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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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