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  • Tennyson's Lancet Touches:The Rape of the Lock and The Princess
  • James Williams (bio)

The Princess and The Rape of the Lock have not often been read together, which may or may not be surprising. On the one hand, the experiences each poem offers to its readers are—as Oscar Wilde's Gwendolen says, comparing her social circle to Cecily's—widely different.1 The High Victorian medievalism of Tennyson's poem is far removed from the proto-rococo of Pope's. The Princess is a version of pastoral, whereas The Rape of the Lock is an urbane, if suburban, poem, making beelines for the boudoir, the salon, and the court. The Princess is a self-described "medley"—"evad[ing]," in Christopher Ricks's words, "the artistic problems of the long poem"2—where The Rape of the Lock is all of a tightly wrought piece (whether read in two cantos or, more often, five).

On the other hand, there is much in The Princess to suggest Tennyson was conscious of Pope's poem as a model. Not least, there is the central narrative situation of female integrity and chastity tested by the devious ingenuity of male heterosexual desire, and the central metaphor of erotic love as warfare, whether played out as battle of wits, game of cards, or by proxy in the tourney. Both poems depend on epic points of reference, and both feature a supporting cast of feminine mythological agents, such as nymphs, graces, and muses. Most suggestively, there is the generic affinity pinpointed by a phrase in the literarycritical debate "betwixt the mockers and the realists" (l. 24)3 in The Princess's conclusion:

Yet how to bind the scattered scheme of sevenTogether in one sheaf? What style could suit?The men required that I should give throughoutThe sort of mock-heroic gigantesque,With which we bantered little Lilia first: [End Page 161] The women …… …They hated banter, wished for something real

("Conclusion," ll. 8–13, 18)

This is usually read as an arch refusal on Tennyson's part to resolve the many formal and intellectual tensions of his poem: the mocking and the earnest, comic narrative and lyric interlude, the rival claims of paleontology and fairyland. But "mock-heroic" goes further, asserting a place in a literary tradition that runs straight back to Pope, and beyond him to Boileau's Le Lutrin—the model behind Umbriel's descent into the splenetic underworld in Canto IV of The Rape of the Lock—Addison, Cervantes, and to such ancient models as the pseudo-Homeric Batrachomyomachia. The genre to which the framing debate of The Princess points, however ambivalently, is the genre of The Rape of the Lock, and this seems like a tempting focus for critical inquiry in the work of a poet more inclined to imitate Virgil, Shakespeare, and Milton than the eighteenth-century Augustan manner.

"Imitation" may be the wrong word to describe the relationship between these poems, but the Popean layer running through The Princess demands consideration against a background of earlier imitation, born of youthful enthusiasm. I want to turn to this background first, in order to come back in the latter part of this essay to look at The Princess more closely. As Tennyson recalled to his son in 1890:

About ten or eleven Pope's Homer's Iliad became a favourite of mine and I wrote hundreds and hundreds of lines in the regular Popeian metre, nay even could improvise them, so could my two elder brothers, for my father was a poet and could write regular metre very skilfully.4

Tennyson would not have been the only Regency clergyman's son to find Pope's Homer among the more diverting items on his father's bookshelf, but the way he tells the story bears closer inspection. While the capacity, at "ten or eleven," to write and improvise Popean lines in their "hundreds" may now look to us like a claim to youthful precocity, Tennyson is quick to disclaim any special capacity for imitation or composition within the family circle. In fact, the most intriguing feature of this superficially bland memoir is the way that it tilts, within...