‘Poetry dwells in a perpetual Utopia of its own’ writes Hazlitt in his essay ‘On Poetical Versatility’, around 30 years before Tennyson was to print his own vision of a poetic utopia, ‘The Princess’. The utopia as a mode of exploring new potential systems of worlds has been in use since Thomas More coined the phrase in 1516, meaning ‘no place’ in Greek, suggesting an impossible society. Since then, utopias have emerged again and again in fiction and poetry, reflecting as ‘no places’ the very places that they came from.
For Thomas More, the Utopia was about work, and how work is necessary for a happy and healthy society. His Utopia has strict rules.
‘The chief, and almost the only, business of the Syphogrants is to take care that no man may live idle, but that every one may follow his trade diligently; yet they do not wear themselves out with perpetual toil from morning to night, as if they were beasts of burden, which as it is indeed a heavy slavery, so it is everywhere the common course of life amongst all mechanics except the Utopians: but they, dividing the day and night into twenty-four hours, appoint six of these for work, three of which are before dinner and three after; they then sup, and at eight o’clock, counting from noon, go to bed and sleep eight hours: the rest of their time, besides that taken up in work, eating, and sleeping, is left to every man’s discretion; yet they are not to abuse that interval to luxury and idleness, but must employ it in some proper exercise, according to their various inclinations, which is, for the most part, reading.’ – ‘Utopia’
The Mid-Nineteenth Century was a time of great change both in education and in the pursuit of work, universities were broadening their attendance, the campaign for women to enter into university was beginning to emerge (the first to be admitted were in 1869) and there was a push to widen university entry across class boundaries. At the same time, the growing strength of the industrial revolution and the ‘rise of the machine’ meant that the average worker became, for the first time, more likely to work in a factory than in agriculture. In this rapidly changing world, the utopia became necessary to both project forwards into the future, and back into the past, to understand how these changes would affect the way that society operated.
Tennyson himself said that the two social dilemmas of his time were 'the education of the poor man before making him our master, and the higher education of women’.
‘At last she begged a boon,
A certain summer-palace which I have
Hard by your father's frontier: I said no,
Yet being an easy man, gave it: and there,
All wild to found an University
For maidens, on the spur she fled; and more
We know not,—only this: they see no men,
Not even her brother Arac, nor the twins
Her brethren, though they love her, look upon her
As on a kind of paragon’ – ‘The Princess’
As the push for female education began to grow, emerging out of the works of Mary Wollstonecraft, and, (despite being across the Atlantic) the writings of Margaret Fuller, Tennyson’s poetry also started to tackle this topic. The poem tells the comic story of a university founded purely for women which men cannot enter. In tone and subject ‘The Princess’ therefore mirrors both past and present Utopias. In subject matter it is very like Christine de Pizan’s (the 14th Century French female writer)‘The Book of the City of Ladies’ where the narrator builds a dream ‘city’ for a society of worthy women, from scholars to warriors, who can protect the reputation of women. This text, in translation, sounds much like the work of many Twenty First Century female writers, or the all-female society ‘Themyscira’ with which the blockbuster film ‘Wonder Woman’ opens.
“Not all men (and especially the wisest) share the opinion that it is bad for women to be educated. But it is very true that many foolish men have claimed this because it displeased them that women knew more than they did.” – ‘The Book of the City of Ladies’
The tone of Tennyson’s ‘The Princess’ is light and comic, the threat of the female university is removed at the end of the poem by the Princess’s promise of marriage, and its framing within the text as a ‘story’ made up by a group of male undergraduates. However, the tone of many of the Utopias of the time was far more serious, even fearful. Published around 40 years after Tennyson’s ‘The Princess’, William Morris’s ‘News from Nowhere’, which constantly attempts to combat the growing power of the city way of life.
“O," said he, "these children do not all come from the near houses, the woodland houses, but from the country-side generally. They often make up parties, and come to play in the woods for weeks together in summer-time, living in tents, as you see. We rather encourage them to it; they learn to do things for themselves, and get to notice the wild creatures; and, you see, the less they stew inside houses the better for them.” ? News from Nowhere
These fears, though not so prominent in ‘The Princess’ are very much present at its end.
‘Why should not these great Sirs
Give up their parks some dozen times a year
To let the people breathe? So thrice they cried,
I likewise, and in groups they streamed away.’
The idea of land being necessary to the people ‘to breathe’, was, in the 1840s, quite a new one, and as a brief line, contrasts with the idyllic scenes otherwise laid out in ‘The Princess’. It is this fear of industrialisation encroaching on human freedom that we see magnified in modern ‘dystopias’, the twins of the utopias, such as Orwell’s ‘1984’ or Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’.
‘He rubbed his hands. For of course, they didn't content themselves with merely hatching out embryos: any cow could do that.
“We also predestine and condition. We decant our babies as socialized human beings, as Alphas or Epsilons, as future sewage workers or future …” He was going to say “future World controllers,” but correcting himself, said "future Directors of Hatcheries,” instead.
The D.H.C. acknowledged the compliment with a smile.’ – ‘Brave New World’
Huxley envisions a world where even the births of children and their social destinies are controlled and managed by machines and structures, rather than occurring ‘naturally’.
It is easy to forget, when writing about the Victorians in Great Britain, that one of the greatest fears of the time internationally was that of revolution and societal breakdown, with the American Civil War looming alongside the 1848 French Revolution, societies were growingly viewed as unstable and precarious. The Utopia therefore became a way of thinking about stability and instability, of imagining new political structures, and new societies. Whilst the idea of a new political system may, to the modern ear, sound more fantastical (belonging to the realm of Science Fiction and the Utopia), in the 19th century it was a far closer reality, and the language used in the writing of ‘Utopias’ was the kind of language that dominated the political writing of the late 18th and early 19th Century, such as that of Voltaire and Rousseau.
‘As soon as any man says of the affairs of the State "What does it matter to me?" the State may be given up for lost.’ ? The Social Contract
The slight anarchic leaning of these French texts and their language can be traced through into Contemporary Science-Fiction, such as the novels of Ursula Le Guin, who died only last year.
“You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.” ? The Dispossessed
‘The king is scared, the soldier will not fight,
The little boys begin to shoot and stab,
A kingdom topples over with a shriek
Like an old woman, and down rolls the world
In mock heroics stranger than our own;
Revolts, republics, revolutions, most
No graver than a schoolboys' barring out;
Too comic for the serious things they are,
Too solemn for the comic touches in them,
Like our wild Princess with as wise a dream
As some of theirs—God bless the narrow seas!’ – ‘The Princess’
‘The Princess’, written and re-edited over a period of years that crossed over the outbreak of Revolution in France, is not a-political, like any Utopia, it’s very refusal to operate within the boundaries of the world where it was created shows a political stance; and the comic tone of ‘The Princess’, continually undermines its revolutions, desperately attempting to reinstate the social order which it seems to wish to escape from.