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Anna Barton. Tennyson’s Name: Identity and Responsibility in the Poetry of Lord Alfred Tennyson

Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008. 174 p., Hardback £ 50. ISBN: 978–0-7546–6408–6.
Paul Volsik
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Anna Barton. Tennyson’s Name: Identity and Responsibility in the Poetry of Lord Alfred Tennyson. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008. 174 p., Hardback £ 50. ISBN: 978–0-7546–6408–6

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1On the cover of Anna Barton’s Tennyson’s Name: Identity and Responsibility in the Poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson we find a photograph of the sculptor G.F. Watts working on a statue of Tennyson with a bust by Thomas Woolner in the foreground. This photo intelligently comments on the contents of the book, notably in that Watts, who looks not unlike Tennyson, is working not from the model but from another sculpture, another work of art and, more fundamentally, that the theme of the sculpting—in stone—of monuments could serve as a metaphor for the shaping of an ‘identity’ or ‘name’ by the poet himself—the creation of a monolithic and stable, institutionalised ‘Tennyson’ (the title of the book insists on ‘Lord’ / Alfred Lord Tennyson—something rare in late twentieth century criticism—as is the absence of a comma after Alfred—but important for Tennyson himself). More generally, the interest of the book stems equally from the infinite complexity of the phenomenon of naming. His Memoir, for example, recounts how Tennyson regularly reduced himself to a state of trance by repeating his own name, and, in his own words, ‘as it were out of the intensity of the consciousness of individuality, the individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being. . .the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction but the one true life’ (105). In some ways the creation of a ‘name’ (‘personality if so it were’) is an interesting example of a much more general critical problem (whence the interest of the book) of the creation of an essential aesthetic identity—hence the creation of adjectives like ‘Keatsian’, ‘Byronic’, ‘Tennysonian’ etc. This construction can be external (the way criticism constructs and reconstructs canonical understanding) but it is also, and this is perhaps more interesting, always linked to strategies of self-fashioning (11) manifested for example in the construction by the poet of various collections and selections—a self-fashioning that is complex and can involve complex anxieties about lineage, as does the construction of a name in society generally—in English generally ‘name’ rhymes with ‘shame’ and ‘fame’). But the double movement of ‘determination’ and its opposite: ‘de-determination’—the radical opening up of meaning—could perhaps be read as a metaphor for the general phenomenon of reading poems where words generally can at once be stabilised, haunted by the rigours of historically imposed denotations and yet can be made to ‘fade away into boundless being’ or ‘dissolve’ as Tennyson puts it—opening up ‘boundless’ spaces of semantic uncertainty.

2The theme of the title thus subtly expands beyond the period in which it is precisely rooted, and consequently should interest non-specialists of the period. One thinks, for example, of Imagism which will dream of a substantive that would exist in the order of the thing, where Modernism, in the systematic exploitation of repetition (just as Tennyson so frequently repeats names in his poems), would create the possibility of a configuration, which would act, as he wrote:

As when we dwell upon a word we know
Repeating, till the word we know so well
Becomes a wonder, and we know not why. (106)

3The book is well structured, beginning, in Chapter 1 (‘General Names’ and ‘Small Names’) with a study of the Juvenilia showing how ‘influence’ (in this case that of Byron) is part and parcel of the generation of a poetic identity (‘the ability to make a name of his own’ 26) and ending, in Chapter 6, (‘The Names of Old Friends’) with a study of the late poem ‘To E. Fitzgerald’ (perhaps not the richest chapter in terms of the main ‘theme’ of the book though constantly stimulating). Chapter 2 (‘Inherited Names’) concentrates on a study of ‘The Princess’, which helped Tennyson ‘make his name’, through a study of lineage; Chapter 3 (‘Naming the Dead’) looks at ‘In Memoriam’, the great anonymous elegy, and ‘Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington’ and at the difficulties Tennyson met with in negotiating with a hero whom the Times called, in what is perhaps a strikingly historically defined use of the word ‘name’, ‘the greatest man and the most potent name in the whole world’ (69), asserting that ‘the death of one great man should be the raising up of others, encouraged by his example and vying for the inheritance of his virtues and his name.’ In the early Twenty-first century, how exactly one can thus ‘inherit’ a historically incarnated name is perhaps somewhat obscure—but not, obviously for the nineteenth, hence the interest of the book. Chapter 4 (‘Anonymity and the Responsible Name’) looks at the more uncertain use of anonymity in ‘Maud’ opening up onto the contemporary debate about the anonymity of texts (notably journalistic and critical texts), while Chapter 5 (‘The Commodified Name’) looks in a fresh way at the rise of commodity culture and ‘brands’ in a study of Camelot and its knights (a new ‘brand’ of heroes) who were variously anonymous or used devices such as shields which identified them in a powerful context of lineage.

4The book constantly holds the readers’ attention for several reasons. Firstly Ms Barton is a subtle and precise reader of poetry in the English tradition of close reading noting, for example, how there is a gradual increase in the occurrence of the name Maud in the poem and asking precise questions as to the why of this increase. Her work, as the above résumé of its contents shows, constantly returns to text. But theoretically her reading is sophisticated and, from the point of view of erudition, hers is an extremely informed study of a poet she knows well—just as she knows well the critical tradition not simply of her author and period but also of earlier traditions—the epistolary poem or the ode, for example. Her work is particularly enriching in a French context in that, rather than for instance a Lacanian perspective (which might have been invoked by the main title ‘Tennyson’s Name’) it is in the rooting of text in historically framed social contexts that her work is particularly fruitful – particularly in the way in which identity and responsibility are historically determined social constructs. The book is rooted in complex historical analyses of, for example, the recent (for Tennyson) fall in the number of anonymous collections of poetry, the particularities of a culture where sons were given the same first name as their father (in all social classes?) and were thus confronted, particularly acutely, with the problem of ‘making a name their own’, the rising fascination for the collecting of autographs, the development of nurseries and the culture that goes with them which influenced lyrical representations of the child and the particular forms of socialisation that the nursery encourages, ideological constructions of the kind that insists that ‘the society in which they live and work <be> built upon the sovereignty of the named individual’ (85), or again the rise in the nineteenth century of brands and the complexity of the issues they involve. If one may take just one of these examples—in a fairly personal way—this reader was particularly struck by a phenomenon which is now virtually inconceivable: the habit of printing collections of verse anonymously in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth. This withholding of the name (as opposed, for example, to the use of pseudonyms which is still frequent) raises immensely complex questions as to what constitutes authorship, particularly of the poetic text (something on which poets have constantly insisted in their use of the figure of the Muse) and hence the question of ‘responsibility’ for the text. It is particularly acute in the case of Tennyson whose first collection (which combined texts by Arthur and by his brother Charles) was Poems by Two Brothers (published anonymously in 1827). Here reading becomes particularly complex in that, even if one were to discover that the brothers were Tennysons, which brother wrote which poem would remain a mystery for the contemporary reader. The question of how much this editorial choice is the result of a becoming modesty or (more interestingly) a wish to exercise strict control over the way the name was progressively to be made public cuts across phenomena such as the question of the anonymity of newspaper articles where interesting distinctions were made, for example, by Tennyson himself who considered that political articles should remain anonymous whereas ‘literary criticism’ should always be printed over a signature. It is clear, for instance, that the use of ‘we’ in an anonymous article is different from that of the ‘we’ of a signed article just as an anonymous (hence, amongst other things, potentially ungendered) ‘I’ functions differently from the named ‘I’ in a poem, particularly in the Romantic and late-Romantic period.

5This is a vigorous piece of research work, one whose theme is richer than one might have suspected, and a stimulating new inquiry into the work of Tennyson.

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Paul Volsik, « Anna Barton. Tennyson’s Name: Identity and Responsibility in the Poetry of Lord Alfred Tennyson », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 70 automne | 2009, mis en ligne le 16 janvier 2019, consulté le 14 décembre 2019. URL :

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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