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Passions in PoetryChapter 11 - Last Chapter
by Andrew Lang

 

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

"O, that Press will get hold of me now," Tennyson said when he knew that his last hour was at hand. He had a horror of personal tattle, as even his early poems declare -

"For now the Poet cannot die,
  Nor leave his music as of old,
  But round him ere he scarce be cold
Begins the scandal and the cry."

But no "carrion-vulture" has waited

"To tear his heart before the crowd."

About Tennyson, doubtless, there is much anecdotage: most of the anecdotes turn on his shyness, his really exaggerated hatred of personal notoriety, and the odd and brusque things which he would say when alarmed by effusive strangers. It has not seemed worth while to repeat more than one or two of these legends, nor have I sought outside the Biography by his son for more than the biographer chose to tell. The readers who are least interested in poetry are most interested in tattle about the poet. It is the privilege of genius to retain the freshness and simplicity, with some of the foibles, of the child. When Tennyson read his poems aloud he was apt to be moved by them, and to express frankly his approbation where he thought it deserved. Only very rudimentary psychologists recognised conceit in this freedom; and only the same set of persons mistook shyness for arrogance. Effusiveness of praise or curiosity in a stranger is apt to produce bluntness of reply in a Briton. "Don't talk d-d nonsense, sir," said the Duke of Wellington to the gushing person who piloted him, in his old age, across Piccadilly. Of Tennyson Mr Palgrave says, "I have known him silenced, almost frozen, before the eager unintentional eyes of a girl of fifteen. And under the stress of this nervous impulse compelled to contradict his inner self (especially when under the terror of leonisation . . . ), he was doubtless at times betrayed into an abrupt phrase, a cold unsympathetic exterior; a moment's 'defect of the rose.'" Had he not been sensitive in all things, he would have been less of a poet. The chief criticism directed against his mode of life is that he WAS sensitive and reserved, but he could and did make himself pleasant in the society of les pauvres d'esprit. Curiosity alarmed him, and drove him into his shell: strangers who met him in that mood carried away false impressions, which developed into myths. As the Master of Balliol has recorded, despite his shyness "he was extremely hospitable, often inviting not only his friends, but the friends of his friends, and giving them a hearty welcome. For underneath a sensitive exterior he was thoroughly genial if he was understood." In these points he was unlike his great contemporary, Browning; for instance, Tennyson never (I think) was the Master's guest at Balliol, mingling, like Browning, with the undergraduates, to whom the Master's hospitality was freely extended. Yet, where he was familiar, Tennyson was a gay companion, not shunning jest or even paradox. "As Dr Johnson says, every man may be judged of by his laughter": but no Boswell has chronicled the laughters of Tennyson. "He never, or hardly ever, made puns or witticisms" (though one pun, at least, endures in tradition), "but always lived in an attitude of humour." Mr Jowett writes (and no description of the poet is better than his) -

If I were to describe his outward appearance, I should say that he was certainly unlike any one else whom I ever saw. A glance at some of Watts' portraits of him will give, better than any description which can be expressed in words, a conception of his noble mien and look. He was a magnificent man, who stood before you in his native refinement and strength. The unconventionality of his manners was in keeping with the originality of his figure. He would sometimes say nothing, or a word or two only, to the stranger who approached him, out of shyness. He would sometimes come into the drawing-room reading a book. At other times, especially to ladies, he was singularly gracious and benevolent. He would talk about the accidents of his own life with an extraordinary freedom, as at the moment they appeared to present themselves to his mind, the days of his boyhood that were passed at Somersby, and the old school of manners which he came across in his own neighbourhood: the days of the "apostles" at Cambridge: the years which he spent in London; the evenings enjoyed at the Cock Tavern, and elsewhere, when he saw another side of life, not without a kindly and humorous sense of the ridiculous in his fellow-creatures. His repertory of stories was perfectly inexhaustible; they were often about slight matters that would scarcely bear repetition, but were told with such lifelike reality, that they convulsed his hearers with laughter. Like most story-tellers, he often repeated his favourites; but, like children, his audience liked hearing them again and again, and he enjoyed telling them. It might be said of him that he told more stories than any one, but was by no means the regular story-teller. In the commonest conversation he showed himself a man of genius.

To this description may be added another by Mr F. T. Palgrave:-

Every one will have seen men, distinguished in some line of work, whose conversation (to take the old figure) either "smelt too strongly of the lamp," or lay quite apart from their art or craft. What, through all these years, struck me about Tennyson, was that whilst he never deviated into poetical language as such, whether in rhetoric or highly coloured phrase, yet throughout the substance of his talk the same mode of thought, the same imaginative grasp of nature, the same fineness and gentleness in his view of character, the same forbearance and toleration, the aurea mediocritas despised by fools and fanatics, which are stamped on his poetry, were constantly perceptible: whilst in the easy and as it were unsought choiceness, the conscientious and truth-loving precision of his words, the same personal identity revealed itself. What a strange charm lay here, how deeply illuminating the whole character, as in prolonged intercourse it gradually revealed itself! Artist and man, Tennyson was invariably true to himself, or rather, in Wordsworth's phrase, he "moved altogether"; his nature and his poetry being harmonious aspects of the same soul; as botanists tell us that flower and fruit are but transformations of root and stem and leafage. We read how, in mediaeval days, conduits were made to flow with claret. But this was on great occasions only. Tennyson's fountain always ran wine.

Once more: In Mme. Recamier's salon, I have read, at the time when conversation was yet a fine art in Paris, guests famous for esprit would sit in the twilight round the stove, whilst each in turn let fly some sparkling anecdote or bon-mot, which rose and shone and died out into silence, till the next of the elect pyrotechnists was ready. Good things of this kind, as I have said, were plentiful in Tennyson's repertory. But what, to pass from the materials to the method of his conversation, eminently marked it was the continuity of the electric current. He spoke, and was silent, and spoke again: but the circuit was unbroken; there was no effort in taking up the thread, no sense of disjunction. Often I thought, had he never written a line of the poems so dear to us, his conversation alone would have made him the most interesting companion known to me. From this great and gracious student of humanity, what less, indeed, could be expected? And if, as a converser, I were to compare him with Socrates, as figured for us in the dialogues of his great disciple, I think that I should have the assent of that eminently valued friend of Tennyson's, whose long labour of love has conferred English citizenship upon Plato.

We have called him shy and sensitive in daily intercourse with strangers, and as to criticism, he freely confessed that a midge of dispraise could sting, while applause gave him little pleasure. Yet no poet altered his verses so much in obedience to censure unjustly or irritatingly stated, yet in essence just. He readily rejected some of his "Juvenilia" on Mr Palgrave's suggestion. The same friend tells how well he took a rather fierce attack on an unpublished piece, when Mr Palgrave "owned that he could not find one good line in it." Very few poets, or even versifiers (fiercer they than poets are), would have continued to show their virgin numbers to a friend so candid, as Tennyson did. Perhaps most of the genus irritabile will grant that spoken criticism, if unfavourable, somehow annoys and stirs opposition in an author; probably because it confirms his own suspicions about his work. Such criticism is almost invariably just. But Campbell, when Rogers offered a correction, "bounced out of the room, with a 'Hang it! I should like to see the man who would dare to correct me.'"

Mr Jowett justly recognised in the life of Tennyson two circumstances which made him other than, but for these, he would have been. He had intended to do with the Arthurian subject what he never did, "in some way or other to have represented in it the great religions of the world. . . . It is a proof of Tennyson's genius that he should have thus early grasped the great historical aspect of religion." His intention was foiled, his early dream was broken, by the death of Arthur Hallam, and by the coldness and contempt with which, at the same period, his early poems were received.

Mr Jowett (who had a firm belief in the "great work") regretted the change of plan as to the Arthurian topic, regretted it the more from his own interest in the History of Religion. But we need not share the regrets. The early plan for the Arthur (which Mr Jowett never saw) has been published, and certainly the scheme could not have been executed on these lines. {18} Moreover, as the Master observed, the work would have been premature in Tennyson's youth, and, indeed, it would still be premature. The comparative science of religious evolution is even now very tentative, and does not yield materials of sufficient stability for an epic, even if such an epic could be forced into the mould of the Arthur legends, a feat perhaps impossible, and certainly undesirable. A truly fantastic allegory must have been the result, and it is fortunate that the poet abandoned the idea in favour of more human themes. Moreover, he recognised very early that his was not a Muse de longue haleine; that he must be "short." We may therefore feel certain that his early sorrow and discouragement were salutary to him as a poet, and as a man. He became more sympathetic, more tender, and was obliged to put forth that stoical self-control, and strenuous courage and endurance, through which alone his poetic career was rendered possible. "He had the susceptibility of a child or a woman," says his friend; "he had also" (it was a strange combination) "the strength of a giant or of a god." Without these qualities he must have broken down between 1833 and 1842 into a hypochondriac, or a morose, if majestic, failure. Poor, obscure, and unhappy, he overcame the world, and passed from darkness into light. The "poetic temperament" in another not gifted with his endurance and persistent strength would have achieved ruin.

Most of us remember Taine's parallel between Tennyson and Alfred de Musset. The French critic has no high approval of Tennyson's "respectability" and long peaceful life, as compared with the wrecked life and genius of Musset, l'enfant perdu of love, wine, and song. This is a theory like another, and is perhaps attractive to the young. The poet must have strong passions, or how can he sing of them: he must be tossed and whirled in the stress of things, like Shelley's autumn leaves; -

"Ghosts from an enchanter fleeing."

Looking at Burns, Byron, Musset, or even at Shelley's earlier years, youth sees in them the true poets, "sacred things," but also "light," as Plato says, inspired to break their wings against the nature of existence, and the flammantia maenia mundi. But this is almost a boyish idea, this idea that the true poet is the slave of the passions, and that the poet who dominates them has none, and is but a staid domestic animal, an ass browsing the common, as somebody has written about Wordsworth. Certainly Tennyson's was no "passionless perfection." He, like others, was tempted to beat with ineffectual wings against the inscrutable nature of life. He, too, had his dark hour, and was as subject to temptation as they who yielded to the stress and died, or became unhappy waifs, "young men with a splendid past." He must have known, no less than Musset, the attractions of many a paradis artificiel, with its bright visions, its houris, its offers of oblivion of pain. "He had the look of one who had suffered greatly," Mr Palgrave writes in his record of their first meeting in 1842. But he, like Goethe, Scott, and Victor Hugo, had strength as well as passion and emotion; he came unscorched through the fire that has burned away the wings of so many other great poets. This was no less fortunate for the world than for himself. Of his prolonged dark hour we know little in detail, but we have seen that from the first he resisted the Tempter; Ulysses is his Retro Sathanas!

About "the mechanism of genius" in Tennyson Mr Palgrave has told us a little; more appears incidentally in his biography. "It was his way that when we had entered on some scene of special beauty or grandeur, after enjoying it together, he should always withdraw wholly from sight, and study the view, as it were, in a little artificial solitude."

Tennyson's poems, Mr Palgrave says, often arose in a kind of point de repere (like those forms and landscapes which seem to spring from a floating point of light, beheld with closed eyes just before we sleep). "More than once he said that his poems sprang often from a 'nucleus,' some one word, maybe, or brief melodious phrase, which had floated through the brain, as it were, unbidden. And perhaps at once while walking they were presently wrought into a little song. But if he did not write it down at once the lyric fled from him irrecoverably." He believed himself thus to have lost poems as good as his best. It seems probable that this is a common genesis of verses, good or bad, among all who write. Like Dickens, and like most men of genius probably, he saw all the scenes of his poems "in his mind's eye." Many authors do this, without the power of making their readers share the vision; but probably few can impart the vision who do not themselves "visualise" with distinctness. We have seen, in the cases of The Holy Grail and other pieces, that Tennyson, after long meditating a subject, often wrote very rapidly, and with little need of correction. He was born with "style"; it was a gift of his genius rather than the result of conscious elaboration. Yet he did use "the file," of which much is now written, especially for the purpose of polishing away the sibilants, so common in our language. In the nine years of silence which followed the little book of 1833 his poems matured, and henceforth it is probable that he altered his verses little, if we except the modifications in The Princess. Many slight verbal touches were made, or old readings were restored, but important changes, in the way of omission or addition, became rare.

Of nature Tennyson was scrupulously observant till his very latest days, eagerly noting, not only "effects," as a painter does, but their causes, botanical or geological. Had man been scientific from the beginning he would probably have evolved no poetry at all; material things would not have been endowed by him with life and passion; he would have told himself no stories of the origins of stars and flowers, clouds and fire, winds and rainbows. Modern poets have resented, like Keats and Wordsworth, the destruction of the old prehistoric dreams by the geologist and by other scientific characters. But it was part of Tennyson's poetic originality to see the beautiful things of nature at once with the vision of early poetic men, and of moderns accustomed to the microscope, telescope, spectrum analysis, and so forth. Thus Tennyson received a double delight from the sensible universe, and it is a double delight that he communicates to his readers. His intellect was thus always active, even in apparent repose. His eyes rested not from observing, or his mind from recording and comparing, the beautiful familiar phenomena of earth and sky. In the matter of the study of books we have seen how deeply versed he was in certain of the Greek, Roman, and Italian classics. Mr Jowett writes: "He was what might be called a good scholar in the university or public-school sense of the term, . . . yet I seem to remember that he had his favourite classics, such as Homer, and Pindar, and Theocritus. . . . He was also a lover of Greek fragments. But I am not sure whether, in later life, he ever sat down to read consecutively the greatest works of AEschylus and Sophocles, although he used occasionally to dip into them." The Greek dramatists, in fact, seem to have affected Tennyson's work but slightly, while he constantly reminds us of Virgil, Homer, Theocritus, and even Persius and Horace. Mediaeval French, whether in poetry or prose, and the poetry of the "Pleiad" seems to have occupied little of his attention. Into the oriental literatures he dipped--pretty deeply for his Akbar; and even his Locksley Hall owed something to Sir William Jones's version of "the old Arabian Moallakat." The debt appears to be infinitesimal. He seems to have been less closely familiar with Elizabethan poetry than might have been expected: a number of his obiter dicta on all kinds of literary points are recorded in the Life by Mr Palgrave. "Sir Walter Scott's short tale, My Aunt Margaret's Mirror (how little known!), he once spoke of as the finest of all ghost or magical stories." Lord Tennyson adds, "The Tapestried Chamber also he greatly admired." Both are lost from modern view among the short pieces of the last volumes of the Waverley novels. Of the poet's interest in and attitude towards the more obscure pyschological and psychical problems--to popular science foolishness--enough has been said, but the remarks of Professor Tyndall have not been cited:-

My special purpose in introducing this poem, however, was to call your attention to a passage further on which greatly interested me. The poem is, throughout, a discussion between a believer in immortality and one who is unable to believe. The method pursued is this. The Sage reads a portion of the scroll, which he has taken from the hands of his follower, and then brings his own arguments to bear upon that portion, with a view to neutralising the scepticism of the younger man. Let me here remark that I read the whole series of poems published under the title "Tiresias," full of admiration for their freshness and vigour. Seven years after I had first read them your father died, and you, his son, asked me to contribute a chapter to the book which you contemplate publishing. I knew that I had some small store of references to my interview with your father carefully written in ancient journals. On the receipt of your request, I looked up the account of my first visit to Farringford, and there, to my profound astonishment, I found described that experience of your father's which, in the mouth of the Ancient Sage, was made the ground of an important argument against materialism and in favour of personal immortality eight-and-twenty years afterwards. In no other poem during all these years is, to my knowledge, this experience once alluded to. I had completely forgotten it, but here it was recorded in black and white. If you turn to your father's account of the wonderful state of consciousness superinduced by thinking of his own name, and compare it with the argument of the Ancient Sage, you will see that they refer to one and the same phenomenon.

  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.

Any words about Tennyson as a politician are apt to excite the sleepless prejudice which haunts the political field. He probably, if forced to "put a name to it," would have called himself a Liberal. But he was not a social agitator. He never set a rick on fire. "He held aloof, in a somewhat detached position, from the great social seethings of his age" (Mr Frederic Harrison). But in youth he helped to extinguish some flaming ricks. He spoke of the "many-headed beast" (the reading public) in terms borrowed from Plato. He had no higher esteem for mobs than Shakespeare or John Knox professed, while his theory of tyrants (in the case of Napoleon III. about 1852) was that of Liberals like Mr Swinburne and Victor Hugo. Though to modern enlightenment Tennyson may seem as great a Tory as Dr Johnson, yet he had spoken his word in 1852 for the freedom of France, and for securing England against the supposed designs of a usurper (now fallen). He really believed, obsolete as the faith may be, in guarding our own, both on land and sea. Perhaps no Continental or American critic has ever yet dispraised a poetical fellow-countryman merely for urging the duties of national union and national defence. A critic, however, writes thus of Tennyson: "When our poet descends into the arena of party polemics, in such things as Riflemen, Form! Hands all Round, . . . The Fleet, and other topical pieces dear to the Jingo soul, it is not poetry but journalism." I doubt whether the desirableness of the existence of a volunteer force and of a fleet really is within the arena of PARTY polemics. If any party thinks that we ought to have no volunteers, and that it is our duty to starve the fleet, what is that party's name? Who cries, "Down with the Fleet! Down with National Defence! Hooray for the Disintegration of the Empire!"?

Tennyson was not a party man, but he certainly would have opposed any such party. If to defend our homes and this England be "Jingoism," Tennyson, like Shakespeare, was a Jingo. But, alas! I do not know the name of the party which opposes Tennyson, and which wishes the invader to trample down England--any invader will do for so philanthropic a purpose. Except when resisting this unnamed party, the poet seldom or never entered "the arena of party polemics." Tennyson could not have exclaimed, like Squire Western, "Hurrah for old England! Twenty thousand honest Frenchmen have landed in Kent!" He undeniably did write verses (whether poetry or journalism) tending to make readers take an unfavourable view of honest invaders. If to do that is to be a "Jingo," and if such conduct hurts the feelings of any great English party, then Tennyson was a Jingo and a partisan, and was, so far, a rhymester, like Mr Kipling. Indeed we know that Tennyson applauded Mr Kipling's The English Flag. So the worst is out, as we in England count the worst. In America and on the continent of Europe, however, a poet may be proud of his country's flag without incurring rebuke from his countrymen. Tennyson did not reckon himself a party man; he believed more in political evolution than in political revolution, with cataclysms. He was neither an Anarchist nor a Home Ruler, nor a politician so generous as to wish England to be laid defenceless at the feet of her foes.

If these sentiments deserve censure, in Tennyson, at least, they claim our tolerance. He was not born in a generation late enough to be truly Liberal. Old prejudices about "this England," old words from Henry V. and King John, haunted his memory and darkened his vision of the true proportions of things. We draw in prejudice with our mother's milk. The mother of Tennyson had not been an Agnostic or a Comtist; his father had not been a staunch true-blue anti- Englander. Thus he inherited a certain bias in favour of faith and fatherland, a bias from which he could never emancipate himself. But tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner. Had Tennyson's birth been later, we might find in him a more complete realisation of our poetic ideal--might have detected less to blame or to forgive.

With that apology we must leave the fame of Tennyson as a politician to the clement consideration of an enlightened posterity. I do not defend his narrow insularities, his Jingoism, or the appreciable percentage of faith which blushing analysis may detect in his honest doubt: these things I may regret or condemn, but we ought not to let them obscure our view of the Poet. He was led away by bad examples. Of all Jingoes Shakespeare is the most unashamed, and next to him are Drayton, Scott, and Wordsworth, with his

"Oh, for one hour of that Dundee!"

In the years which followed the untoward affair of Waterloo young Tennyson fell much under the influence of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and the other offenders, and these are extenuating circumstances. By a curious practical paradox, where the realms of poetry and politics meet, the Tory critics seem milder of mood and more Liberal than the Liberal critics. Thus Mr William Morris was certainly a very advanced political theorist; and in theology Mr Swinburne has written things not easily reconcilable with orthodoxy. Yet we find Divine- Right Tories, who in literature are fervent admirers of these two poets, and leave their heterodoxies out of account. But many Liberal critics appear unable quite to forgive Tennyson because he did not wish to starve the fleet, and because he held certain very ancient, if obsolete, beliefs. Perhaps a general amnesty ought to be passed, as far as poets are concerned, and their politics and creeds should be left to silence, where "beyond these voices there is peace."

One remark, I hope, can excite no prejudice. The greatest of the Gordons was a soldier, and lived in religion. But the point at which Tennyson's memory is blended with that of Gordon is the point of sympathy with the neglected poor. It is to his wise advice, and to affection for Gordon, that we owe the Gordon training school for poor boys,--a good school, and good boys come out of that academy.

The question as to Tennyson's precise rank in the glorious roll of the Poets of England can never be determined by us, if in any case or at any time such determinations can be made. We do not, or should not, ask whether Virgil or Lucretius, whether AEschylus or Sophocles, is the greater poet. The consent of mankind seems to place Homer and Shakespeare and Dante high above all. For the rest no prize-list can be settled. If influence among aliens is the test, Byron probably takes, among our poets, the next rank after Shakespeare. But probably there is no possible test. In certain respects Shelley, in many respects Milton, in some Coleridge, in some Burns, in the opinion of a number of persons Browning, are greater poets than Tennyson. But for exquisite variety and varied exquisiteness Tennyson is not readily to be surpassed. At one moment he pleases the uncritical mass of readers, in another mood he wins the verdict of the raffine. It is a success which scarce any English poet but Shakespeare has excelled. His faults have rarely, if ever, been those of flat-footed, "thick-ankled" dulness; of rhetoric, of common- place; rather have his defects been the excess of his qualities. A kind of John Bullishness may also be noted, especially in derogatory references to France, which, true or untrue, are out of taste and keeping. But these errors could be removed by the excision of half- a-dozen lines. His later work (as the Voyage of Maeldune) shows a just appreciation of ancient Celtic literature. A great critic, F. T. Palgrave, has expressed perhaps the soundest appreciation of Tennyson:-

It is for "the days that remain" to bear witness to his real place in the great hierarchy, amongst whom Dante boldly yet justly ranked himself. But if we look at Tennyson's work in a twofold aspect,-- HERE, on the exquisite art in which, throughout, his verse is clothed, the lucid beauty of the form, the melody almost audible as music, the mysterious skill by which the words used constantly strike as the INEVITABLE words (and hence, unforgettable), the subtle allusive touches, by which a secondary image is suggested to enrich the leading thought, as the harmonic "partials" give richness to the note struck upon the string; THERE, when we think of the vast fertility in subject and treatment, united with happy selection of motive, the wide range of character, the dramatic force of impersonation, the pathos in every variety, the mastery over the comic and the tragic alike, above all, perhaps, those phrases of luminous insight which spring direct from imaginative observation of Humanity, true for all time, coming from the heart to the heart,--his work will probably be found to lie somewhere between that of Virgil and Shakespeare: having its portion, if I may venture on the phrase, in the inspiration of both.

A professed enthusiast for Tennyson can add nothing to, and take nothing from, these words of one who, though his friend, was too truly a critic to entertain the admiration that goes beyond idolatry.

 
Classic Home > Articles > FootnotesGo 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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