Tennyson's American Dream

Tennyson, like many of the Victorians of the time, and indeed, many Americans to come, was preoccupied with looking West ...

It is hard to distinguish Tennyson from a sense of his ‘Englishness’ as he writes and the landscapes which he depicts are reminiscent of his Cambridge University days, or his time spent in Lincoln and on the Isle of Wight. However, Tennyson, like many of the Victorians of the time, and indeed, many Americans to come, was preoccupied with looking West. What Tennyson was experiencing when he thought in his poetry about moving West, was the beginning of a complicated dialogue which would come to be known under the catch all name ‘The American Dream’, a term used to define a society that sees itself as

“Come from east—goin' west.” – ‘The Grapes of Wrath

Suddenly, as the idea of the American ‘frontier’ begins to develop in the nineteenth century, particularly with the force of the Californian gold rush, ‘movement’ as an idea begins to have a whole new social weight, and the ‘journey’, depicted in novels such as ‘Moby Dick’, published in 1851, becomes as much about taming the wilderness as moving through it.

Charles Olsen, in his essay ‘Call me Ishmael’ poetically explains the relationship between ‘Moby Dick’, the land and the journey.

‘I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in
America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because
it comes large here. Large, and without mercy. 

It is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the
beginning. 'That made the first American story (Park-
man's): exploration.

Something else than a stretch of earth— seas on both
sides, no barriers to contain as restless a thing as Western
man was becoming in Columbus' day. That made Mel-
ville's story (part of it). 

PLUS a harshness we still perpetuate, a sun like a toma-
hawk, small earthquakes but big tornadoes and hurrikans,
a river north and south in the middle of the land running
out the blood. 

The fulcrum of America is the Plains, half sea half land,
a high sun as metal and obdurate as the iron horizon, and
a man's job to square the circle.’

If the American frontier becomes the focal point for the desire to move West, then Tennyson, unsurprisingly, is caught up within this gravitational pull, whilst at the same time resisting it. His poetry is dominated by a voice that wants to seek new worlds.

‘Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows;’ – ‘Ulysses

However, like many of the English of the day, Tennyson’s idea of the United States was framed in terms of a painful war for Independence, and a battle between the traditional (England) and the New (American Colonies). Alongside these fears was the growing threat of an American Civil War, a war which, for Tennyson, was likewise framed within these terms, as being a conflict between the traditional Southern gentlemen, and the hardnosed commercial Northern ‘Yankee’, writing to the Duchess of Argyll in 1862 that he was ‘disappointed nay disgusted with the Northerners ever yelling and mouthing against their old European mother’ ¹.

In his poem, ‘The Princess’ we can see the battle between tradition and youth waged within its imagery.  From ‘the bastioned walls’ of tradition, the Prince and his friends flee to a ‘livelier land’.

 ‘from the bastioned walls
   Like threaded spiders, one by one, we dropt,
   And flying reached the frontier:  then we crost
   To a livelier land; and so by tilth and grange,
   And vines, and blowing bosks of wilderness’ – ‘The Princess

The word ‘frontier’ was constantly rising in use during the middle of the nineteenth century, especially in connection with the settlement of America. However, despite the seemingly positive relationship between ‘youth’ and the ‘frontier’ in the Princess, elsewhere in Tennyson’s poetry, his references to the Atlantic and to America are of a more negative variety. 

‘If you be fearful, then must we be bold.
Our Britain cannot salve a tyrant
Better the waste Atlantic roll’d
On her and us and ours for ever-
What! Have we fought for Freedom
     from our prime,
At last to dodge and palter with a
     public crime?’ – ‘The Third of February 1852’

In his poem ‘The Third of February 1852’, although principally focused on the relationship between France and Britain with the threat of invasion from Louis Napoleon, Tennyson expresses a very old-fashioned although highly common description of the relationship between America and Britain during the period. He describes Britain as part of a cross-Atlantic bond between ‘her and us and ours’ namely, ‘us and ours’, meaning Britain and her (now free) colonies. The Victorians saw America as part of an Anglo-Saxon world of values and laws originating in England.

Tennyson is, however, most explicit in his thoughts about America in his poem ‘Columbus’, which like ‘The Third of February 1852’ was written under a pseudonym.

‘Chains for the Admiral of the Ocean! chains
For him who gave a new heaven, a new earth,
As holy John had prophesied of me,
Gave glory and more empire to the kings
Of Spain than all their battles! chains for him
Who push’d his prows into the setting sun,
And made West East, and sail’d the Dragon’s mouth,
And came upon the Mountain of the World,
And saw the rivers roll from Paradise!

    Chains! we are Admirals of the Ocean, we,
We and our sons for ever.’ – ‘Columbus’

Despite Tennyson’s seeming hatred for American society (particularly that of the North) he is, after all, growingly caught up in a register of language that would go on to dominate English speaking literature for the next 150 years, where his speaker ‘push’d his prows into the setting sun’/And made West East’, a line that is uncannily, or perhaps deliberately echoed in that much quoted ending to one of America’s most famous novels:

‘Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ – ‘The Great Gatsby’ 

  1. Leonée Ormond, Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Literary Life. (London: The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1993), p. 146.

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