of knights and ladies, quite deliberately fantastic and mock-serious most of the time. There are seven sections; hence the sub-title 'A Medley'. We return to the present for the conclusion, so the piece is set within a modern framework, and though the question of women's rights is not discussed directly, it is clear that the old tale is meant to focus upon it as a modern problem. Not that Tennyson's treatment was of a kind likely to arouse any revolutionary feeling in others. Apparently many of his readers thought that Tennyson's presentation of the women's university was meant as a satire, and although he made alterations designed to prevent that misconception, one can still see how it arose. However, lyrics like, 'Now sleeps the crimson petal', "Sweet and Low' and 'Come down, O Maid,' do far better on their own.

The Princess, published in November, 1847, owed much to contemporary literary doctrine. One of the doctrines held that poetry must contribute to the solution of social problems. So, in The Princess Tennyson takes up the subject of education for women. It is a very strange poem indeed. Partly a burlesque, it tells a tale of knights and ladies, quite deliberately fantastic and mock-serious most of the time. There are seven sections; hence the sub-title 'A Medley'. We return to the present for the conclusion, so the piece is set within a modern framework, and though the question of women's rights is not discussed directly, it is clear that the old tale is meant to focus upon it as a modern problem. Not that Tennyson's treatment was of a kind likely to arouse any revolutionary feeling in others. Apparently many of his readers thought that Tennyson's presentation of the women's university was meant as a satire, and although he made alterations designed to prevent that misconception, one can still see how it arose. However, lyrics like, 'Now sleeps the crimson petal', "Sweet and Low' and 'Come down, O Maid,' do far better on their own.
The Princess

SUMMARY

      Tennyson had been long meditating upon a social question that had been philosophically discussed since Rousseau's day, had been touched upon by Bentham and James Mill, but had never yet come within the sphere of practical English politics; and the outcome, in 1887, was his poem, The Princess.

      Here is a romantic tale, with the idea of a Female University for its theme and plot, and for its moral, the sure triumph of natural affections over any feminine attempt to ignore them, or to work out women's independence by a kind of revolt from the established intellectual dominion of man. Princess Ida repudiates a contract of marriage with a Prince to whom she has been betrothed in childhood, proposing to devote herself to the higher education of her own sex, in order that they may be mentally prepared to insist upon liberty and equality. But the Prince, with two comrades, puts on women's clothing, and they enter themselves as students in the college that admits women only within its bounds; they are speedily detected, as was obviously inevitable; and the contrabandists are scornfully expelled, as they fully deserved to be. The Prince's father declares war upon the father of the Princess to enforce the marriage contract; but it is agreed to settle the quarrel by a combat of fifty picked warriors on either side; when the Prince is beaten down ill the lists, the College is turned into a hospital for the wounded men, most of the girl graduates being judiciously ordered home. The Princess remains to nurse the defeated Prince and to read poetry by his bedside, with the natural consequence that in tending him she is drawn to love him. She abandons her University and marries her betrothed.

CRITICAL ANALYSIS

      The logical conclusion from the denouement is that matrimony is better for women than a life exclusively devoted to the superintendence of a sort of nunnery, in which girls are to be trained and fitted to cast off the yoke of men's pretentious superiority. The college was not projected by the Princess as an alternative or antidote to marriage, but only in order that, if afterwards they chose to wed, they might do so on equal terms of intellectual companionship. The underlying social philosophy is as usual, moderate and sensible: the supremacy of Love is temperately asserted; the true value of the poem is rightly made to consist in its decorative beauty, in some delicate delineation of characters, in verse of sustained musical effect, and in a few exquisite lyrics that vary the unrhymed metre.

      As a 'medley', The Princess mingled the idyllic mode and the mock-heroic in curious proportions with which (as the epilogue suggests) perhaps no one could be wholly satisfied. At all events, most of the Victorians who approved the "solemn close" deplored the initial levity of the action, whereas, the modern reader, who might commend the burlesque with all its epical hyperbole, must lament the gravity of the conclusion. The poet's intentions and his methods are indeed consciously ambiguous. His subject apparently concerns the rights of women in general and female education in particular - a timely Victorian issue; but he translates his theme from its place in a real present to an indeterminate setting in a pseudo-medieval past; and within the framework of his fantasy he seems undecided whether to attack or defend the feminist cause. Actually he identifies his feelings only with those of the Prince, whose "weird seizures" conveniently detach him at crucial moments from the outward events of the plot. Like the Prince, he is preoccupied less with the problem of feminism than with the character and conduct of Princess Ida, who, to be sure, has the attributes of Amazonian womanhood, but who also and more importantly is the imperious muse, the pride and intellect of poetry, walled off, like the soul in The Palace of Art from human life and love. The mock-epic style allows Tennyson to measure both the strength and the weakness of the Princess with a disengaged irony and at the same time to establish a context for the singing or reading of the exquisitely shaped blank verse lyrics in which his own emotion reaches its fullest expression. To these the Princess responds according to her limited capacity until she has achieved humility and understanding: "Tears, idle tears," she hears with disdain; but "Come down," O Maid, which accompanies her humanization, an idyll within an idyll, she reads with "luminous eyes" and trembling lips. The Prince's final address is necessarily serious, for it marks the triumph of love and the defeat of a cold aestheticism.

      Says Cazamian: "The Princess introduces a serious idea in a way at once attractive and pleasing, though not a little over sweet; the grave nature of the theme is often a disturbing element in the easy enjoyment of what is essentially a fantasy; and on the other hand the charm of the scenic descriptions tends to eclipse the rather fictitious dramatic action, borne up by characters who are too obviously the puppets of theory. And yet, the descriptive or emotional lyricism in the poem develops round the structure of a subject; the scenes or episodes, a trifle deficient in sustained energy, which the poet spontaneously produces, nevertheless group themselves into a whole where each supports the other. Several of the interludes are of rare and entrancing beauty."

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