Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (18091892)
[Alfred Tennyson was born on Aug. 6, 1809, at Somersby Rectory, Lincolnshire. He was the third son of the Rev. George Clayton Tennyson, LL.D., Rector of Somersby; his mother was a daughter of the Rev. Stephen Fytche. After education at Louth Grammar School, and at home, he went in 1828 to Trinity College, Cambridge. His Poems, chiefly Lyrical, appeared in 1830. In 1850, having meanwhile won the foremost place among living English poets, he succeeded Wordsworth as Poet Laureate (Nov. 19). In June of the same year he married Miss Emily Sellwood. His first home after marriage was at Twickenham, where his eldest son, Hallam, was born in 1852. In 1853 he removed to Farringford, near Freshwater, in the Isle of Wight, where his second son, Lionel, was born in 1854. From the year 1869 onwards he had also a second home, Aldworth, near Haslemere in Surrey, where he usually passed the summer and early autumn. In January, 1884, he was created a peer, by the title of Baron Tennyson, of Aldworth and Farringford. He died at Aldworth on Oct. 6, 1892, aged eighty-three years and two months; and on Oct. 12 was buried in Westminster Abbey.]
THE GIFTS by which Tennyson has won, and will keep, his place among the great poets of England are pre-eminently those of an artist. His genius for vivid and musical expression was joined to severe self-restraint, and to a patience which allowed nothing to go forth from him until it had been refined to the utmost perfection that he was capable of giving to it. And his law of pure and flawless workmanship (as Matthew Arnold defines the artistic quality in poetry) embraced far more than language: the same instinct controlled his composition in the larger sense; it is seen in the symmetry of each work as a whole, in the due subordination of detail, in the distribution of light and shade, in the happy and discreet use of ornament. His versatility is not less remarkable: no English poet has left masterpieces in so many different kinds of verse. On another side the spiritual subtlety of the artist is seen in the power of finding words for dim and fugitive traits of consciousness; as the artists vision, at once minute and imaginative, is seen in his pictures of nature. By this varied and consummate excellence Tennyson ranks with the great artists of all time.
This is the dominant aspect of his poetry. But there is another which presents itself as soon as we take the historical point of view, and inquire into the nature of his influence upon his age. Tennyson was not primarily, like Wordsworth, a philosophical thinker, who felt called upon to be a teacher. But from the middle of the century onwards he was the accepted poet, in respect to thought on religion and on many social questions, of that large public which might be described as the world of cultivated and moderately liberal orthodoxy. Multitudes of these readers were imperfectly capable of appreciating him as an artist: have not some of them been discussing who is the Pilot in Crossing the Bar? But at any rate they heard a voice which they could generally understand; they felt that it was beautiful and noble; and they loved it because it soothed and elevated them. They cherished a poet who placed the centre of religion in a simple reliance on the divine love; who taught that, through all struggles and perplexities, the time was being guided towards some final good; who saw the results of science not as dangers but as reinforcements to faith; who welcomed material progress and industrial vigour, but always sought to maintain the best traditions of English history and character. Now, this popular element in Tennysons fameas it may be called relatively to those elements which sprang from a full appreciation of his artwas not due to any conscious self-adaptation on his part to prevailing currents of thought and feeling. It arose from the peculiar relation of his genius to the period in which he grew up to manhood. His early youth was in England a day of bright dreams and confident auguries; for democracy and steam, all things were to be possible. Then came the reaction; doubts and difficulties thickened; questions started up in every field, bringing with them unrest, discouragement, or even despair. At such a season the poet who is pre-eminently an artist has a twofold opportunity; by creating beauty he can comfort the weary; but a yet higher task is to exercise, through his art, an ennobling and harmonizing influence on those more strenuous yet half-desponding spirits who bear the stress of the transition, while new and crude energies are threatening an abrupt breach with the past. It is a great work to do for a people, to win the popular ear at such a time for counsels of reverence and chivalry; to make them feel that these things are beautiful, and are bonds of the national life, while the forces that tend to disintegration are also tending to make the people sordid and cynical. This is the work that Sophocles, in his later years, did for Athens, and this is what Tennyson did for the England of his prime.
His reputation was established with comparative ease. The volume, Poems by Two Brothers (1827), which he and his brother Charles published before they went to Cambridge, showed chiefly a love of poetry, and (in Persia) an exceptional ear for sound: but the Cambridge prize-poem on Timbuctoo (1829) was really notable, both in style and in the command of blank verse; it was a presage, however faint and immature, of the future, and was hailed with a natural delight by the authors friends. In 1830 he brought out Poems, Chiefly Lyricala thin volume, comprising many poems that have held their place, such as Claribel, Mariana, and The Dying Swan. Writing in the Englishmans Magazine, Arthur Hallam said, The features of original genius are clearly and strongly marked. The author imitates nobody. Tennysons style was, indeed, from the first wholly distinct from that of any poet who had preceded him. Two years later (1832) he published another volume, entitled simply Poems and including, among others, none, The Palace of Art, The Lotus-Eaters, A Dream of Fair Women, and The Lady of Shalott. There was riper art here than in the former booklarger range of themes, greater depth of feeling, and more human interest; but, though the new work was cordially received by many, the full day of Tennysons fame was not yet. In that charming poem of his latest years, Merlin and the Gleaman allegorical retrospect of the poets own careera certain moment in one of its earlier stages is indicated by the croak of a raven a bird which, indeed, seldom fails to cross a new singers path at one point or another. The world at large was still (to quote Merlin again), blind to the magic, and deaf to the melody. Then it was that Tennyson showed his reserved strength. He was silent for ten years, during which he subjected his old work to unsparing revision, and disciplined himself for work yet better by unwearying self-criticism. In 1842 Poems by Alfred Tennyson appeared in two volumes. The first volume contained chiefly old poems, revised or re-cast. The pieces in the second volume were almost all new; among them were The Gardeners Daughter, Locksley Hall, Break, Break, Break, The Two Voices, Ulysses, and Morte dArthur. The success was rapid and great. Wordsworth, in a letter to a friend, generously described the author as decidedly the first of our living poets. Tennyson was then only thirty-three. In the popular estimate his reputation was perhaps not much enhanced by The Princess (1847), many as are its beauties, especially lyrical. But when In Memoriam appeared, in 1850, it soon won for him a fame as wide as the English-speaking world.
In Memoriam is a typical product of his art, but it is even more representative of his attitude towards the problems and mysteries of human life; it is the poem which best reveals the secret of his largest popularity. It might have seemed hopeless to expect general favour for an elegy of such unprecedented length on a youth who had missd the earthly wreath, leaving a memory cherished by a few friends, who alone could measure the unfulfilled promise. Never, perhaps, has mastery of poetical resource won a more remarkable triumph than in Tennysons treatment of this theme. The stanza selected, with its twofold capacity for pathos and for resonance, is exactly suited to a flow of self-communing thought, prevailingly pensive, but passing at moments into a loftier or more jubilant note. The rhythm of this stanza also suits the division of the poem into sections; since the cadence of the fourth linewhere the rhyme has less emphasis then in the central coupletcan introduce a pause without giving a sense of abruptness. Hence the music of the poem as a whole is continuous, while at the same time each section is an artistic unit. But this felicity is not merely technical; it is closely related to the treatment of the subject-matter. Two strains are interwoven throughout; one is personalthe memory and the sorrow, as they affect the poet; the other is broadly human and generalthe experience of the soul as it contemplates life and death, as it finds or misses comfort in the face of nature, as it struggles through doubt to faith, or through anguish to peace. The blending of these two strainswhich are constantly passing into each otherserves to idealise the theme, and so to justify the large scale of the treatment; it has also this effect, that the poem becomes a record of successive spiritual moods, varied as the range of thought and emotion into which the personal grief broadens out. The composition of In Memoriam was, indeed, spread over seventeen years. The form has thus an inner correspondence with the material; each lyric section is a spiritual moodnot sharply separated from that which precedes or from that which follows it, yet with a completeness of its own. Among particular traits, one which deserves especial notice is the wonderful adumbration of the lost friends power and charm. Neither quite definite nor yet mystic, the presence made sacred by death flits, with a strange light around it, through the poem; it never comes or goes without making us feel that this great sorrow is no fantasy, but has its root in a great loss. The religious thought of In Memoriam bears the stamp of the time at which it was produced, in so far as doubts, frankly treated, are met with a sober optimism of a purely subjective and emotional kind. But the poem has also an abiding and universal significance as the journal of a mind slowly passing through a bitter ordeal, and as an expression of reliance on the Strong Son of God, immortal Love.
The Idylls of the King, in their complete form, include work of various periods. Tennysons interest in the legends of the Arthurian cycle was shown at an early date, and was fruitful at intervals during half a century. The Lady of Shalott (1832) was his lyric prelude to the theme; two kindred lyricsSir Galahad and Sir Lancelot and Queen Guineverefound place in the volumes of 1842, which contained also the epic Morte dArthur, now incorporated in The Passing of Arthur. A half-playful prologue introduces the Morte dArthur as the only surviving canto of an epic which had been consigned to the flames: perhaps the poet felt, in 1842, that the taste for romance had so far waned as to render this fragment somewhat of an experiment. It is one of his finest pieces of blank verse, and the reception given to it was an invitation to continue the strain. But it was not till 1859 that he published the first set of IdyllsEnid, Vivien, Elaine, and Guinevere. In 1870 appeared The Coming of Arthur, The Holy Grail, Pelleas and Ettarre, and The Passing of Arthur: followed in 1872 by Gareth and Lynette and The Last Tournament, and in 1885 by Balin and Balan. The twelve books (two being given to Enid) are now arranged in the order of events; but in the order of composition, as we have seen, the last portion of the story came first, the beginning next, and the middle last. Such a process of growth is in itself a warning that the series, though it had been planned from the outset as a whole, should not be tried by the ordinary tests of an epic: the unity is here less strict; the main current of narrative is less continuous. Idyll is, indeed, exactly the right word; each is a separate picture, rich in passages of brilliant power, but distinguished especially by finish of detail. Arthurs ideal purpose is rather a golden thread, common to the several pieces but not equally vital to all, than an organic bond among them; and the pervading allegory of sense at war with soul is at most a link of another kind. But instead of epic concentration these Idylls have a charm of their own. From tracing the destiny of the king, they lead us aside, now and again, into those by-ways of romance where a light tinged with modern thought and fancy is thrown on mediæval forest and castle, on tournament and bower, on the chivalry, the tenderness, the violence, the enchantments, and the faith. Arthurs fortunes are illustrated by his age. No other single work shows so comprehensively the range of Tennysons power; the variety of the theme demands a corresponding wealth of resource; there is scarcely any mood of the mind, any phase of action, any aspect of nature which does not find expression somewhere or other in the Idylls.
But a poet who is everywhere an exquisite artist, and who is also remarkably versatile, cannot be adequately judged except by the sum total of his work; there are notes which he may strike only once or twice in the whole of it. Thus in Maudnever a popular poem, in spite of the marvellous lyricshe touches his highest point in the utterance of passion; its dramatic power is undisputed. The general verdict upon his plays has been that they are more distinguished by excellence of literary execution than by qualities properly dramatic; though few critics, perhaps, would deny the dramatic effectiveness of particular scenes or passages, in Harold, for example, or Becket, or The Cup. But whatever may be the final judgment upon the plays, Maud remains to prove, that among Tennysons gifts, the dramatic gift was at least not originally absent; though its manifestation in that poem is necessarily limited to a particular phase. Turning next to a different region of his work, we see in The Northern Farmer (old style) a quality which hardly any imaginative writer of this century has better exemplifiedthe power of faithfully conceiving a very narrow mental horizon, without allowing a single disturbing ray to steal in from the artists own mind. Again: in the interpretation of feeling, this poet can seize impressions so transient, so difficult of analysis, that they might seem to defy the grasp of language; one recognises them almost with a start, as if some voice, once familiar, were unexpectedly heard;
Moreover something is or seems,
That touches me with mystic gleams,
Like glimpses of forgotten dreams.
The glory of the sum of things
Will flash along the chords and go.
Akin to this faculty is Tennysons subtle expression of desiderium, the indefinable yearning towards the days that are no more, as in Break, Break, Break, or in Tears, Idle Tears.
His descriptions of nature exhibit two qualities, distinct in essence, though sometimes combined. One appears in his landscape-painting: it is the gift of selecting salient features and composing them into an artistic picturesuch as that of the vale in Ida, where
The swimming vapour floats athwart the glen,
Puts forth an arm, and creeps from pine to pine,
And loiters, slowly drawn;
or of that coral island where Enoch Arden heard
The league-long roller thundering on the reef,
The moving whisper of huge trees that branchd
And blossomd in the zenith
The distinction of his imaginary landscapes is not merely vividness or truth, but the union of these with a certain dreamy and aërial charm. His other great quality as a nature-poet is seen in the treatment of detailin vignettes where the result of minute and keen insight is made to live before us in some magical phrase; such as The shining levels of the lake; The twinkling laurel scatters silver lights; the shoal of fish that came slipping oer their shadows on the sand. His accuracy in this province is said to be unerring: thus a critic who twitted him with having made a crow lead a rookery had to learn that in Lincolnshire, as in some other parts of Britain, crow is the generic term. In this context we must not forget Owd Roäas pathetic a tribute as any in English poetry to the heroism of a dog. In regard to the vegetation of England, and, generally, to the peculiar charm of English scenery, Tennyson is the foremost of English poets; no one else has painted them with such accurate felicity. Among the English poets of the sea, too, he has a high place; he can describe, as in Elaine, the wind in strife with the billow of the North Sea, green-glimmering toward the summit; but especially his verse can give back all the tones of the sea upon the shore, and can interpret their sympathy with the varying moods of the human spirit.
Seven of his poems are on subjects from Greek mythologyThe Lotus-Eaters, Ulysses, none, The Death of none, Tithonus, Tiresias, Demeter and Persephone. In each case he has chosen a theme which left scope for artistic originalitythe ancient material being either meagre or second-rate. Each poem presents, in small or moderate compass, the picture of a moment, or of an episode; brief idyll is the phrase by which he describes his Tiresias (in the lines on the death of Edward Fitzgerald). The common characteristic of these seven poems is the consummate art which has caught the spirit of the antique, without a trace of pedantry in form or in language. The blank verse (used for all except The Lotus-Eaters) has a restrained power, and a flexible yet majestic grace, which produces an effect analogous to that of Greek sculpture. Tennysons instinct for classical literary art appears in his epitome of Virgils style
All the charm of all the Muses often flowering in a lonely word;
as, again, his sympathy with the temper of the old worlds sorrow is seen in the verses written at olive-silvery Sirmio, and suggested by the lines of Catullus, Frater ave atque vale. In Lucretius Tennyson shows an intimate knowledge of that poets work, and a curious skill in reproducing his tone; but the highest interest of this masterpiece is psychological and dramatic. It translates the sober earnestness of Lucretius into a morbid phase. The De Rerum Natura is silent on the difficulty of reconciling the gods with the cosmology of Epicurus. But now, when the whole inner life of Lucretius is unhinged by the workings of the poison, the doubt, so long repressed by reverence for the Greek master, starts up
Tennysons English is always pure and idiomatic, avoiding foreign words, though without pedantic rigour; and he commands many different shades of diction, finely graduated according to the subject. One of his aims was to recall expressive words which had fallen out of common use; in the Idylls, more especially, he found scope for this. His melody, in its finer secrets, eludes analysis; but one element of it, the delicate management of vowel-sounds, can be seen in such lines as The mellow ouzel fluted in the elm; or, Katie walks by the long wash of Australasian seas. The latter verse illustrates also another trait of his melodythe restrained use of alliteration, which he scarcely allows, as a rule, to strike the ear, unless he has some artistic motive for making it prominent, as in parts of Maud, and in some of the songs in The Princess. As a metrist, he is the creator of a new blank verse, different both from the Elizabethan and from the Miltonic. He has known how to modulate it to every theme, and to elicit a music appropriate to each; attuning it in turn to a tender and homely grace, as in The Gardeners Daughter; to the severe and ideal majesty of the antique, as in Tithonus; to meditative thought, as in The Ancient Sage, or Akbars Dream; to pathetic or tragic tales of contemporary life, as in Aylmers Field, or Enoch Arden; or to sustained romantic narrative, as in the Idylls. No English poet has used blank verse with such flexible variety, or drawn from it so large a compass of tones; nor has any maintained it so equably on a high level of excellence. In lyric metres Tennyson has invented much, and has also shown a rare power of adaptation. Many of his lyric measures are wholly his own; while others have been so treated by him as to make them virtually new. The In Memoriam stanza had been used before him, though he was unaware of this when he adopted it; but no predecessor had shown its full capabilities. In the first part of The Lotus-Eaters he employs the Spenserian stanza, but gives it a peculiar tone, suited to the theme; the melody is so contrived that languor seems to weigh upon every verse. To illustrate his lyric harmonies of form and matter would be to enumerate his lyrics; two or three instances must suffice. The close-locked three-line stanza of The Two Voices suits the series of compact sentiments or points:
Then to the still small voice I said,
Let me not cast in endless shade
What is so wonderfully made.
In The Palace of Art, the shortened fourth line of the quatrain gives a restful pause, inviting to the contemplation of pictures:
Or in a clear-walled city on the sea,
Near gilded organ-pipes, her hair
Wound with white roses, slept St. Cecily;
An angel lookd at her.
The stanza of The Daisy, again, suits the light grace which plays around those memories of travel:
These are, however, only a few lyric examples of a quality which belongs to all his work. Throughout its wide range, he has everywhere accomplished the harmony of form and matter: the charm of the utterance is indivisible from the charm of the thought. Poetical art which has done this is raised above changes of tendency or fashion; it is as permanent as beauty. Tennyson, in wielding the English language, has been a great and original artist; he has enriched English literature with manifold and imperishable models of excellence. He has expressed, with absolute felicity, numberless phases in the great primary emotions of human naturelove, joy, grief, hope, despondency, the moods of youth and of age, the response in the soul to the various aspects of nature, the sense of awful mystery in human life, the instincts, vague yet persistent, which aspire to immortality, and seem to promise it, the yearning faith in divine goodness and guidancefeelings common to humanity, no doubt, but not therefore commonplace, unless that epithet is applicable to sunrise and starlight. His teaching has been pure, high-hearted, and manly; full of love for his country, and true to the things which have made England great. Among all the masters of English song, there is none who can give more exquisite delight to those who feel his inmost charm; and there is probably none who has brought a larger gift of noble pleasure and of comfort to people of all sorts, especially to those in perplexity or sorrow.