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by Andrew Lang

 

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Classic Home > Articles > Chapter 2 - Poems of 1831 to 1833Go to next article
Lord Alfred Tennyson
Poetry | Biography | Resources
 
Chapter 1 - Boyhood - Cambridge - Early Poems
by Andrew Lang

The life and work of Tennyson present something like the normal type of what, in circumstances as fortunate as mortals may expect, the life and work of a modern poet ought to be. A modern poet, one says, because even poetry is now affected by the division of labour. We do not look to the poet for a large share in the practical activities of existence: we do not expect him, like AEschylus and Sophocles, Theognis and Alcaeus, to take a conspicuous part in politics and war; or even, as in the Age of Anne, to shine among wits and in society. Life has become, perhaps, too specialised for such multifarious activities. Indeed, even in ancient days, as a Celtic proverb and as the picture of life in the Homeric epics prove, the poet was already a man apart--not foremost among statesmen and rather backward among warriors. If we agree with a not unpopular opinion, the poet ought to be a kind of "Titanic" force, wrecking himself on his own passions and on the nature of things, as did Byron, Burns, Marlowe, and Musset. But Tennyson's career followed lines really more normal, the lines of the life of Wordsworth, wisdom and self-control directing the course of a long, sane, sound, and fortunate existence. The great physical strength which is commonly the basis of great mental vigour was not ruined in Tennyson by poverty and passion, as in the case of Burns, nor in forced literary labour, as in those of Scott and Dickens. For long he was poor, like Wordsworth and Southey, but never destitute. He made his early effort: he had his time of great sorrow, and trial, and apparent failure. With practical wisdom he conquered circumstances; he became eminent; he outlived reaction against his genius; he died in the fulness of a happy age and of renown. This full-orbed life, with not a few years of sorrow and stress, is what Nature seems to intend for the career of a divine minstrel. If Tennyson missed the "one crowded hour of glorious life," he had not to be content in "an age without a name."

It was not Tennyson's lot to illustrate any modern theory of the origin of genius. Born in 1809 of a Lincolnshire family, long connected with the soil but inconspicuous in history, Tennyson had nothing Celtic in his blood, as far as pedigrees prove. This is unfortunate for one school of theorists. His mother (genius is presumed to be derived from mothers) had a genius merely for moral excellence and for religion. She is described in the poem of Isabel, and was "a remarkable and saintly woman." In the male line, the family was not (as the families of genius ought to be) brief of life and unhealthy. "The Tennysons never die," said the sister who was betrothed to Arthur Hallam. The father, a clergyman, was, says his grandson, "a man of great ability," and his "excellent library" was an element in the education of his family. "My father was a poet," Tennyson said, "and could write regular verse very skilfully." In physical type the sons were tall, strong, and unusually dark: Tennyson, when abroad, was not taken for an Englishman; at home, strangers thought him "foreign." Most of the children had the temperament, and several of the sons had some of the accomplishments, of genius: whence derived by way of heredity is a question beyond conjecture, for the father's accomplishment was not unusual. As Walton says of the poet and the angler, they "were born to be so": we know no more.

The region in which the paternal hamlet of Somersby lies, "a land of quiet villages, large fields, grey hillsides, and noble tall-towered churches, on the lower slope of a Lincolnshire wold," does not appear to have been rich in romantic legend and tradition. The folk-lore of Lincolnshire, of which examples have been published, does seem to have a peculiar poetry of its own, but it was rather the humorous than the poetical aspect of the country-people that Tennyson appears to have known. In brief, we have nothing to inform us as to how genius came into that generation of Tennysons which was born between 1807 and 1819. A source and a cause there must have been, but these things are hidden, except from popular science.

Precocity is not a sign of genius, but genius is perhaps always accompanied by precocity. This is especially notable in the cases of painting, music, and mathematics; but in the matter of literature genius may chiefly show itself in acquisition, as in Sir Walter Scott, who when a boy knew much, but did little that would attract notice. As a child and a boy young Tennyson was remarked both for acquisition and performance. His own reminiscences of his childhood varied somewhat in detail. In one place we learn that at the age of eight he covered a slate with blank verse in the manner of Jamie Thomson, the only poet with whom he was then acquainted. In another passage he says, "The first poetry that moved me was my own at five years old. When I was eight I remember making a line I thought grander than Campbell, or Byron, or Scott. I rolled it out, it was this -

'With slaughterous sons of thunder rolled the flood' -

great nonsense, of course, but I thought it fine!"

It WAS fine, and was thoroughly Tennysonian. Scott, Campbell, and Byron probably never produced a line with the qualities of this nonsense verse. "Before I could read I was in the habit on a stormy day of spreading my arms to the wind and crying out, 'I hear a voice that's speaking in the wind,' and the words 'far, far away' had always a strange charm for me." A late lyric has this overword, FAR, FAR AWAY!

A boy of eight who knew the contemporary poets was more or less precocious. Tennyson also knew Pope, and wrote hundreds of lines in Pope's measure. At twelve the boy produced an epic, in Scott's manner, of some six thousand lines. He "never felt himself more truly inspired," for the sense of "inspiration" (as the late Mr Myers has argued in an essay on the "Mechanism of Genius") has little to do with the actual value of the product. At fourteen Tennyson wrote a drama in blank verse. A chorus from this play (as one guesses), a piece from "an unpublished drama written very early," is published in the volume of 1830:-

"The varied earth, the moving heaven,
  The rapid waste of roving sea,
The fountain-pregnant mountains riven
  To shapes of wildest anarchy,
By secret fire and midnight storms
  That wander round their windy cones."

These lines are already Tennysonian. There is the classical transcript, "the varied earth," daedala tellus. There is the geological interest in the forces that shape the hills. There is the use of the favourite word "windy," and later in the piece -

"The troublous autumn's SALLOW gloom."

The young poet from boyhood was original in his manner.

Byron made him blase at fourteen. Then Byron died, and Tennyson scratched on a rock "Byron is dead," on "a day when the whole world seemed darkened for me." Later he considered Byron's poetry "too much akin to rhetoric." "Byron is not an artist or a thinker, or a creator in the higher sense, but a strong personality; he is endlessly clever, and is now unduly depreciated." He "did give the world another heart and new pulses, and so we are kept going." But "he was dominated by Byron till he was seventeen, when he put him away altogether."

In his boyhood, despite the sufferings which he endured for a while at school at Louth; despite bullying from big boys and masters, Tennyson would "shout his verses to the skies." "Well, Arthur, I mean to be famous," he used to say to one of his brothers. He observed nature very closely by the brook and the thundering sea- shores: he was never a sportsman, and his angling was in the manner of the lover of The Miller's Daughter. He was seventeen (1826) when Poems by Two Brothers (himself and his brother Frederick) was published with the date 1827. These poems contain, as far as I have been able to discover, nothing really Tennysonian. What he had done in his own manner was omitted, "being thought too much out of the common for the public taste." The young poet had already saving common-sense, and understood the public. Fragments of the true gold are found in the volume of 1830, others are preserved in the Biography. The ballad suggested by The Bride of Lammermoor was not unworthy of Beddoes, and that novel, one cannot but think, suggested the opening situation in Maud, where the hero is a modern Master of Ravenswood in his relation to the rich interloping family and the beautiful daughter. To this point we shall return. It does not appear that Tennyson was conscious in Maud of the suggestion from Scott, and the coincidence may be merely accidental.

The Lover's Tale, published in 1879, was mainly a work of the poet's nineteenth year. A few copies had been printed for friends. One of these, with errors of the press, and without the intended alterations, was pirated by an unhappy man in 1875. In old age Tennyson brought out the work of his boyhood. "It was written before I had ever seen Shelley, though it is called Shelleyan," he said; and indeed he believed that his work had never been imitative, after his earliest efforts in the manner of Thomson and of Scott. The only things in The Lover's Tale which would suggest that the poet here followed Shelley are the Italian scene of the story, the character of the versification, and the extraordinary luxuriance and exuberance of the imagery. {2} As early as 1868 Tennyson heard that written copies of The Lover's Tale were in circulation. He then remarked, as to the exuberance of the piece: "Allowance must be made for abundance of youth. It is rich and full, but there are mistakes in it. . . . The poem is the breath of young love."

How truly Tennysonian the manner is may be understood even from the opening lines, full of the original cadences which were to become so familiar:-

"Here far away, seen from the topmost cliff,
Filling with purple gloom the vacancies
Between the tufted hills, the sloping seas
Hung in mid-heaven, and half way down rare sails,
White as white clouds, floated from sky to sky."

The narrative in parts one and two (which alone were written in youth) is so choked with images and descriptions as to be almost obscure. It is the story, practically, of a love like that of Paul and Virginia, but the love is not returned by the girl, who prefers the friend of the narrator. Like the hero of Maud, the speaker has a period of madness and illusion; while the third part, "The Golden Supper"--suggested by a story of Boccaccio, and written in maturity-- is put in the mouth of another narrator, and is in a different style. The discarded lover, visiting the vault which contains the body of his lady, finds her alive, and restores her to her husband. The whole finished legend is necessarily not among the author's masterpieces. But perhaps not even Keats in his earliest work displayed more of promise, and gave more assurance of genius. Here and there come turns and phrases, "all the charm of all the Muses," which remind a reader of things later well known in pieces more mature. Such lines are -

  "Strange to me and sweet,
Sweet through strange years,"

and -

"Like to a low-hung and a fiery sky
Hung round with RAGGED RIMS and burning folds."

And -

"Like sounds without the twilight realm of dreams,
Which wander round the bases of the hills."

We also note close observation of nature in the curious phrase -

"Cries of the partridge like a rusty key
Turned in a lock."

Of this kind was Tennyson's adolescent vein, when he left

  "The poplars four
That stood beside his father's door,"

the Somersby brook, and the mills and granges, the seas of the Lincolnshire coast, and the hills and dales among the wolds, for Cambridge. He was well read in old and contemporary English literature, and in the classics. Already he was acquainted with the singular trance-like condition to which his poems occasionally allude, a subject for comment later. He matriculated at Trinity, with his brother Charles, on February 20, 1828, and had an interview of a not quite friendly sort with a proctor before he wore the gown.

That Tennyson should go to Cambridge, not to Oxford, was part of the nature of things, by which Cambridge educates the majority of English poets, whereas Oxford has only "turned out" a few--like Shelley. At that time, as in Macaulay's day, the path of university honours at Cambridge lay through Mathematics, and, except for his prize poem in 1829, Tennyson took no honours at all. His classical reading was pursued as literature, not as a course of grammar and philology. No English poet, at least since Milton, had been better read in the classics; but Tennyson's studies did not aim at the gaining of academic distinction. His aspect was such that Thompson, later Master of Trinity, on first seeing him come into hall, said, "That man must be a poet." Like Byron, Shelley, and probably Coleridge, Tennyson looked the poet that he was: "Six feet high, broad-chested, strong-limbed, his face Shakespearian and with deep eyelids, his forehead ample, crowned with dark wavy hair, his head finely poised."

Not much is recorded of Tennyson as an undergraduate. In our days efforts would have been made to enlist so promising a recruit in one of the college boats; but rowing was in its infancy. It is a peculiarity of the universities that little flocks of men of unusual ability come up at intervals together, breaking the monotony of idlers, prize scholars, and honours men. Such a group appeared at Balliol in Matthew Arnold's time, and rather later, at various colleges, in the dawn of Pre-Raphaelitism. The Tennysons--Alfred, Frederick, and Charles--were members of such a set. There was Arthur Hallam, son of the historian, from Eton; there was Spedding, the editor and biographer of Bacon; Milnes (Lord Houghton), Blakesley (Dean of Lincoln), Thompson, Merivale, Trench (a poet, and later, Archbishop of Dublin), Brookfield, Buller, and, after Tennyson the greatest, Thackeray, a contemporary if not an "Apostle." Charles Buller's, like Hallam's, was to be an "unfulfilled renown." Of Hallam, whose name is for ever linked with his own, Tennyson said that he would have been a great man, but not a great poet; "he was as near perfection as mortal man could be." His scanty remains are chiefly notable for his divination of Tennyson as a great poet; for the rest, we can only trust the author of In Memoriam and the verdict of tradition.

The studies of the poet at this time included original composition in Greek and Latin verse, history, and a theme that he alone has made poetical, natural science. All poetry has its roots in the age before natural science was more than a series of nature-myths. The poets have usually, like Keats, regretted the days when

"There was an awful rainbow once in heaven,"

when the hills and streams were not yet "dispeopled of their dreams." Tennyson, on the other hand, was already finding material for poetry in the world as seen through microscope and telescope, and as developed through "aeonian" processes of evolution. In a notebook, mixed with Greek, is a poem on the Moon--not the moon of Selene, "the orbed Maiden," but of astronomical science. In Memoriam recalls the conversations on labour and politics, discussions of the age of the Reform Bill, of rick-burning (expected to "make taters cheaper"), and of Catholic emancipation; also the emancipation of such negroes as had not yet tasted the blessings of freedom. In politics Tennyson was what he remained, a patriot, a friend of freedom, a foe of disorder. His politics, he said, were those "of Shakespeare, Bacon, and every sane man." He was one of the Society of Apostles, and characteristically contributed an essay on Ghosts. Only the preface survives: it is not written in a scientific style; but bids us "not assume that any vision IS baseless." Perhaps the author went on to discuss "veridical hallucinations," but his ideas about these things must be considered later.

It was by his father's wish that Tennyson competed for the English prize poem. The theme, Timbuctoo, was not inspiring. Thackeray wrote a good parody of the ordinary prize poem in Pope's metre:-

"I see her sons the hill of glory mount,
And sell their sugars on their own account;
Prone to her feet the prostrate nations come,
Sue for her rice and barter for her rum."

Tennyson's work was not much more serious: he merely patched up an old piece, in blank verse, on the battle of Armageddon. The poem is not destitute of Tennysonian cadence, and ends, not inappropriately, with "All was night." Indeed, all WAS night.

An ingenious myth accounts for Tennyson's success: At Oxford, says Charles Wordsworth, the author was more likely to have been rusticated than rewarded. But already (1829) Arthur Hallam told Mr Gladstone that Tennyson "promised fair to be the greatest poet of our generation, perhaps of our century."

In 1830 Tennyson published the first volume of which he was sole author. Browning's Pauline was of the year 1833. It was the very dead hours of the Muses. The great Mr Murray had ceased, as one despairing of song, to publish poetry. Bulwer Lytton, in the preface to Paul Clifford (1830), announced that poetry, with every other form of literature except the Novel, was unremunerative and unread. Coleridge and Scott were silent: indeed Sir Walter was near his death; Wordsworth had shot his bolt, though an arrow or two were left in the quiver. Keats, Shelley, and Byron were dead; Milman's brief vogue was departing. It seemed as if novels alone could appeal to readers, so great a change in taste had been wrought by the sixteen years of Waverley romances. The slim volume of Tennyson was naturally neglected, though Leigh Hunt reviewed it in the Tatler. Hallam's comments in the Englishman's Magazine, though enthusiastic (as was right and natural), were judicious. "The author imitates no one." Coleridge did not read all the book, but noted "things of a good deal of beauty. The misfortune is that he has begun to write verses without very well understanding what metre is." As Tennyson said in 1890, "So I, an old man, who get a poem or poems every day, might cast a casual glance at a book, and seeing something which I could not scan or understand, might possibly decide against the book without further consideration." As a rule, the said books are worthless. The number of versifiers makes it hard, indeed, for the poet to win recognition. One little new book of rhyme is so like another, and almost all are of so little interest!

The rare book that differs from the rest has a bizarrerie with its originality, and in the poems of 1830 there was, assuredly, more than enough of the bizarre. There were no hyphens in the double epithets, and words like "tendriltwine" seemed provokingly affected. A kind of lusciousness, like that of Keats when under the influence of Leigh Hunt, may here and there be observed. Such faults as these catch the indifferent eye when a new book is first opened, and the volume of 1830 was probably condemned by almost every reader of the previous generation who deigned to afford it a glance. Out of fifty-six pieces only twenty-three were reprinted in the two volumes of 1842, which won for Tennyson the general recognition of the world of letters. Five or six of the pieces then left out were added as Juvenilia in the collected works of 1871, 1872. The whole mass deserves the attention of students of the poet's development.

This early volume may be said to contain, in the germ, all the great original qualities of Tennyson, except the humour of his rural studies and the elaboration of his Idylls. For example, in Mariana we first note what may be called his perfection and accomplishment. The very few alterations made later are verbal. The moated grange of Mariana in Measure for Measure, and her mood of desertion and despair, are elaborated by a precision of truth and with a perfection of harmony worthy of Shakespeare himself, and minutely studied from the natural scenes in which the poet was born. If these verses alone survived out of the wreck of Victorian literature, they would demonstrate the greatness of the author as clearly as do the fragments of Sappho. Isabel (a study of the poet's mother) is almost as remarkable in its stately dignity; while Recollections of the Arabian Nights attest the power of refined luxury in romantic description, and herald the unmatched beauty of The Lotos-Eaters. The Poet, again, is a picture of that which Tennyson himself was to fulfil; and Oriana is a revival of romance, and of the ballad, not limited to the ballad form as in its prototype, Helen of Kirkconnell. Curious and exquisite experiment in metre is indicated in the Leonine Elegiacs, in Claribel, and several other poems. Qualities which were not for long to find public expression, speculative powers brooding, in various moods, on ultimate and insoluble questions, were attested by The Mystic, and Supposed Confessions of a Second-rate Sensitive Mind not in Unity with Itself, an unlucky title of a remarkable performance. "In this, the most agitated of all his poems, we find the soul urging onward

'Thro' utter dark a full-sail'd skiff,
Unpiloted i' the echoing dance
Of reboant whirlwinds;'

and to the question, 'Why not believe, then?' we have as answer a simile of the sea, which cannot slumber like a mountain tarn, or

'Draw down into his vexed pools
All that blue heaven which hues and paves'

the tranquil inland mere." {3}

The poet longs for the faith of his infant days and of his mother -

"Thy mild deep eyes upraised, that knew
The beauty and repose of faith,
And the clear spirit shining thro'."

That faith is already shaken, and the long struggle for belief has already begun.

Tennyson, according to Matthew Arnold, was not un esprit puissant. Other and younger critics, who have attained to a cock-certain mood of negation, are apt to blame him because, in fact, he did not finally agree with their opinions. If a man is necessarily a weakling or a hypocrite because, after trying all things, he is not an atheist or a materialist, then the reproach of insincerity or of feebleness of mind must rest upon Tennyson. But it is manifest that, almost in boyhood, he had already faced the ideas which, to one of his character, almost meant despair: he had not kept his eyes closed. To his extremely self-satisfied accusers we might answer, in lines from this earliest volume (The Mystic):-

"Ye scorn him with an undiscerning scorn;
Ye cannot read the marvel in his eye,
The still serene abstraction."

He would behold

"One shadow in the midst of a great light,
One reflex from eternity on time,
One mighty countenance of perfect calm,
Awful with most invariable eyes."

His mystic of these boyish years -

  "Often lying broad awake, and yet
Remaining from the body, and apart
In intellect and power and will, hath heard
Time flowing in the middle of the night,
And all things creeping to a day of doom."

In this poem, never republished by the author, is an attempt to express an experience which in later years he more than once endeavoured to set forth in articulate speech, an experience which was destined to colour his finial speculations on ultimate problems of God and of the soul. We shall later have to discuss the opinion of an eminent critic, Mr Frederic Harrison, that Tennyson's ideas, theological, evolutionary, and generally speculative, "followed, rather than created, the current ideas of his time." "The train of thought" (in In Memoriam), writes Mr Harrison, "is essentially that with which ordinary English readers had been made familiar by F. D. Maurice, Professor Jowett, Dr Martineau, Ecce Homo, Hypatia." Of these influences only Maurice, and Maurice only orally, could have reached the author of The Mystic and the Supposed Confessions. Ecce Homo, Hypatia, Mr Jowett, were all in the bosom of the future when In Memoriam was written. Now, The Mystic and the Supposed Confessions are prior to In Memoriam, earlier than 1830. Yet they already contain the chief speculative tendencies of In Memoriam; the growing doubts caused by evolutionary ideas (then familiar to Tennyson, though not to "ordinary English readers"), the longing for a return to childlike faith, and the mystical experiences which helped Tennyson to recover a faith that abode with him. In these things he was original. Even as an undergraduate he was not following "a train of thought made familiar" by authors who had not yet written a line, and by books which had not yet been published.

So much, then, of the poet that was to be and of the philosopher existed in the little volume of the undergraduate. In The Mystic we notice a phrase, two words long, which was later to be made familiar, "Daughters of time, divinely tall," reproduced in the picture of Helen:-

"A daughter of the Gods, divinely tall,
  And most divinely fair."

The reflective pieces are certainly of more interest now (though they seem to have satisfied the poet less) than the gallery of airy fairy Lilians, Adelines, Rosalinds, and Eleanores:-

"Daughters of dreams and of stories,"

like

"Faustine, Fragoletta, Dolores,
Felise, and Yolande, and Juliette."

Cambridge, which he was soon to leave, did not satisfy the poet. Oxford did not satisfy Gibbon, or later, Shelley; and young men of genius are not, in fact, usually content with universities which, perhaps, are doing their best, but are neither governed nor populated by minds of the highest and most original class.

  "You that do profess to teach
And teach us nothing, feeding not the heart."

The universities, in fact, teach a good deal of that which can be learned, but the best things cannot be taught. The universities give men leisure, books, and companionship, to learn for themselves. All tutors cannot be, and at that time few dreamed of being, men like Jowett and T. H. Green, Gamaliels at whose feet undergraduates sat with enthusiasm, "did EAGERLY frequent," like Omar Khayyam. In later years Tennyson found closer relations between dons and undergraduates, and recorded his affection for his university. She had supplied him with such companionship as is rare, and permitted him to "catch the blossom of the flying terms," even if tutors and lecturers were creatures of routine, terriblement enfonces dans la matiere, like the sire of Madelon and Cathos, that honourable citizen.

Tennyson just missed, by going down, a visit of Wordsworth to Cambridge. The old enthusiast of revolution was justifying passive obedience: thirty years had turned the almost Jacobin into an almost Jacobite. Such is the triumph of time. In the summer of 1830 Tennyson, with Hallam, visited the Pyrenees. The purpose was political--to aid some Spanish rebels. The fruit is seen in OEnone and Mariana in the South.

In March 1831 Tennyson lost his father. "He slept in the dead man's bed, earnestly desiring to see his ghost, but no ghost came." "You see," he said, "ghosts do not generally come to imaginative people;" a remark very true, though ghosts are attributed to "imagination." Whatever causes these phantasms, it is not the kind of phantasia which is consciously exercised by the poet. Coleridge had seen far too many ghosts to believe in them; and Coleridge and Donne apart, with the hallucinations of Goethe and Shelley, who met themselves, what poet ever did "see a ghost"? One who saw Tennyson as he wandered alone at this period called him "a mysterious being, seemingly lifted high above other mortals, and having a power of intercourse with the spirit world not granted to others." But it was the world of the poet, not of the "medium."

The Tennysons stayed on at the parsonage for six years. But, anticipating their removal, Arthur Hallam in 1831 dealt in prophecy about the identification in the district of places in his friend's poems--"critic after critic will trace the wanderings of the brook," as,--in fact, critic after critic has done. Tennyson disliked--these "localisers." The poet's walks were shared by Arthur Hallam, then affianced to his sister Emily.

 
Classic Home > Articles > Chapter 2 - Poems of 1831 to 1833Go to next article

This article was written by Andrew Lang.

Andrew Lang, a reknown Scholar and also a Classic Poet in his own right, was born March 31, 1844 in Selkirk, Selkirkshire, Scotland, and died July 20, 1912. He was educated at St. Andrews University and at Balliol College, Oxford, and also held an open fellowship at Merton College until 1875.

His poetry appeared in such volumes as his Ballads in Blue China (1880-81, 2 volumes). He is known for his study of myth and folklore (Myth, Literature, and Religion in 1887, revised 1899), and for his prose translations of the Odyssey (with S. H. Butcher, 1879) and the Iliad (with Walter Leaf and Ernest Myers, 1883). Other works include The World of Homer (1910), Blue Fairy Book (1889, with his wife, Leonora Blanche Lang), Biography of J. G. Lockhart (1896), and a four volume History of Scotland (1900-1907).

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