“A land where all things always seem'd the same!” – A study of setting in the poetry of Tennyson.
Imagine Alice without her Wonderland. Doesn’t really work, does it? This text is inextricably bound up with its setting: the story’s meaning is reinforced or crystallised by geographic location, and other examples are too numerous to list. However, even though setting is listed in AQA textbooks as a key ‘Aspect of Narrative’, it can be quite difficult to find criticism examining how authors consciously utilise it to bolster the meaning of their tales. Hopefully, more support material will emerge as the specification matures. In the meantime, though, here are some scribblings examining two poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, taken from the AQA Anthology. I hope that they are of some use to students and teachers alike.
As an example, Alice’s Wonderland has been argued to represent or symbolise many things: the mysterious world of adult activity, or the shift from childhood innocence to teenage angst and awareness. Any reader of the original text could see how either of these two readings could be argued (or both, in order to get that AO3 mark) and it is purely in the representation of the story’s setting, its world, that this symbolism occurs; be it the sinister and possibly even sexual imagery of painting white roses red, or the obvious ‘growing-up’ metaphor of the beautiful, yet unreachable, garden beyond the tiny locked door. Tennyson’s worlds tell similar stories. Like those of Carroll, they reinforce and embody the themes and preoccupations of his tales, giving them a visual representation that we, the readers, can enjoy. ‘The Lotos Eaters and Choric Song’ was written after a trip with his friend Arthur Hallam (the one who died) to the Pyrenees in Northern Spain. It is about Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, and his experiences on the shore of the Lotos Eaters. The lotos is an “enchanted stem” that has the same hazy effect as opium or heroin, causing the “pale and melancholy” inhabitants of the region to lose all sense of ambition and desire, and in doing so, as the quotation shows, their health and happiness. The land itself emphasises the focus of the narrative – the effects of absolute lethargy and despair – in a series of linguistic manoeuvrings by Tennyson. The air is “languid”, “swoon[ing]” in the damp heat of a summer afternoon: an eternal afternoon, where the moon flies “full-faced”. This creates a bizarre yet effective opposition: it is neither day nor night in the land of the Lotos Eaters, in just the same way as the eaters themselves are neither dead, nor alive.
This ‘living death’ is amplified by Tennyson’s clever depictions of the passing of time; a time that isn’t quite the same as ours. It is hesitant and shy, popping in and out of existence throughout the whole poem. A waterfall, “like a downward smoke”, seems to “pause” in its fall, implying that time is not a constant here; this reflects the uneven nature of consciousness in the land. On the other hand time does paradoxically give the impression of moving onward. The sailors, in their low chant, sing of an apple in “the middle of the wood” and chart its growth and eventual fall. Whether this apple is simply a rhetorical device in their argument or an account of an actual apple in the land of the lotos is difficult to say, but nevertheless it helps give us a sense of ages of time passing as the sailors lie drugged and helpless.
‘Cool mosses deep’
It is very definitely a land of plants. Throughout the poem Tennyson makes reference to a host of flowers and herbs, from the sleeping poppies and weeping flowers of stanza six, to the “beds of amaranth (a plant that symbolises eternity) and moly (a magic herb found in Homer’s legends)” in stanza twelve. These plants, and their associations, certainly add further weight to the main theme of sleep and “dreamlike ease” of the poem, but could add something further. Tennyson was writing at the time of a great acceleration of the industrialisation of
Britain. Railways were snaking over the whole of
England, and the long procession of hopeful country folk to the slums of the
cities was continuing as it had for the last fifty years. Tennyson’s beautiful, endless and slothful
land is one without the iron shackles of industry: it is a land where the idea
of being industrious is alien and the beauty and timelessness of pure nature is
allowed to survive, untouched by the “toil” of humanity. Tennyson could have been contemplating a
better world of the past, a bit like the way the Romanic poets (including Keats
and Wordsworth) longed for the idyllic world of the agricultural
mediaeval. Thus, we could argue that
‘setting’ in this poem is used to highlight contextual concerns (AO4).
However, to turn this argument on its head, Tennyson’s description of this world becomes quite sinister at times. The “yellow lotos-dust” that blows around this “hollow” (meaningless?) land chokes and fills the landscape with its own, perfectly natural pollutant; the land, though beautiful, is ultimately a land of living-death, offering the lotos as a means of keeping humanity docile and still. It is a vengeful, controlling world that fits fascinatingly with modern contexts and the environment, as well as issues concerning drug addiction, such as the dangerous effects of the Opium poppy, from which heroin is derived. Tennyson was to face accusations of being addicted to this for much of his life. So, like Alice’s Wonderland, Tennyson’s land of the lotos hides meanings above and beyond the need to give a story a geographical location.
‘The island of Shalott’
Let’s move away from the Lotos-land before we fall asleep, and travel to Shalott. Rather like Tennyson’s home of the Lincolnshire Wolds, Camelot’s country is one of “long fields of barley and of rye”, filled with willows, lilies and flowers: another idyllic mediaeval world. It is this beautiful, unspoilt world that the Lady inhabits. But no; ‘inhabit’ is the wrong word. The Lady of Shalott is not of this land at all. She is somehow beyond it, enclosed by “four grey walls and four grey towers” and hidden from view. The only hint that she exists at all, beyond our narrator’s omniscience, is the song that “echoes cheerly” through the land. Furthermore, she is forced to view the world through “a mirror clear”; she doesn’t see reality, rather a manipulated and twisted version of it. In fact, she is punished when she attempts to view the world and an attractive man riding through it, and then eventually dies. The feminist connotations are strong, but I’ll leave that here as you’ll discover more about that in A2 English Literature. What is very interesting for our purposes is her seeing “the water lily bloom” just before the curse crashes down on her. Not only are white lilies associated with death and funerals; one species of water lily is known as the Nymphaea Lotus and many other lilies have lotus-like properties. Now, admittedly these lotus plants are real and do not share quite the same properties as Tennyson’s lotos, but the point is there: once again we see a reference to the seductive and dangerous side of nature. Did the lotos charm the Lady to make an error just as it charmed the sailors of Odysseus? Perhaps, and as an idea it is a good candidate for some AO3 marks.
‘In the stormy east-wind straining’
Finally, remember how Alice’s Wonderland could be argued to be a symbol of loss of innocence? Shalott could hold the same meaning. The Lady dares to gaze down on Lancelot and the curse falls on her as the mirror cracks “from side to side”. After the curse takes hold and the Lady is aware of her impending death, the setting also changes. With a touch of pathetic fallacy the landscape reflects the mood change and goes from a colourful idyll to a dark and sombre land. The “stormy east wind” blows around the “pale yellow woods”, with rainfall adding further tears to the occasion. The destruction of her chaste innocence is a cause for mourning, as even the clouds join in the grief. Whereas Carroll celebrated the shift into knowing adulthood with his bizarre and ultimately beneficial landscape, Tennyson seems to condemn it, using the setting as his judgement. Hopeful and glorious summer turns to depressed and brooding autumn...all because a woman looked at a man. This is only one reading of the situation, and as you know AO3 is all about accepting that there are different ways of looking at these issues, so you should also consider the more ‘positive’ view that the landscape is mourning the death of the Lady herself. But then, why is she robed in that most symbolic of colours, white?
There isn’t space here to delve any deeper into the mysteries of setting. Perhaps the fairy-tale nature of both poems’ setting could be examined, as could the use of the townscape at the end of ‘Shalott’. But these are for you to think about. Setting is a fascinating focus of study in Literature; combined with a close textual analysis and a bit of contextual knowledge, some really intriguing theories can be explored.
 The Poetry Foundation ‘Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809 - 1892), biography’ at www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poet.html?id=81472, (accessed 18th April 2010)
 Platizky, R (2002) ‘"Like Dull Narcotics, Numbing Pain": Speculations on Tennyson and Opium’ in ‘Victorian Poetry’ (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press)