Tennyson and Modernism

T.S. Eliot and Tennyson are frequently cited as two poets whose style and subjects totally differ from each other ...

Tennyson is often accused as a poet of failing to react against the past, and against Romanticism, lurking on the boundary between Romanticism and Modernism, his poetry is often neglected as readers skip straight on to poets such as T.S. Eliot. In fact, Eliot and Tennyson are frequently cited as two poets whose style and subjects totally differ from each other, with Eliot describing himself as a poet who rejected all that was Tennysonian.

Tennyson and Eliot

However, Eliot, like any other writer, consciously or subconsciously, cannot escape his past. Tennyson’s influence ripples throughout Eliot’s work, despite Eliot’s frequent jibes about Tennyson in his prose essays. The echoes of Tennyson within Eliot, or perhaps the moments of modernism within Tennyson, are for me, often the moments that stand out most within his poetry, as having the ability to still resonate with us today.

Throughout Eliot’s poetry there are moments that could be almost directly confused with Tennyson’s, when they are laid side by side. The rambling and mad prayers of St Simeon in Tennyson’s ‘St Simeon Stylites’ could be the prayers of the crazed speaker of Eliot’s ‘Ash Wednesday’, as their narrators are carried away by a fervour of religious devotion, continually tinged by religious doubt.

‘O Lord, Lord,
Thou knowest I bore this better at the first,
For I was strong and hale of body then;
And though my teeth, which now are dropped away,
Would chatter with the cold, and all my beard
Was tagged with icy fringes in the moon,
I drowned the whoopings of the owl with sound
Of pious hymns and psalms, and sometimes saw
An angel stand and watch me, as I sang.’ – St Simeon Stylites 

‘And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us’ – Ash Wednesday 

Religion, Paganism and Nature

This religious doubt and longing often emerges in language and imagery which is alike in the work of both poets. There is a kind of paganism to the power of nature in the poems, the stars and the sun commanding the progress of the events below them and rivalling the power of God. Above all, this environmental power emerges in ‘The Wasteland’, a space used by poets to symbolise the overturning of the order of society by the influence of nature ever since its first appearance in Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’. The ‘waste places’ of Tennyson and the ‘waste land’ of Eliot, therefore originate from the same root.  

'The stars,' she whispers, `blindly run;
A web is wov'n across the sky;
From out waste places comes a cry,
And murmurs from the dying sun:

'And all the phantom, Nature, stands—
With all the music in her tone,
A hollow echo of my own,—
A hollow form with empty hands.' – In Memoriam

‘Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience 

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains’ – The Waste Land


However, key perhaps of all their poetic obsessions is the way each of these poets speaks of death and how it undeniably links them. For each of them, death figures repeatedly as a ‘sea voyage’, ‘from which no traveller returns’: from Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ to ‘In Memoriam’, to ‘Crossing the Bar’ the voyage of death is a motif that re-emerges again and again. Throughout T.S. Eliot’s series of war poems, The Four Quartets, this Tennysonian image appears, however, it is at its most prominent in ‘Dry Salvages’, a poem based around an outcrop of rocks far out at sea in New England.

‘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 and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
      Turns again home.’ – Crossing the Bar

 ‘O voyagers, O seamen,
You who came to port, and you whose bodies
Will suffer the trial and judgement of the sea,
Or whatever event, this is your real destination."
So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna
On the field of battle.
                                          Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.’ – Dry Salvages


Thought and philosophy developed enormously between the mid 19th and mid 20th century, however, one thing remained common – the threat of war. Of all the war poems (especially those before the two World Wars), Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ is perhaps the most famous.

‘Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
   Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell.
They that had fought so well
Came through the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.’  – ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’

The resounding meter of this passage, along with its verbal repetition, creates, in the ear of the reader, the repetitive firing of the canon and the senseless loss of life present in the poem’s subject. Using these kinds of poetic techniques in war poetry subsequently became a common way of exploring the numerical cost of certain battles and events. It is in this tradition that Eliot’s ‘East Coker’ is written.

‘O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody's funeral, for there is no one to bury.’ – East Coker 

The listings of Eliot’s poem re-echo the listing techniques of Tennyson’s poem ‘Cannon to right of them,/Cannon to left of them’. Furthermore, the inclusivity of Eliot’s verse ‘And we all go with them, into the silent funeral’, reflects the inclusivity, the sense of collective mourning, that Tennyson’s poem generated at the time of its writing. Reprinted again and again, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ was read almost universally across the U.K., gathering people together into a singular sense of loss, so that all went together ‘into the silent funeral’.

The Bridge Between Romanticism and Modernism

If my argument is that Tennyson is a poet that bridges between Romanticism and Modernism, it is perhaps just as well to end on one of the most famous poems of British Modernist Poetry, and perhaps Eliot’s most well-read poem, ‘The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock’. It’s opening lines are frequently quoted as representative of a new modern poetry, and a way of writing particular to the twentieth century. Its origins, however, lie in the ‘Monodrama’, a poem where a singular character speaks or narrates: a form made popular by the Victorian poets Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning. Tennyson’s ‘Maud’ is one such poem.

‘I remember the time, for the roots of my hair were stirr'd
     By a shuffled step, by a dead weight trail'd, by a whisper'd fright,
     And my pulses closed their gates with a shock on my heart as I heard
     The shrill-edged shriek of a mother divide the shuddering night.’ – Maud: A Monodrama

The supposed ‘madness’ of Maud’s narrator, gives Tennyson the poetic scope to indulge in some very strange imagery, language that some might even call modernist. Indeed, stanzas from Maud could easily be confused with stanzas from Prufrock with little trouble.

‘Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question ...
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.’ – The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock

Tennyson’s Influence

It is easy to write of Tennyson’s influence on poets such as Eliot, in favour of poets whose work is more modernist in its construction, however this is to Tennyson a great disservice, for his influence on the transformation of British poetry cannot be under-estimated. The most popular poet of the mid-Nineteenth Century, it was inevitable that the poets of the early Twentieth Century should want to escape Tennyson’s influence. However, even as they do so, his poems, and his imagery, seem to reach out with a long claw, and drag them back to their point of origin.

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