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  • Becoming a Name
  • Seamus Perry (bio)

Michael O'Neill has shown how closely Tennyson read Shelley, and that Alastor in particular possessed a special "centrality" to Tennyson's "poetic vision and practice."1 The poem certainly anticipates a recurrent theme in many of Tennyson's most powerfully unresolved poems, which is what sort of duty the imagination might (or might not) owe to the world outside imagination—the kind of question you see explored in "The Poet's Mind" and "The Palace of Art," and, in more oblique ways, "The Lady of Shalott" and several others. For it is in Alastor that Shelley's passionate commitment to the truth of the imagination is most strikingly wrapped up with something almost exactly the opposite: the "powerful sub-theme," as O'Neill calls it, which is "the sense that idealistic quest may be fated only to find images of its own longing" (p. 186). The poem presents its readers with two contradictory attitudes toward the figure of the Poet-protagonist, who seems all set up to be criticized for his "selfcentred seclusion" (as Shelley puts it in the preface) but who ends the poem acclaimed as "some surpassing Spirit, / Whose light adorned the world around it."2 Some of the allusions in the poem might suggest that these contested attitudes stem from the way Shelley felt about Wordsworth: he quotes admiringly from The Excursion in the preface, and identifies "natural piety" as a virtue in the invocation; but the Poet's loss of powers is also unmistakably Wordsworthian in its cast ("Whither have fled / The hues of heaven").3 Whatever the truth about Wordsworth's role, Alastor clearly portrays a figure who is both heroic and admirable and yet, no less possibly, is a warning example of precisely what not to do with one's gifts. That sort of poised rhetorical indecisiveness was a phenomenon that seems to have interested Tennyson very much: as O'Neill says, many poems by Shelley and Tennyson "convey duplicity of intent through adroit formal manoeuvres" (p. 185).

"Duplicity" is a striking and characteristically astute word for him to use: for to bring in the idea of duplicity acknowledges a tradition of more simply negative responses to Shelley, which sees in him a man altogether too ready to take the wish for the deed. Thomas Jefferson Hogg, for instance, considered him "altogether incapable of rendering an account of any transaction whatsoever, according to the strict and precise truth, and the bare naked realities of actual life," not because of an inclination to falsehood as such but because of his "irresistible [End Page 127] imagination." Thomas Love Peacock quotes Hogg to agree that their friend was disposed to "narrating, as real, events which had never occurred": analogously, the only thing wrong with his poetry, Peacock said, was "the want of reality in the characters."4 When he uses the word "duplicity," Michael O'Neill has uppermost in mind Shelley's "England in 1819," a poem at once full of revolutionary hope and vivid despair, a mixture of feelings caught in what O'Neill calls the poem's "calculatedly dithering firmness" (p. 185): the analogy he draws is with Tennyson's speaker at the end of Maud, passionately full of a conviction of God's purpose and yet really still adrift in the neurosis that has stymied him throughout. Shelley's duplicity of intent is a well-meant attempt to feel better about things pour encourager les autres; Tennyson's is a more selfconsciously dramatic interest in the predicament of one who is badly at odds with himself.

Peacock reports in his Memoir that Shelley "was at a loss for a title" for Alastor, and that it was he, Peacock, who suggested what it should be called: "The Greek word 'Aλάστωρ is an evil genius, κακοδαίμων, though the sense of the two words is somewhat different, as in the Φανεὶς ἀλάστωρ ἢ κακὸς δαίμων ποθέν, of Aeschylus." The Greek phrase comes in a speech from Aeschylus's Persians in which a messenger is trying to explain Xerxes's defeat at Salamis: it must have been owing to "some destructive power [alastor] or evil spirit [daimon]," he says, which are indeed not the same thing. Peacock goes...