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The IUP Journal of English Studies :
Tennyson’s Early Lady Poems: Maintaining Male Dominance with Female Masks?
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Tennyson’s lady poems, composed during the period 1827-1842, are intriguing even today. They reflect his subtle engagement with homely virtues and feminine traits. Tennyson was fully aware of the changing roles of women, but he did not challenge the Victorian codes, and perhaps this is why he infused the “sphere ideology.” This paper interprets Tennysonian heroines in the context of the Victorian Age and explores the poet’s recognition of what a masculine perspective might offer to an understanding of women’s nature, role, and influence. The paper also shows how these unhappy solitary female figures stand for the poet’s own grief, and his hiding behind female masks may, in fact, be a way to take recourse to a self-created social order.

 
 
 

The mute and stifled female voice had been denied freedom of self-expression for ages due to the long period of cultural and environmental conditioning. However, the Victorian Age (1837-1901) saw the rise of a more organized women’s movement with the appearance of a number of women’s groups in Britain. During 1858-1859, under the leadership of Barbara Leigh Smith and Bessie Rayner Parkes, the circle of feminists, also known as “the ladies of Langham Place,” developed campaigning committees, the first feminist periodical English Women’s Journal, and a library reading room for women in London’s west end. On the educational front, in the late 1840s, two women’s colleges were opened in London—Queen’s College and Bedford College. The agitation which sprung during the era was a continuous one for women’s rights on social, economic, and cultural grounds. It challenged the supremacy of the lordly male and debated the inadequacies of male-centered ideologies. It was an age when “feminism became an organized force with specific social and political aims” (Shaw 1988, 7).

On the contrary, Queen Victoria’s long reign stood for moral virtues as well. As a devoted wife and mother of a large family, the Queen set a standard of homely virtues. Thus the age also witnessed the explicit emergence of the public and domestic spaces and gender stereotypes. Gender representations that inherited the social construction of femininity and masculinity were as much a part of the delineation of the two as the biological difference, while on the other hand women’s demands for participation in public life challenged the sphere ideology. These larger social changes colored the poetic world of Tennyson. With diametrically opposite forces working in the society, the young poet chose to be the Queen’s bard. He knew that Shelley’s idea of free love will not find favor with the Victorians and that the fallen women had no place in the Victorian code of morality. Therefore, the poet presents his women in traditional framework. The typical Tennyson heroine is a meek and yielding creature, easily submissive, and takes pride in her suffering.

 
 

Journal of English Studies ,Tennyson’s Early Lady Poems , Aware of the changing roles of women,Victorian codes,An Understanding of women’s nature.