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Tennyson's Maud (1855) and the "unmeaning of names": Geology, Language Theory, and Dialogics

From: Victorian Poetry
Volume 51, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 37-62 | 10.1353/vp.2013.0002

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Tennyson's Maud (1855) has had a chequered critical reception with many contemporary critics regarding the poem as odd, disturbing, and even offensive. Reactions to the poem point to how Maud has a way of drawing its readers into a dialogue that, it seems, they neither anticipate, nor very often welcome. Modern critics have also been quick to recognized Maud's variance, and responses to the poem have been rich and diverse. This essay attempts the beginnings of a Bakhtinian reading of Maud, arguing that the poem is dialogic on a number of levels. Crucially, however, Maud is also read here as one of Tennyson's most geologically influenced texts, as not only does the poem's dramatic action rest on a vivid geological tropology, its linguistic structure is also geologically oriented. What I hope to show is that the dialogic and geological levels of the poem are intimately interrelated and that Maud's dialogism is the product of a subtle extrapolation of contemporary geological science across the fields of language theory, an extrapolation that profoundly disrupts conventional mid-nineteenth-century perceptions of language as Adamic and teleological.

The key players in Tennyson's thinking here are the geologist Charles Lyell and the prominent polymath and philosopher of science William Whewell. Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830-33) has long been considered highly significant in Tennyson's poetic thinking, and the poet's knowledge of Lyell's text is well documented. However, Lyellian geology is nearly always read in conjunction with In Memoriam (1851), while its significance for Maud is almost wholly overlooked. Conventional criticism sees Lyell's Principles as contributing to a general mid-Victorian crisis in religious faith and more specifically as the primary source for In Memoriam's anxiety and religious doubt. However, as Isobel Armstrong demonstrates, the challenge that Lyellian geology presented, both to Tennyson and to mid-Victorian culture generally, was much more subtle and insidious and had to do with the deep significance that Lyell's geological methodology had for the emerging science of linguistics. Tennyson's understanding of the cultural impact of Lyell's text can only be fully appreciated when linked to his knowledge of William Whewell's theologically orientated discourses on Victorian science, as Whewell's texts served as sites of intersection where debates in geology and language theory were tested out in terms of their adherence to Whewell's sophisticated, albeit idiosyncratic, conservative orthodoxy. Among the other discourses that echo in Maud, Robert Chambers' provocative Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) and Richard Chenevix Trench's "intensely reactionary work" On the Study of Words (1851) are perhaps the most noteworthy (Armstrong, p. 256). Armstrong alerts readers to the profound significance of both Lyell's and Trench's thinking for the dynamics of In Memoriam. By extending Armstrong's discussions to Maud, the poem can be read in terms of contemporary debates on the origin of language, debates that were, in the case of Whewell and Chambers, fittingly embedded within geological discourses.

Implicit in this dialogic reading is the rejection of a unidirectional model of textual influence. Maud is not read as merely affected by geological theories, but as a text that performs a moment of exchange between debates and discourses. Dialogic discourse, as Michael Macovski asserts in his valuable volume of collected essays on Bakhtinian interpretation, "includes not only the interchange of voices within texts, but interchange between texts as well—across discourses separated 'in time and space.'" Just as Maud draws readers past and present into an often argumentative dialogue, it re-energizes with each reading the convergence of intertextual enquiries, debates, and rejoinders. The aesthetic form is the conduit of meaning; it permits play between utterance and reply and allows for the continual production and re-production of meaning. Therefore, to speak of Maud as influenced by debates in geology or linguistics is to miss the crucial role the poem plays in conferring meaning on these texts by giving them cultural context. It is not only that Maud offers the possibility of recovering a largely overlooked dialogue between these emerging sciences, but more profoundly, Maud is that dialogue. The poem enacts in cultural praxis the linguistic...

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