Studies of a Biographer/Life of Tennyson
LIFE OF TENNYSON
Every one, I presume, has read the deeply interesting volumes in which Lord Tennyson has paid most appropriate homage to the memory of his father; and the life has probably suggested to most of us some comments upon the familiar poetry. A remark reported by Tennyson's old friend, Jowett, is a useful warning against overambitious attempts in that direction. 'There was,' said Tennyson, 'one intellectual process in the world of which he could not even entertain an apprehension—that was' (the process which created) 'the plays of Shakespeare.' If Tennyson could not imagine the Shakespearean intellect, it is impossible for people who are not poets even to guess at the Tennysonian. The most obvious of his merits is the most tantalising to a would-be explainer. It is especially difficult, as he observes, and as other people have observed before him, to be 'at once commonplace and poetical'; to find the one incomparable and magical phrase for the thought which has been trying to get itself uttered for centuries. There are interesting accounts in these volumes of the way in which some of Tennyson's most perfect passages sprang from accidental phrases, 'rolled about' in his mind; but phrases may roll about in some minds for a very long time to very little purpose. Leave a phrase to simmer in your memory; brood over it, let it crystallize into form in your mind, and the feat will be done. It will, that is, if your mind is Tennysonian; but there is the mystery. One trivial example comes home to the Alpine traveller. He has seen and tried for years to tell how he is impressed by his beloved scenery, and annoyed by his own bungling whenever he has tried to get beyond arithmetical statements of hard geographical facts. And then Tennyson, who was never in his life more than 7000 feet above the sea, just glances at the Monte Rosa from the cathedral at Milan, and in a fourline stanza gives the whole spirit of the scene to perfection. It does not seem fair, but if justice supposes an equal distribution of abilities, the world is not remarkable for fairness. Tennyson's superlative skill in this art is too conspicuous and too universally acknowledged to justify more than a passing recognition of an undeniable truth. And, perhaps, criticism of really great and familiar poetry should be mainly reserved for the select few who may without arrogance claim to be more or less of the same spiritual order. One may, however, say something upon various points suggested by this biography, and especially as to the audience which first listened to the new poetical revelation.
I will begin with a few words as to my own experience in regard to that matter. Tennyson had already made his mark when I was a schoolboy; and when I was at college all youths who professed a literary turn knew the earlier poems by heart. Ebullient Byronism was a thing of the past. There was no longer any need for the missionary zeal which had taken Cambridge men of an earlier generation to propagate the worship of Shelley at Oxford. 'Chatter' about that luminary was already becoming commonplace; a mere repetition of accepted poetical orthodoxy. Admiration of Browning, though it was distinctly beginning, implied a certain claim to esoteric appreciation. But Tennyson's fame was established, and yet had not lost the full bloom of novelty. It was delightful to catch a young man coming up from the country and indoctrinate him by spouting Locksley Hall and the Lotus Eaters. In Memoriam had just appeared when I was a freshman—Tennyson became Poet Laureate in my first term and—Maud came out the year after I had graduated. Any one who cares to know by contemporary evidence how Tennyson's poetry affected the young men of that period may turn to the essays of George Brimley, a man of fine taste, who died prematurely, and who, as librarian of Trinity, gave utterance to the correct sentiment of Tennyson's old college. Tennyson, he declares, is doing for us of the nineteenth century what Shakespeare and Chaucer did for the England of their own days. Brimley spoke for the civilised part of University society: Tennyson's friends, Thompson (afterwards master) and W. G. Clark, the editor of Shakespeare, were conspicuous in that exalted region; and the younger generation all accepted the Tennysonian faith as that becoming enlightened persons. I only followed my companions when I tacitly assumed that 'poet' was a phrase equivalent to 'Tennyson.' The enthusiasm no doubt was partly obligatory; to repudiate it would have been to write oneself down an ass; but it was also warm and spontaneous. For that one owes a debt of gratitude to the poet not easily to be estimated. It is a blessing to share an enthusiasm, and I hope, rather than believe, that modern undergraduates have some equally wholesome stimulus of the kind. I do not think that we of the older generation have changed our estimate of Tennyson's merits, even though our 'enthusiasm' may have subsided into a more temperate warmth of approval. I mean, however, our estimate of the old poems. One could love them without putting the later works on the same level. Some readers were sensible of a considerable difficulty in that matter. The first series of Idylls of the King appeared in 1859. This volume at once extended Tennyson's popularity beyond all previous limits. Ten thousand copies were sold in the first week; hundreds went off monthly; Tennyson made such a success in the merely bookselling sense as to rival Scott, Macaulay, and Dickens. The success, too, was as marked if judged by some higher tests. Thackeray wrote in c a rapture of gratitude ' to acknowledge the greatest delight that had ever come to him since he was a young man. The Duke of Argyll reported that even Macaulay had been conquered, and predicted, truly enough, that many would appreciate the new poems who had failed to appreciate the old. Mr. Gladstone welcomed the Idylls in the Quarterly and Jowett wrote as enthusiastically as Thackeray. These judgments, too, are still repeated, and Mr. Stopford Brooke's recent volume upon Tennyson contains a long commentary, which, if more discriminative, is still cordially reverential. I have conscientiously tried to enlighten myself by studying it, but even a knowledge that one ought to be enthusiastic is a different thing from enthusiasm. Not to recognise the wonderful literary skill and the exceeding beauty of many passages would, of course, imply more stupidity than any one would willingly admit; but I am afraid that from the publication of the Idylls I had to admit that I was not quite of the inner circle of true worshippers. I am glad to shelter myself to some extent behind higher authorities. Edward FitzGerald confessed when the Holy Grail appeared in 1870) that he was inclined to prefer the old Lady of Shalott method of dealing with the Round Table to the elaborated epic poem. He supposed that a bit must be wanting in the map of his brain, but anyhow, while feeling 'how pure, noble, and holy' the work was, he passed on to where the old Lincolnshire farmer drew tears to his eyes. He got back to 'substantial rough-spun nature.' and felt that the 'old brute' was 'a more pathetic phenomenon' than the Knights of the Round Table. This is only, as he explains, one of c old Fitz's crotchets' (and it may be said incidentally that FitzGerald's letters, crotchety or not, are among the best things in these volumes). Mr. Ruskin, on the appearance of the first Idylls, puts virtually the same point in more formal language. He thinks that 'the true task of the modern poet' should be to 'give the intense, masterful, and unerring transcript of an actuality.' He is not sure, he confesses, that he does not 'feel the art and finish in these poems a little more than he likes to feel it.' Upon this Lord Tennyson makes an interesting remark. The Idylls, he tells us, were not carefully elaborated. '"Guinevere" and "Elaine" were each written in a few weeks, and hardly corrected at all.' The poet, of course, had been long brooding over them; and many phrases had come to him from accidental suggestions, and gone through a slow incubation; but the actual execution was rapid. This, however, does not quite meet the criticism. It is not a question, I fancy, of the elaboration of the language, but of the vividness and spontaneity of the thought to be elaborated. The art becomes obvious, because Tennyson seems not so much to be inspired by an overmastering idea as to be looking about for appropriate images to express certain ethical and religious sentiments. He has obviously seen the Northern farmer with his own eyes; he has only contrived his knights, who never seem to me to be clothed in real flesh and blood. Jowett remarks that the 'allegory in the distance greatly strengthens, also elevates, the meaning of the poem.' To me, I humbly confess, 'allegory,' rightly or wrongly, means nuisance. The 'meaning' which it sticks on to a poem is precisely what the poem cannot properly 'mean.' The old Morte d'Arthur, as it appeared with the charming old setting, was one of the poems which we all knew by heart. One of the charms was surely that the behaviour of the persons was delightfully illogical and absurd. Rather, perhaps, it took one to the world in which true logic demands illogical behaviour. Things take place there according to a law of their own, which is the more attractive just because it is preposterous and apparently arbitrary. When Sir Bedivere throws Excalibur into the lake, the whole proceeding is, as indeed Sir Bedivere very properly perceives and points out, contrary to all common-sense. His reluctance gives us warning that we have got into the world governed by phantastic laws. Throwing a sword into a lake does not, within ordinary experience, produce a barge occupied by three queens with crowns of gold; just as shooting an albatross does not, as a rule, produce a dead calm and death of a ship's crew by thirst. But though things of dreamland follow laws of their own, even dreamland has laws, and they ought to be observed when once you get there. The 'Ancient Mariner' was ridden by a nightmare, and all things happened to him according to the genuine laws of the nightmare world. Arthur's Round Table was a dream of the mediaeval imagination, and the historian of its adventures should frankly put himself in the corresponding attitude of mind. It lends itself admirably to represent the ideals which were in the minds of the dreamer, and therefore unconsciously determined the constitution of the imaginary world. But when the personages, instead of obeying the laws of their own world, are converted into allegory, they lose their dream reality without gaining the reality of ordinary life. The arbitrariness especially ceases to be delightful when we suspect that the real creatures of the fancy have become the puppets of a judicious moralist. The question, What is the meaning? throws one's mind out of gear. When Sir Bedivere made his second appearance somebody asked Tennyson whether the three queens were not Faith, Hope, and Charity. The poet replied that they were, and that they were not. They might be the Virtues or they might be the Three Graces. There was, he said, an 'allegorical, or perhaps rather a parabolic, drift,' in the poem; but he added there was not a single fact or incident in the Idylls which might not be explained without any mystery or allegory whatever. This explanation may be very satisfactory to some readers, and if they are satisfied, their state is the more gracious; but I humbly confess that so soon as genuine inhabitants of Fairyland can be interpreted as three virtues or three graces, they cease to fascinate me. In the Holy Grail the mystical purpose is most distinctly avowed. We are told to learn what it means by studying the visions of Sir Percival, and his 'subsequent fall and nineteenth century temptations,' The result of my study is that the visions are turned into waking shams, and leave a residuum of edifying sermon. The intrusion of the nineteenth century is simply disenchantment. If I want to be moral, I should get much more instruction out of Mme. Bovary or some other 'masterful transcript of actuality' than out of Tristram and Iseult, and if I want to be romantic, the likeness of King Arthur to the Prince Consort takes all the vigour out of the prehistoric personage. The Prince Consort, no doubt, deserved Tennyson's profound respect; but when we find him masquerading among the Knights of the Round Table, his admirable propriety of behaviour looks painfully like insipidity and incapacity for his position.
This line of criticism is, of course, very obvious; and, I admit, may be simply a proof of the critic's unsuitability. I desire simply to state the historical fact that the publication of the Idylls marks the point at which some disciples were sensible of a partial refrigeration of their zeal. The old Tennysonian power was not extinct; many of the poems up to the last had all the old exquisite charm, and the older poetry never lost it. But from this time a certain class of admirers—perhaps the duller class—felt that they dwelt in the outer court, and that they could not enter the inmost shrine with befitting reverence. There was not, I must add, in my case at least, any objection to the combination, as it is called, of philosophy with poetry. 'Your poetry,' as Jowett said to Tennyson, 'has an element of philosophy more to be considered than any regular philosophy in England.' 'It is,' he adds, 'almost too much impregnated with philosophy,' although this again 'will be to some minds its greatest charm.' Tennyson himself was amused by discovering that he had been talking Hegelianism without knowing it. The fact is, I take it, that poetry in a mind of great general power, not only may be, but cannot help being, philosophy. Philosophy itself, it may be plausibly urged, is in reality nothing but poetry expressed by the cumbrous methods of dialectical formulæ. It labours painfully to put together ostensible reasons for the truth of the conceptions of life and the world which are directly presented in the poetic imagery. Tennyson's philosophy would have been present, though not consciously indicated, if he had simply recast the Arthurian legends in the spirit of the original creators. Nor will I argue that dislike to allegory is anything better than a prosaic prejudice, or, perhaps, an application of some pretentious aesthetic canon. Perhaps, indeed, the allegorical form was not so much the stumbling-block as the philosophical or ethical system itself which was meant to be adumbrated. Or rather, for that, I think, is the true account, we who fell oft disliked a philosophy which required to be insinuated through an allegorical clothing. We were going through an intellectual crisis; and if we exaggerated its importance, Tennyson at least, as many other utterances prove, and as his memoirs show most convincingly, was equally impressed by the greatness of the issues. But for that reason, we (I repeat that by 'we' I only mean the wicked) wanted something more downright and dogmatic. A religious philosophy which hides itself behind mythical figures and vague personifications of abstract qualities; which can only be shadowed forth and insinuated through a rehabilitated romance, seemed inadequate and even effeminate. We fancied that if it ventured into broad daylight it would turn out to be mere commonplace disguised or made of moonshine and flimsy sentimentalisms. Or, possibly, we were not distinctly aware that there really was any mystical meaning at all, and simply felt that when such vital questions were being raised, we could not be really interested in this dim poetic land of unsubstantial shadows. When, a little later, we began to know what Omar Khàyyàm had said some eight centuries before, we felt the power of a direct and intensely powerful utterance of one mode of treating the eternal problem.
All this, it may be replied, is to explain that a certain class of young men were partially alienated from Tennyson's poetry because they did not like his philosophy; which is a proof that they were aesthetically dull and philosophically grovelling. I will not dispute the inference; I think, indeed, that there is much to be said for it; and as I have admitted my tendencies that way, I am obviously disqualified from speaking as an impartial judge. I only wish to urge, by way of extenuation at any rate, that we were still accessible to other Tennysonian influences, and, indeed, to poems in which his doctrine finds a more direct utterance. I love In Memoriam, and should be sorry if I were forced to admit that I could not understand the true secret of its extraordinary beauty. Professor Sidgwick contributes to this volume a most interesting account of its influence upon him. For certain reasons, I could not adopt all that he says, and my intellectual dissent from Tennyson begins, I may say, at an earlier stage; but I decline to admit that I am for that reason incapable of feeling the emotional power. Therefore, without attempting to argue the æsthetical canons, I return to the purely historical question suggested by these volumes. Froude, in a letter to the author, says that in his estimate, Tennyson stands 'far away, by the side of Shakespeare, above all other English poets, with this relative superiority even to Shakespeare, that he speaks the thoughts and speaks to the perplexities and misgivings of his own age.' Froude adds characteristically that Tennyson came before the world had become inflated 'with the vanity of progress, and there was still an atmosphere in which such a soul could grow. There will be no such others for many a long age.' It is rash, I think, to prophesy about 'long ages,' but Froude is at any rate a good witness as to the facts. Froude had known better than most people the doubts and perplexities by which Tennyson's contemporaries were distracted; and though Froude's own view remains rather a mystery, the impression made upon a man so alive to many sides of modern thought is no small proof of Tennyson's power. Now the memoirs ought to show us how Tennyson was prepared for the office of prophet. It has become common, as Mr. Palgrave remarks in his reminiscences, to treat of a poet as though he were 'evolved by a natural law'; and he gives an amusing instance in Taine's à priori speculations as to the evolution of Tennyson. Tennyson, as Taine suggested in a conversation, must have been brought up in luxury, and 'surrounded with things of costly beauty.' Mr. Palgrave was able to upset this theory, so far as concerned Tennyson's personal history. There is, of course, one absolute limit to any such speculation. No human being can presume to guess what are the conditions which determine the innate qualities of a man of genius. No one can say why such a plant, or a whole family of such plants, should have suddenly sprung up in a Lincolnshire vicarage, or why, a few years after, a similar phenomenon should have presented itself at Haworth. One can only ask how far the genius was influenced by its 'environment'? In both cases it might seem at first sight to be most unfavourable. The Brontës had an even less congenial atmosphere in Yorkshire than the Tennysons among the rough farmers of Lincolnshire. And yet in both cases there is this much similarity in the result, that, as the Brontës became even fanatical admirers of the crossgrained, hard-fisted Yorkshireman, Tennyson acquired at least a keen imaginative sympathy with the race of 'Northern farmers.' It would be as easy as absurd to deduce from these instances a general theory about the advantage of a bracing atmosphere for sensitive plants. In the case of Tennyson it must be admitted that the scantiness of details in the earlier parts of the memoir is rather tantalising. When Tennyson had become famous, materials of course became abundant, and Lord Tennyson tells us that he has had to make selections from forty thousand letters. For the early years, in which the mind and character were being formed, he had had little beyond a few recollections of his parents' talk. One would gladly know more of the crusty old grandfather who disinherited his eldest son; and of the stalwart son himself, six feet two in height, famous for social geniality and yet given to fits of despondency, and capable of being something of a tyrant in his family. His soul, we are told, was 'daily racked by bitter fancies, and tossed about by stormy troubles.' He had strange adventures in Russia and on the Continent. From the age of eleven the son had this father for his sole instructor, and must have profited, and also, one guesses, have suffered from the 'dominating force' of the paternal intellect. Then there is only a glimpse of the charming aunt, who would 'weep for hours' over the infinite goodness of God. He had damned most of her friends, and 'picked out for eternal salvation,' her who was 'no better than her neighbours.' One would like again to know more even of the cook, who declared that if you ‘ raäked out hell with a smaäll tooth coämb’ you wouldn't find the likes of her master and mistress. Was this characteristic of the cook or of her employers? It might conceivably be interpreted as confirming a later statement that Tennyson's mother, being an angel, was undiscoverable in the lower regions, and she appears to have been in fact a most charming old lady, with a strong sense of humour. There are hints enough here for a hypothetical biography, with any number of remarks about 'heredity' and 'environment.' All that can be safely said is that Tennyson was obviously a born poet, writing verses of unmistakable promise at the age of fourteen and fifteen; even getting, at the age of seventeen, £20 from a singularly discriminative country bookseller for the volume (written with his brother); and accumulating at least the materials for other poems, including the 'Ode to Memory,' which, we are told, he considered to be one of the best among his 'very early and peculiarly concentrated Nature poems.' Personally, I have always been grateful to it for one of those life-giving touches which went far to reveal or justify for me the charm of fen scenery. Whatever the influences, Tennyson came up to Cambridge as a poet, and even, it seems, as a man already set aside for poetry. At Cambridge, at any rate, he was contented to stand aside from the ordinary competitions. Like other men of poetical genius, he felt little respect for the regular studies of the place; and melodiously complained that the authorities ‘taught us nothing, feeding not the heart.' The heart, indeed, cannot be fed upon Newton's Principia. There might, I think, be some reply to the charge of 'lethargy' made against the University of that time: the place was really waking up under the influence (among others) of Julius Hare and Thirlwall and Whewell; but, undoubtedly, the influence of his own contemporaries was the really important matter for Tennyson. There may be, in many ways, better official teaching now; but the existing generation must be congratulated if it includes any large admixture of young men so keenly interested in intellectual pursuits as were Tennyson's special circle. The Union had just ceased to be thrilled by the eloquence of Charles Austin and Macaulay and Praed, and their rivals who supplied recruits to the 'philosophical Radicals,' and sought glory in the Reform Bill agitation. Charles Buller, the most beloved by his friends the Radicals, left college soon after Tennyson came up; Maurice, who had already founded the 'apostles,' with Sterling, the most attractive of men, represented the other school of Liberalism, which regarded Coleridge as its oracle. Among Tennyson's intimates and warm friends in later life were such men as Spedding, and Monckton Milnes, and Trench, and many others keenly interested, at least, in the literature of to-day. Edward FitzGerald, though a contemporary, was not as yet known to Tennyson; but Lord Houghton seems to have been fully justified in saying that the Cambridge of those days could boast a body of young men such as had been rarely surpassed in promise. Chief among them, in Tennyson's opinion, and in that of many good judges, was Arthur Hallam. Whatever might be the dreariness of the lecture-room, a young man of genius could have no reason to complain that his lot was cast in barren places. Tennyson in later years always looked back with affection to those 'dawn-golden times'; and, indeed, his memory inspired phrases too familiar for more than a passing allusion. To students of the might-have-been, it might be tempting to ask what would have happened if Tennyson had gone to Oxford and come under the influence of Newman and Hurrell Froude. The Dean of Westminster tells us how, when he first met Tennyson among his intimates, in 1841-2, he was startled by their indifference to the Tractarian Controversy, and to the questions which interested the disciples of Arnold. Would an Oxford-bred Tennyson have written another Christian Year, or achieved that poem which Clough never succeeded in writing?
Anyhow, the retrospective view of Tennyson's college life might suggest some melancholy reflections. Death cut short some promising careers; some, though they did good work, failed to make a public mark: they have left an impression upon their personal friends, but an impression of which even the tradition will expire in the next generation; and others, perhaps for want of some quality of mind or character, eventually dropped behind the real leaders of the time, and compounded with the commonplace world. Why did not Tennyson fall to the rear? Such a catastrophe must at one time have seemed not improbable to an outside observer. His friends, indeed, seem to have fully recognised his abilities. He was, briefly, one of the 'mighty of the earth,' said Blakesley. 'He was,' says Fanny Kemble, whose brother John was a college friend, 'the great hero of the day.' His tall, powerful figure, his 'Shakespearian' head, finely poised, 'crowned with dark, wavy hair,' made him look the character of the 'coming poet' as well as could be desired by a painter. The striking point about him, then as afterwards, was the ‘union of strength with refinement.' And yet one imagines that the college dons, the 'lion-like' Whewell, for example, also conspicuous for physical as well as intellectual prowess, must have shaken their heads when Tennyson not only declined to enter the Senate House competitions, but apparently decided to become a mere looker-on at life, and passed years in a quiet Bohemian company; smoking pipes at intervals with Carlyle and joining friends at the Cock; but mainly vegetating in the country with no very obvious prospects, and apparently surrendering his mind a little too unreservedly to a 'wise passiveness,' though he might be slowly secreting a few exquisite poems.
That, no doubt, represents one aspect of Tennyson. Mr. Lecky remarks that ‘nature evidently intended him for the life of the quietest and most secluded of country gentlemen, for a life spent among books and flowers and a few intimate friends,’ sheltered from all outside shocks. And at the period to which the recollection refers (late in the ’sixties) this was an obvious, though, as Mr. Lecky of course recognises, very far indeed from an exhaustive, judgment. The house at Farringford, the Mecca of many future generations of Tennysonians, looks as if it had been secreted, like the shell of a mollusc, by the nature of the occupant. The sweet English scenery, which no one ever painted so well, and the sea, which he loved like a true Englishman, show themselves through the belt of wood, calculated to keep the profane vulgar at a distance. It seemed a providential habitat for a man so very open to even petty irritations. 'A flea will annoy me,' as he said to Tyndall; 'a fleabite will spread a square inch over the surface of my skin.... I am thin-skinned, and I take no pains to hide it.' And, indeed, though the fact is fully admitted, it is perhaps less conspicuous in these volumes than it was to casual observers. They were apt to carry away the impression that Tennyson must spend an unreasonably large part of his time in fretting over the wounds made by trumpery critics. The absolute simplicity of the man, indeed, which was equally obvious, suggested pity instead of contempt for what must be regarded as an infirmity. No poet since Pope was so sensitive to the assaults of Grub Street; though happily he was altogether incapable of condescending to Pope's miserable methods of retort. It is, however, easy to understand the view which commended itself to Taine. His theory was that Tennyson was a kind of refined epicurean; a man lapping himself in British comfort against all disagreeable sights and painful truths; averting his eyes as much as possible from harsh contrasts and harrowing doubts; and enveloped in a panoply made from the soothing creeds of political and religious opportunists, with only just enough of the light of reason filtered through a screen of tradition to pass for being at once liberal and respectable. Though Taine had to give up his theory as to Tennyson's personal environment, he still draws a picture of English country life as seen from the railway—its well-ordered parks and neat country houses embowered in well-ordered gardens—and contrasts it with the stimulating, though rough realities of Parisian life, among which his favourite De Musset penetrated the true secret of life. Taine naturally prefers De Musset, and his criticism, though it is obviously from a partial outsider, hits off one view which cannot be overlooked. Matthew Arnold, as I have observed elsewhere, introduces the 'great, broad-shouldered genial Englishman' of the 'Princess' as a type of British 'Philistinism,' and intimates his opinion that the creator is too much in sympathy with the type.
It is equally true that no lover of Tennyson's poetry could admit Taine's scornful account of the In Memoriam as the mourning of a correct gentleman, wiping away his tears with a cambric pocket-handkerchief. I can subscribe, on the contrary, without hesitation, to the commonplace British opinion that no poet has ever shown such depths of tenderness or such skill in interweaving the most delicate painting of nature with the utterance of profound emotion. And this brings us back to the biographical problem. Over twenty years intervened between Tennyson's departure from Cambridge and the settlement in Farringford. Here again, through no fault of Lord Tennyson, we feel the want of a few more documents. No doubt a reader may be content with what is expressed or can be inferred from the poetry. Yet the matter-of-fact personal history, if it could have been told, would surely have had a deep interest. In the first place, one would like to know, if a purely prosaic person, something about the bare pounds, shillings, and pence. Tennyson, as we discover from a remark of Carlyle's, inherited a 'small annuity on his father's decease' (1831), and chose to 'club with his mother and sisters,' and so to 'live unpromoted and write poems.' This may be all very well for a bachelor; and we are glad to discover that from 1850 his copyrights were producing five hundred pounds a year, which, considering the small bulk of his publications, shows that he was doing remarkably well for a poet. In 1845, however, he had still been in need of a pension; and the smallness of his income was of serious importance. He had met his future wife in 1836; he had become engaged to her apparently in 1837, and felt the need of making a livelihood. It was from the vagueness of his expectations in that direction that the correspondence between him and Miss Sellwood was forbidden in 1840, and they apparently did not meet again for ten years. Meanwhile all his independent property was lost about 1844, together with part of his brothers' and sisters', in an unfortunate speculation, and distress caused 'real hardship,' and even an attack of illness. He must, therefore, have gone through a period of trial, affecting not only his pocket, but his hopes of domestic happiness, of which one would have liked to know a little more. That he took his troubles bravely, whatever they may have been, is proved by his literary history. Whatever else he did, he never condescended to lower his aims or the perfection of his workmanship. He allowed his poetry to ripen in his mind, as though he had been in possession of Taine's hypothetical luxuries; and, it would seem, he kept his feelings, whatever they may have been, to himself. His extreme sensibility led him to seek for the utmost possible perfection; not to court immediate popularity. The years of comparative non-recognition must have been trying, and the relative slightness of the personal record of these twenty years is the more regrettable. Fuller materials, had they been accessible, must have brought out more distinctly the real strength which lay beneath the morbidly sensitive outside. His 'sensitiveness' as Mr. Lecky observes, 'seemed to me,' as it did to others, curiously out of harmony with 'his large, powerful frame.' Whether there is any real incompatibility between athletic vigour and delicacy of nervous organisation is a problem which I must leave to physiologists. Another instance of the same combination may be found, for example, in Hawthorne; and, I dare say, in plenty of other instances. Generally speaking, we are inclined, with whatever reason, to anticipate from an athletic giant more of the rollicking vigour of a Christopher North than of the exquisite workmanship which makes 'jewels five words long'—the power, as Johnson put it, of hewing a colossus, from a rock, not of carving figures on cherry-stones. Tennyson, no doubt, though this side of his character is a little in the background, could have taken his part in one of the jovial 'Noctes,' if he had been sure that no reporters were present. But the massive physical framework seems to be indicated by a certain slowness which might pass into indolence. Your giant may be sensitive, but he carries too much ballast to be easily stirred to utterance. He is contemplative or dreamy rather than impetuous and excitable. If Shelley had put on more flesh, he might have been equally poetical, but he would not have indulged in the boyish explosions which imply an excessive mobility of the nervous system. Byron's extraordinary alternations between corpulence and thinness induced by starvation appear to be clearly connected both with his power and his weakness, and might be considered at length in the essay which ought to be written upon the relation between fat and poetry. But I must not be led into such a digression here. One sees in Tennyson's portraits the deep, dreamy eyes under the noble brow, and recognises the man predestined to be a thoughtful spectator of the battle of life, rather than an active participator in the superficial contrasts.
And here, of course, we have the obvious remarks about the spirit of his generation. Young men were ceasing to feel the revolutionary inspiration, though they were still accessible to the utterances of the departing period. When Byron died in 1824, Carlyle exclaimed that the news came upon his heart 'like a mass of lead'; he felt a 'painful twinge,' as if he had lost a brother. Tennyson, then only fourteen, felt the same news to be an 'awful calamity,' and rushed out-of-doors to write upon the sandstone, 'Byron is dead.' But Byronism soon followed Byron. Shelley was unknown to Tennyson, till his college days at least, and the successor, though, of course, admiring his predecessor's marvellous powers, admitted that Shelley was 'after too much in the clouds' for him. Keats, on the other hand, he declared, 'would have been among the very greatest of us if he had lived. There is something of the innermost soul of the poet in everything he ever wrote.' 'Wordsworth's very best,' he said, 'is the best in its way that has been sent out by the moderns,' and one is glad to hear that he was once able to express to Wordsworth himself his deep sense of the 'obligation which all Englishmen owed to him.' From various scattered remarks it is clear that Tennyson, like other poets, could be an admirable critic of his brethren; but these sayings are interesting as indicating his own tendencies in early days. How much he actually owed to Keats and Wordsworth must be uncertain. Probably he would have been much the same had he never read a line of either. But one may say that he wished to utter teaching congenial to Wordsworth's in language as perfect as that of Keats's most finished workmanship. The famous hypothetical addition to Wordsworth's poems,
A Mister Wilkinson, a Clergyman,
the authorship of which was claimed both by Tennyson and FitzGerald, indicates the weakness which was naturally avoided by one who could equally appreciate Keats. Like Keats's, at any rate, Tennyson's poetry shows the dying-out of the old fervour which had stimulated Wordsworth's first efforts, made Coleridge and Southey 'pantisocratists,' and inspired Byron and Shelley during the days of the Holy Alliance. The movements of 1830, both in Europe and England, roused some of Tennyson's circle, such as Sterling and Kemble; but, as far as one can infer from the indications, both Tennyson and Arthur Hallam looked at least doubtfully upon the Reform agitation in England. The Tennysons, indeed, set the bells ringing to the horror of the parson at Somersby when the Bill was passed; but Hallam thought that William IV., when he met the 'first assembly of delegates from a sovereign people' (that is, the first Reformed Parliament), would perhaps be the last King of England; and even Tennyson, a little later, hopes against hope that there are still true hearts in old England 'that will never brook the sight of Baal in the Sanctuary, and St. Simon' (the leader of the famous sect) 'in the Church of Christ.' The St. Simonians show what an 'immense mass of evil' is in existence, and are 'a focus which gathers all its rays.' The Reform Bill was not to be a descent of Niagara, but a passage over the rapids into a superficially quiet reach. A judicious friend gives another view. Sterling, he says, had been misled, like Shelley, by the desire to abolish unjust institutions, but had afterwards perceived that the right method was to 'implant a principle with which selfishness cannot coexist.' Reformers would complain that they must wait for a long time if they have first to extirpate selfishness. With this we may associate a criticism of Spedding upon the early poems, which showed, he thought, over indulgence 'in the luxuries of the senses, a profusion of splendours, harmonies, perfumes, gorgeous apparels, luscious meats and drinks,' and so forth, which rather ' pall upon the sense,' and make the outward obscure the inner world. The remark falls in with Taine's criticism. Such a Tennyson might be too easily reconciled to the creature-comforts of the upper classes in England and become a mere dreaming Sybarite. His own view of the situation is apparently given in the 'Palace of Art.' It was a comment, as we are told, upon a remark made to him at college by Trench: 'Tennyson, we cannot live in art.' The poem itself is so marvellous a collection of those felicities of description in which Tennyson is unapproachable, that perhaps it rather raises the question why the architect of the palace should not have stayed there quietly and worshipped 'art for art' for the rest of his days. The conversion comes rather abruptly, but, at least, shows how much Tennyson's mind was occupied with the problem of how the artist is to be also the moralist. I certainly do not quarrel with his solution, which in some sense worked itself out in In Memoriam. The moral crisis through which he passed is indicated by the 'Two Voices' or 'Thoughts of a Suicide' (that is, of somebody who decided not to commit suicide), written contemporaneously with the first poems of In Memoriam, under a 'cloud of overwhelming sorrow.' All joy, he said, was 'blotted out' of his life and he 'longed for death.' He continued, however, to write, and his writing does not suggest unbroken gloom. He was finally, it would seem, restored to full mental health by the love which was to be the blessing of later years. If we may not call it morbid, it is at least abnormal that the loss of a college friend should cause not only immoderate agony, but such prolonged depression. Arthur Hallam may have deserved all that was said of him, though for us he can only be, like Sterling, a symbol of the virtue of friendship, a type canonised by genius, but, like some other saints, a little wanting in individuality. We cannot define the merits which prompted eulogies in some ways unparalleled in our literature. Lycidas, as Tennyson and others have said, is a test of poetical sensibility. I deny parenthetically that there can be any universal test in such matters, but the meaning is no doubt that it is a test of the appreciation of such poetical merits as are independent of the pathos of the theme. It is a test, that is, precisely because the beauty of the poetry does not imply any very keen sensibility about the person ostensibly commemorated. Milton could be noble and melodious, though one does not suppose that he lost his appetite for breakfast for a single day after hearing of King's death. The sincerity of Tennyson's grief, on the contrary, is implied in every section. He was, we are told, profoundly impressed by Shakespeare's sonnets when he was writing In Memoriam, and we can understand why at the time he then thought them even greater than the plays. The intense passion of some of the sonnets ('no longer mourn for me when I am dead,' for example) equals or surpasses in its way anything in In Memoriam. But, whatever the solution of their mystery, they do not convince me that Shakespeare was at any time disqualified by his emotions from attending to the interests of the Globe Theatre. As an embodiment of the purest passion of friendship, the In Memoriam is, I take it, unapproachable; and, in spite of any reservations upon other points, that must be, to some minds, the great source of Tennyson's power over his readers. Mr. Palgrave ends his reminiscences of Tennyson by saying that forty-three years of friendship made him recognise 'lovableness' as the 'dominant note' of his friend's character. That, I think, is also the impression, and certainly there cannot be a better one, which is made by the whole of this biography. Tennyson had his weaknesses, which can be divined where filial reverence properly refrains from an articulate statement or a distinct insistence upon them. Nor, as I shall say directly, can I admit without reservations some other claims to our allegiance. But the unsurpassed sweetness and tenderness of character is evident in every chapter. It is impossible to read the book without learning to love the man better. It is needless to speak of the beauty of the domestic life; needless, at any rate, to express more than the sense of satisfaction that, for once, a poet, of abnormally sensitive character even for a poet, was surrounded by an atmosphere of unbroken harmony for so many years. If he lost Hallam, he always preserved the friendship of Carlyle (tempered by an occasional growl); of the inimitable FitzGerald, never less delightful because he could never affect insincere admiration; of the wise and placid Spedding, the 'Pope,' as Tennyson called him, of the young men at Trinity; of Maurice, revered by all who knew him for saintliness of character if not for lucidity of intellect; of the cordial and generous Kingsley, and of Mr. Aubrey de Vere, and others who still live and cherish his memory. If he was over-sensitive to 'fleabites' of petty criticism, the irritation never embittered him; no ungenerous and 'nasty' remark about his contemporaries seems to mar the impression of real dignity of character. He thought a good deal about himself: most people do; but any little vanity he shows is perfectly innocent and consistent with substantial simplicity and modesty. His foibles added a certain piquancy to the sentiment of his friends: it is pleasant to feel that you are petting a tender and childlike nature as well as simply sitting at a great man's feet. Undoubtedly a man might be equally lovable and yet unable to write a line which would not have set Tennyson's teeth on edge. But even Tennyson's astonishing sensibility to the 'music of words,' and his power of compressing into a stanza the quintessence of sentiments or perceptions which other men might dilute into volumes, would have been thrown away without this singular sweetness of character. When I read 'Tears, Idle Tears,' I feel that a man might be forgiven even by a stern moralist for devoting a lifetime to stringing together a few melodious phrases as a perpetual utterance of our better moods. Gray did something of the kind; but Tennyson, though not a voluminous poet, has probably left an unsurpassed number of phrases which will live in the memory both of gentle and simple—the most punctilious 'æsthete' and the reader whose ignorance, better than knowledge, allows him to be charmed without knowing or asking why.
If these volumes contain what we had all more or less divined, they call attention to a claim which may provoke more discussion. Jowett, as we see, regarded Tennyson as a teacher of philosophy. Maurice dedicated his most characteristic volume to Tennyson as to one who has been a great spiritual teacher; and Dr. Martineau, giving an account of the meeting at the 'Metaphysical Society,' speaks of Maurice's fellowship of thought with 'the truest vates of his age.' It becomes an outsider to treat these and other weighty testimonies with all respect. And yet the insistence upon this aspect of Tennyson's work strikes one perhaps as a little excessive. There is, of course, no question as to the depth of Tennyson's interest in theological questions. The frequent recurrence of this claim, however, tends, I think, to give an impression that the famous line ought to have been 'A Mr. Tennyson, a clergyman,' and to put a little too much out of sight the fact that he was not always in the pulpit. He could yield himself, it is obvious, to perfectly unsophisticated enjoyment of sensuous impressions; he could talk very effectively and very humorously as a simple man of letters, or even, if we may say so without offence, as a man of this world capable of hearty contempt for clerical as well as other cants and hypocrisies. I have more than once had a similar surprise in reading biographies of men whom I have seen in the flesh; and the explanation is not far to seek. Fuller tells us somewhere of the bishop who used to go down to the cellar with his old friend and chaplain, where they could throw their canonicals aside, pledge each other in a good glass of wine, and refresh their souls in a jolly conversation. No doubt they showed on such occasions a side which did not get into official biographies. Tennyson certainly could doff his 'canonicals'; but, however this may be, it suggests another point which demands some delicacy of handling. Professor Sidgwick thinks that In Memoriam expresses with admirable clearness a true philosophical judgment of certain tendencies of modern speculation. I cannot discuss that problem on which Professor Sidgwick speaks with authority as well as sympathy. In any case the poetical merit of a work does not depend upon its philosophical orthodoxy. The orthodox, whoever they may be, can be terribly vapid and the heretics much more inspiring. A man would be a very narrow-minded critic who was unable to admire any of the great men from Lucretius to Dante who have embodied the most radically opposite conceptions of the world. But we must draw a line, as Tennyson is reported to have said, between such poets as Keats, Byron, and Shelley, and the 'great sage poets' at once thinkers and artists, such as Æschylus, Shakespeare, 'Dante, and Goethe.' Can we think of Tennyson himself as belonging to the highest class? Did he not only accept the right view, whatever that may be, but express it forcibly and majestically as one of the small class which represents poetry thoroughly transfused with philosophy? I at least cannot see my way to such a conclusion; and the mere comparison seems to me to suggest the real limitations to Tennyson's art. I will only notice what is suggested by many passages in these volumes. Carlyle, we are told, was first attracted to Tennyson by the 'Ulysses.' He quotes in his first letter to Tennyson the noble passage:—
It may be that the gulf will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the happy isles
And see the great Achilles whom we knew.
'These lines,' he says, 'do not make me weep, but there is in me what would fill whole lachrymatories as I read.' Afterwards Carlyle appears to have suggested that Tennyson was wasting his time by scribbling verses. Carlyle, late in life, would occasionally quote the 'Ulysses' by way of contrast with Tennyson's later performances. The old poem, he thought, had the true heroic ring; and Tennyson himself, it may be remarked, says that it was written soon after Hallam's death, and gave his feelings about fighting the battle of life perhaps more simply than anything in In Memoriam. Carlyle's criticism came to this, that Tennyson had declined into a comparatively sentimental and effeminate line of writing, mere 'æstheticisms' instead of inspiring a courageous spirit of confronting the spiritual crisis. The Idylls of the King could not be the epic of the future, but at best a melodious version of conventional and superficial solutions of the last problem. King Arthur had (in Carlylese) too much of the 'gigman' to be a great leader of modern men. The average critic, as we are frequently reminded in these volumes, complained that Tennyson was 'morbid.' Maud, in particular, gave that offence in spite of irresistible beauties. Tennyson himself argued that the critics confounded the author with his creature. The hero of Maud was only a dramatic personage; he was a 'morbid poetic soul' and the poem was to be taken as 'a little Hamlet.' The original Hamlet would itself be now criticised, he thought, as 'morbid.' Mr. Gladstone, who first took the poem to represent the worship of Jingo, recanted on further consideration, and discovered that Tennyson had only approved of 'lawful war ' ––which makes a great difference. Maud, I must say in passing, fell in, at any rate, too easily with the curious delusion of the time (embodied also in Kingsley's Two Tears Ago) that the Crimean War implied the moral regeneration of the country. Necessary or absurd, I don't think that the war can now be credited with that effect. Maud, I fancy, will be remembered for the surpassing beauty of the love lyrics, and not from any lively interest in a hero who is not only morbid, but silly. Hamlet may have been morbid—an interview with one's father's ghost is rather upsetting—but at least he was not contemptible. However, we will not for a moment identify the gentleman in Maud with Tennyson. Another poem, 'Despair,' provoked, we are told, bitter criticism, 'because the public did not recognise it as a dramatic monologue.' It is, I think—as I believe the most ardent Tennysonians admit—a distinctly inferior specimen of his art; but it expresses something not purely dramatic. Tennyson himself remarked that he would commit suicide if he thought there was no 'future life'; and his hero acts upon that principle. He is equally shocked by the 'horrible know-nothing books,' and by a view of hell such as commended itself to Tennyson's aunt; and the suggestion is natural that the reasonable course for a man equally horrified by both opinions is to put an end to himself. It would not be fair to lay any stress upon an admitted shortcoming, and the 'dramatic monologue' argument may be taken for what it is worth. But this, too, is, I think, clear. When Tennyson is presented to us as giving the true solution of the doubts which beset our time, we should have some positive as well as negative testimony to his merits. We cannot, it is true, expect a full solution. A gentleman is reported to have asked him whether the existence of evil was not the great difficulty. Tennyson certainly could not be expected to throw much light upon Job's difficulties, and seems to have judiciously diverted the conversation by referring to the 'charge of the heavy brigade.' No poet, and indeed no philosopher, can be asked to solve the eternal problems off-hand. What we do see, is that Tennyson, like many noble and deep thinkers, was terribly perplexed by the alternatives apparently offered: by his aversion oh one side to certain orthodox dogmas, and by his dread and hatred of some tendencies which claim at least to be scientific. His ideal hero was the man who faced doubts boldly and attained clear convictions of one kind or other. On the other hand, he is always haunted by the fear of depriving your sister of her 'happy views' (a woefully feeble phrase, by the way, for Tennyson), and praises a philosopher for keeping his doubts to himself. The resulting attitude of mind may not be morbid: certainly it may fairly be called pathetic, and even those who do not sympathise with his doctrine will do well to feel for his distress. It may teach them, at least, what is in any case worth knowing: why their teaching is so repulsive to many tender and delicate minds. But I confess to share Carlyle's regret for the loss of the old heroic tone of the 'Ulysses.' Noble poetry, let us admit, may express either faith or scepticism: a conviction that we know or that we can never know; it may be openly pessimistic, or expressive of an enthusiastic faith in the future; but Tennyson, even in the In Memoriam, always seems to me to be like a man clinging to a spar left floating after a shipwreck, knowing that it will not support him, and yet never able to make up his mind to strike out and take his chance of sinking or swimming. That may be infinitely affecting, but it is not the attitude of the poet who can give a war-cry to his followers, or of the philosopher who really dares to 'face the spectres of the mind.' He can lay them for the moment; but they are always in the background, and suggest, too often, rather a querulous protest against an ever-recurring annoyance than any such mental victory as issues in a coherent and settled conviction on either side. I merely wish to indicate an impression, and will not attempt to indicate the similar attitude in regard to the great social and political movements. I cannot, though my inability may be owing to my own spiritual blindness, place him among the 'great sage poets,' but I have wished to intimate that such as I am are not therefore disqualified from appreciating his poetry in another capacity: as a document indicating the effect of modern movements of thought upon a mind of extraordinary delicacy and a nature of admirable sweetness; but, far more, as a perfect utterance of emotions which are all equally beautiful in themselves whatever the 'philosophy' with which they are associated. The life, I believe, will help to strengthen that impression, though I have only attempted to notice some of the more obvious remarks which it may suggest.
- I remember to have heard Carlyle in his old age speak with equal enthusiasm of this poem.