Instability in Maud
Instability, in its most basic sense, is something not likely to change or fail, this is a feeling or fear explored across various themes in Maud. Across the private and public spheres, instability is recognized in the mind, politics, existence, gender and class. Even the form of the poem itself is persistently unstable with a predominant trend of trimeter with the incorporation of tetrameter at irregular intervals. These serve to ‘disrupt the established order’ and echoes the narrators own mental and personal instability as it is manifested in the rhythm of his dramatic monologue. The form of the extremely personal first person narrative allows the reader to explore the instability of the narrator’s mind fully. The reader is absorbed into the unstable mind of the narrator who’s mind, from the beginning, is morbidly and determinedly obsessed with death. It is hard not to observe the instability of a man who’s opening discourse is fueled by the semantic field of death – ‘hate’, ‘blood-red’, ‘death’ – as he mourns the death of his father. The inferred suicide of the narrators father gives scientific weight to the instability of Tennyson’s narrator as Victorian psychological advances stressed the force of heritage and genetics on a man or woman’s mental health.
On another level, Rader believed the suicide of the narrator’s father could mirror Tennyson’s own instability in the suicide of his own father (1) Tennyson had a ‘family history of mental instability’ which is indirectly recorded and reflected upon in this poem, perhaps addressing fears for his own mental sanity and stability. The vicious description of the dead father’s body ‘mangl’d, and flatten’d and crush’d, and dinted’ uses polysyndeton and contracted adjectives which contribute to the blunt and morbid effect of Tennyson’s description. His overly brutal description of the body unleashes the narrator’s and perhaps his own instability in the form of confused anger and devastation. It also infers that the father’s own mental instability, such that led to his suicide, has already manifested itself in the narrator as he is consumed by morbid instability.
However, as suggested by O’Gorman, perhaps Maud is rather a declaration of Tennyson’s own stability. That is, in the context of ‘In memoriam’ which was ‘a meditation on types of posthumous return’ or the Victorian ‘ghostology’ (2) Maud is perhaps a response to this and an ‘expressive of the poets desires to place his feet more firmly on the ground’. Maud could be a maturation or rebuke for ‘an earlier inclination to yield to the chimerae produced by grief’. Though Tennyson’s morbid fascination with the dead or posthumous has not ended, that which is dead remains dead, unlike the surrealist haunting found in ‘In Memoriam’ ‘wild and wandering cries’. Whereas ‘In Memoriam’s’ elegiac form does have resonances in ‘Maud’ the latter is not overshadowed or haunted by ghosts as ‘Memoriam’ had been criticized for.
On the subject of ghostliness, the narrators mental instability also extends to his sexual desires. The scene’s sexual dynamic is explored though Maud’s presence as a ‘glorious ghost’, emphasized by Tennyson’s alliteration. Despite Maud’s ‘living deadness’ she is still the object of his sexual desire which animates a ‘sudden desire’ within him, adding a ‘frisson of necrophilia to the scene’s sexual dynamic.’ (3)
Maud’s ghostlike presence leads to an exploration of the instability of her very existence. Throughout the poem, Maud’s very existence is made ambiguous by Tennyson. ‘She is but dead’ This could suggest one of two things. Firstly that Maud is literally dead, alternatively a metaphorical dead to the narrator following the killing of her brother. Such ambiguity is explored by Tennyson again. ‘She comes from another stiller world of the dead.’ Which could imply that Maud is dead and he feel he is being haunted but this could also be hallucinatory grief. (4) Once again, Maud’s very existence is incredibly unstable as she exists only in a sort of literary limbo. Not empirically alive or dead yet present even to the poem’s closing lines. Surely this is the ultimate form of personal instability, what was once mental instability has penetrated the rest of her (not) existence.
It is not only Maud who is associated with the dead. The narrator’s mental instability seems to be accelerated as he fascinates and fetishizes the prospect of being buried alive. ‘Why have they not buried me deep enough’ as he even ruminates on what he can hear and how deep he has been buried. This strong pervading sense of nihilism stems from ‘deconstruction of the narratives by which Western culture has sought to order human life’ and exposes extremes instability in a clash between the narrators already unstable mind and the pressures and conventions of society and culture. (5)
Another type of instability is that between the narrator and Maud themselves. Even the narrator’s opinion is extremely unstable, that is, vulnerable to change. He originally felt ‘you are all unmeet for a wife’ the pronoun ‘you’ adds an extremely accusatory and angry tone to his stream of consciousness. It is not long until he can no longer resist her beauty and attraction ‘dream of her beauty with tender dread.’ However, despite the overarching sense of passion Tennyson is quick to remind us of instability. Firstly with the oxymoron ‘tender dread’ and secondly with the antithesis of ‘dread’ and ‘beauty’. Perhaps he is still referring to the narrator’s efforts to resist Maud or perhaps he is touching on something darker. The instability of their love or their ability to love, a struggle or imbalance between love and underlying morbidity and mental health issues.
Another form of instability expressed in Tennyson’s Maud is instability in the public sphere, especially relating to the Crimean war. Maud is overheard singing ‘a martial song like a trumpet’s call’ with the use of a simile which brings to mind instant connotations of war and battle. The most recent of which would be the Crimean war, a war which ‘was notoriously marked more by dissonance than by harmony’. A war which Tennyson critiqued largely in his poem The Charge of the Light Brigade, which follows six hundred men who unwittingly charge into the ‘valley of death’. Markovits argues that Tennyson’s unspecified war song in Maud could be filled with The Charge of the Light Brigade, a poem published while he was working on Maud as it recognizes ‘the presence of a set overlapping concerns: a common confusion as to the relationship between public and private selves, fascination with suicide and the expression of the hermeneutics of uncertainty.’(6) It is therefore not unreasonable to assume that these two poems, written at the same time, are linked in their dissonance of the Crimean war failures. If so, the instability of the public sphere of the ‘they’ in Battle of the Light Brigade has seeped into the instability of the ‘I’ in Maud as it did historically (people’s outrage ending in the toppling of the Aberdeen ministry).
Instability is also explored across gender and class issues which work at the forefront of Maud’s narrative. These instabilities foreground political, public and private, issues of class and gender tension. There is an instability in the ‘conflict between different models of masculinity shown. That is to say, the form of masculinity the narrator chooses to adapt, is also subject to change and therefore unstable. ‘And ah for a man to arise in me / that the man I am may cease to be’ the pronoun ‘a’ which distances himself from the type of man which he seems to wish to be, furthers this instability by creating literary distance between the gender ideal he is and one he is trying to become. This in turn, highlights the sense of instability, greatening it. Moreover, Maud is presented as a character who should not exist amidst the instability of Victorian gender politics – it is the class or economic power in combination with patriarchal views which will ‘annihilate her’. As she is seduced into marrying the ‘new made lord’. Marion Shaw probingly observes ‘She must die to save herself from death.’ (7) Maud’s own gender, that is to say her own inherent femininity is unstable as it is entirely denied. This is avoided of course through her ‘death’ not as a means to threaten the stability of her existence but that of her gender and the roles and conventions demanded by it.
In conclusion, instability is explored across a range of social issues, both public and private – the most unstable clash of all being that of the public and private spheres of life. Maud is a highly political poem that ventures beyond the instabilities of its two main characters into the ream of political dissonance, a world highly unstable during the highly unpopular Crimean war of Tennyson’s era. It’s themes of instability are further expressed when observed in comparison to ‘In Memoriam’ and ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ which reflect on unstable issues such as the Crimean war but also of the instability or stability of Tennyson’s own personal life.
1) Rader, R. (1978). Tennyson’s Maud. Berkeley: University of California Press.
2) O’Gorman F. (2010). What is haunting Tennyson’s Maud, Victorian Poetry 58.3
3) O’Gorman F. (2010). What is haunting Tennyson’s Maud, Victorian Poetry 58.3
4) Markovits S (2009) Giving voice to the Crimean war, Victorian Poetry 47.3
5) Stott, R. (1996). Tennyson. Routledge
6) Markovits S (2009) Giving voice to the Crimean war, Victorian Poetry 47.3
7) Marotti, A. (1993). Reading with a difference. Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press
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