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Tennyson, Ireland, and "The Powers of Speech"
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Victorian Poetry 39.3 (2001) 345-364

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Tennyson, Ireland, and "The Powers of Speech"

Matthew Bevis

When Tennyson and Gladstone met for the final time, the poet was in a bad mood. He initially refused to come down to dinner, angry at the politician's continued support of Home Rule for Ireland, but once the two men got talking the Laureate changed his tune:

It was not long before it became obvious, from the energetic actions of Mr. Gladstone, that the two had got upon the Home Rule Bill, and some two hours went by before they rose from their seats. Shortly afterwards Gladstone took his departure. 'He has quite converted me,' said Tennyson. 'I see it all; it is the best thing if one looks at it from all sides.' . . .

The following morning when the poet came down to breakfast his first words were, 'It is all right, he spellbound me for the time and I could not help agreeing with him, it was the extraordinary way he put it all; his logic is immense, but I have gone back to my own views. It is all wrong, this Home Rule, and I am going to write and tell him so.' 1

Tennyson's interest in the finer points of contemporary political debate, and Gladstone's willingness to discuss them with him at some length, attest to the intimate, vexed relations between the two men. 2 The anecdote alerts us to the Laureate's simultaneously appreciative and wary sense of how a politician's eloquence can be both a powerful tool for altering affairs and also a medium which can simplify or distort the complexity of those affairs. The statesman's vocal art of persuasion is met by the poet's need, after thinking things through, to put pen to paper, and such an exchange offers an instructive starting-point for a study of Tennyson's public engagements during the late 1870s and 1880s.

This article has a dual concern. First, I want to situate Tennyson's late poetry in relation to political debate over the Irish question, and to argue that the Laureate's attentiveness to the emphases of public rhetoric helped to shape the rhetorical structures of his poems. Secondly, I want [End Page 345] to use the Irish issue to examine how forms of political rhetoric and literary endeavor could meet and part company in this period. Tennyson's entry into Parliament in 1884, and his close relationships with two Liberal orators--Gladstone and the Duke of Argyll--were to be important points of focus for these men when they considered how the public should be addressed through speech and print. 3


At the end of the nineteenth century, the reporter Michael MacDonagh devoted a chapter of his book on Ireland to the Irish politicians who had entered the House of Commons as a result of the Act of Union in 1801. In it he recalled a debate between George Campbell and the Irish MP, Major O'Gorman:

SIR GEORGE CAMPBELL said he had some experience of the Glasgow Irish.

MAJOR O'GORMAN (indignantly) -- "Mr. Speaker, Mr. Speaker, I rise to order, sir! I wish to know, sir, whether the hon. member is justified in stigmatizing my beloved country-people as 'the blasted Irish'?"

. . . THE SPEAKER -- "Order, order! But if the expression was used, it is certainly unparliamentary and most improper" (hear, hear).

SIR G. CAMPBELL -- "Mr. Speaker, it is an entire misconception of my remarks on the part of my honourable and gallant friend. What I said was 'Glasgow Irish,' and not 'blasted Irish'" (much laughter and cheering). 4

The laughter inspired by O'Gorman's mishearing is owed in part to his apparent readiness to perceive an insult, but it also acknowledges that such a mishearing has read between the lines of Sir George's "parliamentary" expressions and given voice to an attitude held by many MPs in the Commons. O'Gorman's interruption encapsulates two qualities that were prevalent in nineteenth-century conceptions of Irish politicians: namely, an inclination to quarrel, and an imaginative way...