'Hang there like a fruit, my soul, Till the tree die!'
This line of Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline was said by Tennyson to be the most difficult line in Shakespeare, but also the tenderest: it was also the last line which he read before he died.
During the last hours of Tennyson’s life he is said to have called out for his copy of Shakespeare, and to have found this page, laying the book down open upon his chest. Christopher Ricks writes in his biography Tennyson that when the poet was asked if he could read the pages he had before him, all he would say is ‘I have opened it’.
Altogether the lines from Cymbeline read:
Why did you throw your wedded lady from you?
Think that you are upon a rock; and now
Throw me again.
Hang there like a fruit, my soul,
Till the tree die!’
Michael Thorne in his book Tennyson says:
‘It was Hallam’s view…that the passage it had been turned to comprised a coded response to his mother’s private message. If so, it clearly demonstrates that both Alfred and Emily were fully conscious of the gulf that had opened up between them in the last years of their marriage’.
Innogen’s words are a response to Posthumus striking her so hard that she falls to the ground. Posthumus has seen her in disguise, and, unlike in other Shakespeare plays, has failed to recognise her. Act V Scene V of Cymbeline is a scene of redemption, and this is the key moment of forgiveness in the play. It is, however, full of ambiguity, and the lines, despite their beauty, have often been described as ringing untrue, more reminiscent of the Fall of Man than any romantic exchange.
However, whatever you may think of Posthumus, Innogen’s strength throughout the play cannot be doubted, and it was a strength of will that Emily Tennyson shared. However, the frequent likening of Emily to Innogen perhaps hints not at her likeness of character in this sense, but rather her capacity for unconditional love and forgiveness.
Innogen is the epitomy of purity, and yet simultaneously is the focus of erotic love for the male characters of the play, and her chastity is the focus of the play’s wager plot. Iachimo, the villain, uses the mole that he sees upon her as she sleeps, as proof of her infidelity to her husband, Posthumus.
‘On her left breast
A mole cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops
I' the bottom of a cowslip’ [Act II Scene II]
Ricks suggests that Tennyson references these lines of Cymbeline in his early poem Adeline, to a faintly erotic effect.
‘And ye talk together still,
In the language wherewith Spring
Letters cowslips on the hill?
Hence that look and smile of thine,
These twists and turns of thought about Innogen in the play highlight her position of ambiguity, swinging between sexualisation and purity, love and hate, and object and woman in the mind of her husband. Emily Tennyson possesses a similar ambiguity.
Edward FitzGerald in a letter to Pollock:
‘Mrs A.T. is all you say, indeed: a Lady of a Shakespearean type, as I think AT once said of her: that is, of the Imogen sort, far more agreeable to me than the sharp-witted Beatrices, Rosalinds, etc.’
Emily and Alfred’s marriage is often represented as being the idealistic Victorian family set up, and their later estrangement as being principally due to Emily’s lack of good health. However, her own illness, although relatively little is known about it, has often been described as being caused by over work on Alfred’s behalf.
Tennyson’s final act therefore hints at a moment where he and Emily were separated by his own wrong doing, just as Innogen and Posthumus are separated in Cymbeline, and his choice of Cymbeline can be read as having far greater meaning than as simply being a romantic reference to the first Shakespeare play that Emily had read.