A Tennysonian Retrospect
IT must come with a shock of surprise to most readers to learn that on the 5th of August of this year Alfred Tennyson reaches his seventieth birthday. Some of us can remember when The Two Voices and Locksley Hall and In Memoriam struck a sympathetic chord in our fresh souls, and placed their author, for us, on the highest pinnacle of fame; and it seems as if it were only yesterday that this impression was made. He has led his own and our generation with such success, he has so voiced its moods, he has so imparted to men his own moral conquests and spiritual victories, that we cannot think him old, or easily estimate our indebtedness to him. No poet of the age has been so intimately associated, recluse as he is said to be, with the thoughts and feelings which throb in the life of the time. He has interpreted the nineteenth century on its social and spiritual side, with sufficient breadth to take in its many-sided activity, and with sufficient sympathy and insight to give a manly tone to its spiritual character.
Looked at from his seventieth birthday, Tennyson has survived many reputations which for the moment were as brilliant as his own. It is not necessary to dwarf others to make him great, but some who began with him have already disappeared. Alexander Smith and Philip James Bailey awakened expectations which they did not fulfill. His friend, John Sterling, has utterly faded out of sight as a poet, and lives only because Thomas Carlyle wrote his biography. Algernon Charles Swinburne, though a much younger man, has so divided his strength between prose and poetry that his fame is at a stand-still; and much as we delight in Browning, he has never mastered his idiosyncrasies sufficiently to give us the full strength of what is in him. Clough and Arnold are rather the exponents of a phase of thought than the inspired interpreters of life. When compared with his contemporaries, Tennyson may be said to have failed again and again in what he early aimed at, but with every new volume he has shown a clear advance upon what was his best before. His genius was at first as wayward as Browning’s, but he has had the patience and industry to overcome the obstacles which stood in the way of success, and has shown himself worthy to be not only the first among his peers, but the poet laureate of his time.
Yet the growth of his reputation has been slow. He was a poet from his eighteenth year; he is the third of seven brothers, all or nearly all of whom have written poetry; indeed, he inherited the gift: his father, Dr. George Clayton Tennyson, the rector of Somersby, a small village of less than a hundred inhabitants in Lincolnshire, where Alfred was born August 5, 1809, was something of a poet, painter, architect, and musician, and also a considerable linguist and mathematician. Dr. Tennyson believed in home education, and for the most part prepared his brilliant son for Cambridge at the rectory. He died in 1830. The poet’s mother, whose maiden name was Elizabeth Fytche, herself the daughter of a clergyman, died in 1865, in her eighty-fourth year. Early in 1827, when Alfred and his brother Charles were at the Louth grammar school, they prepared for the press a volume of juvenile poems, written from the age of fifteen upwards, which was published at Louth, in the spring of that year, under the title of Poems by Two Brothers, for which the book-seller in the town gave them ten pounds. The title-page bore the modest motto from Martial, Hæc nos novisimus esse nihil. The poems were one hundred and two in number, written in all kinds of metre and on all sorts of subjects, — classical and modern strangely alternating. The youthful authors duly loaded nearly every poem with footnotes, and headed them with quotations from Latin and English authors. There was a trace of Byronism in the volume, and the preface declared that the pieces “ were written, not conjointly, but individually, which may account for their difference in style and matter.” The Tennysonian touch is traceable here and there, but the poems have wisely been excluded from the later collections. Soon after the publication of this anonymous volume the two brothers matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where, in the summer of 1829, they formed a friendship with another young student of the same college, Arthur Henry Hallam, the son of the historian. Hallam was a year younger than Tennyson. In 1829 they both competed for the chancellor’s gold medal, each writing a poem on Timbuctoo. Tennyson won the medal, though the story goes that the prize fell to him by a blunder, a mark intended to express wonder being taken to denote approval. The poem was in blank verse, and was the first production to which he set his name. Thackeray, his fellow-collegian, was then editing a small satirical paper called The Snob, in which he was testing his strength for satire, and wrote a burlesque of Tennyson’s poem.
John Sterling and Frederick Denison Maurice had barely left Cambridge when Tennyson took up his residence at the university. They belonged to the famous debating society called the Union, in which Tennyson and the kindred spirits he drew about, him found a congenial sphere for airing their opinions, and it was nothing extraordinary when the chancellor’s prize poem appeared, to find an appreciative notice of it in the Athenæum, with which Sterling and Maurice were connected. They said: “ We have never before seen one of [these prize poems] which indicated really first-rate poetical genius, and which would have done honor to any man that ever wrote. Such we do not hesitate to affirm is the little work before us.” The poem is well worth studying as a step in the development of Tennyson’s genius, and is easily accessible. His university life was marked by much jollity at times, by considerable earnest study, and by pleasant communion with men afterwards great. His companions were John Mitchell Kemble, well known for his Anglo-Saxon researches; the late Charles Buller, to whom Carlyle was once tutor; Richard Monckton Milnes, now Lord Houghton; Richard Chenevix Trench, the present Archbishop of Dublin; James Spudding, the biographer of Bacon; the late Dean Alford, of Canterbury; the late Rev. William Henry Brookfield, in whose memory Tennyson has written a touching sonnet; and Charles Merivale, the present Dean of Ely and the historian of the Roman Empire. As a college pastime, Lord Houghton used to have charge of private theatricals, in which Hallam and Kemble sometimes took a part, and at which Tennyson was doubtless present. On Friday, March 19, 1830, they performed Much Ado about Nothing, with Milnes as Beatrice, Kemble as Dogberry, and Hallam as Verges.
Up to this point Tennyson had put his name to almost nothing. The anonymous productions of a scliool-boy of eighteen and the prize poem of a Cambridge under-graduate had been his only ventures into print. The first volume to which he affixed his name, entitled Poems chiefly Lyrical, was published by Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, Cornhill, London, in 1830. It had been intended as a joint publication, similar to the Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge, containing the poems of Alfred Tennyson and Arthur Hallam, but Hallam’s father induced them to abandon the plan. Almost at the same time a small volume of poems by his brother Charles, who had been Alfred’s literary partner in the venture of 1827, entitled Sonnets and Fugitive Pieces, was published at Cambridge. The two volumes were reviewed together by Leigh Hunt in the Taller, and one of the poems, the Confessions of a Second-Rate Sensitive Mind, this gentle critic commended as “such as Crashaw might have written in a moment of skepticism, had he possessed vigor enough.” He awarded the palm of merit to Alfred, though Archbishop Trench, thirty-six years later, said that Charles’s volume contained “sonnets of rare and excellent workmanship.” The late Dean Alford rejoiced in both volumes. In his diary of October 12, 1830, he wrote: “Looked over both the Tennysons’ poems at night; exquisite fellows. I know no two books of poetry which have given me so much pure pleasure as their works.” Later in the same October, he writes : “ Met Tennant, Hallam, Merivale, and the three Tennysons at Alfred Tennyson’s rooms. The latter read some very exquisite poetry of his, entitled Anacaona and The Hesperides.” A writer in the Westminster Review said that in the Confessions of a Second-Rate Sensitive Mind there was “an extraordinary combination of deep reflection, metaphysical analysis, picturesque description, dramatic transition, and strong emotion.” Young Hallam said the poem was “ full of deep insight into human nature, and into those particular trials which are sure to beset men who think and feel for themselves at this epoch of social development.” But Professor John Wilson, the “ Christopher North” of Blackwood’s Magazine, in May, 1832, treated the young poet as the pet of cockneyism, and representing that his friends were attempting to make too much of him, said: “ The spirit of life must be strong indeed within him; for he has outlived a narcotic dose administered to him by a crazy charlatan in the Westminster, and after that he may sleep in safety with a pan of charcoal.” When his next volume appeared, in 1833, the poet repaid his debt to the critic: —
You did mingle blame with praise,
When I learnt from whom it came,
I forgave you all the blame,
Musty Christopher ;
I could not forgive the praise,
The Literary Gazette of that day could find nothing better to say of Tennyson’s poems than that they were " silly sooth.”
His second volume of poems appeared in the winter of 1832, Edward Moxon being the publisher. It was of one hundred and sixty-three pages, and the titlepage bore the mark 1833. It contained, among less notable poems, The Miller’s Daughter, which is said to have made the author poet laureate, Œnone, The Palace of Art, The May Queen, New Year’s Eve, The Lotus Eaters, and A Dream of Fair Women. The book was sent to Coleridge, who thus expressed himself: “What I would, with many wishes of success, prescribe to Tennyson — indeed, without it he can never be a poet in art — is to write for the next two or three years in none but one or two well-known and strictly defined metres, such as the heroic couplet, the octave stanza, or the octosyllabic measure of the Allegro and Penseroso. . . . As it is, I can scarcely scan his verses.” Excepting a few poems which were added to this volume in the reissue of 1842, among which may be included The Two Voices and a poem entitled The Lover’s Tale, quickly suppressed and just now republished, nothing had come from Tennyson’s pen which Arthur Hallam had not probably seen.
The poet now published substantially nothing for ten years. His friend Hallam traveled on the Continent for his health in 1833, and died that year away from home. It is not easy to trace Tennyson during these years. Like every other brilliant collegian, he found his way to London. He and a well-blacked meerschaum are said to have been wellknown companions in Fleet Street. He became a member of the Anonymous, since then the Sterling, Club, and moved in a circle which contained Allan Cunningham, Thomas Carlyle, William Ewart Gladstone, John Stuart Mill, William M. Thackeray, John Forster, John Sterling, Henry Lushington, Walter Savage Landor, and Macready the actor. Part of the time he lived at Little Holland House, Kensington. He was not married till 1850, when he purchased the estate of Farringford, and left his home at Twickenham, made “ twice classic ” by his residence there, for the Isle of Wight, taking thither a lady from his own native county of Lincolnshire, Miss Emily Sellwood, as his bride. In Memoriam, The Princess, The Idyls of the King, and some parts of Maud, were thought out, to some extent fashioned, and even completed, during this quiet season. The poet was advancing in spiritual development from The Two Voices, through the passionate impulses of Locksley Hall, to the noble, calm, and restful strength of In Memoriam, which Mr. Gladstone has pronounced “ the richest oblation ever offered by the affection of friendship at the tomb of the departed.” Few men have ever given themselves more devotedly to their work as an art. Tennyson had made so many ventures up to 1833 in all sorts of metres that, notwithstanding the beauty of some of his lyrics, he often seemed like a spoilt Keats, because he had reached no settled style of his own ; but it is evident that his critics have never been more severe in their judgments of his work than he has been himself. He has spared no labor to produce the best that is in him, and at an early date wisely withdrew his immature work from the world. His poems have been touched and retouched, not indeed always for the better; and whatever stood in the way of his success as a poet was resolutely overcome. The nerve and courage to keep silent for a decade can be understood only by those who know the irrepressibility of genius, but in these years, of silence he laid the foundation of his fame.
In 1842 Tennyson was ready to meet again the public which ten years before had greeted him with admiration and ridicule. His title-page read: “Poems. By Alfred Tennyson. In Two Volumes. London: Edward Moxon, Dover Street. 1842.” The first volume contained two divisions, —a selection from the volume of 1830 (many of the poems untouched, and none having received more than a few verbal alterations), and some dozen poems from the volume of 1832, almost entirely rewritten, together with six or seven new pieces, written, with one exception, in 1833. The second volume was filled mostly with poems entirely new. They passed through four editions, bearing the dates of 1842, 1843, 1845, and 1846, and were incorporated into one volume in the fifth edition (1848). The eighth edition had been reached in 1853. They were at once republished in this country by the house of Ticknor, Reed and Fields, and Alfred Tennyson was welcomed by acclamation on both sides of the Atlantic as the first poet of the century. He stepped forth as one who had nothing of juvenility in him, and the choicest spirits of the age began to chant his praise. Wordsworth in 1845 wrote to Professor Henry Reed, of Philadelphia, “ He is decidedly the first of our living poets, and I hope will live to give the world still better things.” Poe said, “ I am not sure that Tennyson is not the greatest of poets.” Margaret Fuller wrote in 1842, “ I have just been reading the new poems of Tennyson. ... In these later verses is a still, deep sweetness; how different from the intoxicating, sensuous melody of his earlier cadence! I have loved him much this time, and taken him to heart as a brother.” Lowell said that " it may be a generation or two before there comes another so delicate thinker and speaker as Tennyson; ” and Emerson was heard to say that “ Tennyson is endowed precisely in points where Wordsworth wanted. There is no finer ear, or more command of the keys of language.”
It was about this time that Tennyson resided at Twickenham, the countryseat of Pope a century before, and William Howitt, in 1847, thus sketched him: “ It is very possible you may come across him in a country inn, with a foot on each hob of the fire-place, a volume of Greek in one hand, his meerschaum in the other, so far advanced toward the seventh heaven that he would not thank you to call him back into this nether world.” Henry Crabb Robinson gives a glimpse of him in his diary of January 31, 1845: “I dined this day with Rogers. We had an interesting party of eight: Moxon, the publisher; Kenny, the dramatic poet; Speckling, Lushington, and Alfred Tennyson, three young men of eminent talent belonging to literary young England, — the latter, Tennyson, being by far the most eminent of the young poets. He is an admirer of Goethe, and I had a long tête-à-tête with him about the great poet. We waited for the eighth, a lady [the Hon. Mrs. Norton] who, Rogers said, was coming on purpose to see Tennyson.” Mr. Charles Knight, who had the privilege of meeting the poet at the chambers of his friend, John Forster, in Lincoln’s Inn, has a word of reminiscence: “ There I first met Tennyson, and there Carlyle. In familiar intercourse, such as that of Mr. Forster’s table, Mr. Tennyson was cordial and unaffected, exhibiting, as in his writings, the simplicity of a manly character, and, feeling safe from his chief aversion, the digito monstrari, was quite at his ease.” Arthur Hugh Clough and Francis Turner Palgrave have also given delightful glimpses of their friend, but the facts of his literary history are chiefly to be found in the clever little volume Tennysoniana, attributed to Mr. Richard Herne Shepherd, which has very recently appeared in a second edition.
An incident of this period is the unprovoked attack upon Tennyson by Sir Bulwer Lytton. In 1845, the poet, as a compensation for some claim his family had on the crown, was placed on the pension list by Sir Robert Peel for an annuity of two hundred pounds. This induced Bulwer, in an anonymous satire which appeared early in the following winter, entitled The New Timon, to speak of Tennyson’s poetry as “ a jingling melody of purloin’d conceits,” “patchwork pastoral,” “tinsel,” and the like, and to state in a foot-note that the poet himself was “ quartered on the public purse in the prime of life, without either wife or family.” Tennyson retorted in some bitter lines, entitled The New Timon and the Poets, which appeared in Punch, February 28, 1846, signed Alcibiades, and closed with the stanzas : —
The old mark of rouge on your cheeks.
You prate of nature ! You are he
That split his life about the cliques.
It looks too arrogant a jest, —
The fierce old man, — to take his name,
You baudbox ! Off, and let him rest! ”
In the next number, Tennyson resumed the subject, in a gentler mood, closing with the lines: —
I talk of. Surely, after all,
The noblest answer unto such
Is kindly silence when they bawl.”
It is said that Bulwer afterwards regretted his wanton attack.
Though the date of the composition of The Princess cannot be assigned, it did not appear until 1847. It has been altered, enlarged, retouched, through five successive editions, until the original sketch differs as much from the present text as the first rough draught of Hamlet differs from the Hamlet “ enlarged to almost as much again as it was.” The intercalary songs were not added in the third edition, and the title The Princess, A Medley, came still later. In the second edition it was dedicated to Henry Lushington, between whom and the poet a cordial intimacy had existed since 1841. In Memoriam followed The Princess in 1850. On the 23d of April, in the same year, Wordsworth died, and on the 6th of March, 1851, at the queen’s levee at Buckingham Palace, “Mr. Alfred Tennyson was presented, on his appointment to be poet laureate.” The warrant for his choice was dated November 19, 1850, and the appointment was everywhere commended as having been given to the man who best deserved it. It is interesting to know that when Tennyson was presented to the queen he wore the identical clothes, buckles, stockings, and sword, which Wordsworth had worn years before when he was presented on a similar occasion. B. R. Hayden says that Moxon, the publisher, had hard work to make the dress fit the author of The Excursion. “ It was a squeeze, but by pulling and hauling they got him in.” We are not told how it fared with Tennyson, who is himself by no means a small-sized man; but it is certain that he honors the post of poet laureate even more than it has honored him, and has by no means made it a sinecure. His noble Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington was first published on the day of the duke’s funeral, in 1852, and has since had more than the usual amount of revision and alteration.
At this period Tennyson may be said to have reached his maturity. In Memoriam opened to him a new career, and, though originally printed without the author’s name, was felt by every one to be the great elegiac poem of the age. It is not a new metre which Tennyson here introduced, Ben Jon son having employed the same in an elegy, in his Underwoods; but the later poet has employed it for a vaster work. The American like the English edition of In Memoriam was published anonymously, and many a young student like myself in those years drank deeply from this wonderfully interpretative poem_ without knowing who was its author. His later and more complete writings need not here be dwelt upon. The Charge of the Light Brigade was first printed in the Examiner, December 9, 1854; Maud and other Poems came out in 1855; the Idyls of the King were published in 1859; the date of Enoch Arden is 1864 ; The Holy Grail and other Poems appeared in 1869; Queen Mary belongs to 1875; Harold to 1877; and the rumors are constant that dramas and lyrics and ballads are still to come from the same band. Probably what is in print is but a small share of what he has written.
Julius H. Ward.