Absence and Desire in Maud

  • E. Warwick Slinn


Absence and loss have often been noted as themes in Tennyson’s poetry.1 An oxymoronic ‘Death in Life’, the presence of absent ‘days that are no more’, is thus a common effect, where the lyrical present is characterised by a yearning for what is no longer or not yet available. Tithonus’ lament for the lost ability to die or Ulysses’ sense of insufficiency and of a lost recognition, for instance, along with the accompanying desire to seek fulfilment, respectively, in death or in action, are typical.


Absent Father External Reality Nominative Clause Subjunctive Mood Irrational Language 
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  1. 1.
    See, e.g., Arthur J. Carr, ‘Tennyson as a Modern Poet’, in John Killham, ed., Critical Essays on the Poetry of Tennyson (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960), pp. 41–64; Dorothy M. Mermin, ‘Tennyson’s Maud: A Thematic Analysis’, TSLL, vol. 15 (1973), 267–77; Simon S. Petch, ‘Tennyson: Mood and Myth’, Sydney Studies in English, 4 (1978–79), 18–30; Samuel E. Schulman, ‘Mourning and Voice in Maud’, SEL, 23 (1983), 633–46; Alan Sinfield, Alfred Tennyson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), partic. pp. 98–102.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The appropriateness of Lacanian theory for Tennyson’s poetry has already been explained by Sinfield (pp. 98–102). For an excellent account of the development of the subject in Lacanian terms, see Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), pp. 149–93, and for another application of this theory to Victorian writing, see Steven Connor, Charles Dickens (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985), chap. 6.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Tavistock, 1977), p. 265.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    All quotations from Maud are taken from Tennyson’s ‘Maud’: A definitive edition, ed. Susan Shatto (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986). Textual references will be given to Part, section and line number.Google Scholar
  5. 10.
    Jonathan Wordsworth, in ‘“What is it, that has been done?”: the Central Problem of Maud’, Essays in Criticism, 24 (1974), 356–62, observes that ‘once it has been pointed out it is difficult not to see the details of the first two lines… in terms of the female body’ (358).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 13.
    Shatto, p. 33; see also Shatto’s source, E. G. Withycombe, The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, third edition (1977), pp. 212–13.Google Scholar
  7. 15.
    The speaker’s suicidal impulse has been frequently discussed; see, e.g., Jonas Spatz, ‘Love and Death in Tennyson’s Maud’, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 16 (1974), 503–10, and Frank R. Giordano, Jr., ‘The “Red-Ribbed Hollow”, Suicide and Part III in “Maud”’, Notes and Queries, vol. 24 (Oct. 1977), 402–4.Google Scholar
  8. 16.
    Earlier readings have been inclined to seek a meaning for Maud’s voice in I.iv that is substantive and referential, outside the function of the discourse itself. David Shaw’s view, for instance, in Tennyson’s Style (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976), that the voice is ‘a disembodied hieroglyph for something beyond her’ (p. 176), tends to minimise its function as hieroglyph (sign), and while James Kincaid’s reading, in Tennyson’s Major Poems: The Comic and Ironic Patterns (London: Yale University Press, 1975), suggests that the song really emerges from deep within the speaker, Kincaid’s conclusion that Maud ‘announces the fully realized self and calls the narrator to participation in a world of unified contraries’ (p. 120) suppresses the force of the speaker’s utterance that Maud troubles the mind with a ‘joy’ and a ‘glory’ which he will ‘not find’ (my italics). In my reading, the poem proposes the impossibility of a world of ‘unified contraries’, replacing that impossible and Romantic dream with an unfixed world of Romantic irony, of dialectical continuities and process. Dorothy Mermin’s argument that ‘Maud as an object of love is a literary object’ (272) acknowledges Maud’s status as a sign within literary discourse in general, but that reading severely delimits Maud’s function as a signifier within the subjectivity of this speaker’s discourse. See also Tucker’s point that Maud’s ‘worth’ as a sign arises from her place within a social system (Tucker, p. 417).Google Scholar
  9. 19.
    See Marilyn J. Kurata, ‘“A Juggle Born of the Brain”: A New Reading of Maud’, Victorian Poetry, vol. 21 (1983), 369–78, for the view that no sexual consummation occurs, and Jonathan Wordsworth for the view that Maud is deflowered (not necessarily in this scene).Google Scholar
  10. 20.
    Two recent studies have stressed the features of this lyric as providing the germ for the poem: see Tucker, pp. 407–8, and Marion Shaw, Alfred Lord Tennyson (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1988), pp. 30–2. Shaw suggests that ‘it is almost as though the rest of the poem were written to explain, to cover up, finally to have done with, the unassuageable anguish and yearning of this early lyric of romantic love’, and she goes on to argue that the original lyric already contained the flaw of such love within its ‘linkage of loss and eroticism, and in its very irresolution and incompletion’ (p. 31). My argument is that the rest of Maud also represents the inevitable irresolution of yearning and that the poem does nothing finally to cover up its unassuageable anguish — that indeed the poem shows how any recovery of lost joy and wholeness is possible ‘only in death, or in a dream, or in the fantasy of romantic love’ (Shaw, p. 31).Google Scholar
  11. 21.
    Christopher Ricks, Tennyson (London: Macmillan, 1972), p. 246.Google Scholar
  12. 22.
    For a discussion which eschews the usual focus on the poem as realistic narrative, see Chris R. Vanden Bossche, ‘Realism Versus Romance: The War of Cultural Codes in Tennyson’s Maud’, Victorian Poetry, vol. 24 (1986), 69–82; Vanden Bossche argues that the poem’s contexts ‘are not the lives of the narrator, Maud, and their families, but the metaphors, dichotomies, and contradictions that enabled the Victorians to imagine their world’ (72).Google Scholar
  13. 26.
    As Lisa Berglund points out, in ‘“Faultily Faultless”: The Structure of Tennyson’s Maud’, Victorian Poetry, 27 (1989), 45–59, there are sixteen ‘unanswerable questions’ in the first section alone and there is at least one question in all but six of the poem’s twenty-eight sections. See also her valuable argument that the speaker’s persistent questioning derives from his need to fill the empty pit, ‘to make sense of his father’s suicide by eliminating the void it has made in his life’ (48).Google Scholar
  14. 28.
    Cf. David Goslee, in ‘“Fairer than aught in the world beside”: The Speaker’s Invocation of Maud’, Victorian Poetry, 23 (1985), 391–402, who acknowledges the speaker’s position among varying interpretative versions and who argues that it is through the power of these versions that this speaker, alone of Tennyson’s characters, ‘can fulfill the Romantic goal of recreating himself, his world and his beloved’ (392). The speaker is thus Tennyson’s ‘consummate love poet’ (392), with his madness a means ‘of giving ultimate importance to what an “objective” observer would dismiss as a “simple girl”’ (401). I think Goslee takes too lightly, however, the shifting and uneasy ambiguities that are built into the poem’s ecstasies. If Tennyson was ‘systematically preparing the only epistemological ground upon which he as a Victorian poet could celebrate love with an Elizabethan breadth and grandeur’ (Goslee, 393), then he discovered at the same time that this epistemology was no ‘ground’ at all. In my view it is precisely the paradox of a foregrounded epistemological groundlessness that makes Maud such a disturbing cultural document. As a poem of romance, it writes a critique of romantic poetry. In this poem, the Romantic and culturally approved desire to re-create the self through language can be fulfilled only as a fiction of expectation, as in I.xxii.Google Scholar
  15. 29.
    Robert E. Lougy, ‘The Sounds and Silence of Madness: Language as Theme in Tennyson’s Maud’, Victorian Poetry, vol. 22 (1984), 407–26, emphasises Maud’s personal silence, apart from her songs, throughout: ‘Maud exists in silence, defined by a world in which she is variously seen as daughter, sister, and potential wife, submerged wholly within those primarily male-oriented sexual and social structures around her’ (414).Google Scholar
  16. 30.
    Cf. Ian H. C. Kennedy who equates loss of reference with incoherence, in ‘The Crisis of Language in Tennyson’s Maud’, Texas Studies in Language and Literature, vol. 19 (1977), 161–78.Google Scholar
  17. 33.
    There has of course been considerable discussion of Tennyson’s intentions ever since the poem was first published, but his addition of the final stanza to a later edition (in 1856) may suggest some uncertainty on his part or at least the feeling that his views were misrepresented. Representative discussions of this issue are provided by E. F. Shannon, ‘The Critical Reception of Tennyson’s Maud’, PMLA, vol. 68 (1953), 397–417, and James R. Bennett, ‘The Historical Abuse of Literature: Tennyson’s Maud: A Monodrama and the Crimean War’, English Studies, vol. 62 (1981), 34–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 34.
    Readers who argue for the speaker’s continuing insanity in Part III tend to focus on the speaker’s personal psychology: see, e.g., Roy P. Baslar, ‘Tennyson the Psychologist’, South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 43 (1944), 143–59; Ian Kennedy; Margaret E. Belcher, ‘“Sane but Shattered”: The Ending of Tennyson’s Maud’, AUMLA, vol. 50 (1978), 224–34; Marilyn Kurata; Ann C. Colley, Tennyson and Madness (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1983); Robert Lougy.Google Scholar
  19. 35.
    See also James R. Bennett, ‘Maud, Part III: Maud’s Battle-Song’, Victorian Poetry, vol. 18 (1980), 35–49: ‘Maud enjoins [the speaker] to be a man by embracing the epic-heroic code of combat’ (44, my italics).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© E. Warwick Slinn 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • E. Warwick Slinn
    • 1
  1. 1.Massey UniversityNew Zealand

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