Sir Walter Vivian holds a party on his great lawns one summer day. The speaker arrived from a college to visit his son, another Walter. Sir Walter shows the speaker the house with all of its art and objects gathered from various times and places. The family armor hangs from the wall. Walter explains the background of some of the famous armor and gives the speaker the family chronicle which was a “hoard of tales that dealt with knights / Half-legend, half-historic.” The chronicle mentions one noble woman who valiantly resisted an evil king and trampled some of his men below her horse’s hooves.
Walter interrupts the speaker from his reading and invites him to come back outside to the abbey where Aunt Elizabeth and Sister Lilia were waiting. The speaker acquiesces but keeps his finger in the book. They walk down the sloping pasture past sparkling fountains and reveling children and happy dancers, and they arrive at the ruins. They were “High-arched and ivy-claspt, / Of finest Gothic lighter than a fire.” There the ladies wait for them, having gaily covered a statue of Sir Ralph with a scarf.
The company talks together as they eat and the speaker reads from the chronicle. Walter pats his sister’s head after hearing the story of the heroic woman and asks where such women are now. Lilia answers promptly that there are thousands of women like that but men and convention keep them down. Walter teases her for her comments. A tale is called for by the Aunt, who turns to the speaker and says he should spin a story of himself “As you will, / Heroic if you will, or what you will, / Or be yourself you hero if you will.” Walter says Lilia must be made a great Princess in the story. The speaker agrees and says he will begin to speak, and the ladies can add their own songs when the men need “breathing-space.”
The speaker begins his tale, narrating as the Prince who is “blue-eyed, and fair in face, / Of temper amorous.” A sorcerer cursed the family because the grandsire of the family had him burned for having no shadow; the curse says that none of the line will know shadow from substance and that they will “come to fight with shadows and to fall.” The young prince has his share of seizures and seems to move as if in a “world of ghosts.” His mother is mild and kind, but his father is an absolute tyrant, full of bile.
The prince is betrothed to a young lady of a neighboring kingdom, and he spends his youth dreaming of her. However, when the time comes to unite the betrothed, letters come from the other King saying that the engagement is off because his daughter prefers to live alone with her women and refuses to wed. The prince stands with his two friends Cyril and Florian and listens to his father rage about the broken engagement. He vows to send a thousand men to retrieve her. The prince suggests that he might go; perhaps if his bride saw him she would forget her earlier pledges. The King angrily refuses, and the council dissolves.
The prince goes out into the woods and dreams of his bride and what he might do; finally, he hears a voice urging him to go and claiming that he shall win. The prince and his two friends sneak away from court in the evening. Although they fear observation, they succeed and leave without detection.
When they arrive at the court of King Gama, they are welcomed warmly. On the fourth day the prince speaks of the true reason for his visit, and the king sadly tells him of his daughter falling sway to the words of two widowed ladies, Lady Psyche and Lady Blanche, who “fed her theories, in and out of place / Maintaining that with equal husbandry / The woman were an equal to the man.” His daughter is concerned only for knowledge, and she took up residence with her ladies in a summer-house. There she founded a university for women. The king concludes that the prince’s chances are “at naked nothing.”
After leaving the court, the prince and his friends travel to a hostel back in the North. There they take council with their host, who suggests that they dress up as ladies and infiltrate the university where the princess resides. Having attained women’s clothing, the men ride to the house. It is filled with nightingales and the sound of splashing fountains. Two women come out and help them with their horses. Another plump woman offers them a place to stay, and they tell her they have come to enroll with Lady Psyche as their tutor.
Here a smaller poem is inserted, entitled “As through the land at eve we went.” It concerns a fight between husband and wife and their making up with teary kisses. They come upon the grave of the child they lost and once again “kissed with tears.”
The next morning the men are brought academic silks to wear, and they are told Princess Ida waits for them. They pass through the courts and observe lutes and books casually lying about. The princess sits in her throne with two tame leopards by her side. She is incredibly beautiful, “liker to the inhabitant / Of some clear planet close upon the Sun.” She welcomes the men (who she thinks are women) and asks where they are from. When she hears the answer she asks if they know the prince and is slightly annoyed when they offer silly compliments of him, saying that style of talk is not welcome here since it “makes us toys of men.”
Princess Ida goes into a speech about noble and important women in history and myth and explains how the fountain of knowledge is open to women here. She tells them they may go and that Lady Psyche has to go meet the new initiates, who flood in frequently.
The men go to the class where Lady Psyche waits, and Florian whispers that she is actually his sister. The beautiful lady also discourses on women’s quest for knowledge. After the class is dismissed Lady Psyche is startled to recognize her brother. She wonders at his disguise and cries out that he is a “wolf within the fold.” A sign above the door to the house says, “LET NO MAN ENTER IN ON PAIN OF DEATH.” The brother tries to calm his sister down and says that it would be absurd and awful if she slew him. He tells her the identity of the Prince, and the Prince warns that a war against men would ruin everything they worked for.
The men remind Lady Psyche of memories when they were all young together. She is affected by this and wonders why she cannot be a great Spartan Mother and a female Lucius Brunius. She laments, “when love and duty clash!” Finally her heart warms, and she embraces her brother and asks after their mother.
The group hears a voice from the doorway saying a message is here from Lady Blanche; it is her lovely daughter, Melissa. Melissa assures them she will not tell of what she has seen and heard. Lady Psyche tells the men to keep their hoods close over their faces and not to speak or mix with the rest of the pupils.
That day the men hear lessons from several women professors and discuss how they believe “they do all this as well as we.” The dinner bell rings, and they proceed to join the many charming women in the long hall. The prince keeps his eyes on Ida, who sits with the professors. Lady Blanche, older and grimmer than the rest, looks at them with daggers in her eyes. After dinner the men pass by groupings of women talking and reclining. They hear some of the older ones say they do not want to learn anymore and want to be married and run a household.
Here a smaller poem entitled “Sweet and low, sweet and low” is included. It concerns wind blowing over the sea and from the moon. A woman hopes the wind will blow her beloved back to her as she holds their baby on her breast. She coos to the baby that Father will come home soon and that the child must sleep.
In the morning Melissa comes to the men cloaked in grief. She tells them they must fly because her mother knows the truth of their identity. When asked how this happened, Melissa explains that her mother was complaining about Lady Psyche, as she was wont to do because she was jealous of her, and she began complaining about the new pupils. When she scoffed that they were like men, Melissa’s face colored and her mother noticed. Melissa finally admitted what happened to her mother, who was going to tell Princess Ida and Lady Psyche early this morning. Completing her tale, she tells the men once more to leave. Cyril says he has an idea of how to remedy the situation, and leaves.
Florian asks Melissa what the conflict is between Lady Psyche and Lady Blanche. Melissa explains that Lady Blanche helped raise Princess Ida and hated her own husband. Then Lady Psyche became a close friend of the Princess and Lady Blanche saw her place usurped; she calls Lady Psyche a “plagiarist.” Melissa is overcome and leaves, and Florian gazes after her with love in his eyes.
Cyril returns and speaks of the hard battle fought with words between himself and Lady Blanche. He brings the prince and Florian to her, and she demands to know why they are there. The prince tells her of the affiancing and begs her not to punish Melissa. He conceives a plan and tells her that if she will help him secure the princess, when they rule the land he will give her a palace where she will “reign / The head and the heart of all our fair she-world.” She decides to think upon the matter, but later a letter from her arrives telling the men to go with the Princess when she and some of her ladies ventured on a trip North.
The group departs on their pleasant journey, but while they are proceeding one of the shadow seizures comes upon the prince; he sees the princess as “a hollow show” and her companions as “empty masks.” After this subsides he rides nearer to her and speaks of the prince (who is actually himself). The princess marvels at this line of talk and asks if he is the man’s ambassadress. The two engage in a discussion about the meaningfulness or lack thereof in a woman’s life as the princess has chosen; the princess refutes the idea that children are necessary. She says children can die but “great deeds cannot die.” The prince begins to wonder if she can ever be won.
They continue in their debate and finally arrive at their destination, where they raise a white tent and then the three men and Lady Psyche, Melissa, and Princess Ida continue up the crags a bit further.
Here a shorter poem, “The Splendor Falls on Castle Walls,” is included. It depicts a scene as from a fairytale: castle walls, a long lake, bugles from Elfland blowing, and echoes rolling across the land and from soul to soul.
Ida suggests sitting down and resting, and in the “broidered down” they sink to the ground. The princess asks for a song and one of her maids acquiesces.
Here a shorter poem, “Tears, Idle Tears” (see elsewhere in this guide) is included.
At the close of the song the princess disdainfully criticizes the poem for its fancies in “silken-folded idleness.” She asks the prince to sing a song from his homeland, and he sings “O Swallow” about love. She also mocks this poem as indicative of the falseness of love and the reality of the inequality between husbands and wives. She comments, “Would this same mock-love, and this / Mock-Hymen were laid up like winter bats, / Till all men grew to rate us at our worth, / No vassals to be beat.”
Cyril begins to sing a song, but not thinking clearly, he chooses a bawdy tavern song. It suddenly becomes apparent to the women that their companions are actually men, and they try to flee in fright. Unfortunately, the princess misses the plank and falls into the river. The prince immediately jumps in after her and saves her life. He feels a sense of shame and retreats into the woods until he comes to the garden portals and their great statues of Art and Science. He paces back and forth until Florian discovers him. Florian tells him the women are clamoring for their seizure; he says that Melissa was questioned but remained silent. Psyche and Cyril have fled, perhaps together. The two men are found by two Proctors of the princess and brought before her. Eight huge laboring women stand by the princess.
Melissa is sobbing, but Lady Blanche stands proud and erect. She begins to speak to the princess about the waning of their relationship and the injustice she suffers from losing her place as the princess’s favored companion, especially to Lady Psyche, who is “younger, not so wise, / A foreigner.” She tries to insinuate that Lady Psyche was guilty of colluding with the men and then concludes by saying she has wasted her health, youth, and talent ministering to the princess. Ida responds coldly that Blanche is dismissed. Enraged, Lady Blanche prepares to take her daughter away when a woman bursts in and gives the princess two letters. After reading them, her body quivering and her emotions writ large on her face, she thrusts them at the prince and tells him to read them.
One, from her father, says he has been taken captive by the prince’s father until his daughter will cleave to their contract. The other is from his father, spelling out these terms. The prince tries to appeal to the princess and assure her of his love for her that has existed since childhood, but she is infuriated by his words.
Before addressing him she turns to her women and tells them not to fear as she is their head, and she is preparing to meet these “male thunderbolts” with all the fury and power she can summon. The crowd dissolves, and she turns to the prince. She thanks him for saving her life but tells him unequivocally that there is no way she will marry him: “Your falsehood and yourself are hateful to us: I trample on your offers and you.” He pleads his case but fails. On the way out the prince has another seizure and becomes exceedingly melancholy.
Here a short poem, “Thy voice is heard through rolling drums,” about a man whose recollections of his family spur him to do fierce battle, is included. The poem is a song breaking through the tale of the prince and princess by Lilia.
The prince goes to speak to his father, who is meeting with Gama. Upon seeing his son the king says Gama is free now, and he chides his son and tells him to “make yourself a man to fight with men.” Cyril joins with Florian and the prince, and pardons are exchanged. Cyril explains that he came across Psyche weeping and brought her back with him. The three men go to the tent where Psyche waits, covered in a blanket and looking utterly despondent. Florian tells her to lift her head up. She does so but moans in despair about having betrayed her friend, the princess, and having lost her child. She fears the child will either die from neglect, or become sick, or be turned hard and cold and against her mother.
After leaving Psyche, the prince and his friends return to the kings. The prince’s father, still irate, said he would make war on Ida if she does not agree to adhere to the marriage contract. Gama asks the prince what he thinks. The young man says that he loves Ida and does not want to make war against her: “More soluble is this knot, / By gentleness than war. I want her love.” His father scoffs at his attitude and tells him women are meant to be hunted by men. The prince says he believes women are different from one another, as men are, and want different things. Gama is impressed by the prince’s words and says he would be glad to have him marry his daughter. However, the prince will need to go speak with Gama’s son and Ida’s brother, Arac, as the man is “thrice / As ours with Ida.”
Gama and the prince ride across the field past the squadrons of the prince. There they find Arac, of whom “all about his motion clung / The shadow of his sister.” Arac talks to the prince and concedes that his sister “flies too high” but that he must stand by her side, as he has sworn it. He asks the prince to waive his claim, and the prince wonders if he ought to. Then one of the other brothers insults him and his friends, and it is decided to have the three brothers of Ida fight the prince and his two friends.
Envoys are sent to Ida to see if she will cede their claim, but the response is hostile and firm. The eight large women come out of the house where Ida stands tall, stately, and immovable within, and push the envoy away.
Before the battle, the prince reads a letter sent to Arac by Ida. It explains her reasons for living apart from men but says that he and his men are the only ones she will countenance being part of her life. She hopes he will win, but tells him not to take the prince’s life as he had saved her own. She then warns him against traitors in his camp (she having experience with that phenomenon) and tells him she is growing to love Psyche’s child. Hearing the contents of the letter, the prince’s father harshly tells his son that Ida is a colt and that he should “take, break her.” The prince cherishes the part of the letter admonishing Arac not to take his life.
All at once the shadows come upon the prince again, and he remembers the sorcerer’s curse. The fighting begins, and the prince is astonished at Arac’s prowess. At one point he sees Ida watching the fight from above in the palace. The prince is almost felled, but Florian steps in. Arac rides Florian down and Cyril pushes back. Arac and the prince are locked in fierce combat when the prince is bested, and “dream and truth / Flowed from me; darkness closed me; and I fell.”
The prince lay in some “mystic state” as in a coma. Cries rise up that the people’s prince was slain, and his father rushes to him, groveling on his body. Ida stands above them and sings a song about how her enemies have fallen. She tells her maids that their sanctuary is violated, and they might as well use their hands to minister to the dying and the wounded. Holding Psyche’s child in her arms, she descends to the battlefield, Blanche trailing behind.
She calls her wounded brethren “dear deliverers” and “happy warriors” as she kneels over them. She then chances across the wounded prince with his grizzled father weeping over him. A “twitch of pain” afflicts her grim mouth, and she acknowledges that her brother has killed this man, who saved her life. A bit of sympathy prompts her to kneel down, and she discovers the prince is not dead. She says she will tend him as her own brothers. As her words “he lives; he is not dead” enliven his father, the little child sees her mother, Lady Psyche. She ardently wants to go to her, and the mother, seeing her child as well, is near prostrate with emotion. The princess observes Cyril, the singer of the awful song, and becomes tall and stern. Cyril rebukes her for having no heart and keeping mother and child separated from each other.
Ida listens and then sinks into “mournful mellowing.” She tells the child she was the “sole comfort” in her dark hour, and once dreamed that she could be hers. She tells the child she hopes her mother will not prove false to her, as Lady Psyche proved false to the princess. The child is given back to Psyche, who hugs her passionately. Psyche turns to Ida and says while she is going to go away, she hopes for Ida’s forgiveness.
Ida is silent, immovable, and fixated on the child. Arac begs her to forgive Psyche, but still she says nothing. Gama also speaks to her, saying, “I’ve heard that there is iron in the blood, / And I believe it. Not one word?” He admonishes her, saying she must love no one at all, not even her deceased mother.
Ida feels a “drooping languor” steal through her, and her form bends a bit, although she says nothing. The prince’s father says he is going to remove his son from her proffered care as she might “mix his draught with death.. Finally, Ida breaks; she is suffused with warmth and light. She calls to her friend to come to her and reconcile. She explains to Psyche that while she may trust her less, she does not love her less. She reiterates that her ladies will take all of the men to take care of them, noting bitterly that “our laws are broken.”
The men are all carried in, and daylight breaks over the hall. It seems as if “everything is changed.”
Here a small poem is included entitled “Ask me no more.” It concerns a speaker being asked a question, most likely about the inquirer’s health, and the speaker saying he or she does not want to be asked anymore. The person is most likely dying, and the speaker is loath to speak about it or contemplate its reality.
The sanctuary of the women is violated and turned into a hospital, but a “sweet order” and a “kindlier influence reigned.” Ida’s soul is mournful, however, as she contemplates her weakness and shame. She sees the men swarming through the once isolated and pure place and thinks her old studies failed. However, she finally comes down and finds a degree of peace among the sick.
The prince lingers close to death. Psyche attends her brother Florian and occasionally Melissa, left by Blanche, flits in. Florian soon heals completely, and he and Melissa pledge their troth. Cyril and Psyche also fall in love and obtain a quiet half-consent from Ida. Love seems to strike many a man and woman in the courts and hall of the summer-house once used as a university.
A change even comes upon Ida. As the prince vacillates between life and death, sometimes not knowing himself or she who sits with him, he finally wakes one evening to find her near him. He asks her if her soft, round, and warm form, so different from before, is a dream; if it is, he asks that she remain as such, but if she is real and as before, he hopes she will say nothing. It is then that Ida’s “falser self slipt from her like a robe, / And left her woman, lovelier in her mood / Than her mould that other.” She has fallen in love with the prince.
She reads a small poem inserted in the text entitled, “Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white,” which concerns ethereal, profound love between two people. She then reads another passage entitled, “Come down, O maid, from yonder mountain height” about a maid descending from her lofty abode in the hills to the valley where she will find love.
Ida speaks to the prince, telling him she knows she has failed in everything she has tried to accomplish, and that she had learned much quickly from nursing him. She still feels loath to yoke herself to a man, but feels guilty for her past rigidity.
The prince tries to comfort her, telling her not to blame herself and suggesting that from now on he will be her helper and they will rise or sink together. He paints a picture of the new equality between men and women that is sure to spring up, and she sighs that she wishes it could be true. He responds that it will be true for them: “Dear, but let us type them now / In our own lives.” She wonders if it is all a dream and what woman could have taught him these things.
The prince explains that his beloved mother has made it so that “faith in womankind” pulses in his blood. The prince discourses on how much he loves Ida, telling her, “Indeed I love thee: come, / Yield thyself up: my hopes and thine are one: / Accomplish thou my manhood and thyself; / Lay thy sweet hands in mine and trust to me.”
The speaker concludes the story, and Walter says he wishes the princess had not yielded. A debate ensues regarding how best to tell that tale. Lilia does not participate but sits and reflects. As the sun begins to set, the guests depart Sir Walter’s home. After walking about the grounds a bit with his friends, the speaker returns to the abbey. Darkness draws deep, and they sit “rapt in nameless reverie.” Lilia rises and takes her scarf off of the statue of Sir Ralph. They all get up and leave the solemn and enchanting ruins.
This long narrative poem is not often read in its entirety by modern readers, although some of the smaller poems contained within, including “Tears, Idle Tears” and “Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white,” are some of the most famous in Tennyson’s oeuvre. “The Princess” was published in 1847. It is both serious and comic and has famously been adapted into a comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan, Princess Ida. An earlier edition did not include the smaller poems, such as “The Splendor Falls on Castle Walls,” which were added in the 1850 edition. The full title is often given as “The Princess: A Medley” to connote the fact that the poem includes different sections improvised by different speakers (although the reader is not aware of which of the partygoers is speaking). It is generally known that Tennyson and his friends did this very same thing while at Cambridge.
The poem was composed because of Tennyson’s growing interest in the state of women’s equality in his country, particularly with regard to education. There is evidence to suggest he discussed the issue with his fiancée, Emily Sellwood; he may have also been responding to the 1847 creation of Queen’s College, London, the first women’s college in Britain. Tennyson’s son’s memoir stated that his father once said, “the two great social questions impending in England were ‘the education of the poor man before making him our master, and the higher education of women.’”
The poem contains a prologue and a conclusion in addition to seven long cantos and the inserted poems. The prologue and conclusion are very much like the devices used in “The Epic” for “Morte d’Arthur”; they are a framing narrative in which a speaker (in this case, several speakers) are telling a tale which makes up the poem itself. Here a young college man is visiting the home of one of his friends and engaging in an outdoor Victorian fete amidst picturesque ruins. When a comment is made that there are no noble, heroic women in the present day, a story of such a woman is called for.
The entertaining and oftentimes brilliant poem consists of a princess who, disdainful of the coarse and patronizing world of men, forms an all-female university. Guided by two of her friends, Lady Blanche and Lady Psyche, the university is devoted to the teachings of philosophy and the arts. A neighboring prince who was betrothed to the princess when young takes two of his friends and, disguised as women, they enter the grand summer-house where the princess reigns in order to change her mind about not wanting to marry him. Their identities discovered, chaos ensues as the women try to flee the men’s presence. The princess tumbles into the river and almost drowns, but the prince saves her life. Following this, a battle takes place between the princess’s brother and the prince; the latter is gravely wounded. The princess decides to nurse the prince back to health, since he had saved her life, and her cold heart begins to thaw. When he wakes from his coma, he finds her changed, and the two confess their love for each other.
The poem is both serious and comic; this is best articulated in one of the last lines of the poem, uttered by a partygoer at Sir Walter’s: “Too comic for the solemn things they are, / Too solemn for the comic touches in them.” This is one of the reasons why some critics do not think the poem entirely succeeds. They also point to the greater worth of the smaller poems contained within; indeed, “Tears, Idle Tears” is one of the most famous Victorian poems. The critic William Flesch writes, “the real poetic point of The Princess (as opposed to its somewhat uninteresting polemical point) is to make it possible to present the songs without the kind of context that would explain them and therefore explain away their power.”
By the end of the poem the princess has fallen in love and seemingly embraced the idea of marriage and childbearing. The prince’s words regarding the best sort of marriage, one that is equal and affirming, suggest what their union might be like: “and in true marriage lies / Nor equal, nor unequal: each fulfills / Defect in each, and always thought in thought, / Purpose in purpose, will in will, they grow, / The single pure and perfect animal, / The two-celled heart beating, with one full stroke, / Life.” However, the way Tennyson deals with the change in Ida and the probable marriage between her and the prince leaves readers with an understanding that the poet wishes to strongly impart what Ida has and what she is giving up in order to be married. The critic James Kincaid has identified this as “the lofty, appallingly cold but magnificent height of the undefeated personality.”
Kincaid notes that Tennyson uses various rhetorical means to increase the reader’s approval of the princess. Her words are calm, rational, and sophisticated; they never veer into hysteria or ranting. She is not a complete radical, for she desires not to eradicate marriage or promote celibacy, but to attain a readjustment in gender relations in society. She is deeply serious, and her nobility grows as the poem progresses. Her heroism is “defined largely as her ability to resist for so long the lure of the natural,” and while the poem is a poem of normality, “in its secret heart it seems to lament the failure of the grandly abnormal.”
Ida seeks to fulfill this readjustment through the power of language. She understands how language can reinforce and promote convention and paternalism, chiding the men-disguised-as-women for their insipid compliments. Words, however, contribute to Ida’s downfall. The hostile and relentless verbal attacks on Ida by her father, the prince’s father, and her brother are similar to the attack on Lady Psyche by Florian, Cyril, and the prince, who seek to sway her to their side by reminding her of her past.
At the end of the poem, the fact that Ida does not even speak and the prince has the last word is disturbing to those who have appreciated Ida’s agency. It indicates, as Kincaid notes, a “deeply regressive tendency.” Despite the prince’s words, there is a lingering feeling that not too much is going to change; “nothing can throw off the dead hand of convention.” Even Sir Walter, the condescending patriarch, feels a little let down by the end, saying he wishes Ida had not yielded.