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  • Introduction:Tennyson and the Allegory of Art
  • Michael J. Sullivan (bio)

Like Ovid's contest of Athene and Arachne, tracing myths into the weft of tapestries,1 Tennyson allegorized his craft as a weaving: a lacing of varied strands into the imaginative fabric of art. "I describe something which is the result of the impression of a hundred sights and scenes woven into one," he said to H. D. Rawnsley in the spring of 1890.2 The imaginative act depicted is at once a pulling together of disparate threads and a feat of artistic creation. For Tennyson's imagination could often hold its synthetic weaving and visionary genesis in productive, if excessive, tension. "So fired is his imagination," wrote Christopher North in 1832, "that he beholds in a shred of green fustian a swatch of the multitudinous sea; and on tearing a skreed, thinks he hears him roaring."3 Hinted at by North's criticism is not only Tennyson's visionary but also his auditory imagination—sounds that echo through the elevating mind of a listener, intensifying and fictionalizing sense.4 This Special Issue supplies a rearticulated account of Tennyson's "imagination" in its multiple forms: from the global, spatial, and auditory to the role of verse form in organic creation. His engagement with prosody, Augustan poetics, classical aesthetics, and the charms of rhetoric each shed light on Victorian allegories and philosophies of the imagination. Collectively, these essays offer new perspectives for Tennyson studies as it continues to transform, by interrogating the imaginative process at the core of Tennyson's intellect.

Impelled by the chaotic definitions of the imagination in Coleridge's Aids to Reflection and Biographia Literaria, Arthur Hallam wrote in 1828 to secure from Coleridge what no critic has managed to obtain.5 Through a mutual acquaintance of Coleridge, he requested "clear definitions of Reason, Understanding, Imagination, as he understands the words. It is indeed a crying sin that our terminology should be so indistinct."6 Whether "our terminology" refers to the "Transcendentalism" of Tennyson's circle or to the sum total of human philosophy, the phrase supports James Engell's judgment that post-Enlightenment ideas of the imagination evolved "in a community of minds" as its terms were "considered together by individual writers."7 Coleridge's divisions between "fancy" and the "imagination" had similarly evolved in competition [End Page 121] with Wordsworth's preface to his 1815 Poems, by distinguishing between types of the "synthetic" and "creative" imagination: a force that "dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create."8 Extending an aesthetic dialogue with the surviving Romantics, Leigh Hunt's Imagination and Fancy would renew such critical distinctions for the 1840s by identifying "fancy" variously as "a combination of images," an "apparition," and "a lighter play of imagination."9

Repeatedly, Tennyson's own references to the "imagination" both elide and complicate those categorical distinctions, alert to, even as they challenge, the terms' critical history. In his letters and reported conversations, the imagination ranges from a high Romantic emblem of the idealizing force of verse ("the higher poetic imagination," as he states of "Merlin and the Gleam") to a faculty intimately connected to memory and longing.10 "Imagination—The Fancy—no particular fancy—," he explained to James Knowles when glossing In Memoriam LXXXVI ("let the fancy fly").11 Elevating the concept from a passing fancy into an active and cognitive category, the line longs for the very flights of imagination that, like "The Palace of Art," can sequester thought from reality. Those momentary escapes from pained realities are central to the swerves of In Memoriam, in what LXXXV terms "imaginative woe" (l. 53).12 Such is the case in In Memoriam CXXII, where the "imagination" is bound to a state of fallenness even in its tenses: the longing "To feel once more … / The strong imagination roll / A sphere of stars about my soul" (ll. 5–7). The lines that follow dramatize an act familiar to Christopher North—of embellishment of details beyond their reality. For only "If" the dead could "enter in at breast and brow" would the speaker reach an amplified state of perception, a chimera in which "all the breeze of Fancy blows, / And every...