Monday, March 13, 2006

Week 07, Carlyle, Newman, and Tennyson

Notes on Thomas Carlyle

Carlyle often serves as a survey course’s bridge between the romantic and Victorian periods, is a difficult writer, but his insights into literature, history, and politics make his eccentric books worth considerable patience. His style is designed to forge a relationship with an increasing, and increasingly skeptical, post-romantic-era public that is not easily satisfied by time-tested formulations about anything. But Carlyle himself was a complex man who wouldn’t fit comfortably in any era—for one thing, he was raised as a strict Calvinist and kept something of the Old Testament prophet about him even after rejecting the metaphysical tenets of this austere faith. Moreover, born in the same year as John Keats, he was by nature a moody and “romantic” individual, which means that he found it necessary in arriving at his mature prose style and authorial stance to work through his own “storm and stress” tendencies before he could find out what lay on the far side of them. It seems he had to pass through Byron to arrive at the calm classicist humanism of his hero Goethe. (But Goethe, author of The Sorrows of Young Werther, had to do something like that, too.) His German Idealist Professor Teufelsdröckh is not Carlyle, of course, but at the same time, Sartor Resartus is part of Carlyle’s 1830’s project of working out a new and viable way to set himself forth as a writer and social critic. Carlyle is characteristically, if explosively, “Victorian” in his admission that art must reestablish its value anew in modern society—and, most particularly, that it cannot do so by reverting to a programmatically “romantic” set of claims about art and social cohesion. In sum, Carlyle faces a task not unlike that of the Anglo-American modernists who will write nearly a century after his time: how to take past ideas (literary forms, social philosophies, political ideals, etc.) and “make them new” to suit the present time.

In Sartor Resartus, that is what Carlyle, in creating his fictional Professor Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, is doing with regard to the “romantic” tradition to which Carlyle himself has strong intellectual and emotional ties. He cannot (and probably would not want to) play the romantic philosopher in his own person. “Dr. T” is Carlyle’s eccentric spokesman for the Idealism of the Continent and, to some extent, for the recent and increasingly defunct British Romantic movement. As you can see from reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Wordsworth and his contemporaries as well as the second or Satanic generation of Byron, Shelley, and Keats, had already come to be regarded as a “school.” And to belong to a school, of course, is to become subject to the inevitable sway of fashion and changed circumstances. Carlyle’s ironic but nonetheless respectful presentation of Dr. Teufelsdröckh’s romantic notions about self and society, then, amount to the author’s way of keeping the best in that tradition open for English consideration while admitting that he, as a modern writer, cannot return to the good old days of the nineteenth century’s first few decades.

What does Carlyle think is worth preserving about the romantic tradition of thought? Well, he is not a precise philosopher like Kant or Hegel; I think it will do here to say that he finds a couple of things worth maintaining: first, the sense that what binds people together is not so much intellect as passion. But perhaps even more important to Carlyle is that romanticism, in its way religion-like, asserts the primacy of spirit over materiality and brute fact. I don’t suppose Carlyle ever truly reconciled the Weimar or “Goethean” humanist promoter of self-cultivation in himself with what has sometimes been called the “prophet of self-annihilation” and, later in life, the “worshiper of force.” But perhaps that is asking too much of him—he is most consistent in fighting by any and all means the advent of a fully materialist, and materialistic, culture in the British Isles. And Carlyle’s “romanticism,’ as he makes Teufelsdröckh illustrate dramatically in Sartor Resartus, was a necessary phase through which he had to pass if he was ever to establish an authentic new voice for his contemporaries. Romantic poses and premises were an essential part of his makeup as a writer and as a social critic.

With the phrase “social critic,” we move on to Carlyle’s mature social philosophy and stance as an historian as they appear in the 1843 text Past and Present. Writing during the Hungry 40’s, when economic instability and discontent were a powerful and threatening combination in Britain, Carlyle decries the alienation capitalism has created amongst workers and employers and, in fact, everyone in Great Britain. In an analysis of labor relations that Marx and Engels would later praise, Carlyle argues that while labor should knit humans together into a social whole, work in industrial Britain is wage-slavery, and the ideology that supports it has the people “enchanted” by its abstract and mechanical conception of human nature and society. The factory hands perform their daily labor for the capitalist, but at day’s end, they have little to show for it in either pecuniary or spiritual terms. The products of the worker’s labor (called “commodities”) enrich the capitalist at the expense of any fair distribution of what has been produced.

This state of affairs, says Carlyle, is even worse than the situation in Europe during medieval times. Back then, at least, the relationship between peasant farmers, their landowning Lords, and the Church, however oppressive and hierarchy-bound, was at least an authentic relationship. That accounts for Carlyle’s praise of feudal society—notice his references to Gurth the Swineherd and his master Cedric the Saxon (characters from Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe), who is himself an underling to the Norman Conquerors. Feudal labor relations, the idea goes, provided both lord and serf with a reciprocal sense of duty toward one another and with some sense of belonging to a stable world order. But in nineteenth-century Britain, no such responsible relationship between the classes prevails, and nothing makes a dent in the Iron Law of the Marketplace. Everywhere, Carlyle explains, one hears only the sentence, “impossible” in answer to the cries of impoverished workers, the unemployed, and those people’s dependents. The false god of riches Mammon, aided by idle aristocrats (“Game-Preserving Dukes”), greedy factory owners, machine-like workers with their demands for the cash that enslaves them, and political economy’s cant about “free trade” and “laissez-faire,” stops cold every attempt to end Britain’s chaos.

In our chapters, “Democracy” and “Captains of Industry,” Carlyle tries to redefine what is meant by key concepts such as “freedom” and “aristocracy,” in effect recycling them so that they will turn into solutions and not perpetuate the agony of the masses as well as the rule of the ne’er-do-wells. I call Carlyle a recycler of outworn concepts and systems because it seems that his advice isn’t to do away with the flawed, yet dynamic, capitalist order and return to an earlier time. His agrarian “feudalism” is an ideal construction, not something he sets forth as a viable way of life for the present. Rather, Carlyle wants to retain the basic form of capitalist production and even to hold on to the hierarchical relationship between the working and capital-owning classes. If all goes according to plan, there will be no need for another French Revolution—the big industrialists, properly spiritualized by the remnants of Carlyle’s Calvinist belief in the saving power of order, work, and duty, will become “Captains of Industry” and take control of a threatening situation. They will become the new Norman Lords. What the workers need, thinks Carlyle, is not the vulgar, anarchic democracy for which they presently clamor; it is work under the supervision of the newly responsible employer-class. Freshly recycled and spiritualized capitalists will take on the duties of a true aristocracy. Like the original conquerors who came over with William of Normandy in 1066, they will set to work with the materials at hand and build a stable order. They will organize (not reject) production and distribution in the machine age for the benefit of workers and themselves. In sum, they will lead Britain as no other class presently in it can, and thereby provide an answer to the ‘sphinx riddle” of just relations between human beings. That is Carlyle’s answer to what we generally call the Condition of England Question.

Finally, it might be argued with justice (and was so argued by Marx and Engels) that this solution requires the great capitalists to do something that isn’t in their interest: why should they do anything but what fills their coffers with more capital to invest? In sum, it might be said that what Carlyle advocates goes against the operation of a market economy, wherein employers takes on workers for as little as they can pay them, and gets them to do as much “surplus labor” as possible to generate capital. The system itself is the most powerful disincentive to change—it benefits those who are already poised to benefit. What Carlyle is arguing against is, quite simply, the brutal fact that a “system” (economic, social, micro or macro) can function robustly for a long time even though the mass of people who make it work don’t benefit from its continuance. And there is nothing within the system itself that tells they winners they should care about this ugly fact—the will towards a moral “fix” has to come from beyond the system, at least initially. Capitalism isn’t so much immoral as purely economic and amoral. It is entirely capable of solving the ancient problem of production, but when you assail it for not solving the equally ancient problem of distribution, it has nothing to say—that is no concern, properly speaking, of the economic system. Those who have money (congealed, abstract labor power, to borrow from Marx’s terminology) can buy all the things they want; those who have no money can starve unless someone (for religious or other extraneous moral reasons) decides to help them. That is what we call “private charity.” So long as capital keeps getting generated and commodities keep getting themselves produced and sold, the economy rolls along cheerfully—it doesn’t matter much whether one person buys 100 shirts or 100 people buy one shirt; in theory and to some extent in practice, the profits will be there for the taking. Those who are excluded from the magic circle of production, buying, and selling simply don’t count. But of course Carlyle understands that people usually do what is in their own selfish interests—especially when their utilitarian/market “philosophy” proclaims that they ought to do just that very thing. So how do you suppose he would respond to all this criticism of his suggestions? Do you find him anticipating such criticism in the chapters we have read from Past and Present?

Sartor Resartus Margin-Notes

1076. Regarding the portrait of Wordsworth, that poet’s glory or light faded into the light of common day; Carlyle writes that Wordsworth’s death was felt as the extinction of a public light. But this failure highlights Carlyle’s own problem – how to build and maintain his authority as a sage. How can he reintroduce spirit into the Victorian age? One might say that Wordsworth and Coleridge did not succeed permanently in their quest to do so for their own age. Or at least that what worked for them will no longer work today.

1078. “Have we not seen him disappointed…?” Such references point to the storm and stress movement in German literature, and in particular to Goethe’s book the sorrows of young Werther.immediately below, the author refers to Teufelsdröckh’s loss of faith, and then Deism comes in for criticism.

1079. “Foolish Word-monger….” Materialism and logic churn out false belief and offer false happiness. Carlyle and Teufelsdröckh oppose Jeremy Bentham’s radical utilitarian movement. Towards the bottom of the page, the narrator says that even doubt leads to God.

1080. “His heaven-written Law still stood legible and sacred there.” Quack muttering from a quack prophet – this will be a consistent theme. “Our Works are the mirror wherein the spirit first sees its natural lineaments.” Know what you can work at, says Teufelsdröckh. Work is of course a key concept in Continental philosophy, especially in Hegel and Marx. Perhaps Carlyle would agree with Oscar Wilde at least in saying that only shallow people know themselves, although Oscar Wilde would never posit work as the answer to this problem. “A feeble unit in the middle of the threatening Infinitude, I seemed to have nothing given me but eyes, whereby to discern my own wretchedness.” Teufelsdröckh is spinning his wheels on speculation not directed towards any object. He is an alienated intellectual. The steam engine universe threatens to run him down.

1081. “To me the Universe was all void of Life… it was one huge, dead, immeasurable Steam-engine, rolling on, in its dead indifference, to grind me limb from limb.” This is a key passage. Materialism and logic lead to atheism, and Teufelsdröckh wrestles with spirituality and the meaning of spiritual language. He dramatizes the problem of materialism for us, providing distance from the raw emotion of his encounter with it somewhat as Wordsworth distances us from raw emotion by means of metrical verse. As for Carlyle’s style generally, he puts us in absurd situations, confronting us with the ugliness and cynicism wrought by unbelief and by the need to survive and render intelligible new environments.

1082. On this page, Teufelsdröckh is said to confront freedom and the casting out of Byron-Devils. Notice the mockery of Parliament as well. “Despicable biped! What is the sum-total of the worst that lies before thee?” Where does defiance come from? Teufelsdröckh asserts free will to defy death; he takes up a stance against death. “The Everlasting No… pealed authoritatively through all the recesses of my Being….” At this point, Teufelsdröckh confronts the threat of unintelligibility and the possibility that he has no true source. He will arrive at his spiritual rebirth by casting out “legion,” to do which requires experience, the great spiritual doctor. And this is where we come to the center of indifference. “For the fire-baptized soul, long so scathed and thunder-riven, here feels its own Freedom….” The doctor needs an object, he needs direction. He must cast away his romantic vagueness and stop reveling in his own isolation and alienation. He must work through, in both senses, this romantic defiance of his. Carlyle acknowledges the need to adopt a romantic pose to go beyond romanticism. The impulse must be redirected. His spiritual labor’s object is the casting out of Byronic devils. They must be made to depart into everlasting fire, as the gospel would say. His feeling of freedom is what he calls a Baphometic fire-baptism. Romanticism will be construed as a movement and a moment in a much larger historical and philosophical context. But at this point standing puzzled between us and Teufelsdröckh and his romantics is the editor, who is just trying to make sense of it all.

1083. So Teufelsdröckh will seek experience – he will go to see the visible products of the past. But already the reader is being led to the necessary Mystery that will make life supportable. At the bottom of the page, Teufelsdröckh questions government and laws. But his point here is allied to the doctrine of natural supernaturalism – even such mundane things as governmental practice and legal codification have their source in mystery. The goal is to recover a sense of the eternal in the temporal and ephemeral, to spiritualize ordinary things.

1084. “Books. In which third truly, the last invented, lies a worth far surpassing that of the two others.” Books last and can continue to generate values. They offer us organic ties to the past. They are things woven, and retain the power to produce new thoughts, new suits of idea-clothes. Refer to John Milton’s claim that “a book is a living thing.” Then Teufelsdröckh moves on to discuss the significance of the battlefield, war.

1085. War, “from the very carcass of the Killer, [can] bring Life for the Living!” Teufelsdröckh offers a meditation on war and on the folly of passions about it. This page shows the influence of Hamlet’s ideas about the same subject. “Thus can the Professor, at least in lucid intervals, look away from his own sorrows….” At least he can look beyond himself now, can turn his gaze outward.

1086. “All kindreds of peoples and nations dashed together….” Teufelsdröckh wanders through the landscape, and recovers a sense of mystery in historical process by meditating on the revolution. He moves on to discuss the significance of history’s great men, Napoleon in particular. This page also shows the author coming to terms with the great upheaval stylistically.

1087. “Of Napoleon himself….” Napoleon is here described as an enthusiast of the very sort he criticizes Teufelsdröckh for being. Next the professor is off to the North Cape where he confronts a Russian smuggler. This passage is important for its style – Carlyle combines the sublime and the ridiculous in his representation of the northern landscape. It is a romantic symbol for regression into self-consciousness, with the ice reflecting itself to itself. But Teufelsdröckh is not allowed to remain in this place for long. The Russian smuggler brings him back to earth again, and in doing so he typifies Carlyle’s method.

1088. “How prospered the inner man of Teufelsdröckh under so much outward shifting?” It is time to cast out legion, or the Satanic school of romanticism. This will bring the professor to the Center of Indifference. He muses much like Hamlet about humanity’s pretensions.

1089. “[W]hat is this paltry little Dog-cage of an Earth….? The professor is still isolated and apathetic; he has merely passed through his objects of exploration. It is time to apply himself directly to an object – labor is central to Carlyle as it was to Hegel and will later be to Marx. We produce ourselves and find freedom and meaning in work.

“Temptations in the Wilderness!” And “Our Life is compassed round with Necessity; yet is the meaning of Life no other than Freedom, than Voluntary Force….” These pages prepare the way to the everlasting yea with preliminary definitions and injunctions. Here the injunction is to work in well doing. Once asserted, free will must turn itself towards work. For Carlyle, that seems to be what replaces God. But the basic point is one made by moral conservatives in many ages. Here is what Pope John Paul II said in 1979--”Nowadays it is sometimes held, though wrongly, that freedom is an end in itself, that each human being is free when he makes use of freedom as he wishes, and that this must be our aim in the lives of individuals and societies,” he wrote in 1979. “In reality, freedom is a great gift only when we know how to use it consciously for everything that is our true good.”

1090. “So that, for Teufelsdröckh also, there has been a ‘glorious revolution’.” In the middle of the page, the narrator or editor breaks in to end the professor’s over-reaching. Self-annihilation is announced as the first necessary accomplishment. The professor has now achieved it.

1091. The editor says that in Teufelsdröckh, “there is always the strangest Dualism….” That is a good description of Carlyle’s prose style. First the professor responds to nature, and then to his fellow human beings. “Nature! -- or what is Nature? Ha! Why do I not name thee God? Art not thou for ‘Living Garment of God’?” Here the editor describes Teufelsdröckh applying the metaphor of clothing to nature. And then comes an important moment: “The Universe is not dead and demoniacal….” This universe is Teufelsdröckh’s source and connection to others. Everyone is a wanderer like him, so he serves as a model.

1092. “Man’s Unhappiness, as I construe, comes of his Greatness....” Carlyle uses the example of the common shoe black to illustrate the problem of desire: and the problem is that desire is infinite; it is based upon perpetual lack. I like the sentence “Always there is a black spot in our sunshine: it is even as I said, the Shadow of Ourselves.”

1093. “The Fraction of Life can be increased in value not so much by increasing your Numerator as by lessening your Denominator.” If you set the denominator to zero, anything will yield infinity. On the same page, the doctor says “Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe.” Do away with excess, and devote yourself to balance and calm. The key to life is not the pursuit of happiness -- renunciation is the key. Carlyle dismisses the utilitarian happiness principle. Carlyle insists that there is something “godlike” in humanity -- it is not something that the pursuit of happiness will bring out. The everlasting yea is “Love not Pleasure; love God.” The point is to walk and work in this kind of love.

1094. What does Dr. Teufelsdröckh need to do? The answer lies in his own statement, “Wilt thou help us to embody the divine Spirit of that Religion in a new Mythus, in a new vehicle and vesture, that our Souls, otherwise too like perishing, may live?” This will be his task as a philosopher and writer. The metaphor of clothing appears in this formulation – words spin new systems of thought and institutions.

1095. “America is here or nowhere.” The ideal resides within yourself. The doctor must produce a world from his own inner chaos. Carlyle reshapes the romantic conception of self so that the point is not infinite removal into isolated, alienated self-consciousness but instead to realize one’s divinity through work of whatever kind. Spirit must inform, give shape to, what the doctor calls the “condition” (by which he means material matter and circumstance). “Been no longer a Chaos, but a World, or even Worldkin. Produce! Produce!” Extra: Carlyle is trying to align or balance the self-cultivating humanist side of himself with the one that is always thundering about the need for work. Carlyle’s gospel of work sounds like promotion of self-annihilation, but a lot of Sartor Resartus is about how his eccentric German Professor develops spiritually and intellectually. He comes to realize that “America is here or nowhere,” meaning that the Ideal (freedom, self-perfection, progress) is inside our own spirit, and we first need to understand that before we can actualize the ideal. (Romantic premise: spirit must move through matter to realize itself fully; and as Hegel would say, you only realize your individuality fully in the context of society--you can’t do it “all by yourself.”) The Everlasting Yea is to love God rather than pleasure: first put an end to stormy posing (like Byron’s Manfred on the Jungfrau mountaintop, above everything and everyone else, sublimely alone, alienated, dissatisfied), realize that your ideal or “America” is right at home, and then direct your actions to the world so you can actualize your ideal, make it real. So the task is to get priorities straight and plan to make life worth something. Carlyle is a Scottish man of letters making his way into the world of English literature and hoping to make a living. He has to work, too--only as a writer. But write what? And what good will it do? What’s the point of foisting a strange autobiography/biography like Sartor Resartus on thousands of English “blockheads”? This page is capped by a call to order and production-- work.

1096. Natural supernaturalism is Carlyle’s version of transcendental philosophy. I remember Henry David Thoreau’s sentence, “Time is but the stream I go fishing in.” time and space clothe the absolutes towards which the Professor has been striving. But now “the interior celestial Holy of Holies lies disclosed.” What is a miracle? That is the question the Professor must answer.

1097. The Professor quotes David Hume on miracles – they are “a violation of the laws of nature.” Well then, asks the Professor, “What are the Laws of Nature?” As for science, he has this to say: “These scientific individuals have been nowhere but where we also are; have seen some hand-breadths deeper than we see into the Deep that is infinite, without bottom as without shore.” Carlyle does not dismiss science, but puts it in its place surrounded by the framework of natural supernaturalism.

1098. “To the Minnow every cranny and pebble, and quality and accident, of its little native Creek may have become familiar: but does the Minnow understand the Ocean Tides and periodic Currents, the Tradewinds, and Monsoons …? Such a minnow is Man….” We are encompassed by something greater than ourselves, and our creek is earth and our own customs that limit our vision. The Professor says that custom tricks us, “persuading us that the Miraculous, by simple repetition, ceases to be Miraculous. True, it is by this means we live; for man must work as well as wonder….” This thought is similar to ones you can find in romantic treatises – custom is the film of familiarity, etc. Carlyle accuses philosophy – or at least utilitarian philosophy – of lowering itself to the level of vulgar materiality and of carrying blind habit even into the sphere of philosophy. The aim of philosophy is, as Walter Pater will later write, “to startle and quicken” our sensibilities and perceptions (1643). It should denaturalize our perceptions and make us perceive the world as a continual miracle. Philosophy should oppose whatever we have rendered natural and ceased to perceive accurately. In this way, I would add, philosophy allies itself with the concept of artifice, not nature. At least strategically, Carlyle as a Victorian sage accepts the division between life and art and philosophy. Philosophy should provide us with a radically altered vision that will allow us to return to life without being crushed by it and turned into machines. This thought is similar to the way Immanuel Kant and his followers resist allowing us to become enslaved to the concept of nature. For Carlyle, perspective, attitude, stance are central – he aligns his prose with strong acts of will.

1099. Language is like space and time in its ability to serve as a garment covering the celestial dimension. Space and time, Kant’s categories, are ultimately illusions. Memory and hope answer that the past is not annihilated and the future not a wisp of air. Memory and hope are mystic faculties connecting us to the past and stretching us towards the future. They weave continuity and meaning. Carlyle sets up these faculties as means of opposing the appearances time, space, and even language. To achieve the goal of belonging, we must accept the task of building connections to what we posit as transcendent. Carlyle resembles Nietzsche at least in his determination not to be overwhelmed by even the most destructive kinds of knowledge – but of course their way of maintaining perspective differs radically.

1100. The Professor insists that “only the Time-shadows have perished, or are perishable; that the real Being of whatever was, and whatever is, and whatever will be, is even now and forever… believe it thou must; understand it thou canst not.” This is an important passage for understanding Carlyle’s strategy – he simply asserts that there is a fundamental truth, that there is a spiritual or metaphysical dimension. He asserts the power of mystery as necessary for human life, and makes the assertion in biblical cadence. He reiterates that properly understood, even the ordinary is miraculous: “the true inexplicable God-revealing Miracle lies in this, that I can stretch forth my hand at all; that I have free Force to clutch aught therewith….” So even voluntary movement is a miracle.

1101. Christ goes in many directions for Victorian authors -- here he is like Orpheus working wonders, and Carlyle asserts the power of human will and labor over nature. Oscar Wilde says that Christ is the most perfect individual. Art is individualism, and individualism is “a disturbing and disintegrating force.” In the middle of the page, Teufelsdröckh says that “Nature, which is the Time- vesture of God, and reveals Him to the wise, hides Him from the foolish.” This is another passage in which reorienting perspective is central. Properly understood, we are spirits, Geist. “Are we not Spirits, that are shaped into a body, into an Appearance, and that fade away again into air and Invisibility?” This passage is self-consciously romantic: seeing the eternal in and through the temporal, realizing the intensity of the moment and the immensity of “here.” Yet, Carlyle also captures the wistfulness of our feelings about such mysteries.

1102. Again Carlyle makes Teufelsdröckh assert that we are ghosts, spirits. The body is the clothing of the soul. At the end of this selection, comment on Carlyle as a Victorian sage. How do his assertions differ from earlier, romantic assertions? They have been unwoven and remade in a very open manner. Carlyle lets the audience in on how the transcendental sausage is made. That emphasis on the process of manufacturing transcendental ideals suits the journalistic nature of the times. Moreover, Carlyle rejects excessive emphasis on self and imagination. His path as an individual is self-annihilation, and work is the collective social solution to England’s problems. The world is already miraculous -- the first priority is to realize that fact.

Notes on Alfred Tennyson

“The Lady of Shalott”

This poem shows Tennyson as self-consciously late-romantic. The first several stanzas play with temporal and spacial references, but it is clear that “down” is the way to Camelot, the world of medieval romance and violence, of immersion in time as symbolized by the flowing river. The Lady will experience this immersion as a rupture. Everyone else’s life is her death, once she tries to make the passage from the island to the mainland. The poem raises the question of art’s relation to other areas of life, an issue of much concern to Tennyson himself. If poetry is a vocation, to what social end does one honorably pursue it?

Parts 1-2. Poetic devices involve us in the aesthetic way of perceiving. Early on the plot is enveloped by form; we are entranced by the Lady’s image-weaving, even though we “see” her images spun. The Lady weaves a magic web—is the text another such web? In the fifth stanza of Part 2, the Lady shows little regard for anything but her weaving, and is not yet troubled by desire, it seems. The metaphors of mirror and loom may refer first to the barrier between life and art, and second to the imaginative process. What is woven may represent the real world, but remains distinct from it. But Tennyson seems to be referring also to Plato’s Parable of the Cave, when he writes “Shadows of the world appear.” The Lady does not see the world outside directly—she sees shadows, just like Plato’s cave-dwellers.

The final stanza of Part 2 says the the Lady “still delights / To weave the mirror’s magic sights….” Refer to Freud’s essay “Creative Writers and Daydreaming,” where he argues that art is mainly wish-fulfilment. Here the Lady weaves what appears in the mirror, so her web represents representations. What exactly are the “shadows” of which she is “half-sick”? Well, she is tired of seeing things at one remove, and wants direct access.

Part 3. Here the Lady gets her wish when Lancelot punctures the barrier, breaks the magic spell, with a riot of color and sound. The two young lovers in particular (of the final stanza in Part 2) have readied her for this intrusion. Towards the end of the third part, the magic stops, representation ends and experience begins.

Part 4. Publish and perish—the Lady writes her one poem on the prow of the boat that will carry her to her death; the poem is her name. The villagers hear her singing, and she dies “in her song” (this means that within the context of the poem, she “really” dies, but the phrase is slippery—what does it mean to “die in your song”? Doesn’t that mean you never existed outside of it since you lived in it too?) This leads to another reading of the poem as being about the wall between consciousness and the outside world—a more directly philosophical interpretation that might be taken as against romantic self-expression. Is it that self-expression can’t succeed because the self dies in the act of speaking, singing, writing, in the course of the poem? That isn’t a new idea, but the third part sets it forth strongly. On the whole, I’m inclined to read it in light of Pater’s comments about “that strange, perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves.” The value of expression becomes central in that case—what good does it do? The Lady dwells in her own interiority and can neither remain satisfied with spinning her own world nor enter the world of time and experience.

The townspeople try to interpret the poem, but feel only dread. That’s one possible response to art; the other is Sir Lancelot’s more favorable one—he blesses her beauty and asks God to lend her grace for its sake. He does not, like the villagers, try to ward off the Lady’s effect on him as if she were a vampire—he welcomes her power even if he doesn’t fully understand where it comes from, the story behind the pretty but dead face.

“The Lotos-Eaters”

Refer to In Memoriam Lyric 5: “A use in measured language lies / …Like dull narcotics, numbing pain” (1234).

Odysseus joins his crew after only one line—they all “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” as Timothy Leary the 1960’s Professor of LSD Studies would say. He upsets rank and falls away from heroism into apathetic song. There will be no more heroism, no more need to remain obedient to the gods. The verse form brings home this worst possible peril for a Greek hero—who is, after all, responsible for standing up to his fate even though he can’t alter it.

Tennyson’s borrowings from Keats’ sensualism lend the poem its languidness: “A land where all things always seemed the same.” In Keats, we find autumn stillness, but here that stillness becomes trance-inducing stasis. Odysseus had sent scouts in Homer, but here it seems that the Lotos-Eaters themselves just show up with their magic plant.

Choric Song: What lesson do the Mariners learn from nature? Character isn’t set off from or challenged by nature, as it should be. Where are the gods? Words lose their proper orientation towards action, and the Mariners surrender to mellow nature. We find no striving, no wandering, no strength—only rhetoric that justifies inaction. The Mariners have become irresponsible poets, and Odysseus is one of them—in Homer, of course, the captain’s men served in part as foils for his heroic survival. By the sixth stanza, we can say, “so much for the homecoming.” Wandering has lost its purposive edge, and expression has become divorced from action.

The eighth stanza of the Choric Song shows a change in form—this part is deceptively translation-like since the lines are long enough to look like Homer’s dactylic hexameter. Homer kept Odysseus from spending much time on the Lotos-Eaters episode—he surely wanted to emphasize the danger that Odysseus might really have given in, and makes Odysseus conscious of that—he’s retelling the story as long past for his Phaeacian host Alcinous. When the Mariners refer to the “Gods together, careless of mankind (155), the line reflects Tennyson’s interest in the Epicurean notion of the gods set forth by Lucretius—they are said to be distant, not particularly active (they didn’t even create the Cosmos—random movement of the atoms did), and unconcerned with human affairs. The eighth stanza draws out into song the dangerous spiritual error that this dilatory poem has been exploring. Lucretian materialism is meant to bring comfort to humanity, taking away their fear of death and the gods. But Tennyson (who liked Lucretius) finds this un-Greek or unheroic. But perhaps the entire poem is psychological realism on Tennyson’s part—an admission that strong desires beget or are linked to strong counter-desires: authentic heroism is twinned with strong nihilism and the desire to forget.


Tiresias had told Odysseus that he must leave Ithaca one last time to propitiate the gods, so Tennyson’s idea comes from Homer. Here we find a modern mind confronting Greek striving. In Homer, all the wandering was for the sake of getting home and reestablishing order on Ithaca. But here the point seems to be wandering itself. Mixed in is a sad tone, almost Hamlet-like musing on the sum total of it all—I’ve done all these things, but what’s the point of it if they become only memories? Ulysses laments that he has “become a name”; his words are no longer oriented towards action, and he has to cheer himself and others up to find that sense of direction again. What he says about experience is almost Paterian—Ulysses, too, wants “to burn with that hard, gem-like flame,” to expand life into a continual moment of great intensity, blotting out the ordinary or transforming it. The second, more public, part of the poem—”This is my son, mine own Telemachus…” implies a rejection of the task Homer set for his hero. Tennyson isn’t interested, I suppose, in the historical element of Odyssean lore—the “task” of the Odyssey was to revitalize a more domesticated land with its former heroic values. But in Tennyson’s recasting, revitalization evidently means rejecting the domestic life and setting out again as a wanderer towards death. Ulysses stands apart from his son, to whom he would gladly cede the task of ruling over the human herd animals of Ithaca. When Ulysses addresses his old comrades, he sounds like Satan in Paradise Lost—his will is “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” This is a very general directive, not a call to strive towards some specific goal.

If you want to get beneath this poem’s Victorian call to heroism, focus on the subtler side of it—as with Walter Pater, desire for beauty and experience is the obverse of the gods’ absence and fear of death. Tennyson’s is an aesthetic sensibility inclined to escape from or transfigure the ordinary things in life, but not in a way that implies commitment to impending social change. He often comes up against the possibility that his poetry is bound to be received as a compartmentalized, special kind of labor. Does Ulysses’ heroic language differ from his internal dialogue? Is he a false counsellor to others, as Dante labels him in one of the later cantos of Inferno? The relationship between art and other areas of life becomes a problem to be explored, not something to be resolved presently. Exploring psychological states is one of Tennyson’s main enterprises, and one might say the same of Browning and some other Victorian poets. Refer to Isobel Armstrong’s thesis about poetry as an alternative realm where more nuance could be developed regarding the issues that prose authors were writing about.