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  • The Becoming Character of Tennyson's Simeon Stylites
  • Devon Fisher (bio)

Tennyson's St. Simeon Stylites has, in common parlance, gotten a bad rap. The often comical and always exaggerated figure standing atop a pillar proclaiming his own sainthood has, at least by recent scholars, been deemed a failure. Larry Brunner uses that word explicitly to describe Simeon's asceticism, arguing that even if the poem is successful as an example of the dramatic monologue, its subject is a "failure as a positive example and pattern."1 The idea that Simeon is a failure stems, at least in part, from the sense that for one's life to be a success, one must be true to some inner sense of self. Thus in Herbert Tucker's reading of the poem, the Romantic self wages an ineffective battle to achieve a self-knowledge undistorted by context.2 Claire Berardini similarly views the monologue as a contest between Simeon and the crowds below in which Simeon ultimately is forced to acknowledge the necessity of the social; the poem thus stands as a denial of "the possibility of the autonomous self."3 More recently, Seamus Perry has been slightly more generous to the would-be saint, arguing that, as in many of Tennyson's poems, we see in "St. Simeon Stylites" a vacillation between progress and stasis that yields not a definite failure but an unknown result. For Perry, Simeon demonstrates an obsessive need for reassurance of his saintliness, and "the possibility of reassurance is not exactly gratified (we are not certain of his sanctification), and not quite ungratified either (we do not know for sure he is a self-deluding fraud), but left hanging."4

To interpret "St. Simeon Stylites" as a record of the failure of the self to achieve wholeness, however, is to acknowledge only one of the ways in which the poem, as James W. Hood puts it, "ride[s] the ordinary currents of [Tennyson's] culture."5 The idea that the self remains in fragments, unable to achieve any real sense of autonomy certainly resonates with our understanding of how many Victorians responded to the rapid social change of the first decades of the nineteenth century. Indeed, it is this very sense of fragmentation that gives the poem its satirical bite. Simeon's repeated, contradictory claims about himself—that he is the worst of sinners who deserves to be a saint, that he has suffered greatly even though he seems to enjoy that suffering—allow the poem to work as a critique of certain trends in Victorian religious culture: as a caustic attack on Roman Catholicism in the years immediately following [End Page 313] the 1829 Emancipation Act or as a caricature of the extreme Evangelicalism of Charles Simeon and his followers the Simeonites6 (or as both).

For all of its satirical qualities, however, "St. Simeon Stylites" participates as well in a much more serious discussion of how the past can and should shape the present. Even the poem's title—"St. Simeon Stylites"—reminds us that the fragmented self speaking the poem does, in fact, succeed in becoming a canonized saint; success for Simeon Stylites, in other words, comes not from within but from without, when those who see and hear him formally make him a part of their collective memory through the act of canonization. Implicitly asking how the comic, ridiculous figure standing for years at a time atop a pillar actually manages to inscribe himself as a saint in the collective memory, Tennyson's poem engages directly with the same sorts of questions about history and memory that saturate hagiographies and other discussions of sainthood in the 1830s and 1840s. Tennyson's contemporaries (largely but not exclusively the participants in the Oxford Movement) were deeply interested in the power that the saints held for the present and in the process by which those saints entered the collective memory; these discussions offer a useful framework for understanding "St. Simeon Stylites" as a text that suggests ways in which the past can be put to use in the present. Read in the light both of the rhetoric of sainthood as it circulated in the 1830s and...


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