Essay: The Weak Nature of Masculinity in Maud (Alfred Tennyson)

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  • The Weak Nature of Masculinity in Maud (Alfred Tennyson)
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Alfred Tennyson’s Maud (1855) is a response to the social crisis of the early nineteenth century: a time when the binary between masculinity and femininity was called into question. With the rise of industrial capitalism in the early nineteenth century, the old distinction between upper-class landowning aristocrats and lower-class industrial laborers was complicated by the rise of middle class professionals. Thus, an ideology of separate spheres of life for men and women took hold. New Victorian bourgeois constructions of masculinity formed, which put great emphasis on mental self-discipline, and an uncontrolled feminine energy of madness was constructed as the antithesis of masculine authority. In Maud, Tennyson portrays this new ideal of masculine authority in crisis through his representation of men driven mad by the proximity of a form of dangerous female sexuality. Paradoxically, the speaker’s quest to maintain his masculine identity depends on his ability to legitimize a dangerous ideal of femininity that appears in his dreams, which takes the form of a woman named Maud. It is through the malleable nature of Maud’s character that the speaker is able to maintain the military heroism associated with the chivalric past he believes is under threat. We are also able to understand his conceptualization of femininity as weak, because in order to form it, the speaker must dissociate Maud from male relatives. The speaker’s maintenance of this heroism, which fuels his entrance into The Crimean War in the final section of the poem, is not only supplemented by, but sustained by this tailored, and somewhat twisted, construction of femininity.

In the opening stanzas, the sexual female is shown as a force that launches the male into madness. The speaker’s father falls into a “madden’d” state, which the speaker associates with the diseased forces of female sexuality by saturating the stanzas with overtly feminine imagery. The father’s body is found “mangl’d, flatten’d, crush’d” inside a “hollow” space, which could symbolize the womb. The image of the “lips in the field above…dappled with blood-red heath” holding the father’s corpse (I.1-5) uses menstrual imagery to designate the female body as metaphorically responsible for mangling the father to death. Within this landscape, both the sounds and images of diseased femininity also threaten the self-control associated with male authority. The “flying gold of the ruin’d woodlands drove thro’ the air” (I.13) collapses with the “shrill edged shrieks of a mother” that “divide the shuddering night” by the way in which they inflict violence on the male voice and body: the sounds of gold driving through the air leave the speaker’s father “madden’d, and ever wann’d with despair” (I.10), and the mother’s shriek petrifies the speaker’s body, causing his pulses to “close their gates with a shock on [his] heart” (I.15). The speaker’s fear of the threat of diseased female sexuality leads him to exit the temporal space of his current day and age by “burying himself in himself,” (I.76) to nurture his despair.

For a structure, such as masculinity, to be sustained, it is necessary to have an “other” on the opposite side—thus, by creating Maud, or an ideal of femininity, the speaker both solidifies her as the ‘other’ or a competitor, and confirms the existence of an oppositional structure or ulterior motive—in this case, the threatened masculinity he grasps so tightly. Sections II and III reveal this paradox within the speaker. Though he professes scorn at his glimpse of her, the assurance that his calm “will never be broken by Maud” (I. 78) appears defensive rather than confident. “Where is the fault?” (I. 80) he asks, followed by numerous details of what is lacking:

“…nothing more, if it had not been
For a chance of travel, a paleness, an hour’ s defect of the rose,
Or an underlip, you may call it a little too ripe, too full,
Or the little delicate aquiline curve in a sensitive nose. (I. 83-86) .

Here, he acknowledges and is annoyed by Maud’s effect on him—escaping momentarily “with the least little touch of spleen” (I. 87). But when she breaks into his sleep in a dream and her femininity appears dormant, or malleable to his wishes (and so, for the time being, non- threatening,) this now “spleenful folly” (I. 89) disappears. The “cold and clear-cut face” (I. 88) which previously had “neither savor nor salt” (I. 78) is now “star-sweet on a gloom profound” (I. 91), and his spite yields to remorse.

The way in which the speaker idolizes Maud suggests a dependent relationship to his conceptualization of her– ie, without her, something about his own identity (his masculinity) is threatened or weakened. He perceives all of nature celebrating Maud’s beauty. His exaltation of love disorders his senses so that he hears the rooks calling Maud’s name and thinks her feet bring the rosy colour to the undersides of the daisies. By placing himself in a subservient position to Maud, he compensates for his insecure masculinity, and simultaneously strips her of some humanity as he places her on a pedestal. He had imagined himself bowing down in reverence to Maud’s battle-song:

For your sweetness hardly leaves me a choice
But to move to the meadow and fall before Her feet on the meadow grass, and adore,
Not her, who is neither courtly nor kind,
Not her, not her, but a voice. (1.185-189)

Thus we see that the speaker’s conceptualization of femininity (and subsequent preservation of masculinity) also depends upon the dehumanization of Maud. The speaker’s first meeting with Maud’s brother establishes his irrational need to separate Maud from her male relatives so that he can love her. To separate a human from their relationships, especially familial ones, strips them of an inherent humanity. He mistakenly sees “the fire of a foolish pride” (IV.l17) flash over Maud’s face as she rides beside her brother on the moor. Fire images saturate this scene, reflecting this speaker’s hatred and violence. Thus, it is suffice to say the brother threatens the speaker’s masculinity. It is only in IV that the speaker’s attraction to Maud awakens, after he hears her singing her military ballad. Maud offers the speaker the eloquent “martial song” of the “heroic past” that counteracts his fears.

A passionate ballad gallant and gay,
A martial song like a trumpet’s call!
[…]
singing of men in battle array
ready in heart and ready in hand
march with banner and bugle and fife
(IV.162-167).

Maud thus becomes the voice of military heroism in the speaker’s head, instead of that of shrieking women. Her songs of productive masculine activity, men marching to battle with “bugle and fife” counteract the rhetoric of male madness from the crisis of the hollow earlier in the poem. The speaker’s masculinity, threatened by Maud’s brother, is temporarily restored through his fantasy of Maud’s encouragement of his becoming a soldier and dying a heroic death for love.

The speaker recognizes that Maud (or his fantasy of her) is the only one who can save him from destruction, or the loss of his masculinity. Though his masculinity depends on the existence of this femininity of his own creation, he remains incapable of sharing a complete love with her, because he dwells on his own needs—his inherited madness and fears:

So dark a mind within me dwells,
And I make myself such evil cheer,
That if I be dear to some one else,
Then some one else may have much to fear;
But if I be dear to some one else
Then I should be to myself more dear. (1,527-532)

Thoughts of Maud’s beauty eradicate his suicidal tendencies. However, this fantastical image of Maud is constantly on the verge of collapsing into the threatening female vitality that the speaker associates with the crisis of the hollow. The speaker’s realizations that the type of gender-coded values that Maud embodies have no traceable origins cause him grief. For example, Maud’s “ghostlike, deathlike” beauty gains vitality as it “grows and fades and grows” in the speaker’s mind, ultimately destroying the serenity of his slumber and opening up his ears to the “scream of the madden’d beach” (I.iii.99) that recall the mother’s “shrill edged shriek.” Additionally, when the narrator sees Maud as an individual woman dwelling within the social landscape, his dreams of marrying her dissolve because her wealth makes her inaccessible. He sees Maud bound for the Hall with a new-made lord, and realizes that Maud is his “bought commission” and he is left “splenetic, personal base/a wounded thing with a rancorous cry”(I.xX.359-363).

At the end of Part II, the speaker’s desperate cries to be buried “deeper, ever so little deeper” in the ground show his desire to obtain the deadened ideals that Maud embodies by cutting himself off from the vitality of the sordid times in which he lives. The transition to Part III is marked by the speaker’s lapse into a dream in which he finds Maud in Heaven

“like a silent lightning under the stars
She seemed to divide in a dream from a band of the blest
And spoke of a hope for the world in the coming wars—” (III.vi.351-353)

The speaker conceptualizes Maud’s silence as referencing the “glory of the coming wars.” In this final encounter, the speaker is able to internalize the calm, controlled quality he has given to her, which allows his voice to escape the traces of madness and express the heroic military rhetoric of the masculine arena of war:

“Let it go or stay, so I wake to higher aims
of a land that has lost for a little her lust of gold
[…]
and hail once more to the banner of battle
unrolled!
[…]
the blood-red blossom of war with a heart of fire” (III.380-395)

Ultimately, while this ending signifies the speaker’s embracing of a contemporary cause: the “higher aims” of his nation’s involvement in Crimean War, it also signifies his internalization of a fantasy and thus his dislocation from reality. The speaker’s entrance into this incredibly masculine arena of war is dependent on his embracement of the calmness that make Maud an ideal woman to him. The silence of Maud that offered the speaker this inspiration is not grounded in reality, but is something that he can only encounter “but in a dream” (358).

As he heads off to war, with a sure sense he will reach “the doom assigned,” the poem seems to suggest war as a way of vindicating manhood. However, the speaker’s final recovery of his masculine identity is dependent on the conceptualization of an ideal version of a woman that cannot exist in reality. By attempting to conceptualize Maud for the purpose of confirming his own identity as a man, the speaker attempts to transfers his fantasies of femininity to the external world. In the process, he dehumanizes Maud by turning her into a mere fantasy, created to bolster his ego.

Simultaneously, by requiring to confirm his masculinity in this way, he exposes himself, and masculinity in general, as a fraud. How powerful can masculinity really be if it cannot exist without a bolster?

Bibliography:

Morgan, E. Thais. “The Poetry of Victorian Masculinities”, The Cambridge Companion
to Victorian Poetry, ed. by Joseph Bristow (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2000) (203-226), 203-204

Tennyson, Lord Alfred. Maud, a Monodrama (London: Edward Moxon & Co., 1855)

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