Why Do Novelists Need (Victorian) Poetry?

I’ve been thinking about poetic quotation recently. More specifically, I’ve been wondering why prose writers in the twenty-first century, working in forms ranging from popular science to the novel, frequently use quotations from poems (typically, formally regular poems written before 1900) to reinforce, validate, or summarise their arguments or narratives. In the case of the novel, it seems counterintuitive that, at a time when the commercial prospects and cultural fortunes of prose fiction are so much more robust than those of poetry, novelists should refer (or perhaps defer) so persistently and so readily to poets. A recent example is the 2014 Booker winner, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (which I admit I’ve only just read). In this novel, which recounts the experiences of an Australian doctor in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during World War II, Flanagan quotes repeatedly from the poetry of Alfred Tennyson. He’s by no means the only contemporary novelist to do so: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (2011) and Sebastian Faulks’s Where My Heart Used to Beat (2015) both derive their titles from Tennyson’s elegy In Memoriam. Why, then, do novelists seemingly find Tennyson so irresistible?

The Narrow Road to the Deep North abounds with verse: there are quotations from Japanese poetry, allusions to Shelley’s “Ozymandias” (apt in a novel about the brutality and futility of empire), and a cameo from the Australian Modernist poet Max Harris. It’s Tennyson’s much-quoted dramatic monologue “Ulysses”, though, which dominates. This was noted by Michael Hofmann in his scathing review of The Narrow Road to the Deep North in the London Review of Books: “the Tennyson never stops”, Hofmann wrote, and in his view the frequent recourse to poetic quotation epitomises the ersatz, recycled quality of this novel, in which the characters, plots, and metaphors “are all quoted, all sampled, they are all well-loved items from a catalogue or anthology”. The book is not without its flaws, but I think Hofmann’s assessment is unfair, and I think that poetic quotation plays a more substantive role than he allows, both in Flanagan’s novel and in contemporary prose fiction more generally.

The non-stop Tennyson might perhaps be explained by Flanagan’s particular interest in Victorian culture: his 2008 novel Wanting includes Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens among its characters. It’s not immediately clear, though, why he is so determined to incorporate Victorian verse into The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a novel set in the mid-twentieth century. In his 2010 study Tennyson Among the Novelists, John Morton shows that novelists have been quoting Tennyson almost from the start of his career, and that, both in Victorian fiction and in more recent neo-Victorian novels, “Tennyson’s works often seem to have been invoked in order to evoke periodicity”, either “in order to make the novel look up to date” (in the nineteenth century) or “to date it specifically”. In Flanagan’s novel, it is the attitudes and opinions of the protagonist Dorrigo Evans that are dated, and dated specifically by his obsession with Tennyson (“obsession” isn’t too strong a word: Evans even recites “Ulysses” – amazingly, with some success – as a method of seduction). When Evans hears Max Harris read his verse, he is “unable to make head or tail of it”, stating his preference for “the Victorian poets and the writers of antiquity.”

Later, the novel’s narrative voice comments that “Dorrigo Evans had grown up in an age when a life could be conceived and lived in the image of poetry, or, as it was increasingly with him, the shadow of a single poem.” It seems difficult to imagine the first half of the twentieth century as such an age, and so it appears that Evans’s passion for Tennyson performs a specific, negative function in Flanagan’s construction of the character: it is a signifier of nostalgia, of Evans’s yearning for an unattainable past that is unattainable because it never really existed, of his refusal to come to terms with modernity.

It’s possible that contemporary novelists more generally use poetry (and Tennyson’s Victorian poetry especially) in the same way: to mark a disjunction between the old-fashioned otherworldliness of verse and the clear-eyed realism of the novel. At the start of The Narrow Road to the Deep North Evans quotes lines from “Ulysses” – “The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep / Moans round with many voices” – that are rewritten, in the novel’s final section, to describe the monotonous, attritional hardship of life in a prisoner-of-war camp: “The long night waxed, the slow quarter-moon continued rising through black rungs, the night moaned with many groans and snores.” This seems to subvert Evans’s frequent quotations of “Ulysses” throughout the rest of the book, suggesting that the measured eloquence of Tennyson’s blank verse needs to be roughened or reworked if it is to have any chance of accurately representing the brutalities of twentieth-century history.

At the same time, though, the novel’s return to “Ulysses” in its closing pages indicates how thoroughly the poem’s language influences Flanagan’s characterisation of Evans, and the way in which that influence extends, through free indirect discourse, to the language of the novel as a whole. In the book’s penultimate section Evans is still thinking about “Ulysses”, finding “every word now a revelation, as if it had been written for him, a poem his life and his life a poem.” Throughout The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Flanagan utilises Tennyson’s poem not just to represent his protagonist’s conservative tastes but to encapsulate his character in its entirety. I’m not convinced that this method of characterisation is unambiguously successful, but I think it demonstrates one of the main reasons why novelists need poetry: the brevity of verse, the concision and precision of poetic language, enables poetic quotations to function as a kind of shorthand, a condensation of a novel’s concerns and preoccupations (or of one of its characters). Poetic quotations make good titles, but The Narrow Road to the Deep North shows that they can also permeate, and offer a kind of pattern for, the structure and texture of prose writing.


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