The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

II. The Tennysons

§ 1. Tennyson’s early poems

ALFRED TENNYSON, the most representative, and by far the most popular, poet of Victorian England, born in 1809, was the fourth son of the rector of Somersby in Lincolnshire. His two elder brothers, Frederick and Charles, were also poets and must receive some mention later. They were all, not least the greatest of them, men of singular physical beauty and strength, dark and stalwart, and through most of them ran a vein of almost morbid hypersensitiveness and melancholy, to which, in Alfred, we may trace the rare delicacy and intensity of his sensuous and emotional renderings of nature and mood and dream, as well as the hysterical extravagances of some of the poems in which he touched on subjects, political and religious, that moved him deeply.

Educated at Louth grammar school (of which his only pleasant memory was the music of the Latin words sonus desilientis aquae) and by his father at home, Tennyson’s genius struck its roots deep into that soil of family affection and love of country the alienation from which, in varying degree, of most of the earlier romantic poets—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley—contributed to the independent, revolutionary tone of their poetry, and the slowness with which some of them gained the ear of English readers. When Tennyson went up to Cambridge, Shelley’s was still a name of doubtful omen. Tennyson was always to be—not entirely for the benefit of his poetry—in closer sympathy with the sentiments of the English middle-classes, domestic, distrustful of passion or, at least, of the frank expression and portrayal of passion, patriotic, utilitarian.

And the influence of these classes, politically and morally, was becoming dominant. Tennyson went to Cambridge a few months before Gladstone, the representative statesman of the coming era, went to Oxford. The group of friends who gathered round Tennyson included Arthur Henry Hallam, Gladstone’s most intimate friend at Eton. They were all of them young men of the high and strenuous seriousness which breathes from the letters of Sterling and Hallam—James Spedding, Richard Trench, Henry Alford, Edward Lushington. The life they led was a very different one from that which Byron describes in his letters of twenty years earlier. These have the hard, reckless ring of the age of Fox and his dissipated, aristocratic friends. The young band of “Apostles” who debated

  • On mind and art,
  • And labour, and the changing mart,
  • And all the framework of the land
  • were imbued with the serious, practical temper of the great merchant class which was to reshape England during the next fifty years. They were strangers alike to the revolutionary hopes that intoxicated the youthful Wordsworth, and the reactionary spirit of “blood and iron” against which Byron fought and over which Shelley lamented in strains of ineffable music:
  • Oh, cease! must hate and death return?
  • Cease! must men kill and die?
  • The era of conservative reform, of Canning and Peel, of attachment to English institutions combined with a philanthropic ardour for social betterment, had begun. The repeal of the Test act, Catholic emancipation, the first great Reform bill were all carried between the date at which Gladstone and Tennyson went up to college and a year after they had gone down. Of this movement, Tennyson was to make conscientious efforts to approve himself the poet; but, as experience was to show, the conservative instincts of the would-be liberal poet were deeper and more indestructible than those of the young statesman who, in these years, was still “the rising hope of stern and unbending Tories.”

    The same via media was the path followed by Tennyson and his friends in the region of theology and philosophy. Disciples, some of them, of Coleridge, they were all more or less broad churchmen, Christian in sentiment but with little of Gladstone’s reverence for dogma, and sensitive, as Gladstone never was, to movements of contemporary thought and science. “Christianity is always rugging at my heart,” Tennyson said, and his heart and mind were too often divided against one another to allow of his attaining to the heights of inspired and inspiring religious song. But in no mind of his day did the conflict of feeling and thought produce more sensitive reactions. In the widened and altered vision of the universe which natural science was slowly unfolding, Tennyson was to find, at moments, a fresh justification of the deepest hopes and instincts of his heart, at moments, their utter negation. To the conflict between his sensitive and conservative temperament and that Lucretian vision of the universe which physical science seemed more and more to unroll, we owe some of the most haunting notes of Tennyson’s poetry.

    But these notes were not sounded at once. Tennyson’s first concern was with poetry alone, the object of his assiduous and patient quest being to discover and to master the style and measures in which he could best express the poetry with which his mind was charged to overflowing. Poems, by Two Brothers (1827) is negligible. In these early verses, he threw off, as in a kind of mental measles, the infection of the more popular poets of the day—Byron and Moore and Scott. At Cambridge, Wordsworth and Coleridge and Shelley and Keats displaced their more popular rivals, and Tennyson’s genius entered upon a period of experiment, of growing clearness and sureness of judgment, of increasing richness and felicity of diction and rhythm, the record of which has been preserved with unusual fulness in the successive Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830), Poems (1833) and Poems. By Alfred Tennyson, 2 vols. (1842).

    The relation in which these stand to one another is not unlike that of the different “states” of an etching, the successive “pulls” in which the artist studies the progress he has made towards the complex perfection of the final plate. Some poems were rejected altogether; others dropped only to reappear; a few suffered little or no alteration between the first edition and the last; yet others (and these are the most interesting and the most important) underwent an elaborate process of rearrangement of the component features, of rehandling that included every kind of erasing, deepening and enriching—processes of which the final outcome was the pomp and magnificence of the 1842 volumes, the beauty and glow presented in their final form by such studies as The Lady of Shalott, The Miller’s Daughter, Œnone, The Palace of Art (considering the poem only on the side of its music and pictures), A Dream of Fair Women and The Lotos Eaters.

    Tennyson’s aim in all this elaboration is clear enough now, though it was not to such early critics as Christopher North and Lockhart—who were justifiably witty at the expense of the poet’s lapses, if Lockhart was less justifiably blind to the final result to which the experiments tended. It was no deepening insight into his subjects and guided Tennyson’s efforts, for they were to him subjects and no more. They were the common topics of his romantic predecessors, nature, English pastorals, ballad themes, medieval romance, classical legend, love and death. But Tennyson was burdened with no message, no new interpretation of nature or the peasant, no fresh insight into the significance of things medieval or things Hellenic. Each and all were subjects that quickened his poetic imagination, and his concern was to attain to the perfect rendering in melody and picturesque suggestion of the mood which each begat in his brooding temperament. Much has been said of Tennyson’s relation to Keats and Wordsworth; but a closer tie unites him to Coleridge, the poet. Like Coleridge, Tennyson is a poet not so much of passion and passionate thinking as of moods—moods subtle and luxurious and sombre, moods in which it is not always easy to discern the line that separates waking from dreaming.

    And, like Coleridge, Tennyson, from the outset, was a metrist, bold in experiment and felicitous in achievement. Almost every poem in these volumes was a distinct, conscious experiment in the metrical expression of a single, definite mood. There were some failures, not from inadequate control of the poet’s medium of verse (as Coleridge was inclined to think) but because, as Christopher North pointed out, Tennyson occasionally mistook for a poetic mood what was merely a fleeting fancy and recorded it in lines that were, at times, even silly. Of the poems which survived the purgation to which Tennyson subjected his work, some are less happy than others, again not because the poet has failed to make the verse the echo of the mood, but because the mood itself was not one that was altogether congenial to his mind. In lighter and simpler strains, Tennyson is never quite spontaneous. But, when the mood was one of the poet’s very soul, luxurious or sombre or a complex blend of both, the metrical expression was, from the first, a triumphant success. Claribel, Mariana, “A spirit haunts the year’s last hours,” Recollections of the Arabian Nights, The Dying Swan, The Lady of Shalott, the blank verse of Ònone, A Dream of Fair Women, The Palace of Art, The Vision of Sin, The Lotos Eaters—all reveal (think what one may of the philosophy of some or of the faults of phrase and figure which marred the first transcripts) a poet with a command of new and surprising and delightful metrical effects as unmistakably as did the early poems of Milton, the masterpieces of Coleridge, Shelley’s songs or Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads. The true character of the English verse foot which the romantic poets had rediscovered without all of them quite knowing what they had done, the possibilities of what Saintsbury calls “substitution,” the fact that, in verse whose indicator is a recurring stress, the foot may be iambic, trochaic, spondaic or monosyllabic without altering the time-lengths of the rhythmical interval, Tennyson understood perfectly and he experimented on it with a conscious and felicitous art, combining with this subtle management of the foot a careful attention to the musical value of vowel and consonant combinations in which his precursors are Gray and Pope and Milton. And, for Tennyson, the guiding principle in every experiment, from Claribel to The Vision of Sin, is the dramatic appropriateness of verse to mood.

    Many of the poems, as has been said, underwent drastic revision; but this revision seldom affected the metre, though the concluding stanza of The Lotos Eaters is a striking exception. It was the phrasing and imagery, the richly decorative and picturesque diction, that was revised before the eyes of the reader with wonderful results. The motive which dictated this labour was the same as that which controlled the varied cadences of the poet’s verse, the desire to secure the full and exact expression for the single mood which dominates the poem throughout. For each of Tennyson’s shorter poems, at any rate—hence, perhaps, his preference of the idyll to the epic—is the expression of a single mood of feeling. It is seldom that one of his songs or odes or idylls carries the imagination of the reader from one mood of feeling to another, as does an ode by Keats or Wordsworth, while the stream of impassioned thought flows through the mind. In his longer poems, In Memoriam and Idylls of the King, as will be seen later, the plan of construction finally adopted is a concession to this quality of the poet’s genius. A brooding imagination, a fine ear and a vivid and curious eye, the eye of an artist who, also, was something of a naturalist—these are the distinctive qualities of Tennyson’s poetic temperament. He divined, as Keats had before him (but Keat’s eye was not, to a like extent, the dominant factor in his sensibility), that a picture presented with extraordinary precision of detail may, if every detail be relevant, contribute potently to the communication of a mood of feeling—the whole secret of pre-Raphaelitism. But he was also aware that mere description is no business of the poet who describes only to communicate feeling. Accordingly, the alterations which Tennyson introduced into his work, in so far as they were not dictated by the ear, by the desire to secure a purer, more flute-like melody of vowel and consonant, had one of two purposes in view, either to present a picture with greater clearness of arrangement and vividness or wealth of detail, or, even more often, to diminish merely descriptive effects, to substitute one or two significant, suggestive details for a fully drawn picture, in every way to intensify the emotional, dramatic effect as by passing the stanza once more through the dyeing vat of the poet’s own passionate mood. Of passages in which the first aim predominates a classical example is the opening landscape in Œnone, but a shorter may be cited from The Palace of Art:

  • One seemed a foreground black with stones and slags,
  • Below sunsmitten icy spires
  • Rose striped with long white cloud the scornful crags
  • Deeptrenched with thunderfires,
  • compared with
  • And one a foreground black with stones and slags,
  • Beyond, a line of heights, and higher
  • All barr’d with long white cloud the scornful crags,
  • And highest, snow and fire
  • Of the other process, the subtle heightening of the emotional thrill, examples will be found in all the poems mentioned; but two short passages may be cited by way of illustration:

  • No time hath she to sport and play,
  • A charmed web she weaves alway,
  • A curse is on her if she stay
  • Her weaving either night or day,
  • To look down to Camelot,
  • compared with
  • There she weaves by night and day
  • A magic web with colours gay.
  • She has heard a whisper say,
  • To look down to Camelot,
  • or,
  • She moved her lips, she prayed alone,
  • She praying disarrayed and warm
  • From slumber, deep her wavy form
  • In the darklustrous mirror shone.
  • “Madonna,” in a low, clear tone
  • Said Mariana, night and morn,
  • Low she mourned, “I am all alone,
  • Love-forgotten, and love-forlorn,”
  • compared with
  • Complaining, “Mother, give me grace
  • To help me of my weary load.”
  • And on the liquid mirror glow’d
  • The clear perfection of her face.
  • “Is this the form,” she made her moan,
  • “That won his praises night and morn?”
  • And “Ah,” she said, “but I wake alone,
  • I sleep forgotten, I wake forlorn.”
  • The heightened glow of the picture in the lines italicised is not more striking than the dramatic significance of “Is this the form,” etc. But, perhaps, the supreme examples of the poet’s power to enrich his verses by passing them once again through the mood in which the whole poem was conceived are the closing stanzas of The Lady of Shalott and of The Lotos Eaters.

    The outcome of the severe course of training to which Tennyson submitted his art—a process that never quite came to an end, for later poems were, also, carefully revised after publication—was a style, the ground and texture of which is a pure, idiomatic English, mannered as, in a different way, the style of Milton is mannered, decorative as in a different way, the style of Milton is decorative, and a verse of wonderful variety, a felicitous adaptability to the mood of the poem, and a curiously elaborated melody of vowel and consonant. With the exception of Gray—for Pope’s “correctness” is not entirely a poetical excellence—English poetry had produced nothing since Milton that is so obviously the result of a strenuous and unwearied pursuit of perfection of form.

    Tennyson’s range of topics is, also, fully represented in the 1842 volumes—studies of mood and character ranging from the first slight sketches of Adelines and Marianas to the complexities of Simeon Stylites, St. Agnes and Sir Galahad, and the nobility of Ulysses; studies of English rural life like Dora, among the least successful of Tennyson’s poems, not because (as a critic has complained) they have too much of Wordsworth’s “silly sooth,” but because they lack the intense conviction which keeps Wordsworth from ever being “silly,” though he may at times be absurd, and exalts his “sooth” into imaginative truth; medieval studies in which was now included Morte d’Arthur, starting point of the later Idylls of the King; classical legend represented by the early Ònone recast and Ulysses, for Tithonus though written was not yet published; and, lastly, poems in which Tennyson touches on the mysteries of life and death and immortality, themes round which his brooding imagination was to circle all his life with a sincerer passionate and pathetic interest than he felt for any other subject that engaged his art—seeking, finding, but never long sure that he really had found, like some lone, ghostly sea-bird wheeling round the luring, dazzling, baffling beams of a lighthouse on some stormy headland. For all his questing, Tennyson was never to get much further than the vague hope of the closing section of The Vision of Sin:

  • At last I heard a voice upon the slope
  • Cry to the summit, “Is there any hope?”
  • To which an answer peal’d from that high land,
  • But in a tongue no man could understand;
  • And on the glimmering limit far withdrawn
  • God made Himself an awful rose of dawn.
  • The sombre note of the scene and the song which precede this close was to be heard more than once again in the verse of the poet who had already written The Two Voices and was yet to write Vastness. Of political pieces, the volumes included the very characteristic poems “You ask me, why,” “Love thou thy land,” “Of old sat Freedom” and the very popular, if now somewhat faded, trochaics of Locksley Hall.