Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tennyson’s Lady Godiva 1842 #1

I WAITED for the train at Coventry;
I hung with grooms and porters on the bridge,
To match the three tall spires; and there I shaped
The city’s ancient legend into this:—


Yo freddy dude, hanging with ya porter homeys...whoops...

In Tennyson’s version, mothers bring their starving children to Lady G, who goes to her husband and asks him to remit the tax. This conversation follows:

‘You would not let your little finger ache
For such as these?’—‘But I would die,’ said she.
He laugh’d, and swore by Peter and by Paul;
Then fillip’d at the diamond in her ear;
‘O ay, ay, ay, you talk!’—‘Alas!’ she said,
‘But prove me what it is I would not do.’

(Prove here means test)


He says: “ride naked through the town”, and strides off with his dogs. Inspired by pity she agrees, sends out heralds to make sure everyone stays locked in doors until midday and rides out. One “churl” (The story is so well known Tennyson doesn’t need to name him.) tries to look and is blinded by "the Powers" before he can see anything. She gets back as the town clock strikes twelve and the tax is remitted. In Tennyson’s handling of the poem, the story’s oddness is evident. OF all the things that Leofric could ask her to do, why does he choose this one? None of the versions of the story adequately explain this choice.

The town architecture is voyeuristic.

The little wide-mouth’d heads upon the spout
Had cunning eyes to see: the barking cur
Made her cheek flame: her palfrey’s footfall shot
Light horrors thro’ her pulses: the blind walls
Were full of chinks and holes; and overhead
Fantastic gables, crowding, stared:

In one sense this highlights how acutely exposed she feels, but in another reading it displaces the voyeurism of the poem on to inanimate objects and one scapegoat. I don't see how this works myself.

Two things at least, are odd about Tennyson’s Lady G. The first is that her husband implicitly accuses her of hypocrisy, when he plays with the diamond at her ear, the implication is “this would stop them from starving; your wealth is based on their starvation”. And why she doesn't simply offer to pay the [fictional]tax remains unaswered.

The second is that realistically she risks very little. The townsfolk, whether for love of her or simple self interest, have a huge incentive to stay indoors and the “Powers” (not God incidentally) look after her to the point of blinding some poor churl before he even gets to peek. So what does she risk? How is she heroic? One answer is that her only cultural capital, which she risks to prove her courageis her reputation and her reputation is tied inextricably to her body.In fact her body is her only cultural capital. So a man might prove his courage by fighting, or by climbing mountains, all she can do is strip off and ride naked round town, risking shame in a good cause.
More later.

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