Alfred Tennyson 1809-1892 - “the dirty monk” . The label he took after seeing his portrait by Julia Cameron. Most critics prefer “the Sophocles of England” feeling that he was easily akin to the classic, gracious, well-loved figure who drew for his dramas old Athenian characters “to win the popular ear at such a time...to make them feel that these things are beautiful,” to reintroduce the bonds of “national life” and “counter the pending disintegration making the people sordid and cynical.” Tennyson was a scholar from the very beginning, an aristocratic education culminating with an advanced degree from Trinity College, Cambridge. Free of the trials and tribulations that must have presence in the evolution of great poets -of whom Fraser reminds us: Homer, old and blind, singing his way from town to town; Aeschylus and Sophocles roused into impassioned expression of heroic thought by the sight of their country’s ruin; Horace, reduced to a clerkship, and Vigil stripped of his Mantuan farm, and compelled to seek in verse the only solace for their misfortunes; Dante, roaming Ulysses-like with hungry heart, and snatching from the flames of his own Inferno the fruitage and flowers of Paradise; Petrarch, slain by his great love for Laura; Tasso, a madman in a padded cell; Schiller and Goethe, extracting the sweets of most divine philosophy from the tumultuous experiences of a tempestuous youth; Cervantes, begging his way for bread, and enlivening the gloom of his dungeon by the company of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; William Shakespeare, holding horses’ heads and acting as a super of a London theatre; Marlowe and Jonson, uncertain where to get a dinner or a bed; Greene, famous for his lives, as he was infamous for his life, dying of a surfeit of Rhenish wine and pickled herring; Chatterton, the marvellous boy, who perished in his pride; Milton, old, blind, ruined, and forsaken; Bunyan, the sub-line dreamer, making shoe-laces or tags in Bedford jail; Goldsmith, pawning his peach-colored coat for a meal; Dr. Johnson, writing his Rasselas on his mother’s coffin to procure money with which to defray the expenses of her funeral; Fielding, Burns, Scott, Hood, Byron, Shelley, Poe, Blake, DeBalzac, DeMusset, Heine, Beranger, Eliot and Carlyle - all have followed the aphorism:
Not so Tennyson, he is the anomaly, the negator, the disproof to those who follow ‘Continuous prosperity is destructive to poetic fire.’ For character, appearance, and other image reference we offer this letter written by Thomas Carlyle to Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1844:
“Alfred is one of the few British or Foreign figures (a not increasing number I think!) who are and remain beautiful to me; a true human soul, or some authentic approximation thereto, to whom your own soul can say, Brother! However I doubt he will not come; he often skips me, in these brief visits to Town; skips everybody indeed; being a man solitary and sad, as certain men are, dwelling in an element of gloom, carrying a bit of Chaos about him in short, which he is manufacturing into Cosmos!...Alfred is the son of a Lincolnshire gentleman farmer, I think; indeed, you see in his verses that he is a native of “moated granges,” and green, fat pastures, not of mountains and their torrents and storms. He had his breeding at Cambridge, as if for the Law or Church; being master of a small annuity on his father’s decease, he preferred clubbing with his Mother and some sisters, to live unpromoted and write poems. In this way he lives still , now here, now there; the family always within reach of London, never in it; he himself making rare and brief visits lodging in some old comrade’s rooms. I think he must be under forty, not much under it. One of the finest-looking men in the world. A great shock of rough dusty-dark hair; bright-laughing hazel eyes; massive aquiline face, most massive yet most delicate; of sallow-brown complexion, almost Indian-looking; clothes cynically loose, free-and-easy; smokes infinite tobacco. His voice is musical metallic, fit for loud laughter and piercing wail, and all that may lie in between; speech and speculation free and plenteous; I do not meet, in these late decades, such company over a pipe! We shall see what he will grow to he is often unwell; very chaotic, his way is through Chaos and the bottomless and pathless; not handy for making out many miles upon.”
Tennyson’s first publication Poems appeared in 1830. He succeeded Wordsworth as Poet Laureate in 1850. Tennyson himself advises us in The Dead Prophet:
With permision let us look at some of the “warts and moles” of Tennyson. First was he a Laureate with no message only anachronisms given the likes of Arthur and Lancelot, and Gawain and Galahad? Second, “reclusiveness.” As one friend wrote: “He would have wished that, like Shakespeare, his life might be unknown to posterity.” Although it is true that he had no need or yearning for the open society of London streets, his home in the little town of Yarmouth “a medaeval Venice” was open to all those of similar pursuits the statement itself indicates a certain class.
A third might be repetitiousness “like sucking a series of sugar cubes” as in The Lady of Shalott:
“holy” - “lowly” - “slowly” - “wholly” and “loom” - “room” - “bloom” - “plume” and “”clear”- “year” - “appear” “near”
“Much of the persona of Tennyson had much to do with the demands of the Victorian Era. We know that Tennyson searched the past for suitable subjects that could be moralized appropriately not just viewed as enchanting and entertaining resulting in The Lady of Shalott, Idylls of the King, I would include Mariana. I believe Tennyson gave the Victorian society what it craved - he sensed they did not want to hear “of the suffering, sorrowing, sinning, heavy-laden sons of the fields”. In a sense it was much like the movie industry of the 1920's - for a nickel and three hours, the poor, drudging, working class could escape the their drab, everyday lives. His retreat from the hoi polloi, the great unwashed, was part of his persona. He deceived no one; that was not his theme. His theme was to set into verse the universal experiences of human life. Thus it could be the duty of the foot soldier:
The work of ones enemies in Idylls of the King where only characterless, unengaged men avoided having enemies.”
In his England it was “a day of bright dreams and confident auguries; for democracy and steam, all things were to be possible. Then came the reaction; doubts and difficulties thickened; questions started up in every field, bringing with them unrest, discouragement, or even despair...” Tennyson brought them faith, beauty, reverence and charity through his poetry. For ten years he had the luxury of silent study while the “world was still blind to the magic, and deaf to the melody.” He breathed a different atmosphere.
Tennyson was a gentleman of a caste, the windows of his study closed for the need for solitude or as some critics say “to keep out the smell of the people.” Does he sneer in these words at shop-keepers and cotton-made merchants of the middle-class?
Was it not the truth? “Among all the masters of English, there is none who can give more exquisite delight...and probably none who has brought a larger gift of noble pleasure and of comfort to people of all sorts, especially to those in perplexity or sorrow.” R. C. Jebb
From John Fraser:
“No chill penury ever froze his noble rage; no clamorous dun ever knocked at his door. Nurtured in England’s formost University, and surrounded from the cradle with admirers and friends; brought up in luxury, an having at his disposal all those refinements and conveniencies that minister to life’s comfort; his soul untorn by great passion; his life unmarred by any great excesses; crowned with the laurel-wreath of English song...Tennyson has walked through life as through a beautiful garden full of great works of art; singing birds and music and flowers;... He stands forth a noble example of an almost ideal respectability in whose life and writings detraction itself can find no flaw”
Our first characteristic is variety in style, subject, rhyme and meter.
Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.
Of subject. “The daily papers are somewhat late in reaching the Isle of Wight; but the poet could find inspiration even in a source so apparently prosaic as a Times column. He noted down some of those valiant and soul-stirring episodes which go unrecorded save by a passing paragraph; and the poem which, perhaps, has held the public fancy longest, was written a few minutes after reading the description containing the phrase ‘Someone had blundered.” [of Charge of the Light Brigade]
“Tennyson continued to work in what is fundamentally the accentual-syllabic line bequeathed by the Augustans with its strict syllabic limitation and its conservative placement of stresses.” Fussell
“In 1875 appeared the first of three historical dramas...an entirely new field of work, dramatic poetry.” Gayley
“Critics have have argued that Tennyson’s style changed after his Laureate appointment - citing a political stance not yet seen.” Black
“Tennyson uses the spondee to signal ‘end’ to excess especially in Ulysses” Fussell
“Tennyson did venture to open The Lotos Eaters with five Spenserian stanzas” Fussell
“Experimental metres putting the ear to torture; or an utter disregard of all metre, of all the harmonies of verse, together with an incessant toil after originality of phrase; as if no new idea could be expressed unless each separate word bore also an aspect of novelty.” Fussell
“Tennyson was the poetic craftsman in search of subject, equipped to ring the changes on vowel sounds' subtle rhythms.” Daiches
“...a poet who is everywhere an exquisite artist, and who is also remarkable versatile, cannot be adequately judged excpeyt by the sum total of his work.” Ward
“His versatility is not less remarkable: no English poet has left masterpieces in so many different kinds of verse.” Jebb
“And he invents a new style an admirable one, for the expression of many strange but real feelings, in Maud. Elton
“The features of original genius are clearly and strongly marked. The author imitates nobody.” Hallam
“Tennyson’s style was indeed, from the first wholly distinct from that of any poet who had preceded him.” Ward
This diversity of merit is not to be accounted for by the diverse nature of the subject-matter which the poet has at different times treated; for Mr Tennyson has given us the happiest specimens of the most different styles of composition, employed on a singular variety of topics. He has been grave and graceful, playful and even broadly comic, with complete success. As a finished portraiture of a peculiar state of mind—conceived with philosophic truth, and embellished with all the fascinating associations which it is the province of poetry to call around us—nothing could surpass the poem of the Lotus Eaters. For playfulness, and tender, amorous fancy—warm, but not too warm—spiritual, but not too spiritual—we shall go far before we find a rival to the Talking Oak, or to the Day Dream: what better ballad can heart desire than the Lord of Burleigh?
“He is indeed an English Virgil with all the grace and more than Virgil’s variety...” Fraser
Our second characteristic is disciplined, strong willed, serious intellect.
"The woman's cause is man's: they rise or sinkTogether, dwarf'd or god-like, bond or free.... For woman is not undevelopt man,But diverse: could we make her as the man,Sweet Love were slain: his dearest bond is this,Not like to like, but like in difference.Yet in the long years liker must they grow;The man be more of woman, she of man;He gain in sweetness and in moral height,Nor lose the wrestling thews that throw the world;She mental breadth, nor fail in childward care,Nor lose the childlike in the larger mind;Till at last she set herself to man,Like perfect music unto noble words;And so these twain, upon the skirts of Time, Sit side by side, full-summ'd in all their powers.... Let this proud watchword restOf equal; seeing either sex aloneIs half itself, and in the marriage tiesNor equal, nor unequal; each fulfilsDefect in each, and always thought in thought,Purpose in purpose, will in will they grow,The single pure and perfect animal,The two-cell'd heart beating with one full strokeLife." The Princess
"For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see, Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rained a ghastly dewFrom the nations' airy navies grappling in the central blue;Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,With the standards of the peoples plunging through the thunderstorm;Till the war-drum throbbed no longer, and the battle flags were furledIn the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world...Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward, let us range,Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.Thro' the shadow of the globe we sweep into the younger day;Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay." Locksley Hall
Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.
“The Laureate's sympathies were wide-reaching, and his conversation, forcible and often racy, was characterised by the strongest common-sense. He held firmly-defined views on all social subjects; and had declared himself on the question of "Woman's Rights"—then comparatively fresh—at considerable length in The Princess.” Hodder
“Subject to slight inevitable variations, a certain method and routine governed the day of Tennyson. He had definite working-times, indoors and out, and accustomed habits of family life.”
“A little while after breakfast, Tennyson would retire to his "den" on the top storey, for that "sacred half-hour" devoted to poetical composition, and assisted by his beloved pipe, during which nobody dared disturb him. This den, or study, formed a setting worthy of its inmate. Every inch of wall was covered with portrait, sketches, drawings. Almost every distinguished name of the nineteenth century was in some manner represented here: the poet literally worked surrounded by his friends. And in this congenial atmosphere he devoted himself to that life-long pursuit of his, as he has imaged it in the Gleam, which "flying onward, wed to the melody, sang through the world."
Whatever respective values a future generation may set upon Tennyson's work, there can be little doubt that he himself considered the Idylls of the King, with its inner spiritual meanings, as his greatest work. "There is no single fact or incident in the Idylls," he said, "which cannot be explained without any mystery or allegory whatever." Hence their appeal to the least mystical reader, through sheer beauty of language and superb pictorial effect. But at the same time he let it be known that his whole story was inherently one of pure symbolism: starting from the suggestion that Arthur represented conscience. This idea is predominant, without undue insistence upon it, in Guinevere.”
“...greatest excellence of all, there is the noble seriousness of Tennyson’s verse. This alone entitles it to a high place, and will, if anything can, hand it down to posterity.” Fraser
“...another of Mr. Tennyson’s virtues - his exceeding conscientiousness and care...Of all the poets, Tennyson is the most artistic; a faulty metre, an inappropriate epithet, a careless line, is in his later works ...so rare as to call for notice only for its exceptionalness.” Fraser
“Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control” Tennyson
“He was silent for ten years, during which he subjected his old work to unsparing revision and disciplined himself for work , yet better by unwearying self-criticism.” R.C. Jebb
Our third characteristic is conscientious, careful, minute execution of description of nature.
"Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font:The firefly wakens: waken thou with me....Now lies the Earth all Danäe to the stars,And all thy heart lies open unto me.
"Now slides the silent meteor on, and leavesA shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.
"Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,And slips into the bosom of the lake:So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slipInto my bosom and be lost in me." The Princess
"Come into the garden, Maud,For the black bat, night, has flown,Come into the garden, Maud,I am here at the gate alone;And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad,And the musk of the rose is blown.For a breeze of morning moves,And the planet of Love is on high,Beginning to faint in the light that she lovesOn a bed of daffodil sky.To faint in the light of the sun she loves,To faint in his light, and to die....
"And the soul of the rose went into my blood,As the music clash'd in the hall;And long by the garden lake I stood,For I heard your rivulet fallFrom the lake to the meadow and on to the wood,Our wood, that is dearer than all;
"From the meadow your walks have left so sweetThat whenever a March wind sighsHe sets the jewel-print of your feetIn violets blue as your eyes,To the woody hollows in which we meetAnd the valleys of Paradise.
"The slender acacia would not shakeOne long milk-bloom on the tree;The white lake-blossom fell into the lakeAs the pimpernel dozed on the lea;But the rose was awake all night for your sake,Knowing your promise to me;The lilies and roses were all awake,They sighed for the dawn and thee.
"Queen rose of the rosebud garden of girls,Come hither, the dances are done,In gloss of satin, and glimmer of pearls,Queen lily and rose in one;Shine out, little head, sunning over with curls,To the flowers and be their sun.
"There has fallen a splendid tearFrom the passion-flower at the gate,She is coming, my dove, my dear;She is coming, my life, my fate;The red rose cries, 'She is near, she is near;'And the white rose weeps, 'She is late;'The larkspur listens, 'I hear, I hear;'And the lily whispers, 'I wait.'" Maud
“Come from haunts of coot and hern, I make a sudden sally,And sparkle out among the fern,To bicker down a valley."I chatter over stony ways,In little sharps and trebles,I bubble into eddying bays,I bubble on the pebbles.
"With many a curve my banks I fret,By many a field and fallow,And many a fairy foreland setWith willow-weed and mallow."I wind about, and in and out,With many a blossom sailing,And here and there a lusty trout,And here and there a grayling.
"And here and there a foamy flakeUpon me as I travel,With many a silvery waterbreakAbove the golden gravel."I steal by lawns and grassy plots,I slide by hazel covers;I move the sweet forget-me-notsThat grow for happy lovers.
"I slide, I slide, I gloom, I glance,Among my skimming swallows;I make the netted sunbeam danceAgainst my sandy shallows.
"I murmur under moon and starsIn brambly wildernesses;I linger by my shingly bars;I loiter round my cresses;
"And out again I curve and flowTo join the brimming river,For men may come and men may go,But I go on for ever." The Brook
Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.
The same love of Nature made his eye alert for every obscurest beauty, when he put aside his gardening tools and started, as was his wont, for a stroll with some friend along the glorious cliffs of Freshwater. Those were favoured folk, who, like Mrs. Thackeray Ritchie, "walked with Tennyson along High Down, treading the turf, listening to his talk, while the gulls came sideways, flashing their white breasts against the edge of the cliff, and the Poet's cloak flapped time to the gusts of the west wind." This cloak and the Poet were practically synonymous.
"Master was a wonderful man for nature and life." No one quotation could do justice to his powers: but the lesser music of the countryside tinkles and ripples audibly through The Brook and all the exquisite details of its landscape.” Farningham
“The beauty and accuracy of his descriptions of scenery and plants; uniting the scientific accuracy of the botanist with the delicate fancy and romantic glamour of the poet.” Fraser
“The long quiet years in Lincolnshire had endowed him with an almost unrivalled power of detail: and, as the old Farringford shepherd said in dying, "Master was a wonderful man for nature and life." No one quotation could do justice to his powers: but the lesser music of the countryside tinkles and ripples audibly through The Brook and all the exquisite details of its landscape.” Jebb
“The same love of nature made his eye alert for every obscurest beauty, when he put aside his gardening tools and started...for a stroll along the glorious cliffs of freshwater...treading the turf...while gulls came sideways, flashing their white breasts against the edge of the cliff...” Fitzgerald
“After many ebbs and flows of feelings he finds that grief is a true possession; and he begins to found a kind of faith upon it...he judges, as a matter of blind faith, that evil may in the end somehow generate good, in spite of the indifference of Nature to man her chief product....after this his love grows afresh, and widens out to include mankind, whose hopes and future occupy him to the calming of his grief. Love, now universalised, is seen to be the principle of human progress. Man’s freewill, and the outlook of the race, form a foundation for hope.” Elton speaking of In Memoriam
Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.
“During these quiet rambles he was wont to discuss with enthusiasm the religious and social problems of the day; they weighed heavily upon his thoughtful mind. His philosophy was a hopeful one, rooted in Christian belief, yet constantly over-shadowed by fugitive misgivings and by a sense of the impermanence of human existence. And while voicing these misgivings in lines which might give pause to weaker minds, he never lost his firm faith in right, in duty, and in ultimate rectification of all apparent wrong.” Hodder
“In Memoriam is a typical product of his art, but it is even more representative of his attitude towards the problems and mysteries of human life.” Jebb
“Two strains are interwoven throughout...one is personal, the memory and the sorrow as they effect a poet; the other is broadly human...the experience of the soul as it contemplates life and death...” Jebb
The public “cherished a poet who placed the centre of religion in a simple reliance on the divine love; who taught that, through all struggles toward some final good; who saw the results of science not as dangers but as reinforcements to faith; who welcomed material progress and industrial vigour, but always sought to maintain the best tradition of English history and character.” Jebb
Tennyson died at eighty-three. He is buried beside Robert Browning in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey.
We close with Tennyson’s own closing choice: