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Passions in PoetryChapter 9 - Last Years
by Andrew Lang

 

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Classic Home > Articles > Chapter 10 - 1890Go to next article
Lord Alfred Tennyson
Poetry | Biography | Resources
 
Chapter 9 - Last Years
by Andrew Lang

The end of 1884 saw the publication of Tiresias and other Poems, dedicated to "My good friend, Robert Browning," and opening with the beautiful verses to one who never was Mr Browning's friend, Edward FitzGerald. The volume is rich in the best examples of Tennyson's later work. Tiresias, the monologue of the aged seer, blinded by excess of light when he beheld Athene unveiled, and under the curse of Cassandra, is worthy of the author who, in youth, wrote OEnone and Ulysses. Possibly the verses reflect Tennyson's own sense of public indifference to the voice of the poet and the seer. But they are of much earlier date than the year of publication:-

  "For when the crowd would roar
For blood, for war, whose issue was their doom,
To cast wise words among the multitude
Was flinging fruit to lions; nor, in hours
Of civil outbreak, when I knew the twain
Would each waste each, and bring on both the yoke
Of stronger states, was mine the voice to curb
The madness of our cities and their kings.
  Who ever turn'd upon his heel to hear
My warning that the tyranny of one
Was prelude to the tyranny of all?
My counsel that the tyranny of all
Led backward to the tyranny of one?
  This power hath work'd no good to aught that lives."

The conclusion was a favourite with the author, and his blank verse never reached a higher strain:-

     "But for me,
I would that I were gather'd to my rest,
And mingled with the famous kings of old,
On whom about their ocean-islets flash
The faces of the Gods--the wise man's word,
Here trampled by the populace underfoot,
There crown'd with worship--and these eyes will find
The men I knew, and watch the chariot whirl
About the goal again, and hunters race
The shadowy lion, and the warrior-kings,
In height and prowess more than human, strive
Again for glory, while the golden lyre
Is ever sounding in heroic ears
Heroic hymns, and every way the vales
Wind, clouded with the grateful incense-fume
Of those who mix all odour to the Gods
On one far height in one far-shining fire."

Then follows the pathetic piece on FitzGerald's death, and the prayer, not unfulfilled -

       "That, when I from hence
  Shall fade with him into the unknown,
My close of earth's experience
  May prove as peaceful as his own."

The Ancient Sage, with its lyric interludes, is one of Tennyson's meditations on the mystery of the world and of existence. Like the poet himself, the Sage finds a gleam of light and hope in his own subjective experiences of some unspeakable condition, already recorded in In Memoriam. The topic was one on which he seems to have spoken to his friends with freedom:-

"And more, my son! for more than once when I
Sat all alone, revolving in myself
The word that is the symbol of myself,
The mortal limit of the Self was loosed,
And past into the Nameless, as a cloud
Melts into Heaven. I touch'd my limbs, the limbs
Were strange not mine--and yet no shade of doubt,
But utter clearness, and thro' loss of Self
The gain of such large life as match'd with ours
Were Sun to spark--unshadowable in words,
Themselves but shadows of a shadow-world."

The poet's habit of

     "Revolving in myself
The word that is the symbol of myself" -

that is, of dwelling on the sound of his own name, was familiar to the Arabs. M. Lefebure has drawn my attention to a passage in the works of a mediaeval Arab philosopher, Ibn Khaldoun: {17} "To arrive at the highest degree of inspiration of which he is capable, the diviner should have recourse to the use of certain phrases marked by a peculiar cadence and parallelism. Thus he emancipates his mind from the influence of the senses, and is enabled to attain an imperfect contact with the spiritual world." Ibn Khaldoun regards the "contact" as extremely "imperfect." He describes similar efforts made by concentrating the gaze on a mirror, a bowl of water, or the like. Tennyson was doubtless unaware that he had stumbled accidentally on a method of "ancient sages." Psychologists will explain his experience by the word "dissociation." It is not everybody, however, who can thus dissociate himself. The temperament of genius has often been subject to such influence, as M. Lefebure has shown in the modern instances of George Sand and Alfred de Musset: we might add Shelley, Goethe, and even Scott.

The poet's versatility was displayed in the appearance with these records of "weird seizures", of the Irish dialect piece To-morrow, the popular Spinster's Sweet-Arts, and the Locksley Hall Sixty Years After. The old fire of the versification is unabated, but the hero has relapsed on the gloom of the hero of Maud. He represents himself, of course, not Tennyson, or only one of the moods of Tennyson, which were sometimes black enough. A very different mood chants the Charge of the Heavy Brigade, and speaks of

"Green Sussex fading into blue
  With one gray glimpse of sea."

The lines To Virgil were written at the request of the Mantuans, by the most Virgilian of all the successors of the

"Wielder of the stateliest measure
  ever moulded by the lips of man."

Never was Tennyson more Virgilian than in this unmatched panegyric, the sum and flower of criticism of that

"Golden branch amid the shadows,
  kings and realms that pass to rise no more."

Hardly less admirable is the tribute to Catullus, and the old poet is young again in the bird-song of Early Spring. The lines on Poets and their Bibliographies, with The Dead Prophet, express Tennyson's lifelong abhorrence of the critics and biographers, whose joy is in the futile and the unimportant, in personal gossip and the sweepings of the studio, the salvage of the wastepaper basket. The Prefatory Poem to my Brother's Sonnets is not only touching in itself, but proves that the poet can "turn to favour and to prettiness" such an affliction as the ruinous summer of 1879.

The year 1880 brought deeper distress in the death of the poet's son Lionel, whose illness, begun in India, ended fatally in the Red Sea. The interest of the following years was mainly domestic. The poet's health, hitherto robust, was somewhat impaired in 1888, but his vivid interest in affairs and in letters was unabated. He consoled himself with Virgil, Keats, Wordsworth, Gibbon, Euripides, and Mr Leaf's speculations on the composite nature of the Iliad, in which Coleridge, perhaps alone among poets, believed. "You know," said Tennyson to Mr Leaf; "I never liked that theory of yours about the many poets." It would be at least as easy to prove that there were many authors of Ivanhoe, or perhaps it would be a good deal more easy. However, he admitted that three lines which occur both in the Eighth and the Sixteenth Books of the Iliad are more appropriate in the later book. Similar examples might be found in his own poems. He still wrote, in the intervals of a malady which brought him "as near death as a man could be without dying." He was an example of the great physical strength which, on the whole, seems usually to accompany great mental power. The strength may be dissipated by passion, or by undue labour, as in cases easily recalled to memory, but neither cause had impaired the vigour of Tennyson. Like Goethe, he lived out all his life; and his eightieth birthday was cheered both by public and private expressions of reverence and affection.

Of Tennyson's last three years on earth we may think, in his own words, that his

  "Life's latest eve endured
Nor settled into hueless grey."

Nature was as dear to him and as inspiring as of old; men and affairs and letters were not slurred by his intact and energetic mind. His Demeter and other Poems, with the dedication to Lord Dufferin, appeared in the December of the year. The dedication was the lament for the dead son and the salutation to the Viceroy of India, a piece of resigned and manly regret. The Demeter and Persephone is a modern and tender study of the theme of the most beautiful Homeric Hymn. The ancient poet had no such thought of the restored Persephone as that which impels Tennyson to describe her

"Faint as a climate-changing bird that flies
All night across the darkness, and at dawn
Falls on the threshold of her native land."

The spring, the restored Persephone, comes more vigorous and joyous to the shores of the AEgean than to ours. All Tennyson's own is Demeter's awe of those "imperial disimpassioned eyes" of her daughter, come from the bed and the throne of Hades, the Lord of many guests. The hymn, happy in its ending, has no thought of the grey heads of the Fates, and their answer to the goddess concerning "fate beyond the Fates," and the breaking of the bonds of Hades. The ballad of Owd Roa is one of the most spirited of the essays in dialect to which Tennyson had of late years inclined. Vastness merely expresses, in terms of poetry, Tennyson's conviction that, without immortality, life is a series of worthless contrasts. An opposite opinion may be entertained, but a man has a right to express his own, which, coming from so great a mind, is not undeserving of attention; or, at least, is hardly deserving of reproof. The poet's idea is also stated thus in The Ring, in terms which perhaps do not fall below the poetical; or, at least, do not drop into "the utterly unpoetical":-

"The Ghost in Man, the Ghost that once was Man,
But cannot wholly free itself from Man,
Are calling to each other thro' a dawn
Stranger than earth has ever seen; the veil
Is rending, and the Voices of the day
Are heard across the Voices of the dark.
No sudden heaven, nor sudden hell, for man,
But thro' the Will of One who knows and rules -
And utter knowledge is but utter love -
AEonian Evolution, swift or slow,
Thro' all the Spheres--an ever opening height,
An ever lessening earth."

The Ring is, in fact, a ghost story based on a legend told by Mr Lowell about a house near where he had once lived; one of those houses vexed by

"A footstep, a low throbbing in the walls,
A noise of falling weights that never fell,
Weird whispers, bells that rang without a hand,
Door-handles turn'd when none was at the door,
And bolted doors that open'd of themselves."

These phenomena were doubtless caused by rats and water-pipes, but they do not destroy the pity and the passion of the tale. The lines to Mary Boyle are all of the normal world, and worthy of a poet's youth and of the spring. Merlin and the Gleam is the spiritual allegory of the poet's own career:-

"Arthur had vanish'd
I knew not whither,
The king who loved me,
And cannot die."

So at last

  "All but in Heaven
Hovers The Gleam,"

whither the wayfarer was soon to follow. There is a marvellous hope and pathos in the melancholy of these all but the latest songs, reminiscent of youth and love, and even of the dim haunting memories and dreams of infancy. No other English poet has thus rounded all his life with music. Tennyson was in his eighty-first year, when there "came in a moment" the crown of his work, the immortal lyric, Crossing the Bar. It is hardly less majestic and musical in the perfect Greek rendering by his brother-in-law, Mr Lushington. For once at least a poem has been "poured from the golden to the silver cup" without the spilling of a drop. The new book's appearance was coincident with the death of Mr Browning, "so loving and appreciative," as Lady Tennyson wrote; a friend, not a rival, however the partisans of either poet might strive to stir emulation between two men of such lofty and such various genius.

 
Classic Home > Articles > Chapter 10 - 1890Go 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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