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Victorian Poetry 43.1 (2005) 1-18

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Naming and Not Naming:

Tennyson and Mallarmé

As the author of "In The Name of the Author" puts it in the final commentary on a recent group of articles on anonymity, "The question What matters who's speaking? cannot of course be answered by the author himself (as Barthes reminds us), nor by the writer's own contemporaries (as Foucault reminds us), nor by literary theory (as we ought to remind ourselves). Questions of meaning and value can be answered only provisionally, each time a text is read by close readers like you and me." "Still," he maintains, "when we read a text that really matters, it will matter who's speaking."1

We think so too. In our case, who is speaking an English poem and the name behind it and who is translating them into another language, French. "Lord[s] of the senses five" ("The Palace of Art," l. 180), but especially the sense of sound, Alfred Tennyson early in life pondered the mystery of his name's sound, and Stéphane Mallarmé, the elliptical suggestor, found the epitome of the admired English poet's meaning in the reverberation of that sound through posterity. We thus explore, at the center of Symbolist links between the two major poets, the problem of what and who is named, what and who is not, and what is actually suppressed: sonorous naming, then, and refusing to name, in the name of poetry itself.

I. Becoming A Name

Since the first half of our collaboration will eventually be about authorial achievement of impersonality, about the "disappearance of the speaker" within the poet's name,2 let us open, by contrast, with the resonance of a personal anecdote. Many years ago one of us (Joseph) in a graduate seminar on Victorian poetry heard its teacher, G. Robert Stange, make the offhanded judgment that an Edinburgh newspaper article by Mallarmé some two weeks after Tennyson's death in 1892, "Tennyson, vu d'ici," (that is, Tennyson, seen from France), was the most astute contemporary estimate of the English poet's qualities. Since that time, aside from a brief summary in Marjorie Bowden's study of Tennyson's French reputation and influence,3 we have never run across any critical allusion to, much less an evidentiary consideration of, that article's putative importance. If such neglect within Anglo-American criticism be indeed the case,4 perhaps one reason for the silence is the absence until [End Page 1] recently of an English version of the article. Originally published in French in the National Observer of Edinburgh on October 29, 1892,5 reprinted in the Revue Blanche of December 1892, and collected in Mallarmé's Divagations of 1897 and thereafter in his Oeuvres complètes (pp. 527-531; notes 1590),6 the essay was not translated into English, as "Tennyson, Seen from Here,"until 2001 by the other collaborator in this essay (Caws), in Mallarmé in Prose.7

Since "Tennyson, vu d'ici" is now readily available in English for the first time, perhaps this might be the moment to look at it in detail, but to do so within the larger context of Tennyson's impact upon Mallarmé and upon the nineteenth-century French poetic tradition more generally.

The fact that Tennyson's early work contributed to the evolution of a Symbolist aesthetic has been something of a critical truism for some time now, at least since H. M. McLuhan's "Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry." Spelling out that connection, McLuhan's essay was given a wide circulation in John Killham's groundbreaking collection of essays in 1960, Critical Essays on the Poetry of Tennyson,8 that was instrumental to Tennyson's modern critical recuperation. What drew Mallarmé, as well as Baudelaire, Verlaine, and other Symbolists to Tennyson, was a melopoetic tendency he attributed specifically to the English tongue, a musicalité intérieure, in Mallarmé's phrase, that they prized in Anglo-American lyricism, preeminently in the linked poetry of Edgar Allan Poe and...


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