The Carnivalesque in 'The Princess'

T.S. Eliot once described Tennyson as ‘the saddest of poets’, and we tend to think of him as an austere Victorian patriarch ...

‘Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom. It has a universal spirit; it is a special condition of the entire world, of the world's revival and renewal, in which all take part.’ – Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World. Trans. by Helene Iswolsky

‘Love in the sacred halls
Held carnival at will, and flying struck
With showers of random sweet on maid and man.’ – ‘The Princess’

T.S. Eliot once described Tennyson as ‘the saddest of poets’, and when we tend to think of him it is a vision of an austere Victorian patriarch that presents itself to our mind’s eye. However, Tennyson was also fun loving, there are numerous accounts of his loud guffaws at Farringford dinner parties putting his guests off their food, and even making such scandalous demands as having the ladies loosen their hair at the dinner table (an act almost never performed in Victorian society).

What this goes to show is that Tennyson loved to break the rules, and to turn the social order upside down. He was perhaps less of a Victorian patriarch, and more of a puck like figure who indulged in pranks and games. Throughout his poetry elements of the carnivalesque lurk, playing with the reader’s expectations.

Theories of the carnivalesque, and the use of the carnival to overturn social order, were first developed by Bakhtin (the Russian Philosopher) who argued that the carnival was as necessary to people as law and order, it is a way of allowing, for a restricted amount of time, the unacceptable desires of the subconscious (principally violence, sexuality and ‘dirtiness’) to break free and play, thus allowing law and order to be maintained for the rest of the year.

The carnival totally reverses social structures, the fool becomes the King and the King becomes a commoner, which is why, in carnival traditions even now, an individual from the crowd is chosen to become King or Queen. Bakhtin argued that it is possible to see the ‘carnival’ come into play as soon as Literature began to develop, from Chaucer’s Friar’s Tale, to Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ or ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, where the characters escape into the forest and abandon the laws of the city for a contained period.

In Tennyson, the carnival, though less obvious, is present, particularly in his long poem ‘The Princess’. In ‘The Princess’ the story is framed by a group of university friends attending a summer ‘fete’ (thus establishing their inhabiting of a space outside of ‘day to day’ life). They then begin to tell a story, based on an ancient family chronicle (a reaching back into folklore is typical of the carnivalesque). In the story, three men dress up as women (thus inverting accustomed social order and hierarchies) in order to invade an all-female university (overturning an institution in two senses, as universities were the realms of men, but are now paradoxically under-attack by these dual-gendered figures). The three men invade the university in order that the prince may win the heart of the princess, who presides over the institution. What we see established therefore, is a battle between the social order (the uniting of the prince and princess), and the social disorder established at the start of the text.

The prince does eventually win the hand of Princess Ida, and normality is re-established. Order returns, and alongside it a promise of reproductivity which counterbalances the ‘madness’. The marriage of the Prince and Princess Ida therefore mirrors the triple marriage at the end of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ or the double marriage at the end of ‘As You Like It’. Yet, like Shakespeare, a promise of overturn remains, and the threat of the carnival cannot quite be quenched.

This carnivalesque double-ness, with its sense of overturn, is mirrored in the phrases that end each of these texts. As the Prince promises Ida that ‘The man may be more of woman, she of man’, and the speaker finishes with the lines ‘Too comic for the solemn things they are, / Too solemn for the comic touches in them’ we are once again irresistibly drawn to Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ and Rosalind’s final Epilogue.

‘It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue;
but it is no more unhandsome than to see the lord
the prologue. If it be true that good wine needs
no bush, 'tis true that a good play needs no
epilogue; yet to good wine they do use good bushes,
and good plays prove the better by the help of good
epilogues. What a case am I in then, that am
neither a good epilogue nor cannot insinuate with
you in the behalf of a good play!’ – ‘As You Like It’

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