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  • Delirious Bulldogs and Nasty Crockery: Tennyson as Nonsense Poet
  • Anna Barton (bio)

In concluding his 1833 essay “The Two Kinds of Poetry,” John Stuart Mill turns to the role of the critic and suggests that, just as a person must be possessed of a certain amount of feeling and philosophy to be poet, so a critic must be possessed of those same qualities to be able to recognize poetry:

When, . . . after reading or hearing one or two passages [of writing], we instinctively and without hesitation cry out, This is a poet! the probability is that the passages are strongly marked with this peculiar quality. And we may add that in such a case a critic who, not having sufficient feeling to respond to the poetry, is also without sufficient philosophy to understand it though he feel it not, will be apt to pronounce, not “this is prose,” but “this is exaggeration,” “this is mysticism,” or “this is nonsense.”1

Mill’s remark about how an ill-equipped critic is likely to respond to poetry is a return to his essay “What is Poetry?,” published earlier that year, in which he agrees with Wordsworth’s “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads that the opposite of poetry is “not prose, but matter of fact or science.”2 In both instances, Mill’s explicit exclusion of prose from his discussion of poetry bespeaks his conviction that poetry is not a form or a genre, but a mode of knowledge. By replacing prose with science as poetry’s opposite Mill admits the sameness of poetry and science as well as their difference: they are polar extremes of a common spectrum. In the same way, by suggesting that poetry is most likely to be mistaken for exaggeration, mysticism, or nonsense, Mill implies, perhaps unwittingly, the common life of poetry and nonsense. To say that nonsense is poetry that has not been recognized, or that poetry is nonsense with a sympathetic readership, would be wilfully to misread Mill. However, Mill’s belief that, on first encountering a piece of writing, a reader might recognize its poetry before being fully confident of its meaning does suggest that poetry stands at a certain remove from sense, that a poem might make [End Page 313] nonsense before it makes sense. This article seeks to explore the relationship suggested by Mill between poetry and nonsense through a discussion of Edward Lear’s reading of Tennyson. When Lear, after reading the poem that Tennyson dedicated to him, wrote a parody of it that pronounced “This is nonsense,” he was accurately identifying in Tennyson the want of sense that makes room for poetry.

In reviewing Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830) and Poems (1833), Mill takes up the role of the feeling and judicious critic that he describes in “The Two Kinds of Poetry.” After pouring scorn on reviews of Tennyson published in Blackwoods and the Quarterly, he makes a claim for Tennyson’s considerable, though not yet fully realized, poetic talent and writes that “of all the capacities of a poet, that which seems to have arisen earliest in Mr. Tennyson, and in which he most excels, is that of scene painting.”3 He goes on to qualify this assertion, writing that Tennyson’s power lies, not in mere landscape description, but in “creating scenery” (p. 86). Mill’s example of choice is “Mariana.” Perhaps the first of many critics to address the question of Tennyson’s epigraph to this poem, Mill writes:

The subject is Mariana, the Mariana of Measure for Measure, living deserted and in solitude in the “moated grange.” The ideas which these two words suggest, impregnated with the feelings of the supposed inhabitant, have given rise to the following picture. . . . To place ourselves at the right point of view, we must drop the conception of Shakespeare’s Mariana, and retain only that of a “moated grange,” and the solitary dweller within it, forgotten by mankind.

(p. 87)

Mill places Shakespeare’s words at the generative heart of the poem, but requires that the reader empty these words, already more or less divorced from Measure for Measure by brief (mis)quotation, of the meaning provided by its original context, so that the...