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Tennyson and the Mountain-Maid

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  • Publication Year: 1950

Tennyson and the Mountain-Maid

David Allan Robertson, Jr.

To praise the “small Sweet Idyl” in Book VII of Tennyson’s Princess has been natural and customary for these last hundred years. It is evidently most uncommon, on the other hand, to venture identification, in print, of the maid and the mountain that figure in the first line:

Come down, O maid, from yonder mountain height …

Who is the maid, and what is the mountain ? Many readers, one supposes, have found their own answers, simply in reading through the poem; and surely at least a few of them must have remarked before now, if only privately, that it is possible to answer in Alpine terms. I particularly like to think that Leslie Stephen may have seen this possibility, or at any rate would have acknowledged it promptly on hearing it suggested: he tells us that in 1862 he read The Princess at Grindelwald.1 To him, and to some others, an Alpine interpretation of the line may have seemed too obvious to need exposition. However that may be, it has apparently not been divulged.

That the mountain setting of the poem was inspired by the Bernese Oberland is, I believe, conclusively established. Hallam Tennyson recorded that the lines were written “chiefly at Lauter- brunnen and Grindelwald,” during his father’s Continental sojourn of 1846;2 and Douglas Freshfield heard from the poet himself that the “ ‘ wreaths of dangling watersmoke’ [line 22] were suggested by the Vale of Lauterbrunnen; ‘the firths of ice’ [line 15] by the glaciers of Grindelwald, and ‘the azure pillars of the hearth’ [line 25] by the smoke of cottages in the Vale of Meiringen seen from the ascent to the Brünig.”3 Moreover, there is in line 13 what seems to be an unmistakable reference to two well-known peaks in the Oberland:

nor cares to walk With Death and Morning on the Silver Horns …4

The Silberhorn (3702 m.) and the Klein Silberhorn (3542 m.) abut on the Jungfrau (4166 m.) and are features of the view admired by tourists. During even the briefest sojourn in the Oberland, one could very easily become aware of their existence and position.5 I think that Tennyson must have had the two Silberhörner in mind when he wrote “Silver Horns,” and that undoubtedly he connected them with the larger mountain that looms above them. Further, I would suggest that he meant by “yonder mountain height,” in line 1, the Jungfrau.6

Who is the “maid” ? A century ago, as Mile. Claire-Éliane Engel has observed, “there were no lady mountaineers and no country girls would ever have thought of walking ‘with death and morning on the silver horns.’”7 Fifty-two years elapsed between the first ascent of the Jungfrau in 1811, by the brothers Meyer, and the first ascent by a lady—a Mrs. Stephen Winkworth, English.8 The Silberhorn was not climbed at all until 1863; it was not climbed by a lady until 1871, when it fell to the indefatigable Meta Claudia Brevoort, maiden aunt of the Rev. W.A.B. Coolidge, Alpine historian9 The Klein Silberhorn was unclimbed until 1874.10 Mile. Engel’s statement seems to be amply corroborated, at least as far as the Jungfrau and the Silberhörner are concerned. Mile. Engel herself suggests that Tennyson’s “lady venturing in the mountains was but a poetic dream, a sort of fairy who ‘glides a sunbeam by the blasted pine,’ or ‘sits a star upon the sparkling spire.’ ”11 This seems to me only a partial answer to the question. Similarly, I think it insufficient— though again undoubtedly very helpful—to describe the maid merely as an Alpine counterpart of the sea-nymph Galatea, in the Eleventh Idyll of Theocritus, or to identify her solely with the Princess. Ida herself sees a likeness, it is true; so must we all of us. But having been told that the Princess read this “small Sweet Idyl” from a “volume of the Poets of her land,” one must surely be ready to concede that the lines can have had, and can still have, existence outside the “medley”—something that they have had to maintain, of course, in many anthologies. Poetic dream, Swiss Galatea, Princess Ida: unquestionably each has a part. But the maid, too, I would suggest, is primarily the Jungfrau.

So obvious is the ready-made personification of the great mountain, so inescapable a part of a tourist’s experience in the Oberland, that one hardly needs to wonder whether Tennyson was stirred to write his poem by some particular legend. Let it suffice to say that the name Jungfrau occurred as early as 1577, and that the most popular explanation was the one derived from the mountain’s snowy whiteness and apparent inaccessibility.12 For the same reasons, it is unnecessary, I think, to hunt for possible stimuli in versified addresses to the Jungfrau by other, earlier poets. Such poems do exist—for example, Samuel Gottlieb Hünerwadel’s “Ode an die Jungfrau,” in the first issue of Alpenrosen (1811), and Alfred de Musset’s “Au

Yung-Frau,” in Contes d’Espagne et d’ltalie (1829).13 So far as I am aware, however, the only earlier address to the Maid-Mountain that can be said to have any special interest for a reader of Tennyson is “The Jungfrau,” in Continental Fragments (Dublin, 1839), by Charles Richard Weld. The chances are, I should say, that Tennyson had seen Weld’s poem, for in 1842 Weld married Anne Sellwood, sister of Alfred’s Emily and of Charles Tennyson Turner’s wife, Louisa. Between Tennyson and Weld, indeed, there seems to have been considerable intimacy.14 Weld’s apostrophe begins:

Thou giant Alp, co-eval with this world,

Fit shrine for an Almighty’s majesty,

How beautiful, and yet sublime thou art;—

Awe struck, my aching eyes can hardly gaze,

And contemplate thy hoary dazzling crest,

So lofty does it mount to heaven’s blue dome,

As if ’twould converse hold with spirits there…

It may be that, as Tennyson wrote “Come down, O maid,” the thirty-two lines of Weld were somewhere in his mind, consorting oddly with lines of Theocritus and Virgil; but it is obvious that there are marked differences between the two poems. Casting about for the stimulus that moved Tennyson directly, one turns back from Continental Fragments to the Oberland itself. In perpetual readiness for imaginative treatment, by any poet who will try his hand, stands the proposition Jungfrau is maiden is mountain.15

1 “The Jungfraujoch,” The Playground of Europe, ed. H.E.G. Tyndale (New York, 1937), pp. 65, 74.

2 Alfred Lord Tennyson, A Memoir (New York, 1911), I, 252.

3 Alpine Journal, XVIII (1897), 409, Cf. A.]., XXX (1916), 371-2. C.-É. Engel, La littérature alpestre en France et en Angleterre (Chambéry, 1930), p. 181, cites Freshfield as authority when she speaks of “le décor de The Princess emprunté à l’Oberland Bernois…

4 The early editions read “Silver Horns,” not “silver horns.” I have examined

the first four (1847, 1848, 1850, 1851) in the Columbia University Library. According to Churton Collins, all editions till 1860 read “Silver Horns.” See his edition of In Memoriam, The Princess, and Maud (London, 1902), p. 260. A number of editors and anthologists, but by no means all, have taken care to retain the capitals. It is surprising to find among those who have discarded the capitals certain anthologists of Alpine literature and contributors to the Alpine Journal.

5 They are clearly distinguished in the Oberland guidebooks published at Bern by J. J. Burgdorfer (1816 and 1838), and in the third (1846) edition of “Murray”— A Hand-Boo\ for Travellers in Switzerland, and the Alps of Savoy and Piedmont.

6 Remarkably few of the many editors seem to have understood anything of the significance of “Silver Horns.” W. J. Rolfe (1898), Churton Collins (1902), and Van Dyke and Chambers (1903) suggested an allusion to the Silberhorn; and at least three others, following, have acknowledged Rolfe’s lead. But none, so far as I know, has explained why Tennyson’s plural makes sense or connected this reference with the first line of the poem.

7 “Early Lady Climbers,” Alpine Journal, LIV (1943), 54.

8 For a full account of the Meyers, see H. Dübi, “The Early Swiss Pioneers of the Alps,” Alpine Journal, XXXIII (1920-21), 77-99. For Mrs. Winkworth and her party, see G. Studer, Über Eis und Schnee (2nd ed., Bern, 1896), I, 156; H[enry] C[ockburn], “J. J. Bennen,” The Pioneers of the Alps, edd. E. D. Cunningham and W. de W. Abney (2nd ed, London, 1888), p. 152; and “The Jungfrau conquered by an English Lady,” Alpine Journal, XXXII (1918-19), 343-6, with picture.

9 E. von Fellenberg, Der Ruf der Berge, ed. E. Jenny (Zurich, 1928), pp. 28-30; Studer, op. cit., I, 182.

10 “Cunningham and Abney, edd., op. cit., p. 159; Alpine Journal, XLIV (1932),110.

11 “Early Lady Climbers,” Alpine Journal, LIV (1943), 54.

12 A. Wäber, “Die Bergnamen des Berner Oberlandes vor dem XIX. Jahrhundert,” Jahrbuch des Schweizer Alpenclub, XXVIII (1892), 235-63; H. Hartmann, “Der Name Jungfrau,” Blätter für Bernische Geschichte, Kunst, Altertums\unde, IV (1908), 195-200.

13 For Hünerwadel, see A. Ludin, Der schweizerische Almanach “Alpenrosen” und Seine Vorgänger (1780-1830) (Zürich, 1902), pp. 119, 177-8. Concerning Musset, C.-É. Engel and C. Vallot remark, in Ces Monts sublimes (Paris, 1936), pp. 79- 80, “Aussi, dans ses éblouissants Contes d’Espagne et d’ltalie, Alfred de Musset, à dix- huit ans, adresse une invocation un peu banale Au Jung-Frau qu’il n’a jamais vu.”

14 Agnes Grace Weld, Glimpses of Tennyson and of Some of His Relations and Friends (London, 1902), pp. 30-35; Sir Charles Tennyson, Alfred Tennyson (New York, 1949), pp. 243, 330, 380. See also T[homas] S[eccombe], “Charles Richard Weld (1813-69),” DNB., XX, 1067-8. Tennyson inscribed to Weld a copy of the third edition of The Princess (1850), now in the Pierpont Morgan Library.

15 One expects German-speaking writers to have made something of this, in writing about Tennyson or in translating the poem. Gustav Schirmer has four casual but suggestive words in description of the “Idyl,” in Die Schweiz im Spiegel englischer und ameri\anischer Literatur bis 1848 (Zürich and Leipzig, 1929), p. 385: “die Verherrlichung der Jungfrau.” These words have inspired fellow feeling without dispelling my opinion that something more ought still to be said. As for translators, I am much indebted to Dr. Edgar Breitenbach and to Dr. Gisela von Busse for the information that Adolf Strodtmann began his version of the poem, in Lieder- und Bal- ladenbuch amerikanischer und englischer Dichter der Gegenwart (Hamburg, 1862), p. 174, with the uncompromisingly literal line, “Steig nieder, Maid, von jener Berges- höh!”

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