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

II. The Tennysons

§ 2. The Princess

These latter poems, and such additions to his earlier work as Morte d’Arthur, Ulysses and Love and Duty, were proof that not only had Tennyson completely mastered his decorative, musical style but that his poetry had gained in thought, in dramatic insight, in depth and poignancy of feeling; and the question for a lover of Tennyson’s poetry in 1842 must have been, was this advance to be continuous, such an increasing dramatic understanding of the passionate heart of man as carried Shakespeare from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Macbeth and Othello, with all the change in style and verse which that process brought with it, or such an absorption in a great theme, the burden of a message, as produced La Divina Commedia or Paradis Lost. For there were dangers besetting Tennyson’s laborious cultivation of a new and rich poetic diction, dangers which betrayed themselves very evidently in the first considerable poem that followed the 1842 volumes, the longest poem Tennyson had yet attempted, and the first in which he set himself conscientiously (in the mood in which he had conceived The Palace of Art) to give to his poetry a didactic intention. The Princess, first published in 1847 but revised and re-revised in 1851 and 1853, if it exhibits all the characteristic excellences of Tennyson’s style, his mellifluous blank verse and polished, jewelled phrasing, reveals with equal clearness its limitations and faults. The blend of humour and sentiment and serious purpose is not altogether a success—“Alfred, whatever he may think,” said FitzGerald, “cannot trifle. His smile is rather a grim one”—and of dramatic interest there is the merest suggestion in the grandlioquent princess, the silly prince and their slightly outlined companions. Moreover, the style, with all its beauties, reveals, as some of the later Idylls of the King were to do, the radical want of simplicity, which is not really disguised by the purity, of Tennyson’s style, a tendency to conceit and decoration which seeks to make poetry of a plain statement by periphrasis and irrelevant, even if beautiful, figure. Gladstone admired the skill with which Tennyson could make poetical the description of a game-pie:

  • Where quail and pigeon, lark and leveret lay
  • Like fossils of the rock, with golden yolks
  • Imbedded and injellied,
  • and describe mathematics as
  • The hard-grain’d Muses of the cube and square.
  • The Princess abounds in refinements of this kind, as when the prince
  • sat down and wrote,
  • In such a hand as when a field of corn
  • Bows all its ears before the roaring East,
  • or the remark that Cyril’s wilder frolics are not the surest index to his character is thus adorned:
  • He has a solid base of temperament:
  • But as the waterlily starts and slides
  • Upon the level in little puffs of wind,
  • Tho’anchor’d to the bottom, such is he.
  • Even when the poem rises to a higher level of seriousness in the closing sections, the style is still elaborated and brocaded out of all proportion to the theme. Yet of such art the final perfection is found in an appearance of simplicity, and that, too, Tennyson achieved in the lyrics which were added to the third edition—the subtle “silly sooth” of “We fell out” and “Sweet and low,” the pealing music of “The splendour falls,” the sophisticated, coloured art of “Now sleeps the crimson petal,” and, lastly, the melody, the vision and the passionate wail of “Tears, idle tears” the most moving and finely wrought lyric Tennyson ever wrote.