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Passions in PoetryChapter 2 - Poems of 1831 to 1833
by Andrew Lang

 

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Classic Home > Articles > Chapter 3 - 1837 to 1842Go to next article
Lord Alfred Tennyson
Poetry | Biography | Resources
 
Chapter 2 - Poems of 1831 to 1833
by Andrew Lang

By 1832 most of the poems of Tennyson's second volume were circulating in MS. among his friends, and no poet ever had friends more encouraging. Perhaps bards of to-day do not find an eagerness among their acquaintance for effusions in manuscript, or in proof- sheets. The charmed volume appeared at the end of the year (dated 1833), and Hallam denounced as "infamous" Lockhart's review in the Quarterly. Infamous or not, it is extremely diverting. How Lockhart could miss the great and abundant poetry remains a marvel. Ten years later the Scorpion repented, and invited Sterling to review any book he pleased, for the purpose of enabling him to praise the two volumes of 1842, which he did gladly. Lockhart hated all affectation and "preciosity," of which the new book was not destitute. He had been among Wordsworth's most ardent admirers when Wordsworth had few, but the memories of the war with the "Cockney School" clung to him, the war with Leigh Hunt, and now he gave himself up to satire. Probably he thought that the poet was a member of a London clique. There is really no excuse for Lockhart, except that he DID repent, that much of his banter was amusing, and that, above all, his censures were accepted by the poet, who altered, later, many passages of a fine absurdity criticised by the infamous reviewer. One could name great prose-writers, historians, who never altered the wondrous errors to which their attention was called by critics. Prose-writers have been more sensitively attached to their glaring blunders in verifiable facts than was this very sensitive poet to his occasional lapses in taste.

The Lady of Shalott, even in its early form, was more than enough to give assurance of a poet. In effect it is even more poetical, in a mysterious way, if infinitely less human, than the later treatment of the same or a similar legend in Elaine. It has the charm of Coleridge, and an allegory of the fatal escape from the world of dreams and shadows into that of realities may have been really present to the mind of the young poet, aware that he was "living in phantasy." The alterations are usually for the better. The daffodil is not an aquatic plant, as the poet seems to assert in the first form -

"The yellow-leaved water-lily,
The green sheathed daffodilly,
Tremble in the water chilly,
  Round about Shalott."

Nobody can prefer to keep

"Though the squally east wind keenly
Blew, with folded arms serenely
By the water stood the queenly
  Lady of Shalott."

However stoical the Lady may have been, the reader is too seriously sympathetic with her inevitable discomfort -

"All raimented in snowy white
That loosely flew,"

as she was. The original conclusion was distressing; we were dropped from the airs of mysterious romance:-

"They crossed themselves, their stars they blest,
Knight, minstrel, abbot, squire, and guest;
There lay a parchment on her breast,
That puzzled more than all the rest
  The well-fed wits at Camelot."

Hitherto we have been "puzzled," but as with the sublime incoherences of a dream. Now we meet well-fed wits, who say, "Bless my stars!" as perhaps we should also have done in the circumstances--a dead lady arriving, in a very cold east wind, alone in a boat, for "her blood was frozen slowly," as was natural, granting the weather and the lady's airy costume. It is certainly matter of surprise that the young poet's vision broke up in this humorous manner. And, after all, it is less surprising that the Scorpion, finding such matter in a new little book by a new young man, was more sensitive to the absurdity than to the romance. But no lover of poetry should have been blind to the almost flawless excellence of Mariana in the South, inspired by the landscape of the Provencal tour with Arthur Hallam. In consequence of Lockhart's censures, or in deference to the maturer taste of the poet, The Miller's Daughter was greatly altered before 1842. It is one of the earliest, if not the very earliest, of Tennyson's domestic English idylls, poems with conspicuous beauties, but not without sacrifices to that Muse of the home affections on whom Sir Barnes Newcome delivered his famous lecture. The seventh stanza perhaps hardly deserved to be altered, as it is, so as to bring in "minnows" where "fish" had been the reading, and where "trout" would best recall an English chalk stream. To the angler the rising trout, which left the poet cold, is at least as welcome as the "reflex of a beauteous form." "Every woman seems an angel at the water-side," said "that good old angler, now with God," Thomas Todd Stoddart, and so "the long and listless boy" found it to be. It is no wonder that the mother was "SLOWLY brought to yield consent to my desire." The domestic affections, in fact, do not adapt themselves so well to poetry as the passion, unique in Tennyson, of Fatima. The critics who hunt for parallels or plagiarisms will note -

"O Love, O fire! once he drew
With one long kiss my whole soul thro'
My lips,"

and will observe Mr Browning's

  "Once he kissed
My soul out in a fiery mist."

As to OEnone, the scenery of that earliest of the classical idylls is borrowed from the Pyrenees and the tour with Hallam. "It is possible that the poem may have been suggested by Beattie's Judgment of Paris," says Mr Collins; it is also possible that the tale which

  "Quintus Calaber
Somewhat lazily handled of old"

may have reached Tennyson's mind from an older writer than Beattie. He is at least as likely to have been familiar with Greek myth as with the lamented "Minstrel." The form of 1833, greatly altered in 1842, contained such unlucky phrases as "cedar shadowy," and "snowycoloured," "marblecold," "violet-eyed"--easy spoils of criticism. The alterations which converted a beautiful but faulty into a beautiful and flawless poem perhaps obscure the significance of OEnone's "I will not die alone," which in the earlier volume directly refers to the foreseen end of all as narrated in Tennyson's late piece, The Death of OEnone. The whole poem brings to mind the glowing hues of Titian and the famous Homeric lines on the divine wedlock of Zeus and Hera.

The allegory or moral of The Palace of Art does not need explanation. Not many of the poems owe more to revision. The early stanza about Isaiah, with fierce Ezekiel, and "Eastern Confutzee," did undeniably remind the reader, as Lockhart said, of The Groves of Blarney.

"With statues gracing that noble place in,
  All haythen goddesses most rare,
Petrarch, Plato, and Nebuchadnezzar,
  All standing naked in the open air."

In the early version the Soul, being too much "up to date,"

"Lit white streams of dazzling gas,"

like Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford.

"Thus her intense, untold delight,
In deep or vivid colour, smell, and sound,
  Was flattered day and night."

Lockhart was not fond of Sir Walter's experiments in gas, the "smell" gave him no "deep, untold delight," and his "infamous review" was biassed by these circumstances.

The volume of 1833 was in nothing more remarkable than in its proof of the many-sidedness of the author. He offered mediaeval romance, and classical perfection touched with the romantic spirit, and domestic idyll, of which The May Queen is probably the most popular example. The "mysterious being," conversant with "the spiritual world," might have been expected to disdain topics well within the range of Eliza Cook. He did not despise but elevated them, and thereby did more to introduce himself to the wide English public than he could have done by a century of Fatimas or Lotos-Eaters. On the other hand, a taste more fastidious, or more perverse, will scarcely be satisfied with pathos which in process of time has come to seem "obvious." The pathos of early death in the prime of beauty is less obvious in Homer, where Achilles is to be the victim, or in the laments of the Anthology, where we only know that the dead bride or maiden was fair; but the poor May Queen is of her nature rather commonplace.

"That good man, the clergyman, has told me words of peace,"

strikes a note rather resembling the Tennysonian parody of Wordsworth -

"A Mr Wilkinson, a clergyman."

The Lotos-Eaters, of course, is at the opposite pole of the poet's genius. A few plain verses of the Odyssey, almost bald in their reticence, are the point de repere of the most magical vision expressed in the most musical verse. Here is the languid charm of Spenser, enriched with many classical memories, and pictures of natural beauty gorgeously yet delicately painted. After the excision of some verses, rather fantastical, in 1842, the poem became a flawless masterpiece,--one of the eternal possessions of song.

On the other hand, the opening of The Dream of Fair Women was marred in 1833 by the grotesque introductory verses about "a man that sails in a balloon." Young as Tennyson was, these freakish passages are a psychological marvel in the work of one who did not lack the saving sense of humour. The poet, wafted on the wing and "pinion that the Theban eagle bear," cannot conceivably be likened to an aeronaut waving flags out of a balloon--except in a spirit of self-mockery which was not Tennyson's. His remarkable self-discipline in excising the fantastic and superfluous, and reducing his work to its classical perfection of thought and form, is nowhere more remarkable than in this magnificent vision. It is probably by mere accidental coincidence of thought that, in the verses To J. S. (James Spedding), Tennyson reproduces the noble speech on the warrior's death which Sir Walter Scott places in the lips of the great Dundee: "It is the memory which the soldier leaves behind him, like the long train of light that follows the sunken sun, THAT is all that is worth caring for," the light which lingers eternally on the hills of Atholl. Tennyson's lines are a close parallel:-

"His memory long will live alone
  In all our hearts, as mournful light
That broods above the fallen sun,
  And dwells in heaven half the night."

Though Tennyson disliked the exhibition of "the chips of the workshop," we have commented on them, on the early readings of the early volumes. They may be regarded more properly as the sketches of a master than as "chips," and do more than merely engage the idle curiosity of the fanatics of first editions. They prove that the poet was studious of perfection, and wisely studious, for his alterations, unlike those of some authors, were almost invariably for the better, the saner, the more mature in taste. The early readings are also worth notice, because they partially explain, by their occasionally fantastic and humourless character, the lack of early and general recognition of the poet's genius. The native prejudice of mankind is not in favour of a new poet. Of new poets there are always so many, most of them bad, that nature has protected mankind by an armour of suspiciousness. The world, and Lockhart, easily found good reasons for distrusting this new claimant of the ivy and the bays: moreover, since about 1814 there had been a reaction against new poetry. The market was glutted. Scott had set everybody on reading, and too many on writing, novels. The great reaction of the century against all forms of literature except prose fiction had begun. Near the very date of Tennyson's first volume Bulwer Lytton, as we saw, had frankly explained that he wrote novels because nobody would look at anything else. Tennyson had to overcome this universal, or all but universal, indifference to new poetry, and, after being silent for ten years, overcome it he did--a remarkable victory of art and of patient courage. Times were even worse for poets than to-day. Three hundred copies of the new volume were sold! But Tennyson's friends were not puffers in league with pushing publishers.

Meanwhile the poet in 1833 went on quietly and undefeated with his work. He composed The Gardener's Daughter, and was at work on the Morte d'Arthur, suppressed till the ninth year, on the Horatian plan. Many poems were produced (and even written out, which a number of his pieces never were), and were left in manuscript till they appeared in the Biography. Most of these are so little worthy of the author that the marvel is how he came to write them--in what uninspired hours. Unlike Wordsworth, he could weed the tares from his wheat. His studies were in Greek, German, Italian, history (a little), and chemistry, botany, and electricity--"cross-grained Muses," these last.

It was on September 15, 1833, that Arthur Hallam died. Unheralded by sign or symptom of disease as it was, the news fell like a thunderbolt from a serene sky. Tennyson's and Hallam's love had been "passing the love of women." A blow like this drives a man on the rocks of the ultimate, the insoluble problems of destiny. "Is this the end?" Nourished as on the milk of lions, on the elevating and strengthening doctrines of popular science, trained from childhood to forego hope and attend evening lectures, the young critics of our generation find Tennyson a weakling because he had hopes and fears concerning the ultimate renewal of what was more than half his life-- his friendship.

"That faith I fain would keep,
  That hope I'll not forego:
Eternal be the sleep -
  Unless to waken so,"

wrote Lockhart, and the verses echoed ceaselessly in the widowed heart of Carlyle. These men, it is part of the duty of critics later born to remember, were not children or cowards, though they dreamed, and hoped, and feared. We ought to make allowance for failings incident to an age not yet fully enlightened by popular science, and still undivorced from spiritual ideas that are as old as the human race, and perhaps not likely to perish while that race exists. Now and then even scientific men have been mistaken, especially when they have declined to examine evidence, as in this problem of the transcendental nature of the human spirit they usually do. At all events Tennyson was unconvinced that death is the end, and shortly after the fatal tidings arrived from Vienna he began to write fragments in verse preluding to the poem of In Memoriam. He also began, in a mood of great misery, The Two Voices; or, Thoughts of a Suicide. The poem seems to have been partly done by September 1834, when Spedding commented on it, and on the beautiful Sir Galahad, "intended for something of a male counterpart to St Agnes." The Morte d'Arthur Tennyson then thought "the best thing I have managed lately." Very early in 1835 many stanzas of In Memoriam had taken form. "I do not wish to be dragged forward in any shape before the reading public at present," wrote the poet, when he heard that Mill desired to write on him. His OEnone he had brought to its new perfection, and did not desire comments on work now several years old. He also wrote his Ulysses and his Tithonus.

If ever the term "morbid" could have been applied to Tennyson, it would have been in the years immediately following the death of Arthur Hallam. But the application would have been unjust. True, the poet was living out of the world; he was unhappy, and he was, as people say, "doing nothing." He was so poor that he sold his Chancellor's prize gold medal, and he did not

  "Scan his whole horizon
In quest of what he could clap eyes on,"

in the way of money-making, which another poet describes as the normal attitude of all men as well as of pirates. A careless observer would have thought that the poet was dawdling. But he dwelt in no Castle of Indolence; he studied, he composed, he corrected his verses: like Sir Walter in Liddesdale, "he was making himsel' a' the time." He did not neglect the movements of the great world in that dawn of discontent with the philosophy of commercialism. But it was not his vocation to plunge into the fray, and on to platforms.

It is a very rare thing anywhere, especially in England, for a man deliberately to choose poetry as the duty of his life, and to remain loyal, as a consequence, to the bride of St Francis--Poverty. This loyalty Tennyson maintained, even under the temptation to make money in recognised ways presented by his new-born love for his future wife, Miss Emily Sellwood. They had first met in 1830, when she, a girl of seventeen, seemed to him like "a Dryad or an Oread wandering here." But admiration became the affection of a lifetime when Tennyson met Miss Sellwood as bridesmaid to her sister, the bride of his brother Charles, in 1836. The poet could not afford to marry, and, like the hero of Locksley Hall, he may have asked himself, "What is that which I should do?" By 1840 he had done nothing tangible and lucrative, and correspondence between the lovers was forbidden. That neither dreamed of Tennyson's deserting poetry for a more normal profession proved of great benefit to the world. The course is one which could only be justified by the absolute certainty of possessing genius.

 
Classic Home > Articles > Chapter 3 - 1837 to 1842Go 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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