Oenone: by Alfred Tennyson - Summary & Analysis

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INTRODUCTION

      Oenone was first published in the volume of 1832, (dated 1833) but was recast for the volume of 1842. Oenone is the first of the classical pieces, and should be compared with The Lotos-Eaters, Ulysses and Tithonus. In this poem, Tennyson treats the classic myth in a new way, making it a vehicle of modern ideas in bringing out the symbolic significance of the story. Oenone is also a good example of the use of an ideal landscape, that is, a landscape invented by the poet to represent the atmosphere or mood of the poem.

Oenone was first published in the volume of 1832, (dated 1833) but was recast for the volume of 1842. Oenone is the first of the classical pieces, and should be compared with The Lotos-Eaters, Ulysses and Tithonus. In this poem, Tennyson treats the classic myth in a new way, making it a vehicle of modern ideas in bringing out the symbolic significance of the story. Oenone is also a good example of the use of an ideal landscape, that is, a landscape invented by the poet to represent the atmosphere or mood of the poem.
Oenone

      Much of the poem was written in the valley of Cauteretz, in the Pyrenees, in 1830, but Tennyson has breathed into the landscape the essential spirit of all mountain valleys; the Pyrenees gave the inspiration, but the description would apply almost equally well to Switzerland and Kashmir.

      Oenone was the daughter of a river-god, Kebren, and Paris was the son of Priam, king of Troy. Because his mother had dreamed that Paris would be cause of the ruin of Troy, he was exposed at birth on the slopes of Mount Ida to perish, but some shepherds found him and brought him up as one of themselves. Here later, as a shepherd, he met and fell in love with Oenone. The poem gives the story of the famous judgement and of the subsequent desertion of Oenone. In The Death of Oenone, Tennyson returned to the subject.

      The classical authority for the story of Oenone and Paris is the Athenian Apollodorus (2nd century B.C.) who wrote a chronicle of events beginning with the fall of Troy. Tennyson makes of the story an allegory of the choice of ideals in life which every man, at some time, has to make. Paris was the second son of Priam.

CRITICAL SUMMARY

      This poem is in the form of a complaint from Oenone to Mother Ida.

      Oenone came to the lovely valley of Ida. She was deserted by Paris, who was once her companion on the hills. She was pale and miserable. Her eyes were full of tears, her heart full of love and her heart was breaking. She was weary of her life. She was the daughter of the river-god. She would sing out her sorrow so that her heart might forget its deep woe for a moment.

      Once evil-hearted handsome Paris came leading a black goat where Oenone was sitting alone with down dropped eyes. He had put on a leopard skin on his shoulder and his bright hair fell over his neck. She fell in love with him at once and her heart went forth to embrace him. Paris smiled at her and showed her in his palm a golden fruit, on which it was engraved "For the most fair".

      Eris had thrown down this golden apple of discord and now brought it to Paris, who was selected as the judge or the umpire. The three goddesses came to the bower and at the touch of their feet, the crocus burst like fire into bright red leaves. The peacock danced on tree-tops.

      First goddess Hera made an offer of royal power if Paris gave the judgement in her favour. She promised that Paris would rule over empires and kingdoms with honour and homage from the people. She said that power was the aim of all our actions. Greek myth has it that during the nuptials of Peleus and Thetis, Eris, who alone among the gods was excluded, threw a golden apple among the marriage guests with the inscription, "To the Fairest". A dispute arose between Hera and Aphrodite over the apple and Zeus ordered Hermes to take the goddesses to Paris, who tended his flocks on Mt. Gargarus, a height on Mt. Ida, and who was to award the apple. To influence his decision Hera offered him power, Athene, martial glory, and Aphrodite, the most beautiful of women. He awarded the apple to Aphrodite, who in turn assisted him in carrying off from Sparta Helen, the wife of Menelaus. The rape of Helen gave rise to the Trojan War, during which Paris brought down upon himself the detestation of his own friends by his cowardice and his stubborn refusal to give up Helen. He was fatally wounded with a poisoned arrow by Philoctetes, at the taking of Troy.

      The story of Paris and Oenone, and the judgement of Paris, thus takes us to the very genesis of mighty epos. At the end of Tennyson's poem, Oenone decides to talk with the wild Cassandra and hear her tell of the din of an impending war, ever in her ears. And in the story we too can see the ominous rumble of the ten years' havoc in Troy.

      And she would grant him this supreme power in abundance.

      Then came Pallas, the goddess Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and she offered him highest wisdom in return for a favourable award. She said that self-reverence, self-knowledge and self-control in life alone lead to supreme power in life. True power is wisdom to know and do the right thing without fear of consequences. This gift of wisdom would enable him to push forward successfully through a life of shocks and dangers. Vigour joined with wisdom would make life perfect.

      Oenone asked Paris to accept this offer, but Paris turned a deaf ear.

      Then came the beautiful Aphrodite, fresh as foam. She promised Paris the fairest and most loving wife in Greece, if he gave the verdict in her favour. Paris accepted this offer. Oenone closed her eyes for fear. She was left alone in the bower. She would be alone till she died. Oenone was beautiful and loving. Once a wild leopard went crouching in the wood on seeing her pass. She would sit alone in the valley. She would wish to meet that hateful Aphrodite, who was the cause of her sorrow. Paris had sworn her love a thousand times under the hill and in the valley. She was now deserted by him and she wished to die. Yet she would not die alone. The child in her womb also would not live to see the light of the day.

      She would arise and go down to Troy and talk with Cassandra, who had prophesied great discord and war.

CRITICAL ANALYSIS AND APPRECIATION

Introduction

      Oenone is cast in the form of an impassioned prayer by Oenone, the wife of Paris, to 'many-fountained', Ida. She tells how she had been bereft of Paris when he had been called upon to award the golden apple to the most beautiful of the three goddesses who contested the prize. Hera, the Queen of Heaven offered him power and dominion; Pallas, the wisdom that comes from self-reverence, self-knowledge, self control and Aphrodite 'the fairest and most loving wife in Greece'. Oenone shut her eyes for fear. When she looked again, Aphrodite had departed with the prize, and Paris to seek his reward, the beautiful Helen, for the love of whom he was to bring upon Troy the evil prophesied at his birth. With one last despairing cry, Oenone went uncomforted down to Troy, to talk with the prophetess Cassandra, who already had heard 'the sound of armed men' about the city ringing in her ears.

Ancient Theme Modernised

      As in all Tennyson's poems based on Greek legend, there is a philosophical significance. Paris judging the goddesses is as a man assessing the values of Life itself, which offers certain gifts — the power that comes from the mind and intellect; that finer power which is the wisdom to follow right because right is right; and the seductive charm of the physically beautiful. For Paris to choose the gift of Aphrodite, was to bring upon himself and Oenone pain and death and upon Troy the ten years' war; even as for every man it was a disaster and shame to exalt the sense above the soul.

Theme Modernised

      Here we have the classical wine in a Tennysonian bottle with a distinctive threefold colour: melodious sorrow, high moralizing and attunement of Nature to emotion. The ancient theme is modernized: the Greek soul of the story, smothered by romanticism and didacticism, is reborn with a new light and appeal.

Artistic Excellences

      If there is loss, there is also compensation. The most striking of the compensating features is the picture of the loveliest of the vales in Ida, a picture partly drawn from the Pyrenees and partly invented, which delights at once the eye and ear. We have Tennyson's skill in making us see a thing with the music of sounds:

The swimming vapour slopes athwart the glen,
Puts forth an arm, and creeps from pine to pine,
And loiters slowly drawn.

      The "slow-wrought, concentrated lines" imitate the lazy movement of the mists as they are thinned by the morning sun. Their fall from ledge to ledge of the long brook is heard in "cataract to the sea." Presently, the exordium puts on grandeur, when it images topmost Gar gar us, in lonely majesty, breasting the sunrise. In the far distance we discern through the widening gorges, the sense of the tragedy of which the Judgement of Paris is the prelude.

      The mountain-slopes and pines and streams to which Oenone bemoans her lot are part and parcel of her being. The mountain-nymph and her haunts are inseparable. Mother Ida "hearkens to her cry, the stream is loud because of her wrongs, the very stars of heaven are trembling above her." Deserted by Paris and left alone on the hills, she finds the dark, tall pines cut down as her own life is by Paris: her heart breaks almost for the thought: "Never, never more shall lone Oenone see the morning mist sweep through them," or the moonlit slips of silver-cloud. The ruined folds and the fragments tumbled from the glen reflect the ravage that has been wrought in her life. Nature and man are always shown, in Tennyson's poetry, either as mutually interwoven or in harmony, and so they are here. Fine veins of minute observation create the atmosphere of the noonday quiet holding the hill with the grasshopper silent on the grass, the lizard motionless like his shadow on the stone, the drooping purple-flowers, the golden bee in its lily-cradle.

      The poem has a lovely landscape painting, but the natural background which is described in the poem is not that of Mount Pyrenees, which Tennyson had visited with his friend Hallam. The poem is in blank verse and it is a heart-rending cry of Oenone addressed to Mount Ida. "Stateliness of movement, fullness of sound are its chief characteristics. These effects are produced partly by a careful employment of open and closed vowels, partly by avoiding a weak tenth syllable; the lines, though not necessarily end-stopped, have weight enough at the close to give emphasis to the turn of the verse, and majesty to the whole rhythm", says Morton Luce. Its superb imagery, is its elegiac mood, its lyrical, narrative and dramatic passages and its verbal felicities are its most conspicuous features.

      Passionate lyric is to be found in Oenone. The description of Aphrodite is one such passage, as is the passage where Oenone describes her eager passion in greeting Paris.

Allegorical Significance

      The poet is not satisfied with the simple idea of human sorrow. He must make it an allegory of the wooing of man's spirit by Power, Knowledge and Love, and the overwhelming temptation that lurks in the last. The words of Pallas have the serene exaltation and chastened beauty of the goddess herself.

      At the close of the poem we hear the seismic tremors of the ten years' tragedy soon to be enacted in Troy. The Oenone of the Greek story had the gift of prophecy, but not Tennyson's; to endow her with that gift, he rightly felt, would muffle the pity of her sorrow; but she will talk with the wild Cassandra and hear her tell of the fire dancing before her and the never-remitting sounds of war ringing in her ears.

      In Tennyson's hands this old classical story has not merely remained a story-poem, but the legend of the golden apple has a deep allegorical meaning also. Paris stands for a man wavering between the various values of life, or ideals which he is going to follow. Hera stands for Power, Athene stands for Wisdom and Aphrodite stands for sensuous pleasure and physical beauty. There are three broad types of men—those who run after power; those who seek knowledge and wisdom in life; and those who indulge in pleasures of the physical senses. Tennyson leaves us in no doubt as to what he thinks to be the highest ideal or value of life. He is in favour of Moral Law, which asks a man to know and do the right without fear of consequences. Those who, like Paris, follows the sensuous pleasures come to grief. This course brings disaster to Paris, to Oenone and to Troy.

Moralistic Element

      Tennyson's way of presenting the temptation is interesting:

Men, in power
Only, are like gods, who have attain'd
Rest in happy place and quiet seats
Above the thunder, with undying bliss
In knowledge of their own supremacy.

      It is not the glory, the excitement, the opportunity or the responsibility of power which is stressed, but its most passive attribute, security. Security, moreover, is valued not because it makes possible good works or anything active at all; it is rather that security is a necessary condition of repose. Kings are like gods and like the lotos-eaters; it is a very Tennysonian kind of temptation. Love, the gift of Aphrodite, is presented as the temptation of sensuality.

      Paris has already brought tragedy; or rather, the indulgence of sensuality has brought it. Oenone loved Paris for his good looks; she makes it clear that the first sight of him inflamed her passions and so their union was based on sexual attraction. With Oenone this grew into love, but Paris left her, and so, as it seems to the Victorian moralist, she pays for her indulgence. The fire of passion becomes now a burning torment of bitterness and loss, just as the passion that led Paris to take away Helen from her husband will start a fire big enough to consume whole civilisations. In the face of this, we are left to think about the wisdom of Pallas, who offers:

self-reverence, self knowledge, self-control.

      Out of all the conflicting voices of Tennyson's poetry throughout this period, there emerges the clear voice of Pallas Athene. The tone is somewhat cold, as is the picture of the goddess herself (her spear is cold, her breast is 'snow-cold', and her eye is 'full and earnest'). The doctrine is also somewhat at odds with the hazy, languid and sensuous beauty of the poem. It enunciates principles opposed on the one hand to a life of mere security and on the other to the indulgence of sensuality. They are definite and uncompromising.

LINE BY LINE PARAPHRASE

      1. L. 36-42. Hear me.....gather'd shape: Oenone is deserted by her false lover Paris. Oenone is the daughter of the river-god and Mount Ida. Here she wails over her misery to her mother Ida, how Paris deserted her. She asks her mother to listen to her sorrowful story, which she would build up in a song. Her sorrow would rise up with a song as the walls of Troy rose up like a cloud with Apollo's music.

      This reference is to the belief that the walls of Troy rose up like a cloud to the music of Apollo, who was exiled from heaven and who was for some time working as a labourer under King Laomedon.

      2. L. 71-75. Behold this fruit.....of married brows: Paris shows the golden apple to his wife, Oenone and tells her that the words, "For the most beautiful" meant her. Oenone is the most beautiful woman. She is more beautiful than an Oread or mountain-nymph that lived on the hills of Ida. Oenone was lovelier than the nymphs in beauty of movement and the charm of her eye-brows which met each other across the forehead. Eye-brows joined together in one line were considered to be a mark of beauty in women.

      3. L. 145-147. Yet not for power.....by without fear: Pallas, the goddess of wisdom, answers Hera's arguments by saying that the highest kind of power is wisdom which comes from self-reverence, self-knowledge and self-control. If these virtues are practised, power would come of itself. The end of action is not power. We must learn to live according to the moral law, which tells us what is morally right. Once we know what is right, we must have the courage of conviction to put it in action without fear of consequences. If we live according to the principles of moral law and do the right, power comes of itself without being called for.

      Through the mouth of Pallas. Tennyson observes that the highest form of wisdom is to live according to the principle of moral law, which enjoins upon us the duty of knowing and doing the right without fear of consequences. These lines also illustrate Tennyson's gift of felicitous expression and epigram.

      4. L. 148-149. And, because.....consequence: Oenone relates how Pallas, the goddess of wisdom replied to Hera’s argument about power. Pallas says that the highest form of power comes from wisdom. And wisdom means the capacity to know what is right. Right is something which is morally right. Once we know what is right, we should have the courage of conviction to put it into action without fear of consequences. To follow what is morally right is the highest wisdom. This wisdom is the real power before which all other powers are useless. "Right is right" is Tennyson's reply to those who preached that "Might is right". Anything Opposed to Moral Right is not Right. A thing cannot be politically right or socially right or economically right, if it not morally right.

      5. L. 191-200. Methinks I must.....in the weed. Oenone deserted by her false lover Paris, complains to her mother Ida how Paris was lured by Aphrodite's promise of getting for him "the fairest and most loving wife in Greece", if he gave the verdict in favour of Aphrodite. Oenone asks if she is not fair. Paris had told her always that she was beautiful. As a further proof of her beauty Oenone relates to her mother an incident that happened to her once. As she was passing by, she came across a wild leopard with eyes twinkling like the evening star. But the leopard instead of injuring her began to wag its tail in playfulness and went away crouching in the wood.

      The reference here is to a belief that animals are tamed and they forget their wildness in the presence of beauty, especially when beauty is joined with chastity.

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