A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
When we were planning this week, Bookfox Kate suggested this poem to me and I thought it was a great idea. I’ve read lots of Tennyson’s works, but to my knowledge, never this one. I knew he was fond of writing long pieces, yet it was still a surprise to clock it in at 68 pages on my printer. That’s not a poem, I thought, that’s a novella! Which is fitting, because it’s a story within a story, in verse.
On a summer’s day, a village fete is held on the grounds of a grand ancestral house and a small group of young people go off to a corner of a ruined abbey on the property, where they begin telling stories. The narrator is transformed into a prince who goes in search of a Princess(Ida) whom he was betrothed to as a baby. He is accompanied by 2 friends, Cyril and Florian. They find the Princess ruling over a utopian city of only women centered around a university where women can can fulfill their most intellectual ambitions without men to deter them. The prince and his friends disguise themselves as women to gain entry. But are soon found out after Cyril sings a bawdy tavern song at a picnic. There is a confusing series of incidents, a threat of war to force the Princess to honor her marriage contract and a joust in which all three men are injured. The Princess and her women nurse the men back to health and in doing so, fall in love. Most notably, the Princess agrees to marry the prince and together they will fight for womens’ rights. The poem ends fading back into the abbey as the fete ends in the evening.
What I was most surprised by is the very modern themes of feminism in a poem from the mid-1800’s. Though the debate about women attending university, which was very real in Tennyson’s lifetime, now seems silly and remote, other issues are still relevant. In the poem, one advisor to the prince suggests that childbirth would knock those uppity ideas out of the princess’s head. The author himself seems somewhat enlightened, but considering that the princess chooses the traditional role in the end, is he saying that’s what’s best for women after all? Or is he merely making the point about the power of love? As one of the listening young people says at the conclusion of the tale, “I wish she had not yielded!” And it’s intriguing to contemplate the future of the Princess had she returned to ruling her kingdom of learned women. Had Tennyson chosen to follow that path, the ensuing scandal might have been more satisfying than the polite rebuff the poem actually received.
In fact, it was this dismissal which led to Tennyson adding some of the songs sprinkled throughout, thinking they would soften what was perceived as a harshness in the poem. Over time, these songs have been chopped out of the long piece and presented as unattached poems in hundreds of anthologies and possibly led to the name of an artificial sweetener. When I came across the segment beginning, “Blow, bugle blow, set the wild echoes flying…” I knew I had read some of these sections before, never realizing they were part of a longer work.
The poet uses some splendid imagery to describe the palaces the women live in and to convey their moods. Wearing robes of many hues, their companions are tame leopards and peacocks. This adds to the vision of the women’s city as an exotic and mysterious place. As I imagined these scenes, I wondered if there had ever been an illustrated version of the poem, picturing a possible artistic translation by someone like Arthur Rackham. Surely there must be?
The reflections on my first reading of this epic piece just skim the surface and left me knowing there is much more to find. I’m looking forward to unearthing further gems within it in future rereadings.
originally published at Christmas in 1847 in Great Britain
Painting is “Oh Swallow, Swallow”(1894) by John Melhuish Strudwick inspired by a passage in this poem where a swallow carries a love letter to the princess.