Tennyson's New Poems
A NEW work by Tennyson is the best gift that literature has had in her bestowal for these many years ; and this last volume, with its familiar grace and charm, renews the old pleasure. His art has already reached the limit of poetical variety ; there is no new chord for him to strike; but in this volume he shows once more his mastery through all its range, and he gives us some poems as noble in feeling, as finished in style, as musical in cadence, as ever, though the limits are narrow often-times and the motives slight. The two principal pieces are Demeter’s monologue over Persephone, who has just been restored to her, and the dramatic story of The Ring. Both of these will be welcome to lovers of verse, for their smooth - flowing, delightful movement, their frequent felicities of simple phrase, and the loveliness of their images; and besides these literary qualities, the thought in Demeter and the mere story of The Ring have greater attraction. In retelling the myth of Enna, indeed, Tennyson has introduced into it a mystical and modern element, and has touched the lines with an infinite Christian suggestion, as if he saw mainly in the Greek tale of Persephone one of those prefiguring types of Christian truth which the Fathers have often sought both in pagan mythology and in the Old Testament. It is the Resurrection itself that the poet seems to have in mind, but in an inchoate and premonitory form which gives the touch of prophecy to Demeter’s words, and makes her figure like that of the oracular priestess, in whose responses there is more of expectation than of revelation. What we see in the poem is the fate of man and the world as it lay under the shadow of paganism, dark and doubtful, but waiting with a dim and uncertain foreknowledge for the coming of those kinder gods.
As we bore down the Gods before us ? Gods,
To quench, not hurl the thunderbolt, to stay,
Not spread the plague, the famine; Gods indeed.
To send the noon into the night and break
The sunless halls of Hades into Heaven ?
Till thy dark lord accept and love the Sun,
And all the Shadow die into the Light.”
This secondary meaning in the poem gives to it a peculiar charm, and takes it out of the class of poems upon ancient myths, which merely reproduce Greek imagination and appeal only to an aesthetic taste. The Ring, on the other hand, is only a story, with a weird element in it and some bits of English landscape, yet mainly made out of human life. It is a better piece of dramatic narrative than we have had from the poet in a long time.
It is not necessary to speak of the other poems in detail, one by one. Perhaps the most attractive of those in the body of the volume is the rendering of Tennyson’s own life as a poet under the image of Merlin. The music of this piece so harmonizes with its mood, its progress is so noble, the accent of sincerity in it is so clear and direct, and the expression is so flawless, that it must come to be ranked high in Tennyson’s work, while the subject of itself will endear it to those who are attached to his poetry. The more pleasing portions of the volume in general, however, are those which illustrate his skill in familiar verse, addressed to friends, and those which add to the already long list of his songs a half dozen more, of exquisite purity, originality, and charm. The dedicatory stanzas to Lord Dufferin, in which he is not forgetful of the viceroy’s large fame, but dwells rather on his kindness to the poet’s son in India, and utters a few words of elegy for the latter, are the finest example of this familiar style which the volume offers, and they will be prized as one of the best poems he has done in this kind. They are, indeed, so intimate and at the same time so noble an expression of the poet’s life that one hesitates to speak of them, though feeling grateful to have read them. Besides these stanzas, the three to Professor Jebb are in a vein of compliment that could not be bettered, though one always wishes that Tennyson, when he takes the bewitching measure used in them, would not let it fall back into silence again so soon. The lines to Mary Boyle, prefacing another poem, are interesting because of a few autobiographical touches, and the concluding stanzas are perfect in their touch of age. We cannot forbear to quote them, though they will already be familiar : —
He dreams of that long walk thro’ desert life
Without the one.
“ The silver year should cease to mourn and sigh —
So close are we, dear Mary, you and I,
To that dim gate.”
The verses entitled Ulysses, also, although not equally distinguished with the rest, have the same ease and lightness that characterize Tennyson’s friendly tributes, and they contain some pleasant details of his home and the winter landscape that he likes.
The most delightful poems, however, seem to us the half dozen songs to which we have referred. The music of these, their clearness of tone, even their ingenuity, which at first may seem defect of naturalness in some cases, make them favorites. Each of Tennyson’s later volumes has contained something of this sort, but none has given us so many as this last. The Ring opens with one of them, a bride’s song to the honeymoon :
Bright in blue,
Moon of married hearts,
Hear me, you !
Bring me bliss,
Globing Honey Moons
Bright as this.”
The whole song goes on with equal melody. We find another in the dramatic monologue called Romney’s Remorse, — a cradle-song sung by Romney’s wife over their child : —
Beat upon mine ! you are mine, my sweet!
All mine from your pretty blue eyes to your feet,
For I give you this, and I give you this !
And I blind your pretty blue eyes with a kiss!
And gather the roses whenever they blow,
And find the white heather wherever you go,
My sweet! ”
At the end of the book, finally, one comes upon a little cluster of these lyrics, — Far - Far - Away, The Snowdrop, The Throstle, and The Oak, — in which there is the strange music, still perfect, of Tennyson’s originality in note and rhythm ; the peculiar melody and manner which, perhaps, one must learn to like, but which, when once it has grown familiar, subdues the ear to its enchantment, and captivates the reader completely before he has done with it. These little pieces seem slight, like playthings of the Muse, but we may be sure that they are fragile shells that will outwear every storm. Of these new examples, The Throstle will be easily accepted, being so plainly a perfect bird-song, and we do not know where one would find the same merely natural sympathy with the voices of spring short of the May-songs of the Elizabethans. The Oak, too, will make its way with all. Of the Snowdrop, however, one would not risk so unlimited a prophecy ; and because it seems least likely to have justice done it, we try our readers with it: —
Ever as of old time,
Coming in the cold time,
Prophet of the gay time,
Prophet of the May time, Prophet of the roses,
Many, many welcomes,
February fair-maid! ”
We shall mention but one more poem, also a lyric, butof a different strain, — the simple, serene, confident, full-flowing lines called Crossing the Bar, made pathetic by brief falls of the melody, which is in perfect keeping with the poet’s mood. These stanzas are a thought of death, but one so imaged and expressed as to have only the brightness of a forward-looking faith in it, tempered by no more of regret than naturally falls with “ twilight and evening-bell ” by the quiet, outgoing tide.
We have spoken of only a small portion of this volume, in all of which the art and power of Tennyson are felt and the great variousness of his moods illustrated in poems each of which seems to stand by itself, with an individuality of its own. There is no room for regret that he continues to write ; there is no failure in his art; and this last collection adds many poems to those which will be treasured. The touch of age is in its spirit, here and there, but it is not a touch that weakens the hand or makes less “ his honor and his due ; ” it softens the retrospect of life, hardens the sense of righteousness, lends something of pathos to his “ late eve,” but it is always felt on the page in a noble way. The work of his last years will long be famous in our literature for the remarkable tenacity of his genius, and it falls to our generation only to be grateful for every added grain of gold in the treasure he is leaving us, already one of the richest possessions of our own race.