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THE DESIGN OF TENNYSON'S "THE TWO VOICES" JOHN R. REED In spite of a growing sophistication in Tennysonian cntlclsm, there remains a pronounced tendency to impose biographical simplifications upon Tennyson's poetry.l A poem that suffers particularly from such reduction is "The Two VOices," generally held to be an account in verse of Tennyson's private emotions. The same presumption imputes the poet to be the fabricated narrator of "Supposed Confessions of a Second-Rate Sensitive Mind." In view of his consciously dramatic sense of art, however, a more rewarding approach would minimize the cumbersome furniture of biography and concentrate upon the design of the poetry. Constantly vexed by biographical interpretations of his monodramatic poems, Tennyson offered this clear statement of the poet's relationship to his creations: In a certain way, no doubt, poets and novelists, however dramatic they are, give themselves in their works. The mistake that people make is that they think the poet's poems are a kind of catalogue raisonne of his very own self, and of all the facts of his life, not seeing that they often only express a poetic instinct, or judgment on character real or imagined, and on the facts of lives rea] or imagined. Of course some poems, like my HOde to Memory," are evidently based on the poet's own nature, and on hints from his own life.' He did not deny that a poet employed his own experiences, but he did stipulate the importance of fashioning that experience into the final design of poetry. Poetry is utterance, but crafted utterance; and for Tennyson, the poem resides at some distance from the poet. Valuing a quality resembling Keats's negative capability, Tennyson qualified his praise of Wordsworth by declaring that he "was great, but too one-sided to be dramatic.'" Nor was this readiness to assume the dialectic manner limited to his life as a poet, for Hallam Tennyson remarks that his father frequently presented opposite points of view at different times: "This was because from his firm sense of justice he had a dramatic way of representing an opinion adverse to his own in a favourable light, in order that he might give it the most generous interpretation possible.'" In effect, Tennyson is doing just this in poems such as "Supposed Volume xxxvu, Number 2, January, 1968 187 Confessions," "The Two Voices," the "Locksley ,Hall" poems, In Memoriam, and Maud, among others. Supposing an autobiographical voice in Tennyson's poems hinders accurate analysis and full appreciation.' Tennyson is not, for example, the "second-rate sensitive mind." The principal sin of the, narrator of the "Supposed Confessions" is pride, though he, like St. Simeon Stylites, feels that his pride has been brought low and that he suffers less from vanity than from emptiness. His mother rightly urges him to bow himself down in faith to God; then "grace/Would drop from His o'erbrimming 10ve,fAs manna On [his] wilderness...." (J.l2-14).6 The second-rate sensitive mind, unable to bow down, reveals his pride by comparing his condition to that of the vexed sea, as opposed to the slumbering mountain tam of simple fidelity. His agony has a grandeur for him that he will not relinquish for faith. That Tennyson should be capable of so subtly rendering the second-rate mind's sin, argues that he is not himself that second-rate mind. The pattern of "Supposed Confessions" is roughly that of "The Two Voices"; ignoring his sin of pride, the ,narrator reflects upon his early aspirations. He had hoped to discover the "excellence and solid form/Of constant beauty" (I49-50), fixed beyond the force of change; aspiring toward this end, he allowed himself the luxury of doubt, but doubt led him to confusion because he could not comprehend the possibility of a flexible and changing beauty. He is of those who may not doubt but must clasp idols, for, though he desires to be shadowed by God's love, and to have his sins forgotten, and to be taught "Somewhat before the heavy clod/Weighs" on him (184-5), yet he is unwilling to offer his own love to an ideal that is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 186-196
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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