Tennyson's and Browning's Latest Poems
“ THIS dramatic monologue,” as Tennyson describes the title-poem of his latest volume1 in his dedication of it to his wife, has met with little justice at the hands of the public. Just how much the poet meant to convey by this explicit assertion of the dramatic character of so important a composition is uncertain. It is easy to give too much significance to a slight thing merely because it is unusual ; but may it not be that Tennyson set that exact phrase across the head of his poem to warn his critics and readers against too close and definite an identification of himself with the old man who pours forth his gray thoughts with such iron vigor, with the passion, the elevation, and something of the possession of a prophet saying his last ? If Tennyson had any such apologetic purpose in view, he failed to make his meaning plain. The reception given the poem illustrates once more, unfortunately, the degree to which public regard for him has lessened, in consequence of his acceptance of a peerage. Whatever may be the merits of the case, he is believed to have joined the party of yesterday, to be numbered among the " lost leaders ; ” and as the public likes its treachery, real or fancied, to be of the deepest possible dye, certain phrases and moods of the new Locksley Hall were seized upon at once, not without a trace of ill-natured satisfaction, and scattered broadcast as a proof, if any more proof were necessary, that the noble lord is a Bourbon among reactionists. Against this tide of opinion the poem could not bear up; and it is much to be feared that a really great composition of the poet who stands without a rival in his age is generally regarded as evidence of dotage. This prejudice of the public and the hasty judgment which it made possible are the more to be regretted, because the poem offers difficulties enough to the reader without any addition from outside. It is hard to understand at once, and to follow through all its turns and episodes. It requires to be read many times, to be familiarized, in fact, before the general mood of the speaker, the sequence of the incidents and their bearing, and the flow of the ideas about society and human life disclose their harmony and combined power, and move as rapidly in one’s mind as on the page. This is partly because of the breaks, the changes, the incoherent or incomplete phrases, that belong to the dramatic structure of the poem. It is, indeed, dramatic in a severe and strict sense, and so truly is the experience of the old man its centre that in reading it one must let all thought of approval or disapproval go, and identify himself with this stern Nestor. It will be time enough to say he is foolish and garrulous, and overestimates the size and prowess of his old companions in the days of their youth, when one has mastered the experience of these Sixty Years, which is woven in this shifting web of memories, reflections, and maxims. But the difficulty of the poem is not merely verbal: the monologue is abrupt in its transitions as well as in its expression ; thought breaks in on emotion, some picture of the past comes back, a fact of the boy’s life to whom he is speaking recurs to point the old man’s world-knowledge, or the landscape before them catches his eye, or the general fate of the world pushes aside all other interests. Altogether the work is very intricate, very full of events, overflowing with thought ; it compresses, indeed, within its limits not only the career of the speaker, but several indivictual lives connected with his, and the general life of the world in his generation. The sweep is thus long and wide, and Tennyson has employed, moreover, his most compact and rapid style ; with every couplet there is a step taken and an effect is gained, and it is a strong head that can keep the pace when the poet is at once so intense, so profound, and so dramatic. Most of the lines are, of course, plain, but there is often one that does not yield its thought or picture, and particularly its relation to the rest, unless the mind lingers upon it ; and on the other hand, the idea or the image is often so brilliant, and made as it were at a single casting, that it stands out too much by itself, and one forgets the story that is being told and the total mood that is being developed. It is not superfluous to dwell thus a little at length on the difficulty in the mere reading of this poem, if it reminds us that poetry is not always as easily intelligible as a sneer at it is ; and in this case Tennyson has certainly suffered by a lack of that attention to which his labors have given him the right. One ought to remark, furthermore, that there is no real obscurity in the poem, but only a speed and vividness to which one must first accustom his mind, as he does his eyes to a strong light.
But all this, it may be said, is merely prefatory. What of the poem itself ? Is it not a pæan of the counter-revolution, a negation of one of the most stirring hymns of progress ever written, a kind of recantation of the poet’s youth ? For ourselves, we are not disposed to seek any shield for Tennyson in the notion that this is a “ dramatic monologue,” and not the expression of personal views ; be the facts what they may, the tenor of the new Locksley Hall is in consonance with too much of his later work to allow us to doubt that in its social, political, and artistic views it represents its maker with practical fairness. It may be admitted, too, that the Sixty Years have made a difference in the heart of the young man whose musing bivouac has become so famous. Hope belongs to the twenties, and it is not unnatural to find the clouds taking on their traditional “ sober coloring ” at fourscore ; the question is not whether there has not been change, but whether there has been through all the changes loyalty to the one aim, — whether the voice at eve is or is not “ the voice obeyed at prime.” In what respect, then, is it held that this poem fails of the mark set by the old one so long ago ? It does not fail in the ideal of personal duty, of which the manly English pattern is celebrated in the boy’s father’s death and in the squire’s long life, and is inculcated very nobly by the old man in his direct advice to the boy ; and it is to be observed that all is definite and practical now, whereas the old poem was essentially vague. It does not fail, either, in the appreciation of worth as the stamp of manhood, and the assertion that it is independent of rank, to be found often among the people in its most noble and useful forms; and this position, commonplace as it is, is stated with marked emphasis, and in no half-hearted or reluctant words. In point of humanity, certainly nothing can be advanced against it, for the condition of the poor in modern life has never been set forth in lines of more burning shame than here. It is true he denounces Zolaism ; but in " the years of April blood,” of which he once wrote, he would surely have done the same, and now he would find young hands enough to hold up his arm in that cause, if there were any need. So one might go through the whole poem, to find that the words are those of wisdom ; unless, indeed, some doubt should arise with regard to the couplets which seem aimed at the doctrine of government by suffrage, and in these he does not so much protest as express doubt and hesitation. The fact is that in particulars most persons of sense and judgment will agree with this poem ; but at the same time many of them, who are still possessed of the hopefulness and energy of life, will feel a certain unfriendliness in the mood of Tennyson, a certain cold and grimness, which has in it just a shade of despair. This does pervade the poem, and finds definite expression in the sense of how little is accomplished toward reforming the world in any one age, how much of personal error there is in individual life, how often in the life of nations there are periods of decline and failure, and in like commonplaces, which gather more weight and meaning in proportion as one grows in experience ; and especially it is to be remarked that, in defining the characteristics of the present age, the poet dwells upon what makes for danger and sorrow and all things evil, to the exclusion of the other half of the horizon. The poem, so far as it goes, is just and sound, and it touches upon great phases of the general life in a thoroughly humane, wise, and righteous way; but it is an imperfect view, — imperfect even for old age ; and if we were asked wherein its great deficiency lies we should be forced to answer that the speaker, whether he be Tennyson or only a character of imagination, lacks faith, both in the overruling of Providence and in man himself. We have found it impossible to reconcile the general drift and temper of the poem in regard to society with the acknowledgment of the divine power, which is one of its leading traits. Such a subject, however, is to be touched with a light hand ; and we have already said enough to explain our judgment that this new Locksley Hall is a really great poem, which must in time recover from the odium under which it lies, and take a high place among the works of its author. In detail it is crowded with beautiful English scenes and with noble poetic images ; its workmanship, though difficult, is in the grand style of art; and in ethical power it exceeds the earlier poem, because its passion is not that of a selfish and heated youth, but is identified with the uncertain tragedy of impersonal humanity in the mass. Since The Revenge, Tennyson has written no work of this lofty kind; nor does the remainder of this collection — The Fleet, and The Promise of May — contain anything in the same level.
We would gladly find it in our power to say a word in advocacy of the volume which Browning has just published,2 with even less recognition from the public than is the lot of his great contemporary. These “ people of importance in their day ” have been brought back into a very dubious after-fame, in these imaginary conversations or reflective monologues in which they play their silent part as the text of the sermon. After one ends the reading, he does not feel very much better acquainted with them than he did before, and his notion of what they thought and did is at the best a confused one. It may be that greater patience with verbal difficulties would suffice to unlock the treasure, but no number of re-readings works the charm for us. For one who retains the words and grammar of English, Browning comes marvellously near to writing in a foreign language, and often his verse makes the same impression on the mind as a very corrupt passage of Greek poetry; one feels the nobleness of the thought, but is futilely exasperated by the text. There are some lines in these poems that exhibit his familiar earnestness and force, and a Roundhead lyric that will cling to the memory ; there is, in particular, a page about Prometheus which is a fine example of the Browningesque, the neo-Æschylean, or whatever you choose to call it, and in the last dialogue, which takes dignity and eloquence from its subject, there are two or three strokes of intense dramatic power. For the rest, it is to be acknowledged that the volume belongs with those works of Browning which it is the special province of his organized admirers to make explorations in, and to report progress upon from time to time. In extenso it is not for the uninitiated; it is not for lovers of limpid speech, of the music of words and those poetic harmonies of sense and feeling that steal upon the reader with sudden self-revelations of beauty; it is not for those who find in poetry the simplest expression of thought; but if one has a metaphysical taste and delights in reasoning curiously about men and things, and if he does not particularly notice whether it is Greek, or German, or English, or a music-score, that he is reading, then this volume is a gift of the Muses to him. All that we have said, it, is understood, Mr. Browning would admit and defend. The only defense worth anything lies in the work itself; and there are many persons, apparently, who think highly of just such work as this from the same hand, and who doubtless will duly appreciate the addition to the set. Their opinion is to be kept in mind ; and, for our part, we can only congratulate them on a pleasure which is denied to us.
- Locksley Hall Sixty Years After, etc. By ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON. London: Macmillan & Co. 1886.↩
- Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in their Day. To wit, Bernard de Mandeville, Daniel Bartoli, Christopher Smart, George Bubb Dodington, Francis Furini, Gerard de Lairesse, and Charles Avison. Introduced by a dialogue between Apollo and the Fates; concluded by another between John Fust and his Friends. By ROBERT BROWNING. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1887.↩