Tennyson's Enchanted Islands

Enchanted Islands are not rare in English Literature, but especially not in Tennyson’s poetry, where they abound ...

‘And we past to the Isle of Witches and heard their musical cry—
‘Come to us, O come, come’ in the stormy red of a sky
Dashing the fires and the shadows of dawn on the beautiful shapes,
For a wild witch naked as heaven stood on each of the loftiest capes,
And a hundred ranged on the rock like white sea-birds in a row,
And a hundred gamboll’d and pranced on the wrecks in the sand below,
And a hundred splash’d from the ledges, and bosom’d the burst of the spray,
But I knew we should fall on each other, and hastily sail’d away.’ – The Voyage of Maeldune

Enchanted Islands are not rare in English Literature, but especially not in Tennyson’s poetry, where they abound, Islands of flowers, to the ‘Island of Shallot’. Islands are not only locations for Tennyson’s poems, they also re-emerge repeatedly in his imagery. In ‘The Princess’ the main character, Ida, is described as like an island. 

‘Through open doors of Ida stationed there
   Unshaken, clinging to her purpose, firm
   Though compassed by two armies and the noise
   Of arms; and standing like a stately Pine
   Set in a cataract on an island-crag,
   When storm is on the heights, and right and left
   Sucked from the dark heart of the long hills roll
   The torrents, dashed to the vale:  and yet her will
   Bred will in me to overcome it or fall.’ – The Princess 

Island Nation

Many would say that Tennyson’s preoccupation with Islands is symptomatic of British poetry, an ‘Island Nation’, the island is an image of power, frequently referenced and re-reference, perhaps most famously through the words of John of Gaunt in Shakespeare’s Richard II:

‘This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England
bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune’ – Richard II 

A speech often reflected in Tennyson’s work, who himself often seems to reference this speech, even in his early poetry, such as ‘Buonaparte’: 

‘He thought to quell the stubborn hearts of oak,
Madman! to chain with chains, and bind with bands
That island queen who sways the floods and lands
From Ind to Ind’ – Buonaparte 

But perhaps there is more to Tennyson’s preoccupation with islands, as a man who chose to dwell on the Isle of Wight, the idea of the ‘island’ perhaps had a unique grip on Tennyson’s imagination as spaces filled with the possibility for magic, in each of these spaces a ‘brave new world’ like Shakespeare’s islands, where dreams can be made.


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