Poems from the academy

September 16, 2005

From The Princess
by Alfred Tennyson

And then we stroll'd For half the day thro' stately theatres
Bench'd crescent-wise. In each we sat, we heard
The grave Professor. On the lecture slate
The circle rounded under female hands
With flawless demonstration: follow'd then
A classic lecture, rich in sentiment,
With scraps of thundrous Epic lilted out
By violet-hooded Doctors, elegies
And quoted odes, and jewels five-words-long
That on the stretch'd forefinger of all Time
Sparkle for ever: then we dipt in all
That treats of whatsoever is, the state,
The total chronicles of man, the mind,
The morals, something of the frame, the rock,
The star, the bird, the fish, the shell, the flower,
Electric, chemic laws, and all the rest,
And whatsoever can be taught and known;
Till like three horses that have broken fence,
And glutted all night long breast-deep in corn,
We issued gorged with knowledge, and I spoke:
"Why, Sirs, they do all this as well as we."Agog, Elizabeth Barrett wrote to Robert Browning in 1846 about their amiable rival Alfred Tennyson and his poem in progress: "It is in blank verse and a fairy tale, and called The University , the university-members being all female." Tennyson (1809-92) toyed with titles: The New University, The University of Women and then, in the end, The Princess. Eat your heart out, Machiavelli, with your education of The Prince. (Mock on, mock on, Gilbert and Sullivan, with your Princess Ida .) These lines from Tennyson’s Medley have the three nefarious men (in disguise as the opposed sex) attending classes that are given by the undisguisedly up-to-it women dons, who are no less adept in the sciences than in the arts. That "grave Professor" is a woman, gentle Sirs, and so are those "violet-hooded Doctors" (who would usually be men pluming themselves in their unusual ceremonials). "The total chronicles of man" embrace women, in this love story as in others. The bantering lines are at their most sparkling when they are themselves the romantic loveliness of which they speak: "jewels five-words-long/ That on the stretch’d forefinger of all Time/ Sparkle for ever". And so they do, Tennyson’s words.Christopher Ricks is professor of poetry at Oxford University and professor of the humanities at Boston University, US.

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