WRITINGS  

 

Only the Sick:
Tennyson, Browning, Arnold and Carlyle

 

Thomas Carlyle writes in Characteristics that, "The healthy know not of their health, but only the sick"(923). He extends this medical/biological aphorism to the social and ideological world of Victorian England. Carlyle thoroughly goes over the question, What is the state of England? He finds that England is in a state of transition, and while the old is no longer useful to the society, the new has not yet been clearly defined. This void contributes to problems of poverty, social graces, and spiritual/social direction in 19th C. England. Carlyle goes on to discuss the nature and effects of the problems he identifies in the culture, and encourages the members of the society to remain hopeful of finding a solution. Carlyle identifies problems and trends in the society by close observation. In his contemporary poets are correlations to Carlyle's own work. Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold, Dante Rossetti, and Algernon Swinburn all exhibit traits in their poetry that relate to Carlyle's ideas about the condition of England.

Carlyle wrote that literature is "a branch of Religion," and believed that in Victorian England "it is the only branch that still shows any greenness; and, as some thing, must one day become the main stem"(926). It makes sense, when Carlyle gives such huge import and value to literature, to look for ways that his ideas are evinced in the poetry of his time. During his age, poets were becoming more socially responsible. They incorporated themes and ideas that they envisioned to be solutions to at least some of the problems they saw around them. Often they simply gave voice to the problems they witnessed, allowing the issue to be discussed rather than ignored.

Tennyson is a poet who's importance to England and English society is undisputable. He, too, exhibits Carlyle's characteristics in his verse. In "Ulysses," Tennyson writes a dramatic monologue from the point of view of the old Greek hero who was stranded away from home for twenty years. In Homer's Odyssey, Ulysses (aka Odyssius) is blessed by the gods. His wife, Penelope, remains devoted to him and beautiful, despite the hoard of suitors that overrun their household in his absence. But the Ulysses that Tennyson gives us is quite different. Ulysses is pessimistic and dissatisfied. He is critical of Penelope, and says that he doles out "unequal laws unto a savage race"(1067). This is not Homer's noble hero. This is a Victorian Ulysses, caught up in a mire of self-awareness and self-doubt. Carlyle writes, "Never since the beginning of Time was there … so intensely self-conscious a Society"(925). Ulysses is aware of his age, of the age of his country, and of the manifold failures of his society, mirroring the Victorian concerns of the poet. Tennyson also upholds Carlyle's idea that eventually there will be answers. Carlyle writes that although Victorian England is in a state of transition, and nothing can be said for sure except for the recognition of that transition, there is comfort in the fact that the world is progressing, and that change will be inevitable. Tennyson echoes this ultimately optimistic outlook that Carlyle puts forth:

'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are—
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. (1069)

Clearly, Tennyson agrees with Carlyle that although the new has yet to make itself known, it is an inevitability that it will. These lines also echo Carlyle's statements about the "Godlike in human affairs"(931). Ulysses at one point in time could move heaven and earth, and although he is no longer capable of such great feats, he recognizes that through hard work and dedication he can "seek a newer world." This is the prescription that Carlyle advises, in opposition to the many idealogical and social quick fixes he mentions in his essay.

Tennyson exhibits other qualities that are concordant with Carlyle's ideas. In "Locksley Hall," he details the deterioration of expectations and institutions. Speaking of his old love, now married to another man, he writes, "He will hold thee, when his passion shall have spent its novel force, / Something better than his dog, a little dearer than his horse" (1075). This line shows the lack of faith that Tennyson has in marriage. It also hints at concerns about chivalry and honor that he goes on to illustrate in "Pelleas and Ettare." Carlyle writes that "the old ideal of Manhood has grown obsolete, and the new is still invisible to us"(927). People in general, but especially men, no longer have clear boundaries of behavior and etiquette. Pelleas finds himself betrayed by Gawain, his fellow knight, then learns that Percivale is not as pure as he once thought, and that Guinevere and Lancelot have been having an affair. This leaves Pelleas wondering if chivalry is dead. Tennyson is letting us know that, in fact, chivalry is dead, and we are unsure of how to act.

Browning's works showcase the ambiguity that Carlyle sees in society. In "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister," Browning puts on display an amalgamation of Carlyle's ideas. The speaker has lost his sense of social graces, indeed, he has no idea of how a monk is supposed to behave. He fantasizes about killing Brother Lawrence and performs cruel actions toward his fellow monk. While picking up on the ideas of behavior that Carlyle first brings up, Browning focuses in "Soliloquy" on the faltering state of religion. The narrator, the opposite of all a monk should be, speaks of his devotion:

When he finishes refection,
Knife and fork he never lays
Cross-wise, to my recollection,
As do I, in Jesu's praise.
I the Trinity illustrate,
Drinking watered orange pulp—
In three sips the Arian frustrate;
While he drains his at one gulp. (1189)

By making empty gestures toward religion, the narrator feels he is much more pious than his compatriot who simply lives according to the laws of the church, not necessarily paying attention to meaningless superstition. Browning also illustrates the deterioration of roles and responsibility in his poem, "My Last Duchess." In this dramatic monologue, the narrator is a duke looking for a new duchess. Quite literally, for the duke, the old has gone and the new has not shown up in her stead. Browning also alludes to the contagion of poverty that Carlyle discusses. The duke is not financially robust. It is implied that the duke needs a new duchess for her dowry and the alliance that it would create. He is not concerned with ideas of love. His interest lies in collecting expensive art objects and wives. In "The Laboratory," Browning presents a "new" woman. She purchases poison so that she can ascend the social ladder more rapidly. This concept plays right into Carlyle's notion that individuals are unsure of how to act in society. There is a new kind of woman emerging in Victorian England, but how should she act, and how should everybody else treat her? Carlyle does not give us the answer, and Browning's twisted protagonist is certainly not going to put forth any useful method. Browning parades his freak show of social misfits and outcasts along in his poetry, illustrating beautifully the uncertainty, ambiguity, and misdirection of the Victorian social structure.

Matthew Arnold is another poet concerned with social relationships and how to deal with them in Victorian England. In "The Buried Life," the narrator ponders his relationship with his love, trying to reason out where and how it should go. Arnold portrays "a longing to inquire / Into the mystery of this heart which beats / So wild, so deep in us—to know / Whence our lives come and where they go"(1355). These lines sum up Carlyle's thoughts about the progression of the society. Victorian England is looking for the new, and Arnold's lines illustrate the mental state of the country as they search in the interim between the death of the old and the birth of change. This search is difficult, and not necessarily continually rewarding. Arnold illustrates the potential the process of change has for frustration and despondency in the last stanza of "Dover Beach":

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night. (1367)

In many ways, this epitomizes Carlyle's arguments about the state of England. Many factions, including religion, science and literature, are battling to provide the "Morrison's Pill" to solve all of the society's ailments. Unfortunately, as Carlyle points out, there is no single action that can be taken to cure the society, and that fact leaves many individuals feeling like Arnold's narrator and his love. In "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse," Arnold continues his exploration of what it feels like to be in such a process of change. His narrator is "Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born"(1369). This harkens directly to Carlyle's observation that the new is yet to be seen, but the old has become useless. Carlyle also remarks that various groups and individuals have offered solutions to the problems of the nation, but that none of them have helped. Arnold picks up on this idea and writes, "What helps it no, that Byron bore, / With haughty scorn which mocked the smart, / Through Europe to the Aetolian shore / The pageant of his bleeding heart?"(1370) It helped not at all that the Romantics changed the rules. The emotionality of the individual experience lends little to help smooth the continuity of the social realm.

Other poets, like Dante Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne, embraced the process of change, and used it to push the limits of their poetry. Rossetti and Swinburne both worked to break taboos in poetry and create a new verse for the new age. They were keenly aware of the changes that were going on in the society, and reflect these in their writing. They recognize the process of change that Carlyle describes. Rossetti writes, in "The Blessed Damozel," "From the fixed place of heaven she saw / Time like a pulse shake fierce / Through all the worlds"(1462). The damozel can witness the change that time brings, and that only time can bring to fruition. Rossetti and Swinburne write more securely because they feel that the revolution they bring to poetry is an answer, a new direction. Carlyle would probably disagree. Although Rossetti and Swinburne recognize change, the ravages and necessity of change, and the faults of religion and social institutions, they cling too closely to the notion that their revolution in poetry will bring about the new. Swinburne rejects the "dead limbs of gibbeted gods" in his poem, "Hymn to Prosperine"(1515). It is as if Swinburne and Rossetti are placing poetry in the place of god. That action recalls Carlyle's assessment that literature is the only branch of religion that holds any promise.

Ultimately, it is through the discussion of ideas that happens within literature that leads to human development. Carlyle ends on a positive note that time will provide a solution to the many problems that plagued 19th C. English society. He asserts that the new will arise. He shares this trait with many of the poets of his day, as well as other traits and concerns that were being bandied about during the time period. Carlyle is a summary of the multitude of confused and searching voices trying to figure out how to live in a modern world as a community.

 

 

Works Cited

 

Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Edition, Volume II. USA: Norton, 1993.

Arnold, Matthew. "The Buried Life." Abrams 1354-1356.

---. "Dover Beach." Abrams 1366-1367.

---. "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse." Abrams 1367-1372.

Browning, Robert. "The Laboratory." Abrams 1192-1193

---. "My Last Duchess." Abrams 1190-1192.

---. "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister." Abrams 1188-1190.

Carlyle, Thomas. "From Characteristics." Abrams 923-932.

Rossetti, Dante. "The Blessed Damozel." Abrams 1461-1464.

Swinburne, Algernon. "Hymn to Prosperine." Abrams 1514-1516.

Tennyson, Alfred. "Locksley Hall." Abrams 1073-1079.

---. "Pelleas and Ettarre." Abrams 1141-1154.

---. "Ulysses." Abrams 1067-1069.

 

 

 

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