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Passions in PoetryChapter 10 - 1890
by Andrew Lang

 

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Classic Home > Articles > Chapter 11 - Last ChapterGo to next article
Lord Alfred Tennyson
Poetry | Biography | Resources
 
Chapter 10 - 1890
by Andrew Lang

In the year 1889 the poet's health had permitted him to take long walks on the sea-shore and along the cliffs, one of which, by reason of its whiteness, he had named "Taliessin," "the splendid brow." His mind ran on a poem founded on an Egyptian legend (of which the source is not mentioned), telling how "despair and death came upon him who was mad enough to try to probe the secret of the universe." He also thought of a drama on Tristram, who, in the Idylls, is treated with brevity, and not with the sympathy of the old writer who cries, "God bless Tristram the knight: he fought for England!" But early in 1890 Tennyson suffered from a severe attack of influenza. In May Mr Watts painted his portrait, and

"Divinely through all hindrance found the man."

Tennyson was a great admirer of Miss Austen's novels: "The realism and life-likeness of Miss Austen's Dramatis Personae come nearest to those of Shakespeare. Shakespeare, however, is a sun to which Jane Austen, though a bright and true little world, is but an asteroid." He was therefore pleased to find apple-blossoms co-existing with ripe strawberries on June 28, as Miss Austen has been blamed, by minute philosophers, for introducing this combination in the garden party in Emma. The poet, like most of the good and great, read novels eagerly, and excited himself over the confirmation of an adult male in a story by Miss Yonge. Of Scott, "the most chivalrous literary figure of the century, and the author with the widest range since Shakespeare," he preferred Old Mortality, and it is a good choice. He hated "morbid and introspective tales, with their oceans of sham philosophy." At this time, with catholic taste, he read Mr Stevenson and Mr Meredith, Miss Braddon and Mr Henry James, Ouida and Mr Thomas Hardy; Mr Hall Caine and Mr Anstey; Mrs Oliphant and Miss Edna Lyall. Not everybody can peruse all of these very diverse authors with pleasure. He began his poem on the Roman gladiatorial combats; indeed his years, fourscore and one, left his intellectual eagerness as unimpaired as that of Goethe. "A crooked share," he said to the Princess Louise, "may make a straight furrow." "One afternoon he had a long waltz with M- in the ballroom." Speaking of

"All the charm of all the Muses
  Often flowering in a lonely word"

in Virgil, he adduced, rather strangely, the cunctantem ramum, said of the Golden Bough, in the Sixth AEneid. The choice is odd, because the Sibyl has just told AEneas that, if he be destined to pluck the branch of gold, ipse volens facilisque sequetur, "it will come off of its own accord," like the sacred ti branches of the Fijians, which bend down to be plucked for the Fire rite. Yet, when the predestined AEneas tries to pluck the bough of gold, it yields reluctantly (cunctantem), contrary to what the Sibyl has foretold. Mr Conington, therefore, thought the phrase a slip on the part of Virgil. "People accused Virgil of plagiarising," he said, "but if a man made it his own there was no harm in that (look at the great poets, Shakespeare included)." Tennyson, like Virgil, made much that was ancient his own; his verses are often, and purposefully, a mosaic of classical reminiscences. But he was vexed by the hunters after remote and unconscious resemblances, and far-fetched analogies between his lines and those of others. He complained that, if he said that the sun went down, a parallel was at once cited from Homer, or anybody else, and he used a very powerful phrase to condemn critics who detected such repetitions. "The moanings of the homeless sea,"--"moanings" from Horace, "homeless" from Shelley. "As if no one else had ever heard the sea moan except Horace!" Tennyson's mixture of memory and forgetfulness was not so strange as that of Scott, and when he adapted from the Greek, Latin, or Italian, it was of set purpose, just as it was with Virgil. The beautiful lines comparing a girl's eyes to bottom agates that seem to

  "Wave and float
In crystal currents of clear running seas,"

he invented while bathing in Wales. It was his habit, to note down in verse such similes from nature, and to use them when he found occasion. But the higher criticism, analysing the simile, detected elements from Shakespeare and from Beaumont and Fletcher.

In June 1891 the poet went on a tour in Devonshire, and began his Akbar, and probably wrote June Bracken and Heather; or perhaps it was composed when "we often sat on the top of Blackdown to watch the sunset." He wrote to Mr Kipling -

"The oldest to the youngest singer
  That England bore"

(to alter Mr Swinburne's lines to Landor), praising his Flag of England. Mr Kipling replied as "the private to the general."

Early in 1892 The Foresters was successfully produced at New York by Miss Ada Rehan, the music by Sir Arthur Sullivan, and the scenery from woodland designs by Whymper. Robin Hood (as we learn from Mark Twain) is a favourite hero with the youth of America. Mr Tom Sawyer himself took, in Mark Twain's tale, the part of the bold outlaw.

The Death of OEnone was published in 1892, with the dedication to the Master of Balliol -

  "Read a Grecian tale retold
Which, cast in later Grecian mould,
     Quintus Calaber
Somewhat lazily handled of old."

Quintus Calaber, more usually called Quintus Smyrnaeus, is a writer of perhaps the fourth century of our era. About him nothing, or next to nothing, is known. He told, in so late an age, the conclusion of the Tale of Troy, and (in the writer's opinion) has been unduly neglected and disdained. His manner, I venture to think, is more Homeric than that of the more famous and doubtless greater Alexandrian poet of the Argonautic cycle, Apollonius Rhodius, his senior by five centuries. His materials were probably the ancient and lost poems of the Epic Cycle, and the story of the death of OEnone may be from the Little Iliad of Lesches. Possibly parts of his work may be textually derived from the Cyclics, but the topic is very obscure. In Quintus, Paris, after encountering evil omens on his way, makes a long speech, imploring the pardon of the deserted OEnone. She replies, not with the Tennysonian brevity; she sends him back to the helpless arms of her rival, Helen. Paris dies on the hills; never did Helen see him returning. The wood-nymphs bewail Paris, and a herdsman brings the bitter news to Helen, who chants her lament. But remorse falls on OEnone. She does not go

     "Slowly down
By the long torrent's ever-deepened roar,"

but rushes "swift as the wind to seek and spring upon the pyre of her lord." Fate and Aphrodite drive her headlong, and in heaven Selene, remembering Endymion, bewails the lot of her sister in sorrow. OEnone reaches the funeral flame, and without a word or a cry leaps into her husband's arms, the wild Nymphs wondering. The lovers are mingled in one heap of ashes, and these are bestowed in one vessel of gold and buried in a howe. This is the story which the poet rehandled in his old age, completing the work of his happy youth when he walked with Hallam in the Pyrenean hills, that were to him as Ida. The romance of OEnone and her death condone, as even Homer was apt to condone, the sins of beautiful Paris, whom the nymphs lament, despite the evil that he has wrought. The silence of the veiled OEnone, as she springs into her lover's last embrace, is perhaps more affecting and more natural than Tennyson's

  "She lifted up a voice
Of shrill command, 'Who burns upon the pyre?'"

The St Telemachus has the old splendour and vigour of verse, and, though written so late in life, is worthy of the poet's prime:-

  "Eve after eve that haggard anchorite
Would haunt the desolated fane, and there
Gaze at the ruin, often mutter low
'Vicisti Galilaee'; louder again,
Spurning a shatter'd fragment of the God,
'Vicisti Galilaee!' but--when now
Bathed in that lurid crimson--ask'd 'Is earth
On fire to the West? or is the Demon-god
Wroth at his fall?' and heard an answer 'Wake
Thou deedless dreamer, lazying out a life
Of self-suppression, not of selfless love.'
And once a flight of shadowy fighters crost
The disk, and once, he thought, a shape with wings
Came sweeping by him, and pointed to the West,
And at his ear he heard a whisper 'Rome,'
And in his heart he cried 'The call of God!'
And call'd arose, and, slowly plunging down
Thro' that disastrous glory, set his face
By waste and field and town of alien tongue,
Following a hundred sunsets, and the sphere
Of westward-wheeling stars; and every dawn
Struck from him his own shadow on to Rome.
  Foot-sore, way-worn, at length he touch'd his goal,
The Christian city."

Akbar's Dream may be taken, more or less, to represent the poet's own theology of a race seeking after God, if perchance they may find Him, and the closing Hymn was a favourite with Tennyson. He said, "It is a magnificent metre":-

"HYMN.

I.

Once again thou flamest heavenward, once again we see thee rise.
Every morning is thy birthday gladdening human hearts and eyes.
  Every morning here we greet it, bowing lowly down before thee,
Thee the Godlike, thee the changeless in thine ever-changing skies.

II.

Shadow-maker, shadow-slayer, arrowing light from clime to clime,
Hear thy myriad laureates hail thee monarch in their woodland rhyme.
  Warble bird, and open flower, and, men, below the dome of azure
Kneel adoring Him the Timeless in the flame that measures Time!"

In this final volume the poet cast his handful of incense on the altar of Scott, versifying the tale of Il Bizarro, which the dying Sir Walter records in his Journal in Italy. The Churchwarden and the Curate is not inferior to the earlier peasant poems in its expression of shrewdness, humour, and superstition. A verse of Poets and Critics may be taken as the poet's last word on the old futile quarrel:-

"This thing, that thing is the rage,
Helter-skelter runs the age;
Minds on this round earth of ours
Vary like the leaves and flowers,
  Fashion'd after certain laws;
Sing thou low or loud or sweet,
All at all points thou canst not meet,
  Some will pass and some will pause.

What is true at last will tell:
Few at first will place thee well;
Some too low would have thee shine,
Some too high--no fault of thine -
  Hold thine own, and work thy will!
Year will graze the heel of year,
But seldom comes the poet here,
  And the Critic's rarer still."

Still the lines hold good -

"Some too low would have thee shine,
Some too high--no fault of thine."

The end was now at hand. A sense of weakness was felt by the poet on September 3, 1892: on the 28th his family sent for Sir Andrew Clark; but the patient gradually faded out of life, and expired on Thursday, October 6, at 1.35 A.M. To the very last he had Shakespeare by him, and his windows were open to the sun; on the last night they were flooded by the moonlight. The description of the final scenes must be read in the Biography by the poet's son. "His patience and quiet strength had power upon those who were nearest and dearest to him; we felt thankful for the love and the utter peace of it all." "The life after death," Tennyson had said just before his fatal illness, "is the cardinal point of Christianity. I believe that God reveals Himself in every individual soul; and my idea of Heaven is the perpetual ministry of one soul to another." He had lived the life of heaven upon earth, being in all his work a minister of things honourable, lovely, consoling, and ennobling to the souls of others, with a ministry which cannot die. His body sleeps next to that of his friend and fellow-poet, Robert Browning, in front of Chaucer's monument in the Abbey.

 
Classic Home > Articles > Chapter 11 - Last ChapterGo 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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