The Poetry of Alfred Tennyson

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HOGG'S INSTRUCTOR.
VOL. V.—JULY, 1855.

THE POETRY OF ALFRED TENNYSON.

BY GERALD MASSEY.

'Poems by Alfred Tennyson'.  Ninth Edition, 1854.—'The Princess, a Medley.' Fourth Edition, 1851.—'In Memoriam.' 1850. London: Moxon.

Alfred Tennyson
(1809-92)

WAR and Revolution are not those unredeemed evils which the peace-men would have us believe them to be. The great, grim, terrible thing which appears to tower up so darkly as an obstacle in the path of progress, may become another Sinai, dreadful with the presence and eloquent with the voice of the Almighty speaking his grand decrees in thunder and  lightning,  and the terror of tempests.  Rudely wakened from some voluptuous dream, or suddenly called from the lighted halls of peace, we stand looking out into the night, and, straining our eyes on the strife, we hear the clang and tumult, the thunders and the shoutings, the cry of the victor and the moanings of the wounded. War seems a fearful thing. By and by our eyes become attempered to the gloom, and we perceive that it has other aspects. Its lightnings often cleanse the moral atmosphere. Its sword cuts clean through the flimsy draperies and hollow masks of conventionality, sham, and artificiality. We get down to the ground-root of things, and look in the unveiled face of the great Nature.


    Fields may be heaped with slain, and mound and furrow be red with carnage, but such seed is not sown in vain, and may produce a worthy harvest in the after-years.

    It is said of many young men who went out to the Crimea, and who have seen the veil torn from the gorgon-face of Battle, and been within arm's-length of death, that, though they left England as thoughtless, vain, gay fops, they returned from that solemn experience, sad, wise, earnest, valiant men.  Even so is it with the life of nations.  War reveals what stuff they are made of, what endurance, heroism, truthfulness, earnestness, is in them still; and, constituted as man is, it is most necessary that these qualities be kept alive, seeing that life is a continual combat, and it is well that the battle-trumpet should rouse us from the pillow of sloth, the bent-knee of slavery, and the all-fours of money-grubbing, into heroic attitude.  One of the best and most precious results of war, national struggles, and the changes in religious, political, and social systems, is in the new and vigorous life they give to literature.  There the mortal life lost by field and flood is caught up and rendered back to us immortal by the hands of Poetry. What a tide of fresh life poured through the heart of England after the mighty impulse of her Reformation, and burst up in a new out-budding and flowering of poetry, such as the world had never before seen.  We also derive a priceless heritage from the struggles of that handful of men who rose up in England two centuries ago, and drew the sword for freedom, flinging down the scabbard as a gauntlet of challenge at the feet of cowled, and crowned, and mitred Tyranny.  They gave to the nations a proud flush of nobler life, a wider horizon to the whole human existence, placed their country in the foremost van of the world, and left their deathless names as watchwords that ring down far futures for the true to battle by.  That revolution gave us John Milton.  It was drowned in blood, but its ploughshare had cut deep, and its seed was well sown and trampled in, and although each springing germ was watched with jealous eyes and crushed in the budding, yet it struck deep root, and sprang up in other lands beyond the sea.  Scotland would never have possessed her unrivalled wealth of national song, and her music so unspeakably beautiful, but for her immortal traditions, her mountains and glens, hallowed by the persecutions and martyrdoms of her Covenanters; her heaths so often trampled by the footsteps of heroic men, who marched to death as 'twere a bridal bed; her moors so often reddened by the blood of the brave and chivalrous; the glorious men who bore the Scottish thistle on banners bloody and torn through the burning hell of battle in many a dark and desolate day, and kept the flame of patriotism alive and unquenched amid the deluging rain of tears and blood; the gallant hearts that have quivered on the rack, and cracked in the furnace flame; the noble heads that have laid them down upon a tyrant's bloody block for their last pillow; the deathless deeds that have been done and written in the memory of men as in letters of electric light;—these have been the inspirations that have made the poet's song eloquent: The poetry was first written in deathless actions before it became literature.

    Of all the conflicts of arms and the societary upheavings that have shaken the world in modern times, none have had a more quickening influence on literature than those of the French Revolution and the subsequent wars.  The fountains of the great deep of human life were opened, and the floodgates of tyranny were burst, so that, when the floods subsided, the shores were rich with jewels and treasures that had been surged up in the mighty motion of the heaving waters.  Men's hearts leaped: and burned within them as at the sound of the trumpet of God, their eyes glowed with the light of some great future, and through delicious tears they caught a glimpse of a truer existence.  There was such a surging of spirit, such a quickening motion of mind, as much was felt in one year as would take half a century to express.  After a long night of starless gloom, and servile trembling, and growing misery spent in feeble thought and foolish fears, with a feeling akin to that of Lazarus waking within his tomb, came the morning of action, motion, health, life!  Then followed the tug of grappling armies, and the nations were cast into the fiery furnace of War.  The ties and fears, the bonds of falsehood and deceit, that had so long fettered the great human heart, were withered, and burst.  The tinsel, and the glitter, and the masquerading habits are consumed utterly there, and nothing stands the flaming ordeal save the naked strength of iron manhood.

    Such times bring us face to face with what is genuine; human life passes through its snake-like crises, in order that it may slough off its worn-out, dirty, rotten coating, as the snake gets rid of its skin.  Artificiality cannot live in the presence of such terrific earnestness; sloth cannot drowse in such a noise of combat; imitation cannot compete with such primordial originality; and thus literature benefits, and reaps a rich harvest from the fields of war.  In all these great eras it is the People—the great source and resource of poetry—who, having held their peace so long, come forth to write their poetry in sword-dints and strange hieroglyphs on the face of the earth.  What poetry there must be among this same People, to judge by such sublime specimens, if we could but get at it!

    If our monetary national debt, incurred during the wars with France, be great, our national debt to poetry is still greater.  As our poetic outcome of that time, we have the following magnificent result: Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Hunt, Keats, Campbell, and Tennyson, not to mention others.  These could never have existed, as we now know them, but for the stirring circumstances of the times in which they were moulded.  Great times, great thoughts, great feelings, produce great men, and these gave us a race of Titans. Wordsworth has pictured the influence which the dawn of the French Revolution had upon him.  So has Coleridge.  Byron was begotten by the very spirit of Rebellion.  Shelley's early poetry was the French Revolution adapted to English verse.  It is to his martial lyrics, which are a fit chariot of song for the spirit of British valour to ride in, flaming through the battle-field on the wheels of conquest, and driving over the heads of its enemies, glorious as a god, that Campbell owes his immortality.  Not so manifest in the poetry of Keats and Hunt is this influence, but very manifest in their politics and in their lives, and their poetry is the issue of their lives.  It is less perceptible still in the poetry of Tennyson; he is farther away from the scene, and the spirit of it did not enter so much into his composition. Like a stone plunged into the water, did that influence strike down into the existence of the former poets, widening the circle of their whole being.  In Tennyson we have the distant and gentle ripple, with nothing of the tumult.  Nevertheless, he is one of the brood of giants who stepped into life through the rent of Revolution, although he is in the second generation.  He is also related to his predecessors by his subjectivity.  The mention of this characteristic of the poetry of our century—its subjectivity—as compared with the poetry of the Elizabethan era, naturally leads us to a consideration of its causes.

    Those grand fellows who lived and wrote in the golden time of Elizabeth, appear to have been much more unconscious than our brooding, thoughtful, modern mortals.  They seem to have gone about their work 'like noble boys at play.'  The pressure of the time did not lie heavy upon them as it does upon us.  The national life was up at 'glory's high flood-mark,' and they were borne on a tide of triumph, buoyantly, hopefully, and cheerfully.  England towered up proudly amid the surrounding nations, like Saul among his warriors, a head and shoulders above the rest.  It was a proud thing to be an Englishman in those days.  To be heroic was a natural sort of thing.  Life was so strong within them, so enjoyable without.  They were brimful of physical health.  The sheath of the body was not overworn by the sword of the mind.  Their thoughts were not dammed up, nor the tides turned back upon their own souls.  They lived, and did not speculate on life with a morbid persistency, or lie and watch the lazy stream of their own blood, poring on their own pulse, and eating their own heart.  They lived.  They lived and they wrought free and forcibly, even as the bird sings, and the waters roll, and the wind blows, careless to know the wherefore, or analyse the law that inspired.  The great, enduring result seems to have flashed out of their lives with a magical unexpectedness, doubtless as surprising to themselves as to us.  Genius thus freely and naturally flowed forth in objective forms.  The poet's nature ran outwardly to embrace the universal humanity without let or hindrance.  Happy men! glorious time!

    It is widely different with the poets of our century. Poetry in our time is a continual protest against the pressure of tendencies adverse to the full and free human development.  She fights a continual fight, disputing the ground inch by inch, with the blind brute forces, with all kinds of tyranny, with all kinds of scepticism and mammonism, which seek to encroach on her fields, and commons, and wood-paths, and holy consecrated ground.  She feels somewhat like that criminal who was shut up in a prison, the walls of which grew narrower day by day, until they closed in upon him and crushed him.  The force of circumstances which we have thrown up around us is fast crushing all spiritual force out of ourselves.  The laws of mechanism lie on us like a mountain, and we have not the faith that moves mountains and works miracles.  Our lives are spent in the search for what is immediately useful and practical; and should the gods chance to come our way, we are not at home to spiritual influences.

    Our poetry is a protest against all this, and many are the influences that re-act upon the poet, and concentrate his nature within itself, and thus tend to make his thought and its utterance subjective.  It matters not in what position of society a poet may have been born into our century, it is inevitable that he be subjective.  There may be infinite differences in the mode of manifestation.  At one time it is Campbell protesting against the brute power of wrong; at another, Shelley shrieks his anathemas against priestcraft and kingcraft.  Now it is Byron striking with the naked energy of desperation at the perplexing problems of life, individual and national; again, it is the voice of Tennyson we hear soaring triumphantly above the long agony of doubt, soothing as that of a sister leading the bewildered mind out of the burning trance of delirium.  The effect of political persecution, of adverse criticism, of a generous desire to fight the quarrel of others personally; these are all conducive to the modern poet's subjectivity.  Thus we find that the subjectivity of our poetry is representative of the time and the circumstances that produced it, as was the objective drama of the times of Shakspere.  In Tennyson this subjectivity has its culminating point.  In him, as has been well said, poetic inconsistency attains consistency.  He comprehends the best elements of his predecessors, together with an added strength, grace, and beauty.  His genius pours itself, as it were, like
oil upon their troubled waters.  He has attained a clearer calm.  He brings in the crowning dainties of that great poetic banquet which has been spread before us during the past half-century.

    The growth of Tennyson's mind and fame, like that of all great things and enduring results, has been slow, gradual, and certain.  It took twenty years to produce what he has given us.  And looking upon these three books of poetry, we cannot but pronounce them one of the most precious contributions ever added to poetical literature.  We look upon Alfred Tennyson as one of the greatest poets of our century, and one of the very noblest that ever lived.  Not that he is the equal of Homer, Shakspere, and Dante; he is not a great whole, so much as a brilliant, perfect part; but he is one of the most nobly pure, one of the most exalting of poets.  He gives expression to the most ethereal sense of intellectual beauty in both woman's and man's nature—or rather of the woman's in man.  And this delicate sensitiveness is united to a stern strength of thought, both when he deals with nineteenth-century experience, or bears the burden of the other world on his shoulders.  His poetry is always the inmost essence of the thing.  Compare it with that of Wordsworth and Byron in this respect, and you will find that, while they are content to take first thoughts, and write down anything that comes, and consequently have heaps of tares amid the harvest of their verse, his needs no weeding, and will admit of none.  He has jealously selected only the choicest of his thoughts, and has exercised the most severe censorship in choosing.  It is the subtlest spirit of poetry which he gives shape to, and robes in immortal beauty.  He is the exponent of some of the loftiest life and the deepest thought of our time.  Of all others, he most reveals the poetic spirit to itself; hence all our young poets are Tennysonian.  Then he is one of the perfectest artists that ever wrought in verse, and one of the cunningest masters of melody.  In his poems all is in keeping, nothing superfluous; all is necessary, and nothing accidental.  There are no jewels scattered at random, as if to show his wealth; all are fitly set.  All his pictures are appropriately and exquisitely framed, and there are no unfinished sketches, no frescoes, daring in aim, and feeble in execution.  He will mark a distinct era in English poetry far more effectually than ever Wordsworth will, when the world looks back in the lapse of centuries.

    At the outset, Tennyson made some slight return to the old worship of word-mongering, which Wordsworth aimed at destroying.  And there is a soul of beauty in some words, which gives them a greater charm than the thought they are intended to symbolise, even as the beautiful form and winning lineaments of woman may at times eclipse the charms of her mind; and this often dazzles and misleads the young and inexperienced; they are borne away, aim at being too rapturous, and become magniloquent, which is a false strength.  The most profound, equally with the most delicate thought, can be most fittingly expressed in the simplest Saxon words.  But this was soon cured, and in his later poems he has scarce a rival in choiceness of diction.

    It was a profound saying of Goethe's, and worthy of universal acceptation, that the eyes can see only just so much as they bring with them the faculty of seeing.  Thus, a sunset sky seen through the vision of a Turner, and transmuted into a picture, with all his sparkling light, glory of colour, and rainbow richness of mingling, shifting, cloud-swaling beauty, may be unappreciated by the mass of men, as not akin to their ordinary sunsets—the painter having seen and brought away more than they can identify; their mental vision being so dim, his so clear and deep-piercing.  Thus the lover, because of his love, sees a beauty in the face of his beloved which none other may have ever seen—the eyes seeing only that which they bring with them the power of seeing.  And thus it is with our seeing from the loftiest outlooks of the soul.  In reading, we only appreciate that which yields us our written experiences; all beyond is blank to us, save that we sometimes apprehend a dim something which is the motion of the feelers being put forth by new growth.  To understand more, we must widen and deepen our natures by further experience and larger life.  This is why shallow poetlings, who have not an atom of creative power, not a thrill of divine inspiration, yet fill their measure of experience for the million, and are popular; while the great poet Tennyson, with his loftier revelations of beauty, his wondrous dower of the 'vision and the faculty divine,' his exquisite melodies, his great mind, which is a glorious temple of thought, filled with heroic, rare, and most lovely statues, wrought by the cunning hands of an imagination, sweet, subtle, and strong as Raphael's, is comparatively unknown to them, or known, in some dim wise, to be 'obscure.'

    Many persons profess to see little in Tennyson.  This we can only regret for their sake.  Perhaps they have not the power of seeing what is in his poetry, they may have little in common with him, no chord in harmony with his harp, which can vibrate to its sound because in perfect tune.  But they had far better pray for more light, than go about preaching their own blindness.  Others are very fond of Tennyson, but think he is sometimes vague and obscure.  One of these latter urged to us in proof, that half-a-dozen different readers will construe half-a-dozen different meanings from particular passages.  This is quite true, for we have found it so in reading 'In Memoriam' with others; nevertheless, instead of proving an obscurity of utterance, this appears to me to prove that in each particular instance the poet had dug up one of those gems of eternal truth which may be six-sided, and capable of mirroring the readers' half-dozen individual portions or interpretations.  When I read an author, and find I do not follow him deftly, and catch his meaning easily, I attribute it to my own want of understanding, rather than to his obscurity, especially if I have faith in him (which faith is the result of my having found my method of reading the obscure passage again and again to be successful); and it is astonishing how that which appeared at first vague, and hazy, and nebulous, grows by fine degrees into stars, and clusters of stars, with the 'further lookings on,' as the vision gets more intense. Tennyson is never vague in expression—the thought may be distant, the matter remote from us, the expression may be involved, but it is never vague.  He always knows what he wants to say, and says precisely that which he meant to say.  He is too great an artist to daub and make confusion.  The stream of his speech may be deep, perhaps unfathomable to some, but never will you find it muddy; you may make it so by your own splashings and flounderings.  'But,' it is objected, 'poetry ought to be plain to all, and it is the poet's first duty to make himself understood.  We can understand Shakspere and Burns; they are clear enough; is Tennyson greater than they?'  Not greater, but different. The conditions demanded of a lyric that may be sung in a tap-room, and a drama written to interest an audience of the Globe Theatre, are different to those demanded of an 'In Memoriam.'  In the one case, we have the poet's genius diffused through a variety of characters, or voicing a sentiment common to all, for artistic purposes and ends.  In the other, we have the poet hymning his own high thoughts, his far imaginings, his subtle instincts of beauty, his self-questionings, his visions seen from the altitude of his poet's nature, and nine out of ten of the human beings represented on the stage with the interest of action may come nigher home to our business of life than the lofty musings of a poet who sings with a self-introverted eye of his own unspeakable love and sorrow.  In the one case, it is broad human nature appealing to broad human nature; in the other, it is the poet's nature appealing to the poet's nature in us, and we can only respond in so far as we possess the nature of the poet.  This, of course, narrows the popularity and appreciable influence of the subjective poet.  I say appreciable, because you cannot gauge the influence of Mr Tennyson by any reference to the sale of his books; he is one of those men, few of whom are in the world together, and who are the fountainheads of thought, in relation to whom the mass of writers are the digestive organs that take in their food and circulate its new life through the great body of the people.

    Another will urge that he has done nothing like 'Festus,' or that terrific originality, 'Death's Jest-book.' Thank Heaven, he has not; one of each kind was quite enough for us.  We have to judge Tennyson by what he has done, and what he is, and not blame him for what he has not done, and is not.  Tastes differ: some prefer one poet, some another.  It may be remembered that, when a singing-match was about to take place between the nightingale and the cuckoo, the donkey was chosen for an umpire.  Long-ears, having listened attentively until the contest was over, gravely gave his decision:—the nightingale sung very well, said he, but for a good plain song he preferred the cuckoo.  So much for difference of taste and judgment.  Another argues that Tennyson lacks passion and earnestness.  Nay, not so; only he does not often let you see him in a passion, or hear him cursing in it.  Noble passion he has, but he does not pour it forth while effervescent or in ferment, and therefore mixed with dregs and lees.  It has to pass the clarifying process of his judgment, and ripen into spirit under the influence of his imagination.  Strong feeling merely would not set him singing; he does not get his inspiration from a tumult and a tingling in the blood; not until these are transfigured in the 'light that never yet was seen on sea or land,' would he break silence.  It is his colossal calmness, the absence of blind hurry, that is often mistaken for a want of passionate earnestness.  That he has passion, even in the popular sense, is shown by 'Locksley Hall;' and that he has terrible, bitter earnestness, is shown by the 'Vision of Sin;' but these elements he would now look upon as the raw materials of poetry.  Let us take him as he is, and for what he is.  One great function of the poet is to give expression to the beautiful, wheresoever he may find it—to give a voice to that dumb Spirit of loveliness, and harmony, and truth, which haunts us everywhere, seeking an interpretation of her dumb show.  And surely it is a good thing to get beauty into our souls, and into our lives; and surely he does well who translates a single page of this precious language.

    Tennyson's poetry is a very world of beauty—a weird world of wondrous beauty.  Calm and smiling it rises out of the vexed and stormy ocean of our century, all fair as Aphrodite clad in her supernal loveliness.  Wordsworth's world towers up grandly as after the deluge, full of strength and majesty, bearing the poetic ark on its shoulders.  A look of eternity is in its aspect. Healthy, healing waters spring from its sides, which are not so barren as they appear at a distance.  It has habitable pastures, inspiring breezes, that blow a rose of dawn in the face, and spots and colours of beauty, that make the eyes brighten and the heart glad.  Shelley's fronts the skies, like the Alps of a sphere where no snow falls, and frost is never known; so fantastic, yet aspiring, are the forms into which its beauty runs and leaps.  At times they are half-shrouded with a faint, fair mist, through which veil their loveliness looks dim and more divine; and again they are lit and flooded with auroral hues and unimagined splendours.  Their sides are clothed with rainbows of bloom, and are musical with singing birds, and falling waters, while at their base are deep, tangled, haunted wildernesses, to lose yourself in which is far pleasanter than finding yourself in almost any other place.  Byron's world is a volcano not yet extinct.  How it glared on us through the night of the past, like the dwelling-place of some fiery demigod, vivid as the pinnacle of that hall in Dante's hell, glowing red hot through the gloom.  And still, to many eyes, does it soar in its terrible beauty, grand as a midnight conflagration.  'Festus' is a sort of hell in harness, with the devil driving.  Keats' world is a body of physical beauty, with a soul of sensuousness, and it floats in a sea of 'rich and ripe sensation:' a world where Pan is deity, and all life lies as in infancy, or drunkenness, sucking nectared sweets from the bosom of the air.  Birds sing dainty love-ditties, flowers bloom and blush for very deliciousness of pleasure, fruit ripens, and becomes the Hebe of appetite out of merry wantonness, and woos you with a smile that says how much it could reveal: and human life thoroughly enters into the life of tree, and fruit, and flower.  You lie still in a dreamy reverie, with half-shut eyes, aching all over with satisfaction, lulled as in lotus-land, and only wake up to a fresh banquet of beauty, and to be kissed back into a languorous oblivion by the soft, warm pressure of the superincumbent air.

    But Tennyson's world is like that other fairer, better, purer world of beauty, of which we get brief glimpses from the delectable mountains of imagination.  It lies somewhat nearer heaven.  The coarse and robust nature will have to mount to its topmost window before it can get a peep at it.  The sensual will have to cast their goat-hoofs, and get wings, before they can touch its holier ground.  To those who see nothing in nature but a producer of corn, coal, iron, and wood, nothing in the sun but a time-piece, nothing in the ocean but a beast of burden, the sum of whose lives is getting and spending—to them it is an invisible world.  But others will see in it a real and divine possession; a world where the mortal meets with the immortal; a world enriched with the presence of shapes of the subtlest loveliness, and most royal souls, which are the ministrants in this house Beautiful—or rather, world of beauty.  There we hear voices which have the 'large utterance of the early gods,' and see the loftier spirits of the past move with their grandly solemn pace. There is

'Music, which gentlier on the spirit lies
 Than tired eyelids upon tired eyes,'

there the most delicate aromas of poetry impregnate the air, and make it breathe like that of paradise.  The beauty, the balm, and the bloom of sensuousness are spiritualised, by being exalted to a loftier altitude.  The light that lies on the face of that world is not a coloured light, but a white radiance; for the red flush of passion is not known, and beauty has found a more ethereal expression in that serene region: it is a soft subdued light, like the tender glory of moonlight, or the placid smile of affection on a loving countenance that is pale with the intensity of its love.  Here you may get interpreted those strange hints that visit the mind in its mystic moods and high imaginings, and everywhere will you feel the 'spirit of the years to come, yearning to mix itself with life.'  Altogether, as we have before said, the poetry of Alfred Tennyson constitutes a world of exceeding loveliness, a world of peculiar beauty, unique in all literature.  His poetic luxury is so refined and delicate, it requires an educated taste to appreciate it, just as some wines do; it is never animal, never of the earth earthy, never of the flesh fleshly.  It could never have been produced by any one possessed of exuberant animal spirits, and ruddy flesh-and-blood-fulness. When his verse 'trembles and sparkles as with ecstacy,' it is intellectual, and not a dance of the blood.  Love with him is passion hallowed, sublimated, and consecrated.  He has none of the fire, the rapture, and the consumption of Byron.  He is the poet of a nobler and loftier life.  In this respect, we would make the success of his poetry the gauge to show how far the world is advanced in purity, love, and spirituality; just as we would take that of Byron to show how far it is gross, animal, and fleshly.  No doubt Byron would poll the larger number of votes—so much the worse for poor humanity.  But, in proportion as we grow less material, and more spiritual, more fitted to apprehend the perfect beauty, does Byron die out, and Tennyson dilate upon our growing perceptions.  And after that grand debauch with the fire-waters of Byron, which we look back upon, how pure, how fresh, and sparkling with health is the poetry of Tennyson!  It is a slow process the transformation of the material into the spiritual, but in proportion to this change must the poetry of Tennyson win its widening way with the world; and he can wait, for he has built upon foundations which are neither local nor temporary.

    The great poet has in a great measure to create his own audience.  There have been those who have been popular in their own time; but, even with these, it was not always their highest qualities that were so immediately appreciated—they had to wait for the growth of intelligence, and the elucidation of time.  Others, who have been great in some special direction, and whose poetry has possessed, in a smaller proportion, the elements of universal popularity, have had to bide their time, which has often tarried long.  The dramatist and the lyrist have the greatest chance of immediate popularity, because they deal more especially with human passions and feelings, which are the common property of all; and this constitutes a ground on which both unintellectual and intellectual may stand.  Indeed, the greater the dramatist or lyrist, the greater the certainty of being popular at once and for ever.  Let the sentiment be genuine and the expression direct, and they will reach the heart of the most uneducated.  It is different in the cases of poets like Wordsworth and Tennyson, who work in poetry's special domains, and not in her common pastures.  They are partial poets, and can never compete for popularity with the universal, like Shakspere and Burns.

    It is the same to-day as it has been in the past: seldom that the great poet obtains immediate recognition.  He alway transcends, and can never be gauged by, the standard of current criticism.  We call for the poet of our own time, but we should not know him were he in our midst.  We look for a peculiar sign, and lo! there is no sign.  We map out a programme of what he should be, and of the work he should do, and it comes to pass not so, but the 'reverse of so.'  We ask for a man who shall not be like ourselves, but something different, and behold! he is most like unto us—most human, and being most human, is most divine.  We expect him to come into the world with the pomp and pćan that may attend his departure.  We anticipate him wearing his crown and singing-robes, but he toils on in secret, painfully climbing the ascent necessary for the poet's vision, and in joy and sorrow, hoping, despairing, and triumphing, weaves the prophet's mantle out of the threads of a many-coloured life.  He is far on in advance of us, and 'dwindles in the distance;' we can only get from him, and of him, what he leaves us by the way.  And the world only sees him in his just proportions, when he has planted his tired feet on the mountains of Immortality, and stands glorified with a finer light, and is seen through the mist of worshipful or regretful human tears.

    One of the pleasantest thoughts that arises in reviewing the poetry of Alfred Tennyson is, that he is not one of the illustrious departed, but still among us, and still a comparatively young man not much above forty years of age.  We may hope for yet greater things from him.  The interesting event of marriage has taken place since he gave us 'In Memoriam,' consequently we may look for a growth of poetry gathered from a novel world opened up in his nature.  There is nothing like the sweet influence of a noble woman for quickening and enriching a poet's genius.  He has also a young family springing up around him, and putting forth their green leaves and tender blossoms about the parental stem—another fine source of inspiration: we never live truly, until we live our lives over again in those of our children.  But, with a prayer that blessings be showered upon him, as he tends his garden of beauty, and rears fresh crops of poetry, we must turn to that which he has already written.

    We have heard Tennyson called a dainty poet of the drawing-room; and some have the idea that he is a 'beautiful' poet, in the boarding-school-miss sense of the word.  All such know him not.  The grasp of his intellect is strong as its apprehension is fine.  For a specimen of magnificent power—of 'strength reposing on its own right arm'—take his 'Ulysses.'  No piece of sculpture was ever dug out of Greece more perfect, no picture was ever more truly informed with the spirit of antiquity.   There is a majesty about it as of the early gods, that loom upon us so large and lovely through the dawn-light of time.  It has a colossal calm as of 'magnificence dreaming.'  What sweet serenity! what pearl-like purity! what solemn grandeur! what sustained music! attend it, and convey it, like some newly-discovered god of wisdom, from Greece right home to its in England.

    It is a great mistake to think that anything Tennyson gives us is meaningless.  His verse never moves with 'aimless feet.'  Everything is crammed with meaning, often meaning within meaning.  Sometimes it may be so subtle, and evolved with such consummate art, that the very perfection is a concealment to the careless looker-on, just as the spinning-top appears to be standing still from the swiftness of its motion.  Take, for example, that lovely allegory of the 'Lady of Shalott,' which I have heard called a soulless thing.  It appears to me to image the fall of genius, which we have so often seen painfully realised in our own times, in poetry the most ethereally beautiful.  The Lady of Shalott is the Psyche or soul, the Island of Shalott, where she lives, is the body.  Here the world surrounds her, and the stream of human life flows by:—

'But who hath seen her wave her hand?
 Or at the casement seen her stand?
 Or is she known in all the land?'

No, she has wedded Solitude; she works in silent secrecy.  She does not beckon to the pleasures that pass. She does not join the gay troops that go laughing on their way down to the Vanity Fair of Camelot.  No one hath seen her standing idle at the window. That is, the poet must not hunger and thirst after fame, and he must preserve sacred his own individuality; say to the lusts of the flesh, Stand off, for this is holy ground; and let the money-grubbing world go by, unhailed, unheeded. Thus the Lady of Shalott sings her song in her island lonelihood, as the nightingale sings in her darkling privacy:—

'Only reapers, reaping early
 In among the bearded barley,
 Hear a song that echoes cheerly,
 From the river winding clearly,
     Down to tower'd Camelot:
 And by the moon the reaper weary,
 Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
 Listening, whispers, "'Tis the fairy
     Lady of Shalott."'

There will always be a few minds up and awake in the morning of the times who will hear the song of genius, and it will fall like dew from heaven on those who have borne the burden of life in the heat of the day:—

'There she weaves, by night and day,
 A magic web with colours gay:
 She has heard a whisper say,
 A curse is an her if she stay
     To look down to Camelot.'

She works her work; 'and little other care hath she.'  She has a mirror in which she sees the 'shadows of the world appear.'  That is the poet's nature, which reflects all that it is necessary for him to see, so long as he preserves it clean and pure:—

'And in her web she still delights
 To weave the mirror's magic sights.'

 For, mark the solemn warning:—

 'Often through the silent nights
  A funeral, with plumes, and lights,
  And music, went to Camelot.'

Wrecks of the world's great might-have-beens were these, who rose proudly, like stars of the first magnitude, but soon shot again into the darkness; souls that fell from their high thrones and lofty seats, in stooping to that which was beneath them.  They looked down to Camelot.  So the Lady of Shalott is at length seduced to look down to Camelot by Sir Launcelot, who comes singing and glittering in radiant vesture and grand adornments.  This is popularity, dangerous popularity, unworthy fame, which the poet must not seek, must not follow, must not think of:—

'She left the web, she left the loom,
 She made three paces through the
        room,
 She saw the water-lily bloom,
 She saw the helmet and the plume,
     She look'd down to Camelot.
 Out flew the web, and floated wide;
 The mirror crack'd from side to side;
 The curse is come upon me, cried
     The Lady of Shalott.'

Her nature being now warped from its original aims, she descends from her eminent estate, and becomes careless whither she drifts.  She takes a boat, and tricks it and herself out for public notice, and floats down to Camelot.  The bright spirit gradually dims; the song she sings dies gradually low; the inner eyes wax gradually blind; and she drifts into Camelot dead.  The people are astonished at her beauty, and he who had brought her there—

'Sir Launcelot mused a little space;
 He said, "She has a lovely face;
 God in his mercy lend her grace,
     The Lady of Shalott."'

    If the reader cannot apply this allegory, surely all will flash upon him at the mention of one word, and that word Burns.  I fancy another signification may be found in the poem, but this one may stand for the notice.  All great poets are great teachers likewise, and I might fill some pages in showing how great a teacher of his age Tennyson is; but have little space left.  Take 'The Princess,' for instance; how full of fine wisdom it is, and of application to the circumstances of the time.  The grand object of the poem is to show that woman is not man in an undeveloped state, and all her attempts to unsex herself, all her leaps to pluck at manhood, will end in utter failure.  She cannot belie her nature with impunity; her heart of flesh will turn into a heart of stone, and she will out man man.  There is nothing more pitiful than your downright 'emancipated' woman!  Woman is most noble, most loveable, most womanly, when she is most herself; and it is precisely because she has not the liberty and right to be most herself that we war with our present system, and not because it does not permit her to become masculine; for we believe that all attempts to train her into manhood will prove as false and unnatural, as it is to clip the glorious branches off the spreading yew-tree, and torture it into the poor miserable effigy of a peacock.  Where a woman has succeeded in such an emancipation, she has most likely succeeded also in crushing those tender affections that cling about the heart, and tremble into life as love!  The milk of human kindness has curdled and soured her being, instead of creaming, to enrich it.  She has slain her sweeter, dearer self, and fossilised the woman's heart within her.  We once knew such an one, and the Lord preserve us from such another.  For love's sake, and for the sake of humanity, let woman be educated up to the holiest offices and noblest duties of life, and, moreover, fulfil them.  Let her be educated and developed in accordance with her nature and destiny; let her be taught to cherish all that is pure, great, and ennobling; let her mind be familiarised with lofty thoughts and patriotic deeds, and she will learn to think and act nobly and greatly.

    All this is finely portrayed and beautifully illustrated in this poem of 'The Princess.'  With a false ambition she unsexes herself, cuts away from her heart all the budding tendrils of love with an inexorable knife—that otherwise true and tender heart becomes frosted up with blind and erring pride, and the sweet springs of affection. are seated at their fountainhead.  She becomes a mere repository of mummied learning, and vividly does the poet show the fatal effects of her false ambition, and the deadening results of belying her own nature, and assuming that of man.  But hers is an error that must be kissed out of her rather than whipped out, and at length her hardened heart melts in the great and glorifying light of priceless human love, and becomes a warm, living thing, pulsing with boundless humanity; and all her better self—the angel-side of her nature—shines out in the dewy radiance of love's holy dawn.  Her proud self-reliance is broken, and she feels the delicious happiness of being humbled by love. But what exaltation there is in such a fall!  It is the dumb, cold marble quickened into warm, breathing, living, loving life, stepping from the lofty pedestal of her isolation, and sitting at the feet of the beloved, a perfected, satisfied woman! glorifying and glorified.

    Here is the high argument of the poem, full of fine wisdom, extracted from the loving talk of the prince and princess, who are nursing up grand conjectures and hopeful prophecies of dear woman's future, which, to them, wears all the luminous beauty of richest promise:—

'The woman's cause is man's: they rise or sink
Together, dwarf'd or godlike, bond or free:
If she be small, slight-natured, miserable,
How shall men grow? But work no more alone.
For woman is not undevelop'd man,
But diverse: could we make her as the man,
Sweet love were slain; his dearest bond is this—
Not like to like, but like in difference.
Yet in the long years liker must they grow;
The man be more of woman, she of man;
He gain in sweetness and in moral height,
Nor loose the wrestling thews that throw the world;
She, mental breadth, nor fail in childward care,
Nor lose the childlike in the larger mind;
Till at the last she set herself to man,
Like perfect music unto noble words;
And so these twain, upon the skirts of time,
Sit side by side, full summ'd in all their powers,
Dispensing harvest, sowing the to-be,
Self-reverent each, and reverencing each,
Distinct in individualities,
But like each other, even as those who love.
Then comes the statelier Eden back to men;
Then reign the world's great bridals, chaste and calm,
Then springs the crowning race of human-kind.

*        *        *        *        *

Dear, look up, let thy nature strike on mine,
Like yonder morning on the blind half world:
Approach, and fear not: breathe upon my brows:
In that fine air I tremble; all the past
Melts mist-like into this bright hour; and this
Is more to more, and all the rich to-come
Reels, as the golden autumn woodland reels
Athwart the smoke of burning weeds.   Forgive me,
I waste my heart in signs; let be, my bride!
My wife! my life!   Oh, we will walk this world
Yoked in all exercise of noble end,
And so through those dark gates across the wild
That no man knows.   My hopes and thine are one:
Accomplish thou my manhood and thyself;
Lay thy sweet hands in mine, and trust to me.'

    There is also lofty teaching in those allegories, 'The Palace of Art' and 'The Vision of Sin.'  The latter is a terrible vision and portrayal of a 'crime of sense avenged by sense.'  The poet 'had a vision when the night was late.'

'A youth came riding toward a palace gate.
 He rode a horse with wings, which would have flown,
 But that the heavy rider kept him down.'

    (Alas! how many of us do that, and fetter down to earth the spirit that was meant to aspire!)

'And from the palace came a child of sin,
 And took him by the curls, and led him in,
 Where sat a company with heated eyes.'

    Here the youth spends his body-and-soul-destroying days and nights in enervating pleasures and voluptuous revelry.  And every morning 'God made himself an awful rose of dawn unheeded.'  That is, God was personified in the crimson morning that flamed through the palace windows, and looked on their carnival of sensuality with awful eye—in vain.  The poet sees Age, and Disease, and Nemesis, coming slowly, but surely, out of the future in a heavy vapour and the black darkness of the grave, which steal on for many a month and year to wrap this child of sin as in swaddling clothes for hell.  Then comes a ghastly change:—

             'I saw within my head
A grey and gap-tooth'd man, as lean as death,
Who slowly rode across a wither'd heath.'

He has become a ribald, rotten reprobate; an atheist to all virtue, a mocker at all good.  He chants a strain fearful enough to be chanted to a company of lewd, leering, hoary old Lechers, damned to the lowest region of hell.  What a picture for Lust and Luxury to contemplate!  A gap-toothed, lax-eyed old sinner, with one foot in the grave, his hand having the frailest, tremblingest hold of life, his flesh almost quickening into reptile life, gloating on the most horrible thoughts that he can find in his mental devil's den!  'Sit thee down, and have no shame,' he mumbles:

'We are men of ruin'd blood;
     Therefore comes it we are wise:
 Fish are we that love the mud,
     Rising to no fancy flies.

 Virtue!—to be good and just—
     Every heart, when sifted well,
 Is a clot of warmer dust,
     Mix'd with cunning sparks of hell.

 Oh! we two as well can look
     Whited thought and cleanly life
 As the priest, above his book
     Leering at his neighbour's wife.

 Chant me now some wicked stave,
     Till thy drooping courage rise,
 And the glow-worm of the grave
     Glimmer in thy rheumy eyes.

 Fear not thou to loose thy tongue;
     Set thy hoary fancies free;
 What is loathsome to the young,
     Savours well to thee and me.

The conclusion of this poem is fine as all this is bitter and fearful, and illustrates the poet's large-hearted charity.  How mournfully pleading is that, 'Is there any hope?'—

'To which an answer peal'd from that high land,
 But in a tongue no man could understand;
 And on the glimmering limit, far withdrawn,
 God made himself an awful rose of dawn.'

What a grand ending it has, and so have many of his short poems; they leave you standing, like Cortez and his men, 'silent upon a peak in Darien.'

    A brave and healthful lesson is inculcated in 'Locksley Hall.'  It is an immense improvement on the old Werterian sentimentality and Byronic misery.  It was the right thing at the right time, and, like new wine, it burst the old bottles that previous love-poets had been so long filling with their tears of utter despair.  In this poem, the lover resolutely determines to overlive his mischance, and will not die slowly in despair; the beautiful puppet of his early worship has made shipwreck of his hopes, but he has strength enough left to swim for shore.  'Tis not such natures as his that die of a broken heart, and wherever deep, divine love hath brooded and nestled, it hath dropped healing from its wings when it fled.  Though this arrow on which he staked so much hath missed its mark, his quiver of life is not yet empty.  And so it ends hopefully and cheerfully, with its outlook of promise into the future.

    And what a dainty Ariel the muse of Tennyson becomes at will, singing songs that steal upon you like the sweet South, songs that flow from the very spirit of melody gracefully and naturally, as rich notes from the skylark.  Here are two:—

 A DEAD SORROW TURNED TO A
                     LIVING LOVE.

'As through the land at eve we went,
     And pluck'd the ripen'd ears,
 We fell out, my wife and I,
 Oh we fell out, I know not why,
     And kiss'd again with tears.

 For when we came where lies the child
     We lost in other years,
 There above the little grave,
 Oh there above the little grave,
     We kiss'd again with tears.'

_________

A LULLABY.


'Sweet and low, sweet and low,
 Wind of the western sea,
 Low, low, breathe and blow,
 Wind of the western sea!
 Over the rolling waters go,
 Come from the dying moon, and blow,
 Blow him again to me;
 While my little one, while my pretty one,
            sleeps.

 Sleep and rest, sleep and rest,
 Father will come to thee soon;
 Rest, rest, on mother's breast,
 Father will come to thee soon;
 Father will come to his babe in the nest,
 Silver sails all out of the west,
 Under the silver moon:
 Sleep, my little one, sleep, my pretty one,
            sleep.'

_________

    What a pictorial wealth he has lavished on his poetry! A perfect gallery of pictures might be collected from his writings.  Spenser has been called the poet of painters; but Tennyson is almost as rich in paintings.  He is a Turner among modern poets.  The muse of painting seems to have taken to verse in our day.  Why do not the painters take their revenge on her, and paint her verses?  They should begin with the poetry of Tennyson, with whom the muse of painting as well as poetry loves to sit.  Let us copy a few of his pictures, portraits, and bits of still-life into our tapestry.

    Was ever Venus rendered, in colour or in stone, more lovely and more perfectly, than in these lines from 'Enone?'

'Idalian Aphrodite beautiful,
'Fresh as the foam new-bathed in Paphian wells,
'With rosy slender fingers backward drew
'From her warm brows and bosom her deep hair
'Ambrosial, golden round her lucid throat
'And shoulder: from the violets her light foot
'Shone rosy-white, and o'er her rounded form,
'Between the shadows of the vine-bunches,
'Floated the glowing sunlights as she moved.
'She with a subtle smile in her mild eyes,
'The herald of her triumph, drawing nigh,
'Half whisper'd in her ear, "I promise thee
'The fairest and most loving wife in Greece."
'She spoke and laugh'd: I shut my sight for fear.'

In addition to the loveliness of the picture, note the fine intuition of the concluding lines.

    What a noble picture also is this from the 'Morte D'Arthur!'—

'Then saw they how there hove a dusky barge,
 Dark as a funeral scarf from stem to stern,
 Beneath them; and descending, they were 'ware
 That all the decks were dense with stately forms,
 Black-stoled, black-hooded, like a dream—by these
 Three Queens, with crowns of gold—and from them rose
 A cry that shiver'd to the tingling stars.

 Then murmur'd Arthur, " Place me in the barge;"
 And to the barge they came.   Then those three Queens
 Put forth their hands, and took the King, and wept.
 But she that rose the tallest of them all,
 And fairest, laid his head upon her lap,
 And loosed the shatter 'd casque, and chafed his hands,
 And call'd him by his name, complaining loud,
 And dropping bitter tears against his brow,
 Striped with dark blood; for all his face was white
 And colourless, and like the wither'd moon
 Smote by the fresh beam of the springing east;
 And all his greaves and cuisses dash'd with drops
 Of onset; and the light and lustrous curls
 That made his forehead like a rising sun
 High from the däis-throne—were parch'd with dust;
 Or clotted into points, and hanging loose,
 Mix'd with the knightly growth that fringed his lips.
 So like a shatter'd column lay the King.'

    In realising his dreams of fair women, Tennyson has some most lovely poetical creations, and he has lavished 'riches fineless' upon their portraits, which are set in frames of fine gold.  Look at the 'Gardener's Daughter:'—

                                           'One arm aloft—
Gown'd in pure white that fitted to the shape—
Holding the bush, to fix it back, she stood.
A single stream of all her soft brown hair
Pour'd on one side: the shadow of the dowers
Stole all the golden gloss, and, wavering
Lovingly lower, trembled on her waist—
Ah, happy shade—and still went wavering down,
But, ere it touch'd a foot that might have danced
The greensward into greener circles, dipp'd,
And mix'd with shadows of the common ground!
But the full day dwelt on her brows, and sunn'd
Her violet eyes, and all her Hebe-bloom,
And doubled his own warmth against her lips,
And on the bounteous wave of such a breast
As never pencil drew.   Half light, half shade,
She stood, a sight to make an old man young.

Or glance lovingly for a moment at this specimen of artistical and imaginative power from 'Godiva:'—

                                           'But ever at a breath
She linger'd, looking like a summer moon
Half dipp'd in cloud; anon she shook her head,
And shower'd the rippled ringlets to her knee;
Unclad herself in haste; adown the stairs
Stole on; and, like a creeping sunbeam, slid
From pillar unto pillar, until she reach'd
The gateway; there she found her palfrey, trapp'd
In purple, blazon'd with armorial gold.'

Mr Leigh Hunt has likewise sung a very sweet strain on the subject of this 'naked deed thus clothed in saintliest beauty' in his new volume.  In quoting these pictorial passages, I have forborne to italicise any particular lines; what need, when all are so perfect?  It is song and picture in one.

    In painting little pictures of English scenery, Tennyson has scarce a rival.  Who gives so much in so little as he does?  His eye selects with an instinct as marvellous as it is certain, it penetrates to the innermost spirit of things, and renders up its secret in lines more graphic and living than Retzch's.  A few talismanic words, and the rounded perfection rises, whether it be a shape of homeliest beauty, or an image of dim, delicious, dreamy loveliness, perfect in melody, perfect in colour, perfect in form.  Here are a few instances, not confined to landscape, but all illustrative of his power of getting so much in so little:—

'Behind the valley, topmost Gargarus
 Stands up and takes the morning'

'The swimming vapour slopes athwart the glen,
 Puts forth an arm, and creeps from pine to pine,
 And loiters, slowly drawn.'

'The ragged rims of thunder brooding low,
 With shadow-streaks of rain.'

'The dim red morn had died, her journey done,
 And with dead lips smiled at the twilight plain,
 Half fallen across the threshold of the sun,
 Never to rise again.'

'Night slid down one long stream of sighing wind,
 And in her bosom bore the baby, Sleep.'


'Love took up the harp of life, and smote on all the chords with might,
 Smote the chord of self, that, trembling, pass'd in music out of sight.'

(This couplet contains one of the most exquisitely perfect images in the whole range of literature—an image that stands on perfection for its pedestal.  If you strike the string of a harp, it vanishes in a kind of winged sound; so, when the hand of love strikes the chord of self in the harp of life, all selfishness passes away in music and trembling.  What a thing to think over and to doat upon!)

'A still, salt pool, lock'd in with bars of sand,
     Left on the shore, that hears all night
 The plunging seas draw backward from the land
     Their moon-led waters white.'

'And all her thoughts as fair within her eyes,
 As bottom agates seen to wave and float
 In crystal currents of clear morning seas.'

'Morn, in the white wake of the morning star,
 Came furrowing all the orient into gold.'

'The last red leaf is whirl'd away,
 The rooks are blown about the skies.'

                                       'Couch'd at ease,
 The white kine glimmer'd, and the trees
 Laid their dark arms about the field.'

'Autumn laying here and there
 A fiery finger on the leaves.'

'Oh, mother, praying God will save
     Thy sailor, while thy head is bow'd
     His heavy-shotted hammock-shroud
 Drops in his vast and wandering grave.'

    My space is exhausted, and how little have I said, how much remains to be written!  I have said nothing of that noble 'In Memoriam,' so full of love, 'passing the love of woman,' so touchingly eloquent in its passionate vibrato of grief, so full of dearly human tenderness, so wide-ranging and lofty in its poetry—altogether, the greatest religious poem written in our language.  Many last words of love, and gratitude, and admiration, claim utterance; for Tennyson has acquired that happy fame which amounts to personal affection with his readers.  May that affection re-act upon him with fresh tides of inspiration.  [Since writing the above, we have seen the welcome announcement of 'Maud, and other Poems,' which may offer another opportunity for returning to the Poetry of Alfred Tennyson.]


GERALD MASSEY.

_____________

See also:

  • Massey on Tennyson's poetry, published in the Christian Socialist, August, 1851.

  • Massey on Tennyson's 'Princess' (The Rights of Women), published in the Christian Socialist, September, 1851.

  • Massey's review in the Edinburgh News, 'Tennyson's New Volume of Poems' (Maud and other poems - July 1855).

 



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