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Victorian Poetry 44.2 (2006) 135-152

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"What profits me my name?"

The Aesthetic Potential of the Commodified Name in Lancelot and Elaine

A kind of waking trance I have frequently had, quite up from boyhood, when I have been all alone. This has generally come upon me thro' repeating my own name two or three times to myself silently, til all at once, as it were out of the intensity of the consciousness of individuality, the individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being, and this not a confused state, but the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest, the weirdest of the weirdest, utterly beyond words, where death was an almost laughable impossibility, the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction but the only true life.1

Tennyson's ability to put himself into a trance through the repetition of his own name is one of a number of autobiographical vignettes incorporated by his son into the first biography of the poet. By describing the dissolution of individuality into "boundless being," he consciously sets up a poetic that is hard to resist. A name, as the verbal and textual signifier of individual consciousness, works paradoxically as both the link and the barrier between inner self and external reality, figuring the self in the world and announcing its difference. Rather than removing the name so that he might dissolve into reality, the poet's solution to this paradox is to dwell upon it, making his name the site at which he is able to experience the "only true life." Through lyrical repetition, Tennyson's name is charmed into poetry, and it is poetry, figured by the name of Victoria's laureate, which provides a place in which a state "utterly beyond words" might be achieved.

There is much worth exploring in this piece of poetic mysticism, but what the poet fails to specify, and therefore what is most interesting, is what name he used. His story, which insists on the invocation of the name, fails to [End Page 135] invoke the name that is at its center. The name that is not mentioned must, of course, be "Tennyson," but it is not until the alternatives are considered that it becomes clear how heavily the anecdote relies upon this assumption. In boyhood—when his waking trances began—"Tennyson" would not have been the name by which the poet was called. First the name of his father, then of his family collectively and also the name by which his eldest brother is most likely to have been known, "Tennyson" would have been anything but the signifier of the poet's individual personality, and it is far more probable that he would have been known to himself and others as "Alfred." But with "Alfred" at its center, the story does not work; the impressive weight and gentle lyricism of "Tennyson" finds a poor substitute in the insubstantial gallop achieved by the repetition of "Alfred" (and even "Alfred Tennyson" is awkward and unsatisfactory in this context). In one sense this is not important, and I am not interested in quibbling over the biographical facts of a story that has been most useful to critics (and to Tennyson himself) as illustrative of his poetic thought. However, rather than substituting "Alfred" for "Tennyson," it is more interesting to leave this story intact and to reconsider it as one which can only have been constructed and understood retrospectively by a poet who had already made a name for himself. It might be expected that for a poet's name to become a material, marketable product would be restrictive to the growth of the poet: there might be an expectation that the poet should work according to the criteria by which he made his name; and the existence of poet as brand name would certainly seem to compromise the value of art as separate from and above the utilitarian world of commerce.2 However, the story of Tennyson's...


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