The Power of Poetry to Humanize External Nature

Portrait of Alfred Tennyson by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1865

 
 

“…Sometimes I let a sunbeam slip,
To light her shaded eye;
A second flutter’d round her lip
Like a golden butterfly;

“A third would glimmer on her neck
To make the necklace shine;
Another slid, a sunny fleck,
From head to ankle fine,

“Then close and dark my arms I spread,
And shadow’d all her rest—
Dropt dews upon her golden head,
An acorn in her breast.

“But in a pet she started up,
And pluck’d it out, and drew
My little oakling from the cup,
And flung him in the dew.

“And yet it was a graceful gift—
I felt a pang within
As when I see the woodman lift
His axe to slay my kin…”

Lord Alfred Tennyson
The Talking Oak
(Fragment)

 
 

First published in 1842, and republished in all subsequent editions with only two slight alterations: in line 113 a mere variant in spelling, and in line 185, where in place of the present reading the editions between 1842 and 1848 read, “For, ah! the Dryad-days were brief”.

Tennyson told Mr. Aubrey de Vere that the poem was an experiment meant to test the degree in which it is in the power of poetry to humanize external nature. Tennyson might have remembered that Ovid had made the same experiment nearly two thousand years ago, while Johann Wolfgang Goethe had immediately anticipated him in his charming Der Junggeselle und der Mühlbach (The Young Apprentice and the Millstream). There was certainly no novelty in such an attempt. The poem is in parts charmingly written, but the oak is certainly “garrulously given,” and comes perilously near to tediousness.

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The Nature of Sleeping and Dreaming

“Two whole years passed since the marriage of the prince and princess, and during that time they had two children. The first, a daughter, was called “Dawn,” while the second, a boy, was named “Day,” because he seemed even more beautiful than his sister…”

Charles Perrault
Sleeping Beauty

 
 

A c. 1901 illustration to the 1830 version of the poem, by William Edward Frank Britten

 
 

The Day-Dream was an expanded version of Alfred Tennyson‘s poem The Sleeping Beauty. It was further altered in 1848 for a dramatic performance for a private gathering with Tennyson starring as the Prince who was to wake up the sleeping woman. The Day-Dream, published in 1842, discusses the nature of sleeping and of dreaming, especially in relation to individuals that would want to escape from reality. The poem also compares the act of poetry with dreaming and asserts that the two are the same. It is possible that the story of a sleeping woman is the same used by Richard Wagner in Siegfried. The theme is also similar to John Keats‘s Endymion. Literary critic Arthur Turnbull claimed, “This is one of the most artistically executed of Tennyson’s creations; he was always fond of the slumberous side of things where music is the voice of the poppy dreams of fancy.”

Out of all of Tennyson’s poems, The Day-Dream is one of the few that lacks a use of irony. The poem relies on a similar theme as Tennyson’s The Lotos-Eaters in that it talks about a living death state. However, The Day-Dream emphasizes the pleasure in being able to return to a sleep state and avoid reality. However, the poem is similar to other Tennyson poems in that it relies on a frame for the story in a manner similar to Lady Godive, Morte D’Arthur and The Princess. The character Flora is similar to many of Tennyson’s females that resist their fate by desiring death, including the Idyl ladies Rose of The Gardener’s Daughter, Ida of The Princess, and Mariana of Mariana.

Tennyson originally published The Sleeping Beauty in his 1830 collection of poems. In 1833, Tennyson’s close friend Arthur Hallam died. The death greatly affected both Tennyson and his sister Emily greatly and he kept away from society as he slowly dealt with the pain. By mid-summer 1834, they slowly began to participate together in social events once again. At one occasion, Tennyson, his sister, and their sister Mary were invited to visit friends at Dorking and then travel onwards to see the Hallam family. However, Tennyson set out on his own and spent time alone at Leith Hill, Dorking. It was during this time that he worked on The Sleeping Beauty and early versions of Sir Galahad and The Blackbird.

A summer crisp with shining woods.
And I too dream’d, until at last
Across my fancy, brooding warm,
The reflex of a legend past,
And loosely settled into form. (“Prologue” II, lines 1-5)

The poem reverses time and declares that the living, contemporary artists are ancient while those who have died before are the young:

And all that else the years will show,
the Poet-forms of stronger hours,
The vast Republics that may grow,
The Federations and the Powers;
Titanic forces taking birth
In divers seasons, divers climes;
For we are Ancients of the earth
And in the morning of the times (“L’envoi” I 13–20)

The Girl Who Lived in The Tree

“And the great elms o’erhead
Dark shadows wove on their aërial looms,
Shot through with golden thread.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Hawthorne, Stanza 2

 
 

“In crystal vapour everywhere
Blue isles of heaven laughed between
And far, in forest-deeps unseen,
The topmost elm-tree gather’d green
From draughts of balmy air”

Tennyson

Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere

 
 

The cloth-wrapped tree reminded a Christo art installation

 
 

Let’s analyze again from where Alexander McQueen drew inspiration for his 2008-2009 Autumn/Winter Collection.

I’ve got a 600-year-old elm tree in my garden and I made up this story of a girl who lives in it and comes out of the darkness to meet a prince and become a queen”, he claimed, was the seed of the narrative his collection would branch out from.

McQueen was an egghead, I mean, a true intellectual, especially when he was searching out information about a concept for any of his fashion collections and I’m certain, because of this, he was aware of the mythological and religious connections behind The Girl Who Lived in The Tree.

 
 

John William Waterhouse, Hamadryad

 
 

Ἁμαδρυάδες (Hamadryads) according to Greek mythology are mostly female beings that live in a tree, in fact they are bonded to a particular tree. Some believe that hamadryads are the actual tree, while normal dryads are simply the entities, or spirits, of the trees. If the tree died, the hamadryad associated with it died as well. For that reason, dryads and the gods punished any mortals who harmed trees.

The first reference in literature to elms occurs in the epic poem attributed to Homer, Iliad. When Eetion, father of Andromache, is killed by Achilles during the Trojan War, the Mountain Nymphs plant elms on his tomb. Also in the Iliad, when the River Scamander, indignant at the sight of so many corpses in his water, overflows and threatens to drown Achilles, the latter grasps a branch of a great elm in an attempt to save himself.

But specifically, Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus (The Banquet of the Learned or Philosophers at Dinner) an ancient Greek text written in the early 3rd century AD, lists eight Hamadryads, the daughters of Oxylus and Hamadryas. And Ptelea is the name given to the hamadryad bonded to the Elm, a hermaphroditic tree comprising the genus Ulmus in the plant family Ulmaceae.

 
 

Giovanni Segantini, Le Cattive Madri (The Evil Mothers), 1894

 
 

Arthur Rackham, Freia (a combination of Freyja and the goddess Iðunn—from Richard Wagner’s opera Der Ring des Nibelungen ), 1910.

 
 

Arthur Hughes. Back from Sea, 1862. The characters of this painting are resting under a Ulmus procera