Tennyson: Echo and Harmony, Music and Thought


in Oxford Handbook to Victorian Poetry, ed. M. Bevis. 2013




Tennyson knew little about music but his musicality came out when the greatest violinist of the age gave a private performance. Joseph Joachim played and Tennyson said he liked ‘the poetry of the bowing.’[i] It is very unusual for a non-player to realize that it is the bow-arm, not the left hand with its showy vibrato and swoops up the fingerboard, which determines the sound. Like breathing for a singer, bowing creates tone, colour, phrasing, pause, tension and release, and above all connective energy. Tennyson spotted what Joachim’s art depended on and called it ‘poetry’ because his depended on it too.

We often describe sonic imagination in terms of ear, which stresses responsiveness to sound. But how poets puts words together is also conditioned by their experience of vocalizing, their physical use of their voice. Tennyson’s mastery of sound drew on his early and continued practice of saying poems aloud.[ii] The resonance of his voice stirred him (‘The first poetry that moved me was my own at five years old’) and made him famous in his family, who thought he would be an actor, then among undergraduates (he read Keats, Milton and Wordsworth as well as his own poems to Cambridge friends), then throughout society: as in Beerbohm’s cartoon of him reading to the Queen. After reading Maud to one listener he said that though many men may have written as well as that, no one had ever written anything that sounded so well. [iii]

What ‘voice’ comes down to in a poem or song is vowels.  Edward Fitzgerald described Tennyson’s as “very deep, and deep-chested, … murmuring  like the sound of a far Sea or of a Pine-wood.’ You can’t sing consonants (except L and R) or murmur them like pine-woods. They do what their name implies, ‘sound with.’ What powers speech is breathing and  consonants are sounds in which breath is stopped. They define a word, but what moves it forward are vowels.

As ‘foot’ reminds us, poetry too is movement. In Hebrew word for ‘movement’ (tenu’ah, an anapoest with accent on the last syllable whose shape enacts its own movement) even means ‘vowel.’  Vowels are more personal than consonants. They come from within us, made by our breath. In Semitic languages, readers contribute vowels as they read, speaking their own sound aloud. [iv] In English, I is a vowel.

Vowels can also change as you say them,[v] and are more individual than consonants: they express accent (maybe Tennyson was particularly sensitive to vowels because of his Lincolnshire accent) and populations change how they pronounce them.[vi]

Vowels are emotive (ferocity about rhyming in English, from the sixteenth century onwards, has been driven by the subjectivity of vowels, by a feeling that what matters for poetry in an uninflected language) is the exact relating of vowels) and drive emotion as well as motion. Consonants colour a poem emotionally, but just as the sound of a violin is driven by the bow, so the emotion of most poems is driven by vowels.

‘Tennyson knew his magician’s business,’ said Aldous Huxley and part of that business was the way he used timed vowels. In The Lotos-Eaters, for instance, a poem about a journey slowing and stopping, one sonic image or that slowing is the way the short A of ‘land’ becomes slowed and lengthened.  The poem begins with effort. ‘Land’ is in the strong position at the end. This is the goal. ‘“Courage”, he said, and pointed towards the land.’ ‘Land,’ the goal word, sounds energetic here, but then becomes increasingly wound around with seeming and dreaming. This land is where time ‘seemèd always afternoon.’ It is a ‘land of streams’ (which evokes the echoes ‘seems,’ and ‘dreams’). By its third appearance, ‘land’ has ‘inner’ in front of it. Then a ‘dale’ (a long A) appears, ‘far inland’. The language is drawing readers ‘in’ just as the land draws ‘in’ the mariners. It is ‘a land where all things always seem’d the same’ - as, increasingly, do many of the rhymes, especially long ones likes ‘streams’ and ‘gleams.’

Then ‘land,’ when they taste lotos, turns into ‘island’ and by the fourth stanza they are sitting on a beach dreaming of ‘Fatherland’ and have lost all connection to energy and effort. The rhythms, as an early commentator remarked, take ‘the formative impulse of the feeling,’[vii] and the first line’s energy has vanished. ‘Our island home’, they sing, ‘Is far beyond the wave’.  It no longer matters if this means Ithaca or this new island;[viii] ‘here’ is an I-land, where a self-administered narcotic embodied in song has displaced painful feelings ‘far far away’. Only the ‘wave’ is mourning, and only on ‘alien shores’.

This is where they begin the ‘Choric Song.’ The stanzas (which Tennyson expanded when he rewrote them poem) are numbered as if they were separate poems in a sequence. Like astrophic lyric monodies in Greek tragedy, each is a separate different string of lyric patterns. The first begins like the preceding Spenserian stanzas but then loosens, freeing itself, intensifying the languor, repeating end-rhymes as if is too much trouble to think of new sounds.

The first four lines start out abab:


There is sweet music here that softer falls

Than petals from blown roses on the grass

Or night-dews on still waters between walls

Of shadowy granite in a gleaming pass.


The long E of ‘sweet’ is echoed in ‘between’, ‘gleaming’ (with its shadow-implication, ‘dreaming’) and ‘sleep’. The U in repeated ‘music’ is echoed in ‘dews’, the O of ‘blown’ and ‘roses’ in ‘shadowy’, the OR of ‘falls’ and ‘walls’ in ‘or’. Instead of following bcbcc, as in the introductory section, the singers enter new, but also more repetitive territory, slowing up as lotos takes hold. The new lines have only one rhyme, ccc, two four-beat lines (‘Music that gentlier on the spirit lies/ Than tired eyelids on tired eyes’), followed by a six-beat line whose heart is five long slow monosyllables. ‘Music that brings sweet sleep down from the blissful skies.’

The long I of ‘lies’, repeated in ‘tired,’ ‘tired’ and ‘eyelids’ (I am tired, as well as eyes) and then in two more end-rhymes, echoes the I they added to ‘land’ to make ‘island’. Maybe the repetitions and self-referential harmonies sum up the ‘strange charm’ Tennyson associated with ‘far far away’. After three lines ending with the same rhyme, we have four ending with another, dddd:


Here are cool mosses deep,

And through the moss the ivies creep,

And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep,

And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep.


Short vowels are interwoven with related long ones, the short O of ‘mosses’ and ‘moss’ close to the OO of ‘cool’ and ‘through’; short I of ‘in’ following the long then short I of ‘ivies’. The first vowel, the EE of the diphthong in ‘here’, is echoed in ‘stream’ and ‘leaves.’ The related short E is held back until ‘ledge’ in the fourth line, but long EE is the end of all four lines as if this is the only possible rhyme now and we may never get out of it.

The first line of this is three beats, the second four, the third five and the last six. With a beat added to each line and all ending with the same rhyme,[ix] the rhythm as well as the vowels provides an acoustic image for what the song is about: the lotos’s hold on the speakers.

The lengthening embodies their increasingly drugged inaction; so do the rhymes. The slight journey from ‘deep’ through ‘creep’ to ‘sleep’[x] reminds the listener that these speakers, who have journeyed so far, so painfully, are no longer aware of any reason to ‘weep’. That wave is mourning on alien shores and on this shore long-leaved flowers are doing their grieving for them.

This is the mariners’ voice, but also a young poet mastering the art of impersonation. Just as Dickens’s characterization was catalyzed by his experience of acting, so Tennyson’s persona poems spring in complicated ways from reading poems to people: from his powerful need for response.

Response is the resounding absence in three early poems enacting tension between the isolation of creativity and longing to reach outside the place of making. The first sounds heard in Mariana’s grange are made by animals outside at night, the night-fowl, cock, oxen and shrill winds. Inside the ‘dreamy’ house are noises made by things small, hidden or ghostly: creaky doors, a mouse (shrieking ‘Behind the mouldering wainscot’), a fly singing ‘in the paine,’ which after ‘shriek’d’ (rather than ‘squeaked’) suggests suppressed pain,  sparrows on the roof, a ticking clock, ‘old’ footsteps and voices.  And her echoing words - ‘dreary’, ‘weary,’ ‘said’ and ‘dead’. In  The Palace of Art, the ‘long-sounding corridors’, and ‘hollow shades’ the soul encounters ‘enclosing hearts of flame,’ are created out of Tennyson’s sense that delight in what you make can isolate. [xi]   


No nightingale delighteth to prolong

Her low preamble all alone

More than my soul to hear her echo’d song

Throb through the ribbèd stone.


There is a tug of war here between the remoteness of creativity and longing to connect, to reach across the moat. As his friend Trench told him at Cambridge, ‘Tennyson, we cannot live in Art’. The palace, grange or tower can slice you off from real relationship.  In Shalott, the ‘magic web with colours gay’ which the Lady is making represents a world she sees only in the mirror.

Set on a ‘silent isle,’ this poem seems to turn on looking; but sound plays a vital role too. She ‘has heard a whisper’ of a curse. Outside the tower there is colourful traffic bustling towards the place she never sees, for whose name her silent isle and four grey towers make a shadowed rhyme or echo: ‘many-towered Camelot.’ In Part I her song ‘echoes cheerly’ but the only people who hear are reapers, and the only words said are hers: she is ‘half sick of shadows’.  Then Lancelot flashes into her mirror - and with him, comes sound. He carries a bugle, his bridle rings ‘merrily;’ so does his ‘Tirra lira’ (echoed immediately in ‘by the river’).

After this, through ‘noises of the night’ she floats away, singing a different song: ‘A carol, mournful, holy,/Chanted loudly, chanted lowly.’ She dies ‘singing in her song,’ arrives ‘silent into Camelot’ and brings silence there too. In ‘the lighted palace’ the ‘sound of royal cheer’ dies. Lancelot’s sounds called her out of an otherwise silent world of making. She lived ‘singing;’ she dies ‘in her song’.

The soul in The Palace of Art meets similar self-deadening. Her beautiful echoes turn to shrieks:


‘No voice,’ she shrieked in that lone hall,

‘No voice breaks through the stillness of this world:

One deep, deep silence all.’


Tennyson’s ambivalence about architectural containment, the beautiful and evocative but isolating precinct, reflects not only his sense of what it is to be a poet but also his relation to form. You need the building blocks. Form is your fortification, your four grey towers. ‘I dread,’ he said, ‘the losing hold of forms’.[xii] His readings made metrical patterns clear, giving ‘noble value and emphasis to the metrical structure and pulses,’ said William Rossetti. But you also need to get out of it. He kept inventing new metrical and formal shapes;[xiii]  and was able to do so partly because form is where he started. Also, perhaps, because this early formal training was associated with companionship. The future author of In Memoriam associated poetry’s technicalities, especially metre, with older male family members.

His favourite poem when he was ten was Pope’s Iliad. He composed hundreds of lines, and improvised, in Popeian metre. ‘So could my two elder brothers, for my father was a poet and could write regular metre very skilfully’. When he was too ill to go to church aged eight, one brother gave him a slate and told him to compose poetry about flowers. By the time church was over, both sides were covered in lines in the style of James Thompson’s The Seasons. These boys and their father were not confined to metrics in one language: they had three to play with. Classical metrics were discussed at table. Aged twelve, Alfred was translating Greek and Roman poets into English heroic couplets. When he was nineteen his first published work appeared in Poems by Two Brothers, done with brother Charles and Frederick.[xiv]

But turn the crystal of poetry and beside the universal you get the particular, beside shared you get individual; along with metrics there is physical voice.

Tennyson’s passionate experience of voice was not that of his brothers and father, and continued throughout his life.

Voice, says a famous Royal Shakespeare Company coach) is the physical expression of the inner self,[xv] and Tennyson’s seems to have been the place where he felt most ease. He was more at home in the inward than the outward. He had a large shambly body, was very short-sighted and felt easier in the self of the voice than his social self.  Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sketch of him reading to Elizabeth Barrett Browning shows a torso turned to his listener, open book close to his eyes, spare hand clutching his lower leg: everything contained and tense, pouring into his voice. (‘Like an organ,’ said Barrett Browning afterwards.) The awkwardness which socially never left him vanished when he read.[xvi] There could be awkwardness around his readings - so many listeners so innocently unprepared for two or three hours of nonstop poetry, as tears streamed down his cheeks, he did not realize when it was too much or inappropriate - but not in them. Some felt the music of his reading obscured the sense. Even Mrs Tennyson, who heard more readings than most, wrote in her journal when tackling a new poem. ‘It is well to read things to oneself without the glamour of his reading, which may beguile one.’[xvii]

His need for the vocative, to read poems to, and early power of vocalization,[xviii] is background to the way he uses ‘voice,’ ‘answer,’ ‘return,’  ‘echo’ and echo’s ambivalent accompaniment, :hollow’: a word sometimes used to describe Tennyson’s own vowels. W. M. Rossetti described him ‘mouthing out his hollow oes and aes.’

Echo is sound darting from a starting-point to somewhere else; and maybe  returning. As on a violin the bow returns up after a down-stroke and down after the up, so echoes in poems comfort and delight by returning the sound. It is a  response and to get it in life you need a hollow resonator, like the body of a violin. This is what the enclosures like the Palace of Art, or castle walls in ‘The Splendour Falls,’ provide.

But echo is also the basis of rhyme, a key principle in most poems, even apparently unrhymed ones, and a common metaphor for ‘voice’ in the work of Tennyson’s poetic father-figure, Wordsworth.[xix] InThe Splendour Falls. ‘Our echoes roll from soul to soul,’’and Seamus Heaney suggests that poets become ‘classically empowered’ when they discover ‘the poetry of relation:’ like Wordsworth’s  ‘boy’ who calls to owls and hears them call back.[xx] Echo is both inside and outside, yours and not yours; an invisible Muse who may or may not exist; a source of inspiration in the to and fro of ear and voice; a relationship in which you as first voice are in charge while as listener you enjoy the response as if it comes from someone else.[xxi]

For Tennyson, ‘poetry of relation’ seems to have been bound up with the masculine. Like Wordsworth he found empowerment in his own voice very young, but he associated it not with owls but with wind. ‘Before I could read, I was in the habit on a stormy day of spreading my arms… and crying out, “I hear a voice that’s speaking in the wind,” and the words “far, far away” had always a strange charm for me.’ Hallam said Tennyson’s poetry was marked by ‘a return of the mind upon itself; ’ and a sense of voice bouncing back, or words returning from a long way off, seems part of Tennyson’s delight in repetition; his awareness of power which thrusts forward then falls back. As Excalibur returns to the lake, so ‘human things’ return ‘on themselves’ in the Golden Year, and in the last line of Tithonus Dawn ‘returns’ on her silver wheels.[xxii]

Long after, Tennyson returned in a notebook to the distancing repetition in that phrase ‘far far away:’


Far - far away.

That weird soul-phrase of something half-divine

In earliest youth, in latest age is mine.[xxiii]


In The Lotos-Eaters (1832), it speaks to the distancing of pain. After a sailor has tasted lotos,


To him the gushing of the wave

Far far away did seem to mourn and rave

On alien shores.


Five decades later, Tennyson echoed that last half-line when writing about the death of his son Lionel on, precisely, an alien shore. For it he brought back the In Memoriam stanza with the abba rhythm of grief which wants to go on but also back. He had used it for seventeen years, writing about his beloved friend. Now he brought it back for his son, whose burial had happened ‘under a hard Arabian moon/ And alien stars.’[xxiv]

Tension between containment and adventure, reaching out into the world like the Lady of Shalott and flinching back from it, is expressed in this abba form but also in the ebb and flow of returning vowel sounds. Merlin being seduced by Vivien half-foresees the result will be his imprisonment:


So dark a forethought rolled about his brain,

As on a dull day in an Ocean cave

The blind wave feeling round his long sea-hall

In silence.


The OR of ‘fore’ is immediately echoed in ‘thought’, the long O of ‘So’ in ‘rolled’ and ‘Ocean;’ the long O followed by double L is semi-echoed also in ‘dull’ and ‘hall’; the OW of ‘about’ is echoed in ‘round.’ ‘Feeling’ is echoed in ‘sea-hall’, the long I of ‘blind’ in ‘silence’. But the main vowel-print of the passage is the long AY of ‘brain’ (which sums up wise Merlin) echoed in ‘day’, ‘cave’ and ‘wave’. Rolling round was part of Tennyson’s way of working. At Cambridge, composing in his head, he liked ‘to roll around’ the poem aloud before writing it down (Hallam is said to have transcribed The Lotos-Eaters from behind Tennyson’s chair as he did just that)[xxv]  and here the vowels thrown up by these rollings around reappear in the summing up: ‘In silence.’

Only someone who had spent a lifetime alert to repetition could have made that patterning part of the thought. Merlin’s ‘brain’ is ‘blind’ to what Vivien is doing, rolling round in the ‘cave’ and ‘hall’ of itself, imprisoned in the very act of fore-imagining. The thought and the imprisoning both are and are not Merlin’s.

Doubleness, the sound and the thought that both is and is not yours (as with

For words, like Nature, half reveal

And half conceal the Soul within

words which ‘like Nature, For words, like Nature, half reveal

And half conceal the Soul within

For words, like Nature, half reveal

And half conceal the Soul within

half reveal/ And half conceal the Soul within’),[xxvi]  empowered Tennyson’s persona  poems too.

Persona, Latin for ‘dramatic character’ translating Greek prosōpon, ‘face,’ originally meant ‘mask:’ from per-sonare, ‘to sound through.’ As with Echo, the voice that ‘comes through’ a persona both is and is not yours. In Maud, Tennyson was now free (having married and published In Memoriam, sharing his grief with the world and life with a companion), to look freely at his old self, exorcise its misery,[xxvii]  and use the myth which confronts the whole idea of mine and not-mine. Behind Maud stand Echo, Narcissus and their mutual blurring of real or imagined, self and other, male face and unseen voice.[xxviii]

But, having used personae and their doubleness powerfully in other poems, Tennyson was taken aback by readers’ reception of his speaker. He insisted on the non-autobiographical, the not-me of his speaker, and found himself identified with him. He wondered bitterly why people could not see that the speaker was mad.[xxix]

Maud’s first words are, ‘I hate the dreadful hollow.’ This hollow is where the speaker’s father died, a ‘ghastly pit’ (image for his neurotic self-absorption) where ‘a body was found’ and where Echo, ‘Whatever is asked her, answers Death.’ It is a quarry, a source, like the father who gave him ‘life,’ of the fabric with which the civilization has been built, and against which he rants until he reaches the word ‘home’ and worries that he is echoing his father’s ‘mood’ and may echo his fate, too. ‘What? Am I raging along as my father raged in his mood?/ Must I too creep to the hollow and dash myself down and die…?’

Is he his father’s echo? Tennyson draws on his worries about inheriting from his father ‘the black blood of the Tennysons,’ for the speaker’s terror of ‘The blot upon the brain, / That will show itself without.’ The father’s image is the real entrapping hollow. Maybe he should flee, ‘from the place and the pit and the fear.’

This hollow, from which stone came, echoes like the ribbed stone in the Palace of Art. But though it is manmade, it is also on a moor, part of nature. Just as metrics were the building blocks and rules associated with father and brothers whereas voice was individual freedom (and both were essential to his craft), so nature’s echoey hollows were freer, more open-ended, pliant with plants, streams, growth and flow, than architecture, and a more fluid image for the containment of words in a poem.

Tennyson’s islands [xxx] draw on the Odyssey’s sequence of dangerously captivating islands (to which in Ulysses he added the home island Ithaca). They are alive and growing but damagingly isolating, like the ‘hollow Lotos-land.’ But in 1831, with Arthur Hallam, Tennyson found the ideal landscape of natural containment which was echoey but creative rather than cut off. The streams, lush hollows, waterfalls and winding paths in the valley of Cauteretz, hallowed by Hallam’s companionship but also reminiscent of the ‘watery vale’ and ‘glimmering lake’ of Wordsworth’s  Prelude when ‘the boy’ first discovers the power of voice, [xxxi]  became an inspiration: the beautiful valley which echoes through his work. The ‘vale of Ida’ in Oenone (which he began writing there), the drifting spray of the Lotos-Eaters island; even the ‘valley of death’ in ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ which evokes the soul landscape of green pastures and still waters in of Psalm 23. [xxxii] In ‘Come Down O Maid, what is ‘of the valley’ is love.

This was a freer image for a poem than a palace. Still intricately woven,[xxxiii] but natural, with waterfalls and streams expressing the freedom of the voice to find new forms, because words themselves, he said elsewhere, could ‘flow/ From form to form’).[xxxiv]

The valley reappeared when he re-visited it thirty-one years later, in ‘The Valley of Cauteretz’.


All along the valley, stream that flashest white,

Deepening thy voice with the deepening of the night,
All along the valley, where thy waters flow,
I walked with one I loved two and thirty years ago.
All along the valley, while I walked today,
The two and thirty years were a mist that rolls away;
For all along the valley, down thy rocky bed,
Thy living voice to me was as the voice of the dead,
And all along the valley, by rock and cave and tree,
The voice of the dead was a living voice to me.[xxxv]


The couplet form stresses images the theme of relationship. Everything is in twos:  of ‘I’ and landscape, ‘I’ and the absent ‘you’. The stream, the voice, is the fluid connection between them. The two components of the eighth line, ‘living voice to me’ and ‘voice of the dead,’ return inverted in the last line, mirroring the ‘I’ and unsaid ‘you.’  All along the valley, stream that flashest white,

Deepening thy voice with the deepening of the night,

All along the valley, where thy waters flow,

I walk'd with one I loved two and thirty years ago.

All along the valley, while I walk'd to-day,

The two and thirty years were a mist that rolls away;

For all along the valley, down thy rocky bed,

Thy living voice to me was as the voice of the dead,

And all along the valley, by rock and cave and tree,

The voice of the dead was a living voice to me.

All along the valley, stream that flashest white,

Deepening thy voice with the deepening of the night,

All along the valley, where thy waters flow,

I walk'd with one I loved two and thirty years ago.

All along the valley, while I walk'd to-day,

The two and thirty years were a mist that rolls away;

For all along the valley, down thy rocky bed,

Thy living voice to me was as the voice of the dead,

And all along the valley, by rock and cave and tree,

The voice of the dead was a living voice to me.

All along the valley, stream that flashest white,

Deepening thy voice with the deepening of the night,

All along the valley, where thy waters flow,

I walk'd with one I loved two and thirty years ago.

All along the valley, while I walk'd to-day,

The two and thirty years were a mist that rolls away;

For all along the valley, down thy rocky bed,

Thy living voice to me was as the voice of the dead,

And all along the valley, by rock and cave and tree,

The voice of the dead was a living voice to me.

along the valley, stream that flashest white,

Deepening thy voice with the deepening of the night,

All along the valley, where thy waters flow,

I walk'd with one I loved two and thirty years ago.

All along the valley, while I walk'd to-day,

The two and thirty years were a mist that rolls away;

For all along the valley, down thy rocky bed,

Thy living voice to me was as the voice of the dead,

And all along the valley, by rock and cave and tree,

The voice of the dead was a living voice to me.

along the valley, stream that flashest white,

Deepening thy voice with the deepening of the night,

All along the valley, where thy waters flow,

I walk'd with one I loved two and thirty years ago.

All along the valley, while I walk'd to-day,

The two and thirty years were a mist that rolls away;

For all along the valley, down thy rocky bed,

Thy living voice to me was as the voice of the dead,

And all along the valley, by rock and cave and tree,

The voice of the dead was a living voice to me.

The vowels of ‘I’ and ‘me’ (‘white’, ‘night’, ‘thy’, ‘I’, ‘I’, ‘thy’, ‘thy’; ‘stream’, ‘deepening’, ‘deepening’, ‘me’, ‘tree’, ‘me’), counterpoint the unheard ‘you’ evoked by the repeated ‘two’ of ‘two and thirty.’ ‘Two’ was a lie; it was actually thirty-one years since he was there with Hallam. But twoness is what the poem is about; ‘one’ would have lost that, and also the unconscious echo of the unsaid ‘you’. [xxxvi]

The European journey with Hallam gave him a landscape-image for creative containment, just as Hallam’s death (colouring his life with a desolation whose inwardness he knew in himself from the start) ultimately led to the creative valley of death which was In Memoriam. [xxxvii]

Tennyson could be suspicious of his own rush into creativity when Hallam died. Writing poetry was a ‘sad mechanic exercise’ for ‘the unquiet heart and brain.[xxxviii] But it came from his early impulse, in a childhood he did not want to acknowledge had been unhappy, to transmute the pain of his father’s angry destructiveness into creatively consoling words - which, unlike personalities in the family, sounded good together.[xxxix]

From the start he found comfort in three things a poet needs: skill in ‘measured language,’ delight in his own voice, and a sense that recovering from loss entails making words sound good together. ‘He is a deep-mouthed hound,’ said a friend after hearing him read, ‘and the sound of it is very grand; but I rather need to know by heart what he is reading for otherwise I find sense to be lost, from time to time, in sounds.’ Being ‘lost in sounds’ but not entirely because the sounds harmonize inside their boundary, is a hallmark of Tennyson’s work.  The safety of pattern, form and ‘measured language’ was the best of his father (who ‘could write regular metre very skilfully’) but what was his own was his musicality; and his way with vowels. One friend remembered quoting one of Tennyson’s lines and Tennyson saying, ‘You don’t say it properly.’ Tennyson repeated it, ‘lingering with solomn sweetness on every vowel sound.’ [xl] His innate musicality made him unusually alert, perhaps, to the musical power of a vowel. Partly through that reading aloud, he learned how  to turn the soft breath and inwardness of words into a family romance of sonic relationships: to harmony.

In music, harmony is a combination of simultaneously heard notes which sounds stable and satisfying. But a single note carries harmonic properties itself and its overtones build up in sequence after it first sounds. If you play low C on the piano, other notes emerge and blend with it, so the full note actually contains them. The overtones grow fainter as they get higher, because the vibrating string (or in wind instruments a column of air in a pipe) vibrates not only through its length but also simultaneously, in fractions of its length. First half, then third, quarter, fifth: and so on, smaller and smaller. The full-length vibration sounds the fundamental note, the fractional vibrations give overtones, or ‘harmonics’.

The role of these overtones governed the way Western composers created chords. The ancient Greeks gave us the word harmonia but as far as we know only sang in octaves. The chords we know, which Western composers and listeners gradually came to feel were satisfying and meaningful, took time to build. After the octave, the fifth appeared (around the 9th century), then the fourth and thirds, major and minor. Then the intervals decreased, Debussy makes chords with the second, then come semi-tones. The way the West widened its concept of consonance exactly parallelled the sequence of overtones heard when a single note is played: the history of harmony follows the physics of a vibrating string.[xli]

Tennyson treats vowels as notes, alert to their harmonics. His listeners noticed him letting them resonate by taking full time to say them. You absorb the full sound of one of his lines only if you pause in the middle and the end to hear the vowels’ harmonic resonances and cumulative effect, as in a musical chord. [xlii]

In music, when notes are played in sequence, the interval between them becomes an emotive force. In western solfege, the rising and falling intervals, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh, all acquired their own emotional colouring.  I suspect that Tennyson intuited a similar colouring, which felt satisfying and stable to his contemporaries, in the sequential relations of different vowels, long O followed by long E, for instance; and that he  used this to create a poem’s emotional timbre.

In the first line of ‘Tears, Idle Tears.’ For instance, he maps the whole poem’s emotional ground through the relation of repeated vowels; which he later replays.


Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean.
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.

Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,
That brings our friends up from the underworld,
Sad as the last which reddens over one
That sinks with all we love below the verge;
So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.

Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds
To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.

Dear as remembered kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned
On lips that are for others; deep as love,
Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more.


The first half of the first line intertwines repeated EAR with repeated long I. That is the first relationship - or in music’s terms, first interval. The long O of ‘knows’ (which will be repeated in ‘no more’ in the last line of this and every stanza) and AY (which becomes an important sound but appears first in the unstressed, seemingly unimportant ‘they’) wrap round the repeated short vowel of ‘not what’. EE (the first element in the EAR diphthong) is repeated in ‘fields’, the long I of ‘idle’ and ‘I’ echoes in ‘divine,’ ‘rise’ and ‘eyes.’

The second line repeats EAR again, echoes it in its end-word ‘despair,’ repeats the subsidiary short O of ‘not what’ in ‘from’ (and its own half-echo ‘some’) and ‘of,’ and wraps the long vowels round a key new short vowel in ‘depth.’ This will echo through the poem in stress positions: in the second verse, in ‘fresh… fresh’ centred round ‘friends’; in the last, in ‘death… death’ centred round ‘regret’.

Establishing long EE in stress-position at the end of the first line (echoed in ‘fields’ in the same position) the first verse sets up a chord-like sequence of vowels related to long E and A - EE, I, AIR and AR, These are gathered together in the last line – which finally produces (after four lines evoking unconscious or sensory feeling, with heart and eyes, looking and not knowing) an object of conscious thought: ‘days’. Its AY (echoing the surprise word ‘sail’) will emerge in the third verse (‘in strange’) as the vowel which replaces the word prepared for by ‘depth:’ the second verse’s ‘fresh’ (which itself prepares for ‘death’). It will be repeated in ‘awakened’ and ‘feigned’. This third verse reworks the first stanza’s sequential chord of AH, OR, EAR, long I, AIR and AY in a different order: ‘Ah’, ‘dark’, ‘dawns’, ‘pipe’, ‘dying’, ‘dying’, ‘eyes’, ‘square’.
This just scratches the surface of the poem’s sonorities. But all the chords, both these more obvious ones and littler more hidden ones, add up to a key point made by Ricks: that this poem, which evokes loss and absence, gives a powerful impression of rhyming while being in fact unrhymed; and that the absence of rhyme incarnates an emotional, human absence.[xliii] Like Mariana’s grange, the poem is full of noises from an absent or unseen presence. As echo is the semblance of relationship, so the harmonies here are the ghost of rhyme.  The physical interaction of sounds and silence are also the intellectual and emotional point of the poem. Tennyson’s music was always inseparable,it seems, from his intellect as well as his imagination. Metrics, harmony and voice, his music both embodies and is the thought. [xliv]









[i]  R.B. Martin, Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart, New York: Oxford University Press 1980, p. 522.


[ii] See A. Leighton, ‘Tennyson, By Ear’ p 337, Francis Berry, Poetry and the Physical Voice, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962 pp. 36, 47-65.


[iii] C. Ricks, Tennyson (London: Macmillan Press 1972) p. 13; Martin, Unquiet Heart p. 556.


[iv] Semitic scripts like Phoenician, Arabic and Hebrew are consonantal alphabets. At first in Hebrew, vowels weren’t marked at all: readers supplied the relevant vowel. Later, Hebrew and Arabic developed vowel marks near the consonant to indicate a spoken vowel. But practiced readers do not use them.


[v] Some vowel sounds, monophthongs like the I in ‘dim’, are pure and stable and don’t change while you say them.  Diphthongs mutate to another sound, like the AR in ‘tears’; or to more than one like the triphthong in flower: FLA- OO -ER.


[vi] Vowels shifted forwards and up in the mouth in the great vowel shift of English, in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, which separates Middle from Modern English.


[vii] George Brimley, ‘Alfred Tennyson’s Poems’, Cambridge Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1855) p. 237.


[viii]  A. Leighton On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism and the Legacy of a Word (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 72.


[ix] C. Ricks, Tennyson, A Selected Edition (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University

of California Press 1989) p. 73 suggests that Tennyson is echoing both rhyme and theme from the last four lines of Marvell’s Thyrsis and Dorinda: ‘Then let us give Carillo charge o’ the Sheep. / And thou and I’le pick poppies and them steep/ In wine, and drink on’t even till we weep,/ So shall we smoothly pass away in sleep.’


[x] He had used these in a sea context in the previous collection: in ‘The Kraken’ he moves from ‘deep’ to ‘sleep’, then from ‘sleep’ to ‘deep’, until the Kraken roars, wakes and dies.


[xi]  See Leighton, Form pp. 57, 59.


[xii] Cit. J. C. C Mays, ‘In Memoriam: An Aspect of Form’, University of Toronto Quarterly, 35 (1965) pp. 22-24; Leighton, Form p. 62.


[xiii]  Martin, Unquiet Heart p 394. T S Eliot, in ‘In Memoriam’ (Essays Ancient and Modern, London: Faber & Faber 1936) pp. 175-90, describes how Tennyson extended the variety of metrical forms.


[xiv] Ricks, Tennyson p. 20.


[xv] F. Berry, Poetry and the Physical Voice (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962 ) p. 7.


[xvi]  Martin, Unquiet Heart p. 199.


[xvii] Martin, Unquiet Heart, pp 574, 425.


[xviii] See Martin, Unquiet Heart, pp. 21, 35, 55, 148, 393; J.B. Stearne, Tennyson (Literature in Perspective: London: Evans Brothers Ltd, 1966) p. 32.


[xix] Tennyson was initially wary about meeting Wordsworth:  Martin, Unquiet Heart p. 126.


[xx] Wordsworth, Prelude V 1.394-305; Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue, (London: Faber & Faber, 1989) pp. 153-59, see below note xxxi.


[xxi] R. Padel, Silent Letters of the Alphabet (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books 2010), pp. 49-54.


[xxii] Ricks, Tennyson p 245.


[xxiii] Martin, Unquiet Heart p. 21, Stearne, Tennyson p 17. Towards the end of his life he wrote a short poem for music called ‘Far- Far – Away’ in which the repeated phrase mimes its own distancing effect. Leighton,  Form p. 71 compares In Memoriam II 326.9: ‘he is not here, but faraway.’


[xxiv] ‘To the Marquis of Dufferin and Ava,’ Ricks, Selected p.661.


[xxv]  Martin, Unquiet Heart p. 92.


[xxvi] In Memoriam 5; Ricks, Selected pp. 348-9.


[xxvii] Ricks, Tennyson p. 246, Stearne, Tennyson p. 101.


[xxviii] Ricks, Selected p. 517.


[xxix] Ricks, Selected p. 514.

[xxx] See Leighton, Form p. 56-7; and p 62, where she points out that Tennyson’s islands  influenced Yeats’s idea of islands where ‘beauty, certain forms of sensuous loveliness were separated from all the general purposes of life.’ Enoch Arden’s island is described in a 28-line sentence which has no voice but the poem’s voice and seems, as Ricks comments (Tennyson p. 280) a prison sentence.


[xxxi] Beneath the trees, or by the glimmering Lake…
Blew mimic hootings to the silent owls
That they might answer him.--And they would shout
Across the watery Vale, and shout again,
Responsive to his call… The Prelude, V, 364-97


[xxxii] See Martin, Unquiet Heart p. 119-120. Cf Auden’s image in his Elegy for W.B. Yeats, of poetry surviving ‘in the valley of its making. ’


[xxxiii]  As image for a poem, wovenness and tapestry (like the Lady of Shalott’s magic web) is halfway between built stone and inter-wreathing nature. In The Devil and the Lady, a Jonsonian verse play he wrote at fourteen, a necromancer describes the ‘dark reverse’ to ‘Life’s fair tapestry’:


The intertwinings and rough wanderings

Of random threads and wayward colourings –

A melée and confusion of all hues,

Disorder of a system which seemed Order.


[xxxiv] In Memoriam II 443.5.


[xxxv] ‘In the Valley of Cauteretz’, Ricks, Selected p.590.


[xxxvi] In 1892, re-printing the poem, ‘vexed’ that he had written ‘two,’ because he ‘hated inaccuracy,’ he wanted to change this to ‘one’ but was persuaded not to: Ricks, Selected p. 591.


[xxxvii] Cit. Ricks, Selected p 591.


[xxxviii] In Memoriam 5, Ricks Selected p, 349.


[xxxix] Ricks, Tennyson pp. 8, 14-16. Martin, Unquiet Heart p. 184.


[xl] See Macdonald, P. ‘Tennyson’s Dying Fall’ pp.17, 23.


[xli] Paul Steinitz and Stella Sterman. Harmony In Context: a New Approach to Understanding Harmony Without Conventional Exercises2 (London, Belwin-Mills, 1976), pp. 1-3.


[xlii] See Berry, Physical Voice, pp. 50 and 58; Macdonald, ‘Tennyson’s Dying Fall’ pp.17, 23.


[xliii] Ricks, Tennyson p. 199. ‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal’also  feels rhymed but is not: the only rhyme (repeated five times) is ‘me,’ from a speaker who urges incorporation with the beloved.


[xliv]Leighton, Form, pp. 25, 170.