The Major Works

Seamus Perry writes:

For Tennyson’s lyrics are repeatedly, charismatically preoccupied by the idea of lives on hold, each moment of them informed by an unfocused sense of utter dismay: ‘I am void,’ as one of his early speakers says, ‘Dark, formless, utterly destroyed’. Few of the great poems of the 1830s and 1840s – ‘Mariana’, ‘The Kraken’, ‘The Lady of Shalott’, ‘The Lotos-Eaters’, ‘Œnone’, ‘St Simeon Stylites’, ‘Break, break, break’ – show much ‘respect for reality’: these are all poems, as Adam Roberts says in the introduction to his generous paperback, about ‘withdrawal from the world’. They tend to turn obsessively in on themselves, repeatedly imagining scenarios of isolation and abandonment and evoking strange conditions of paralysed self-imprisonment. He must be the greatest English writer on what it is like to be stuck in a rut, Beckett – his only serious rival – being that rather different creature, an Irish writer.

(LRB 20 January 2011)