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Outlines of English and American Literature
Alfred Tennyson
by Long, William J.

Though the Victorian age is notable for the quality and variety of its prose works, its dominant figure for years was the poet Tennyson. He alone, of all that brilliant group of Victorian writers, seemed to speak not for himself but for his age and nation; and the nation, grown weary of Byronic rebellion, and finding its joy or sorrow expressed with almost faultless taste by one whose life was noble, gave to Tennyson a whole-souled allegiance such as few poets have ever won. In 1850 he was made Laureate to succeed Wordsworth, receiving, as he said,

  This laurel, greener from the brow
  Of him that uttered nothing base;

and from that time on he steadily adhered to his purpose, which was to know his people and to be their spokesman. Of all the poets who have been called to the Laureateship, he is probably the only one of whom it can truthfully be said that he understood his high office and was worthy of it.


When we attempt a biography of a person we assume unconsciously that he was a public man; but that is precisely what Tennyson refused to be. He lived a retired life of thoughtfulness, of communion with nature, of friendships too sacred for the world's gaze, a life blameless in conduct, unswerving in its loyalty to noble ideals. From boyhood to old age he wrote poetry, and in that poetry alone, not in biography or letters or essays of criticism, do we ever touch the real man.

Tennyson was the son of a cultured clergyman, and was born in the rectory of Somersby, Lincolnshire, in 1809, the same year that saw the birth of Lincoln and Darwin. Like Milton he devoted himself to poetry at an early age; in his resolve he was strengthened by his mother; and from it he never departed. The influences of his early life, the quiet beauty of the English landscape, the surge and mystery of the surrounding sea, the emphasis on domestic virtues, the pride and love of an Englishman for his country and his country's history,--these are everywhere reflected in the poet's work.

His education was largely a matter of reading under his father's direction. He had a short experience of the grammar school at Louth, which he hated forever after. He entered Cambridge, and formed a circle of rare friends ("apostles" they called themselves) who afterwards became famous; but he left college without taking a degree, probably because he was too poor to continue his course. Not till 1850 did he earn enough by his work to establish a home of his own. Then he leased a house at Farringford, Isle of Wight, which we have ever since associated with Tennyson's name. But his real place is the Heart of England.

A Poet and his Critics

His first book (a boyish piece of work, undertaken with his brother Charles) appeared under the title Poems by Two Brothers (1827). In 1830, and again in 1832, he published a small volume containing such poems as "The Palace of Art," "The Lotos-Eaters," "The Lady of Shalott" and "The Miller's Daughter"; but the critics of the age, overlooking the poet's youth and its promise, treated the volumes unmercifully. Tennyson, always sensitive to criticism, was sensible enough to see that the critics had ground for their opinions, if not for their harshness; and for ten long years, while he labored to perfect his art, his name did not again appear in print.

There was another reason for his silence. In 1833 his dearest friend, Arthur Hallam, died suddenly in Vienna, and it was years before Tennyson began to recover from the blow. His first expression of grief is seen in the lyric beginning, "Break, break, break," which contains the memorable stanza:

      And the stately ships go on
        To their haven under the hill;
      But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
       And the sound of a voice that is still!

Then he began that series of elegies for his friend which appeared, seventeen years later, as In Memoriam.

He Wins and Holds his Place

Influenced by his friends, Tennyson broke his long silence with a volume containing "Morte d'Arthur," "Locksley Hall," "Sir Galahad," "Lady Clare" and a few more poems which have never lost their power over readers; but it must have commanded attention had it contained only "Ulysses," that magnificent appeal to manhood, reflecting the indomitable spirit of all those restless explorers who dared unknown lands or seas to make wide the foundations of imperial England. It was a wonderful volume, and almost its first effect was to raise the hidden Tennyson to the foremost place in English letters.

Whatever he wrote thereafter was sure of a wide reading. Critics, workingmen, scientists, reformers, theologians,--all recognized the power of the poet to give melodious expression to their thought or feeling. Yet he remained averse to everything that savored of popularity, devoting himself as in earlier days to poetry alone. As a critic writes, "Tennyson never forgot that the poet's work was to convince the world of love and beauty; that he was born to do that work, and do it worthily."

There are two poems which are especially significant in view of this steadfast purpose. The first is "Merlin and the Gleam," which reflects Tennyson's lifelong devotion to his art; the other is "Crossing the Bar," which was his farewell and hail to life when the end came in 1892.

Works of Tennyson

There is a wide variety in Tennyson's work: legend, romance, battle song, nature, classic and medieval heroes, problems of society, questions of science, the answer of faith,--almost everything that could interest an alert Victorian mind found some expression in his poetry. It ranges in subject from a thrush song to a religious philosophy, in form from the simplest love lyric to the labored historical drama.

Typical Short Poems

Of the shorter poems of Tennyson there are a few which should be known to every student: first, because they are typical of the man who stands for modern English poetry; and second, because one is constantly meeting references to these poems in books or magazines or even newspapers. Among such representative poems are: "The Lotos-Eaters," a dream picture characterized by a beauty and verbal melody that recall Spenser's work; "Locksley Hall" and "Locksley Hall Sixty Years After," the one a romance throbbing with youth and hope, the other representing the same hero grown old, despondent and a little carping, but still holding fast to his ideals; "Sir Galahad," a medieval romance of purity; "Ulysses," an epitome of exploration in all ages; "The Revenge," a stirring war song; "Rizpah," a dramatic portrayal of a mother's grief for a wayward son; "Romney's Remorse," a character study of Tennyson's later years; and a few shorter poems, such as "The Higher Pantheism," "Flower in the Crannied Wall," "Wages" and "The Making of Man," which reflect the poet's mood before the problems of science and of faith.

To these should be added a few typical patriotic pieces, which show Tennyson speaking as Poet Laureate for his country: "Ode on the Death of Wellington," "Charge of the Light Brigade," "Defense of Lucknow," "Hands all Round," and the imperial appeal of "Britons, Hold Your Own" or, as it is tamely called, "Opening of the Indian and Colonial Exposition." The beginner may also be reminded of certain famous little melodies, such as the "Bugle Song," "Sweet and Low," "Tears," "The Brook," "Far, Far, Away" and "Crossing the Bar," which are among the most perfect that England has produced. And, as showing Tennyson's extraordinary power of youthful feeling, at least one lyric of his old age should be read, such as "The Throstle" (a song that will appeal especially to all bird lovers), beginning:

  "Summer is coming, summer is coming,
     I know it, I know it, I know it;
  Light again, leaf again, life again, love again"--
     Yes, my wild little poet!

Here Tennyson is so merged in his subject as to produce the impression that the lyric must have been written not by an aged poet but by the bird himself. Reading the poem one seems to hear the brown thrasher on a twig of the wild-apple tree, pouring his heart out over the thicket which his mate has just chosen for a nesting place.

Idylls of the King

Of the longer works of Tennyson the most notable is the Idylls of the King, a series of twelve poems retelling part of the story of Arthur and his knights. Tennyson seems to have worked at this poem in haphazard fashion, writing the end first, then a fragment here or there, at intervals during half a century. Finally he welded his material into its present form, making it a kind of allegory of human life, in which man's animal nature fights with his spiritual aspirations. As Tennyson wrote, in his "Finale" to Queen Victoria:

        Accept this old, imperfect tale,
  New-old, and shadowing Sense at war with Soul.

The beginner will do well to forget the allegory and read the poem for its sustained beauty of expression and for its reflection of the modern ideal of honor. For, though Malory and Tennyson tell the same story, there is this significant difference between the Morte d' Arthur and the Idylls of the King: one is thoroughly medieval, and the other almost as thoroughly modern. Malory in simple prose makes his story the expression of chivalry in the Middle Ages; his heroes are true to their own time and place. Tennyson in melodious blank verse changes his material freely so as to make it a reflection of a nineteenth-century gentleman disguised in a suit of armor and some old knightly raiment.

One may add that some readers cleave to Tennyson, while others greatly prefer Malory. There is little or no comparison between the two, and selections from both should be read, if only to understand how this old romance of Arthur has appealed to writers of different times. In making a selection from the Idylls (the length of the poem is rather forbidding) it is well to begin with the twelfth book, "The Passing of Arthur," which was first to be written, and which reflects the noble spirit of the entire work.

In The Princess: a Medley the poet attempts the difficult task of combining an old romantic story with a modern social problem; and he does not succeed very well in harmonizing his incongruous materials.

The Princess

The story is, briefly, of a princess who in youth is betrothed to a prince. When she reaches what is called the age of discretion (doubtless because that age is so frequently marked by indiscretions) she rebels against the idea of marriage, and founds a college, herself the principal, devoted to the higher education of women. The prince, a gallant blade, and a few of his followers disguise themselves as girls and enter the school. When an unruly masculine tongue betrays him he is cast out with maledictions on his head. His father comes with an army, and makes war against the father of the princess. The prince joins blithely in the fight, is sore wounded, and is carried to the woman's college as to a hospital. The princess nurses him, listens to his love tale, and the story ends in the good old-fashioned way.

There are many beautiful passages in The Princess, and had Tennyson been content to tell the romantic story his work would have had some pleasant suggestion of Shakespeare's As You Like It; but the social problem spoils the work, as a moralizing intruder spoils a bit of innocent fun. Tennyson is either too serious or not serious enough; he does not know the answer to his own problem, and is not quite sincere in dealing with it or in coming to his lame and impotent conclusion. Few readers now attempt the three thousand lines of The Princess, but content themselves with a few lyrics, such as "Ask Me No More," "O Swallow Flying South," "Tears," "Bugle Song" and "Sweet and Low," which are familiar songs in many households that remember not whence they came. [Footnote: The above criticism of The Princess applies, in some measure, to Tennyson's Maud: a Monodrama, a story of passionate love and loss and sorrow. Tennyson wrote also several dramatic works, such as Harold, Becket and Queen Mary, in which he attempted to fill some of the gaps in Shakespeare's list of chronicle plays.]

English Idyls

More consistent than The Princess is a group of poems reflecting the life and ideals of simple people, to which Tennyson gave the general name of English Idyls. The longest and in some respects the best of these is "Enoch Arden," a romance which was once very popular, but which is now in danger of being shelved because the modern reader prefers his romance in prose form. Certain of the famous poems which we have already named are classed among these English idyls; but more typical of Tennyson's purpose in writing them are "Dora," "The Gardener's Daughter" and "Aylmer's Field," in which he turns from ancient heroes to sing the romance of present-day life.

Among mature readers, who have met the sorrows of life or pondered its problems, the most admired of Tennyson's work is In Memoriam (1850), an elegy inspired by the death of Arthur Hallam. As a memorial poem it invites comparison with others, with Milton's "Lycidas," or Shelley's "Adonais," or Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard." Without going deeply into the comparison we may note this difference: that Tennyson's work is more personal and sympathetic than any of the others. Milton had only a slight acquaintance with his human subject (Edward King) and wrote his poem as a memorial for the college rather than for the man; Shelley had never met Keats, whose early death he commemorates; Gray voiced an impersonal melancholy in the presence of the unknown dead; but Tennyson had lost his dearest friend, and wrote to solace his own grief and to keep alive a beautiful memory. Then, as he wrote, came the thought of other men and women mourning their dead; his view broadened with his sympathy, and he wrote other lyrics in the same strain to reflect the doubt or fear of humanity and its deathless faith even in the shadow of death.

It is this combination of personal and universal elements which makes In Memoriam remarkable. The only other elegy to which we may liken it is Emerson's "Threnody," written after the death of his little boy. But where Tennyson offers an elaborate wreath and a polished monument, Emerson is content with a rugged block of granite and a spray of nature's evergreen.

Plan of the Poem

In Memoriam occupied Tennyson at intervals for many years, and though he attempted to give it unity before its publication in 1850, it is still rather fragmentary. Moreover, it is too long; for the poet never lived who could write a hundred and thirty-one lyrics upon the same subject, in the same manner, without growing monotonous.

There are three more or less distinct parts of the work, [Footnote: Tennyson divided In Memoriam into nine sections. Various attempts have recently been made to organize the poem and to make a philosophy of it, but these are ingenious rather than convincing.] corresponding to three successive Christmas seasons. The first part (extending to poem 30) is concerned with grief and doubt; the second (to poem 78) exhibits a calm, serious questioning of the problem of faith; the third introduces a great hope amid tender memories or regrets, and ends (poem 106) with that splendid outlook on a new year and a new life, "Ring Out Wild Bells." This was followed by a few more lyrics of mounting faith, inspired by the thought that divine love rules the world and that our human love is immortal and cannot die. The work ends, rather incongruously, with a marriage hymn for Tennyson's sister.

The spirit of In Memoriam is well reflected in the "Proem" or introductory hymn, "Strong Son of God, Immortal Love"; its message is epitomized in the last three lines:

        One God, one law, one element,
        And one far-off divine event
      To which the whole creation moves.

The Quality of Tennyson

The charm of Tennyson is twofold. As the voice of the Victorian Age, reflecting its thought or feeling or culture, its intellectual quest, its moral endeavor, its passion for social justice, he represents to us the spirit of modern poetry; that is, poetry which comes close to our own life, to the aims, hopes, endeavors of the men and women of to-day. With this modern quality Tennyson has the secret of all old poetry, which is to be eternally young. He looked out upon a world from which the first wonder of creation had not vanished, where the sunrise was still "a glorious birth," and where love, truth, beauty, all inspiring realities, were still waiting with divine patience to reveal themselves to human eyes.

There are other charms in Tennyson: his romantic spirit, his love of nature, his sense of verbal melody, his almost perfect workmanship; but these the reader must find and appreciate for himself. The sum of our criticism is that Tennyson is a poet to have handy on the table for the pleasure of an idle hour. He is also (and this is a better test) an excellent poet to put in your pocket when you go on a journey. So shall you be sure of traveling in good company.


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