The Tragic Hero: Tennyson’s Reinvention of the Hero as Poet
I AM! yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish, an oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tos’t
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest–that I loved the best–
Are strange–nay, rather stranger than the rest.
– John Clare1
There is no more enduring theme in the truly Western body of literature, religion, and philosophy than that of the hero. Western thought apotheosizes the hero and the act of heroism. This practice is rooted in the heroic ages, where, as in the Iliad, the heroes of both sides have unique access to the gods and goddesses. The hero is the man who transcends with dirt under his fingernails and the dust of battle in his throat. He transcends through the savage wilds of Nature. In the West, too, the hero is known not only for physical skill or bravery, but also for inculcation of mental qualities, for cultivation of a superior sense of insight, a Higher vision and comprehension.
Thomas Carlyle revives and revisits the ancient concepts of the hero and the heroic. Heroes have evolved into two hypothetically universal forms: the Hero as Man of Letters2, and the Hero as Poet 3. The Man of Letters and the Poet are closely linked in form, but exist as separate heroes. The Man of Letters transcends his socially imposed and self-imposed limitations, and the binding force of personal needs and wants. This hero is simply the best of Nature and is not thought to transcend it. The Man of Letters is genuine, and will be found discharging a function for us which is ever honourable, ever the highest;4 . The Man of Letters’s purpose is to know and to teach a Divine Idea of the World5 . The Hero as Man of Letters brings its era what it requires: non religious guidance to a public whose social facets wane in spirituality. Carlyle’s hero is that of National Socialism, a person of ideals who lives in transcendence, who seeks to learn, to teach, to change, not simply to exist and know. It far from being the province only of someone in the profession of war.
Alternately, The Hero as Poet is recognized as divine or as having a connection with the divine, not entirely unlike the Hero as Man of Letters, who is shaped by Nature and is innately and unconsciously sincere, incapable of being anything but unaffected. The Hero as Poet exists on a higher plane of existence, a person who belongs to all ages6 , capable of discerning the truth of existence, a truth that exists in all ages, rather than transcends with the era. Here we see a distinct split in Carlyle’s Hero as Man of Letters and Hero as Poet. The Hero as Poet is demi-divine, fundamentally linked with Nature’s secrets, to the gods, to the spiritual and that truth which eternally exists. He is divinely inspired. The Hero as Man of Letters, the layman, explores new truths and changes with time, bringing new ideas to society, changing it, moving it forward. The Hero as Poet exists for all time, whereas there is a Man of Letters for each time.
Carlye seeks to invent heroes relevant to his era, for Victorian society. The Victorian Era wanes in ecclesiastical belief and experiences a desire to move forward rather than reflect on the past. This society suffers the death of antiquated heroes and a connection with the spiritual/supernatural. Victorians were concerned with material progress, not spiritual. Carlyle cannot overstate his certainty that each age needs a hero, someone to inspire, to lead a society to change and growth. Heroes emerge in a time of crisis, when they are needed most, and according to Carlyle, the Hero as Poet is the best suited for this age. The Victorians are separating the secular from the spiritual, which plunges them into a state of crisis. Poetry, then, is the new church of the Victorian Age and its hero the poet. Yet does this new hero have an audience, a following? Alfred Lord Tennyson, poet of the 19th Century, suggests that Carlyle’s Hero as Poet does not have an audience and the Victorian people fail to recognize any manner of hero. The Hero as Poet exists yet his efforts are unnoticed and unappreciated. Tennyson’s exploration of Carlyle’s Hero as Poet and its relevance in Victorian society is best typified in his poems Ulysses and The Lady of Shalott. In these works, the poet is seen as no less heroic than in Carlyle’s illustration, nor the need for them in Victorian society undermined. Instead, they are reclassified as a tragic hero, as the integration of the Hero as Poet into society, or their attempts for recognition, go tragically unnoticed.
It is interesting to see Tennyson’s reinvention of the quintessential classic Greco-Roman hero, Ulysses. The poem itself is a metaphor for the crisis taking place in Victorian society. The island of Ithaca can be meant for England. Ulysses, an archetypal hero of yore, whose reputation grew from adventures and conquests and deeds done in battle returns to Ithaca unrecognized as a hero to his people, who forget him, as can be seen in these first lines;
It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me. (Ulysses, 1-5)
If the people of Ithaca represent Victorian society, the references to hoarding are parallels to the Victorian obsession with the material, to sleep, their spiritual dormancy, and to feed, their hunger for knowledge. They do not recognize the hero. We begin to see the development of Ulysses as a Hero as a Man of Letters. He equates himself with regular men, or at least his fellow Mariners, when he says,
All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea. (Ulysses, 7-11)
Ulysses expresses a desire to move forward, not to stagnate, How dull it is to pause, to make an end… (Ulysses, 22). This forward looking attitude is typically Victorian. Ulysses desires to follow knowledge like a sinking star… (Ulysses, 31) Here, Ulysses echoes of martyrdom and the pursuit of something tragically noble. He recognizes his inability to be a hero to his people, and his inability to lead them into change when he speaks of his son;
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle…
…discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people…
… Most blameless is he, centered in the sphere
Of common duties… (Ulysses, 33-40)
Ulysses cannot be a hero to the Ithacans (and he insinuates that it is a lowly sort of hero to tame the rugged people), yet he is still determined to be heroic;
Death closes all’ but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods. (Ulysses, 50-52)
Ulysses paints the pictures of the tragic hero sailing off into the sunset, in search of knowledge purely for the sake of knowledge, experience for experience’s sake;
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset… (Ulysses, 57-60)
Here, Ulysses attempts to be convincing an audience of his quest. He desires a following, an audience, and as Carlyle states, a hero needs the recognition of an audience and a following to be a successful (active) hero. Yet two linked questions arise from this predicament: Who is Ulysses’ audience, and if there is one, is he successful in gaining this following? The audience is never determined in Tennyson’s poem, save for the obvious audience, the reader. Additionally, it is never determined if Ulysses is successful in creating a following.
The obscurity and question of the audience, or lack thereof, is the basis for Tennnyson’s questioning the legitimacy or resonance of the Hero as Poet in Victorian society. The question itself suggests there isn’t an audience, and that all Ulysses’ noble words fall on deaf ears. The suggestion that the Ithacan people and the Victorian people are both in crisis and need a hero, but are denying themselves of salvation, of leadership in their time of crisis. There is no place for the Hero as Poet in Ithacan or Victorian society, which makes him a tragic hero.
This attitude is tightly woven into Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, and the tragic nature of the Hero as Poet is embodied in the Lady herself in her attempts for recognition in a world that cannot comprehend what she is. The Lady of Shalott is an isolated hero, alone in
Four gray walls, and four gray towers…
…And the silent isle embowers
The Lady of Shalott. (L.S., 15-18)
She is unseen by the rest of the world, as a Hero as Poet would be in Victorian society. Only farmers hear her song echoing in the forest, yet they do not understand what they are hearing. They speculate that it is ‘the fairy Lady of Shalott’ (L.S., 35-36). It is learned the Lady is an artist, a hero with a unique and divinely connected perspective on the world. She weaves by night and day a magic web… (L.S., 37-38) and she sees
…thro’ a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear. (L.S., 46-48)
This is blatantly a portrayal of Carlyle’s Hero as Poet. The Lady has a magic (divine) way of seeing the world, and in her towers she looks down on the world, therefore having a loftier perspective and a more exalted position than the rest of society physically being higher. Tennyson hints of traditional lofty Greek tragic heroes when the Lady of Shalott is warned of a curse, as Oedipus Rex (among other tragic heroes) are given hints or warnings as to their fates;
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be… (L.S., 39-42)
At one point, the Lady is likened to Tierseias, a famously mythological Greek prophet, or an oracle, when Tennyson says
Like some bold se?r in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance–
With a glassy countenance… (L.S., 128-130)
In these lines, the Lady of Shalott is compared to the mirror in which she sees the world, again affirming Carlye’s image of Hero as Poet. Yet like all tragic heroes, the Lady of Shalott disregards the warning, cannot escape her fate, looks down upon Camelot and leaves her castle to join society and be recognized for who she is. Yet, she is sadly unrecognized. As the Lady of Shalott winds her way closer to society, as the boat-head wound along/The willowy hills and fields… (L.S., 141-142) she begins to die. She sings, hoping to be recognized, but only a carol, mournful, holy,/Chanted loudly, chanted lowly… (L.S., 145-146) was heard
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darken’d wholly,
Turned to tower’d Camelot.
For ere she reach’d upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott. (L.S., 147-153)
Tennyson in these lines reaffirms his belief that the Hero as Poet has no place in Victorian society and cannot exist. As the Lady of Shalott edges closer and closer to society, she too ceases to exist. Like Ulysses, the Lady of Shalott is recognized only as a name, And round the prow they read her name… (L.S., 161) and she came silent into Camelot (L.S., 158) which means that society cannot recognize the Lady of Shalott as the singer, as the voice in the forest, because she is no longer singing. Lancelot, the alternate portrayal of a hero Tennyson introduces in The Lady of Shalott, also fails to recognize the Lady for who she is. He only comments that she has a lovely face (L.S., 169) and thinks to offer her a prayer, as he might for anyone.
Tennyson shows the distance between the hero and Victorian society in his poetry by commenting on this situation with mythological or legendary figures. He writes of people in a fantastic past that were once revered but are antiquated in Victorian society. Though he seems to be in concurrence with Carlyle in his expression that the hero is necessity, he is not wrong when he says that the Hero as Poet is unsuccessful in Victorian society. This is shown in the want of an audience or following for this timeless hero, and also in the distancing Tennyson creates with fictitious heroes in his poetry, such as King Arthur, Ulysses, the Lady of Shalott, Tithonus and Sir Galahad. This demonstrates the Victorian disconnection with the heroic, their uncoupling with the spiritual with the secular, and emphasizes the tragic nature of Carlyle’s hero in Victorian society’s period of crisis.