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The feminism or anti-feminism of Tennyson’s poem The Princess has been a matter of debate ever since the poem’s first publication in 1847, its subsequent revisions in four different editions through 1851 (Joseph 81-82), and into the present day. By tackling the subject of female education, and through that the broader topic of female emancipation from centuries of oppression, Tennyson was treading on controversial ground. Moreover, the form he chose—a “medley” of disparate voices and clashing tones from “mock-heroic gigantesque” (Tennyson, “The Princess” Concl. 11) to “true-heroic—true-sublime” (Concl. 20 —risked offending both men and women, as the poem’s narrator admits (Concl. 28). The verdicts on Tennyson’s own attitudes—on the sensitivity and seriousness with which he handles his topic—have varied, but modern criticism increasingly condemns Tennyson for endorsing an oppressiveness that is only less overt, not less crushing, than that of the poem’s most brutal male characters. Thus Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick argues that the poem “is about the enforcement of women’s relegation within the framework of male homosocial exchange” (120) and that it concludes with “the zestful destruction of that world [of a female university] root and branch, the erasure of its learning and ideals and the evisceration of its institutions” (120). Donald E. Hall, even more unequivocally, declares, “Even judged by the modest feminist ideals of his period, Tennyson’s poem is clearly reactionary; its sexual politics may be covert, but The Princess dramatizes a harsh and relentless oppression of women” (49).[1]

The position that Tennyson’s poem takes on gender roles becomes especially interesting when viewed in relationship with the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Princess Ida. Gilbert, the librettist of the famous team, first launched his “respectful perversion” of Tennyson’s poem in play form in 1870 (Smith 115-116). In 1884 he collaborated with composer Arthur Sullivan to transform that play into Princess Ida, the eighth Savoy opera (115-116). Yet Gilbert and Sullivan’s musical adaptation and parody, although produced decades after the original publication of Tennyson’s poem, at a time when women’s colleges were a reality, not a dream, is almost universally agreed to be far more conservative and unsympathetic to the woman’s cause than Tennyson’s poem is.[2] What accounts for the fact that several decades of actual though small-scale improvement in women’s real-life educational opportunities could nonetheless produce the cultural climate for a work that one scholar dismisses as “slightly out-of-date [with contemporary reality] when it was written” and shortly thereafter “hopelessly out-of-date”? (Darlington 111).

The answer may lie in a larger cultural shift occurring during the period between Tennyson’s poem and the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. In Sexual Anarchy, Elaine Showalter traces the intense fin de siècle fears of dissolving gender roles. Horrified at the twin spectres of female aggressiveness and male effeminacy, one late-nineteenth-century response was a deepening emphasis on hyper-masculinity. As historian John Tosh and literary scholar Claudia Nelson have both demonstrated, fin de siècle Victorians turned away from earlier idealizations of a gentle, domestically-oriented manliness toward a much more aggressive ideal of male athleticism, sternness, and separation from women. Indeed, if the late-Victorian age is famous partly for its rejection of earlier Victorian pieties, one of the pieties it rejected most strongly was that of the famously moralistic Victorian “earnestness” that denied the sexual passion in romantic love and preached an evangelical idealism in the conduct of life. Foremost among the deflaters of this seriousness were such Gilbert and Sullivan operettas as The Pirates of Penzance (1880), which mocked the ideal of duty by showing a young man duty-bound by his indentures to plunder and pillage as a pirate, and Patience (1881), which pushed the ideal of selfless love to its ludicrous extreme by declaring that the only love worthy of the name is that bestowed on an unlovable object.

In all of these rapturous puncturings of mid-Victorian ideals, there is the liberating sense of freedom from earlier earnest pieties. Indeed, G.K.Chesterton noted this as the distinguishing characteristic of Gilbert and Sullivan. According to Chesterton, Gilbert “really did lash the age” in that “he did really persecute the rather hazy heresies of the hour [. . .]. [H]e tracked an untrue or unreasonable idea back to its first principle” (x). In our own time, Carolyn Williams likewise finds in Gilbert a “biting, trenchant, often scathing political wit” (221) that in at least one opera extends to a “critique of capitalism” and “a hilarious parody of the English attitudes involved in imperial domination and the capitalist driving force behind empire” (222).

Ironically, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas another “critique” of “English attitudes” may emerge through silence: the pair dismiss the Victorian idealization of women by simply ignoring it. The Savoy operas certainly contain playful celebrations aplenty of feminine beauty and flirtatious charms, but there is virtually no trace of the noble and elevated Victorian domestic angel. The eponymous heroine of Patience attempts to embrace that longsuffering ideal, but her efforts are mercifully in vain. The music that Sullivan composes for her masochistic outpouring lends the sound of seriousness to Gilbert’s hyperbolic lyrics, but within the context of the play her effusions are absurd. Persuaded into the belief that any love which brings pleasure to the lover is mere selfishness, Patience deliberately decides to love a man obnoxious to her. The following stanza from her ballad expresses her ideal of “unselfish” love:

 Rendering good for ill,

 Smiling at every frown,

 Yielding your own self-will,

 Laughing your tear-drops down;

 Never a selfish whim,

 Trouble, or pain to stir;

 Everything for him,

 Nothing at all for her!

 Love that will aye endure,

 Though the rewards be few,

 That is the love that’s pure,

 That is the love that’s true!


In a shrewd understanding of human nature, however, Gilbert shows Bunthorne, the recipient of this laborious devotion and a man who originally had pursued Patience, wearying quickly of her glum and cloyingly depressive attentions. The audience, along with the principals, rejoices when Patience returns to her original heartthrob in a bumptious burst of revelry.

Patience is a particularly appropriate operetta to consider in conjunction with Princess Ida because both are based on a literary model that clearly disturbed Gilbert with what he saw as intimations of effeminacy. Although no one specific work was parodied in Patience, the entire aesthetic movement, especially as represented by Oscar Wilde, came under attack. The unlovable Bunthorne is generally taken as a caricature of Wilde, and his eventual overturn at the hands of a newly robust Archibald, his poetic and romantic rival, and the straightforwardly virile dragoons whose sweethearts he has enraptured represents the defeat of blurred gender possibilities in favor of an unequivocally rowdy masculinity.

Yet the striking thing in Patience is that it is only men’s gender possibilities that change. Bunthorne’s female admirers are as stereotypically “feminine” as the staunchest conservative could wish: devoutly respectful before male genius, tender, devoted, self-sacrificial. The only problem is that their devotion is given not to a man of comparably strong “masculinity” but to Bunthorne, who resembles the women themselves in his supposed (not actual, it turns out) sensitivity, delicacy, and susceptibility to emotion. Unlike Wilde, Bunthorne does not arouse hostility due to suggestions of homosexuality; as relentlessly womanizing in his languid way as the dragoons are in their blustering way, Bunthorne instead raises the issue of what to make of a heterosexual man who incorporates characteristics stamped as “feminine.” In Patience, at least, the answer is that he eventually loses all the female admiration that he covets and emerges humiliated by and inferior in every respect to more conventionally “manly” men.

Indeed, when we come to examine The Princess and Princess Ida, we discover that the spectre of male gentleness is perhaps as terrifying as—perhaps more terrifying than—that of female cruelty. The respect for “feminine” virtues of compassion, caregiving, and tenderness that Tennyson passionately preaches is complicated by the agonizing (and realistic) fear that these qualities earn no consideration, power, or status for their possessors. This difficulty marks Tennyson’s poetry—and its reception—from the beginning. Scholars from Carol Christ to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick have noted that Tennyson’s first critics reacted with suspicion and distrust to his supposed “effeminacy.” Thus Beverly Taylor observes that “Tennyson’s tact [in dealing with sexual matters] drew charges of poetic effeminacy both then and now” (7). Christ notes that “Tennyson [. . .] is the Victorian poet most importantly connected with the feminization of poetry” (“Feminine Subject” 386) and that this feminization led to attacks upon Tennyson by such contemporaries as Alfred Austin (385). Sedgwick suggests that Tennyson’s aristocratic readers might have set “poets’ work and women’s work [. . .] in the same ornamental, angelic, and negligible class” (133).

Certainly the Prince in Tennyson’s “The Princess” is a figure whose first lines establish his alienation from conventional standards of masculinity—and establish therefore his vulnerability to ridicule from those who believe in those standards. Throughout the poem, indeed, he is subject to just such ridicule. His own father mocks him as a “draggled mawkin [. . .] / That tends her bristled grunters in the sludge” (5.25-26); his beloved’s brother taunts him with the imputation of cowardice in the line, “The woman’s garment hid the woman’s heart” (5.295); he is the butt of universal laughter when he stumbles, disheveled and in drag, into a room of overbearingly military men (5.10-21). Perhaps most crushing of all, Ida herself dismisses him with the contemptuous words, “Methinks he seems no better than a girl” (3.202)—striking condemnation indeed from a would-be feminist! His “weird seizures” (1.14) appear to unfit him for the traditional virile triumphs of martial and sexual conquest. His willingness to don women’s clothes shows both his physical ability to appear female (a feat that the vast-thewed warrior Arac, for example, obviously could never achieve) and his psychological willingness to blur his gender identity. Even more strikingly, he resists the male attributes of physical forcefulness and its logical extension, violence. When his father advocates warfare and conquest, the Prince adopts women’s clothing. When finally pushed into combat, he limits it to a battle between fifty chosen champions on either side rather than the all-out assault on Ida’s stronghold that his father favors. In that combat, he fails utterly, not only through his relative physical weakness to the imposing Arac, but also through his own inner conflicts, his sense of unreality in the very combat in which he is engaged. Repeatedly humiliated, rejected, reviled, and ridiculed, the Prince is not only “disprinced” (5.29) but unmanned according to conventional notions of manliness.

Significantly, Gilbert alters the Prince’s character just as radically as he does Ida’s. Unnamed in the original, the Prince is dubbed Hilarion by Gilbert, perhaps to suggest the hilarity provoked by a man to refuses to act by masculine codes. While Tennyson’s Prince expresses admiration and respect for Ida and her ideas, Hilarion mocks Ida’s feminism from the start and plans his entry into her stronghold in exactly the contemptuous and undermining spirit that Tennyson’s Ida mistakenly attributes to her Prince. Indeed, the very charm and lilting insouciance of Sullivan’s music for Hilarion and his companions makes their songs representative of what Tennyson’s Ida condemns: the “canzonets and serenades” (4.117) of “Knaves [. . .] / That lute and flute fantastic tenderness, and dress the victim to the offering up, / [. . .] / And play the slave to gain the tyranny” (4.110-114). Their appeal rests entirely on a highly sexualized vision of romantic attraction, shorn of any traces of moral seriousness or earnest idealism. Whereas Tennyson’s Prince declares himself drawn to Ida’s nobility and grandeur of spirit, Gilbert’s Hilarion and his companions agree that “So long as a maid is fair to see / Every maid is the maid for me” (312). Hilarion cynically plots Ida’s conquest based on a view of Nature as sexual attraction. He will appeal to female “vanity” with “sweet urbanity” although knowing full well that it is mere “inanity” (301). No wonder that, for Hilarion and his comrades, the crowning absurdity in their list of women’s follies is for women to imagine that they can “do without” man (311). In Gilbert’s scenario, unlike Tennyson’s, however, men and women need each other not in order to reach complete human fulfillment and to each supply what the other lacks but rather for the satisfactions to be derived from sexual gamemanship.

In Princess Ida, then, the significance of Ida’s Castle Adamant is that it conceals a hotbed of frustrated heterosexual feeling beneath an unnatural attempt at asexuality. Gilbert’s Ida demands that her followers swear lifelong celibacy, while Tennyson’s Ida simply asks hers to refrain from contact with men during their three-year course of study—a condition remarkably similar, as the poem itself points out, to the conditions of contemporary male universities. This leads F.E.L. Priestly to observe of Tennyson’s poem, “It is not long before the question arises in the reader’s mind whether a college which excludes every male creature is intrinsically any more ridiculous than one which excludes every female” (87). As Priestly wryly goes on, if “Ida’s college is ridiculous, it may be because it imitates a ridiculous model” (87). Yet Gilbert’s cloistered women, unlike Tennyson’s, are ridiculous in their own right. They betray their irrepressible sexual interest by the very frenzy of their recoil. They perfectly illustrate Richard Steele’s observation on the similarity between the prude and the coquette: in The Tatler 126, Steele notes that women who obsessively shun male attention, just like those who obsessively court it, reveal that “the distinction of sex” is ever-present in their minds (3: 68).

Thus, in Princess Ida, one female student is expelled for bringing chessmen into the castle because, although “they’re only made of wood,” nonetheless “they’re men with whom you give each other mate” (305). Another student “will lose three terms” for drawing “a sketch of a perambulator,” an act that also draws down upon her the withering condemnation, “Shameless girl!” (305). Yet the very condemnations that these innocuous acts receive shows how absorbed the minds of Princess Ida and her followers are in the sexual possibilities between men and women. Indeed, when Psyche presents her case (presumably also Ida’s) for the separation of men and women, she does so not on the grounds of men’s mistreatment of the female sex, but rather through a paranoid fantasy of literally bestial male sexuality. Psyche contrasts a “Lady fair, of lineage high, / [. . .] as radiant at the sun” (316) whose “golden tresses” are a nineteenth-century signifier of purity and elevation with “the apiest Ape that ever was seen”: the quintessential man (316). The ape-man pursues the maiden in an explicitly sexual courtship, but no matter how he tries to mask his beastliness with shaving, washing, and fancy clothes, he remains incorrigibly animal, a creature from whose degrading advances the maiden instinctively recoils. It would be hard to find a more explicit parable of female sexual fear. Yet, as stereotypes of frustrated female celibates would have it, fear is only the flip side of sexual avidity. Thus, when Lady Blanche’s daughter, Melissa, who has been raised in total ignorance of men, first encounters the three male invaders, her reaction is rapturous physical infatuation. In ecstasy, she exclaims,

 Is this indeed a man?

 I’ve often heard of them, but, till to-day,

 Never set eyes on one. They told me men

 Were hideous, idiotic, and deformed!

 They’re quite as beautiful as women are!

 As beautiful, they’re infinitely more so!

 Their cheeks have not that pulpy softness which

 One gets so weary of in womankind:

 Their features are more marked—and—oh, their chins!


Indeed, it is the very “roughness” of masculinity that proves irresistible. When Melissa feels Florian’s unshaved chin, he apologetically notes, “I fear it’s rather rough,” to which Melissa “eagerly” replies, “Oh, don’t apologize—I like it so!” (318).

Gilbert posits throughout Princess Ida that heterosexual satisfaction for men and women alike comes from a combination of male aggressiveness and an eager female receptivity that inflames male desire by masquerading as timidity. When Cyril describes the ideally desirable woman, he insists that she is alluring precisely because of her exaggerated shyness. As he sings:

 Would you know the kind of maid

 Sets my heart aflame-a?

 Eyes must be downcast and staid,

 Cheeks must flush for shame-a!

 She may neither dance nor sing,

 But, demure in everything,

 Hang her head in modest way,

 With pouting lips that seem to say,

 “Oh, kiss me, kiss, kiss me, kiss me,

 Though I die of shame-a!”


This coyly blushing maiden embodies the stereotypical modesty of Victorian femininity yet her blushes are a sign of desire: all her tremulousness is an invitation to “kiss me, kiss me, kiss me.”[3] In contrast, the bold woman is paradoxically unalluring:

 When a maid is bold and gay

 With a tongue goes clang-a,

 Flaunting it in bold array,

 Maiden may go hang-a.


No wonder, then, that when Ida’s female followers prepare for attack from King Hildebrand’s forces, they couch their true feelings of fearfulness before the male intruder in plaintively appealing, “helpless” feminine terms. With Melissa as soloist and the rest of the maidens as chorus, they begin with a rousing war cry of defiance only to dissolve into the following:

MEL. Thus our courage, all untarnished,

 We’re instructed to display:

 But to tell the truth unvarnished,

 We are more inclined to say,

 “Please you, do not hurt us.”

ALL. “Do not hurt us, if it please you!”

MEL. “Please you let us be.”

ALL. “Let us be—let us be!”

MEL. “Soldiers disconcert us.”

ALL. “Disconcert us, if it please you!”

MEL. “Frightened maids are we!”

ALL. “Maids are we—maids are we!”


Not only does the refrain “Please you, do not hurt us” mimic the classic plea of a timid virgin awaiting penetration, but the chorus of maidens subtly distort as they echo Melissa’s line: “Soldiers disconcert us.” In the chorus’s mouth, this becomes “Disconcert us, if it please you!” thereby neatly expressing the desire that lurks behind the titillating fear, just as their final reminder that “Maids are we—maids are we!” seems as much a titillating invitation as a cry for mercy.

In short, male aggression has become (in Gilbert’s terms) an unequivocally positive force, expressing “natural” masculinity as it arouses female desire. Even the Prince’s father, who in Tennyson’s handling is unequivocally unattractive—unanimously condemned by critics as “brutal and stupid” (Johnson 134) and “ravingly sexist” (Eagleton 79)—who within the poem itself is dismissed by his own son as “the hard old king” (5.456), becomes in Gilbert’s handling a “peppery” (327-328) yet resoundingly sensible figure who tames the irksome Gama by overwhelming kindness and whose hearty recognition of sexual realities reconciles the naïve Ida to marriage with Hilarion. In the most demeaning moment for Ida in the entire opera, Gilbert shows her as both unscrupulously self-aggrandizing and absurdly obtuse in her exclamation,

 You ridicule it [her goal of female education] now!

 But if I carried out this glorious scheme,

 At my exalted name Posterity

 Would bow in gratitude!


To this glory-hungry effusion, Hildebrand has the crushingly deflationary reply:

 But pray reflect—

 If you enlist all women in your cause,

 And make them all abjure tyrannic Man,

 The obvious question then arises, “How

 Is this Posterity to be provided?


Ida’s startled cry, “I never thought of that!” (340), not only marks her as irredeemably foolish but foreshadows her inevitable subjugation by Hildebrand’s sturdy “masculine” common sense (340). This is a far cry indeed from Tennyson’s genuinely and chillingly ferocious king, whom James Kincaid aptly describes as putting “the common male position so bluntly it cannot be accepted” (62).

Perhaps Gilbert’s most noticeable endorsement of male aggression, however, comes in one of his most significant changes from Tennyson’s poem. In the operetta, Hilarion and his companions are victorious in their battle with Ida’s brothers; in the poem, the Prince and his companions fall defeated and must be nursed back to health by Ida and her women. Whereas Tennyson’s Prince wins, in a sense, by his wounds (a victory that Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick stingingly dismisses as equivalent in its effect to the more straightforward conquest advocated by his father),[4] Gilbert’s Hilarion vanquishes by traditional forcefulness: he leaves Ida’s brothers “bleeding” on the ground (340). Gilbert simply refuses to treat male aggression as problematic, and one sign of this is his elimination of all the references to actual male brutality with which Tennyson lards his poem. Tennyson acknowledges the reality of institutional and male cruelty against women, the cruelty

 Of those that iron-cramped their women’s feet;

 Of lands in which at the altar the poor bride

 Gives her harsh groom for bridal-gift a scourge;

 Of living hearts that crack within the fire

 Where smoulder their dead despots; and of those,—

 Mothers,—that, all prophetic pity, fling

 Their pretty maids in the running flood, and swoops

 The vulture, beak and talon, at the heart

 Made for all noble motion.


On the individual level, Ida points to the seduction and betrayal of one of her own maids of honor by an unscrupulous suitor as an example of the evil wrought by the “mock-love” that refuses to accept women as “living wills [. . .] sphered / Whole in ourselves and owed to none” (4.125, 129-130). This betrayal of a trusting woman is a crime that Tennyson’s Prince, no less than Ida, takes seriously. In one striking passage, the Prince absolves his friend Cyril of the suspicion of sexual exploitativeness not by pooh-poohing the seriousness of the idea but rather by emphasizing its gravity. Cyril would not take advantage of Lady Psyche’s unprotected state precisely because to do would be so vilely despicable an act that the essentially decent Cyril could not be capable of it. As Tennyson’s Prince puts it when his friend Florian expresses doubts about Psyche’s safety in Cyril’s company:

 “And yet [. . .] you wrong him more than I

 That struck him; this is proper to the clown,

 Tho smock’d, or furr’d and purpled, still the clown,

 To harm the thing that trusts him, and to shame

 That which he says he loves. For Cyril, howe’er

 He deal in frolic, as to-night—the song

 Might have been worse and sinn’d in grosser lips

 Beyond all pardon—as it is, I hold

 These flashes on the surface are not he.

 He has a solid base of temperament;

 But as the water-lily starts and slides

 Upon the level in little puffs of wind

 Tho’ anchor’d to the bottom, such is he.”


Thus the Prince firmly rejects the idea of male aggression as supposedly normal and even desirable. The question remains, however, of what good the Prince’s sensitivity actually does the woman he loves. He may be a gentler, kinder suitor than any that Gilbert imagines, yet numerous critics have pointed out that his successful wooing nonetheless wins Ida to the role of wife, mother, and domestic angel that she had previously abjured in favor of study and self-development. Perhaps one way to approach this question is to examine the poem’s valuation of those gentle qualities that the Prince appears to espouse and that Tennyson’s poem (and Victorian society as a whole) ascribed to the “feminine.” In this context, it is useful to look at the way in which Ida herself incorporates aspects of such gentleness from the beginning, even as she consciously rejects it in favour of a fierceness usually classified as “masculine.” Her refusal to allow a school of anatomy is significant, yet I would argue that its significance does not lie—as both Eileen Tess Johnston and Beverly Taylor have argued[5]—in a repudiation of sexuality. Rather, Ida’s rejection of vivisection and dissection as cruel and corrupting practices that harden their practitioners resonates with debates that were passionately felt and fought in Tennyson’s time. The anti-vivisection movement, which included Wilkie Collins, France Power Cobbe, and other Victorian writers and intellectuals, had Tennyson’s sympathy. In Antivivisection and Medical Science in Victorian Society, Richard French shows the strength of the humanitarian feeling against vivisection. There was a substantial movement that did indeed oppose vivisection on exactly the grounds that Ida expresses: that it is unjustifiable both in the suffering that it inflicts on helpless animals and in the moral damage that it does to the sensibilities of the human operator. Likewise, dissection, which Ida also condemns on the basis that it renders its practitioners callous and unfeeling, was widely feared for those very reasons for much of the nineteenth century. In Death, Dissection, and the Destitute, Ruth Richardson has documented the horror that dissection could provoke, not only among the uneducated or those without medical training, but even among some doctors themselves. In 1829, the medical journal The Lancet printed an editorial condemning “the possessors of the practical insensibility, acquired in the dissecting room” (qtd. in Richardson 76). Thus, Ida’s rejection of anatomical studies, rather than representing a retreat from sexuality, can more compellingly be seen as one way in which she reveals the tenderness that was part of the Victorian feminine ideal.

In other ways, however, Tennyson’s Ida seeks to emulate the very men whose tradition of oppressive cruelty she rejects. As noted above, F.E.L. Priestly has pointed out that her own university owes its organization—and its weaknesses—to masculine models. Ida is even capable of some scornful denunciations of women as they currently exist; she wishes women to demonstrate their capacity for attributes usually typed as “male”—primarily intellectual attributes—and scorns the distortions of frivolity and coquetry that women have been forced into by centuries of condescension and intellectual starvation. Gilbert’s Ida, by contrast, preaches women’s superiority to men by taking pride in the very stereotypes of feminine folly that conventionally have insulted women: their illogic, their talkativeness, their wiles. She proudly boasts,

 Diplomacy? The wiliest diplomat

 Is absolutely helpless in our hands,

 He wheedles monarchs—woman wheedles him!

 Logic? Why, tyrant Man himself admits

 It’s waste of time to argue with a woman!


Gilbert’s Ida exposes herself as absurd through her celebration of stereotypically “female” qualities, but in Tennyson’s poem, Ida and Psyche struggle more seriously and hopelessly not only with ideas of female intellectual capacity but also with those of female morality.[6] Clearly Ida’s threat of death for any man who enters her grounds is an almost parodic extreme of harshness, beyond even the brutality of the Prince’s father. Yet when the Prince, Florian, and Cyril encounter Psyche (Florian’s sister and now Ida’s closest friend and advisor) they appeal to her on the grounds of her “natural” tender-heartedness. Thus Florian plangently asks,

 [. . .] are you

 That Psyche, wont to bind my throbbing brow,

 To sooth my pillow, mix the foaming draught

 Of fever, tell me pleasant tales, and read

 My sickness down to happy dreams?


After similar rhetorical questions from his comrades, Florian goes on to perhaps the most blatant touch of all by asking,

 Are you that Psyche [. . .] to whom

 In gentler days, your arrow-wounded fawn

 Came flying while you sat beside the well?

 The creature laid his muzzle on your lap

 And sobb’d, and you sobb’d with it, and the blood

Was sprinkled on your kirtle, and you wept.


Here the delicacy and grace of the fawn mirrors the femininity of Psyche’s compassionate tears, bestowed, one might add, on a creature frequently hunted by men. (It is worth noting that when Gilbert rewrites this encounter he retains the form, in which the three men alternate questions beginning, “Are you that Psyche—“but alters the content of the questions so that they appeal to her intellectual vanity rather than to her feminine tenderness. Thus Gilbert’s Cyril asks,

 Are you that learned little Psyche, who

 At dinner parties, brought in to dessert,

 Would tackle visitors with, “You don’t know

 Who first determined longitude—I do—

 Hipparchus ‘twas—B.C. one sixty-three!”


Tennyson’s version obviously draws far more upon the ideal of Victorian womanhood as loving, nurturing domestic angel, yet this ideal becomes the instrument of what James Kincaid terms a “sentimental tyranny” (69). As Kincaid argues, Psyche is “recalled to an imaginary, womanized, selfhood quite at odds with the independent woman she has, with Ida’s help, presumably become” (69). The problem, however, is that Psyche’s “independent” alternative is to turn her brother and his comrades over to Ida for what all assume would be swift execution. Psyche herself accurately argues that such a resolute rejection of “nurturing care” (69) would represent the triumph of an entirely different model of morality: a public-spirited, resolutely non-domestic, and ruthlessly just morality that has always been typified as “male.” Psyche even uses Lucius Junius Brutus, who condemned his own sons to death for their conspiracy against the state, as her model of how she should behave. Addressing her male audience, Psyche correctly points out, “Him you call great; he for the common weal, / The fading politics of mortal Rome, / [. . .] Slew both his sons” (2.265-268). In doing so, she attempts to subscribe to a martial (and masculine) morality of civic responsibility that Linda Dowling describes as being consciously set in opposition to “effeminate” over-emphasis on domestic tenderness (5-12). Yet Psyche’s attempt fails, and her “failure” is in other terms a success; although refusing to honour Ida’s law, she proves herself too compassionate to send her brother and his friends to death. This is a compassion that the poem unequivocally celebrates, and were it to be endorsed equally for both male and female perhaps all readers would rejoice in it as well.

Yet is compassion shown as equally the province of masculinity and femininity in this poem? In the passages leading up to the climatic battle, Ida’s real flaw emerges not as “unfeminine” intellectual aspirations but as “unfeminine” bloodthirstiness. She retains the heroic stature she has had throughout the poem, but now the heroines with whom she is associated are progressively more disturbing. They include the “Titanic shapes” of Roman matrons “in wild revolt” against sumptuary regulations who “half-crush’d” cowering men (7.108-111): angry women whose rebellion is in no greater cause than the right to such personal ostentation as wearing as much gold as they want.[7] Ida watches the battle between her brothers’ and the Prince’s forces while she is flanked by statues of “a cymbal’d Miriam and a Jael” (5.500), and then she sings over the defeat of the Prince as Deborah sang over the defeat of the Israelites’ enemies. Although both Jael and Deborah are Biblical heroines, it is worth noting that the victory Deborah celebrates comes when Jael welcomes the captain of the Israelites’ enemy into her tent, promises to guard him while he sleeps, and then hammers a nail through his forehead while he slumbers (Judges 4.17-22). The ferocity of the story presumably is justified by its Biblical status, and yet this bloody violence stands in stark contrast to the gentleness of the Christ-figure Tennyson typically presents as his religious ideal. Perhaps the most disturbing image of all, however, is that of Tomyris, “queen of the Massagetae, who cut off the head of Cyrus the Great after defeating him, and dipped it in a skin which she had filled with blood and bade him, as he was insatiate of blood, to drink his fill, gorge himself with blood” (Tennyson, Poems 812n5). Here, male brutality meets equal female brutality; man and woman are peers in cruelty.

Ida’s resolute refusal to slacken her punitive laws, her initial willingness to torture Psyche by keeping her baby from her, her eagerness for warfare—all these might suggest that Ida, too, will find equality with men by adopting the worst aspects of “masculinity.” Yet once the battle is over, Ida insists upon the essential femininity of caregiving and nurture. She claims, as emphatically as the most conservative male believer in domestic womanhood, that women are uniquely and innately qualified for acts of mercy. Proudly she proclaims that she will open the gates of her previously all-female sanctuary to her wounded brothers so that they need “not lie in the tents with coarse mankind / Ill nurses” but instead may enjoy “the tender ministries / Of female hands and hospitality” (6.53-4, 56-57).

Ironically, it is this very claim whereby the defeated men force Ida herself to unexpected concessions: to give back Psyche’s child, to forgive Psyche herself, and to open her doors to all men, not only a select few. Earlier Ida had deplored men’s cruelty to women; now Arac reproaches her with the accusation, “you blame the man; / You wrong yourselves—the woman is so hard / Upon the woman” (6.204-206). Indeed, all the men, from the self-serving Cyril to the expedient Gama to the brutal King himself, join in a self-righteous group to condemn Ida’s harshness to her former friend. It is an amazing display of sensitivity, stirringly feminist in its advocacy of sisterhood—and therefore profoundly ironic coming from the mouths of these men. Yet to all appearances Tennyson is deaf to this irony. Certainly Ida bows to the moral authority these men wield—which seems an especially ironic acquiescence when one considers that moral authority is the weapon the Prince recommends to her at the poem’s end. Indeed, Ida’s complete capitulation comes when the King threatens her with the loss of an opportunity to provide care. Denying the claim to female moral superiority that Ida had made in her decision to tend her injured brothers and the wounded Prince, the King declares, “the rougher hand / Is safer. On to the tents; take up the Prince.” (6.261-262).

By any standard of consistency, it might seem that Ida would rejoice in an excuse not to take in and look after the unwelcome suitor she has been trying to repel. Yet the King’s words shame her not only into forgiving Psyche and agreeing to the admission of all the wounded warriors into her university but even into disbanding the university itself. She voluntarily and spontaneously resolves to send home the majority of her students, having decided that the time has not yet come for her educational plan. But why should Ida reach this conclusion? Presumably because the abandonment of a scheme of study clears the way for an emphasis on caretaking: all of the remaining students, it transpires, are natural nurses whose nursing of the men is inevitably “angelic.”

Thus the idealization of women emerges in full force: they are “creatures native unto gracious act” (7.12). Cloying as this is in many respects, it is worth noting that Tennyson’s poem at least values women for their characters and for their practice of virtues still acknowledged as admirable: compassion, gentleness, mercy. This is a far cry from Princess Ida’s lack of interest in any female attribute except beauty. In Tennyson’s poem, women are beautified by good works, for by performing “angel offices,” “she not fair began / To gather light, and she that was became / Her former beauty trebled” (7.11, 8-10); in Gilbert’s lyrics, men care nothing whether a woman is “Humble, haughty, coy, or free” (312) provided she has the requisite good looks.

The problem, perhaps, is not so much in the celebration of qualities usually associated with the domestic “angel” as in Tennyson’s equivocation—his obvious unease—with the extent to which such qualities should belong to men and women alike. Bernard Bergonzi blandly remarks that Tennyson’s vision of androgyny “is unlikely to be disturbing if simply confined to moral qualities” (47), but I would argue exactly the reverse. After all, the same Tennyson who celebrates androgyny in many of his poems is the Tennyson who wrote the 1889 poem “On One Who Affected an Effeminate Manner.” In that four-line poem, Tennyson moves from stating, “I prize that soul where man and woman meet” (2) to concluding sternly, “But, friend, man-woman is not woman-man” (4). Scholars are still puzzling over how to interpret that stinging final line, but the one completely clear deduction one can draw is that the merging of male and female characteristics can be as threatening in one view as it is desirable in another. Tennyson’s Prince shows the same ambivalence when, speaking about men and women, he declares that “in the long years liker must they grow; / The man be more of woman, she of man” (7.263-264) and yet also that men and women must be “Not like to like, but like in difference” (7.262). Amazingly, he identifies the way in which man must remain distinct from woman as the combination of physical strength and aggressiveness: “the wrestling thews that throw the world” (7.266). It is precisely that strength and that martial prowess that the Prince has conspicuously lacked throughout the poem and the excesses of which he has consistently criticized, yet it is this that he insists must remain unaltered—and marked as male. Significantly, too, he judges women’s defining characteristic to be “childward care” (7.267). Woman may develop “the larger mind” (7.268); indeed this mental development is desirable, for “If she be small, slight-natured, miserable, / How shall men grow?” (7.249-250). It is women’s (high) moral nature that must remain unchanged and female. One might remember here that numerous critics have pointed out that childcare, perhaps the most concentrated and most stereotypically “feminine” of caregiving roles, is linked to female subordination throughout the poem. From the point of view of one who wishes to preserve male power, the nature that finds fulfilment in giving care can be trusted to expand intellectually. Like the ideal Christian who “chooses” to be last, the intellectual yet caregiving woman presumably will accept subordination simply because her own tenderness forbids her to do otherwise. Meanwhile, man’s more flawed nature will leave him materially better-off because he simply doesn’t have the moral stature to forego his worldly advantages. As the Prince puts it,

 Were we ourselves but half as good, as kind,

 As truthful, much that Ida claims as right

 Had ne’er been mooted, but as frankly theirs

 As dues of Nature.


Less lyrically, if only men were women’s moral equals, they would gladly make women their equals in social power—but alas, they’re not, so they don’t. In this context, it becomes especially striking to learn just prior to the climatic battle that the Prince’s mother is still living (5.398). Thus we realize that the almost mythic figure whom the Prince eulogizes as one whom “all male minds perforce swayed to [. . .] from their orbits as they moved” (7.306-307) has played and will play no role in the prolonged drama of the Prince’s courtship. So much for the vaunted influence that her purity gives her! We remember then that although the Prince’s mother is “as mild as any saint” (1.22), her husband, the Prince’s father, “cared not for the affection of the house” (1.26). If he—or any other man—does not care for the sensibilities and sentiments of those around him, then not even the finest sensibility and sentiment will affect his actions.

Perhaps this, then, is the secret lying behind the hesitations and ambiguities of this poem. At some level both the poem and its creator (not to mention the reader) acknowledge the fact that moral stature has rarely, if ever, been a way to worldly power and that the “influence” of the “good” over the “worldly” is far more a rhetorical convention than a reality. Such being the case, the idea that women might grow more like men intellectually could seem far less threatening than the idea that men should grow like women (or rather the idealized idea of “Woman”) morally. In “Victorian Masculinity and the Angel in the House,” Carol Christ has argued convincingly that Tennyson and some of his contemporaries suffered from a pervasive sense of guilt over male moral inferiority to women. Yet the guilt of being inferior to an angel is surely more bearable than the truly terrifying threat that one might be called upon to be angelic oneself. Even in Tennyson’s poetic progress—his production, as Poet Laureate, of such irreproachably militaristic drum-beating as “The Charge of the Light Brigade”—one can see a nervous recoil from the “effeminacy” that some critics complained of in his earlier work. Insofar as The Princess fails in feminism, therefore, it may fail not so much because of unwillingness to imagine a new femininity as from fear of imagining a new masculinity. Even in its ambivalence and withdrawals, however, it remains a genuinely exploratory work that contrasts sharply with the glib complacencies of Gilbert’s lyrics to Princess Ida. The fact that Gilbert’s work came into being decades after Tennyson’s original reminds us that the history of ideas about gender has not been an unbroken forward progression. The fact that the conservatism of Gilbert’s vision rests upon a foundation of conceiving gender within the terms of sexuality rather than of morality reminds us not to over-emphasize sexuality in our attempts to reformulate ideas about roles for men and women.