In the Name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful
The Representation of Women in Tennyson's Poetry
Graduate Class 2017
Nineteenth-century British literature and culture have been rich fields for studies. Since the turn of the twentieth century, scholars and critics have tracked the intersections and tensions between Victorian literature and the visual arts, politics, social organization, Women condition, economic life, technical innovations, scientific thought – in short, culture in its broadest sense. (Scheinberg 1).
In this research I want to examine women condition in Victorian era and how they are presented in poetry particularly in Tennyson's poetry who held the title of Poet Laureate for over forty years.
In his essay "Victorian Women in Literature," Jaymi Elford mentions that "during the Victorian era, there was great controversy over the roles of women and what constituted the ideal woman. For the better half of the era, women were seen as pure, pious and innocent. They were treated like household commodities" (1).
In another article "Victorian Women and their Working Rules," Kara L.Barrett says that "women during the Victorian Era did not have many rights. They were viewed as only supposed to be housewives and mothers to their children. The women during this era were only viewed as people that should only concern themselves with keeping a successful household. However, during this time women were forced into working positions outside of the household. Women that were forced into working situations outside of their households were viewed negatively by society. Many women needed to have an income to support their families because the men in the household were not making enough money to survive. When the women entered the work places they were not made to feel welcome and were often harassed. These women workers therefore were not welcomed in the work place (outside of the household) or in society" (1).
Women throughout the Victorian Era were treated as secondary citizens to men in society. They were very restricted within their classes and were even more restricted in the work place.
The image of middle-class women in early nineteenth-century England is based on the assumption that women naturally differ from men in every sense: not only physically but especially intellectually. While men are granted physical strength, women are weak creatures. (Beate)
Society during this era made it impossible for women to make any advancement. “Whatever their social rank, in the eyes of the law women were second-class citizens” (Gallagher, 57). Victorians believed that a woman’s proper and only place was to be within a household environment.
In his essay "Gender roles in the 19th century," Kathryn Hughes believes that "as the 19th century progressed men increasingly commuted to their place of work – the factory, shop or office. Wives, daughters and sisters were left at home all day to oversee the domestic duties that were increasingly carried out by servants. Women were considered physically weaker yet morally superior to men, which meant that they were best suited to the domestic sphere. Not only was it their job to counterbalance the moral taint of the public sphere in which their husbands labored all day, they were also preparing the next generation to carry on this way of life. The fact that women had such great influence at home was used as an argument against giving them the vote" (1).
Women were assumed to desire marriage because it allowed them to become mothers rather than to pursue sexual or emotional satisfaction. Actually Victorian ideals placed the woman as a mother figure who was to remain inside the home and occupy a leisurely life.
To sum up their condition, "Victorian period was a patriarchy in which women were submitted to their husbands. Not only their sprites, but also their sexuality must be kept enclosed in the homes they live in" (Hughes). Women in Victorian Age did not have the right to vote, sue, or own property. Victorian wives became property to their husbands, giving them rights to what their bodies produced; children, sex and domestic labor.
In 1847 Charlotte Brontë put strong feelings about women’s limited role into the mouth of her heroine Jane Eyre: women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. (ch. 12)
Many Victorian literary works are constructed from male vantage points in which the male narrator actually speaks for the female. This appropriation of the female voice by a male speaker does not have its origins in Victorian poetry.
"Victorian poetry was written in a society which was not a democracy" (Armstrong 1). The Victorian period has always been regarded as isolated between two periods, Romanticism and Modernism. A way of beginning to rediscover the importance of Victorian poetry is to consider the heavy silence surrounding it in the twentieth century as a striking cultural phenomenon in itself.
Victorian poetry is self-defining: poetry written during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). But the dates of Victoria's reign also seem to mark out a consistent sensibility in poetry. Victorian poets were heirs to the Romantics, and many of the generalizations about Romantic poetry still apply: distrust of organized religion, skepticism, interest in the occult and the mysterious. Yet where Romantic poets made a leap of faith to assert that the received image of God did not exist, Victorian poets were more likely to have a scientific conviction of God's absence. Victorian poets are on balance funnier than the Romantics, and the Victorian period is maybe the great age of whimsy and nonsense. During the Victorian era, however, there was a lot of radical social change and as such, many poets of this time didn’t like the romanticized version of society. The Victorian poetry is, thus, divided into two main groups of poetry: The High Victorian Poetry and The Pre-Raphaelite Poetry.
There are number of works that have left their mark on how sexuality and chiefly female sexuality are perceived in Victorian poetry. But I chose ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON because many of his poems have an obvious feminine quality and he was the first to be raised to a British peerage for his writing.
Alfred Tennyson, (6 August 1809 – 6 October 1892) was Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland during much of Queen Victoria's reign and remains one of the most popular British poets. Tennyson excelled at penning short lyrics, such as "Break, Break, Break", "and The Charge of the Light Brigade "," Tears, Idle Tears "and" Crossing the Bar". Much of his verse was based on classical mythological themes, such as Ulysses, although In Memoriam A.H.H. was written to commemorate his best friend Arthur Hallam, a fellow poet and fellow student at Trinity College, Cambridge, who was engaged to Tennyson's sister, but died from a brain hemorrhage before they could marry. Tennyson also wrote some notable blank verse including Idylls of the King, "Ulysses", and "Tithonus".
During his career, Tennyson attempted drama, but his plays enjoyed little success. A number of phrases from Tennyson's work have become commonplaces of the English language, including "Nature, red in tooth and claw", "'Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all", "Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die", "My strength is as the strength of ten, / Because my heart is pure", "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield", "Knowledge comes, but Wisdom lingers", and "The old order changeth, yielding place to new".
He is the ninth most frequently quoted writer in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
Tennyson was first a student of Louth Grammar School for four years (1816–1820) and then attended Scaitcliffe School, Englefield Green and King Edward VI Grammar School, Louth. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1827, where he joined a secret society called the Cambridge Apostles. At Cambridge Tennyson met Arthur Henry Hallam, who became his closest friend. His first publication was a collection of "his boyish rhymes and those of his elder brother Charles" entitled Poems by Two Brothers published in 1827.
In 1829 he was awarded the Chancellor's Gold Medal at Cambridge for one of his first pieces, "Timbuctoo".Reportedly, "it was thought to be no slight honour for a young man of twenty to win the chancellor's gold medal".He published his first solo collection of poems, Poems Chiefly Lyrical in 1830. "Claribel" and "Mariana", which later took their place among Tennyson's most celebrated poems, were included in this volume.
Although decried by some critics as overly sentimental, his verse soon proved popular and brought Tennyson to the attention of well-known writers of the day, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
The art of Tennyson's poetry is that in writing Tennyson used a wide range of subject matter, ranging from medieval legends to classical myths and from domestic situations to observations of nature, as source material for his poetry.
As I mentioned above rights and privileges of Victorian women were limited, and both single and married women had hardships and disadvantages they had to live with. Victorian women had disadvantages both financially and sexually, enduring inequalities within their marriages and social statuses, distinct differences in men and women’s rights took place during this era; so men were provided with more stability, financial status and power over their homes and women.
Wordsworth and Hopkins exemplify men imprinting themselves — as well as their own subjective experiences — onto a female whose voice is never heard. In his dramatic monologue, "Porphyria's Lover," Browning experiments with a similar form of male narrative authority, but presents it differently.
In this poem, a male's objectification of a female is taken to an extreme, and the result is fatal to the women.
But I think although Tennyson describes women and their challenges in life, he also represents us a strong woman in her position who struggles daily to make it through the day without being harassed or taunted by men. To see how I analysis one of his most important poems: The Lady of Shalott
As Isobel Armstrong mentions in her book "Victorian Poetry", The Lady of Shalott’, which has no source, and is in fact the conflation of a number of mythic structures, is -a modern myth, sealed off from interpretation with all the mysteriousness and inaccessibility of myth as surely as the Lady is sealed in her tower.
Jaymi Elford in his article" Victorian Women in Literature" believes that: Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott” describes what happens to a woman when she steps out of her own world and enters the realm of man. Tennyson uses nature to describe the Lady’s position in society. The Lady “weaves by night and day, a magic web with colors gay” (37-38).
The image of a woman weaving by night draws ties with Rossetti’s poem of the realms of men and women. Line 10, “willows whiten, aspens quiver,” shows the monotony of the Lady’s days. Here, this imagery adds to the mood of dreariness that the Lady is trapped within. Although the Lady weaves throughout the daytime she has yet to be connected to the realm of man because what she weaves is indirectly seen, “shadows of the world”. It is when she desires to be within this world that, once again, causes her destruction.
The poem suggests the belief that women shouldn’t look into the faces of men other than their husbands or other “commanding” heads of households. The very idea that a curse of death shall fall upon her if she does, supports this belief. She is always weaving and is cursed to never look directly into men’s faces. The fact that the keeper of death, the Grim Reaper is standing over her, making sure she keeps to her work, adds to the imminent danger the Lady of Shalott faces. One short glance into the mirror and her life is ended. However, her inner desire for love isn’t scared out of her by this threat.
Upon seeing Sir Lancelot’s image in her mirror, she turns around and seals her fate. Knowing she can never be joined with him she travels down to the riverside to die, “through the wave that runs forever/ By the island in the river/ Flowing down to Camelot” (lines 12-14). The river is symbolic of the mother’s womb. It is believed that when a person dies they re-enter a state of being similar to being born. The river also symbolizes the connection between the isle where the Lady of Shalott is imprisoned to her dreams and desires, Camelot.
The images do indeed foreshadow the Lady’s death. Some Victorians believed that when a person died they were returned to the beginning of birth, a mother's womb. Water imagery is also related to the womb and the birthing process. The “wave that runs forever,” in line 12, suggests the very idea of being returned back to the beginning of time since it flows past real places (Camelot and the Isle of Shalott).
What Isobel Armstrong and Jaymi Elford argue are just two examples of most of interpretations of The Lady of Shalott and the believe that she is struggling with the need to represent herself but constantly deprived of this capacity, and actually in most of Victorian Poetry women are presented in this way but I think Tennyson represent a strong woman who finally fulfills her dream and is registered in everyone's mind.
The first thing that draw my attention is the title of the poem which my interpretation is that the Lady somehow governs the Island of Shallot in the period when women are suppressed and she is also respectable, but if Tennyson wanted to show the real situation of women in Victorian era the title could be the cursed woman of Shallot or whatever.
With describing the nature where she lives Tennyson shows how gentle, beautiful and kind her soul is and I think he somehow praise the women soul here when women were not respected and praised. He also talks of Long fields of barley and of rye which as barley cultivation is man work, he symbolically use it to show the strengths of woman.
Then he talks about the distance of where she lives and says that she is lonely but I think this was her own choice to leave far away from the world in which men rule and there is no curse but just a choice.
Tennyson then portrays this view "A charmed web she weaves always" which I think in this weaving she weaves her dreams and desires and weaving is the only thing that helps her forget her hardness and challenges in life and if she stops it her dreaming will stop and she can't go on no more.
In mirror the Lady makes the world where she loves. The world where a troop of damsels glad, An abbot on an ambling pad, a curly shepherd lad, Or long-hair'd page in crimson clad Goes by to tower'd Camelot.
Then the poet began to describe Sir Lancelot which I think can be the ideal man in Victorian women view.
And the time comes for her to say her voice to world so She left the web, she left the loom.
'The curse is come upon me,' cried The Lady of Shallot, my interpretation is that she thinks that it is the time that she devotes herself to protest women situation and shows how strong women were and how they could devote themselves for others to be in place where they deserve.
It was the closing of the day:
She loos'd the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.
These lines shows how brave she has been.
Finally we see how glories she dies and rest in peace and for sure joy.
Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right--
The leaves upon her falling light--
Thro' the noises of the night
She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
And she was successful because
They heard her singing her last song,
And her song was
Heard a carol, mournful, holy
The poem continues and says "A gleaming shape she floated" by which to me means she was holy and peaceful.
At the end who comes to her?
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
And round the prow they read her name,
The Lady of Shalott.
You can see her success, glory and innocence in these final lines.
And what happens at the end shows that:
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, "She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott."
Tennyson represents a hero
Armstrong, Isobel. Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poets and Politics. Routledge, 2002.
Scheinberg, Cynthia. Women's Poetry and Religion in Victorian England: Jewish Identity and Christian Culture. Vol. 35. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Hughes, Kathryn. "Gender roles in the 19th century." British Library (2015).
Elford, Jaymi. "Victorian Women in Literature." (1956).
Barrett, Kara L. "Victorian Women and Their Working Roles." (2013).
Armstrong, Isobel. Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poets and Politics. Routledge, 2002.
Wilhelm, Beate. "The role of women in Victorian England reflected in Jane Eyre." (2005).