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SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 40.4 (2000) 659-678

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Tennyson's Poetics of Melancholy and the Imperial Imagination

David G. Riede

Ever since Arthur Hallam's early review of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Poems, critics have recognized that Tennyson's early work attempts to establish a kind of poetic authority, and that its characteristic power is grounded in melancholy. The best recent criticism, by Herbert Tucker and Isobel Armstrong, argues that Tennyson was especially eager to establish "poetic authority as such" as an "urgent project [in the] context of a society which seemed on the verge of revolution and lawlessness." 1 It has not been sufficiently recognized, however, that Tennyson's melancholy, usually regarded as an apolitical character trait, is itself a source of authority that draws not only on the intensity of mood, but also on current sexist and colonialist discourses, and upon an idiom of eroticized political imperialism.

Hallam, however, even while denying that Tennyson had a political agenda, noted that the "melancholy which so evidently characterizes the spirit of modern poetry" would ultimately exercise a politically conservative function as "a check acting for conservation against a propulsion toward change." Though Hallam worried that such poetry "in proportion to its depth and truth is likely to have little immediate authority over public opinion," his reference to "depth and truth" suggests that the authority of melancholy proceeds from the depths of the poetic self, and carries with it the truth of feeling that Thomas Carlyle called the "felt indubitable certainty of Experience." 2 Melancholy is a physical sensation and seems therefore unarguably "natural," not ideological, so it is not surprising that generations of critics have seen Tennyson's best and most characteristic poetry as apolitical.

Julia Kristeva has suggested a poetics of melancholy as "the royal way through which humanity transcends the grief" of separation from a supposed lost wholeness of being. 3 Tennyson, indeed, would seem, in [End Page 659] Kristeva's terms, to have pioneered "a specific economy of imaginary discourses . . . [that] are constituently very close to depression and at the same time show a necessary shift from depression to possible meaning." 4 These discourses include the transmutation of the imaginary into artifice "by the means of prosody, the language beyond language that inserts into the sign the rhythm and alliterations of semiotic processes . . . which unsettles naming and, by building up a plurality of connotations around the sign, affords the subject a chance to imagine the nonmeaning, or the true meaning, of the Thing." 5 Kristeva's attempt to identify a language beyond language is inevitably obscure, but her emphasis on the ability of poetic artifice, and particularly rhythm, to express the truths of melancholy may help to explain the perception most notoriously expressed by T. S. Eliot that, although Tennyson had little of consequence to say, he was "the saddest of all English poets" and thus able to communicate the depths of his being from "the abyss of sorrow" because of his remarkable "technical accomplishment." 6 Tennyson's "abyss of sorrow" is not without ideological significance. His melancholy expresses an erotic blend of pain and pleasure that may be traced to a transgression of gender boundaries in the appropriation of female eroticism and of cultural boundaries in an appropriation of exotic, often "Oriental" eroticism. The most influential Tennysonians of the last generation, Christopher Ricks, Jerome Hamilton Buckley, and A. Dwight Culler, all attempted to disengage the "essential genius" of Tennyson's melancholy from the encumbrance of its historical moment. 7 Culler's view of Tennyson's poetry as the expression of "natural" feeling, however, hints at a reading of Tennyson as an imperialist of the imagination: "Unlike the youthful [John] Keats, Tennyson did not remain silent upon a peak in Darien--rather he plunged volubly into its thickets and claimed province after province for his own." 8 To an extent, Culler anticipates Tucker's argument that Tennyson's characteristic poetry is not explicitly imperialist politically, but that "Tennyson represents dilemmas rather of the Romantic imperial self than of...