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March 08, 2010

Locksley Hall, Part 2


This is a continuation of an earlier article on two poems by Alfred Tennyson, Locksley Hall, and Locksley Hall - Sixty Years After. These are both fairly long poems, so consider my comments here more of a plot summary than an analysis.

http://theotherpages.org/poems/tenny02.html   Locksley Hall

http://theotherpages.org/poems/tenny41.html   Sixty Years After

The second poem takes place six decades later for the un-named hero (and about 45 years for Tennyson). Much has changed about the world, and about the narrator himself.

Some things stay the same. The bitter young man has turned into a bitter old man. Very bitter. Nothing in the present-day world brings pleasure to his eye, especially his grandson, who seems to be the object of much derision on the narrator's part. The grandson seems to be about the same age in this poem as the narrator was when he decided to leave home in the last poem. Or did he leave home? Perhaps he did, but something drew him back. 

We learn that his beloved Amy, object of such anger at her betrayal in the first poem died in childbirth within a year of his leaving. He has nothing but fond memories of her now. We also hear that the man she married was not such a rat after all. In fact, in the end he praises the man:

Strove for sixty widow'd years to help his homelier brother men,
Served the poor, and built the cottage, raised the school, and drain'd the fen.

Hears he now the Voice that wrong'd him? who shall swear it cannot be?
Earth would never touch her worst, were one in fifty such as he.

We also learn of someone else, not mentioned in the first poem - Edith - met by chance when they were children - on the same day he met, and behaved rudely towards - the boy who would grow up to be Lord of Locksley Hall and Amy's future husband:

From that casement where the trailer mantles all the mouldering bricks--
I was then in early boyhood, Edith but a child of six--

While I shelter'd in this archway from a day of driving showers--
Peept the winsome face of Edith like a flower among the flowers.

And we learn that Edith, not Amy was his true soul-mate in life,

She with all the charm of woman, she with all the breadth of man,

Strong in will and rich in wisdom, Edith, loyal, lowly, sweet,
Feminine to her inmost heart, and feminine to her tender feet,

Very woman of very woman, nurse of ailing body and mind,
She that link'd again the broken chain that bound me to my kind.

So with his added sixty years of wisdom, many years of married happiness, and making peace with his memories of Amy and the man she married, why is he still so bitter?  He himself admits,

Gone the fires of youth, the follies, furies, curses, passionate tears,
Gone like fires and floods and earthquakes of the planet's dawning years.

Fires that shook me once, but now to silent ashes fall'n away.
Cold upon the dead volcano sleeps the gleam of dying day.

The answer is two-fold. Part one of the answer is almost an Ubi Sunt sentiment (where have they gone, the great ones), except that he knows the answer - he has outlived his comrades, his loves, and his enemies. the word 'Gone' continues as a constant refrain:

Gone the tyrant of my youth, and mute below the chancel stones,
Gone the comrades of my bivouac, some in fight against the foe,
Gone with whom for forty years my life in golden sequence ran,
Gone our sailor son thy father, Leonard early lost at sea;
Gone thy tender-natured mother, wearying to be left alone,
Pining for the stronger heart that once had beat beside her own.

From this we also learn that he outlived his only child, his son Leonard, who died a hero, long ago, a loss that weighs heavily upon him:

Beautiful was death in him who saw the death but kept the deck,
Saving women and their babes, and sinking with the sinking wreck,

In fact he has outlived the world he knew - everything and everyone in it. All that is left to him is his grandson -

Thou alone, my boy, of Amy's kin and mine art left to me.

This is an impossible burden for anyone - to make up for the loss of an entire world -  the bar for his affections has been set too high - he can only disappoint. Even the thing that should bring them together - that the grandson is spurned by the woman he asks to be his wife - becomes the source for more derision:

So--your happy suit was blasted--she the faultless, the divine;
And you liken--boyish babble--this boy-love of yours with mine.

Part two of the answer, the reason for his bitterness, is that one of his repeated refrains from the first poem, 'Forward' now haunts him - change, the march of progress, his visions of the future:

Gone the cry of 'Forward, Forward,' lost within a growing gloom;
Lost, or only heard in silence from the silence of a tomb.

Half the marvels of my morning, triumphs over time and space,
Staled by frequence, shrunk by usage into commonest commonplace!

'Forward' rang the voices then, and of the many mine was one.
Let us hush this cry of 'Forward' till ten thousand years have gone.

The narrator goes into a ranting monologue of over 200 lines, decrying the devolution of everything - religion, politics,  animal cruelty, class equality, foreign policy, the aristocracy's arrogant ignorance, and of course those who prey upon, and nurture that ignorance:

You that woo the Voices--tell them 'old experience is a fool,'
Teach your flatter'd kings that only those who cannot read can rule.
Here and there a cotter's babe is royal-born by right divine;
Here and there my lord is lower than his oxen or his swine.

Rising industrialization, and the changes it has brought about in society are also a source of his bitterness. He that called for progress now observes exploitation and devolution wherever he looks:

Is it well that while we range with Science, glorying in the Time,
City children soak and blacken soul and sense in city slime?

There among the glooming alleys Progress halts on palsied feet,
Crime and hunger cast our maidens by the thousand on the street.

There the Master scrimps his haggard sempstress of her daily bread,
There a single sordid attic holds the living and the dead.

There the smouldering fire of fever creeps across the rotted floor,
And the crowded couch of incest in the warrens of the poor.

Perhaps Bob or Howard could say for certain, but I would wager this is the most scathing piece ever written by a Poet Laureate during his tenure.

There are some lines again, in this poem, that do not play well to modern ears. Some lines of ignorance and prejudice that I don't think have parallels in Tennyson's other works and really do not add anything constructive to the metaphors for time and eternity that eventually segue into his bitter rant. 

The poem is a re-visitation, some might say a revisionist view of the original story, and while it answers many questions it also introduces some contradictions. The meter, which works so well for the first poem seems more  forced here. And ultimately, it is a sad poem.  The bitterness is mixed with loss and regret, and always there is the realization that the narrator's time on earth (and the poet's time as well) is growing short.

This poem does bring the story full-circle. In the end we learn that the occasion for their rendezvous at Locksley hall is the death of Amy's husband, whose funeral they will attend tomorrow, and that the narrator's grandson, the last surviving member of the family, will himself become Lord of the manor - a surprise and very ironic ending to such a long piece:

Forward, let the stormy moment fly and mingle with the Past.
I that loathed, have come to love him. Love will conquer at the last.

Gone at eighty, mine own age, and I and you will bear the pall;
Then I leave thee Lord and Master, latest Lord of Locksley Hall.

March 03, 2010

Locksley Hall, Part 1.

Why do people run off to join the Army? Navy? Read Soldier of Fortune? Become a "security contractor?"

For Love, of course – lost love in particular if we are to believe Alfred Tennyson’s sometimes brilliant, sometimes arrogant, sometimes ranting poem, Locksley Hall. No relation here to Robin of Locksley, by the way, except as a very distant layer of metaphor.


At eighty-three years, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s life spanned most of the 19th century – as did his career as a poet. An amazingly long forty-two of those years were spent as England’s Poet Laureate. By the way - Queen Elizabeth II appointed a new Poet laureate in May of 2009 - Carol Ann Duffy – who just happens to be the first woman to hold the post in its 341-year history.

Many things are notable about Tennyson’s body of work – it has considerable breadth and depth – from simple but striking portraits to epic works, to a memorial poem 17 years in the making. Many of his pieces became very widely known – and many of his catch phrases made their way into common usage in the English Language. He has a wide ranging voice. The same man who wrote the almost shouting lines of The Charge of the Light Brigade could also write the hauntingly simple interludes of The Princess, or these elegant lines of acceptance in Crossing the Bar:

SUNSET and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound or foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell;
When I embark;

For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

But the subject for today is not Mariana, or Maud, Idyls of the King or Enoch Arden. It is a pair of complex, admittedly flawed, but powerful (and yes, long) poems: Locksley Hall and Locksley Hall – Sixty Years After. They express the views of a young soldier at around age 20, and again as an old man, six decades later. These two pieces make for a striking interplay on both a very personal, very human scale, and on a grand stage spanning vast stretches of space and time. Both poems are first person narratives – the first one a soliloquy, and the second one ostensibly to the narrator’s grandson, whose life has some parallels to the narrator’s own.

While there are some beautifully crafted lines in both pieces, there are also many raw emotions, blatant prejudices and some rambling political and social discourses. Tennyson's narrator is a very imperfect hero. Whether these detours in the narrative are the protagonist staying in character, or Tennyson's own thoughts is a valid debate. Any character is a vehicle, and if you write the character truthfully, some of you is in them (Lloyd Alexander's view) or some part of of them becomes part of you (Ariadne's view).

The time span for these pieces, like Tennyson’s own life, covers most of the 19th century. The setting for the first poem - which escaped me the first time I read it - is probably near the time it was written - roughly the early 1840's. We’ll take a look at the first poem today, and revisit the second one, appropriately, at a later date.

The narrator is an unnamed soldier, a mercenary for hire, who stops with his fellow soldiers by a seaside castle, and muses over this place where he spent his childhood. We will learn, further on in the poem, that he was born somewhere in Asia and orphaned at a young age when his father dies fighting in Mahratta (India), around 1818 by my guess. Like a Walt Disney story, he becomes the ward of a man he views as a cruel and selfish uncle, the Lord of Locksley Hall.

Yet he is a dreamer, as some of the poem's early lines indicate, and he falls in love with his childhood playmate Amy as he grows to manhood. The 'good times', such as they are, are sweet, but so brief that you might miss them. Before you can blink, his beloved Amy betrays him and weds another man - the future lord of the manner, in a very un-Disney-like turn of events, choosing wealth and security over love.

The spurned lover, in his bitterness he imagines a spitefully unhappy life for his former beloved, and predicts that her husband will treat her “Something better than his dog, a little dearer than his horse.” He belabors his wishes for her unhappiness for almost sixty lines of verse, finally envisioning a future day when:

O, I see thee old and formal, fitted to thy petty part,
With a little hoard of maxims preaching down a daughter's heart.

When he is done wishing her an unhappy, painfully regretful life, the poem turns to the question of what he should do with his own:

I have but an angry fancy; what is that which I should do?

And he eventually decides that

...the jingling of the guinea helps the hurt that Honour feels

And goes off to become a soldier for hire. Not quite a standard story line: Orphan finds girl; Orphan loses girl; Orphan leaves home; Orphan becomes a mercenary like dear old dimly-remembered dad.

But the love story (or perhaps this one is a hate story) is only part of the content here - one of the most striking things is Tennyson's description of his protagonist's vision of the future. Mind you, this is Tennyson writing in 1835, long before the automobile, imagining that man would have a way of flying around from place to place:

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 with costly bales;

The narrator understands that anything good is eventually co-opted for other purposes, and here foreshadows events that would come to pass eight decades later during the trench warfare of The Great War - the use of poison gas and aerial dogfights:

Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain'd 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 thro' the thunder-storm;

And even imagines a resolution – one that would not come about for over a century (and that many would argue is still a long way off):

Till the war-drum throbb'd no longer, and the battle-flags were furl'd
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, lapped in universal law.

From this crystal gazing into the future, he settles down, realizing that unfettered anger and jealousy will scar him for life:

So I triumph'd ere my passion sweeping thro' me left me dry,
Left me with the palsied heart, and left me with the jaundiced eye;

But this is a lie. Tennyson's hero still hasn't exorcised his demons. and goes off on another rant, one jaded and prejudiced by the English view of the world of 175 years ago. He says he will go find some tropical Paradise where "never floats an European flag":

Summer isles of Eden lying in dark-purple spheres of sea.

And there he will finally be free of all that torments him:

There the passions cramp'd no longer shall have scope and breathing space;
I will take some savage woman, she shall rear my dusky race.
Iron-jointed, supple-sinew'd, they shall dive, and they shall run,
Catch the wild goat by the hair, and hurl their lances in the sun;
Whistle back the parrot's call, and leap the rainbows of the brooks,
Not with blinded eyesight poring over miserable books--
Things run downhill from here, unfortunately. He still views himself as a member of the entitled, landed class, though landless he is at the moment. His short flight of fancy gives way to deeper prejudice and arrogance, and what was paradise only a moment ago now becomes demeaning. The care-free inhabitants of Eden are now barbarians with "narrow foreheads" and his would-be wife now just a "squalid savage" while he sees himself as the peak of learning and human development "the heir of all the ages"

As the poem draws to a close, instead of hiding from the world around him, he becomes impatient for his visions to come true,

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

The poem ends with his farewell, and with approaching storm clouds on the horizon as his metaphor for the future, wishing the winds could sweep Locksley hall together with his unhappiness into the sea:

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.

This is a long poem and I've skipped over most of the better known lines and most of the underlying metaphors. If you have the time, read it aloud. Tennyson's choice of meter creates a rhythm that reinforces the strength of the narrator's passions. It looks long, but it makes easy reading.

Where this poem focuses on a young man's spurned affections, Locksley Hall – Sixty Years After shifts the focus to an old man's bitter regrets, and the rants against Amy's betrayal become rants against the changes he has seen in the world since his last visit.

More when we make our own return visit to Locksley Hall.

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