Alfred Lord Tennyson : The Spirit Of Modern Poetry – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers by John Lord

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers

Rousseau : Socialism and Education
Sir Walter Scott : The Modern Novel
Lord Byron : Poetic Genius
Thomas Carlyle : Criticism and Biography
Lord Macaulay : Artistic Historical Writing
Shakspeare or The Poet
John Milton : Poet and Patriot
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe : Germany’s Greatest Writer
Alfred Lord Tennyson : The Spirit Of Modern Poetry

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers
John Lord

Topics Covered
Tennyson’s supreme excellence–his transcendent art.
His work the perfection of literary form; his melody exquisite.
Representative of the age’s highest thought and culture.
Keen interpreter of the deep underlying spirit of his time.
Contemplative and brooding verse, full of rhythmic beauty.
The “Idylls of the King,” their deep ethical motive and underlying purpose.
His profound religious convictions and belief in the eternal verities.
Hallam Tennyson’s memoir of the poet; his friends and intimates.
The poet’s birth, family, and youthful characteristics.
Early publishing ventures; his volume of 1842 gave him high rank.
Personal appearance, habits, and mental traits.
“In Memoriam,” its noble, artistic expression of sorrow for Arthur Hallam.
“The Princess” and its moral, in the treatment of its “Woman Question” theme.
The metrical romance “Maud,” and “The Idylls of the King,” an epic of chivalry.
“Enoch Arden,” and the dramas “Harold,” “Becket,” and “Queen Mary”.
Other dramatic compositions: “The Falcon,” “The Cup,” and “The Promise of May”.
The pastoral play, “The Foresters,” and later collections of poems and ballads.
The poet’s high faith, and belief that “good is the final goal of ill”.
His exalted place among the great literary influences of his era.
Expressive to his age of the high and hallowing Spirit of Modern Poetry.

Alfred Lord Tennyson : The Spirit Of Modern Poetry


Of Tennyson what can one write freshly to-day that will not seem but an echo of what has been said or written of England’s noble singer who, on the death of Wordsworth, now over half a century ago, assumed the official bays of the English laureateship? Personal homage, of course, one can pay to the illustrious name, so dear to the heart of the English-speaking race; but how freshly or vitally can any writer now speak of that magnificent body of his verse which is the glory of his age, of the nobility and knightly virtues of its author’s character, of the splendor of his genius, or of the breadth of intellectual and spiritual interests which was so signally manifested in all that Tennyson thought and wrote? Among the “Beacon Lights” in the present series of volumes the Laureate of the age has not hitherto been included, and to fill the gap the writer of this sketch has ventured, not, of course, to say all that might be said of the great poet, but modestly to deal with the man and his art, so that neither his era nor his work shall go unchronicled or fail of some recognition, however inadequate, in these pages.

Tennyson’s supreme excellence, it is admitted, lies not so much in his themes as in his transcendent art. It is this that has given him his hold upon a cultured age and won for him immortality. His work is the perfection of literary form, and, in his lyrical pieces especially, his melody is exquisite. Not less masterly is his power of construction, while his sensibility to beauty is phenomenal. His secluded life brought him close to nature’s heart and made him familiar with her every voice and mood. In interpreting these, much of the charm lies in the fidelity of his descriptions and in the surpassing beauty of the word-painting. In the Shakespearian sense he lacked the dramatic faculty, and he had but slender gifts of invention and creation. But broad, if not always strong, was his intelligence, and keen his interest in the problems of the time. Though living apart from the world, he was yet of it; and in many of his poems may be traced not only the doings, but the thought and tendencies, of his age. His Christianity, though undogmatic, was real and pervasive, and his love for nature was a devotion. In national affairs, as befitted the official singer of his country (witness his fine ‘Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington’), he showed himself the historic as well as the modern Englishman, and great was his reverence for law and freedom. Attractive also, if at times somewhat commonplace, is the quiet domestic sphere which Tennyson has hallowed in the many modern idylls which depict the joys and sorrows of humble life. No trait in the poet’s many-sided character is more beautiful than the sympathy he has manifested in these poems with the world’s toilers; while nothing could well be more touching than the pathos with which he invests their simple annals.

Typical of the Victorian age in which he lived, Tennyson is also representative of its highest thought and culture. This is seen not only in the thought of his verse, but in its splendid forms, and especially in the technical equipment of the poet. In his dialogues there is much movement and action, and he had consummate skill in the handling of metres. Few poets have approached him in the successful writing of blank verse, which has a delightful cadence as well as calm strength. Above all his gifts, he was an artist in words, his ear being most sensitively attuned and his taste pure and refined for the delicate artistry of the poet’s work. In this respect he is a matchless literary workman. Besides the music of his verse, his thought is ever high, and in his serious moods consecrated to noble and reverent purposes. In the midst of the negations and convulsive movements of his day his spirit is always serene, and his thought, while at times dreamily melancholy, is conserving and full of faith’s highest assurance. His sympathy with his fellow-man was keen and wide-souled; and though he stood aloof from the conflict and struggle of his day, he was far from indifferent to its movements, and with high purpose strove if not to direct at least to reflect them. This was specially characteristic of the man, and in the conflict with doubt no poet has more keenly interpreted the mental struggles of the thoughtful soul and the deep underlying spirit of his time, or more beneficently given the age an assured ground of faith while conserving its highest and dearest hopes. Happily, too, unlike many poets, his own character was lofty and blameless, and hence his message comes with more consistency, as well as with a higher inspiration and power. Nor is the message the less impressive for the note of honest doubt which finds utterance in many a poem, or for the intimation of a creed that is at once liberal and conservative. With the evidences before the reader that the poet himself had had his own soul-wrestlings and periods of mental conflict, his counsellings of courage and faith are all the more effective, as they are in unison with his belief in the upward progress of the race, and his unshaken trust in a higher Power.

Lacking in intensity of passion and dramatic force, Tennyson here again is but typical of his era, to him one of reposeful content and calm, reasoning progress. Of permanent, lasting value much of his verse undoubtedly is, but not all of it will escape the indifference of posterity or the measuring-rod and censure, it may be, of the future critic. He had not the stirring strains or the careless rapture of other and earlier poets of the motherland,–his characteristic is more contemplative and brooding,–yet his range is unusually comprehensive and his power varied and sustained, as well as marked by the highest qualities of rhythmic beauty. In the idyll, where he specially shines, we have much that is lovely and limpid, with abounding instances of that felicitous word-painting for which he was noted. This is especially seen in the simple pastoral idylls, such as ‘Dora,’ ‘The May Queen,’ and ‘The Miller’s Daughter,’ or in those tender lyrics such as ‘Mariana,’ ‘Sir Galahad,’ ‘The Dying Swan,’ and ‘The Talking Oak.’ In the ballads and songs, how felicitous again is the poet’s work, and how rich yet mellifluous is the strain! Had Tennyson written nothing else but these, with the verse included in the volumes issued by him in 1832 and 1842, how high would he have been placed in the choir of song, and how supreme should we have deemed his art! In “The Princess” alone there are songs that would have made any poet’s reputation, while for music and color, and especially for perfection of poetic workmanship, they are almost matchless in their beauty.

Fortunately, however, the poet was to give us much even beyond these surpassingly beautiful things, and make a more unique and distinctive contribution to the verse of his era. In the years that followed the production of his early writings the poet matures in thought as his art ripens and reaches still higher qualities of craftsmanship. Recluse as he was, he moreover had his experiences of life and drank deeply of sorrow’s cup, as we see in “In Memoriam,”–that noble tribute to his youthful friend, Arthur Hallam, with its grand hymnal qualities and powerful and reverent lessons for an age shifting in its beliefs and unconfirmed in its faith. In later work from his pen we also see the Laureate–for he has now received official recognition from his nation–in his relations to the culture as well as to the thought of his time, keeping pace with the age in all its complex engrossments and problems. This is shown in much and varied work turned out with its author’s loving interest in the poetic art, and with characteristic delicacy and finish. The most important labor of this later time includes “The Princess,” “Maud and Other Poems,” “Enoch Arden,” the dramas “Becket,” “Queen Mary,” and “Harold,” “Tiresias,” “Demeter,” “The Foresters,” but above all, and most notably, that grand epic of King Arthur’s time,–“The Idylls of the King.” In the latter, the most characteristic, and perhaps the most permanent, of Tennyson’s work, the poet manifests his historic sense and love for England’s legendary past, and achieves his design not only to glorify it, but to imbue it with a deep ethical motive and underlying purpose, the expression of his own chivalrous, knightly soul and strenuous, thoughtful, and blameless life. In these splendid tales of knight-errantry we have the full flower of the poet’s genius, narrated in the true romantic spirit, but with an ideality and imagination quite Tennysonian, and with a spiritualistic touch in harmony with “the voice of the age” that reminds us that,–

“Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.”

It is with such themes and speculations that Tennyson has powerfully and impressively influenced his age. Beyond and above the mere artistry of the poet, we recognize his interest in man’s higher, spiritual being, his love for nature, and awe in contemplating the heights and depths of infinite time and space, ever looking upward and inward at the mysteries of the world behind the phenomena of sense. It is difficult, in set theological terms, to define the poet’s creed, though we know that he was won by the Broad Church teaching of his friends, Frederick Robertson and Denison Maurice, and had himself many a battle to fight with honest doubts until–as his ‘Crossing the Bar’ shows us–he finally conquered and laid them. But while there is an absence of definite doctrine in his work there is no question about his religious convictions or of his belief in the eternal verities, the immanence of God in man and the universe. Throughout his poems he assumes the existence of a great Spirit and recognizes that our souls are a part of Him, however Faith at times seems to veil her face from the poet, and all appears a mystery, though a mystery presided over by infinite Power and Love. The great problems of metaphysics and of man’s origin and destiny, we are told, occupied much of his thought, and he dwelt upon them with eager, intense interest, and touched upon them with great candor, earnestness, and truthfulness. No sophistry could shake his belief in man’s immortality, for without belief in this doctrine the human race, he was convinced, had not incentive enough to virtue, while all man’s inspirations were otherwise meaningless. For the doctrine of Evolution, in its materialistic aspect, he had nothing but scorn, though he accepted it in the more spiritual guise with which Russel Wallace propounded it. If we come from the brutes we are nevertheless linked with the Divine, he believed, and it was the Divine in man that was to conquer the brute within him, and, in the upward struggle, work out salvation. So, in the realm of physical science, on the principles of which, as Huxley tells us, he had a great grasp, the poet, while appalled by the mystery, accepts and indeed rejoices in its truths, though he cannot acquiesce in a godless world or in the denial of a life to come, in which the race, through infinite love, shall be brought into union with God.

But leaving here Tennyson’s speculations and beliefs,–a most interesting part of the poet’s analytical and reflective character,–let us look for a little at the man personally, and record briefly the chief incidents in his quiet though ideal home-life. To those who know the Memoir by his son, Hallam Tennyson,–a memoir that while paying honor to filial reverence and devotion is at the same time and in all respects most worthy of its high theme,–the events in the poet’s life will hardly need dwelling upon, though they throw much light on, and impart the distinction of a high dignity to, the Laureate’s work. The life Hallam Tennyson describes was, we know, not lived in the public eye, and was wholly without sensational elements or any of the vapid interests which usually attach to a man whose name is, in a special sense, public property, and about whom the world was eagerly, and often officiously, curious. The life the poet lived, in a popular sense, lacked all that usually attracts the masses, for he was personally little known to his generation, rarely seen among large gatherings of the people, and, great Englishman as he was, was almost a stranger, in his later years at least, in the English metropolis, or, if we except the seats of the universities, in any of the chief towns of the kingdom. And yet, in another and a higher sense, the century has hardly known among its many intellectual forces one that has been more influential in its effect upon literary art, or in certain directions has more potently influenced the ideals and more profoundly given expression to the ethical and philosophic thought of the time. Secluded as his life was, it was one not of obscurity or of mere asceticism; on the contrary, it was rich in all the elements that make for a great reputation, and ever devoted to strenuous, elevating purpose, and to an ideal poetic career.

So far as his tastes and opportunity offered, Tennyson’s life, moreover, was enriched by many wise and noble friendships, and by intimacy with not a few of the best and most thoughtful minds of his age. It was spent, we rejoice to think also, in unceasing toil in and for his high art, with a resulting productiveness which proved the extent and varied range of his labors as well as the mastery of his craft.

Lord Alfred Tennyson Painting by John Everett Millais

Lord Alfred Tennyson Painting by John Everett Millais

Until the appearance of the biography referred to, we had known the Laureate almost wholly through his books. Now, thanks to the authoritative record of his accomplished surviving son, we know the poet as he lived, and feel that behind his writings there is a personality of the most interesting and impressive kind. It is a personality such as consorts with the opinions which most thoughtful readers of Tennyson’s writings must have had of one of the greatest and serenest minds of the age,–a poet who, aside from the splendor of his workmanship and the beauty and melody of his verse, has greatly enriched the poetic literature of the century, and has, we feel, given profound thought to the intellectual problems and spiritual aspirations of his era. Nor does the Memoir, as a revelation of the poet’s intellectual and personal life, fall away, on any page of it, from the high plane on which it has been prepared and written. There is no undue invasion, which a son’s pride might be apt to make, of domestic privacy, and no dealing with irrelevant topics or elaboration of those set forth with becoming modesty and restraint; far less is there the discussion of any subject, for a trivial or vain purpose. Throughout the work we meet with no unnecessary lifting of veils or treatment of themes merely to satisfy morbid curiosity. Everywhere there is the evidence of sound judgment, unimpeachable taste, and a wholesome sanity. This is especially the case in the frank revelation of the poet’s views on religion and his attitude towards scientific and theological thought, to which we have ourselves referred. In this respect, a large debt is due to the biographer for setting before the reader, not only the high ethical purpose which Tennyson had in view in selecting the themes of his poems and in the mode of handling them, but, as we have said, in showing us what beyond peradventure were his religious opinions, and, despite a certain curtaining of gloom, how profoundly he was influenced by faith in the Divine life. Nor is the least interest in the Memoir to be found in the light the biographer throws on the poet’s writings as a whole–how they were conceived and elaborated, and on the often hidden meaning that underlies some of the most thoughtful verse. This, to students of the Laureate’s writings, is of high value, in addition to the service rendered by the biographer in tracing in his father’s poetic work the influences which fashioned it and the pains he took to give it its marvellous beauty and artistic finish of expression.

It is this instructive as well as skilled and dignified treatment, with the vast literary and deep personal interest in the life, that will commend the Memoir to all who are proud of the Laureate’s fame, and wished to have nothing written that was unworthy of either the poet or the man, or that would in the least detract from his laurels. Nor does the restraint which the biographer imposes upon himself conceal from us the man in his human aspects, or lead him to set before the reader an imaginary, rather than a veritable and real, portraiture. We have a picture, it is true, of an almost ideal domestic life, and of a man of rare gifts and fine culture, whose work and career have been and are the pride and glory of the English-speaking race. But we have also the story of an author not free from human weaknesses, and though endowed with manifold and great gifts, yet who had to labor long and earnestly to perfect himself in his art, and in his early years had much discouragement and not a little adversity to contend with. With all the toil and stress his early years had known, when success came to the poet no one was less unspoiled by it; and when sunshine fell upon and gilded his life, maturing years brought him serenity, happiness, and, at length, peace.

Alfred Tennyson was born at his father’s rectory, Somersby, Lincolnshire, August 6,1809. He was the fourth of twelve children, seven of whom were sons, two of them, Frederick and Charles, being endowed, like Alfred, with poetic gifts. The poet’s mother, a woman of sweet and tender disposition, had much to do in moulding the future Laureate’s character; while from his father, a man of fine culture, he received not only much of his education, but his bent towards a recluse, bookish career. Alfred was from his earliest days a retired, shy child, fond of reading and given to rhyming, and with a characteristic love of nature and of quiet rural life. Later on he had a passion for the sea-coast, and for those scenes of storm and stress about the seagirt shores of old England which he was so feelingly and with such poetic beauty to depict in “Sea Dreams,” and in those incomparable songs, embodiments at once of sorrow and of faith, ‘Break, break, break,’ and ‘Crossing the Bar.’ Besides the education he received from his scholarly father, and at a school at Louth for four years, young Tennyson spent some years at Trinity College, Cambridge, where, though he did not take a degree, he won in 1829 the Chancellor’s medal for the best English poem of the year, the subject of which was ‘Timbuctoo.’ At college he had the good fortune to number among his friends several men who later in life were, like himself, to rise to eminence,–such as Henry Alford (afterwards Dean of Canterbury), R.C. Trench (later Archbishop of Dublin), C. Merivale (historian and Dean of Ely), Monckton Milnes (Lord Houghton), James Spedding (editor of Lord Bacon’s Works), Macaulay, Thackeray, and, most endeared of all, Arthur Henry Hallam, son of the historian, whose memory Tennyson has immortalized in “In Memoriam.” With him at college was also his brother Charles, one year his senior, with whom he collaborated in the collection of verse, issued in 1827, under the title of “Poems by Two Brothers.” In 1830, Tennyson made a journey to the Pyrenees with Arthur Hallam, who was engaged to the poet’s sister Emilia, and in the same year he published an independent volume, entitled “Poems chiefly Lyrical.” In this, his first venture alone in poetry, and in another issued in 1832, Tennyson was to manifest to the world his poetic powers and art, for they contained, besides much rhythmical and contemplative verse, such poems as ‘Mariana,’ ‘Claribel; ‘Lilian,’ ‘Lady Clare,’ ‘The Lotus Eaters,’ ‘A Dream of Pair Women,’ ‘The May Queen,’ and ‘The Miller’s Daughter,’ In spite of the great promise bodied forth in these works, the volumes were subject to not a little unfavorable criticism, which stayed his further publishing for a period of ten years, though not the furtherance of his creative work, nor his enthusiastic efforts towards increasing the perfection of his art.

It was not until 1842 that the poet again appeared in print, this time with a volume to which he appended his name, “Poems by Alfred Tennyson,” and which gave him high rank among the acknowledged singers of his day,–Wordsworth, Southey, Landor, Campbell, Rogers, and Leigh Hunt, in England; and in the New World, Longfellow, Bryant, Lowell, Whittier, and Emerson. The poet-contemporaries of his youth–Byron, Scott, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats–had by this time all died, and in 1843 Southey died, when Wordsworth, whom Tennyson reverenced, became Poet Laureate. The gap occasioned by the death of these early English poets of the century was now to be filled in large measure by Tennyson, though among the writers of song to arise were the Brownings, Rossetti, Matthew Arnold, and Swinburne. Critical appreciation of the volume of 1842 was happily encouraging to the poet; indeed, it was most gratifying, for its many remarkable beauties were now justly and adequately appraised, particularly such fine new themes as the volume contained–‘Ulysses,’ ‘Godiva,’ ‘The Two Voices,’ ‘The Talking Oak,’ ‘Oenone,’ ‘Locksley Hall,’ ‘The Vision of Sin,’ and ‘Morte D’Arthur,’ the germ of the future “Idylls of the King.” Nor on this side the Atlantic did the new volume lack substantial recognition, and from such competent critics as Emerson and Hawthorne; while among his English contemporaries Tennyson became, if we except for the time Wordsworth, the acknowledged head of English song. At this period the poet resided in London or its neighborhood, his family home in Lincolnshire having been broken up in 1837, six years after the death of his father. Here, in spite of the secluded life he led, he became a notable figure in literary circles, and greatly increased the range of his friends, correspondents, and admirers. Among the latter were the Carlyles, Thomas and his clever wife Jane being especially drawn to the poet, and to them we owe interesting sketches of the personal appearance of Tennyson at this time. Mrs. Carlyle, in one of her delightful letters gossiping about Dickens, Bulwer-Lytton, and Tennyson, esteems the latter “the greatest genius of the three,” adding that “besides, he is a very handsome man, and a noble-hearted one, with something of the gypsy in his appearance, which for me is perfectly charming.” This is the historian, her husband’s, piece of portraiture: “A fine, large-featured, dim-eyed, bronze-colored, shaggy-headed man, dusty, smoky, free-and-easy; who swims, outwardly and inwardly, with great composure in an articulate element as of tranquil chaos and tobacco smoke; great now and then when he does emerge; a most restful, brotherly, solid-hearted man.” Another portrait we have from the Chelsea philosopher and scorner of shams which describes the poet very humanly as “one of the finest-looking men in the world, with a great shock of rough, dusky, dark hair; bright, laughing, hazel eyes; massive, aquiline face, most massive, yet most delicate; of sallow-brown complexion, almost Indian looking; clothes cynically loose, free-and-easy; smokes infinite tobacco. His voice is musical, metallic, fit for loud laughter and piercing wail, and all that may lie between; speech and speculation free and plenteous. I do not meet in these late decades such company over a pipe! We shall see what he will grow to.” Besides the Carlyles and other notable contemporaries, Tennyson numbered at this time among his intimates John Sterling, whose life was written by the author of “Sartor Resartus,” James Spedding, Bacon’s editor, who wrote a fine critique of the 1842 volume of poems for the Edinburgh Review, Aubrey De Vere, Edmund Lushington, A.P. Stanley (afterwards Dean of Westminster), and Edward Fitzgerald, the future translator of the “Rubaiyat,” or Quatrains of the Persian Poet, Omar Khayyam. These were all enthusiastic admirers of Tennyson’s work and art, and his close personal friends, who have left on record many interesting sketches of the poet in their published writings, or in letters to him, and especially in reminiscences furnished for the Memoir by the poet’s son.

Nine years before the appearance of the 1842 volume of Tennyson’s verse the poet’s bosom friend, Arthur Hallam, died at an immature age at Vienna, and his death was the subject of much brooding in noble, elegiac verse, written, as was Milton’s ‘Lycidas,’ to commemorate the loss of one very dear to the poet. In “In Memoriam,” as all know, Tennyson sought to assuage his grief and give fine, artistic expression to his profound sorrow at the loss of his companion and friend; but the work is more than a labored monument of woe, since it enshrines reflections of the most exalted and inspiring character on the eternally momentous themes of life, death, and immortality. The work was published in 1850, and it at once challenged the admiration of the world for the perfection of its art, no less than for its high contemplative beauty. This was the year when Wordsworth passed to the grave, and Tennyson, in his room, was given the English laureateship. In this year, also, we find him happily married to Emily S. Sellwood, a lady of Berks, to whom the poet had been engaged since 1837. With his bride he took up house at Twickenham, near London, where his son, Hallam Tennyson, was born in 1852. In the following year he removed to Farringford, on the Isle of Wight, which was to be his home for forty years, and where, as his son tells us, some of his best-known works were written. Here, in 1854, his second son, Lionel, was born, whose young life of promise was terminated by jungle fever thirty-two years later on a return voyage from India,–all that was mortal of him finding repose in the depths of the Red Sea. To complete the chief incidents in the poet’s personal career, we may here record that while Tennyson acquired another home at Aldworth, Surrey,–where he died Oct. 6, 1892, followed some four years later by his wife,–his happiest days were spent at Farringford, the pilgrimage place of many eminent worshippers of the poet’s muse, where was dispensed an unostentatious but open-handed and genial British hospitality. It should be added that, besides the perquisites which attach to the office of the Poet Laureate, Tennyson was given from 1845 a pension of £200 ($1000) and that, while in 1865 he refused a baronetcy, in 1884 he accepted a peerage, and had the honor of burial (Oct. 12, 1892) in Westminster Abbey.

We now revert to the poet’s early, or, rather, to his middle-age, creative years, and to a resume of his principal writings, with a brief, running comment on his message and art. In 1847, three years before he became Laureate, he published “The Princess,” a charming narrative poem in blank verse, which, though it abounds in fine descriptions and has an obvious moral in the treatment of the theme,–the woman question of today,–is inherently lacking in unity and strength, as well as weak in the depicting of the characters. In later editions the poem was amended in several faulty respects, and was especially enriched by the insertion between the cantos of many lovely and now familiar songs, which serve not only to bind together the whole structure of the poem, but to enhance and enforce its high moral meaning. Any analysis of “The Princess” is here deemed unnecessary, since it must not only be familiar to most readers of the poet’s works, but familiar also in the varied annotated editions of such editors as Rolfe, Woodberry, and Wilson Farrand. Familiar, it is believed, also, that it will be to Tennysonian students in the “Study of the Princess,” with critical and explanatory notes by Dr. S.E. Dawson, of Montreal (now of Ottawa, Canada),–an able commentary which received the approval of Lord Tennyson himself, and elicited from him a highly interesting letter to the author on points in the poem either misunderstood or not discerningly apprehended by other critics and reviewers. The purport of the poem, it may be said, however, is to frown upon revolutionary attempts to alter the position of women, of scholastically be-gowned and college-capped dames, who would seek by other than nature’s ways to put the sex upon an equality with man, while repressing their own individuality, doing violence to their maternal instincts, and trampling upon their “gracious household ways.” In the handling of the “medley” Tennyson brings into exercise not only his far-seeing powers, which were greatly in advance of his time, but his gifts of raillery and humor, especially in the early divisions of the poem, as well as his high, serious motives in the moral lessons to which he points in the later cantos, where he aims at the elevation of women in correspondence with the diversity of their natures, for, as he himself says, “Woman is not undeveloped man, but diverse.” His ideal of perfect womanhood he would attain through the awakening power of the affections and the transforming power of love, rather than by ignoring the difference of physique, founding women’s universities, and becoming blue-stockinged high priestesses of learning. Of the medley of characters in the poem, poet-princes in disguise at the college, violet-hooded lady principals,

“With prudes for proctors, dowagers for deans,
And sweet girl-graduates in their golden hair,”

it is Lady Psyche’s child that is the true, effective heroine of the story, as Dr. Dawson aptly points out. “Ridiculous in the lecture room, the babe in the poem, as in the songs, is made the central point upon which the plot turns, for the unconscious child is the concrete embodiment of Nature herself, clearing away all merely intellectual theories by her silent influence.” This is the explanation, then, of the appearance of the babe–symbol of the power and tenderness of Nature–in critical passages of the poem, as well as in the unsurpassably beautiful intercalary songs, for it is the child that enables the poet to soften the Princess’s nature toward the Prince, and to effect the reconciliation between the Princess and Lady Psyche, while imparting beauty as well as high meaning in the recital of the incidents and development of the tale.

“In Memoriam,” as we have stated, appeared in 1850, and was unique in its appeal to the mind of the era as a stately meditative poem on a single theme,–the death of the poet’s friend, Arthur Hallam. The English language, if we except Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ and ‘Hymn to the Nativity,’ and Wordsworth’s grand ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality,’ has no poem so noble or so faultless in its art as this magnificent series of detached elegies. The high thought, philosophic reflection, and passionate religious sentiment that mark the whole work, added to the exquisiteness of the versification, place it wellnigh supreme in the literature of elegiac poetry. Its grave, majestic hymnal measure adds to its solemn beauty and stateliness, while the varied phases of spiritualized thought and emotional grief which find expression in the poem seem to elevate it in its harmonies to the rank of a profound psalm-chant from the choir of heaven. In the sumptuously embellished edition of the elegy, embodying Mr. Harry Fenn’s drawings, with a sympathetic preface by the Rev. Dr. Henry Van Dyke, there is a brief but luminous analysis of the nine divisions of the poem, or commentary on the great classic. To those who desire to read the great elegy understandingly, the value of Dr. Van Dyke’s work is earnestly commended, since without this commentary, or such as are to be obtained in other critical sources, there is much of poetic beauty, of sorrow-brooding thought, and especially of emotional reflection on life, death, and immortality, in the hundred and thirty lyrics of which the poem consists, which will be lost to even the thoughtful reader. The poem, as a critic truthfully observes, has done much “to express and to consolidate all that is best in the life of England, its domestic affection, its patriotic feeling, its healthful morality, its rational and earnest religion.”

The sentimental metrical romance “Maud” appeared in 1855 (the year of the Crimean War), with some additional poems, including ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade,’ written after Raglan’s repulse of the Russians at Balaclava, and the fine ‘Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington.’ The lyrical love-drama, “Maud,” we are told, was one of Tennyson’s favorite productions, of which he was wont to read parts to his guests. As the poet has himself said of the monodrama, “it is a little Hamlet,” “the history of a morbid poetic soul, under the blighting influence of a recklessly speculative age. He is the heir of madness, an egotist with the makings of a cynic, raised to sanity by a pure and holy love which elevates his whole nature, passing from the heights of triumph to the lowest depths of misery, driven into madness by the loss of her whom he has loved, and when he has at length passed through the fiery furnace, and has recovered his reason, giving himself up to work for the good of mankind through the unselfishness born of his great passion.” The poem, when it appeared, was reviled by some critics as an allegory of the war with Russia, and they did its author the injustice of supposing that he lauded war for war’s sake, instead of, as is the case, applauding war only in defence of liberty. Apart from this misunderstanding, due to abhorrence of the war-frenzy of the period, the poem has outlived the mistaken objections to it when it appeared, and is now admired in its vindicated light, and especially for the rich and copious beauty manifest throughout the work, and for the magnificent lyric art with which it is composed.

Tennyson's Elaine painting by Toby Edward Rosenthal

Tennyson’s Elaine painting by Toby Edward Rosenthal

We now come to Tennyson’s masterpiece, the “Idylls of the King,” an epic of chivalry, interpreted as personifying in its various characters the soul at war with the senses. These appeared during the years 1859 and 1872. Each of the Idylls, which has a connecting thread binding it to its fellow-allegory, takes its plot or fable from the legendary lore that has clustered round the name of Arthur, mythical King of the Britons about the era of the first invasion by the English. Out of the mass of material which was gathered by Sir Thomas Malory for his prose history of Arthur and his Knights, Tennyson takes the chief incidents and noblest heroic traits of character in the legends and blends them in a fashion of his own, steeping them in an atmosphere which his imagination creates, and lighting up all with a passion and glory of knightly adventure, as well as with a chasteness, purity, and high fervor of ethical thought, that must perpetuate the romance, as he has given it us, unto all time. The sections of the work as it now stands, in addition to its introductory dedication to the late Prince Consort, and the closing poem to the late Queen Victoria, are as follows: ‘The Coming of Arthur,’ which relates the mystery of the birth of the King, his marriage to Guinevere, daughter of Leodogran, King of Cameliard, and the wonders attending his crowning and establishment on the throne; next comes ‘Gareth and Lynette,’ a tale of love and scorn, and of the conflict between a false pride and a true ambition; to this is appended ‘The Marriage of Geraint,’ of Arthur’s court, and a member of the great order of the Round Table. Next follows ‘Geraint and Enid,’–Enid, the gentle and timid, whom Geraint had married after wooing the haughty Lynette,–a tale of pure and loyal womanhood, darkened for awhile by the clouds of jealousy and suspicion, yet closing happily long after the “spiteful whispers” had died down, and Geraint, assured of Enid’s fealty, had ruled his kingdom well and gone forth to “crown a happy life with a fair death” against the heathen of the Northern Sea, “fighting for the blameless King.” The next Idyll relates how the venerable magician Merlin succumbs to the thrall of the wily harlot Vivien, decked in her rare robe of samite, and yields to her the charm which was his secret. ‘Lancelot and Elaine’ follows with its conflict between the virgin innocence of Elaine, the lily maid of Astolat, and the guilty passion of the noble though erring Lancelot. To this, in order, succeeds ‘The Holy Grail,’ telling of the vain quest of Arthur’s Knights for the sacred relic. Despite its mystic character, this is admittedly one of the finest of the series of Idylls, and rich in its spiritual teaching,–that the heavenly vision is to be seen only by the eyes of purity and grace. ‘Pelleas and Ettarre’ is a tale of dole, showing the evil at work at the court, and the wrecking effect of another woman’s perfidy. ‘The Last Tournament’ has for its hero the court fool, who, amid the treason of Arthur’s knights, is firm in his loyal allegiance to the King. In contrast to him is Sir Tristram, who, despite his prowess, in jousts on the tilting-field, is “one to whom faith is foolishness, and the higher life an idle delusion.” The climax is reached in ‘Guinevere,’ whom, in spite of her faithlessness and guilty intrigue with Lancelot, Arthur, with his great high soul, pityingly loves and forgives. The end comes with the sad though shadowy ‘Passing of Arthur,’ the royal barge mysteriously carrying him out into the beyond, whence issue sounds of hail and greeting to the victor-hero

“—-as if some fair city were one voice
Around a king returning from his wars.”

In 1864 Tennyson published “Enoch Arden,” an idyll of the hearth, depicting a pathetic incident in a seafarer’s career, of much simple idyllic beauty. The poem has some fine descriptive passages, and many examples of the poet’s rich word-painting in treating of the splendid tropic scenery among which the mariner is for the time cast. The volume contained also some minor pieces, including the dialect poem, ‘The Northern Farmer,’ with its humorous rendering of yokel speech. This was followed (1875-84) by three dramas on English historical themes, which, as the poet had not, as we have already hinted, the gifts of a Shakespeare, were somewhat unsuccessful, though written, despite Tennyson’s advanced years, with much fine force and vividness of character delineation. These dramas (to enumerate them in their historic order) were “Harold,” “Becket,” and “Queen Mary.” “Becket” is the best and most ambitious of them, though not, as “Queen Mary” is, a play designed for the stage. It is a vigorous Englishman’s closet study of a prolonged and bitter struggle–the conflict in Henry II.’s time between the church and the crown–as exhibited in the person and dominant ecclesiastical attitude of the audacious prelate who met his tragic end by Canterbury’s altar. “Harold” strikingly realizes to the modern reader the stirring activities of a strenuous time,–that of the English conquest by Norman William, opposed to the death by Harold at Senlac in 1066. The drama is as rich in character as it is swift and energetic in action. “Queen Mary” deals with the religious and political dissensions (the struggle between the Papacy and the Reformation) of Mary Tudor’s era, with her love for and marriage with Philip of Spain, and her hopeless yearning for an heir to the double crown of England and Spain. An important and prized addition to our English literature the drama undoubtedly is, but it is not more than a careful, accurate, and elaborate historical study. It lacks, both in spirit and movement, the characteristics of the Shakespearian drama. Its characters, however, are vividly brought out, and its situations are often picturesque and telling. The personages, moreover, are wanting in the play of creative effect, and the incidents lack the stir of inventive resource. Further, though the story of Mary’s life is essentially dramatic, and the incidents of her reign are tragic in the extreme, the poet does not seem to have extracted from either that which goes to the making of a great drama. This evidently is the result of following too faithfully the events of history and the records of the time, as well as, in some degree, from want of sympathy, which Tennyson could not impart, with the leading characters and their actions. Still, much is made of the materials; and though the personages and incidents appear in the narrative in the neutral tints of history, yet the period is made to reappear with a freshness and distinctness which, while it satisfies the scholar, gives a true charm to every lover of the drama. Again and again, as we read, are we reminded of the Laureate’s rare poetical fancy and fine literary instinct, and the dialogues contain many passages of striking thought and noble utterance. But the work is overcast by the great gloom of its central figure,–the gloom of bigotry, passion, jealousy, disappointment, and despair which ever environs the miserable Queen; and much though the poet has striven to brighten the picture and awaken sympathy for the weakness of the woman, who, royal mistress though she was, could not command her love to be requited, the poetic measure of his lines roughens and hardens to the close, when the curtain falls on what is felt to be a tragic and unlovely life.

We can only briefly refer to the other dramatis personae introduced to us, who are among the notable historical characters that figure during Mary Tudor’s reign. They are those who take part in the incidents, religious, civil, and political, of the period, and are, for the most part, both in speech and bearing, the portraits familiar to us in Mr. Froude’s history. Of these the most pleasing is the Princess Elizabeth, whose portrait is drawn with masterly skill, and engages our interest as the fortunes of its original oscillates “‘Twixt Axe and Crown”:–

“A Tudor
Schooled by the shadow of death, a Boleyn too
Glancing across the Tudor.”

But, aside from the interest in the safety of her person, which is in constant jeopardy from the jealousy of her half-sister, Elizabeth wins upon the reader by her modest, maidenly bearing, her frankness of manner, and by a playfulness of disposition which readily adapts itself to the restraints which the Queen is ever placing upon her person, and which endears her to the people, who, could the hated Mary be got rid of, would fain become her subjects. The civil strife of the period furnishes material for some powerful passages, which are wrought up with excellent effect, and in this connection Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Thomas Stafford, the Earl of Devon, Sir William Cecil, and other historical personages appear upon the stage. The other incidents introduced are those which attach themselves to the religious persecutions of the time, and which brought Cranmer to the stake, and give play to the papal intrigues of Pole, Gardiner, and the emissaries of the Spanish court. The second and third scenes in the fourth act devoted to Cranmer, which detail his martyrdom, are hardly so satisfactory as we think they might have been, though the poet here again follows closely the historical accounts. The scenes, however, give occasion for the introduction of a couple of local gossips whose provincial dialect and keen interest in the national and religious policy of the time, here as in occasional street scenes, are cleverly portrayed. This sapient reflection in the mouth of one of these gossips, Tib, is a specimen at hand:–

“A-burnin’ and a-burnin’, and a-making o’ volk madder and madder; but tek thou my word vor’t, Joan,–and I bean’t wrong not twice i’ ten year,–the burnin’ o’ the owld archbishop ‘ill burn the Pwoap out o’ this ‘ere land for iver and iver.”

Philip we have not spoken of; but he fills such a hateful niche in the historical gallery of the time, and the poet introduces him but to act his pitiful role, that we pass him by, though many of the grandest passages in the drama are those which give expression to Mary’s passionate love for him, and her longing desire for an issue of their marriage, which afterwards culminates in her madness and death.

We have to speak of but one other character in the drama, whose death, it has been said, was sufficient to honor and to dishonor an age. The beautiful Lady Jane Grey appears for a little among the shadows of the poem, and moves to her tragic fate.

“Seventeen,–a rose of grace!
Girl never breathed to rival such a rose!
Rose never blew that equalled such a bud.”

A few songs of genuine Tennysonian harmony, pitched in the keys that most fittingly suit the singer’s mood, are interspersed through the drama, and serve to relieve the narratives of their gloom and plaint. Their presence, we cannot help thinking, recalls work better done, and more within the limitations of the poet’s genius, than this drama of “Queen Mary.” As a dramatic representation the drama had the advantage of being produced at the Lyceum Theatre, London, with all the historic art and sumptuous stage-setting with which Sir Henry Irving could well give it,–Irving himself personating Philip, while Miss Bateman took the part of Queen Mary. “Becket,” we should here add, was also given on the stage, and with much dramatic effectiveness, by Irving,–over fifty performances of it being called for. None of the dramas, however, as we have said, was a success, though each has its merit, while all are distinguished by many passages of noble and strenuous thought.

Other dramatic compositions the poet attempted, though of minor importance to the trilogy just spoken of. These were “The Falcon,” the groundwork of which is to be found in “The Decameron;” “The Cup,” a tragedy, rich in action, with an incisive dialogue, borrowed from Plutarch. The former was staged by Mr. and Mrs. Kendal, and had a run of sixty-seven nights; the latter also was staged with liberal magnificence, by Irving, and met with considerable success. “The Promise of May” is another play which was staged, in 1882, by Mrs. Bernard Beere, but met with failure by the critics, owing, in some degree, to its supposed caricature of modern agnostics, and to the repellent portrayal of one of the characters in the piece, the sensualist, Philip Edgar. Later, in (1892) appeared “The Foresters,” a pretty pastoral play, on the theme of Robin Hood and Maid Marian, which was produced on the boards in New York by Mr. Daly and his company, with a charming woodland setting. The later publications of the Laureate, in his own distinctive field of verse, embrace “The Lover’s Tale” (1879), “Ballads and other Poems” (1880), “Tiresias and Other Poems” (1885), “Locksley Hall Sixty Years After” (1886), “Demeter and Other Poems” (1889), and “The Death of Oenone, Akbar’s Dream, and Other Poems,” in the year of the Poet’s death (1892). In these various volumes there is much admirable work and many tuneful lyrics in the old charming, lilting strain, with not a few serious, thoughtful, stately pieces of verse, “the after-glow,” as Stedman phrases it, “of a still radiant genius…. His after-song,” continues this fine critic, “does not wreak itself upon the master passions of love and ambition, and hence fastens less strongly on the thoughts of the young; nor does it come with the unused rhythm, the fresh and novel cadence, that stamped the now hackneyed measure with a lyric’s name. Yet, as to its art and imagery, the same effects are there, differing only in a more vigorous method, an intentional roughness, from the individual early verse. The new burthen is termed pessimistic, but for all its impatient summary of ills, it ends with a cry of faith.”

We must now hasten to a close, delightful as it would be to linger over so attractive a theme, and to dwell upon the personality of one who so uniquely represents the mind, as he has so remarkably influenced the thought, of his age. But considering the length of the present paper, this cannot be. Happily, however, the fruitage is ever with us of the poet’s full fourscore years of splendid achievement with the hallowing memory of a forceful, opulent, and blameless life. To few men of the past century can the reflecting mind of a coming time more interestingly or more instructively turn than to this profound thinker and mighty musical singer, steeped as he was in the varied culture of the ages, endowed with great prophetic powers, with phenomenal gifts of poetic expression, and with a soul so attuned to the harmonies of heaven as to make him at once the counsellor and the inspiring teacher of his time. Who, in comparison with him, has so felt the subtle charm, or so interpreted to us the infinite beauty, of the world in which we live, or more impressively deepened in the mind and conscience of the age belief in the verities of religion, while quelling its doubts and quickening its highest hopes and faith? “Tennyson was a passionate believer in the immortal life; this was so real to him that he had no patience with scepticism on the subject. To question it in his presence was to bring upon one’s head a torrent of denunciation and wrath. His great soul was intuitively conscious of spiritual realities, and he could not understand how little soulless microbes of men and women were destitute of his deep perception. Prayer was to him a living fact and power, and some of his words about it are among the noblest ever written. When some one asked him about Christ, he pointed to a flower and said, ‘What the sun is to that flower, Christ is to my soul.'”

Apart as he stood from the tumult and the frivolities of his age, he was yet of it, and sensibly and beneficently influenced it for its higher and nobler weal. In politics, as we know, he was a liberal conservative,–a conserver of what was best in the present and the past, and an advancer of all that tended to true and harmonious progress. His knowledge of men and things was wide and deep; in the philosophic thought and even in the science of his time he was deeply read; while he was lovingly interested in all nature, and especially in the common people, whom he often wrote of and touchingly depicted in their humble ways of toil as well as of joy and sorrow. Above all, he was a man of high and real faith, who believed that “good” was “the final goal of ill;” and in “the dumb hour clothed in black” that at last came to him, as it comes to all, he confidingly put his trust in Loving Omnipotence and reverently and beautifully expressed the hope of seeing the guiding Pilot of his life when, with the outflow of its river-current into the ocean of the Divine Unseen, he crossed the bar. For humanity’s sake and the weal of the world in a coming time this was his joyous cry:–

“Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
*        *        *        *        *
“Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
*        *        *        *        *
“Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be!”

What our formative, high-wrought English literature has suffered in Tennyson’s passing from the age on which he has shed so much glory those can best say who are of his era, and have been intimate, as each appeared, with every successive issue of his works. To the latter, as to all thoughtful students of his writings, his has been the supreme interpreting voice of the past century, while his influence on the literary thought of his time has been of the highest and most potent kind. Especially influential has Tennyson been in carrying forward, with new impulses and inspiration, the poetic traditions of that grand old motherland of English song to which our own poets in the New World, as well as the younger bards of the British Isles, owe so much. If we except the Laureate, there have been few who have worn the singing robe of the poet who, in these later years at least, have spoken so impressively to cultured minds on either side of the ocean, or have more effectively expressed to his age the high and hallowing spirit of modern poetry. It is this that has given the Laureate his exalted place among the great literary influences of the century, and made him the one indubitable representative of English song, with all its tuneful music and rare and delicate art. To a few of the great choir of singers of the past Tennyson admittedly owed something, both in tradition and in art,–for each new impulse has caught and embodied not a little of the spirit and temper, as well as the culture and inspiration, of the old,–but his it was to impart new and fresher thought and a wider range of harmony and emotion than had been reached by almost any of his predecessors, and to speak to the mind and soul of his time as none other has spoken or could well speak. From the era of Shakespeare and Milton and their chief successors, it is to Tennyson’s honor and fame that he has given continuity as well as high perfection to the great coursing stream of noble British verse.


Brooke, Stopford A. Tennyson: his Art and Relation to Modern Life.

Van Dyke, Henry. The Poetry of Tennyson. Bayne, Peter. Tennyson and his Teachers. Brimley, George. Essays on Tennyson. Tainsh, Ed. C. Study of the Works of Tennyson. Waugh, Arthur. Tennyson: A Study of his Life and Work. Stedman, E. C. Victorian Poets. Buchanan, R. Master Spirits. Forman. Our Living Poets. Dowden, Ed. Tennyson and Browning. Tennyson, Hallam. Memoir of the Poet (by his Son). Kingsley, C. Miscellanies.

Thackeray-Ritchie, Anne. Records of Tennyson and Others. Robertson, F. W. In Memoriam. Dawson, Dr. S. E. Study of the Princess, annotated. Genung, J. F. In Memoriam, its Purpose and Structure. Woodberry, G. E. The Princess, with Notes and Introduction. Farrand, Wilson. The Princess, with Notes and Introduction. Gatty, Alfred. Key to In Memoriam. Harrison, Frederic. Tennyson, Ruskin, and Mill.

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers