Tennyson: Mood and Myth


  • Simon Petch


The Symbolist critical tradition has established Tennyson so firmly in literary history as a "poet of mood" that the phrase has become an uncritical orthodoxy. Radically unhelpful in itself, and reaching back as it does to the early reviews of Tennyson's work by Arthur Hallam and John Stuart Mill, it has paved the way for those such as F. R. Leavis, who see many of Tennyson's poems as a kind of unhealthy indulgence, as well as for those such as Harold Nicolson who see Tennyson's poetry as a literary substitute for valium, and who read it in a kind of "sad mechanic exercise,/Like dull narcotics". Tennyson's poems are undeniably at their most characteristic when they concern themselves with states of consciousness. But it is part of Tennyson's distinction that he was capable of fashioning these states into structures of more than purely subjective reference, that he made persistent efforts to develop his poetic moods into a social philosophy. He did this primarily through his use of myth.