Cartoon portraits and biographical sketches of men of the day/Alfred Tennyson
In Tennyson's earlier poems, for instance, there was an air of affectation
It is about forty-two years since Mr. Tennyson issued his first volumes of poems. The young poet attracted little attention at the time, save from the critics, who could not understand 'this young man from Lincolnshire,' and so did the next best thing—namely, abused his verses. In 1833, Tennyson, nothing daunted, made his second appearance, only to be abused again, but this time in a quarter where virulent condemnation was in that day at least—generally accepted by a new author as the best testimonial to his true merit. The 'Quarterly,' having killed Keats—or, at all events, having gained the reputation for doing it—was ready, like the ogres of the old fables, to annihilate any new victim. Mr. Tennyson, in his earlier poems more evidently than in his more mature efforts, had drawn much of his turn of thought and imagination from the author of 'Endymion.' With a charming expression, therefore, of contrition for its former bad treatment of 'the harbinger of the milky way of poetry'—as, even in its Jesuitical apology, the 'Quarterly' still chose to designate Keats—it pointed its quill for the demolition of the later aspirant to poetic fame; with what ultimate success, the strong hold which Tennyson's writings have since taken on the affections of the reading portion of his countrymen is sufficiently palpable. But it is useful sometimes, if only for the benefit of poets yet unfledged, to point back to the rough handling which men who have now made their names encountered at the outset of their careers. And we do not know whether these very men, now reposing in the calm Hesperides of their success, are not inwardly thankful for the rough lessons which they received in the earlier days of their pilgrimage to fame. Faults and flaws have been pointed out, which the man of true genius has acknowledged to himself as the ordinary results of inexperience, and has accordingly rectified to the best of his power.
which, though pretty enough in its way, and a novel characteristic to a certain extent, yet betrayed a latent weakness. The same quality attaches to the Laureate's productions even now, to a limited extent. In fact, we doubt whether Tennyson could altogether get rid of the old trick; but his youthful effusions were overladen to a degree with these affectations.
The critic of the 'Quarterly' took good care to seize the weak points of the young Lincolnshire poet, and went mercilessly to work.
If only as amusing pictures of the old style of criticism, which in this more polite age has rarely been seen—except a few years ago in the coarse but vigorous criticisms of the 'Saturday Review,' when that journal possessed a power in the world of letters it has since lost by the death or secession of the men who made it famous—we may be excused for giving a few specimens of the reviewer's manner.
The poet has sung :
Then let wise Nature work her will,
And on my clay her darnels grow;
Come only when the days are still,
And at my headstone whisper low,
And tell me—
'Now, what,' says the critic of the 'Quarterly,' 'would an ordinary bard wish to be told under such circumstances? Why, perhaps how his sweetheart was, or his child, or his family, or how the Reform Bill worked, or whether the last edition of the poems had been sold;—papæ! our genuine poet's first wish is:
And tell me if the woodbines blow.
When, indeed, he shall have been thus satisfied as to the woodbines—of the blowing of which, in their due season, he may, we think, feel pretty secure—he turns a passing thought to his friend, and another to his mother.
If thou art blest my mother's smile
But such inquiries, short as they are, seem too commonplace; and he immediately glides back into his curiosity as to the state of the forwardness of the spring.
If thou art blest—my mother's smile
Undimm'd—if bees are on the wing.
No, we believe the whole circle of poetry does not furnish such another instance of enthusiasm for the sights and sounds of the vernal season! The sorrows of a bereaved mother rank after the blossoms of the woodbine, and just before the hummings of the bee; and this is all he has any curiosity about, for he proceeds:
Then cease, my friend, a little while,
That I may —
"send my love to my mother;" or "give you some hints about bees, which I have picked up from Aristseus in the Elysian Fields;" or "tell you how I am situated as to my own personal comforts in the world below"? 0, no!
That I may hear the throstle sing
His bridal song the—boast of spring.'
This is tolerably severe. The following lines, however, gave too palpable an opportunity for even the most obtuse critic to let slip:
Sweet as the noise in parchèd plains
Of bubbling wells that fret the stones
(If any sense in me remains)
Thy words will be, thy cheerful tones
As welcome to my—crumbling bones.
And this is the commentary,
'If any sense in me remains!
This doubt is inconsistent with the opening stanza of the piece, and, in fact, too modest. We take upon ourselves to reassure Mr. Tennyson, that, even after he shall be dead and buried, as much "sense" will still remain as he has now the good fortune to possess.'
Take the following again:
'The accumulation of tender images in the following lines appears not less wonderful:
Remember you that pleasant day
When, after roving in the woods—
'Twas April then—I came and lay
Beneath those gummy chestnut buds?
A water-rat from off the bank
Plunged in the stream. With idle care,
Down looking through the sedges rank,
I saw your troubled image there.
If you remember, you had set
Upon the narrow casement-edge
A long green box of mignonette,
And you were leaning on the ledge.
The poet's truth to nature in his "gummy chestnut buds," and to art in the "long green box" of mignonette, and that masterly touch of likening the first intrusion of love into the virgin bosom of the miller's daughter to the plunging of a water-rat into the mill-dam—these are beauties which, we do not fear to say, equal anything even in Keats.'
The most ardent admirers of Tennyson's earlier poems must confess that, in instances such as these, the poet laid himself open to the ridicule of an ill-natured reviewer.
One more example of this, and we have done with the Laureate's more youthful efforts. In the 'Dream of Fair Women,' we all know the exquisite description of Iphigenia, and have most of us noted that flaw in the closing lines,
The tall masts quiver'd as they lay afloat;
The temples, and the people, and the shore;
One drew a sharp knife through my tender throat,
Slowly, and nothing more.
The critic's chance here is of course inevitable.
'What touching simplicity! What pathetic resignation! "He cut my throat—nothing more!" One might ask, "What more she would have?"'
The line has been altered in the later editions of the poet's works; but we have merely recalled some of these earlier defects of the Laureate's muse to show that even great poets—though born, not made—must always owe much to long and elaborate culture, and must pass through the crucible in repeated refinings before their works are fit to remain the last polished evidences to posterity of their innate genius.
Upon this principle, Tennyson is undoubtedly the most polished poet of modern times; but it is a question whether, in his extreme cultivation, he has not sacrificed much of that manly vigour which some of his contemporaries—Browning and Swinburne, for instance—have displayed in their works, either with an unpopular abruptness, or, in the case of the latter poet at times, with a still more unpopular license. Yet Tennyson, with all his weaknesses, is Laureate of the day, as much by a pretty generally recognised right of sovereignty as by title. He has written much that is deliciously sweet —much that is grandly chivalrous. His ear for the music of our fine old Saxon language is perfect. He is almost always intelligible; and, above all, he has never written a word to raise a blush even on the most modest cheek. He is a worthy successor of Wordsworth in the laureateship; and although we have had greater poets even in this nineteenth century, and may yet see greater than those at present in the field before its close, Alfred Tennyson may well claim the first place among living bards.
Indiscriminate praise, which popularity for the time being naturally induces, is always damaging to an author's permanent reputation. For this reason, at the risk of not being seconded in our opinions by the more enthusiastic admirers of the Laureate, let us consider briefly the salient characteristics of Tennyson's writings.
In the first place, except at occasional intervals, his poetry has been essentially objective rather than subjective. A lover of external things of beauty, a student of nature rather than of men, a dreamer rather than a man of action, he—like his own 'Lotus Eaters'— yields rather to the seductive influence of sensuous attractions than to the impulse of more restless minds, who would fain step forth, and, taking the living world for their theme, suggest with prophetic voice the lessons which depend upon the present for the benefit of the unborn future. With rare instances has he touched upon the crying needs of the day—upon the problems which our growing civilisation all over the world is ever presenting. Calm, pensive, retrospective, he is most at his ease when drawing for the fountains of his inspiration from the mellow fancies of the old classical mythology or Arthurian legends.
It may be objected that such poems as 'Locksley Hall' and 'Lady Clara Vere de Vere' are contradictions to this theory; but it must be remembered that these, after all, are but random wanderings from the main path which the Laureate first marked out for himself, and has, in the main, persistently trodden since.
In his earlier poems we find him revelling in the old Homeric traditions, around which he has thrown the magic of a charm peculiarly his own. In these poems we hear, in that exquisite fragment, 'Morte d'Arthur,' the first tentative notes of the song which was later on to burst into the wondrous and sustained melody of his masterpiece, the 'Idylls of the King.' And on this poem, above all others, we think Tennyson's reputation must rest with later generations. Almost Homeric in its breadth and simplicity, it combines the homely pathos, the picturesque variety, and the teeming allegory of our elder minstrels, with the polished grace which springs from a complete command of the highest resources of modern art. The exquisite blank verse—of which, perhaps, no greater master than Tennyson can be named—flows on with an utter disguise of all elaboration and effort. Art has concealed the traces of art. There is no perceptible straining after effect, no struggling to elaborate startling points. The narrative is told with exquisite grace and beauty; and some of the charming lyrics which form the interludes have a delicious cadence which haunts the memory like a melody of Mendelssohn's.
In the 'Idylls of the King' we see Tennyson's characteristic merits at their highest. In it he has taken a field for himself, in which all imitators—and they have been many, no less a poet than Lord Lytton among the number—have signally failed; and here at least, in his capacity of throwing a radiance of new life and beauty about the mouldering legends of antiquity, the Laureate has proved himself unrivalled by living bards.
To compare him with, or to gauge him by, the standard of any of his famous predecessors, as has been sometimes done, would be idle. Like all great artists, he has learnt and adapted from the finest models before him. Beyond this, he is a poet per se, and this is his greatest praise.
Mr. Tennyson was born in 1810 at the parsonage of Somerby, a quiet hamlet in the neighbourhood of Spilsby, in Lincolnshire. Somerby and Enderby form a rectory once held by the poet's father, the Rev. George Clayton Tennyson, D.D., the eldest brother of Mr. Tennyson D'Eyncourt, who was for some years member of Parliament for one of the metropolitan boroughs. As a boy, the future Poet Laureate was sent to the grammar-school of Louth, and afterwards proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge—Thackeray being at the University at the same time. In 1829 he gained the Chancellor's medal for the best English poem, the subject for the year being 'Timbuctoo.'
After leaving Cambridge, he spent much of his time in travelling about from place to place, from London to Hastings, Hastings to Cheltenham, to Eastbourne, to Twickenham—everywhere, in fact, where he might find food for that love of the beautiful in nature so characteristic of his poems. His first productions, as we have already said, attracted little public notice; but when people became awake to the nervous passion of 'Locksley Hall,' the indignant satire of 'Lady Clara Vere de Vere,' the tender beauty of 'The May Queen,' and the sensuous elegance of such poems as 'A Dream of Fair Women,' 'The Sleeping Beauty,' and 'The Palace of Art,' his claim as a poet of a high order was universally admitted.
How emphatically he has strengthened and enlarged his reputation by those later and more ambitious works with which we are all familiar, needs no remark.
On the death of Wordsworth, Mr. Tennyson was, it is generally understood at the express desire of the Queen, in 1851 appointed Poet Laureate; and he received at the same time, from Sir Robert Peel, the grant of a pension of 200l. per annum.
From this time he began to produce those works with which his fame is more eminently associated. For twenty years he has been Laureate; and during that period we have had at intervals for Tennyson is by no means a prolific author—'Maud,' which appeared in 1855; the 'Idylls of the King,' in 1858; 'Enoch Arden,' in 1864; 'The Holy Grail,' in 1869; and 'Gareth and Lynette' in 1872. Besides these, he has contributed occasional poems to the magazines, the most notable among these being 'Tithonus,' which first appeared in the 'Cornhill Magazine;' and the fine philosophic study entitled 'Lucretius,' in Macmillan.'