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Module Three

Compare and contrast the work of Browning with that of Tennyson in any ways that you think appropriate

'Ulysses' is among my favourites from this collection. It conveys the ceaseless restlessness, the desire for ever more experience, the inability to settle, of the character who is speaking. It is very convincingly a poem of Ulysses in old age, there is a slowness to the verse, and a sense of melancholy, and there are references to the long past and the little that remains of the future. He states outright that he "cannot rest from travel"; he says:

"How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!"

Here the poet conveys the longings of the warrior, too old to fight any longer but unable to sit in one place and enjoy the steady tedium of peaceful rule. He is still ambitious "to sail beyond the sunset".

However, the poem is not simply about the character of Ulysses: it conveys a longing and a desire for constant striving (rather like Goethe's Faust, but more readable!) which plainly speaks to mankind as a whole. Tennyson himself said that the poet was written "under the sense of loss and that all had gone by, but that still life must be fought out to the end". Although he was still young when he wrote "Ulysses", his grief at the loss of his friend Hallam made it possible for him to see the best days as those of the past.

Another favourite is "The Lady of Shalott", probably the first Tennyson poem I ever read. It is elegantly written and beautiful to read, a pageant in full colour. The poem is, indeed, mostly descriptive. It begins with the general landscape around Camelot and the tower of Shalott, and then closes in on the Lady herself, for instance:

And sometimes thro' the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
The Lady of Shalott.

Then Sir Lancelot becomes the focus of the description, with four gorgeous verses devoted to his magnificence. "The gemmy bridle glitter'd free", "Thick-jewell'd shone the saddle-leather", "On burnish'd hooves his war-horse trode"—these lines are not only splendidly descriptive, they give an almost sensuous pleasure when spoken, displaying the poet's well-nigh perfect command of language.

However, this is not a poem which tells a story of any significance. We are told of the existence of the Lady; she leaves her loom; she lies down in a boat and goes to her death, and Sir Lancelot gives her a brief epitaph. We learn almost nothing of her character, only that she is "half sick of shadows". It is a poem like a painting, full of attractive and impeccably drawn detail, but depicting a single scene.

This poem is often read as an allegory of artistic withdrawal from the world. The Lady lives apart from the world, seeing it only through the mirror she uses to aid her in her artistic creation. What a contrast is this with the lively and earthy artist depicted in Browning's "Fra Lippo Lippi". Lippi is a devout and serious artist, a monk, but also a blasphemer and a man who thoroughly enjoys the pleasures of the flesh. He refuses to follow the instructions he is given, and insists that the way to capture the soul in painting is to render the body as exactly as possible.

This poem is by no means as straightforward as 'The Lady of Shalott': it is one side of a conversation, from which the reader must deduce the present circumstances of the speaker, and the other side of the discussion. We also learn enough of the speaker's past, and his preferences and beliefs, to deduce what kind of character he is. Lippi's thoughts dart about, according to what is happening around him, what he remembers, and moreover, what he sees can distract his artistic eye in an instant:

"I'd like his face,
His, elbowing on his comrade in the door
With the pike and lantern, - for the slave that holds
John Baptist's head a-dangle by the hair..."

There is nothing in this poem as visually luscious as Tennyson presents, but its subject is vividly alive in a way the Lady of Shalott is not. "The Lady of Shalott" is a scenic painting, but in 'Fra Lippo Lippi', Browning presents a portrait of the artist.

Browning's "My Last Duchess" is more like a miniature novel. The visual content is minimal when compared to Tennyson's poem; there are occasional images dropped in like illustrations on a page—the bough of cherries, the white mule, Neptune taming a sea-horse—but much more importantly, the poem tells a story and lays bare the character of the narrator, and also that of his dead wife. It becomes perfectly clear that the Duke telling the story is a cold-hearted, proud and unreasonable man, jealous, selfish and ruthless. His late (?) wife was obviously an appealing person who charmed those around her, but lacked the haughtiness of her husband. We do not know in any meaningful detail what she looked like, but gain a very real sense of her personality. In fact, the reader can become so involved with these people that it may be difficult to repress a shudder on behalf of the Count's daughter who is likely to be married in due course to the poem's narrator.

We do not discover the Duke's character by any direct statements of his own within the poem. Browning requires his reader to work rather harder than was the custom in his day. The reader must infer a great deal that is not made altogether clear, and this means that the reader's emotions are more likely to become engaged than they are with Tennyson's poems, which—allowing for the fact that this is poetry, not a text-book—say what they mean. All that Ulysses is, and all he desires, is made explicit by the character himself—we are not required to deduce what he wants, because he tells us. Even with Tennyson's most personal poetry, the reader's emotions are not so strongly engaged as they are by Browning, in no small part because of this difference in the level of engagement required to understand the poems.

Two poems which perhaps have rather more in common are Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" and Tennyson's "Mariana". In both these poems, the description of landscape indicates the state of mind of the poem's central character. And neither poem is describing something beautiful or attractive!

'Mariana' is thickly atmospheric. The 'lonely moated grange' is from the outset a neglected and isolated place, just as the person within is neglected and lonely. The details of the landscape present a smoothly grey picture, but are nonetheless lovely descriptions, such as:

"Hard by a poplar shook always
All silver-green with gnarled bark"

The girl herself is unchangingly dreary, as emphasized by the repetition of her "I am aweary" statements with each stanza. No insight into her character is offered—she reflects the landscape as much as it reflects her. There is a strong sense of stillness conveyed within the poem, everything—especially Mariana—is passive.

"Childe Roland" by contrast has a very strong sense of movement and progress. It is not possible to forget that this is a journey through a landscape. The central character's reaction to the dreadful country through which he must pass reveals his mood and expectation of death very clearly, and his emotional reactions to what he sees become part of the description. Browning's jagged and hideous landscape is reflected in the uncomfortable language he uses to convey it, again contrasting with Tennyson's more mellifluous style.

These two poets are, as can be seen, very different in their approach to the idea of the narrative. Tennyson presents beautiful scenes, indeed he cannot help but do so even when the subject matter is supposed to be dull, and he offers many images which can be plucked from the poems and kept like little jewels on their own. Browning's poems are less lovely but more lively, and his focus is far less on conveying the appearance than on conveying the inner life of his characters. His language is more complicated and less elegant, and it is hard to extract a line or two from a poem such as 'My Last Duchess', partly because the sentence structure is long and involved, and partly because the work needs to be read as a whole.

In his own age, Tennyson was not, of course, immune from criticism, but since he became Poet Laureate it is clear that his work was very much appreciated during his lifetime. In general he presented his themes in either a contemporary context or in a mythical world which would have been entirely familiar to his audience; and in general, he did not have startling or searching things to say about the human condition which would have been novel and shocking to his peers. Tennyson seems to have been in many ways typical of the Englishman of his times: his poems show a conventional patriotism (mostly in appreciation of war and conquest), a basic acceptance of the status quo in society (the 'great' are in high positions because they are great, and are great because they are high in status), a rather morbid interest in death, a view of womanhood as essentially passive and pedestal-dwelling. He does not seem to have had much of the Victorian reformer in him, even though much social change occurred during his lifetime.

Browning seems to have been much more of a puzzle to his contemporaries, whose bewilderment when confronted by his poems is difficult for a modern reader to understand. Although a contemporary of Tennyson's, he had the advantage of a very different environment in which to pursue his poetic work, living in Italy for a considerable period, and with a wife who had a poetic vocation like his own. In effect, Browning now seems to be a modern poet, and more exciting to read in the twenty-first century than the Victorian Tennyson.


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