Tennyson: The Conservative
NEARLY all the poems in Tennyson’s new volume1 have been published separately in periodicals, and were from time to time greeted by the popular press as the Laureate’s latest inanity. Yet a book of like finish and strength would bring any unknown poet into the front rank without a dissenting voice, and this one itself will adorn the company in which Tennyson’s name will secure it a place for a period to which the criticism of our age can assign no limit. The art of the master, the perfect control of modulated language for poetic ends, pervades the whole ; some great themes, so treated as to develop the wisdom of great ideas, are here ; and, more conspicuous in the lesser verses, the grace, ease, and sureness of an exquisitely refined mind make an element of pleasant attraction. The lack of recognition of these things on the part of the public suggests that the decline of poetry is not wholly the fault of the singers. It is not without justice, however, that the rude general decision is recorded against Tennyson’s old-age work; that the people refuse, and will continue to refuse, these latter-day poems, especially in America.
For one thing, it is exceptionally limited in its appeal, — the outgrowth, in many parts, of his personal relations as a man and as an Englishman. It opens with a tribute to his friend. Mr. Fitzgeraid, a charmingly natural copy of epistolary verses, familiar, reminiscent, with a touch of humor and also of the soberness of life’s closing day, — the greeting of an old man to the friend of his youth who has aged with him. It was sent by his son’s hand, and inclosed the poem Tiresias, written long ago; but before the missive arrived the host was dead. And so a third copy of verses follows, memorial stanzas, appreciative, somewhat pathetic, calm, and mild. The whole is a threefold sheaf upon his friend’s grave. The unfortunately entitled Charge of the Heavy Brigade has likewise its prologue of a rhymed note of dedication to General Hamley, commemorating a visit from him, and an apologetic epilogue replying to some " girl-graduate ” who would have the lyre struck only in praise of peace; and dangling from this is still another stanza, repelling the commonplace reproach that songs are not deeds. The group, taken together, is rambling matter. Then there are some prefatory stanzas for his brother’s poems, not without a stroke or two on the higher chords, but how different from the childhood tablet in honor of the same love in In Memoriam ! And, later, there is the inscription written for Lord Dufferin’s Tower, at his request. As one reads these various bits, the memory revives in him of the old-style days when the poet used his art in every-day intercourse with agreeable acquaintances, and handed about the manuscripts : they belong to the leisure moments of a cultivated life, and their place is with the personal records, the letters and acts of courtesy, of their author; they are the courtliness of literature. Others, besides those mentioned, have their source in the lettered life: the tribute to Catullus, a most graceful exercise; that to Virgil, with a Roman magnificence and amplitude, — a poem for whose perfection no critical praise suffices ; and the concluding sonnet, in which Tennyson laments because the sacred poets are “ swampt with themselves.” The audience for such pieces as these must he small. They presuppose a special taste, a rarity even of modern culture. If the poet would take all hearts with him he must steer his lonely bark to other seas, where —in the metaphor which our imagination cannot clarify — he will be in no danger of swamping from Virgil, Horace, and Catullus.
To be treated as a friend and a scholar by Tennyson is not a hard lot, though the public are barred out. To be treated as an Englishman is something which we have no shadow of right to object to. If the Princess and the Queen were nearer to us, the lines in which the residence of the young wife with her mother is turned into a curious astronomical vision might seem more than merely court business ; and if the changes of English political life appeared more dangerously revolutionary than our experience of democracy allows, the ferment of popular distrust that disturbs some of the poems might be thought less unfortunate. Tennyson’s patriotic verses hitherto have celebrated deeds and principles which touched us through their native nobility, or some community with our own civic life or our historical sympathy with England’s past; but in the present volume he deals mainly with political moods, and now and then exhibits signs of irascibility with the young democracy, as if he were tempted to drop into plain, outright, denunciatory prose. The temper of this portion is most simply shown in the lines to the Duke of Argyll, who is idealized as representing the element of order in change, — to speak unpoetically, the brakes on the wheels when the curve of progress discloses a down grade ; and this conservatism has been unthinkingly associated with the poet’s elevation to the peerage. Tennyson, however, was always a conservative in this sense. His well-worn phrase about “ the red fool-fury of the Seine ” measures his English hatred of Celtic politics. The idea of Liberty, and of the people which is her charge, impresses his imagination, and the distress of the lot of the English poor has enlisted his sympathy; but he was never so full of the divine rage that he would pour out the Flood and make the past an antediluvian memory, nor of the divine hope that he would sing the New Song before the millennium was in fact established at Westminster without disturbance in Lombard Street. The past glory of England, which has been so largely the illumination of his genius, has a deeper hold upon him than modern ideas ; and from early days he has exhibited the repugnance of a sensitive mind to the coarse thumb of the mob — see with what fierceness it breaks out here in the splendid vigor of The Dead Prophet — and the aristocratic temper of an idealizing nature. There is no change of accent in his later utterances about Freedom that we can discern. The “ dark ages of the popular press,” as he calls our age in his prosiest line, were probably a topic of conversation years ago with his friend Carlyle. The only difference is that when he names Liberty now, he immediately begins to think about her sister Order, and he is very anxious that the latter should not be discriminated against. For him the great civil principles seem to have descended from the ideal, and to have got confused with temporal measures; so that even when he sets out to write a sort of imperial chorus, Hands All Round, for the mother country, the conquered provinces, and the colonies to join in, it becomes, instead of a triumphal hymn of greatness, a plea for the integrity of the combination and no retreat on the frontiers. The secret of the weakness of poetry of this kind is that it springs from prudential considerations which lie in the region of the practical judgment and of shifting circumstance, too narrow and changeful to serve for ideal motives. These odes, or stanzas, or blank verse are as truly occasional pieces as if they were written for a banquet of the Whig peers. The four lines of General Gordon’s admirable epitaph are worth whole octavos of these poems, which, whether they “ wander from the public good ” or not, are in fact a “ party-cry.”
The remainder of this volume is addressed really to the public, and to the whole of it on both sides of the water. Attention has been most attracted by the two poems which are concerned with questions or aspects of religious faith, Despair and The Ancient Sage. The latter is impaired by being cast in a duplex form, and consists of two poems in different measures, interrupting each other: one in which the youthful disciple develops the pleasurelessness of life on an atheistic theory, the other in which the wise and metaphysical old man makes a running commentary on the first. In Despair the treatment is less didactic, and the ballad form, in which Tennyson has always exhibited his dramatic power most successfully, helps. In substance it is meant to light up in a lurid way the darkness of a sectcreed on the one hand, and of a sciencecreed on the other, and between the two the man goes crazy ; under the circumstances it was the only sane thing for him to do. In both of these pieces, and in detached passages elsewhere, the hostility of Tennyson to the materialistic tendencies in the science and speculation of the age is pronounced, and has been commented on not so much because of the thing said as of the temper of the saying. Here, too, as in the political verse, one feels that Tennyson would be a stern antagonist if he were in the arena instead of a crowned spectator by the inactive throne. His words have less the rush of poetry than the violence of controversy. But one must remark that, as in matters of state, so in matters of faith, this conservatism is no new thing; since he came to his belief, in In Memoriam, he has steadily become more settled in his reliance on a divine element in the universe in intimate relations of Providence to man. With this we are concerned only as it affects his poetry, and that is really a small matter; for the comparative failure of such work as Despair to take hold of the public is not due to its jealous attitude toward socalled modern thought, but to an artistic defect. The ballad, as has just been said, is Tennyson’s best dramatic form. In it his force gets swing. In the present case, however, in order to justify the passion which was compelling expression, he was obliged to create exceptional incidents and a situation too plainly invented for set purposes. The imagination is not taken captive, does not believe the alleged basis of fact, but, on the contrary, the reason detects an artifice. If the supposed case be voluntarily accepted as real, the vehement declamation becomes natural, and the poem great; but for the public the imaginative acceptance must always be involuntary, and hence arises the tremendous power of passion in poetry when it is evolved from the common things of our experience. A similar reason is to be assigned for the weakness among the people of the two ballads which deal with domestic infelicity, of marriage in one case and of betrothal in the other. There is in both these a seeming tampering with the facts for the sake of effect: an obvious over-emphasis of a sea-landscape in one, where the poetic passion is brought to its focus in the midst of a storm by the novelist’s deus ex machina of having two deaths happen in the distant places at the right time ; and in the other an equally obvious over-emphasis of a mood with which sympathy must be imperfect, because the facts that might sustain it are practically suppressed. The dramatic power of Tennyson is so intense that it needs, for its working, a situation of rare emotional capability, and at the same time not too strange, such as he had, for example, in the marvelous ballad of Rizph. His grasp in these last poems is so strong that he seems to crush what he touches.
Much better are the two ballads not yet mentioned, — the pieces in dialect that belong to what is sometimes called genre work. Together with the new idyl, Balin and Balan, and the Tiresias, and the battle lyric of the Heavy Brigade, they are the distinctly poetic work of the volume, unadulterated by any admixture of religion, politics, court compliment, temporal occasions, public or private, or even personal friendship not lifted into universal meaning. The Irish ballad is, after the lines to Virgil, the most perfectly wrought poem in the volume; and the English ballad, though without the typical power of the earlier characters that have used Tennyson’s dialect, has a rustic interest of the Dutch interior kind. For the sake of completeness, let it be said that Balin and Balan, of which the morality is profound, suffers by being made the body-piece of this volume ; in its place among the great idyls, its low relief and simple action will find their artistic necessity. It is unjust to judge an incident of the frieze as if it were a figure of the pediment.
We have reviewed, as we had no thought of doing at the start, nearly all the poems in this volume. Its various power must strike every careful reader ; and if there are infelicities in the choice of some subjects and in the poetic form of others, and limitations inherent in many of them which must deprive them of popular currency, nevertheless, let us not forget that there is but one living man who could afford us imaginative work of this order. That the volume is less than the last one, which gave us Rizpah, Grenville, and Columbus, may be readily granted, as that was less than its predecessors. Time has counted, no doubt. “ Old age hath yet his honor and his due ; ” and instead of the charm and might of manhood we have the ease, the less exacting art, the more fragmentary and less selected thought, of less vigorous years. For our own part, we have found delight and profit in this last collection as in all that went before, and the alleged conservatism of the peer has proved a familiar thing, — not that of a convert, or that of a declining life, but that of the poet who has always been impressed by the values that a great national past has established, and who fears that the builders of the new future will care less for the beauty and righteousness which he has spent his life in praising. His fears we cannot share. Beauty and righteousness are not conspicuous, in the present state of England, to the eyes of an American. The duty of “ the best conservative ” is not confined, in his phrase, to the lopping of branches, but involves, we silently think, the laying of the Gladstonian axe to a few roots. This is outside our tether, however ; and we close this insufficient criticism—as what criticism of great poetry was ever sufficient? — with advising those who talk of Tennyson’s “ inanities ” to silence their sounding brass for a while, and diligently discover whether their ears are for hearing or for ornament.
- Tiresias and other Poems. By ALFRED LORD TENNYSON, D. C. L., P. L. London: Macmillan & Co. 1885.↩