Author Feature: Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Great ages are fortunate which find the one voice that can turn to music their otherwise mute beliefs and endeavors, their joy and pain. Such was Chaucer for his time; such were Shakespeare and Spenser for theirs, Pope for his, and preeminently Alfred, Lord Tennyson, for the time of Victoria. Our present disparagement of Tennyson is only our impatience with everything Victorian; for his poetry peculiarly expresses the ideas and the enthusiasms of the vast reading middle class of his day. He reasons like the middle-class liberal who keeps to the Christian faith and forms, at least in the via media or middle course, with a mind open to the new difficulties rising from the new science, and the prevailing evolutionary enthusiasm for progress and some good time coming.
Behold we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last–far off–at last, to all.
His poetry sings the virtues and enthusiasms of his day, domestic and social, the patriotism, the humanitarian impulses, the utilitarian prosperity, the fascination of death, the sombre religion or scepticism, and the New Empire. At the same time he is nourishing and refining his age with the beauty which it had lost, and which he shapes for its needs out of many a corner of “the antique world.” If he seems at times to be an aristocrat, he is such with the middle-class conservatism and faith in the old English order. He has as much of the body and fibre of English life in him as Dickens–perhaps more–not its lusty humors so much as its peculiar and irresistible charm mellowed by time.
Rectory and Hall bound in an immemorial intimacy,
the stout and loyal tenantry, villages, cottages, broad fields, quiet waterways, gray churches and cathedrals, the indigenous music of English bells, country-houses, gardens, lawns, Christmas cheer, old yews, cedars, and elms, waste places, birds in their kinds, seasons in their round, and flowers in their habit, sweet, gentle women, and men with
Such fine reserve and noble reticence,
Manners so kind yet stately, such a grace
Of tenderest courtesy,
as only centuries of England at her best could produce–all these were his natural materials. And he comes close to homely English earth in his two monologues of the Northern Farmer, which together mark early and late phases of social change in the Victorian age.
An age, as soon as it recognizes its poet, is wont to take good care of him. Tennyson’s England recognized him slowly but surely. He knew little of the lot that falls to many poets–neglect, struggle, abuse, tragic war with his times. Yet he was obscurely born, one of twelve children of a clergyman at remote Somersby, Lincolnshire. As youngsters they often played at romance. Two brothers, Frederick and Charles, became poets of distinction. At Louth grammar school, in his father’s study, and at Trinity College, Cambridge, Alfred was industrious in his pursuit of the classics, history, and science, though his instruction at the University he found arid, “feeding not the heart.” But he made extraordinary friends among the so-called “Apostles”–Merivale, Spedding, Trench, Thackeray, and above all, Arthur Hallam, for whom his friendship was one of the determinant passions of his life. Hallam became engaged to Tennyson’s sister, and died soon after the Cambridge days. The poet’s grief was overwhelming; it dictated the suicide poem, Two Voices, a debat not unlike that between the Red Cross Knight and Despair in the Faery Queen, and through the years sublimated itself in the hundred and more lyrics which made up In Memoriam.
At twenty-seven Tennyson fell in love with Emily Sellwood. The engagement dragged on till he was past forty, what with his petty income and her parents’ natural disapproval. His family lost their little fortune, and he sank into alarming depression. But when he was thirty-three appeared the double volume of 1842 which founded his fame, and in 1845 he received a small pension from the government. In 1850, after ten years’ enforced separation, he and Emily were married. The same year Wordsworth died, and Tennyson was made Poet Laureate.
He was an impressive figure–tall, broad and sinewy, dark, grave, quiet, with a suggestion of latent Viking ancestry and the poetic fire, but an excellent companion with intimates, breaking at times into heroic laughter. His distinctions multiplied as the nation adopted him. He twice declined a baronetcy. His old college made him honorary fellow. He acquired two stately seats, at Aldworth, Surrey, and at Farringford, in the lsle of Wight, both of them counterparts of scenes in his poetry. At seventy-four he accepted a peerage, and his death at eighty-three fell upon the English-speaking world like the end of an institution. His bones lie in the Abbey.
From his youth Tennyson seems to have known his calling. At eighteen he had collaborated with Frederick in the slender Poems by Two Brothers; while an undergraduate he published Poems, chiefly Lyrical, which contained no less an omen of his greatness than the powerful Mariana; at twenty-three appeared Poems by Alfred Tennyson, with such achievements as The Lady of Shalott, Oenone, The Lotos-Eaters, and The Palace of Art. For ten years he worked, quietly shaping some of his masterpieces against the famous issue of 1842–Morte d’Arthur, Sir Galahad, Ulysses, Dora, Godiva, The Gardener’s Daughter, “Break, break, break,” and Locksley Hall. He was first of all a careful, patient workman, and no man ever toiled harder or more soberly to perfect himself in his craft. He kept it up all his long life, revising and editing early poems, reading, observing, travelling, scrutinizing the work of his many masters, inventing short snatches and cadences which he saved for later use. With his minute care he joined extraordinary range and variety–of metre, subject and material, and final effect. At eighty he reviews his career under the romantic image of Merlin and the Gleam.
For in his very earliest work he was a son of the romantics, Byron and Moore and Scott; but in his volume of 1832 the dream-like splendors of such poems as The Lady of Shalott, Oenone, The Palace of Art, The Lotos-Eaters are more akin to Keats and Coleridge and Spenser. As their heir he inherits their materials, the romance of ancient Greek lore, of the Middle Ages, of remote lands and times. But more ancient and stricter masters had him in life-long discipline, such as Homer, Theocritus, Ovid, Catullus, and above all Virgil,
Wielder of the stateliest measure
ever moulded by the lips of man.
Like Virgil and Milton, with his rich inheritance and his art, he was an Alexandrian craftsman, especially in all his earlier verse. For example in Ulysses, considered by some his finest poem, he takes a situation from Canto 22 of Dante’s Inferno, transfers it to the old age of Ulysses in Ithaca, makes of it a perfect dramatic monologue, weaving in phrases from Virgil and Homer and Horace, which he transmutes and fashions as only a poet can, sets it in a romantic and magic twilight, and suggests through it not only his own intrepid spirit, but the vision of infinite future possibility dimly apprehended’ by his times. So all his life again and again he “coin’d into English gold some treasure of classical song”–seizing a moment in classical myth or legend and, as in Wordsworth’s Laodamia, turning it to dramatic monologue.
His Lucretius shows, with high dramatic intensity, the lofty mind of the austere Latin poet breaking down under the stress of animal passion. Though it is throughout a “mosaic choicely planned” of phrases turned with uncanny skill from the noble Latin of Lucretius’s poem, such minute care does not weaken a final effect as powerful as any other in Tennyson.
Like that other great Alexandrian, Theocritus, Tennyson was essentially an idyllist, a fashioner of small and highly finished pictures. Hundreds of them are strewn from end to end of his work, from his Lady of Shalott, one of the most idyllic, through his classical poems, his pageants of the Palace of Art, and The Dream of Fair Women, his poems of English life, his Princess, Maud, In Memoriam. Of this, he seems to have been aware in his very fondness for the word, “idyll”–“a small, sweet idyll,” “English Idylls,” and Idylls of the King. His work is sometimes even too curiously ingenious, “laborious orient ivory. sphere in sphere,” resulting in many a luxuriant but not enduring phrase, and settling into a dangerous mannerism:
Warm blue breathings of a hidden hearth.
The tender, pink, five-beaded baby soles.
With her milkwhite arms and shadowy hair
She made her face a darkness from the King.
Even the greatest poets will exhibit their besetting affectations.
Tennyson was often an Alexandrian in his cultivation of archaic words and phrases, many of them Biblical. He resorts to this device at will when he desires a pastoral simplicity, as in Dora, or the antique epic finish in the Idylls of the King.
But he has far greater gifts than fine minute craftsmanship. One is the poet’s supreme gift of making the language sing a new song, verse set to its own indigenous tune, the gift of Burns, or Byron, and the Elizabethans. And though it is usually peculiar to the youthful poet, it never wholly left Tennyson from “Break, break, break” to Crossing the Bar. At the age of five, he leaned with outstretched arms upon the Lincolnshire blast and kept chanting: “I hear a voice that’s speaking in the ‘wind.” Most of his songs, instead of being the ostensible overflow of his own feeling, are partly dramatized as lyrics interpolated in longer poems–The Princess, and the Idylls; Maud is a cycle of dramatic lyrics. In Memoriam, he admits, is but an accumulation of “short swallow-flights of song,” and was indeed composed in moments of tense feeling during the seventeen years following the death of Hallam.
This lyric power was but part of his larger control of harmonies and melodies of speech. Always experimenting, even in his most successful work, his metrical range is astonishingly wide and varied, like the range of instrumentation in a great orchestra. For his narrative and dramatic poems, he created a new blank verse, not unlike the fluent verse of Wordsworth. By frequent running over, and constant shifting of the pause within the line, together with tine simplest grammatical construction, he attained to a new medium whose ease and flexibility strongly recommended itself to the popular ear. But it seldom reaches the dignity and durability of his masters, Milton and Virgil, for lack of their sustaining quantity of vowels and stoutly knit grammatical construction.
With his minute finish, his pictorial skill, his power in both melody and harmony, Tennyson combined a certain dramatic sense, the ability to seize and intensify a dramatic moment. But his dramatic sense is episodic, less adapted to the making of a play than of a dramatic monologue. And by this episodic nature of his imagination, whatever his aspirations may have been, he was destined never to achieve an epic or a great play. His longer poems are of the same episodic sort. The Princess is a gorgeous series of idyllic or spectacular episodes–a medley, as he says. The unity of In Memoriam is the loose and episodic unity of an average man’s thoughts on death and immortality. But it is magnificent in its pictures and moments and single songs–the yew, “Fair ship, that from the Italian shore,” storm at night, “The Danube to the Severn gave,” “When on my bed the moonlight falls,” Christmas Eve, “I past beside the reverend walls,” night and daybreak on the lawn, “I climb the hill,” “Ring out wild bells.” These remain in the mind long after the argument has faded.
By the same token the Idylls, though “in Twelve Books,” though they follow the career of Arthur from his glorious coming to his passing and the end of the Round Table, though they coincide with the round of the year, though they contain an alleged and faint allegory of the ages of man or the struggle of the soul, yet survive rather by their picturesque and dramatic moments. In their day they were enormously successful, as the collection grew from time to time during thirty years of the poet’s life. While he was making more familiar the medieval tradition, chiefly out of Malory, he was clothing it with new beauties and presenting characters who were essentially those of a high-life Victorian novel. Indeed the Idylls have more than one resemblance to an episodic novel of the time, “in parts.”
Maud (1854-5), though now often accepted as Tennyson’s greatest performance, in its day was derided and reviled. In twenty-seven lyric episodes, it reflects a tragic love-affair, not unlike that of Locksley Hall, wherein a solitary and rather morbid young man falls in love with his cousin Maud, is attacked by her brother, kills him, goes mad, wanders into exile, and is restored to reason after Maud’s death, by going to war. The story is further complicated by Victorian social crosscurrents. The public may have been offended partly by the morbid hero. His father too had gone mad and died, perhaps by his own hand, after being ruined in speculation by his brother, Maud’s father, whose ill-gotten wealth had made him a lord. Moreover, the implied defence of war was no doubt distasteful. It was the year of the Crimean War; England in the brutal and oppressive struggle for gain had turned the blessings of peace to a curse. She needed the war, the poet implies, to purge the poison. Be that as it may, the poem is flooded with music from end to end in all the moods and tenses of the story, even exultant joy, which is rare in Tennyson. And it is all modulated with the most exquisite appropriateness of cadence and measure. As an old man, the poet used to chant these matchless songs in a voice trembling with youthful passion.
In his sixties Tennyson, with his unflagging enterprise as an artist, began his attempt to gratify a wish, perhaps an old one, to find himself a dramatist, and produced in rapid succession six plays including Queen Mary, Becket, and The Cup; already past eighty he wrote The Foresters, a pleasant Robin Hood play. Supported by careful staging and by such actors as Irving and the Kendals, these plays enjoyed a varying success of esteem. But they are not great plays, and the poet had to content himself with the distinctions which were naturally his.
At its best, and essentially, Tennyson’s genius is virile, simple, direct, and, like his adored Virgil’s, sensitive to the melancholy of human life. As he once read the Second Book of the Aeneid he gave way to tears. With this nobler part mingled, as not uncommonly happens, a certain soft weakness, which sometimes appears in mere luxuriance of scene and phrase, or in sentimentality; or it becomes audible as an effeminate falsetto–“Call me early, mother dear.” One may detect all these weaknesses in Enoch Arden, composed in his fifties, and not infrequently in his preceding work. And from beginning to end he had an almost morbid preoccupation with stagnant or disordered states of mind, as in Mariana, Two Voices, St. Simeon, Locksley Hall, Maud, Lucretius, Rizpah.
But the best Tennyson shakes off these impediments, and invigorates his song with the fullness of heart and mind, with ease, and simplicity, and directness of utterance. Such is the singer of Ulysses, of the Ode on the Death of Wellington, of the charges of the two brigades, of the two Norther, Farmers, of The Revenge, To Virgil, and many of his songs including the very last, Crossing the Bar. In these poems, the finest virtues of his times unite with the hard-won expert technique of a master at moments when voice and emotion are in perfect unison.