- Sea Dreams and Realities:Tennyson, Travel, and the Shifting Currents of Littoral Space in Victorian Culture
In one of the Victorian era's great historical coincidences, Alfred Tennyson, who would go on to become the most celebrated poet of the period, was a passenger onboard the inaugural run of the Liverpool-Manchester railway line on 20 September 1830. The event must also go down, however, as one of literary history's great missed opportunities. Presented with the chance to write the first train poem and launch a genre that continues to thrive to this day, Tennyson could muster only one line—the "ringing grooves of change" in "Locksley Hall" (1842)—a line that notoriously misrepresented the actual mechanics of train travel by substituting grooves for rails.1 It was, in fact, the second of Tennyson's missed poetic travel opportunities in this important year of his career. In June, Tennyson and Arthur Hallam journeyed through the Pyrenees in part to provide aid to a revolutionary movement to overthrow the king of Spain.2 Though the memory of this extended time with Hallam would later prove dear to Tennyson, apart from some setting details for "Mariana in the South" (1832) and "Oenone" (1832), the journey left surprisingly little mark on his poetry and certainly nothing of the political import that other poets of his generation might have seized upon.
In an age consumed with notions of speed, progress, and mobility—travel across Europe and across the globe—Tennyson seems to have preferred to stay at home, content to play the insular foil to a more dynamic, border-crossing poetics going on around him, as much recent criticism attests.3 And, yet, Tennyson does move. We find elements of travel scattered throughout his work, even if Tennyson's own limited travels rarely form the subject of a poem. Traveling personae and issues of travel impose themselves on some of his best known poems, "Ulysses" (1842) of course but also "The Lady of Shalott" (1832) and the longer works In Memoriam (1850) and Idylls of the King (1857–1874). [End Page 73] My goal in this essay is to shed some light on the dilemma of travel in Tennyson, the important if counterintuitive place he holds at the center of Victorian traveling poetics: why this apparently most grounded and domestic of Victorian poets nonetheless returns again and again to questions of travel and mobility in his work. Furthermore, I want to argue that littoral settings in particular provide something of a structural guide for mapping the evolution of travel poetics in Tennyson across the breadth of his career.4
Already quite familiar to Tennyson's readers as a site of promised natural, spiritual, and bodily rejuvenation, the seaside was also an aesthetic space on which poetry had held a long grip in the cultural imagination. If poetry, as Subha Mukherji suggests, has always been drawn to liminal spaces that promise some kind of crossing over or insight into questions of being and selfhood, then littoral space offers an especially resonant setting for testing such boundaries.5 Romantic poets in particular, Alain Corbin describes, made the beach a place where "[i]ndividuals no longer came . . . to admire the limits set by God to the ocean's power. They came in search of themselves, hoping to discover—or better yet, perhaps, to rediscover—who they were."6 Early Tennyson littoral poems including "The Lotos-Eaters" (1832) and "Break, Break, Break" (1842) continue in this vein, paying tribute to the sublime power of this Romantic seascape in relation to such moments of personal and ontological crisis. The beach holds an additional appeal to Tennyson as a threshold or gateway to longer journeys, as in the case of "Ulysses," even if the poet appears ambivalent toward the type of imperialistic, self-mythologizing wanderlust that his speaker embodies. The seaside invites such cross-currents and cross-purposes in Tennyson. As Ursula Kluwick and Virginia Richter describe in their introduction to The Beach in Anglophone Literatures and Cultures: Reading Littoral Space (2015), the beach is "a contested site, claimed both by land and sea and symbolically construed by various, often contradictory, interests, practices and desires...