Frontiers of Consciousness: Tennyson, Hardy, Hopkins, Eliot

Nickerson, Anna Jennifer  ORCID logo

Thumbnail Image
Change log

‘The poet’, Eliot wrote, ‘is occupied with frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist’. This dissertation is an investigation into the ways in which four poets – Alfred Tennyson, Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and T. S. Eliot – imagine what it might mean to labour in verse towards the ‘frontiers of consciousness’.

This is an old question about the value of poetry, about the kinds of understanding, feeling, and participation that become uniquely available as we read (or write) verse. But it is also a question that becomes peculiarly pressing in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. In my introductory chapter, I sketch out some of the philosophical, theological, and aesthetic contexts in which this question about what poetry might do for us becomes particularly acute: each of these four poets, I suggest, invests in verse as a means of sustaining belief in those things that seem excluded, imperilled, or forfeited by what is felt to be a peculiarly modern or (to use a contested term) ‘secularized’ understanding of the world. To write poetry becomes a labour towards enabling or ratifying otherwise untenable experiences of belief.

But while my broader concern is with what is at stake philosophically, theologically, and even aesthetically in this labour towards the frontiers of consciousness, my more particular concern is with the ways in which these poets think in verse about how the poetic organisation of language brings us to momentary consciousness of otherwise unavailable ‘meanings’. For each of these poets, it is as we begin to listen in to the paralinguistic sounds of verse that we become conscious of that which lies beyond the realms of the linguistic imagination. These poets develop figures within their verse in order to theorize the ways in which this peculiarly poetic ‘music’ brings us to consciousness of that which exceeds or transcends the limits of the world in which we think we live. These figures begin as images of the half-seen (glimmering, haunting, dappling, crossing) but become a way of imagining that which we might only half-hear or half-know.

Chapter 2 deals with Tennyson’s figure of glimmering light that signals the presence, activity, or territory of the ‘higher poetic imagination’; In Memoriam, I argue, represents the development of this figure into a poetics of the ‘glimpse’, a poetry that repeatedly approaches the horizon of what might be seen or heard. Chapter 3 is concerned with Hardy’s figuring of the ‘hereto’ of verse as a haunted region, his ghostly figures and spectral presences becoming a way of thinking about the strange experiences of listening and encounter that verse affords. Chapter 4 attends to the dappled skins and skies of Hopkins’ verse and the ways in which ‘dapple’ becomes a theoretical framework for thinking about the nature and theological significance of prosodic experience. And Chapter 5 considers the visual and acoustic crossings of Eliot’s verse as a series of attempts to imagine and interrogate the proposition that the poetic organisation of language offers ‘hints and guesses’ of a reality that is both larger and more significant than our own.

Hurley, Michael D
poetry, poetics, Tennyson, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Hardy, Thomas Hardy, Hopkins, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T S Eliot, Victorian literature, Nineteenth-century literature, Modernist literature, Modernism, Secularization, Cognitive Poetics
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
This thesis was funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council UK grant.