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  • The Charm of Tennyson
  • Jane Wright (bio)

Readers of Tennyson's poetry enter charmed lands—in "The Lady of Shalott," "The Palace of Art," "The Sleeping Beauty," the story world of The Princess, the entire kingdom of Camelot. They meet characters who have been charmed (as in "The Lotos-Eaters"), or wish to possess charm (such as the speaker of Maud), in poems that exert a distinctive stylistic charm of their own.1 Part of Tennyson's charm can be identified with his extraordinary facility with sound and repetition. But that is not, primarily, what charm meant to Tennyson; or rather, the long historical connection between charm and sound was only one component of his understanding, and it went hand in hand with another: an understanding of charm that he had learned from the Roman poet Horace.

Critics discussing poetry and charm have long acknowledged the central relation of sound to "charm." Northrop Frye did so influentially in his Anatomy of Criticism, where he drew on the classical terms melos, lexis, and opsis (respectively, the sound element of poetry; the written word, with both aural and visual aspects; and poetry's visual element), before offering terms for what he called the "radicals" of the first and last of these: "charm" (melos) and "riddle" (opsis).2 Such linking of "charm" to melos (tune, melody, harmony) leads round in a circle slightly, because the etymology of "charm" (as Frye also noted) is carmen (song). This "charm" is sound cut free from linguistic sense, but still imparting affect. More recently, Herbert Tucker follows this line of thinking, but takes his own argument in a historical-theoretical direction to focus on what he calls the "irreference" of charm words (in literature and spellcasting) and the centrality of "irreference" to the history of charm and its nineteenth-century "survival" "after magic."3 Tucker's "irreference" is something of a semantic equivalent of the sound quality of Frye's "charm." Where, for Frye, "charm" in poetry describes "an independent rhythm equally distinct from meter and from prose," "an oracular, meditative, irregular, unpredictable, and essentially discontinuous rhythm, emerging from the coincidences of the sound-pattern" (pp. 272, 271), Tucker's "charm" is "a verbal formula whose irreference compels reality rather than reporting on it," an "empirical otherness [which] sustains the sort of ontological discreteness and solicits the sort of interactive encounter, that we impute … to the literary object" (pp. 103–104).4 [End Page 141] In one definition, "charm" is a quality of sound "distinct from meter and from prose"; in the other, it is sound distinct from meaning, yet still sound intended to make something happen: Tucker finds that, in the modern (nineteenthcentury) survival of charm, meaning and action are put asunder.5

I shall argue that for Tennyson "charm" is primarily neither of these—that the incantatory quality of his verse (so remarked upon by his contemporary hearers) is always tempered by rhetoric and the poet's responsibility.6 Tennyson, Tucker notes, does not always give us "premium grade charm" in the fully irreferent, sound-based sense (p. 111). But nor would he; for his understanding of charm is more in touch with the rhetorical tradition than (while toying with enchantments) it is with the idea of magic; certainly it is more drawn to rhetoric, a fine balancing of sound and meaning, than to "irreference."

Here is an early poem, "The sun goes down in the dark blue main" (1827), published when the poet was just seventeen; its epigraph, from Virgil, is Irreparabile tempus (irretrievable time):7

The sun goes down in the dark blue main,        To rise the brighter tomorrow;But oh! what charm can restore again        Those days now consigned to sorrow?

The moon goes down on the calm still night,        To rise sweeter than when she parted;But oh! what charm can restore the light        Of joy to the broken-hearted?

The blossoms depart in the wintry hour,        To rise in vernal glory;But oh! what charm can restore the flower        Of youth to the old and hoary?8

Each of these stanzas has the structure: statement, exclamation, question. This is a poem about a wished-for "charm" that could restore time...