Victorian Poetry 41.3 (2003) 439-449
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Linda K. Hughes
Preoccupations with empire and gender somewhat abated in Tennyson studies in 2002, with the slack taken up by attention to influence, a term near to hand because Robert Douglas-Fairhurst treats the subject in such resonant terms in Victorian Afterlives: The Shaping of Influence in Nineteenth-Century Literature (Oxford University Press). One of his aims is to complicate theories of influence advanced by Harold Bloom and Jerome McGann. Douglas-Fairhurst contends that neither of their models encompasses, for example, the influence of a poet's own prior texts or compositional history on later productions. Yet he offers no opposing theoretical model, for Douglas-Fairhurst's recursive yet expansive book is less a product of method than a process, a supple, extraordinarily sensitive study of influence or afterlife in poetry and its individual, psychological, poetic, moral, social, national, and even theological implications. Tennyson is crucial to his exploration.
In the introduction Douglas-Fairhurst notes that the registering of a vanished voice in the sea's crashing waves in "Break, break, break" ("the sound of a voice that is still") finds a kind of afterlife in "Ulysses," another [End Page 439] response to Hallam's death ("the deep / Moans round with many voices") and again in Section 35 of In Memoriam ("The moanings of the homeless sea"). But if influence can be traced backwards through successive layers of personal and literary experience, influence is for poets also deeply proleptic, a question of whether they may continue to exert influence after their own deaths through the ongoing life of texts. Having noted Tennyson's penchant for echoing Arthur Hallam's earlier poems in his own, Douglas-Fairhurst continues, "Taking on someone else's words can allow the poet to question how far a literary afterlife is as socially dependent as the human life from which it emerges, and so whether it can be prepared for in advance by writing in such a way that a poem's appeal will live up to the sheer persistence of its printed form. Alternatively, an argument for personal immortality might be expressed with an intellectual and stylistic coherence which supported its claims for the integrity of the person writing" (p. 83).
But influence is of course also lateral and interactive, and Tennyson surfaces in such disparate Victorian texts as a letter from Elizabeth Barrett Barrett to Robert Browning comparing herself to Mariana, and Frederic Farrar's Eric, or Little by Little (a children's tale about bad deeds' influence on subsequent acts), in which a character quotes "The Lady of Shalott." The dramatic monologue, too, enters the orbit of reverberating voices Douglas-Fairhurst examines, since it enacts the impress of social interaction on a speaker's utterance. Chapter 3, "Tennyson's Sympathy," covers some familiar ground (e.g., Tennyson's self-borrowings and the importance of Hallam's essay "On Sympathy") but does so in fresh terms. Douglas-Fairhurst suggests, for example, that the continuing echo of "half" in the opening stanza of "Charge of the Light Brigade," which plays off terminal, end-stopped lines, is a sonic counterpart to the scene described: a charge that did not stop though stopping was so imperative and the succeeding, tragic return. But even the last line of this poem and of Maud's celebration of patriotic self-sacrifice in the 1855 volume had afterlives, since Tennyson placed "Charge" last, from whence it looped back to Maud's hortatory military ballads and their equally destructive effect on that poem's speaker. From theories of criminality to the advent of mass (and mixed) media and technologies for transmitting them, a resonant array of issues come into play in Douglas-Fairhurst's wide-reaching, deeply thoughtful study—a kind of extended poetics of influence.
One forebear of Douglas-Fairhurst is Christopher Ricks, whose analysis of Tennyson's self-borrowings and patterns of allusion has itself been so influential. Ricks devotes a chapter to Tennyson in Allusion to the Poets (Oxford University Press), which explores poems in which the act of alluding is part of the text's meaning. To...