Looking Ahead: Tennyson

Industrialism as Progress

Looking Ahead: Tennyson

When Alfred Tennyson’s collection, Poems, was published in 1842, one of the people tasked with reviewing it was Carlyle’s good friend, John Sterling (later the subject of Carlyle’s uncharacteristically gentle biography).1 Sterling’s review begins precisely where this book began: with the railway opening of September 1830 and the death of William Huskisson, which Sterling, too, reads as a parable. Surveying that event alongside other hallmarks of modern England—from “general elections” (387) to “London business” (388) and the “Exeter Hall meetings” (388)—Sterling sees the same mix of earnestness and absurdity, development and exploitation, progress and pain.

Being a literary reviewer, though, Sterling’s chief concern is not to diagnose these ills but instead to find a poet who can capture them.

This is all the poet requires; a busy, vigorous, various existence is the matter sine qua non of his work. All else comes from within, and from himself alone. Now, strangely as our time is racked and torn, haunted by ghosts, and errant in search of lost realities, poor in genuine culture, incoherent among its own chief elements, untrained to social facility and epicurean quiet, yet unable to unite its means in pursuit of any lofty blessing, half-sick, half-dreaming, and whole confused—he would be not only misanthropic, but ignorant, who should maintain it to be a poor, dull, and altogether helpless age, and not rather one full of great though conflicting energies, seething with high feelings, and struggling towards the light with piercing though still hooded eyes. (390)

The string of adjectives in the middle of the paragraph gives a good sense for what makes this review so distinctive. “Our time,” Sterling says, is “racked,” “torn,” “haunted,” “errant,” “poor,” “incoherent,” “untrained,” “unable,” “half-sick,” “half-dreaming,” and “whole confused.” It might pair nicely with Wordsworth’s most dire vision of the city: an “unmanageable sight” of “blank confusion,” or an “undistinguishable world,” fed by a “perpetual flow of trivial objects” with “no law, no meaning, and no end” (210-11). Except that while Wordsworth finds, in the end, a steadier view—draws on his lifelong acquaintance with the “Spirit of Nature” to find the “ennobling harmony” beneath this “press of self-destroying, transitory things”—Sterling prefers a poetry of hubbub. In Sterling’s estimation, all of the requirements for great poetry are present in the incoherent, confused, busy, and vigorous industrial world with its “great though conflicting energies”—not beyond or behind or beneath the press and confusion but rather within. And though it may come as something of a surprise, Sterling felt that there was one poet who stood out. “Mr. Tennyson,” he wrote, “has done more of this kind than almost any one that has appeared among us during the last twenty years” (395). If you are looking for poetry that grapples with the vicissitudes of modern England, look no further than Tennyson’s 1842 Poems.

Unfortunately, Sterling himself isn’t very clear about what, exactly, made Tennyson such a distinctively modern poet.2 But if we wanted to fill in the gaps, we could start by noting that Tennyson actually followed Huskisson on the train from Liverpool to Manchester. It was the 15th of September when Huskisson was killed; five days later, when the same train opened its doors to the paying public, Tennyson went aboard. And before he went aboard, he waited dutifully on the platform for the train to arrive. I mention the platform because it was there that Tennyson composed a line that would later serve as the climax for his poem, “Locksley Hall”: “Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.”3 “Ringing grooves,” he later admitted, was a mistake; in the darkness of that September night, he mistook the raised tracks for sunken grooves. As errors go, that seems innocuous enough. What is less obvious is why he thought of the wheels as spinning “for ever.” Trains, after all, do not spin for ever. Typically, they start in one place, end in another, and make regular stops along the way. Tennyson himself was going no further than 31 miles. But, to make its way into Tennyson’s poetry, this 31 mile trip had to become an endless journey. It fused, imaginatively, with his enduring interest in the continual, indeed endless forward motion of the world and became, in that way, not a figure of travel but a figure of progress.

In the words of one 19th-century critic, “No one so largely as Mr Tennyson, has represented in art the new thoughts and feelings, which form the impassioned side of the modern conception of progress.” (Dowden 325). And while more recent critics have fruitfully explored Tennyson’s self-described “passion for the past,” surprisingly few have followed his equal passion for the future, his conviction that “the far future has been my world always” (Letters I 174).4 As his letters and poems attest, Tennyson trusted to progress, trusted that it was having its desired effect, improving human welfare and propelling England towards a higher, richer, brighter world. And he took great pleasure in the imaginative act of looking ahead, of straining his poetic vision to glimpse the improvements that he knew he could not quite see.

At the same time—and like so many of his contemporaries—Tennyson also understood the darker side of progress: its too-rapid movement, its inhuman remoteness, its refusal to take direction. He was never as distraught or as desperate as his friend, Carlyle, and for that reason he was never as obstreperously political. But he was still uneasy, and his early poetry, in particular, explores some of the deep human needs that progress was proving unable to fulfill. Two above all: the need for finality and the need for community. Where, his poems ache to know, will all this progress end? And what, in the meantime, will it do to my community?

Ultimately, I argue that his poems offer an expressly minimal kind of answer, in the form of what I call communities-in-progress. Not stable, thriving, social bonds, but weak and partial forms of association that afford only the barest kind of comfort—which is some comfort, nonetheless. These communities-in-progress are not alternatives to industrial progress, competing visions of human fullness that might challenge an entire ethos (as Carlyle would want), but they are real, they are available, and they are crucial to Tennyson’s work.

Before we can appreciate their particular importance, though, we have to better understand Tennyson’s larger poetics of progress. And to that end my focus centers on a trio of poems whose prominence in Tennyson studies is well-established but whose place in the discourse of industrial progress—and whose importance for Carlyle, Baudelaire, Morris, and others—has never been fully appreciated: “Locksley Hall,” “Ulysses,” and “The Lotos-Eaters.”

Where Does Endlessness End?

“Locksley Hall” is a dramatic monologue—one of the many dramatic monologues that Tennyson was experimenting with, and co-inventing, in the 1830s.5 Its speaker is a spurned, bitter, angry, occasionally fulminating young man, whose interests whirl from young love to utopian politics, eastern langour, sex, and a great deal besides. It begins, though, as a wistful love poem, with the speaker recalling the happy days when his cousin Amy still adored him and all the pleasure of existence seemed to lie ahead:

When the centuries behind me like a fruitful land reposed;
When I clung to all the present for the promise that it closed:

When I dipt into the future far as human eye could see;
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be.6—(13-6)

It is hard to imagine a milder, or less textured, vision of contentment. Practically nothing, in fact, is specified in these lines. In place of actual description, we find a series of indefinite, glowing adjectives. The past is fruitful, the present promising, the future full of wonder. But they are all equally empty of content. An idea of progress does hover in the air, turning the present into a mere “promise” and drawing our eyes toward the vision of the future, but it is innocuous enough to be untroubled by the equal claim of nostalgia and the lure of “centuries behind.”

Once spurned by Amy, however—this woman with whom he spent “Many a morning on the moorland” and “Many an evening by the waters,” whispering and kissing and doing all the things that young lovers do—the speaker finds himself searching for new comfort and a new path into the future. And he finds that comfort, surprisingly, by adjusting his recollection and exaggerating his former hope in progress:

Can I but relive in sadness? I will turn that earlier page.
Hide me from my deep emotion, O though wondrous Mother-Age!

Make me feel the wild pulsation that I felt before the strife,
When I heard my days before me, and the tumult of my life; (107-10)

This, we might say, is the speaker’s new memory of the future. Whereas once he felt himself poised in an easy balance of past, present and future, now, looking back, he remembers being wrenched by a tumultuous optimism. The nostalgic note is muted, and the shift towards the future is so pronounced that the very word “before” now means “after,” as in “When I heard my days before me.”

The word “progress” does not actually appear in these lines, nor does it appear elsewhere in the poem; in fact, it is not a word that Tennyson often used. Still, this poem, like so many others, is saturated with the idea of progress—progress understood not as a technical term for economic development, but as the vague Victorian notion of infinite promise and infinite restlessness that industrial growth had inspired. In a pattern that shows up repeatedly in Tennyson’s work from this period, the great, straining notion of progress becomes a kind of refuge, an escape from the speaker’s personal loss. Time and again in Tennyson, a personal, private, or domestic disappointment is soothed by the embrace of progress, which provides both a new point of interest and a strange, new kind of intimacy.7

The most vivid illustration of this pattern is also the most famous of Tennyson’s dramatic monologues, “Ulysses”—a poem which gives new voice to Homer’s great epic hero. Set well after the conclusion of the Odyssey, this later Ulysses has begun to feel that his nostos is terribly dull. In fact, he is as dissatisfied with his domestic life as the speaker of “Locksley Hall”—though their reasons are different. Penelope has not left Ulysses for another suitor; she has simply become boring, along with everything else. He feels himself, as he says in his opening lines, an “idle king” (1), bound to a “still hearth” (2), paired with an “agèd wife” (3), and ruling over a “savage race / That hoard and sleep and feed, and know not me” (4-5). The adjectives—”idle,” “still,” “agèd”—all reflect the dullness of this world, and even “savage,” which usually describes something more vigorous, refers here to a people who do little but hoard, sleep, and feed.

In such company, Ulysses is decidedly uneasy, and as he thinks about how to move forward, he too, like the speaker of “Locksley Hall”, first looks back:

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone: (6-9)

This is Ulysses’s memory of the future. What he wants, for tomorrow, is to reembark on the turbulent journey of yesterday, to chart a new life by the stars of his former one. You can see this in the verb tenses: he “will drink,” in the future, in order to recapture the “times I have enjoyed,” in the past. Again, this is not really a matter of nostalgia. It is not exactly the past that Ulysses yearns for; it is the future, as he knew it in the past. On the high seas, he both “enjoyed greatly” and “suffered greatly,” struggling sometimes alongside “those that loved me” and at other times “alone.” And what he wants now is the same tumult, the same energy that entwined his life with the greater life of the Ancient world and kept him, as he says in the following lines, “always roaming with a hungry heart”:

    I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honoured of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met; (12-18)

Much of the power of dramatic monologue lies in the sly influence that the poet wields over the words of his speaker, and “I am become a name” is a good example. It is a line that Ulysses speaks, but not one that he controls. For his part, Ulysses seems to mean that he has earned a worldwide reputation, that his “hunger” has propelled not only his ship but also his fame. Yet, from behind his Ulyssean mask, Tennyson seems to be suggesting something much more disturbing: that Ulysses has become merely a name, a rumor without substance. Forever moving, forever traveling in search of new morsels to sate his unquenchable hunger, he has lost the ability to simply be. His identity has leaked slowly into the sea.8 The final line—”I am a part of all that I have met”—has the same duplicity. It is easy to misread it as saying “I am made up of all that I have met,” but that is actually the opposite of what the line says. “I am a part of all that I have met” means that Ulysses has dispersed his identity to the far corners of the globe. So much of him has been left behind, in fact, that when he finally comes home to Ithaca, he comes home empty, a true No-man.

No wonder, then, that he cannot bear his “agèd wife.” When he is with her, he is not himself; he exists elsewhere, in the lands he has visited and also in the lands that he has not yet visited. In fact, as the poem’s next lines make abundantly clear, whenever he is at rest he is effectively dead:

Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. (19-24)

Christopher Ricks has pointed out how odd it is that “to pause” and “to make an end” should be synonymous in that fourth line (62). Generally speaking, pausing is a way of stopping without ending, or hesitating before continuing forward. But, for Ulysses, they are indistinguishable. Every pause is also an end, because as he puts it, breathing alone is not enough; the only life for him is the endlessly active life.

So when Tennyson’s Ulysses utters what are perhaps his most famous words, “all experience is an arch wherethrough / Gleams that untravelled world,” he does not really mean “all experience.” He means “all genuine experience.” Some experiences are not arches. Breathing, for example. Or Pausing. Or being the King to a savage race and husband to an agèd wife. These things do not count as experiences. The only thing that does count is traveling, and even then there is a caveat. Movement alone is not enough. It must be perpetual movement, a compulsive, endless movement which leads only to more movement and which is well captured by the phrase “For ever and for ever.” One “for ever” should suffice, just as adding infinity to infinity only gives you one infinity, but the redundancy of this phrase calls attention to the perversity of Ulysses’s unending journey.

What is more, all this endlessly endless motion must also be forward-motion, ever reaching towards the “untravelled world” that remains perpetually out of reach. This is what distinguishes his activity from mere restlessness, and his character from that of a Romantic hero.9 Ulysses yearns not just for something different but, as he says with all requisite vagueness, “something more” (27). It is the perfect phrase for his character. He wants something—he knows that—but nothing in particular. And whatever particular thing he might find pales before his desire for the “more” and the evermore. It is optimism which drives him, rather than disappointment, and enthusiasm rather than spleen. He doesn’t move around so much as he moves forward, ever-forward in quest of the nameless satisfaction of that which lies ever-ahead.

In a word, the only experience that counts for Ulysses is the experience of progress; the experience of continual, directed movement.10 Ulysses’s purposefully frantic activity has all of the hallmarks of Victorian progress: it thrives on the same optimistic future-orientation, looking past every discovery and every accomplishment towards the gleaming horizon of further discoveries and higher accomplishments; and, from the other side, it turns life into a frantic, compulsive, endless quest for the New and the Next. Ulysses cannot pause, or rest, or find a spot of happiness in any single place. He is only alive when he is unsatisfied and on the move.

Admittedly, there is at least this one, great difference: Ulysses is a lone person, while progress requires the movement of an entire society. In the introduction, I warned against conflating these things: self-improvement and social improvement. They have very different histories (the idea of self-improvement goes back much further) and they perform different kinds of cultural work. Nonetheless, they are sometimes related. Sometimes, that is, the work of allegory stretches far enough to allow on individual to stand for his whole culture. And “Ulysses” is a good example. This is not a poem about the subjective experience of one, restless man. It’s about the archetypal experience of one mythic character, a character so literarily large that he can hardly escape being an allegory. The only question is: an allegory of what? And part of the answer must be: an allegory of industrial progress. Tennyson’s Ulysses shows us what happens to humanity when it commits itself unreservedly to this new idea.

Though we might still ask why Tennyson should want to make an ancient hero his great figure of Victorian progress. Sterling himself could not understand why “a modern English poet should write of Ulysses rather than the great voyagers of the modern world, Columbus, Gama, or even Drake” (402).11 And even that does not go far enough. Following Sterling’s lead, we might well ask why Tennyson did not write about an even more contemporary hero, one of the modern giants that Samuel Smiles was chronicling, for example.12

One way to respond is simply to say that Tennyson didn’t choose an ancient figure: he chose a proto-modern one. For Tennyson, no less than for those most un-Tennysonian thinkers, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Ulysses is “a prototype of the bourgeois individual” (43). Ulysses was among the first to find the prospect of satisfaction more appealing than satisfaction itself. And now that progress has made that condition general, he can rightly be counted among us.

And even if that explanation still doesn’t seem sufficient, the more important thing to recognize is that Tennyon’s allegory worked. His “Ulysses” was understood as a contemporary poem, a poem about the perversity of modern life. By Sterling, by Baudelaire (as we’ll see), and also by Carlyle, who quoted (actually misquoted) from the poem in the following passage from Past and Present:

For though fierce travails, though wide seas and roaring gulfs lie before us, is it not something if a Loadstar, in the eternal sky, do once more disclose itself; an everlasting light, shining through all cloud-tempests and roaring billows, ever as we emerge from the trough of the sea: the blessed beacon, far off on the edge of far horizons, towards which we are to steer incessantly for life? Is it not something; O Heavens, is it not all? There lies the Heroic Promised Land; under that Heaven’s-light, my brethren, bloom the Happy Isles, –there, O there! Thither will we;

There dwells the great Achilles whom we knew. (41)

Carlyle is manifestly not talking about the ancient world. Quite the contrary, his invocation of Tennyson is meant to capture something specific about the burdens of the modern: its need for spiritual regeneration and its dangerous indifference to the “Happy Isles” that await us in the afterlife. What is less clear, but for our purposes more important, is that Carlyle is borrowing more than a line or two from “Ulysses.” He is borrowing a whole conception of history, and with it a conception of progress.

Clearly, Carlyle’s most immediate focus is eschatology, rather than history—hence the “eternal” sky, the “everlasting” light, the “Promised Land” and the “Heaven’s-light.” And at the beginning, anyway, the scene itself seems to echo this preference. With the churning sea “before us” and the steady “Loadstar” lighting our way from the sky, we are in the pull of a classic, religious structure: where the material world is set on one, horizontal place and the light of spirit projected into a dimension above. As I say, this is a familiar trope, but it’s also a distinctly anti-progressive one—one of the hallmarks of anti-progressive thought, according to Herman Lotze (in this passage, which Benjamin singled out for his Arcades Project):

History, however it may move forward or fluctuate hither and thither, could not by any of its movements attain a goal lying out of its own plane. And we may spare ourselves the trouble of seeking to find, in mere onward movement upon this place, a progress which history is destined to make not there but by an upward movement at each individual point of its course forward. (479)

“Denial of the notion of progress in the religious view of history” is Benjamin’s gloss, and it neatly captures Lotze’s point: If history lies below, and God above, there is no straight path that will get us to him, only a sudden leap.

Carlyle’s passage begins this way but then the arrangement shifts. Starting with “blessed beacon,” the light above becomes a light ahead, “far off on the edge of far horizons” like the gleaming, untravelled world in Tennyson (the twinning of “far” with “far” echoes the Tennysonian “for ever and for ever.”) At this point, the light and the ground no longer stand opposed; they meet at some imaginary end of history, some point which we can reach if we “steer incessantly for life.” The whole Lotze-arrangement, where history and God are forever separated into parallel planes, dissolves in a new triangulation, the two now brought together at the distant, but not illusory vanishing point. To be sure, the religious implications have not disappeared—Carlyle is still talking about the “Promised Land”—but his relation to that promised land has been thoroughly reshaped by contact with Tennyson. Heaven has been moved from the heavens to the horizon, and in that way eschatology has been brought into line with the resistless, seductive, and possibly endless historical process inaugurated by industrial progress and well-captured by “Ulysses.”

One way to understand this shift in Carlyle’s paragraph, in other words, is as a response to Tennyson’s poem, a sign that what Carlyle took from Tennyson was not just a few useful lines but a whole historical framework.

How Can Poems End?

Occasionally, in Tennyson’s poems, progress does come to an end—though even when it does, there is still surprisingly little room for rest or happiness. If we return to “Locksley Hall,” for instance, we can see one of these unsatisfying endings, a fleeting vision of what the world will look like after progress is complete:

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;

Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down in costly bales;

Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rained a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;

Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples plunging through the thunder-storm;

Till the war-drum throbbed no longer, and the battle-flags were furled
In the parliament of man, the Federation of the world.

There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law. (119-130)

Leaving aside for the moment the baroque language of these couplets, the sequence is actually rather straightforward. Trade—here figured by “argosies of magic sails”—will expand until an unspecified dispute turns global exchange into global war, with “the nations’ airy navies” defending “the standards of the peoples.” Once ended, this global war will produce a lasting peace, which is like nothing so much as a well-earned sleep, “lapt in universal law.” This is what the speaker of “Locksley Hall” see when he dips into the future: a completed world of universal law and easeful rest.

Poetry is not social theory, to be sure, but still this utopian fantasy seems rather unimaginative—at least compared to some of the other visions of the day (those of an Owen or a Fourier.) What the speaker calls “universal law” looks very like an expansion of English governance: a “Parliament” of men run by the “common sense of most.” Add to this the very undemocratic suggestion that the job of parliament is to “hold a fretful realm in awe,” and the whole thing starts to look a little suspect. The really grand gestures are poetic, rather than political. Some of Tennyson’s most flamboyant images find a home in these lines, e.g. “Argosies of magic sail,” “Pilots of the purple twilight,” “airy navies,” and “ghastly dew.” And the whole expanse gains a dubious grandeur by being elevated into the atmosphere. It is the heavens, Tennyson tells us, that have filled with commerce, just as the merchants at sea have become pilots of twilight and the navies are battling in the blue skies. The Utopian impulse of this passage finds a kind of fulfillment in the elaborate imagery, but if you look too closely, what you see is just an idealized England elevated several thousand feet into the air.

Of course, whether this vision seems satisfying to us, over 150 years later, is not really the issue. The greater difficulty is that it does not even satisfy the speaker of “Locksley Hall.” Having conjured this world, in all its airy splendor, he quickly dismisses it to return to his couplets of phlegm and acrimony. Somehow, that is, this glimpse of Utopian life is not fulfilling enough to soothe the speaker nor conclusive enough to complete the poem. Even after Utopia, there is a lot more ranting to do, a lot more heartache to suffer, and a lot more progress to cheer. And this is true more generally in Tennyson. Where you find visions of the end of progress—and there are more than a few—they are rarely allowed to stick. They provide, instead, a middling kind of resolution that is quickly overrun.

Nowhere is this more pointed than at the end of Tennyson’s poems. Bringing a poem to its conclusion somehow strengthened Tennyson’s need to bring progress to its conclusion.13 The end of the one seemed to call, in a strange way, for the end of the other. In fact, finding a way to reconcile the two—the end of progress and the end of a poem—was an abiding concern, something Tennyson struggled with in a number of works.

The basic demand of closure is a simple one, namely that the uncertainties activated by a text should be disarmed, or at the very least made to seem so.14 A great deal of valuable work has been done on the topic, but Henry James describes it nicely:

Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so. (260)

The problem, as James sees it, is that fiction sets in motion a series of events whose effects might go on indefinitely. There is always something arbitrary about where stories end, and the “exquisite problem of the artist,” as James puts it, is to conceal this fact, to make the final page seem like a natural, and inevitable endpoint.

For obvious reasons, James is thinking of novels and novelists, but the burden for poetry is not altogether different. At least, Tennyson didn’t think it altogether different. It may not have been necessary for him to draw an absolute circle around the images and ideas released by his poems, but he still tried to fix those ideas within some stable pattern. And this proved particularly difficult when the poems dealt with progress, for the simple reason that closure and progress are themselves antithetical. Progress is above all about openness, the continual and perhaps endless development of society towards ever-more-desirable states. Closure, on the other hand, is about the illusion of finality, about pretending that at some point development will reach a natural endpoint. Tennyson’s peculiar solution was to have it neither way, to introduce a hint of resolution distinct enough to seem meaningful but faint enough to be readily bypassed. The conclusion of “Ulysses” provides a good example.

At the end of that poem, Ulysses returns to port to summon his mariners and embark on one final journey, one last brush with progress.15 “You and I are old,” he says to them, “but something ere the end, / Some work of noble note, may yet be done” (49, 51-2). There is still time, in other words, for a final flirtation with the life of endless discovery. A new note, however, is also struck in these last lines: an intimation of finality and a strange suggestion that this, last voyage, will somehow satisfy the resistless compulsion to move:

    Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew. (56-64)

There is a great deal of pathos in these lines, and it has led many critics to conclude that Tennyson’s Ulysses has a kind of death-wish.16 That, certainly, would be one way to escape the thrall of progress, but in fact Ulysses’s choice is rather different. At home, in Ithaca, he is already dead, condemned to merely breath out his days. To sail away is to escape this dull death and find a livelier one, where either “gulfs will wash us down” or he will reach the “Happy Isles.” There is death in both cases, but in neither a real desire for death. Ithaca he wants to leave, and the “Happy Isles” he may one day reach—but not yet. The most telling phrase in this regard is “until I die.” Ulysses may be heading towards death but it is not because death is his goal. In reality, he is sailing in search of “newer worlds” and he will continue to do so until he dies. That is what makes this his last voyage—not the fact that it is a suicide mission but the fact that he has given up on the idea of stopping. This final journey is final because it will go on as long as he does, which brings Ulysses up against one of the deep perversities of progress: even as it promises to lead us into a better future, it turns life into an endless wandering unto death.17

At the same time, the language of the passage—with its “sunset” and its “Happy Isles” does seem to offer at least some, distant possibility of comfortable ending. The poem wants, as it were, to suggest both things: Ulysses’s undying commitment to wandering and his ultimate winding down. Contradictory though these may be, they both work their way into the final lines:

   …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. (67-70)

To the very end, Ulysses continues to rally his mariners to action, insisting that they have enough youth left in their “heroic hearts” to make one final raid on the indefinite. That last line, however—”To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”—would seem to disagree. What is that “find” doing there? Ulysses is hardly interested in finding; striving and seeking are his main concerns. Yet, there it is, this unqualified “to find,” seemingly slipped into his final words.18

To demonstrate just how peculiar this really is, it is worth comparing Ulysses’s last words with another, nearly identical, Tennysonian line, this one from a section of “The Two Voices” where the skeptical voice is teasing his more optimistic partner about the impossibility of finding:

‘Forerun thy peers, thy time, and let
Thy feet, millenniums hence, be set
In the midst of knowledge, dreamed not yet.

‘Thou has not gained a real height,
Nor art thou nearer to the light,
Because the scale is infinite.

‘Twere better not to breathe or speak,
Than cry for strength, remaining weak,
And seem to find, but still to seek. (88-96)

Several of the keywords from “Ulysses” appear in that last triplet—breathe, find, seek—and it is easy to imagine them being spoken to Ulysses, in a kind of spat between poems. You could sail onward for a thousand years, “The Two Voices” taunts, amassing knowledge and experience yet undreamed of, but you would still be no closer to the end, “Because the scale is infinite.” Finding is an illusion, a dream of fulfillment that the whole structure of progress disallows. The best you can do is to “seem to find.”

As a retort, Ulysses might say that this is fundamentally wrong, that the ‘infinite scale’ problem is spurious, and that it is entirely possible to gain, learn and develop even if we cannot ever reach a final port. Facing the other direction, he might say that it is fundamentally right, that he will never find anything, but that eternal frustration is actually the best that this world has to offer. As it happens, though, I do not think he says either of these things. He merely speaks around the problem, turning the stark opposition of “seem to find, but still to seek” into the facile friendship of “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Though perhaps the more accurate thing to say is not that Ulysses speaks around the problem but that the poem itself does. I said earlier that dramatic monologues thrive on the sly interplay of speaker and poet, and “find” seems to belong as much to Tennyson as to his character. Finding, that is, may not be the kind of thing that Ulysses cares about, but it is the kind of thing that Tennyson cared about, and the reason it gets fitted into his 96th line is to satisfy a poetic demand that he felt quite strongly: the demand for closure. The single misplaced verb, “To find,” allows Ulysses, and the poem, to finally rest, to complete that Jamesian circle which would give at least an illusion of completion.

Even as illusions go, though, this one is decidedly weak, a lone infinitive which may seem out of place but which can do no more than hint at the conclusive resolution that the poem never achieves. The idea of finding adds a note of completion to this work which is otherwise about ceaseless striving and endless seeking, but it is still a muted one: easy to miss and far too muffled to have any real reverberation. That’s not a poetic failing; it’s merely what happens in these poems which explore the power and burden of progress. There, the demand for closure is matched by an interest in endless openness, and the result is a resolution stiff enough to suffice, for a moment, but not sufficiently stalwart to interfere with the ongoing work of progress.

Tennyson’s endings often include elements like this. A final port is hastily found and made up to look like a real destination, but once we get there, it turns out to be too shallow to actually dock.19 If there is anything that makes the ending of “Ulysses” unusual, it is the absence of religious imagery. More often, what we find at the troubled end of Tennyson’s poems on progress is a turn from progress to Providence. The ceaseless voyage into the unknown suddenly becomes a spiritual allegory whose only possible end is a heavenly bastion. “Mechanophilus (In the Time of the First Railways)” is one such poem, and though it is certainly not one of Tennyson’s most sophisticated works, it remains one of the most revealing pieces he ever wrote about industrialism and progress. The great bulk of the poem is devoted to celebrating man’s newly developed capacity to shape the world to his will. “Dash back that ocean with a pier,” the second stanza begins, “Strow yonder mountain flat, / A railway there, a tunnel here, / Mix me this Zone with that!” (5-8). To industrial man, the earth has become a mere plaything—not divinely-cast life-world but molding clay awaiting its new shape. Hubristic though this notion may sound, there is very little irony in these lines. For the speaker, at least, this power to reshape the earth is an unmixed good, driving a process of development which is as endless as anything Ulysses ever imagined. “To those still working energies,” the speaker says, “I spy nor term nor bound” (19-20).

Something unusual happens at the very end of the poem, however. All of a sudden, in the final two stanzas, everything mechanical about this “Mechanophilus” disappears, in favor of a more traditional and less industry-riddled framework.

Meanwhile, my brothers, work, and wield
  The forces of today,
And plow the Present like a field,
  And garner all you may!

You, what the cultured surface grows,
  Dispense with careful hands:
Deep under deep for ever goes,
  Heaven over heaven expands. (29-36)

Industry is here displaced by agriculture: plowing and garnering, cultivating and growing have taken us far away from the world of mountain-flattening and railway construction. And there is an even more crucial way that these last stanzas distinguish themselves from the rest of the poem: they make room for a power higher than man. Plowing and garnering are not just agricultural practices, they also have a strong biblical resonance, echoing as they do the famous reaping and sowing of Galatians. They point towards an order of meaning deeper and more fulfilling than anything possible through progress alone. In particular, they point towards the heaven of the final sentence: “Deep under deep for ever goes, Heaven over heaven expands.” At the end of the poem, there is a Heaven, and with it the suggestion that progress, properly understood, will lead us not only to Utopia but in fact to the city of God.

Just like “Ulysses,” that is, “Mechanophilus” ends by striking an unexpected note of finality. Also like “Ulysses,” however, this note is willfully muffled. In this case, the idea of Heaven as a place of eternal rest is checked by the lowercase “h” and the strange topography of “Heaven over heaven”—as if the word heaven might be spoken and unspoken at the same time, as if we might begin with “Heaven” and then casually construct the remainder of the line to make it mean nothing more than the sky. In so far as we must think of Heaven, when we read this, it is a peculiar kind of heaven, a Heaven which expands upward towards greater and greater heights. Beyond each heavenly iteration lies an even better, even higher heavenly plane, stretching out into an infinite expanse of Heavens beaming over other Heavens. If this sounds all-too heterodox, it is actually how Tennyson conceived of Heaven. “I can hardly understand,” he once wrote, “how any great, imaginative man, who has deeply lived, suffered, thought and wrought, can doubt of the Soul’s continuous progress in the after-life” (Collins 152-3). Even in the bosom of God, that is, Tennyson thought his life would be incomplete without some hope for progress. Restful satisfaction was not something humans could enjoy—not in this life and not in the hereafter (“Physical quietude and dull pleasure” Tennyson called it, “the mere physical happiness of breathing, eating, and sleeping like an ox” (Letters I.175)). Indeed, the only life Tennyson could imagine was the life of movement, the life of freedom, suffering, strife and development.

Still, there was something about endlessness that haunted him. However little he wanted to live in the world after progress, his poems occasionally reflect a desire to look ahead and see that completed world. Sometimes, as in “Locksley Hall,” this forward glance shows up in the body of his poems. More characteristically, it appears at the end. The work of ending seemed to cry out for a surer resolution and a more absolute kind of historical completion than progress would allow, and yet, the most his endings can do is hint at this completion—if hint is not already too strong a verb. A quick nod to “finding” or to “Heaven” provides only the coldest, most fleeting kind of comfort; it introduces a finality that the rest of the poem renders untenable. In Tennyson’s poems, the end of progress is something to be glimpsed and passed over, not something to be lived and experienced.

Is There Room for Rest?

If Heaven will not do, however, there is still another way out of progress: we can just give up on it, freeing ourselves from the pain by abandoning the thrill and the pleasure. Obviously, this is not something that interests Ulysses; for him, a life without quest is a life of mere breathing. Yet, the speaker of “Locksley Hall” might feel differently. He has not yet given up on happiness, even if his efforts so far have proved unsuccessful. So in a last, desperate effort to find that happiness, he decides to start, as it were, from the beginning—without civilization, without love, and without progress.

It helps that he actually has a memory of life before progress, drawn from “Deep in yonder shining Orient, where my life began to beat” (154). Rather late in the poem, that is, we find out that the speaker was not raised in England but rather in India—first by his father and then, after his father’s death, by his uncle. His memories of that time are rather vague, and plainly tainted by the orientalist idea of the languorous east, but they are vivid enough to exert a lingering pull. It is not surprising, then, that one of the things he considers as part of his long search for comfort is a “retreat” to the Orient, where he hopes to find a truly sumptuous immobility (153):

Larger constellations burning, mellow moons and happy skies,
Breadths of tropic shade and palms in cluster, known of Paradise.

Never comes the trader, never floats an European flag,
Slides the bird o’er lustrous woodland, swings the trailer from the crag;

Droops the heavy-blossomed bower, hangs the heavy-fruited tree–
Summer isles of Eden lying in dark-purple spheres of sea. (159-164)

Instead of a future utopia, what we have is a past Eden; instead of tumult and activity, “mellow moons and happy skies”; and instead of heavenly commerce, a world without trade. The shift from “for ever” to “never” is especially revealing. One might easily describe this place as “for ever restful,” or “for ever changeless.” But the speaker chooses instead: “Never comes the trader, never floats an European flag.” Negation is what matters here. In the speaker’s eyes, these islands are defined not by what happens but by what does not happen. They are the kind of place where things do not happen, and where even those few things that do, mysteriously, manage to happen are still strikingly inactive. Verbs like “Slide” and “swing” have an air of playful inconsequence, while the more languid “droop” and “hang” lack the energy even for that. Without steamship, railway, and the march of mind, life succumbs to heat and gravity. To speak proleptically, everything here is luxe, calme, et volupté. More than that, it is a familiar kind of luxe, calme et volupté—familiar, that is, not from Baudelaire (who had not yet written his poem) but from an earlier work of Tennyson’s: “The Lotos-Eaters.”

“The Lotos-Eaters” is yet another Odyssean poem, a kind of negative of “Ulysses,” where the attachment to progress becomes resistance and the vigor fatigue. The Homeric episode on which the poem is based is brief, but justly famous. Ulysses’s men, stopping at an island on their rough route back from Troy, taste of the Lotos-Flower and become enthralled. And this experience, which Homer describes in a few brief lines, Tennyson dilates into a few hundred:

In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemèd always afternoon.
All round the coast the languid air did swoon,
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.
Full-faced above the valley stood the moon;
And like a downward smoke, the slender stream
Along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem. (3-9)

This is yet another place where things do not happen, where heaviness droops into immobility. Part of that effect is formal, built around the slow sonority of s’s and f’s and the rich, round-voweled rhymes. Adjectives like “languid,” “weary,” and “downward” contribute to the air of fatigue and, the extended last line of the alexandrine feels like pentameter dulled into excess repetition. But the centerpiece is the moon, which stands “full-faced above the valley” in the middle of the “afternoon.” So exhausted is this world that the heavens themselves have stopped circling.

It is here, on this exhausted island, that Ulysses’s mariners finally decide to rest. Being the ones who steer and stroke, and carrying as they do the full burden of endless movement, they are much less attached to progress than is their captain-King. To them, it seems like the futile work of “ever climbing up the climbing wave” (95). And though their pain is muffled in “Ulysses,” where they merely toil and think, in “the Lotos-Eaters” they finally find their voice:

All things have rest: why should we toil alone,
We only toil, who are the first of things,
And make perpetual moan,
Still from one sorrow to another thrown:
Nor ever fold our wings,
And cease from wanderings,
Nor steep our brows in slumber’s holy balm; (60-6)

They know their work is endless, their moan “perpetual,” their wings never folded, their sorrows thrown one upon the next. What makes it worse is that they endure these things alone. Indeed, the word “alone” in the first line has a double meaning. “We toil alone” means, in the first place: only humans toil while other forms of life can simply breath and be. But it also suggests a kind of overburdened loneliness. Even though they are all one crew, these men still toil in isolation, not all together but all alone.

The delicate lotos-flower brings all of this to an end. Finally, on this island, the overburdened mariners will stop, give up the perpetual search for the new, and take refuge in the rare stillness of their dreamy surroundings. Yet, much as the poem sympathizes with the mariners plight, it cannot sympathize with their solution.20 What they find, to begin with, is not happiness but rather “mild-eyed melancholy,” which makes the island seem more dolorous than merely restful. And there is another concern that has been less often noticed, one that surfaces most clearly in the new ending that Tennyson wrote for the second version of the poem. Originally, the end of the poem was rather unremarkable: it introduced a newly purposive rhythm but hewed pretty closely to the general themes. The revised ending, on the other hand, shows the mariners in a new, and vastly more troubling, guise: not as content and resting souls but as callous gods:

Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind,
In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined
On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind.

Where they smile in secret, looking over wasted lands,
Blight and famine, plague and earthquake, roaring deeps and fiery sands,
Clanging fights, and flaming towns, and sinking ships, and praying hands.
But they smile, they find a music centred in a doleful song
Steaming up, a lamentation and an ancient tale of wrong,
Like a tale of little meaning though the words are strong;
Chanted from an ill-used race of men that cleave the soil,
Sow the seed, and reap the harvest with enduring toil,
Storing yearly little dues of wheat, and wine and oil; (153-5, 159-167)

It is hard to say exactly which gods the mariners have in mind. They can hardly be Christian in origin, seeing as there are many of them, but they are also too impassive to be epic gods. In Homer, the gods are ceaselessly involved in human affairs, whereas these simply watch from their comfortable mountaintop seats as the vicissitudes of human life unfold below them. As a last alternative, Ricks suggests that the gods “are based on Lucretius’s account of Epicureanism” (Tennyson Poems 476n155-70), but their attraction to human sorrow has no analog there either.

Twice Tennyson tells us that “they smile,” and both times he hints at something sinister. It is “wasted lands” that provoke their first smiles, and then a “doleful song” which piques the second—in both cases, some kind of suffering is the necessary precondition. Whatever contentment these Gods have found, it is more like Schadenfreude than grace, a relative kind of happiness that comes from watching the toil of others and feeling oneself free from that burden.21 This is what being a god means to these mariners: not undivided happiness but exploitation and eternal disdain. For them, rest is only restful if you know that there are people beneath you, still “ill-used” and toiling, whose lives have little meaning except as traces of your former pain. If this is supreme happiness, it is the kind a rentier might imagine, where what matters about standing above it all is that you can exploit the suffering of those beneath you.

Moving back to “Locksley Hall”, it happens that the speaker’s fantasy of orientalist ease goes sour in a very similar way. The moment he turns his attention from the unchanging isle to its living inhabitants, he sees what the mariners-cum-gods see in mankind: inferiors who are fit, chiefly, for exploitation. “I will take some savage woman,” he says, in the couplet immediately following that drowsy one about the “summer isles of Eden.” And she “shall rear my dusky race” (168). This space where nothing happened becomes, suddenly, a place where barbarity happens, and where verbs like “slide,” “swing,” and “hang” get matched by others like “take.” Almost as quickly as it is uttered, though, the fantasy of a savage wife and a dusky family dissolves.

I, to herd with narrow foreheads, vacant of our glorious gains,
Like a beast with lower pleasures, like a beast with lower pains!

Mated with a squalid savage–what to me were sun or clime?
I the heir of all the ages, in the foremost files of time— (175-178)

What seemed alluring, for a moment, now seems wholly shameful. Not, of course, because exploiting others is wrong, but rather because it is degrading. It tarnishes the exploiter. The “savage” wife he imagined is something worse than coarse or uncivilized; she is degenerate, a mere beast when compared with his own evolved self.22 She belongs to an earlier species of human being, complete with narrow head and low pleasures. The speaker, by contrast, bears within him the “glorious gains” of his own culture, which he did not exactly learn but somehow acquired through long periods of development. The phrase “heir of all the ages” tells the whole Lamarckian story. All of history has conspired to produce this speaker, whose blood beats with the pulse of modern England and who stands at the very vanguard of progress, “the foremost files of time.”

Grotesquely racist as this is, it is also tragic—and not unfamiliarly so. It is the tragedy Freud described in Civilization and its Discontents, and that Adorno assailed in his reading of Ulysses bound to the mast: the tragedy of man cut off from his own most basic pleasures. These speakers have managed, only to well, to accomplish what political economists were urging people to accomplish: deferred gratification. This is something I touched on the introduction: the conflict between the desire for work and the desire for happiness. If we want to maximize our future happiness, we have to accept some pain today—for only in pain can we make the things that will satisfy us later. Yet, what these poems suggest is that if we follow this logic too far we won’t be able to enjoy that later happiness either. The disciplining of desire which is necessary to make progress happen has the perverse effect of making people unfit for satisfaction. Try though he might, the speaker of “Locksley Hall” can never enjoy a life of languorous ease; he is no longer that kind of human. Instead, he is the kind of human who must continually search for ever more glorious gains. He has so internalized the art of self-discipline that he cannot break it, even when he feels it would make him happier.

It turns out, in other words, that for Tennyson it is not only impossible to find rest at the end of progress, it is impossible to ever escape its orbit. Progress is not just something you live through, it is something that you carry with you, like a compulsion or a disease. The speaker of “Locksley Hall” has it, and it keeps him from enjoying the many seductive pleasures that he finds on those “Summer isles of Eden.” The Lotos-Eating mariners have it too. They may think of themselves as Gods, but they must keep close to the world of toil and strife, else they would lose the pleasure they get from watching others suffer. In both these poems, the attempt to escape from history ends in corruption, because even when we leave the world of progress behind, we can’t shake off our enthrallment. It stings us every time we lie down and haunts us every time we close our eyes. For anyone who knows its invasive power, there can be no real rest. Luxe, calme, et volupté will always be the precursor to ennui, mépris, and exploitation.

Must We Travel Alone?

If there can be no end to progress, and no way to escape its pull, then there is no choice but to accept perpetual movement and move forward. The only recourse left to Tennyson’s personae is to treat the symptoms—the restlessness, the dissatisfaction, and the endless displacement—and to that end Tennyson considered a few kinds of palliatives: one sort for the dramatic monologues, and a wholly different one for In Memoriam.

I haven’t dealt with In Memoriam, even though much of it fits within my chosen time frame (it may not have been completed until 1849, but it was largely written in the 30s and early 40s.) Obviously, it is not a dramatic monologue, but that alone is hardly a reason to exclude it. No, the bigger challenge is that its whole conception of progress is different: more traditional and less industrial; fitted to broader time frames, like evolution and eschatology; clinging to the old association of social improvement with self-improvement; and, most striking, still under the direction of human care and Divine Providence. Compare, for instance, the critique of “Ulysses” on offer in Canto CXIV with the one we have already seen in “The Two Voices”:

Who loves not Knowledge? Who shall rail
   Against her beauty? May she mix
   With men and prosper! Who shall fix
Her pillars? Let her work prevail.

But on her forehead sits a fire:
   She sets her forward countenance
   And leaps into the future chance,
Submitting all things to desire. (1-8)

As before, we might imagine the poem as a kind of implicit rebuttal, as if beginning just after Ulysses has completed his appeal and a new speaker has stood up, eager to reply. “Who loves not Knowledge?” makes a nice entrée, with its sympathetic acceptance of Ulysses’s own desire “to follow knowledge like a sinking star.” And “Who shall fix her pillars?” completes the connection, invoking as it does the one word most associated with Ulysses’s final journey—pillars, as in those world-ending pillars of Hercules which he would sail beyond.

With the second stanza, however, things begins to turn. “But on her forehead sits a fire,” we learn, and with the closing rhyme discover that it is the fire of bottomless desire. The problem with Ulysses’ view of Knowledge—familiarly enough—is that it drives us ever forward, always away from the solidly known and towards a “future chance.” It shares the restless burden of progress, that same risk of the forever and forever which has shadowed progress throughout Tennyson’s work. Except that unlike those other poems, this one has a model response:

A higher hand must make her mild,
   If all be not in vain; and guide
   Her footsteps, moving side by side
With wisdom, like the younger child:

For she is earthly of the mind,
   But wisdom heavenly of the soul. (17-22)

Wisdom, it seems, will temper Knowledge; if you accept wisdom’s sober guidance, you will find your desire checked and the resistless lure of the New effectively blunted. Tennyson lets us imagine the process in an earthly form, as an older sibling guiding his incorrigible sister. But he also inspires us to imagine it in rather more elevated terms, nothing less than the “higher hand” of God himself, erasing the pain of progress and melting away the restlessness which Tennyson’s other speakers could not shed. This is what I meant when I said that In Memoriam follows the older, enlightenment model of progress.23

What would Ulysses say in response? I suspect it would be something like: ‘I have tried the quiet way of wisdom and of God, and having tasted of knowledge I find I am no longer suited for it. I have become the kind of person who must live in progress, and whose comforts must be the hot comforts of that life.’ There is, in other words, a fundamental difference in the way these speakers imagine progress. In Canto CXIV, the chief problem is that not enough people have learned the value of wisdom; in “Ulysses,” and elsewhere, the greater concern is that we can no longer value wisdom, even when we find it. The speaker of “Mechanophilus” talks of heaven, but the only heaven he can stomach is a heaven of desire and expanding knowledge. In “Locksley Hall” and “The Lotos Eaters,” progress is an infection rather than a choice, something deep inside us rather than something we might leave behind. What these other speakers feel—or know—is that if we give up the appetites of progress we lose everything that matters to our modern selves.

This same realization—that there is no choice but to embrace progress—propels “Locksley Hall” towards its conclusion and plants in the speaker’s mouth the very line that Tennyson composed on the railway platform:

Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.

Through the shadow of the globe we sweep into the younger day:
Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.

Mother-Age (for mine I knew not) help me as when life begun:
Rift the hills, and roll the waters, flash the lightnings, weigh the Sun. (181-6)

“Not in vain the distance beacons” is a phrase composed half of assurance and half of bluster. It is entirely possible, and in fact quite likely, that the journey will be in vain, but since the speaker feels that letting the “world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change” is his last, best chance for happiness, he might as well muster some bravado.

If he is wrong there is still a kind of consolation in the return of the phrase “Mother-Age.” We saw that phrase before, in a line from the early part of the poem: “Hide me from my deep emotion, O though wondrous Mother-Age!” It is the appeal he made when his leading lady first went off-script and the love story he was in began breaking apart. With no prospects for a wife, he asked instead for a mother, and since no real mother was available, he embraced what he called his “Mother-Age.” Admittedly, it is a strange kind of appeal, but the fact that it returns later in the poem suggests its deeper importance. Indeed, in its second incarnation, the maternal side of the metaphor is even more forceful, thanks to the awkward parenthetical “for mine I knew not.” I call it awkward because, by all grammatical rights, the phrase “for mine I knew not” should refer to the age. But clearly it refers to his mother. Indeed, the whole thrust of the line pivots around the suggestion that the age he does know can replace the mother he never did. “Mother-Age (for mine I knew not)” is an appeal to the age, asking that it serve as a surrogate mother, sheltering him from the pain of his failed courtship and embracing him with a purer, less fickle kind of devotion. In its own way, the industrial age provides the speaker with a kind of domestic resource, a pseudo-mother, which the phrase Mother-Age neatly captures. And this ersatz domesticity is part of its appeal. It gives the speaker yet another reason to embrace progress. Not only is it the only choice on offer, but it provides its own brand of intimacy: call it community-in-progress.

We might call it domesticity-in-progress except that even in “Locksley Hall” it takes another, far less domestic form, namely that of his fellow soldiers. “Comrades, leave me here a little,” he says in the opening line, and though these “comrades” play absolutely no role afterwards, they are still there, a not-quite-present and not-quite-absent band of brothers.

More to the point, these communities-in-progress extend even to those characters, like Ulysses, who are not interested in domesticity. Ulysses has a perfectly traditional domestic life, complete with agèd wife and blameless son—and he cannot stand it. He much prefers roaming the seas in search of new adventures. Yet, in some ways that contrast is not as stark as it would seem. Ulysses never really has to choose between intimacy and adventure. Even at sea, he is surrounded and supported by his faithful family of sailors. “My Mariners,” he calls them, “souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me” (45-6). His is not some makeshift crew casually assembled at the docks; they are his mariners, kindred “souls,” who have not only “toiled” and “wrought” with him, but who have also “thought” with him, which is a rather surprising verb here. “Fought” would do just as well, in terms of sonority, and would seem more consistent with the division of labor aboard Ulysses’s ship. “Thought” is there to heighten the sense of kinship, to suggest that Ulysses values his men not only for what they do—steer the ship, grapple with monsters—but for what they think and say. Between him and his men there is a vital, fraternal bond which fills the role of his abandoned family.24

It is worth noticing, moreover, that these can’t be the same, trusted mariners that accompanied Ulysses on his famous odyssey; all of those men died along the way.25 So the obvious question is when, exactly, did Ulysses toil and work and think with these mariners, who could not have been with him in Troy? And the only possible answer is: in Troy. Tennyson’s poem tells us that these are the same men “that strove with Gods” (53) and that, as Ulysses himself says, actually knew Achilles (64). Which means, of course, that they must have gone to Troy with Ulysses and should have died during the return—at least in Homer’s version. In Tennyson’s version, they are still waiting at the port for their onetime captain. And the reason they are waiting at the port—the reason they have been brought back to life—is because Ulysses needs them, Tennyson needs them, and progress needs them. They are the guarantors of community, and it is their job to make progress bearable. Just as the speaker of “Locksley Hall” finds a new Mother and a comforting kind of surrogate domesticity, Ulysses finds his own community-in-progress, this time a band of brothers willing to join his endless voyaging and share his endless burdens. And he will have this community-in-progress even if it means that Tennyson has to raid Hades itself.

Thinking of “The Lotos-Eaters” as a companion poem, though, we might wonder whether anyone bothered to ask these mariners if they wanted to be part of Ulysses’s community-in-progress. They might have preferred to remain dead, as Homer left them, or at least happily intoxicated by the taste of the lotos flower—anything rather than sail forever into the untravelled world as Ulysses’s shipmates. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that they have much choice. “Ulysses” will have them, and if Homer’s poem is any guide, their time on the island of the lotos-eaters is quite limited. At any moment, they are liable to be dragged back to the ship and put to work climbing up those climbing waves. Once again, though, there is some little recompense for this enslavement to endless progress, and once again it comes in the form of a hidden community. No single mariner speaks in “The Lotos-Eaters.” They all speak together, in what Tennyson calls a “Choric Song” but which is actually the poem’s controlling voice. Whether they are saying “let us alone” (88, 90, 93), “we have had enough of action” (150), or “let us swear an oath” (153), their focus is relentlessly plural, their shared voice a testament to the intimacy they have forged through common toil and collective intoxication. To be sure, none of this is enough to make them forget about the burden of their endless voyage. Yet, on this island, they have found a fellowship of the speaking “we” which they can carry with them up the climbing wave to make their toil somewhat less lonely.

In various ways, then, each of these poems produces its own community-in-progress, a minimal form of sociability that eases the burden of an endless and too-rapid progress. The post-Malthusian combination of accelerating growth and exploding population meant that the average 19th-century Englishman interacted with far more people than his grandfather did (probably by an order of magnitude), and likewise encountered far more information than could be managed by traditional, informal mechanisms like gossip. Social life had given way to something more like a social system, which undoubtedly had its own logic and cohesion but which was also—like so much else in industrial life—strangely inhuman, functioning at a level of abstraction difficult to cognize in human terms. Tennyson’s poems offers us a weak kind of compensation. In “Locksley Hall,” the new community is as minimal as a metaphor, a Mother-Age to replace a lost wife and absent mother. In “Ulysses,” it has a more traditional look, but its members are by literary rights already dead. And in “The Lotos-Eaters,” community thrives only during a fleeting moment of respite.26 These are hardly the rich societies of the future imagined by Utopian dreamers; nor, looking the other way, are they the Gemeinschaft fantasies of those nostalgic for a stable, pre-progressive world. They are something else entirely: unstable, incomplete attachments that provide some comfort but nothing like a new home.

Home is a relic in this world of progress, a fading memory rather than a nourishing presence. The lotos-eating mariners recognize this fact as well as anyone, being mostly family men distantly connected to the wives and children they have left in Ithaca. I mentioned before that Tennyson rewrote the ending for the second version of “The Lotos-Eaters,” but he also made one other major change: he added a long section about the mariners’ domestic ties:

Dear is the memory of our wedded lives,
And dear the last embraces of our wives
And their warm tears: but all hath suffered change:
For surely now our household hearths are cold:
Our sons inherit us: our looks are strange:
And we should come like ghosts to trouble joy. (114-20)

These mariners have not forgotten their wives and families, but they do feel that their love no longer matters. They have been away so long that the bonds of domesticity have come loose, and were they to return they would seem “like ghosts,” figures from a lost past dangerously intent on reasserting itself. So although they are not yet dead, from the perspective of their families they might as well be. The houses they left behind may still be there, but the homes are gone, the attachments thinned to oblivion. The mariners belong to Ulysses and his endless quest for progress, and it is there that they must find their community-in-progress.

The Speaker of “Locksley Hall” confronts the same loss, only he likes to pretend that it is something else. His home has slipped away from him, but to save something of his dignity, he prefers to imagine that he is doing the slipping:

Howsoever these things be, a long farewell to Locksley Hall!
Now for me the woods may wither, now for me the roof-tree fall.

Comes a vapour from the margin, blackening over heath and holt,
Cramming all the blast before it, in its breast a thunderbolt.

Let it fall on Locksley Hall, with rain or hail, or fire or snow;
For the mighty wind arises, roaring seaward, and I go. (189-94)

As I have already argued, Tennyson’s endings carry a peculiar burden: they have to hint at a final resolution and then quickly move past it. And these final lines from “Locksley Hall” manage this trick beautifully. The blackening storm of “rain,” “hail,” “fire,” and “snow” has a decidedly apocalyptic feel, as if to suggest that this is not only the end of the poem but also the end of the world. Yet, if it is an apocalypse, it is an oddly local one—nothing, for instance, like the death-birth that Carlyle was wont to imagine. It has enough divine firepower to destroy this one estate, but not much else—certainly not the speaker, who goes to follow Ulysses into the untravelled world. In fact, one could plausibly argue that nothing is being destroyed in these lines, in so far as the home and family that they putatively sweep away were, from the speaker’s perspective, already gone. So although the apocalyptic imagery may, for a moment, make the speaker’s defiance seem grand, the only thing he is rejecting is an ideal he had already lost, and the only reason he has the strength for this rejection is that he has found a new kind of community.

He may utter a lonely “I go,” in other words, but he is not exactly going alone. He has with him the imagined Mother of his Mother-Age, which is an admittedly weak, but not therefore insignificant, emotional bond. And somewhere nearby are his fellow-soldiers, kept largely out of the poem (and away from his intimate thoughts) but still waiting just beyond the frame. And this, in capsule, is what Tennyson’s poems from the 1830s express: the hidden fact that the appeal of progress depends not only on the open promise of ever-greater experiences but also on a new kind of intimacy.

Excitement and exhilaration alone are not enough, and before we give ourselves to the lure of tomorrow we need something more to balance the real and terrifying costs. Powerful and vital though progress may be, it is also remote and alien. In its wake, our lives—like those of Ulysses and his mariners—become an endless voyage, without hope of pause or end. We are taken away from everything that is stable and solid and enthralled instead to a future we can never actually find. What we gain in exhilaration we lose to a restlessness whose only possible end is our own death. And when, like the speaker of “Locksley Hall,” we try to escape this burden, we find ourselves entrapped, unable to conceive a lasting life outside of progress.

What makes all this bearable is the fact that there are countless others following the same tortured path, others who collectively make up what I have been calling a community-in-progress. If we cannot have a stable home, or any rest, we can at least temper the bitterness of that loss by forging a new, though less familiar, kind of community. In the end, that is, Tennyson’s poems show us something more than the alienating endlessness of progress; they show us the weak social consolation that progress itself is always forging. They offer visions of community that can to some degree ease the pain of alienation by replacing brothers with brother-mariners and a Mother with a Mother-Age. It may not be enough, this minimal community-in-progress, but it is all that remains and it as, at least, something.27


1 Sterling was also an acquaintance of Tennyson’s. Both were members of the Apostles when at Cambridge—though Sterling left before Tennyson arrived. And both were involved in the same abortive scheme to aid Spanish revolutionaries. For more, see Culler, “Tennyson.”

2 When trying to describe Tennyson’s modernness, Sterling’s language becomes rather diffuse, as when he praises: “this fusion of his own fresh feeling with the delightful affections, baffled or blessed, of others—and with the fairest images of the real world as it lies before us all to-day” (414). Adjectives like “delightful,” “fairest,” “blessed” and “baffled” are too mild to fit comfortably alongside “racked,” “torn,” and “haunted,” and it is hard to say why a person of such “fresh feeling” should be nominated as the preeminent poet of our half-sick, half-dreaming world.

3 As he recalled: “When I went by the first train from Liverpool to Manchester (1830) I thought that the wheels ran in a groove. It was a black night, and there was such a vast crowd round the train at the station that we could not see the wheels. Then I made this line” ( Poems 130n182).

4 Kissane, Carr, and Rosenberg detail the importance of the past in Tennyson.

5 A great deal has been written about Tennyson, Browning and the development of the dramatic monologue. A. Dwight Culler traces its origins back into the 18th century and beyond (“Monodrama”). Isobel Armstrong situates the genre within the broader context of the Victorian “framed poem” (7-16). W. David Shaw provides the most theoretically-inflected account of the relation between Tennyson and his speakers (101-3). William E. Fredeman contrasts Tennyson’s dramatic monologues with Browning’s. Robert Langbaum describes the interplay between judgment and sympathy (80-93). Linda Hughes offers a reasoned synthesis of the analyses to date (1-18).

6 All line numbers refer to Christopher Ricks’ three-volume edition of Tennyson’s poems (Tennyson, Poems ).

7 For other accounts of the private/public relation in Locksley Hall, see Buckler (121, 128), Kincaid (54-5), and Shaw (83-5).

8 For a rich reading of Tennyson’s ambivalence towards Ulysses, see Chiasson.

9 Versions of this argument are made by Culler ( Poetry ), Kincaid, and O’Brien.

10 Brantlinger is one of the few critics to recognize this link between Ulysses’s compulsive wanderings and Victorian progress.

11 “Locksley Hall”, too, has some strangely anachronistic elements—including, particularly, the repeated sound of a bugle-horn. It is easy enough to simply read past them, but they seem to have bothered some of the early reviewers, including Sterling (411).

12 Maxime du Camp makes just such a charge against French literature in the preface to Les Chants Modernes : “nous sommes le si ècle o \F9 l’on a d écouvert des plan ètes et des mondes, o \F9 l’on a trouv é les applications de la vapeur, l’ électricit é, le gaz, le chloroforme, l’h élice, la photographie, la galvanoplastie. …et il faut s’occuper de la guerre de Troie et des panath én ées!” (13).

13 Fredeman argues that the problem of closure extends throughout Tennyson’s poetry (180), but I think the difficulty is heightened by his attention to progress.

14 Frank Kermode, D. A. Miller, and Peter Brooks have all written wonderfully on the issue of closure.

15 This is the section of the poem most directly indebted to Dante, whose own Ulysses also set out on one final westward voyage—past the pillars of Hercules and into the undiscovered world. But the context for that final voyage is completely different. Dante’s Ulysses, for instance, has never been home—he heads west just after leaving Circe’s isle. Which means, of course, that he has not seen Penelope, restored peace to his home, or gotten bored with domestic life. He is still enjoying his adventurous life of travel. Tennyson’s Ulysses is not trying to continue his adventurous life, but to recapture it.

16 See Culler “Monodrama” (383), Culler Poetry (94, 97), Langbaum (90), Palmer (47), Shaw (74, 145), Tucker (230, 236-7).

17 As it happens, we know that Carlyle particularly liked these lines, having quoted them with great reverence in a letter he wrote to Tennyson just after reading his 1842 Poems (I.82-3).

18 Several critics have noticed this peculiarity. Christopher Ricks has suggested that the line has an invisible double, which reads: “To strive, to seek, to yield, and not to find” (59). Culler argues that “those last two verbs are the Victorian addition to an otherwise Romantic poem, for whereas in the second paragraph the margin faded for ever and for ever, it now appears that at some point it will stop” ( Poetry 97).

19 Palmer recognizes the simultaneous suggestion and denial of finality in Tennyson’s poems, but he relates it to Tennyson’s apocalyptic imagination, rather than to any notion of progress (49-50).

20 Kincaid (39-41), Culler ( Poetry 98), and Day (41) offer general accounts. Sinfield presents an interesting colonial reading of the problem (47-50), and Armstrong reads the poem as a critique of alienated labor (87).

21 Shaw is one of the few critics who mentions the troubling nature of these gods (132).

22 Evolution, of course, was an abiding interest of Tennyson’s, and this is just one of the instances where progress and evolution become entangled in his poetry. Brantlinger offers an excellent reading of this dynamic in “Locksley Hall”, showing how the poem thrives on the competing pull of evolution and regression (188-9).

23 To be sure, this is not the poem’s final word. There is some doubt left at the end, some last concern that even divine wisdom won’t quite do—chiefly because there are not enough who heed its counsel. But it never admits the possibility—so crucial to the other poems—that wisdom is something other than the answer we have not yet fully recognized; it is something that we, being molded by progress, can no longer want.

24 A classicist colleague of mine has suggested that this is even stranger than it seems at first. Homophrosun é—thinking alike—is the term Homer repeatedly uses to describe the special bond between Ulysses and Penelope in the Odyssey . The use of “thought” in Tennyson’s line would suggests that the bond has been transferred to his mariners.

25 They are there, of course, in Dante, but only because Dante’s Ulysses never made the homeward journey that killed his crew. Tennyson’s Ulysses did. More generally, though, the issue of whether these characters should or should not be dead in Tennyson’s poem is tied to the broader question about how exactly these poems fit into their allusional frames. For more, see Buckler (108) and Ricks (68).

26 One thing to note about these communities-in-progress is the absence of women. It is not just domesticity that is being left behind but, rather, women in general. Progress, it seems, is so masculine an activity that it only allows for homosocial forms of community.

27 There is one other way that makeshift community makes itself felt in Tennyson’s poems, and it has to do with their form. Central to the experience of dramatic monologue is the problem of relating to an unfamiliar and not necessarily trustworthy third person. It is not a philosophical problem or a linguistic problem, at essence, but a social problem. How can I make sense of this “I”? Dramatic monologues thrive on this kind of relational question. They make social relations a problem for poetry. And it is this awkward social negotiation that made Tennyson’s dramatic monologues so fit for an industrial age whose most visible impact was not just economic but social and which demanded, for that reason, a poetics of the community-in-progress.