Parodying Tennyson

It isn’t just modern-day readers who have found Tennyson inescapably funny, he was also parodied by his contemporaries and even his friends...

Tennyson is an easy poet to parody, mainly because many of the poems themselves are so ridiculous. Today we only have to read poems like ‘Oriana’ and we cannot help but laughing at the fate of its hero.

‘The battle deepen'd in its place, Oriana;
But I was down upon my face,
They should have stabb'd me where I lay,
How could I rise and come away,
How could I look upon the day?
They should have stabb'd me where I lay,
They should have trod me into clay,
Oriana.’ – ‘Oriana’

However, it isn’t just modern-day readers who have found Tennyson inescapably funny, he was also much parodied by his contemporaries and even his friends, including Edward Lear and Algernon Charles Swinburne, who wrote a burning satire on Tennyson’s ‘The Higher Pantheism’, mocking the torturous logic of the poem.

‘ONE, who is not, we see; but one, whom we see not, is;
Surely this is not that; but that is assuredly this.
What, and wherefore, and whence? for under is over and under;
If thunder could be without lightning, lightning could be without thunder.
Doubt is faith in the main; but faith, on the whole, is doubt;
We cannot believe by proof; but could we believe without?
Why, and whither, and how? for barley and rye are not clover;
Neither are straight lines curves; yet over is under and over.
Two and two may be four; but four and four are not eight;
Fate and God may be twain; but God is the same as fate.’ – ‘The Higher Pantheism in a Nutshell’, Algernon Charles Swinburne

 The reader is quickly lost in a humorous tangle of phrases, in the same way as we are very much lost by the complicated plethora of pronouns in the original.

‘The sun, the moon, the stars, the seas, the hills and the plains,- 
Are not these, O Soul, the Vision of Him who reigns?  

Is not the Vision He, tho' He be not that which He seems? 
Dreams are true while they last, and do we not live in dreams?’ – ‘The Higher Pantheism’

By the time poets in the 1930s were referencing Tennyson, he had become the subject not only of poetic but also of social satire. Ezra Pound wrote a series of poems over the course of the Second World War under the pseudonym ‘Alfred Venison’, amongst which is the ‘Charge of the Bread Brigade’ (1935), which re-writes ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ in terms of the Second World War.

‘Half a loaf, half a loaf,
Half a loaf? Urn-hum?
Down through the vale of gloom
Slouched the ten million,
Onward th' 'ungry blokes,
Crackin' their smutty jokes!
We'll send 'em mouchin' 'ome,
Damn the ten million! 

There goes the night brigade,
They got no steady trade,
Several old so'jers know
Monty has blunder'd.
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to buy the pie,
Slouching and mouching,
Lousy ten million! 

Plenty to right of 'em,
Plenty to left of 'em,
Yes, wot is left of 'em,
Damn the ten million.
Stormed at by press and all,
How shall we dress 'em all?
Glooming and mouching!’ – ‘Charge of the Bread Brigade’, Ezra Pound 

With the amount of Tennyson-related parodies of poems written, it almost begs the question of whether Tennyson knew or played up the sense of the ridiculous in his poems, particularly those that he wrote later. Even in his most serious poems, such as ‘Flower in the Crannied Wall’, which Wikipedia describes as being ‘used in a metaphorical sense for the idea of seeking holistic and grander principles from constituent parts and their connections’, it is possible to see flashes of irreverence. The poem reads like this:

‘Flower in the crannied wall,
 pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.’ – ‘Flower in the Crannied Wall’ 

Tennyson himself, a graduate from Trinity College Cambridge and well versed in the canon of English Literature, particularly Shakespeare, would no doubt himself have recognised its likeness to this passage.

In this same interlude it doth befall
That I, one Snout by name, present a wall;
And such a wall, as I would have you think,
That had in it a crannied hole or chink,
Through which the lovers, Pyramus and Thisby,
Did whisper often very secretly.
This loam, this rough-cast and this stone doth show
That I am that same wall; the truth is so:
And this the cranny is, right and sinister,
Through which the fearful lovers are to whisper.’ – ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ 

The usage of the word ‘cranny’ was low in the 1850s, and it was not particularly common, for most people, the time where they most frequently heard the word, would have been in the innuendos of Shakespeare’s play and their reaction to a ‘crannied wall’ would have been humorous. Furthermore, the repetitions of Tennyson’s poem ‘and all, and all in all’ surely call to mind the ‘wall’ and language of Shakespeare’s scene. 

O grim-look'd night! O night with hue so black!
O night, which ever art when day is not!
O night, O night! alack, alack, alack,
I fear my Thisby's promise is forgot!
And thou, O wall, O sweet, O lovely wall,
That stand'st between her father's ground and mine!
Thou wall, O wall, O sweet and lovely wall,
Show me thy chink, to blink through with mine eyne!’ – ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ 

Tennyson then, in a poem later in his career, does to himself what Swinburne has previously done for him, and mocks his own poetic attempts. Act 1 Scene 5 of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ shows the mechanicals taking their own literary career (putting on the play of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe) so seriously that it becomes funny, and perhaps in Tennyson’s own poem there is a kind of knowingness, and a humour that we rarely give him credit for.

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