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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Henry van Dyke (1852–1933)
ALFRED TENNYSON, the most representative English poet of the nineteenth century, was born at Somersby, in Lincolnshire, on August 6th, 1809. His boyhood was passed in his father’s country rectory, in an atmosphere that was full of poetry and music; and at a very early age he began to try his wings in verse. Some of his youthful efforts were published in partnership with his elder brother Charles, in 1826, in a volume entitled ‘Poems by Two Brothers.’ Two years later he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, and became a member of an intimate society called “The Apostles,” which included some of the most brilliant young men in England. Among them was Arthur Henry Hallam, the closest friend of Tennyson. In 1829 he won the chancellor’s medal with his poem called ‘Timbuctoo’; and in the following year he published ‘Poems, Chiefly Lyrical,’ a slender volume of new and delicate melodies. He left college without taking his degree, soon after his father’s death in 1831, and gave himself to a poet’s life with a clear resolution which never wavered for sixty years.  1
  His volume of poems published in 1832 marked a distinct growth in strength and skill. It was but a tiny book; but there was a quality in it which more than balanced the lack of quantity. ‘The Lady of Shalott,’ ‘Œnone,’ ‘The Lotos Eaters,’ ‘The Palace of Art,’ and ‘A Dream of Fair Women,’ revealed the presence of a true dreamer of dreams, gifted with the magic which translates visions into music. ‘The Miller’s Daughter,’ ‘The May Queen,’ and ‘New Year’s Eve,’ showed the touch of one who felt the charm of English rural scenery and common life with a sentiment so fresh and pure and deep that he might soon be able to lay his hand upon the very heart of the people.  2
  But before this highest potency of the poet’s gift could come to Tennyson, there was need of a baptism of conflict and sorrow, to purify him from the mere love of art for art’s sake, to save him from sinking into an over-dainty weaver of exquisite verse, and to consecrate his genius to the severe and noble service of humanity and truth. This liberating and uplifting experience was enfolded in the profound grief which fell upon him in Arthur Hallam’s sudden death at Vienna, in 1833. How deeply this irretrievable loss shook the poet’s heart, how closely and how strenuously it forced him to face the mystery and the meaning of life in lonely spiritual wrestling, was fully disclosed, after seventeen years, in the famous elegy, ‘In Memoriam.’ But the traces of the conflict and some of its fine results were seen even earlier, in the two volumes of ‘Poems’ which appeared in 1842, as the fruitage of a decade of silence. ‘Ulysses,’ ‘Morte d’Arthur,’ ‘St. Simeon Stylites,’ ‘Dora,’ ‘Locksley Hall,’ ‘A Vision of Sin,’ ‘The Two Voices,’ and that immortal lyric, ‘Break, Break, Break,’ were not the work of
  “An idle singer of an empty day.”
A new soul had entered into his poetry. His Muse had been born again, from above. He took his place with the master-minstrels who sing with a full voice out of a full heart, not for a coterie, but for the age and for the race.
  It was the recognition that Tennyson really belonged to this higher class of poets,—a recognition which at first was confined to a clear-sighted circle, but spread by degrees to the wider reading public,—that prepared an expectant audience for his first long poem, ‘The Princess,’ which appeared in 1847. The subject was the eternal woman question, treated in the form of an epic, half heroic and half humorous: the story of a king’s daughter who sought to emancipate, and even to separate, her sex from man, by founding a wonderful woman’s college; but was conquered at last (or at least modified), by the love of an amorous, chivalrous, dreamy prince, who wooed and married her. The blank verse in which the tale is told has great beauty, though it is often too ornate; the conclusion of the poem is a superb and sonorous tribute to the honor of “das ewig weibliche”: but the little interludes of song which are scattered through the epic shine as the chief jewels in a setting which is not all of pure gold.  4
  In 1850 the long-delayed and nobly labored elegy on the death of Hallam was given to the world. It is hardly too much to say that ‘In Memoriam’ stands out, in present vision, as the most illustrious poem of the century. Certainly it has been the most frequently translated, the most widely quoted, and the most deeply loved. It is far more than a splendid monument to the memory of a friend. It is an utterance of the imperishable hopes and aspirations of the human soul passing through the valley of the shadow of death. It is a unique group of lyrics, finished each one with an exquisite artist’s care, which is only surpassed by the intense and steady passion which fuses them into a single poem. It is the English classic on the love of immortality and the immortality of love.  5
  In the same year with the appearance of this poem happened the two most important events of Tennyson’s career. He was married in June to Miss Emily Sellwood, a lady of rare and beautiful endowments, who proved herself, through a long life of unselfish devotion, the true partner of a poet’s existence. And he was appointed in November to succeed Wordsworth as poet laureate.  6
  His first official poem was the stately ‘Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington,’ in 1852. The majestic march of the verse, its freedom, its organ-toned music, its patriotic vigor, and the lofty solemnity with which it closes, give it a higher place than can be claimed for any other poetical production of an English laureate for a public occasion. ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade,’ written in 1854, was a trumpet-note that rang through England and echoed around the world.  7
  ‘Maud’ was published in 1855. It is a lyrical monodrama, in which the hero, a sensitive and morbid man, with a hereditary tendency to madness, tells the story of his redemption from misanthropy and despair by the power of a pure love, unhappy but victorious. The variety of the metrical forms in this poem, the passionate tenderness of the love songs, the beautiful truth of the descriptive passages, and the intense personality of its spirit, give it a singular charm, which is felt most deeply perhaps by those who are young and in love. Tennyson himself said to me, “I think ‘Maud’ is one of my most original poems.”  8
  In 1859 began the publication of the epical sequence called ‘Idylls of the King’; the largest, and in some respects the most important, of the works of Tennyson. The first group contained ‘Enid,’ ‘Vivien,’ ‘Elaine,’ and ‘Guinevere.’ The second group appeared in 1870, and consisted of ‘The Coming of Arthur,’ ‘The Holy Grail,’ ‘Pelleas and Ettarre,’ and ‘The Passing of Arthur.’ In 1872 ‘Gareth and Lynette’ and ‘The Last Tournament’ were published; and in 1885 ‘Balin and Balan’ was printed in the volume entitled ‘Tiresias and Other Poems.’ The division of ‘Enid’ into two parts—‘The Marriage of Geraint’ and ‘Geraint and Enid’—makes the epic as it now stands consist of twelve idylls. Each of these idylls clothes an ancient legend from the history of King Arthur of Britain, in the richest and most harmonious of modern blank verse. They are so far independent that any one of them might stand alone as a complete poem. But there is a connecting thread running through them all in the threefold love-story of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, though the separate pearls often hide the string. The underlying motive of the whole series is to shadow forth the war of Sense against the Soul. The idylls are to be interpreted therefore as movements in a symphony, the theme of which is the rightful royalty of man’s spiritual nature, seeking to establish itself in a settled reign of law, and constantly opposed by the disorderly and disintegrating elements of humanity. In ‘The Coming of Arthur’ it is doubt that threatens the kingdom; in ‘Gareth and Lynette’ the conflict is with ambition; in ‘The Marriage of Geraint,’ with pride; in ‘Geraint and Enid,’ with jealousy; in ‘Balin and Balan,’ with suspicion; in ‘Merlin and Vivien,’ with lust; in ‘The Holy Grail,’ with superstition; until at last the poison of unlawful love has crept through all the court, and Arthur’s Round Table is dissolved in ruin,—but not without a vision of peace for the king who has kept his soul unstained, and a dim promise of new hope for some future age, when he shall return to bloodless victory.  9
  Tennyson has not allowed the ethical purpose of these poems to confuse their interest or bedim their beauty. They are not in any sense an allegory. The tales of love and knight-errantry, of tournament and battle and quest, are vividly told in the true romantic spirit, lighting up the olden story with the thoughts and feelings of to-day. There is perhaps a touch of over-elaborateness in the style; but after all the figures stand out to the full as distinctly as they ought to do in such a large tapestry. In the finer idylls, like ‘Guinevere’ and ‘The Passing of Arthur,’ the verse moves with a grandeur and dignity, a broad, measured, fluent harmony, unrivaled in England since the days when Milton’s organ voice was stilled.  10
  The rest of Tennyson’s poetical work includes his dramas,—‘Queen Mary,’ ‘Harold,’ ‘Becket,’ ‘The Cup and the Falcon,’ and a few others,—and several volumes of miscellaneous poems: ‘Enoch Arden’ (1864), ‘The Lover’s Tale’ (1879), ‘Ballads’ (1880), ‘Tiresias’ (1885), ‘Locksley Hall Sixty Years After’ (1886), ‘Demeter’ (1889), and ‘The Death of Œnone,’ published posthumously in 1892. The great age to which his life was prolonged, the unswerving fidelity with which he devoted himself to the sole pursuit of his chosen art, the freshness of spirit which made him delight in labor to the very last, and the fine versatility of mind with which he turned from one field of production to another,—brought it to pass that both in amount and in variety of work, Tennyson stands in the front rank of English poets. I can think of but two—Shakespeare and Robert Browning—who produced more.  11
  In 1883 a title of nobility was offered to Tennyson through Mr. Gladstone. This honor, which he had declined at least once before, he now accepted; and in January 1884 he was admitted (we can hardly say elevated) to the peerage,—taking his title, Baron of Aldworth and Farringford, from his two country houses, in Sussex and in the Isle of Wight.  12
  It would be difficult, of course, to characterize the style and estimate the value of such a varied and fertile poet in a brief essay. But there are certain qualities in the poetry of Tennyson which are unmistakable and vital.  13
  1. His diction is singularly lucid, smooth, and melodious. He avoids sharp and strident effects. Not only in his choice of metres, but also in his choice of words and cadences, we feel a musical influence controlling his verse. Sometimes this results in a loss of force or definiteness. But it makes his poetry, whether in the long swinging lines of ‘Locksley Hall,’ or in the brief simple measures of the shorter songs, eminently readable. Any one who recites it aloud will find how natural it is to fall, as Tennyson always did, into a rhythmical tone, almost like chanting. And this close relation of his poetry to music may be felt also in the quality of subtle suggestiveness, of intimate and indefinable charm, which makes his brief lyrics as perfect as anything of their kind in the world’s literature. He has the power of expressing the vague, delicate, yet potent emotions, the feelings that belong to the twilight of the heart, when the glow of love and the shadow of regret are mingled, in melodies of words as simple and as magical as the chime of far-off bells, or the echoes of a bugle-call dying among the hills.  14
  2. He has an extraordinary truthfulness and delicacy of touch in natural description. This appears equally in minute, pre-Raphaelite work, where he speaks of the color of the buds on different trees in early spring; or of the way in which a wave-crest is reflected in the smooth hollow before it breaks; and in wide, vague landscapes, where he renders the turbulence of the coming storm or the still glory of an autumnal morning in a few broad lines. Add to this the quality of blending and interfusing all his epithets and descriptions with the sentiment of the poem, so that they do not distract the feeling but enhance and deepen it, and you have one of the traits by which the poetry of Tennyson is most easily distinguished.  15
  3. His range of imaginative sympathy, as shown in his ballads and character pieces, is very wide; but it moves for the most part along natural and normal rather than strange and eccentric lines. His dramatic lyrics differ in this respect from those of Browning. Tennyson expresses the feeling of the philosopher in ‘Lucretius,’ of the peasant in ‘Rizpah,’ of the child in ‘The Children’s Hospital,’ of the old sea-fighter in ‘The Revenge,’ of the intellectual adventurer in ‘Ulysses,’ in order to bring out in each, not that which is exceptional and rare, but that which is most deeply human and typical.  16
  4. His work reflects with singular fidelity the scientific and social movements of the age. The discoveries and inventions of modern times are translated into poetic language, and turned to poetic use. In his verse the earth moves, the planets are molded of star-dust, and the mystery of an unfinished creation is still in evolution. It is possible, often, to assign dates to his poems by an allusion to some newly seen moon or comet, or some critical event in the social history of mankind. It is true that he mistrusts many of the new devices to bring in the millennium. He takes a dark view of some of the elements of nineteenth-century civilization. But still he feels the forward movement of the world; and his poetry mirrors truly the spirit of modern optimism, with shadows.  17
  5. As in its form, so in its spirit, the verse of Tennyson expresses a constant and controlling sense of law and order. He is in the opposite camp from the poets of revolt. Harmony is essential to his conception of beauty. His patriotism is sober, steadfast, thoughtful, law-abiding. His love moves within the bounds of order, purity, and reverence. His conception of power is never akin to blind force, but carries within itself the higher elements of intelligence and voluntary restraint.
  “Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control,—
These three alone lead life to sovereign power.”
  6. The poetry of Tennyson is pervaded by a profoundly religious spirit. His view of the world—his view even of the smallest flower that blossoms in the world—is illuminated through and through by his faith in the Divine presence and goodness and beauty. He cannot conceive of a purely physical universe. Nothing that he has written could have been written as it is, if he had been an atheist or an agnostic. Even his poems of doubt and conflict are the resurgent protests of the heart against the cold negations which destroy personal trust in the unseen God, in whom we live and move and have our being. His method in dealing with religious subjects is not theological, like that of Milton or Wordsworth; nor philosophical, like that of Browning or Arnold or Clough. Tennyson speaks more from the side of the feelings, the ultimate spiritual instincts and cravings of humanity. The strongest of these is the desire and hope of a life beyond the grave. To this passion for immortality he gives full play, and it evokes some of the strongest and sweetest tones of his music. From ‘The Deserted House’ to ‘Crossing the Bar,’ his poetry is an evidence of his conviction that death cannot end all. This faith in the life that is to come elevates and purifies his conception of the life that now is. It gives a new meaning to duty and to love. And when we think of the many noble poems in which it has found expression,—‘The Two Voices,’ ‘The May Queen,’ ‘Locksley Hall,’ ‘Enoch Arden,’ ‘The Leper’s Bride,’ ‘Guinevere,’ ‘In Memoriam,’ ‘Vastness,’ ‘Wages,’—we may well call Tennyson the poet of the endless life.  19
  His influence upon the thought and feeling of the age has been far-reaching and potent. He has stood among the doubts and confusions of these latter days, as a witness for the things that are invisible and eternal,—the things that men may forget if they will, but if they forget them, their hearts wither and the springs of poesy run dry. His verse has brought new cheer and courage to the youth of to-day who would fain defend their spiritual heritage against the invasions of materialism. In the vital conflict for the enlargement of faith to embrace the real results of science, he stood forth as a leader. In the great silent reaction of our age from the desperate solitude of a consistent skepticism, his voice was a clear-toned bell, calling the unwilling exiles of belief to turn again. And when at last, on the 6th of October 1892, he passed away from his quiet home at Aldworth, with the moonlight falling on closed eyes and voiceless lips, the world mourned for him as for a mighty prophet, and rejoiced for him as a poet who had finished his course and kept the faith.  20

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