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

II. The Tennysons

§ 8. His metres

In one respect, these poems show little, if any, abatement of force, that is in the dramatic adjustment of metre to mood. The blank verse of the later pieces is simpler and less mannered than in Idylls of the King, while retaining the variety and dignity of movement which Tennyson’s blank verse always has when used for meditative, and not narrative, poetry. Tithonus has all, and more than all, the magic of the earlier Œnone in the rendering of a passionate mood in a setting of exquisite natural description, and Lucretius all, and more than all, the dramatic and psychological subtlety and force of such an earlier study of mental disturbance as St. Simeon Stylites; and, to the last, in Tiresias and Demeter and St. Telemachus, the stately movement, the vowelled melody, hardly flags.

But the metre in which Tennyson exprimented most repeatedly in the last poems is the anapaestic, generally in six-foot line. All the dialect pieces are in this metre and the verse is admirably adapted to the drawling speech of the English rustic. In The Revenge, where the anapaest interchanges freely with shorter, more massive, rhythms, the poet has achieved one of his masterpieces in dramatic, picturesque, glowing narrative, the finest poem of English heroic patriotism since Drayton’s Agincourt, perhaps the greatest war-poem in the language; and, metrically, The Charge of the Heavy Brigade is not less felicitous though the story is not so romantic and picturesque. In The Voyage of Maeldune, Tennyson opened at the end of his life another storehouse of Celtic legend than the Arthurian, and the metre, again, is perfectly adapted to the monotony of marvel and magic which is the note of Irish story. It is, however, more doubtful whether the six-foot anapaest was so well suited to the tales of modern life, Despair, The Flight, The Wreck, etc., of which Tennyson wrote, perhaps, more than enough in his last years. Certainly, the blank verse poem The Sisters is a happier effort. The ballad movement is not well adaptable to such themes, and the verse, quite in keeping with the style of rustic narrative, seems, by its monotony, to heighten the tone of hysterical sensibility, the “spasmodic” character, of these not very pleasing poems.

Blank verse and anapaests by no means exhaust the metres of these last volumes, though some of these are professedly experiments. In The Daisy, published in the Maud volume, Tennyson was just proudly of having caught “a far-off echo of the Horatian Alcaic”; and his trochaics are not less felicitous than his anapaests. The last volumes contain, as well as the second Locksley Hall, the lovely echo of Catullus’s lament,

  • Row us out from Desenzano, to your Sirmione row!
  • and the clangour of the great lines To Virgil,
  • Landscape-lover, lord of language,
  • the worthiest tribute which has been paid to the Roman poet since Dante. To the last, Tennyson was capable of springing such surprises on those who were babbling of his decadence; to the last, he was able to delight by the musical and picturesque interpretation of mood and dream. The author of Tears, idle tears could write at the age of eighty:
  • But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
  • Too full for sound and foam,
  • When that which drew from out the boundless deep
  • Turns again home.