Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

In Brief

Stephen grants little respect to the most widely admired poet of Victorian England, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, mocking his decorous gentility with the name "Lawn Tennyson" and the title "gentleman poet." A current of hostility to English mores, English social hierarchy, and English imperialism runs through the novel's responses to this major writer. But Joyce may have derived serious inspiration from at least one of Tennyson's poems—the one that shares a title with his novel.

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Gifford notes that "Lawn tennis was a genteel version of the modern game—in contrast to court tennis, which was then regarded as a rigorous, demanding, and masculine game. Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92), the official 'great poet' of the Victorian age, succeeded Wordsworth as Poet Laureate. Critical reaction to the disproportion of elaborate prosody to often rather flimsy subject matter caused his reputation to rapidly decline in his last years, and his stature as an important poet has only been reestablished in recent times." On James Joyce Online Notes, Harald Beck notes that Joyce did not invent the lawn tennis witticism. It had been circulating since the late 1870s, started by satirical caricatures in the London humor magazines Judy and Punch.

In Proteus Stephen recalls some of Tennyson's early verse: "Of all the glad new year, mother." The phrase comes from the first stanza of an early, longish (39 quatrains), and very unremarkable poem called The May Queen (1833), in which a young woman tells her mother to wake her up early on the morrow, because she is going to be crowned Queen of the May. The poem was set to music, and it seems to be the song that Stephen knows, judging by the "rum tum tiddledy tum" with which he follows his quotation. In Scylla and Charybdis Stephen offers up another passing tidbit of Tennyson, when he refers to "lady friends from neighbour seats," a quotation from the Prologue to The Princess; A Medley (1847).

Circe contains a meatier, frankly sarcastic reference to Tennyson's The Charge of the Light Brigade (1854), the anti-imperialistic tenor of the allusion suggesting that Joyce faulted Tennyson not just for triviality but also for jingoism. When two thuggish British soldiers assault Stephen in the street, the peer appears as a "Gentleman poet in Union Jack blazer and cricket flannels, bareheaded, flowingbearded," proclaiming "Theirs not to reason why," a line from the second stanza of the poem:

"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Unreasoning patriotic aggression appears to rather better effect when deployed against overwhelming military forces than when used as a goad to beat up unarmed, and pacifist, civilians.

These several dismissive allusions notwithstanding, Joyce appears to have found some grounds for engaging more appreciatively with Tennyson's verse. Aeolus and Lestrygonians refer to the celebrated dramatic monologue Ulysses in ways that prompt reflection on the life-paths of Telemachus/Stephen and Odysseus/Bloom.

JH 2015
Photograph of Tennyson ca. 1860. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The Charge of the Light Brigade, painting by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr. Source: Wikimedia Commons.