- Tennyson Among the Poets: Bicentenary Essays, and: Tennyson Among the Novelists
Of all the authors reviewed in these two volumes that have made use of or been made use of by Alfred Tennyson, among the more unexpected is Method Man, of the hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan. His song “What the Blood Clot” (1994) features, briefly but powerfully, lines from “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854). John Morton mentions this in passing in Tennyson Among the Novelists, but sounds dismissive of Method Man’s appropriation of Tennyson, observing that the lyric is used “seemingly for no reason other than the song and the poem both being concerned with violence” (127). This seems a pretty good reason, though. Two of the essays in Tennyson Among the Poets also associate Tennyson’s work with the destabilizing effects of violent emotions. In an essay on Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Virgil, Daniel Karlin notes that Tennyson’s poem “To Virgil” (1882) is “Virgilian because its poise, its ‘finish’, are threatened by forces it barely holds in check” (98). Aidan Day explores Tennyson’s engagement with the grotesque, a mode more commonly associated with Browning, identifying in Tennyson “the absence of order that he locates just beyond the limits of his verbal and formal control” (82). The chaos that can underlie and inform Tennyson’s formal “finish” seems part of the poet’s method, and this too can help explain why Tennyson’s driving dactyls contribute to the insistent pulse of Method Man’s rap song. And what is a hip-hop remix but another form of allusion? [End Page 170]
The appearance of Tennyson’s work in “What the Blood Clot” seems at least as legitimate as countless other references to Tennyson’s poems, and certainly less equivocal than many other allusions. One of the charms of Morton’s methodical, useful book is its frequent dependence on phrases such as “one can perhaps discern an echo here” on the various occasions when the allusion is fleeting or dubious (28). Morton’s stated aim is to “provide as comprehensive a survey as possible of the responses of novelists to Tennyson’s poetry” (5), and the book certainly achieves this: it is comprehensive (it’s hard to imagine that Morton missed anything), and it is a survey, providing essentially a chronology of instances rather than a sustained analysis either of most of the works identified or of the larger question of the translation or transformation of poetry when it crosses the generic line into fiction.
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s introduction to the twenty-one essays in Tennyson Among the Poets notes two potentially conflicting definitions of “among” offered by the Oxford English Dictionary: “distinguished in kind from the rest of the group” and “in company, association, communion or residence with or beside” (qtd. in Douglas-Fairhurst 5). The essays in this collection share a marked preference for situating Tennyson in company or communion with other poets. Harold Bloom’s theory, in The Anxiety of Influence (1973) and elsewhere, of a more agonistic relationship between poets engaged in a struggle for distinction and indeed primacy is evoked in Morton’s book and a handful of the essays but soon dismissed in favor of the generally more benign relations elucidated by Christopher Ricks in Allusion to the Poets (2002). Eric Griffiths sums up this prevailing preference in contrasting Bloom’s “fantastical stories” with Ricks’s “alert, illuminating essays” (136). These essays follow an attractively pacific model, then, although in the aggregate they can give the impression of the poets all friending each other on some transhistorical literary Facebook.
The essays in Tennyson Among the Poets move in roughly chronological order from those poets who influenced Tennyson to those whom he influenced, and it’s instructive to chart the relatively genial ways in which these literary relationships are figured. Dinah Birch traces in Tennyson...