An archive and analysis of parlor and art song settings of Victorian poems

Obsession and Instability in Tennyson's Maud

Although when Alfred Lord Tennyson's Maud was first published in 1855 it met with largely hostile reviews, it became an overwhelming success when its lines were excerpted for songs. While multiple different versions exist, dating from the year of the poem's publication to 1900, two of them have been particularly influential: Balfe's parlor song setting "Come into the Garden, Maud" (1857) and Somervell's song cycle Maud (1898). Balfe's setting became a staple of home performances, whereas Somervell's cycle is considered one of the masterpieces of the English art song tradition (Hold 91). Although both songs are well known, few scholars have addressed them from either a musicological or a literary standpoint. Those accounts which do exist argue that Balfe's setting and the corresponding section of Somervell's cycle perform a fairly naïve interpretation of the poem, taking the speaker's words of love for Maud as unproblematic and ignoring his madness altogether. These two divergent settings alter the narrative trajectory of the original, but their changes serve to emphasize the threat of violence and instability that undercuts the speaker's every line. In this deceptively simple and beautiful poem, the speaker misreads and misapplies the language of flowers and the garden, and so compulsively repeats his own phrases as to evacuate his troubadour-style lyrics of meaning and to expose them as merely the decoration for his latest obsession. Both Balfe and Somervell augment these poetic distortions in their musical settings. Balfe's setting can be played to sound like a naive love song, but its dissonances, unexpected harmonies, and constantly shifting tonal centers subtly undercut the speaker's sense of certainty and sanity, as does the text itself, making the song, like the poem, both participate in and disrupt the sentimental tradition. Somervell's version subtly avoids cadences and incorporates minor keys to convey the speaker's insanity from within the prison of his own mind.

Both settings feature lyric twenty-two from the end of Part I of Maud. The speaker has just discovered a rose floating in the rivulet that connects his house to the Hall where Maud, his beloved, lives. He believes that she has sent it to him as a message to wait for her in her rose garden where she will join him after a dance (to which he has not been invited). This segment occurs as he waits for her in the garden and ends as he spies her approaching.

In order to understand the nuances of the song settings, we need to examine the nuances of the poem itself. The poem, especially if excerpted and taken out of context, appears to be a traditional love lyric, in which the speaker invokes the pastoral tradition and extols the beauty of both his beloved and his surroundings. The speaker's conversations with flowers and his belief that he would still feel her presence even after death further cast the poem as part of the Victorian sentimental tradition, a tradition particularly associated with the domestic sphere. The simple rhyme scheme (ABABAB) makes the poem sound song-like, an effect furthered by the occasional anaphora (i.e. "All night" in the first and third lines of the third stanza).

Although the poem belongs to this tradition, it refuses to conform to convention, as the speaker's mental instability threatens the peace of the poem. His compulsive repetition and formal irregularities provide the first clues to his instability. Throughout the poem, he obsessively repeats himself: he chants "Come into the garden, Maud" twice in the first stanza and "to faint in the light" three times in the second stanza. This repetition occurs on individual words and phonemes as well as phrases:

Queen rose of the rosebud garden of girls,
Come hither, the dances are done,
In gloss of satin and glimmer of pearls,
Queen lily and rose in one;
Shine out, little head, sunning over with curls,
To the flowers, and be their sun. (53-58)

This passage conveys the echo chamber of the speaker's own mind; he becomes stuck on the words "rose," "queen," and "sun" as well as on alliteration within each line ("garden of girls," "dances are done," and "gloss . . . glimmer"). The rhyme scheme likewise conveys this obsessive repetition, as it consistently chimes with alternating AB rhymes throughout and echoes the speaker's inability to think about anything other than Maud. The speaker's mental instability manifests in the lyric's formal and rhythmic irregularities as well. The poem contains an alternating pattern of trimeter and tetrameter that only fully follows ballad meter in the middle five stanzas. The first three stanzas, as well as the final two stanzas, are predominantly trimeter, but incorporate one or two lines of tetrameter each at irregular intervals to disrupt the established order and perfectly convey the speaker's own disruptive personality. These metrical shifts, from trimeter to ballad meter and back to trimeter, rhythmically convey changes in the speaker's emotional state: it begins in trimeter as the speaker anxiously awaits Maud, becomes a ballad to echo the conventional pastoral allusions in which he assures the flowers that Maud will always be his, and returns to trimeter as the speaker again thinks about Maud's arrival. The final trimeter pattern is made apparent in Tennyson's one recorded recitation of the last stanza, in which he chants it in the musical equivalent of ¾ time. He reads it as though there were no endstops, strongly accentuating the three stresses in each line as though it were a demented waltz ("Come into the Garden, Maud"). These metrical shifts emphasize the speaker's overwhelming excitement at Maud's approach and demonstrate yet again that formal constraints are as ineffective in holding him back as are the walls that surround Maud's garden. The stanza's structure likewise cannot contain him: four of the eleven stanzas include two additional lines, and these stanzas occur with increasing frequency throughout the poem as though his overactive imagination bursts free from the preestablished pattern.

The garden includes flowers, such as the woodbine, jessamine, and acacia, and violet, which had deeper significance in the Language of Flowers, the Victorian secret code by which lovers communicated their thoughts; however, the speaker consistently misinterprets their significance, assuming they are natural symbols of the deep love that he and Maud supposedly share. The "woodbine," whose scent disperses throughout the garden, is frequently associated with "chains of love" (Seaton 181), a comparison that casts Maud and the speaker as practically imprisoned by this destructive love. The "jessamine" in the window casement represents "envy" (Seaton 180), an accurate depiction of the speaker's feelings about Maud and the dance, and therefore subverts the idea of the garden as idyllic. The "slender acacia" was a flower code for "platonic love," or "chaste love" (Seaton 168-169), certainly the opposite of what the speaker desires from their clandestine meeting. The speaker even misinterprets the violet. In the Language of Flowers, it represents modesty (Seaton 196-197), but the speaker likens it to a piece of fine jewelry: "He sets the jewel-print of your feet / In violets blue as your eyes" (41-42). By referencing violets in his comparison of her footprint to jewelry, the speaker's comparison casts the flowers as decorative or fancy rather than as modest. This disregard for societal codes and for the supposed intrinsic meaning of objects supports his own artistic purposes. The woodbine, jessamine, and violet, all flowers that appear in Milton's "Lycidas," also allude to the tradition of the pastoral elegy and underscore the threat of mortality that haunts the poem (142-148). In both poems, the speaker reads nature as an expression of his own desires: in "Lycidas," the flowers mourn as does the speaker, and in Maud, the speaker mistakenly assumes they celebrate his love. In fact, even before this section of the monodrama, the speaker misreads the flower he finds in the rivulet and claims that it "say[s] in odour and color 'Ah be / Among the roses tonight'" (848-849). Since he describes it as on a "blushing mission" (847), this garden rose is of a deep red color, so it signifies not a secret meeting but rather "bashful shame" (Greenaway 37).

The speaker likewise invokes religious language and iconography in ways that undermine his own message. As Alice Chandler has argued, the speaker repeatedly alludes to language from the Song of Solomon to describe not only Maud but also the garden itself (93). The speaker's description of the "woodbine spices" that are "wafted abroad" as well as the "musk of the rose" (5-6) echoes the similar Biblical description of the wind "blow[ing] upon [his] garden, that the spices thereof may flow out" (King James Bible, 4:16). This parallel conveys the speaker's desire to imagine Maud's garden as transcendent and his relationship with her as spiritual and ideal in spite of contrary evidence. In fact, as Inglesfield points out, the description of Maud as "Queen lily and rose in one" (56) comes from verse 2.1, in which the bride declares "I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys" (122). Whereas the biblical text emphasizes the bride's embodiment and uses comparisons merely as metaphor, in this text Maud is completely absent, so the speaker uses words and his surroundings metaphorically to recreate transcendent union, unaware of the gap between his dream and the reality. His religious allusions again fall short when he mentions upon hearing Maud approach that "there has fallen a splendid tear / From the passion-flower at the gate" (59-60). The passion flower is so named because its physical characteristics supposedly corresponded to elements of Jesus's crucifixion. Since the lyric began with the speaker "here at the gate," the same location as the passion flower, he appears to project his own emotions onto the flower associated with Christ's passion and to view this ordeal as the equivalent. He also employs religious language at the poem's end when he insists that, were Maud to walk by, his "heart would hear her and beat / Were it earth in an earthy bed"; the image of "earth in an earthy bed" alludes to 1 Corinthians 15:47, in which Paul describes Adamic man as "of the earth, earthy" (King James Bible). In this allusion, the speaker casts Maud as the messiah who will enable his resurrection, a comparison that clearly demonstrates the desperation that underlies his admiration for Maud. This resurrection, in light of the speaker's allusions to Song of Solomon, also has decidedly sexual undercurrents, as though the pulsing from the "bed" originated from an organ other than his heart.

The speaker's very presence in Maud's enclosed rose garden is itself cause for concern. An enclosed garden, or Hortus conclusus, alludes to the Song of Solomon 4.12, in which, according to Christian interpretations, Mary's womb is a "garden enclosed," a comparison that associates these spaces with both purity and female sexuality. By extension, the speaker's presence in her garden becomes a violation, especially since he let himself in, incorrectly interpreting the flower as a symbolic invitation. His control over the space makes this violation more pronounced; his decision to invite her into her own garden further deprives her of agency and echoes an earlier occasion when he spied on her by climbing its walls. Instead of an innocent troubadour pledging his love, he becomes at best a stalker and at worst, a metaphorical rapist. His spying into the garden also alludes to Satan's illicit examination of Eden before he jumps over its walls in Paradise Lost (Book 4,174-181), a parallel that likewise condemns the speaker. His final words further clarify the associations between the garden and violence, sex, and imagination: he imagines his "dust . . .Would start and tremble under her feet, / And blossom in purple and red" (71-74). As Robert Inglesfield has argued, this conflation of flowers with bruises on a body "reinforces the suggestion of insane, sexually charged fantasy, and anticipates the physical violence and his collapse into insanity in Part II" (123). The image of the speaker's decomposing corpse creating new life in the form of blossoming flowers suggests that he sees himself as a part of the garden even after death. His imagined relationship with the garden, however, does not differ greatly from his current relationship with it, since he already reads the garden as an expression of his own desire and therefore as an extension of himself. This famous lyric from a larger work appears to be a sentimental love song while actually critiquing that categorization: it shows the speaker's dangerous obsession with Maud and the symbolic significance with which he imbues their relationship.

Works Cited

Balfe, Michael William. "Come into the Garden, Maud: A Cavatina." London: Boosey & Sons, 1857.

The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments, King James Version.

New York: American Bible Society: 1999.

Greenaway, Kate. The Language of Flowers. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1884.

Inglesfield, Robert. "Tennyson's 'Come into the Garden, Maud' and the Song of Solomon." Victorian Poetry 37.1 (1999): 121-123.

Hold, Trevor. Parry to Finzi: Twenty English Song-Composers. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2005.

Milton, John. "Lycidas." Complete Shorter Poems, Second Edition. Ed. John Carey. Harlow: Longman, 1997.

"Passion flower, n." OED Online. September 2011. Oxford University Press. 23 November 2011 .

Seaton, Beverly. The Language of Flowers: A History, (Charlottesville: Virginia UP, 1995).

Somervell, Arthur. Cycle of Songs from Tennyson's Maud. London: Boosey & Co, 1898.

Tennyson, Alfred. Maud. The Poems of Tennyson. ed. Christopher Ricks. London: Longman Group, 1969: 1075-1078.

---. "Come into the Garden, Maud." Poetry on Record: 98 Poets Read their Work 1888-2006. Shout! Factory, 2006. CD.

---. Come Into the Garden, Maud. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1884.