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  • Tennyson
  • Linda K. Hughes (bio)

I will revisit Tennyson's Rapture: Transformation in the Victorian Dramatic Monologue by Cornelia Pearsall (Oxford Univ. Press, April 2008) next year in tandem with Tennyson's Name: Identity and Responsibility in the Poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson, by Anna Barton (Ashgate, forthcoming November 2008). I offer a brief preview here. "Rapture," Pearsall explains, signifies at once a state of exaltation and transformation but also the possibility of seizure, violence, and rape. If, for example, Arthur Henry Hallam is the "rapt" orator of Section 87 who in turn enraptures his auditors, the past transports of Tithonus have been both erotic and spatial, the desiring goddess Aurora having removed him to heaven where he now languishes. Pearsall focuses on four dramatic monologues begun in 1833 and places them in dialogue with contemporary politics, oratory, religion, science, and sexology as well as Tennyson's other poems and his social networks. Drawing upon rhetorical and speech act theory, Pearsall argues that far from exhibiting the gratuitous utterance often linked to the dramatic monologue, Tennyson's speakers are intentional rhetors who seek to do things with words. Specifically, they seek to transform others even as they are transformed by the process of speaking—a means by which Tennyson can engage his own immediate audience and the radical social transfigurations to which Victorians were being subjected.

Aside from Kathryn Ledbetter's Tennyson and Victorian Periodicals: Commodities in Context (covered previously), the most important book for Tennyson studies in 2007 was Angela Leighton's On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word (Oxford Univ. Press). First published as a 2001 essay, her chapter "Touching Forms: Tennyson and Aestheticism" acquires new significance within Leighton's book-length study. Leighton, mindful of the famous charge by Theodor Adorno that writing poetry after the holocaust is an act of barbarism or the critique offered by Terry Eagleton in The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990), addresses the claims and stakes of considering literature in formal or ideological terms. She agrees that beauty as an end unto itself can enact potential violence, instancing the close alignment of aesthetic form with the female body in the opening line of Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" ("Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness"), in which a poet's aesthetic meditation unfolds in the context of rape perhaps only momentarily delayed. But then for Leighton form—the nub of literature's literariness—is never pure, wholly self-contained, or indifferent to embodied human experience. Drawing upon Friedrich Schiller's concept of living form that can annihilate content, Pater's grounding of aestheticism in transient perception locked [End Page 366] into a constantly changing mortal body, and Henri Focillon's The Life of Forms in Art (1834), which approaches form as a medium of interpretation for artist and audience alike, Leighton urges that form is most itself when it is akin to a verb, on the move rather than a reified object. That "form" is so notoriously difficult to pin down as a word (since like all language "it is, and is not, the object it represents" [p. 3]) consorts with her treatment of form as a continuous negotiation between abstraction and embodiment, intellection and sensuous apprehension. Because form both shuts in and shuts out content, moreover, it signifies a set of decisions always open to further question and interpretation in time. True to (this concept of) "form," Leighton does not pursue conventional academic exposition. Rather, she gives us what is probably the closest thing we are likely to get these days to Pater: a series of essays, in the sense both of personal exploration and contingent attempts, written in beautifully resonant prose. Thus in her study, as in Pater, intellection is inseparable from the sensuous immediacy of aesthetic experience for readers and author alike.

Within this framework Leighton's chapter on Tennyson more forcibly positions Tennyson as the father of Victorian aestheticism and precursor of Pater. Her crux is Tennyson's tendency to position spiritual or imaginative apprehension in the vicinity of a body that can be touched or that the speaker desires to touch, which Leighton traces to Lucretian materialism. Leighton likewise underscores Pater's...


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pp. 366-372
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