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'A SIGN BETWIXT THE MEADOW AND THE CLOUD': THE IRONIC APOTHEOSIS OF TENNYSON'S ST. SIMEON STYLITES WILLIAM E. FREDBMAN Alexander Macmillan, writing to Lady Tennyson in 1884, reported to her Rossetti's comment, "You never can open Tennyson at the wrong place." In this article, I wish to "open Tennyson" at a poem which, though relatively unknown, makes a strong claim to be one of the finest in the entire canon, and which is unquestionably the greatest of his dramatic monologues - St. Simean Stylites. As a monologue, it compares favourably with any of Browning's, including The Bishop Orders his Tomb and Johannes Agricola in Meditatian, with which it is most frequently associated. New to the 1842 volumes, St. Simeon reveals the poetic levels toward which Tennyson's "Ten Years' Silence" had led him, and it points to a dramatic power, seldom apparent in the poems of the 1830s, a power which would require the exercises of The Princess, In Memoriam, Maud, and Idylls of the King to bring to full maturity. Although most commentators on Tennyson's poetry have given some attention to St. Simean Stylites, there exists no full-scale study of the poem. Textually, it presents no problems: written in 1833' and first published in Poems, 1842, it was reprinted in all subsequent editions with only one aiteration, the substitution of "my" for "mine" in line 214.' Composed in blank verse, the poem contains 220 lines. Four sources have been suggested: the Acta Sanctorum, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Cowper's Truth, and Hone's Every-Day Book.· Although there is some debate about which of the two historical St. Simeons served as Tennyson's prototype - both flagpole sitters, the elder lived in the fourth and fifth centuries, the younger in the sixth century - Tennyson's immediate model was almost certainly the EveryDay Book in which the deSCription of St. Simeon, probably conBating the lives of the two saints, follows closely both in detail and in sequence the external trappings of Tennyson's poem in Part I (see Appendix). That Tennyson's opposition to asceticism parallels that of Gibbon and Cowper merely confirms the poet's Protestant orientation, tempered by Volume XXXVDI, Number I , October, 1968 70 WILLIAM E. FREDEMAN the hard-core scepticism of Victorian rationalism. The maniacal rantings of his own father might also be considered a "source" in this broad sense; in fact, Sir Charles Tennyson in his biography of the poet says that in the depiction of asceticism there is probably a "reference to the Calvinism of Aunt Mary Bourne.'" And Jerome H. Buckley, seeing the poem as "a fair gauge of his attitude toward religiOUS 'enthusiasm' and selfmortification ," remarks that it is not unfanciful.to suspect in Tennyson's poem a parallel between St. Simeon and the Evangelical Charles Simeon of King's College, Cambridge, whose influence was firmly established during Tennyson's university days' Such preliminaries are not, of course, totally extraneous to poetic analysis, especially as they bear On Tennyson's motivation in writing the poem, and on the attractions of the subject as a source of poetic inspiration . However, more relevant to the task at hand is the context of the volume in which St. Simeon appeared, the particulars of the poem's uniqueness, and the thematic and symboliC links which make it a poem .,haracteristically Tennysonian. I Early critics of St. Simeon Stylites tended to view it in absolute terms 3S an unpoetical and unsuccessful expression of Tennyson's hostility toward asceticism. Many regarded it as humorous, in the same vein as The Northern Farmer, confusing satiric risibility with the grim grotesqueness of the character portrayed. Morton Luce's summary fairly epitomizes the nineteenth-century view: St. Simeon Stylites is a study of character and motive which reminds us of Browning's analytical methods. Here, too, we have Tennyson's higher faculty 1)£ humour. But the poem is not over poetical; it is rather a clever intellectual study; that is its chief art, and must be our chief pleasure.6 Richard Monckton Milnes dismissed the poem as untrue to the recorded history of sainthood in a too literal notice in the Westminster Review...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 69-83
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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