All you need to know about the books you meant to read

This week: Tennyson's Maud (1855)

Plot: Subtitled "A Monodrama", Maud is unclassifiable, a novel- length poem that lurks in the twilight territory between Victorian dramatic monologue and modern expressionist play. It is both astringent social critique and an obsessive investigation into a deranged mind.

"I hate", barks the protagonist in his opening line, and proceeds to describe his father's "mangled, flattened and crush'd" corpse. The death - possibly suicide, though we never quite know - comes in the wake of ruinous financial speculation which has been abetted by the Old Lord of the Hall. The narrator's lament takes the form of an energetic excoriation of Victorian commercialism and class.

The story emerges obliquely. Suddenly, he is in love with young Maud, the lord's daughter. If our hero's hatred was violently demented, his love is hardly less so. Unable to contain himself, he repeats her name at length and ad nauseam. Maud seems to respond to his white-lightning wooing.

However, her family wants her to marry money. Her brother suspects the worst; he comes "like a blight" and catches the lovers in flagrante; there is a duel; he is killed and the narrator flees.

Maud dies (of grief, naturally) and the narrator flips, ending up in a foreign asylum. He finds redemption with the memory of Maud and in his desire to purify his soul in the bloody battlefields of the Crimea.

Theme: Tennyson described it as "a little Hamlet, the history of a morbid poetic soul, under the blighting influence of a recklessly speculative age."

Just as Hamlet is both introspective and the representative Renaissance man, so the narrator's gloom-laden gothic lunacy is both individual and symptomatically Victorian.

The protagonist is at war with himself, just as Victorian society preys on itself. The individual and society will find salvation only by turning the forces of destruction outward, and going to war.

Style: Follows no superficially coherent laws of composition. A mixture of forms, the verses react to the volcanic mental states of the narrator, either howling in long exclamatory lines of invective or skipping gently in lyrics of disturbing banality. The final impression is of a diary written with adrenalin.

Chief strengths: Maud is a blinding display of metrical brilliance and is the most compelling hate poem in the language. The narrator's acid blare reverberates through all sections, and even the simple songs to the beloved quiver with repressed self-disgust. Only Dostoyevsky's characters match such heights of loathing and self-laceration.

Chief weakness: Robert Browning's monologues give the reader some indication of how to judge the speaker; in Maud, Tennyson is too close to his material, so that the overall effect of the poem can appear to be unintentional ambiguity.

What they thought of it then: The reviewers were puzzled: after all, it wasn't as refreshingly mournful as In Memoriam, Tennyson's biggest hit. One critic felt that the title could dispense with one vowel, and that it didn't much matter which. On the other hand, subsequent popular musical versions of the lyric, "Come into the garden, Maud", gave the work a sentimental image completely at odds with its real nature.

What we think of it now: Tennyson has taken a long time to recover from WH Auden's gibe that he was "the stupidest of great poets''. Critics remain uneasy about the conclusion, and its implicit suggestion that martial slaughter could be a form of social service.

Responsible for: Not a lot, apart from several twee parlour songs (what a shame Arnold Schoenberg never thought of giving it the 12 tone treatment). The poem remains sui generis.

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