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Tennyson with the Net Down: His “Freer” Verse

From: Victorian Poetry
Volume, 51, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 177-200 | 10.1353/vp.2013.0011

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In his book The Origins of Free Verse, H. T. Kirby-Smith capaciously considers pre-twentieth century instances of the poetic species in question. Writers of potential free verse range across the centuries, from George Herbert to George Meredith, and once within the mid- to late-nineteenth century, Kirby-Smith’s list starts to swell: Matthew Arnold, Coventry Patmore, Henry S. Sutton, Thomas Edward brown, W. H. Henley, John Davidson, Richard Watson Dixon, John Leicester Warren, Francis Thompson, A. C. Swinburne, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. The requirements, it would seem, to make this Who’s Who—and, let’s face it, this “who?”—of Victorian poetry, are twofold: to have tangled at some point in one’s poetic career with irregular Pindaric verse, and not to have the surname Tennyson or browning. Kirby-Smith is rather explicit about this second requirement. He explains, “The work of both these poets is the polar opposite to free verse, … between them, they seemed to have so thoroughly exhausted the possibilities of accentual-syllabic metrics that the only thing left … was to try some sort of free verse.”

This kind of via negativa definition of free verse is not unprecedented. T. S. Eliot practices it most famously in his essay “Reflections on Vers Libre.” “I can define it only in negatives,” he snipes, “(1) absence of pattern, (2) absence of rhyme, (3) absence of metre.” Before we add “absence of Tennyson,” I would like to reassess this Victorian’s credentials as an avant la lettre practitioner of the Modernists’ preferred verse form, using the very terms and conceits that Modernists and Modernist critics have used to portray it.

Eliot’s “absence of pattern” is more or less synonymous with the Pindaric irregularity that operates fundamentally in Kirby-Smith’s study. And Kirby-Smith does allow that Tennyson penned some “irregular stanzas” here and there: “The Sea Fairies,” “Eleänore,” parts of Maud, and the Wellington ode (pp. 119–120). in just the works named, Tennyson displays considerable irregular range: line lengths from two to seven beats; stanza lengths starting at two lines and up; rhymes that consummate unpredictably, or not at all. This irregularity is not in itself innovative (the poetic lineage runs from Cowley to Gray to Wordsworth), though Tennyson is being somewhat novel by importing irregularity from where it historically occurs—in the vast expanses of the greater odes—to the more confined spaces of the smaller lyrics. In any case, lack of innovation is not in Kirby-Smith’s study an obstacle to a poet’s status as free-versifier, for Kirby-Smith’s greater premise is that irregular verse is a precursor to free verse. We wonder if Tennyson might have curried more free-verse favor had Kirby-Smith acknowledged just how profoundly involved Tennyson was with irregular verse, for it is not a rogue feature merely of the four works he happens to name. In Tennyson, irregularity is everywhere. Not just in “The Sea Fairies,” but in “The Hesperides” and “The Lotos-Eaters.” Not just in “Eleänore,” but in “Lilian,” “Madeline,” and “[Sainted Juliet!].” Not only in the Wellington ode, but in “Time: An Ode,” “Ode to Memory,” and “Ode: O Bosky Brook.”

About forty years ago, when critics sought to understand Tennyson’s diverse formal outputs by tabulating them, Alicia Ostriker calculated that a full third of Tennyson’s poetry between 1830 and 1842 was in a mode she called “irregular.” Another forty years before that, J. F. A. Pyre noted this same tendency of Tennyson, which he too called “irregular,” though from the peppering of other choice adjectives (“unsystematic,” “wild,” “capricious,” “irresponsible,” “very imperfect”), there seems to have been more of a value judgment in the label. in his charge that Tennyson was being “unsystematic” with his irregular poetry, Pyre is imprecise if not wrong. There are several systems that can govern poems, and Tennyson was being systematic about his irregularity in several ways. Note how the poems just mentioned cluster into categories: island poems, lady poems, and odes. These categories are not hard and fast, but such topical consistencies do suggest a more than random attention, and served to authorize Tennyson’s formal license, if...



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