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

II. The Tennysons

§ 7. Dramas and later poems and ballads

“He bestowed infinite trouble on his dramas,” his son says, and they bear every mark of a careful study of the sources, thoughtful delineation of character, finished expression and versification. What they want is dramatic life and force. The historical plays are the product of his patriotism and his dislike of catholicism; but the political interest is not, as in Shakespeare’s plays, quickly superseded by the dramatic. The characters do not become alive and take the conduct of the play into their own hands, as Falstaff and the humorous characters in Shakespeare’s English plays tend to do. In Queen Mary, no single character arrests and dominates our interest, and the hero of Harold, as of many modern plays, is of the Hamlet type of character, without quite being a Hamlet, more interested in the conflict of his own impulses and inhibitions than the driving force of a play full of action and incident. The most single in interest and the most impressive is Becket. Thoughtful and accomplished as they are, none of Tennyson’s dramas is the product of the imagination which begat the greatest and most characteristic of his poems.

It is in the poems beginning with the above mentioned dialect poems and continued in Lucretius (1868), The Revenge: A Ballad of the Fleet (1878), the starting Ballads and Other Poems of 1880 and the subsequent similar studies, published, some of them, separately and then collected in the successive volumes--Tiresias, and Other Poems (1885), Locksley Hall Sixly Years After (1886), Demeter and Other Poems (1889), The Death of Œnone, Akbar’s Dream, and Other Poems (1892)—that the later Tennyson appears in poems revealing the same careful structure and metrical cunning as the romantic studies that filled the two volumes of 1842. But the romantic colour and magic are gone; gone, too, is the suggestion of an optimistic philosophy which has tempted some critics to apply the strange epithet “complacent” to the troubled, sensitive soul of Tennyson. What has taken the place of these is a more poignant dramatic note, a more troubled outlook upon life and the world around him, a severer but, in its severity, a no less felicitous style, rarely a less dramatic adjustment of rhythm to feeling.

Tennyson’s sensitive imagination was ever responsive to the moral atmosphere around him. It was the high seriousness of Hallam and his Cambridge friends, their sympathy with moral and political progress, which had encouraged him to endeavour, even too strenuously, to charge his work with didactic intention, which had made him strive, often against his deepest instincts and prejudices, to sympathise with the claims of advancing democracy and which had instilled into his mind the one article of his vague and more emotional than dogmatic Christianity, the belief in the “far future,” the ultimate triumph of love. And now it seemed as though these high thoughts and hopes were illusions, and the morbid vein in which he had already written The Two Voices becomes dominant, strengthened by his consciousness of the times being “out of joint.” Coleridgean Christianity had given place to modern science and the religion of Lucretius. Romance was yielding ground to a realism as sombre as Crabbe’s, but more pathological and irreverent. Democracy had not brought all the blessings that were promised, and it seemed to Tennyson to be relaxing the national spirit, the patriotism and heroism which had made England great. The feelings with which all these changes affected Tennyson are vividly reflected in all his later poems. The patriotic poems breathe a more fervent, a fiercer patriotism. The Revenge, The Defence of Lucknow, The Charge of the Heavy Brigade are instinct with a patriotism which allows of scant sympathy with Indian rebels, “Russian hordes,” or “the Inquisition dogs and the devildoms of Spain.” The ballads of peasant humours, as The Spinster’s Sweet-Arts and The Village Wife; or, The Entail, and of peasant sorrows and tragedies, like The Grandmother and Rizpah are as realistic, sombre and humorous as some of the contemporary novels of country life—poems at the opposite pole from The Gardener’s Daughter and The Miller’s Daughter. In stories of modern life, as already in the earlier Aylmer’s Field, there is the note of hysterical feeling which betrays the jarring of the poet’s nerves as he contemplated certain aspects of modern life in Locksley Hall Sixty Years After, Despair, In the Children’s Hospital. In the meditative poems in blank verse, classical idylls from Lucretius to Tiresias, idylls from history as Sir John Oldcastle, Columbus, St. Telemachus or more lyrical meditations like Vastness, his mind circles ever round one theme in various aspects, the pathos of man’s destiny wandering between faiths which are rooted in fear and a widening knowledge that dispels the superstitious fears but leaves him no hope, the tragic grandeur of man’s sensitive soul terribly environed, the cost and pain with which he has struggled forwards to

  • The worship which is Love, [to] see no more
  • The Stone, the Wheel, the dimly-glimmering lawns
  • Of that Elysium, all the hateful fires
  • Of torment, and the shadowy warrior glide
  • Along the silent field of Asphodel,
  • and the haunting fear that, after all, the purer faith may be a dream, melting in the cold light of physical science:
  • What is it all, if we all of us end but in being our own corpse-coffins at last,
  • Swallow’d in Vastness, lost in Silence, drown’d in the deeps of a meaningless Past?
  • Tennyson was not able to expel, though he could subdue, the ghosts which haunted him. He never thought his way through any of the problems, political, moral or metaphysical, which the age presented, and, to the reader of to-day, it is not the thought of these poems which matters, but the reaction of this thought on their dramatic and poetic quality, the piercing note which it gave to poems that have lost the wonderful fragrance and colour—the rich bouquet if one might change the figure—of the 1842 poems, but in whose autumnal tints and severer outlines there is a charm more deeply felt than in the overwrought perfection, the deliberate intention of the middle period poems.