In his introduction, Hood notes the ambiguity with which Tennyson addressed the reading and writing of poetry. He quotes: ‘Poetry is like shot-silk with many glancing colours, and every reader must find his own interpretation according to his ability and according to his sympathy with the poet.’ So too with literary criticism, hence the myriad literary critical strains galloping across the ages. Hood, however, chooses what he likes from the various cliques of thought (he does a devastating close reading), and ignores the rest. This is most refreshing. Oddly though, it makes him an old-style academic in the best sense of the word – extremely careful and attentive to detail, and (yet) interesting, with a poised, elegant voice. Writing a replete academic treatise requires a willingness to submit exciting ideas to obsessive combing-over. Of course, the danger is that the ideas are then rendered banal, or become so obstructed by theory, so buried beneath layers of jargon, as to become self-defining (which means losing all connection with a larger reality). And there are other, more sinister dangers. By far the most pernicious of contemporary trends in the humanities is the tendency to wallow, swine-like, in the most utterly mundane interpretations of ‘texts’ imaginable, backed up by equally mundane theory to the extent of: ‘language in all its forms is untranslatable’ so the only thing we can say definitively about this text is that it is impenetrable.’ Divining Desire, meanwhile, is elegantly crafted, and careful without being pedagogic; and Hood stays well clear of jargon and banality.
Essentially, Hood suggests that Tennyson’s verse enacts an eroticised yearning for transcendence. In other words, it poeticises the desire to transcend the everyday (the confines of the daily world of things) by dramatising romantic/erotic situations. Thus, the Elaines and Camillas of the poetry are the means by which the transcendence can occur, and so are of infinite value not only to the male protagonists (although perhaps Elaine was not the best example in this case), but to Tenneyson, the poet, as well. Hood argues that ‘Tennyson’s poems, his characters, and his speakers employ erotic devotion and artistic creation as the means by which to approximate the transcendence that constitute their ultimate goal.’ Hood then goes on to argue that Tennyson is in a sense a self-created poetic character, whose yearning for transcendence guides that of his other creations, and so the poems are shown to possess an ars poetical resonance. Hood writes: ‘Tennyson’s poems observe artistic creation as a second means by which human beings approximate divined desire’, and like the Lady of Shalott, Tennyson is himself ‘an artist who accomplishes through artifice the fulfilment of his desire, albeit imaginatively and momentarily.’
This linking of the poet’s metaphysical longing with the production of the poetry is a notion which, like poeticised transcendental reverie itself, anticipates Eliotic Modernism (despite its supposed antagonism to Romantic modes of thought). For example, in his various essays on Dante, T.S. Eliot suggests that the power of Dantaean allegory is rooted in its role as a structural scaffold which can prevent and contain the poet’s own potentially excessive emotion. Interestingly, Hood calls Eliot’s The Waste Land a structural successor of Tennyson’s Maud. To return to theme: if we recognise the essentially ars poetical nature of the verse, Tennyson’s imagery takes on a new significance. Beams of light penetrate the poetry when transcendence is immanent, and signal the presence of the divine, both for the characters, and for the poet himself. Clearly, these are somewhat phallic beans of light, and this suggests that the divine presence is masculine, and sexual, and, finally, in some way linked to Tennyson’s own identity as poet-creator.
This is a book which pushes the boundaries of interpretation back. Our ability to think both imaginatively and logically about Tennyson’s poetry, and indeed about the cross-over from Romanticism to Modernism is extended. Divining Desire is like a link in a chain. Not, perhaps, linear, but a webbed chain which, like Dante’s scaffold, supports interpretation.
Reviewed by Amanda Jeremin Harris