The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
by R. H. Law.
Tennyson, in a degree beyond most poets, may be called the child of his age, the inheritor and expounder of its dominant ideas. Like the Times, as Kinglake described it, even when seemingly in opposition, he had the majority with him. His writings well probably have for posterity a documentary value as a compendium of the thought and tendencies of the England of the Victorian era. I make no apology, therefore, for prefacing a study of Tennyson's poetry by a short inquiry into his spiritual ancestry and environment. But thus to explain his work is by no means to explain it away. In Tennyson's, as in all true poetry, the genius of the poet is a necessary ingredient, an indispensable factor. "The poet is born, not made." Stirring events, national enthusiasm, religious fervour, will never of themselves make a man a poet, though they have often inspired a poet's song. True, Juvenal could write, Facit indignatio versus, but it needed a Juvenal to transmute indignation into poetry. Or, if there had been no Byron, who would have been found to raise in the ears of a Europe pacified a la Metternich, chafing under its re-imposed fetters, helpless and weak from a quarter of a century's blood-letting, that cry of faith and hope in a better day:
"Oh, Freedom, still thy banner torn yet flying,
The time called for such a cry--who but Byron could have given it voice? No, in poetry the demand does not create the supply.
But, given the seed of genius is there, it depends on the soil, on the propitious showers, on the genial sun, whether it is to spring up into leaf and flower and fruit. Sometimes, too, as for the parsley fern, which dies in a garden, but grows abundantly on the bleak mountain side, a rougher nurture is needed. I am only concerned to point out, what after all is obvious enough, that for every poet certain conditions, varying with his temperament, are necessary if he is to give us his best.
Tennyson had the good fortune to live at a time when nearly all the conditions were peculiarly favourable to a poet of his type. It is of course idle to speculate what he would have been had he lived in another age. Personally, I can think of no epoch in which he could have been greater, though of many in which he would not have been so great. I will now endeavour, as briefly as possible, to give reasons for these rather categorical statements.
In the fifty years before Tennyson began to write men's ideas, not on politics alone, but on religion, philosophy, poetry, nature, in fact, nearly all subjects of human interest had undergone a greater change than in the whole of the two foregoing centuries.
The eighteenth century was far from being the arid spiritual wilderness its assailants have been pleased to describe. Yet even its best friends will hardly pretend that poetry was its strong point. The atmosphere of the time seemed to have a stunting influence on the imagination. Gray, exquisite poet as he was, had hardly the strength to challenge the prevailing taste. The typical poet of the time was Pope, who in his own kind achieved such a success that we can hardly wish him different. But his example was fatal to his contemporaries and immediate successors. A certain classic elegance, clearness, precision, wit, qualities so conspicuous in Pope, came to be regarded as the essential characteristics of all poetry. After these, Pope's successors laboured clumsily. The Muse--poor, unkempt hoyden!--was tricked out in a full-bottomed wig and high-heeled shoes in order to be presentable in polite society. In a word, poetry seemed dying of an overdose of Attic salt.
But a few years were to change all that. The political Revolution which broke out in France, hardly recognized as a Revolution until the taking of the Bastille in 1789, was no isolated phenomenon. It was but a violent symptom of a spiritual revolution which had long been preparing. In France Rousseau had discovered nature, and was preaching his new gospel some years before to an astonished and delighted world. At Konigsberg, in East Prussia, Emanuel Kant had formulated his system of transcendental philosophy which was to shatter for ever the soi-disant common-sense basis on which the eighteenth-century theory of life ultimately rested. Coleridge introduced the new philosophy into England, where Rousseau's writings were already known. Kindled by these ideas, aglow with the generous ardour of the early revolution, Coleridge, and his friend Wordsworth, flung aside the chilling conventions and traditions of a century of verse-writers, and became the founders of modern poetry. Johnson, the last of the greater poets of the old style, had been dead only a few years, but his work and theirs seem divided as by a chasm ages wide. The one was a poetry of the reason (using the word in a very narrow sense), the other of the imagination. Hence comes that intenser feeling of the mystery of the world and of man, of the
"Something still more deeply interfused,"
which is a note of the best modern poetry. For these are things which defy or elude and unsympathetic analysis; they are only to be apprehended and presented imaginatively. To the modern poet "nothing is common"--Nature in all her moods, man in all his experiences, be they tragic or grotesque, are subjects, not for brilliant epigram, but reverent study.
The romantic movement, which followed hard upon the one just described, and sprang, though less directly, from the same causes, need not detain us long. It enriched poetry with new material rather than a fresh idea. Just as Rousseau in France, and Wordsworth in England, had discovered Nature, so Scott and (after a long interval) Hugo discovered the Middle Ages. A period which had been despised as barbarous was now seen to abound in picturesque incident and heroic character.
Meanwhile, politically speaking, England was still under the influence of the reaction due to the horror of the nation at revolutionary excesses abroad, and in an even greater degree to the exigencies of a war policy. Two great poets lifted up their voices in the cause of liberty, but seemingly in vain. The melodious wailings of Shelley fell on contemptuous ears; the strident scorn of Byron, with all his faults a martyr to freedom, were heard--indeed, who could help hearing? --but with aversion and distrust.
The England into which Tennyson was born--victorious England! the England of the generation after Waterloo--was a land well-nigh ruined by her protracted death-struggle with Napoleon. Her peasantry were starved by the high duty on corn, and demoralized by the old Poor-law. In the towns (especially in the North) a new and as yet badly organized industrial system, with its steam-driven machinery, was harshly displacing, amidst the curses of its victims, the old-fashioned hand-workers. Fierce riots sternly repressed, rich-burning and machinery-breaking, were of common occurrence. Tennyson's life covers a period of gradual mitigation of abuses, and "freedom slowly broading down." The gross palpable signs of this, such as the great Reform Bill, the repeal of the Corn Laws, the extension of railways, the growth of our industrial supremacy, the opening of the first International Exhibition in 1851, were accompanied by spiritual changes even more significant. While the poet was still a young man, Liberalism--that theological and philosophical Liberalism against which Newman was to wage such bitter war--was already raising its head.
Throughout the greater part of the century--spite of temporary checks--it has been the winning cause, mainly by reason of the help of its potent ally, physical science. For it is here--in the progress of scientific discovery--that we discern the dominant intellectual influence of our time. Its material triumphs, its manifold application to the improvement of the arts and manufactures, are the very least of its achievements. By its revelation of the immense antiquity of the globe, by its myriad illustration of the great law of the uniformity of Nature, above all, by that most fruitful of its generalizations, the evolution theory, it has shattered the stately fabric of doctrinal theology, affected every current of thought, and compelled us to alter our whole view of the ends and possibilities of life.
* * * * * * *
Having now reviewed, very imperfectly, what I have ventured to call Tennyson's "Spiritual Ancestry and Environment," let us turn to the poet himself. I propose to consider him in his double capacity of poet and thinker.
The distinction, of course, is arbitrary, as the two divisions of his work are not mutually exclusive, though perhaps more so than his indiscriminate admirers will be prepared to admit. With this preliminary caveat I begin.
The first poets were invariably minstrels, and it is still expected of a poet that he should be able to "sing a good song." Nor is this a bad test of poetic faculty. In a son a lack of melody (if I may borrow an illustration from music) cannot be disguised by cunning harmonies or learned orchestration. It is also a test of sincerity: a song makes a direct appeal: we can tell at once if it rings false. Again, we know as soon as we hear it whether our poet is quite spontaneous, or straining himself, forcing the note. As a song writer, Tennyson ranks with the highest. True, some of his earlier songs and lyrics betray the influence of Shakespeare, as, for instance, the "Dirge" beginning
"Now is done thy long day's work
which reminds us at once of the dirge sung for the death of Cloten in "Cymbeline," which opens with the lines:
"Fear no more the heat of the sun,
A yet stronger instance is afforded by another of his early songs, "The Owl," which it is difficult to believe not to have been a conscious imitation--so close is the resemblance--of the beautiful song beginning
"When daisies pied, and violets blue,"
But if Tennyson began as an imitator he only did what other great poets have done before him, and it is certainly a point in his favour that his chosen model was none but Shakespeare himself. However he did not long content himself with imitation. With these early exceptions, Tennyson is nowhere more himself than in his songs. They are nearly all so well known that it seems impertinent to quote them.
"Break, break, break,
Is almost as full of the strange mystery of the sea as Shakespeare's famous
"Full fathom five thy father lies."
The song in "The Brook" has the very babble of running water. If "Minnie and Winnie" and the "Baby Song" in "Sea Dreams," beginning
"What does the little birdie say?"
are nursery rhymes it could be wished they were known in all the nurseries in the land. The songs in "The Princess" are all exquisite. We feel the homely humour and pathos in
"As through the land at eve we went,"
the glow of an elf-land sunset in
"The splendour falls on castle walls;"
in "Tears, idle tears" the poignant anguish of unavailing regret. What a fine image, too, does the poet give us in the last stanza of the same song!
"Dear as remembered kisses after death,
Again, how wonderfully blended are the two ideas of the wife at home and the soldier in the thick of the fight in
"Thy voice is heard through rolling drums"!
But the palm must be given to the best known of all:
"Home they brought her warrior dead."
If the poet had written nothing else his fame would have been secure from this one song. If we may judge from the two songs in "The Foresters," "There is no land like England," and "The bee bussed up in the heat," Tennyson preserved his lyric gift till the end of his life. As these songs are not so well known as his earlier ones I will take the liberty of quoting the last:
"The bee buzzed up in the heat;
The celebrated song in "Maud" belongs to a different class: it is more artificial than the others, but many find it even more beautiful. It has been foolishly attacked for what is one of its greatest merits, the way in which the waiting lover makes all the garden flowers and shrubs to sympathise with his passion. For it is a common experience that in times of intense emotion, be it joy or sorrow, hope or despair, men do feel that Nature is in sympathy with them. Thus what has been sneered at as an instance of the "pathetic fallacy" is really a subtle but convincing proof of the sincerity and depth of the lover's passion. Maud's garden with its waiting lover is hardly unworthy to be compared with that other garden at Verona where Romeo waited under the balcony. There can be no higher praise. The "Choric Song" in the "Lotos-Eaters" is, perhaps, the most beautiful thing Tennyson ever wrote. There breathes in it a spirit of sleep, of forgetfulness of hateful duty, and of the bustling weary world where men strive and suffer and die only to make sport, though they know it not, for the languid gods, looking down "over wasted lands" from "where they lie beside their nectar." Reading "The Lotos-Eaters" one understand how English sailors, tired of being "rolled to starboard, rolled to larboard," can forget their home and even "the memory of their wedded lives" on the coral beach of some island of the Pacific. To exorcise this spirit of "dreamful ease" let us turn to a very different poem, the most splendid of Tennyson's patriotic ballads, "The Revenge." Here with the gallant Sir Richard Grenville's "Fight on, Fight on!" with his cry of English pride, when
"The pikes were all broken or bent,
as he bids the gunner
"Sink now the ship, Master Gunner, sink her, split her in twain;
we are in a different atmosphere; the same poet who in the "Lotos-Eaters" makes us understand how an English sailor may become a "beach-comber," shows us here how he may die a hero. Truly, like Dryden's Timotheus, the master minstrel can touch many a chord. Of the domestic ballads, such as the "May Queen," of "Lady Clare," of "The Lord of Burleigh," I will not speak. Whatever their literary quality they have caught the ear and touched the heart of the English people. "In Memoriam," the great elegy for Arthur Hallam, is, I understand, to form the subject of another paper in the Parents' Review, therefore I will not linger over its tender and subdued harmonies. Nor must I dwell upon the humours of the poems in dialect, "The Northern Farmer," and the like; they were experiments, and as the public seemed to like them I suppose they must be called successful.
It has sometimes been said that Tennyson could not describe the darker moods of the soul, the horror of despair, the bitterness of death. Such a belief will hardly survive the reading of "Rizpah." Hear her tell how she gathered the bones of her dead son from the gibbet, where they had hung rotting. "Flesh of my flesh was gone, but bone of my bone was left."
Of the rather ambitious epic, "The Idylls of the King," space forbids me to speak at length, and yet it is hardly right to dismiss it in a few words. Much has been said, and justly, in praise of Tennyson's blank verse. But is has escaped the notice of most critics that in this metre the poet has not one but two styles. There is the severely simple metre in which "Dora" is written, which is not without a certain rustic dignity suitable to the subject. We meet with this style occasionally in the "Idylls"; but for the most part the lines are as heavy with ornament as the cloth of gold that decked the lists at Camelot. This would not matter if the ornament were only woven into the texture of the verse; but, too often, it is sewn on painfully. To appreciate the difference, let any one read a passage of the "Idylls" and compare it with Keats' "Hyperion" anywhere. As for the treatment of the subject, the fault that vitiates the whole poem has been often pointed out. The characters are not flesh and blood, but "hypostatised abstractions." And yet, sown broadcast through the poem are many passages of the rarest beauty. Some of the similes from Nature could hardly have been done better by Virgil himself.
I have spoken at such length of Tennyson as poet that I must be brief in what I say of his work as a contribution to the thought of our time. I can do this with the clearer conscience, inasmuch as, in my judgment, he is far stronger on his poetical than his philosophical side. After all, it is no reproach to a great poet that he is not a great thinker also. But we live in days when, unless a poet has a message, unless his works are available for quotation in sermons and political speeches, he is put down as a mere trifler. We are too moral, too serious, to admit for a moment that a poet's business is with beauty, not necessarily with philosophy or science or morals.
Still there have been poets who by a flash of insight have pierced to the centre of problems that have baffled other thinkers; there have been poets who have said what was infinitely wise as well as infinitely beautiful. But Tennyson was hardly one of them. The defect of his philosophy--if philosophy we must call it--lies in its obviousness. He has a keen eye for the outside of things, but little "inwardness." Like the gull poised in mid air, he could discern afar-off the food or weeds floating on the surface of the ocean; he could not dive for the pearls. In poems like "Vastness," and parts of "In Memoriam," he deals with the questions that puzzle "the man in the street."
What has won Tennyson his reputation as a great philosophical poet is his wonderful power--never more happily displayed than in "In Memoriam"--of hitting off in a telling phrase, either what some man of science has just been teaching us, or what the average man is thinking of the scientist's lesson.
If we compare Tennyson with the brilliant galaxy of poets with whom the century opened, it is easy to show that he is in some way the inferior of each. Thus one might write: Tennyson has neither Coleridge's music (though that is doubtful), nor Wordsworth's profundity, nor Byron's fire, nor Keats' delicate sense of beauty, nor Shelley's crystalline radiance. But would that be "the conclusion of the whole matter"? Far from it. Tennyson has the quality of his defect. If he is somewhat superficial, he more than atones for it by a universality of range, a catholicity of interest unparalleled since Shakespeare. He resembles Shakespeare, too, in the national character of his work Tennyson never forgot he was an Englishman, never wrote a line as Englishman need blush to read. His longest poem is in honour of a mythical British hero; his finest ballad celebrates an English defeat more honourable than a hundred victories. One of his earliest poems was "Love thou thy land"; almost his latest song is "There is no land like England."
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