By Gregory Tate
2012 has been a good year for the Victorian novel. The dizzying number of adaptations, exhibitions, and readings which have been organised to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens testify to the ongoing popularity of nineteenth-century fiction, and of this most famous of Victorian novelists in particular. It’s fair to say that, both in the nineteenth century and now, Victorian poetry has struggled to match the popular profile and commercial appeal of the novel. But the writings of one Victorian poet, possibly the only poet who could compete with novelists like Dickens for fame and success during the nineteenth century, seem to have been cropping up everywhere in 2012. It’s been a good year, too, for Alfred Tennyson.
May 2012 saw the publication of the paperback of Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Stranger’s Child, which takes its title from In Memoriam, Tennyson’s 1850 elegy for his best friend Arthur Henry Hallam:
Till from the garden and the wild
A fresh association blow,
And year by year the landscape grow
Familiar to the stranger’s child;
As year by year the labourer tills
His wonted glebe, or lops the glades;
And year by year our memory fades
From all the circle of the hills.
In the first part of Hollinghurst’s novel these lines are read at a family gathering in the summer of 1913. The rest of the book records the damage inflicted on its characters by the First World War, and traces their fortunes across the rest of the twentieth century. The Stranger’s Child employs Tennyson’s writing as the starting-point for a meditation on grief, the fragility of love, and the impermanence of memory, which “fades” and transforms “year by year.” For Hollinghurst, it seems, Tennyson’s poetry is nostalgic, melancholy, painfully sensitive to the ravages of time.
A different side of Tennyson was brought out when his poetry was used in an event even bigger than the Dickens bicentenary: the London Olympic and Paralympic games. As part of the Winning Words initiative, the closing lines of Tennyson’s dramatic monologue “Ulysses” were chosen as the inscription for a wall in the athletes’ village:
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.
These lines, it was hoped, would motivate athletes to strive for glory in their events, and although it’s hard to judge how much credit we should give Tennyson for the widespread success of British athletes in the games, his poetry was wholeheartedly embraced as a source of inspiration in some quarters. The last line of “Ulysses,” especially, was adopted as a sort of unofficial Olympic motto, to rival “faster, higher, stronger.” The poet Daljit Nagra, one of the judges who chose the Tennyson inscription, described the line as “a clarion call to the best parts of our searching, inquiring selves, which is just as suited to a gold-medal winner as it is to an ordinary worker in their daily round.” This clarion call was heard again and again throughout the summer, as the words “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” were quoted in a speech by David Cameron, and in editorials and opinion pieces in The Sunday Times and The Telegraph. In each case, the line was held up as an exemplary statement of perseverance, aspiration, and optimism, a fit epigraph for games that were widely considered to be an unqualified success.
Despite their apparently firm resolve, however, the lines from “Ulysses,” like those from In Memoriam, are also preoccupied with the transience of life and the depredations of time. However “strong in will” he might be, the Ulysses of Tennyson’s poem is an old man, and his will faces some tough opposition in the intractable forces of “time and fate.” As many readers and critics have noted, it’s difficult to read that last line without worrying that he might, in the end, “yield” after all. In Memoriam and “Ulysses” are two of Tennyson’s most nuanced reflections on the psychological experiences of memory and hope, and the quotations from the two poems reveal a deeply ambivalent writer, torn between optimism for the future and regret for the past. This ambivalence, a confidence undercut by doubt and self-questioning, is arguably characteristic of Victorian culture more generally, and the visibility of Tennyson’s words in 2012 suggests that Victorian poetry, although not as immediately well-known as the Victorian novel, has retained much of its cultural relevance and emotional resonance. It can still move and inspire; just ask the Olympic medal-winners.
Gregory Tate is Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Surrey. His book, The Poet’s Mind: The Psychology of Victorian Poetry 1830-1870, will be published by Oxford University Press in November 2012. You can follow him on Twitter @drgregorytate.
1: John Everett Millais’s portrait of Lord Alfred Tennyson, in public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
2: Photograph of Tennyson’s Olympic epigraph by Adriana Marques. By kind permission of the Olympic Delivery Authority and Forward Arts Foundation.