Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Tennyson in Utopia

In this year of Tennyson’s bi-centenary it is appropriate that we should think through again the relation of William Morris’s verse to that of his great Victorian predecessor, as Peter Faulkner has admirably done in the Summer 2009 issue of the Journal Of William Morris Studies, in an article that ranges across Morris’s letters and prose writings as well as his poetry. Peter’s contrasting of Tennyson and Morris’s Galahad poems, and of their treatments of the Arthur-Lancelot-Guinevere triangle, could hardly be bettered; and we would all surely concur with his conclusion (which was also that of most Victorian commentators) that, while Tennyson reworks his medieval poetic materials in contemporary, and often moralising, manner, Morris more radically takes us right back into the alien mind-set of his remote Arthurian or Sigurdian epochs.

But there is one significant Tennyson reference in Morris’s works which Peter Faulkner’s very full essay does not pick up. It occurs in News from Nowhere when William Guest admires the sky on the upper Thames: ‘the sky, in short, looked really like a vault, as poets have sometimes called it, and not like mere limitless air, but a vault so vast and full of light that it did not in any way oppress the spirits. It was the sort of afternoon that Tennyson must have been thinking about, when he said of the Lotos-Eaters’ land that it was a land where it was always afternoon’ (ch. XXVII).

Graceful casual allusion to a long-superseded Victorian wordsmith, or worrying suggestion that Morris’s Nowhere, like Tennyson’s Lotos island, may in fact tediously be ‘A land where all things always seemed the same’? Could the utopian ‘epoch of rest’ even conceivably one day slide to and beyond the delicious languor of ‘The Lotos-Eaters’ towards the more morbid stasis of Tennyson’s ‘Mariana’ or ‘The Lady of Shallot’? Is Nowhere after all, for all the social advance it represents upon Victorian London, in the end perhaps too pastoral, too placid, lacking sufficient challenge or stress – as a fair number of critics have over the years alleged?

Morris had certainly by 1890/91 long left Tennyson behind as an active poetic influence, yet his brief Tennyson allusion in News from Nowhere is still capable of pointing us to the most fundamental interpretive and political questions about that utopia – questions on which, even 120 years later, the jury is still out.


Callan said...

Tennyson's Lotos lines may in fact be something of a cliche in Victorian fiction. Mary Elizabeth Braddon quotes from them in 'Lady Audley's Secret' (1862), vol 2, ch 6, as Robert Audley reflects that 'A man might lie in the sunshine and eat lotuses, and fancy it "always afternoon", if his wife would let him!'

Tony Pinkney said...

Is there a further Tennyson reference in 'News from Nowhere',albeit a submerged one? When Boffin the Golden Dustman appears 'the sun flashed back from him as if he had been clad in golden armour' (ch. III). That sounds to me like an allusion to the dazzlingly radiant armour of Lancelot in Tennyson's 'The Lady of Shalott'.