John Stuart Mill

 

 

Tennyson's Poems

 

1.  Poems, chiefly Lyrical, by Alfred Tennyson. Effingham Wilson. 1830.
2.  Poems. By Alfred Tennyson. Moxon. 1833.

 

TOWARDS the close of the year 1830 appeared a small volume of poems, the work of a young and unknown author, and which, with considerable faults (some of them of a bad kind), gave evidence of powers such as had not for many years been displayed by any new aspirant to the character of a [403] poet. This first publication was followed in due time by a second, in which the faults of its predecessor were still visible, but were evidently on the point of disappearing; while the positive excellence was not only greater and more uniformly sustained, but of a higher order. The imagination of the poet, and his reason, had alike advanced: the one had become more teeming and vigorous, while its resources had been brought more habitually and completely under the command of the other.

The notice which these poems have hitherto received from the more widely-circulated and influential organs of criticism consists, so far as we are aware, of two articles – a review of the first publication, in Blackwood's Magazine, and of the second, in the Quarterly Review. The article in Blackwood, along with the usual flippancy and levity of that journal, evinced one of its better characteristics – a genuine appreciation and willing recognition of genius. It was not to be expected that a writer in 'Blackwood' could accomplish a criticism on a volume of poetry, without cutting capers and exhibiting himself in postures, as Drawcansir says, 'because he dare.' The article on Mr. Tennyson is throughout in a strain of mocking exaggeration. Some reviewers write to extol their author, others to laugh at him; this writer was desirous to do both – first to make the book appear beyond all measure contemptible, next in the highest degree admirable – putting the whole force of his mind alternately into these two purposes. If we can forgive this audacious sporting with his reader and his subjects, the critique is otherwise not without merit. The praise and blame, though shovelled out rather than measured, are thrown into the right places; the real merits and defects of the poems are pointed out with discrimination, and a fair enough impression left of the proportion between the two; and it is evident that if the same writer were to review Mr. Tennyson's second publication, his praise, instead of being about equally balanced by his censure, would be but slightly qualified by it.

Of Mr. Tennyson's two volumes, the second was the only one which fell into the hands of the Quarterly Reviewer; and his treatment of it, compared with the notice taken by Blackwood of its more juvenile predecessor, forms a contrast, characteristic of the two journals. Whatever may be in other respects our opinion of Blackwood's Magazine, it is impossible to deny to its principal writers (or writer) a certain susceptibility of sense, a geniality of temperament. Their mode of writing about works of genius is that of a person who derives much enjoyment from them, and is grateful for it. Genuine powers of mind, with whatever opinions connected, seldom fail to meet with [404] response and recognition from these writers. The Quarterly Review, on the other hand, both under its original and under its present management, has been no less characterised by qualities directly the reverse of these. Every new claim upon its admiration, unless forced upon it by the public voice, or recommended by some party interest, it welcomes, not with a friendly extension of the hand, but with a curl of the lip: the critic (as we figure him to ourselves) taking up the book, in trusting anticipation of pleasure, not from the book, but from the contemplation of his own cleverness in making it contemptible. He has not missed the opportunity of admiring himself at the expense of Mr. Tennyson: although, as we have not heard that these poems have yet, like those of Mr. Robert Montgomery, reached the eleventh edition, nor that any apprehension is entertained of danger to the public taste from their extravagant popularity, we may well be astonished that performances so utterly worthless as this critic considers them, should have appeared to him deserving of so much attention from so superior a mind. The plan he adopts is no new one, but abundantly hacknied: he selects the few bad passages (not amounting to three pages in the whole), and such others as, by being separated from the context, may be made to look ridiculous; and, in a strain of dull irony, of which all the point consists in the ill-nature, he holds forth these as a specimen of the work. A piece of criticism, resembling, in all but their wit, the disgraceful articles in the early Numbers of the Edinburgh Review, on Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Meanwhile, these poems have been winning their way, by slow approaches, to a reputation, the exact limits and measure of which it would be hazardous at present to predict, but which, we believe, will not ultimately be inconsiderable. Desiring, so far as may depend upon us, to accelerate this progress, and also not without a desire to exhibit, to any who still have faith in the Quarterly Review, the value of its critical judgments, we propose to lay before those of our readers who are still unacquainted with the poems, such specimens as may justify the terms in which we have spoken of them – interspersing or subjoining a few remarks on the character and the present state of developement of Mr. Tennyson's poetic endowment.

Of all the capacities of a poet, that which seems to have arisen earliest in Mr. Tennyson, and in which he most excels, is that of scene-painting, in the higher sense of the term: not the mere power of producing that rather vapid species of composition usually termed descriptive poetry – for there is not in these volumes one passage of pure description: but the power of creating scenery, in keeping with some state of human feeling; [405] so fitted to it as to be the embodied symbol of it, and to summon up the state of feeling itself, with a force not to be surpassed by anything but reality. Our first specimen, selected from the earlier of the two volumes, will illustrate chiefly this quality of Mr. Tennyson's productions. We do not anticipate that this little poem will be equally relished at first by all lovers of poetry: and indeed if it were, its merit could be but of the humblest kind; for sentiments and imagery which can be received at once, and with equal ease, into every mind, must necessarily be trite. Nevertheless, we do not hesitate to quote it at full length. The subject is Mariana, the Mariana of 'Measure for Measure,' living deserted and in solitude in the 'moated grange.' The ideas which these two words suggest, impregnated with the feelings of the supposed inhabitant, have given rise to the following picture: –

' With blackest moss the flower-plots
    Were thickly crusted, one and all,
  The rusted nails fell from the knots
    That held the peach to the garden-wall.
  The broken sheds looked sad and strange,
    Unlifted was the clinking latch,
    Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
  Upon the lonely moated grange.
        She only said, "My life is dreary,
            He cometh not," she said;
        She said, "I am aweary, aweary;
            I would that I were dead!"

' Her tears fell with the dews at even,
    Her tears fell ere the dews were dried,
  She could not look on the sweet heaven,
    Either at morn or eventide.
  After the flitting of the bats,
    When thickest dark did trance the sky,
    She drew her casement-curtain by,
  And glanced athwart the glooming flats.
        She only said, "The night is dreary,
            He cometh not," she said:
        She said, "I am aweary, aweary,
            I would that I were dead!"

' Upon the middle of the night,
    Waking she heard the night-fowl crow:
  The cock sung out an hour ere light:
    From the dark fen the oxen's low
  Came to her: without hope of change,
    In sleep she seemed to walk forlorn,
    Till cold winds woke the grey-eyed morn
  About the lonely moated grange.
        [406] She only said, "The day is dreary,
            He cometh not," she said;
        She said, "I am aweary, aweary,
            I would that I were dead!"

' About a stone-cast from the wall,
    A sluice with blackened waters slept,
  And o'er it many, round and small,
    The clustered marishmosses crept.
  Hard by a poplar shook alway,
    All silver-green with gnarled bark,
    For leagues no other tree did dark
  The level waste, the rounding grey.
        She only said, "My life is dreary,
            He cometh not," she said;
        She said, "I am aweary, aweary,
            I would that I were dead!"

' And ever when the moon was low,
    And the shrill winds were up an' away,
  In the white curtain, to and fro,
    She saw the gusty shadow sway.
  But when the moon was very low,
    And wild winds bound within their cell,
    The shadow of the poplar fell
  Upon her bed, across her brow.
        She only said, "The night is dreary,
            He cometh not," she said;
        She said, "I am aweary, aweary,
            I would that I were dead!"

' All day within the dreamy house,
    The doors upon their hinges creaked,
  The blue-fly sung i' the pane; the mouse
    Behind the mouldering wainscot shrieked,
  Or from the crevice peered about.
    Old faces glimmered through the doors,
    Old footsteps trod the upper floors,
  Old voices called her from without.
        She only said, "My life is dreary,
            He cometh not," she said;
        She said, "I am aweary, aweary,
            I would that I were dead!"

' The sparrow's chirrup on the roof,
    The slow clock ticking, and the sound
  Which to the wooing wind aloof
    The poplar made, did all confound
  Her sense; but most she loathed the hour
    When the thickmoted sunbeam lay
    Athwart the chambers, and the day
  Downsloped was westering in his bower
        [407] Then, said she, "I am very dreary,
            He will not come," she said;
        She wept, "I am aweary, aweary,
            Oh God, that I were dead!" '

In the one peculiar and rare quality which we intended to illustrate by it, this poem appears to us to be pre-eminent. We do not, indeed, defend all the expressions in it, some of which seem to have been extorted from the author by the tyranny of rhyme; and we might find much more to say against the poem, if we insisted upon judging of it by a wrong standard. The nominal subject excites anticipations which the poem does not even attempt to fulfil. The humblest poet, who is a poet at all, could make more than is here made of the situation of a maiden abandoned by her lover. But that was not Mr. Tennyson's idea. The love-story is secondary in his mind. The words 'he cometh not' are almost the only words which allude to it at all. To place ourselves at the right point of view, we must drop the conception of Shakspeare's Mariana, and retain only that of a 'moated grange,' and a solitary dweller within it, forgotten by mankind. And now see whether poetic imagery ever conveyed a more intense conception of such a place, or of the feelings of such an inmate. From the very first line, the rust of age and the solitude of desertion are, on the whole, picture. Words surely never excited a more vivid feeling of physical and spiritual dreariness: and not dreariness alone – for that might be felt under many other circumstances of solitude – but the dreariness which speaks not merely of being far from human converse and sympathy, but of being deserted by it.

Our next specimen shall be of a character remote from this. It is the second of two poems, 'The May Queen' and 'New Year's Eve' – the one expressing the wild, overflowing spirits of a light-hearted girl, just chosen Queen of the May; the latter, the feelings of the same girl some months afterwards, when dying by a gradual decay. We regret that the opening of the latter poem must lose in our pages the effect of contrast produced by its immediately succeeding the former: –

' If you're waking, call me early, call me early, mother dear,
  For I would see the sun rise upon the glad Newyear.
  It is the last Newyear that I shall ever see,
  Then ye may lay me low i' the mould, and think no more o' me.

' To-night I saw the sun set: he set and left behind
  The good old year, the dear old time, and all my peace of mind;
  And the Newyear's coming up, mother, but I shall never see
  The may upon the blackthorn, the leaf upon the tree.

[408] ' Last May we made a crown of flowers: we had a merry day;
  Beneath the hawthorn on the green they made me Queen of May;
  And we danced about the maypole and in the hazel-copse,
  Till Charles's wain came out above the tall white chimney-tops.

' There's not a flower on all the hills: the frost is on the pane:
  I only wish to live till the snow-drops come again:
  I wish the snow would melt and the sun come out on high –
  I long to see a flower so before the day I die.

' The building rook will caw from the windy tall elmtree
  And the tufted plover pipe along the fallow lea,
  And the swallow will come back again with summer o'er the wave,
  But I shall lie alone, mother, within the mouldering grave.

' Upon the chancel-casement, and upon that grave o' mine,
  In the early early morning the summer sun will shine,
  Before the red cock crows from the farm upon the hill,
  When you are warm-asleep, mother, and all the world is still.

' When the flowers come again, mother, beneath the waning light,
  Ye'll never see me more in the long gray fields at night;
  When from the dry dark wold the summer airs blow cool,
  On the oat-grass and the sword-grass, and the bulrush in the pool.

' Ye'll bury me, my mother, just beneath the hawthorn shade,
  And ye'll come sometimes and see me where I am lowly laid.
  I shall not forget ye, mother, I shall hear ye when ye pass,
  With your feet above my head in the long and pleasant grass.

' I have been wild and wayward, but ye'll forgive me now;
  Ye'll kiss me, my own mother, upon my cheek and brow;
  Nay – nay, ye must not weep, nor let your grief be wild,
  Ye should not fret for me, mother, ye have another child.

' If I can I'll come again, mother, from out my resting place;
  Though ye'll not see me, mother, I shall look upon your face;
  Though I cannot speak a word, I shall hearken what ye say,
  And be often – often with ye when ye think I'm far away.

' Goodnight, goodnight, when I have said goodnight for evermore,
  And ye see me carried out from the threshold of the door;
  Don't let Effie come to see me till my grave be growing green:
  She'll be a better child to you than ever I have been.

' She'll find my garden tools upon the granary floor:
  Let her take 'em: they are hers: I shall never garden more:
  But tell her, when I'm gone, to train the rosebush that I set,
  About the parlour-window and the box of mignonette.

' Good-night, sweet mother: call me when it begins to dawn.
  All night I lie awake, but I fall asleep at morn;
  But I would see the sun rise upon the glad Newyear,
  So, if you're waking, call me, call me early, mother dear.'

[409] This poem is fitted for a more extensive popularity than any other in the two volumes. Simple, genuine pathos, arising out of the situations and feelings common to mankind generally, is of all kinds of poetic beauty that which can be most universally appreciated; and the genius implied in it is, in consequence, apt to be overrated, for it is also of all kinds that which can be most easily produced. In this poem there is not only the truest pathos, but (except in one passage *) perfect harmony and keeping.

The next poem which we shall quote is one of higher pretensions. Its length exceeds the usual dimensions of an extract. But the idea which would be given of the more perfect of Mr. Tennyson's poems, by detached passages, would be not merely an incomplete but a false idea. There is not a stanza in the following poem which can be felt or even understood as the poet intended, unless the reader's imagination and feelings are already in the state which results from the passage next preceding, or rather from all which precedes. The very breaks, which divide the story into parts, all tell.

If every one approached poetry in the spirit in which it ought to be approached, willing to feel it first and examine it afterwards, we should not premise another word. But there is a class of readers, (a class, too, on whose verdict the early success of a young poet mainly depends,) who dare not enjoy until they have first satisfied themselves that they have a warrant for enjoying; who read a poem with the critical understanding first, and only when they are convinced that it is right to be delighted, are willing to give their spontaneous feelings fair play. The consequence is, that they lose the general effect, while they higgle about the details, and never place themselves in the position in which, even with their mere understandings, they can estimate the poem as a whole. For the benefit of such readers, we tell them beforehand, that this is a tale of enchantment; and that they will never enter into the spirit of it unless they surrender their imagination to the guidance of the poet, with the same easy credulity with which they would read the 'Arabian Nights', or, what this story more resembles, the tales of magic of the middle ages.

Though the agency is supernatural, the scenery, as will be perceived, belongs to the actual world. No reader of any imagination will complain, that the precise nature of the enchantment is left in mystery.

[410] THE LEGEND OF THE LADY OF SHALOTT.

                    ' Part the First.
' On either side the river lie
  Long fields of barley and of rye,
  That clothe the wold, and meet the sky;
  And thro' the field the road runs by
               To manytower'd Camelot.
  The yellowleavèd waterlily,
  The green-sheathèd daffodilly,
  Tremble in the water chilly,
               Round about Shalott.

' Willows whiten, aspens shiver,
  The sunbeam-showers break and quiver
  In the stream that runneth ever
  By the island in the river,
               Flowing down to Camelot.
  Four grey walls and four grey towers
  Overlook a space of flowers,
  And the silent isle imbowers
               The Lady of Shalott.

' Underneath the bearded barley,
  The reaper, reaping late and early,
  Hears her ever chanting cheerly,
  Like an angel, singing clearly,
               O'er the stream of Camelot.
  Piling the sheaves in furrows airy,
  Beneath the moon, the reaper weary
  Listening whispers, "'Tis the fairy
               Lady of Shalott."

' The little isle is all inrailed
  With a rose-fence, and overtrailed
  With roses: by the marge unhailed
  The shallop flitteth silken-sailed,
               Skimming down to Camelot.
  A pearl garland winds her head:
  She leaneth on a velvet bed,
  Full royally apparellèd.
               The Lady of Shalott.


                    ' Part the Second.
' No time has she to sport and play:
  A charmed web she weaves alway,
  A curse is on her, if she stay
  Her weaving, either night or day,
               To look down to Camelot.
  She knows not what the curse may be;
  Therefore she weaveth steadily,
  Therefore no other care hath she,
               The Lady of Shalott.

[411] ' She lives with little joy or fear.
  Over the water, running near,
  The sheepbell tinkles in her ear.
  Before her hangs a mirror clear,
               Reflecting towered Camelot.
  And, as the mazy web she whirls,
  She sees the surly village-churls,
  And the red-cloaks of market-girls,
               Pass onward from Shalott.

' Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
  An abbot or an ambling pad,
  Sometimes a curly shepherd lad,
  Or longhaired page, in crimson clad,
               Goes by to towered Camelot.
  And sometimes thro' the mirror blue.
  The knights come riding, two and two.
  She hath no loyal knight and true,
               The Lady of Shalott.

' But in her web she still delights
  To weave the mirror's magic sights:
  For often thro' the silent nights,
  A funeral, with plumes and lights
               And music, came from Camelot.
  Or, when the moon was overhead,
  Came two young lovers, lately wed:
  "I am half-sick of shadows," said
               The Lady of Shalott.


                    ' Part the Third.
' A bow-shot from her bower-eaves
  He rode between the barley-sheaves
  The sun came dazzling thro' the leaves,
  And flamed upon the brazen greaves
               Of bold Sir Launcelot.
  A redcross knight for ever kneeled
  To a lady in his shield,
  That sparkled on the yellow field,
               Beside remote Shalott.

' The gemmy bridle glittered free,
  Like to some branch of stars we see
  Hung in the golden galaxy.
  The bridle-bells rang merrily
               As he rode down from Camelot.
  And, from his blazoned baldric slung,
  A mighty silver bugle hung,
  And, as he rode, his armour rung,
               Beside remote Shalott.

' All in the blue unclouded weather,
  Thickjewelled shone the saddle-leather.
  [412] The helmet, and the helmet-feather,
  Burned like one burning flame together,
               As he rode down from Camelot.
  As often thro' the purple night,
  Below the starry clusters bright,
  Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
               Moves over green Shalott.

' His broad clear brow in sunlight glowed.
  On burnished hooves his war-horse trode.
  From underneath his helmet flowed
  His coalblack curls, as on he rode,
               As he rode down from Camelot.
  From the bank, and from the river,
  He flashed into the crystal mirror,
  "Tirra lirra, tirra lirra,"
               Sang Sir Launcelot. *

' She left the web: she left the loom:
  She made three paces thro' the room:
  She saw the waterflower bloom:
  She saw the helmet and the plume:
               She looked down to Camelot.
  Out flew the web, and floated wide,
  The mirror cracked from side to side,
  "The curse is come upon me," cried
               The Lady of Shalott.


                    ' Part the Fourth.
' In the stormy eastwind straining,
  The pale-yellow woods were waning,
  The broad stream in his banks complaining,
  Heavily the low sky raining
               Over towered Camelot:
  Outside the isle a shallow boat
  Beneath a willow lay afloat,
  Below the carven stern she wrote,
               THE LADY OF SHALOTT.

' A cloudwhite crown of pearl she dight.
  All raimented in snowy white
  That loosely flew, (her zone in sight,
  Clasped with one blinding diamond bright,)
               Her wide eyes fixed on Camelot,
  Though the squally eastwind keenly
  Blew, with folded arms serenely
  By the water stood the queenly
               Lady of Shalott.

[413] ' With a steady, stony glance –
  Like some bold seer in a trance,
  Beholding all his own mischance,
  Mute, with a glassy countenance –
               She looked down to Camelot.
  It was the closing of the day,
  She loosed the chain, and down she lay,
  The broad stream bore her far away,
               The Lady of Shalott.

' As when to sailors while they roam,
  By creeks and outfalls far from home,
  Rising and dropping with the foam,
  From dying swans wild warblings come,
               Blown shoreward; so to Camelot
  Still as the boathead wound along,
  The willowy hills and fields among,
  They heard her chanting her deathsong,
               The Lady of Shalott.

' A longdrawn carol, mournful, holy,
  She chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
  Till her eyes were darkened wholly,
  And her smooth face sharpened slowly *
               Turned to towered Camelot:
  For ere she reached upon the tide
  The first house by the waterside,
  Singing in her song she died,
               The Lady of Shalott.

' Under tower and balcony,
  By gardenwall and gallery,
  A pale, pale corpse she floated by,
  Deadcold, between the houses high,
               Dead into towered Camelot.
  Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
  To the plankèd wharfage came,
  Below the stern they read her name,
               "The Lady of Shalott." '

In powers of narrative and scene-painting combined, this poem must be ranked among the very first of its class. The delineation of outward objects, as in the greater number of Mr. Tennyson's poems, is, not picturesque, but (if we may use the term) statuesque; with brilliancy of colour superadded. The forms are not, as in painting, of unequal degrees of definiteness; [414] the tints do not melt gradually into each other, but each individual object stands out in bold relief, with a clear decided outline. This statue-like precision and distinctness, few artists have been able to give to so essentially vague a language as that of words: but if once this difficulty be got over, scene-painting by words has a wider range than either painting or sculpture; for it can represent (as the reader must have seen in the foregoing poem), not only with the vividness and strength of the one, but with the clearness and definiteness of the other, objects in motion. Along with all this, there is in the poem all that power of making a few touches do the whole work, which excites our admiration in Coleridge. Every line suggests so much more than it says, that much may be left unsaid: the concentration, which is the soul of narrative, is obtained, without the sacrifice of reality and life. Where the march of the story requires that the mind should pause, details are specified; where rapidity is necessary, they are all brought before us at a flash. Except that the versification is less exquisite, the 'Lady of Shalott' is entitled to a place by the side of the 'Ancient Mariner,' and 'Christabel.'

Mr. Tennyson's two volumes contain a whole picture-gallery of lovely women: but we are drawing near to the limits of allowable quotation. The imagery of the following passage from the poem of 'Isabel,' in the first volume, is beautifully typical of the nobler and gentler of two beings, upholding, purifying, and, as far as possible, assimilating to itself the grosser and ruder: –

' A clear stream flowing with a muddy one,
    Till in its onward current it absorbs
       With swifter movement and in purer light
                The vexed eddies of its wayward brother –
       A leaning and upbearing parasite,
       Clothing the stem, which else had fallen quite,
    With clustered flowerbells and ambrosial orbs
                Of rich fruitbunches leaning on each other.'

We venture upon a long extract from what we consider the finest of these ideal portraits, the 'Eleänore.' The reader must not, in this case, look for the definiteness of the 'Lady of Shalott;' there is nothing statuesque here. The object to be represented being more vague, there is greater vagueness and dimness in the expression. The loveliness of a graceful woman, words cannot make us see, but only feel. The individual expressions in the poem, from which the following is an extract, may not always bear a minute analysis; but ought they to be subjected to it? They are mere colours in a picture; [415] nothing in themselves, but everything as they conduce to the general result.

' How may fullsailed verse express,
        How may measured words adore
          The fullflowing harmony
  Of thy swanlike stateliness,
                        Eleänore?
          The luxuriant symmetry
  Of thy floating gracefulness,
                        Eleänore?
        Every turn and glance of thine,
        Every lineament divine,
                        Eleänore,
  And the steady sunset glow
     That stays upon thee? For in thee
          Is nothing sudden, nothing single;
     Like two streams of incense free
        From one censer, in one shrine,
          Thought and motion mingle,
  Mingle ever.    Motions flow
  To one another, even as tho'
  They were modulated so
     To an unheard melody,
  Which lives about thee, and a sweep
     Of richest pauses, evermore
  Drawn from each other mellowdeep –
     Who may express thee, Eleänore?

' I stand before thee, Eleänore;
     I see thy beauty gradually unfold,
  Daily and hourly, more and more.
  I muse, as in a trance, the while
     Slowly, as from a cloud of gold,
  Comes out thy deep ambrosial smile.
  I muse, as in a trance, whene'er
     The languors of thy lovedeep eyes
  Float on to me.   I would I were
     So tranced, so rapt in ecstacies,
  To stand apart, and to adore,
  Gazing on thee for evermore,
  Serene, imperial Eleänore!

' Sometimes, with most intensity
  Gazing, I seem to see
  Thought folded over thought, smiling asleep,
  Slowly awakened, grow so full and deep
  In thy large eyes, that, overpowered quite,
  I cannot veil, or droop my sight,
  But am as nothing in its light.
  As though a star, in inmost heaven set,
  Ev'n while we gaze on it,
  [416] Should slowly round its orb, and slowly grow
     To a full face, there like a sun remain
     Fixed – then as slowly fade again,
        And draw itself to what it was before,
           So full, so deep, so slow
           Thought seems to come and go
        In thy large eyes, imperial Eleänore.

' As thunderclouds that, hung on high
     Did roof noonday with doubt and fear,
     Floating through an evening atmosphere
  Grow golden all about the sky;
  In thee all passion becomes passionless,
  Touched by thy spirit's mellowness,
  Losing his fire and active might
     In a silent meditation,
  Falling into a still delight
     And luxury of contemplation:
  As waves that from the outer deep
     Roll into a quiet cove,
        There fall away, and lying still,
  Having glorious dreams in sleep,
        Shadow forth the banks at will;
     Or sometimes they swell and move,
        Pressing up against the land,
           With motions of the outer sea:
              And the selfsame influence
              Controlleth all the soul and sense
           Of Passion gazing upon thee.
     His bowstring slackened, languid Love,
        Leaning his cheek upon his hand,
           Droops both his wings, regarding thee,
              And so would languish evermore,
              Serene, imperial Eleänore.'

It has for some time been the fashion, though a fashion now happily on the decline, to consider a poet as a poet, only so far as he is supposed capable of delineating the more violent passions; meaning by violent passions, states of excitement approaching to monomania, and characters predisposed to such states. The poem which follows will show how powerfully, without the slightest straining, by a few touches which do not seem to cost him an effort, Mr. Tennyson can depict such a state and such a character.

                      THE SISTERS.

' We were two daughters of one race:
  She was the fairest in the face:
            The wind is blowing in turret an' tree.
  They were together, and she fell;
  Therefore revenge became me well
            O the Earl was fair to see!

[417] ' She died: she went to burning flame:
  She mixed her ancient blood with shame.
            The wind is howling in turret an' tree.
  Whole weeks and months, and early and late,
  To win his love I lay in wait:
            O the Earl was fair to see!

' I made a feast; I bad him come:
  I won his love, I brought him home.
            The wind is roaring in turret an' tree.
  And after supper, on a bed,
  Upon my lap he laid his head:
            O the Earl was fair to see!

' I kissed his eyelids into rest;
  His ruddy cheek upon my breast.
            The wind is raging in turret an' tree.
  I hated him with the hate of hell,
  But I loved his beauty passing well.
            O the Earl was fair to see!

' I rose up in the silent night:
  I made my dagger sharp and bright.
            The wind is raving in turret an' tree.
  As half-asleep his breath he drew,
  Three times I stabbed him through and through.
            O the Earl was fair to see!

' I curled and combed his comely head,
  He looked so grand when he was dead.
            The wind is blowing in turret an' tree.
  I wrapped his body in the sheet
  And laid him at his mother's feet.
            O the Earl was fair to see!'

The second publication contains several classical subjects treated with more or less felicity. The story of the Judgment of Paris, recited by Œnone, his deserted love, is introduced in the following stately manner: –

' There is a dale in Ida, lovelier
  Than any in old Ionia, beautiful
  With emerald slopes of sunny sward, that lean
  Above the loud glenriver, which hath worn
  A path through steepdown granite walls below,
  Mantled with flowering tendriltwine.   In front
  The cedarshadowy valleys open wide.
  Far-seen, high over all the Godbuilt wall
  And many a snowycolumned range divine,
  Mounted with awful sculptures – men and Gods,
  The work of Gods – bright on the dark blue sky
  The windy citadel of Ilion
  Shone, like the crown of Troas.   Hither came
  [418] Mournful Œnone, wandering forlorn
  Of Paris, once her playmate.   Round her neck,
  Her neck all marblewhite and marblecold,
  Floated her hair or seemed to float in rest;
  She, leaning on a vine-entwinèd stone,
  Sang to the stillness, till the mountain-shadow
  Sloped downward to her seat from the upper cliff *.'

The length to which our quotations have extended, and the unsatisfactoriness of short extracts, prevent us from giving any specimen of one of the finest of Mr. Tennyson's poems, the 'Lotos-eaters.' The subject is familiar to every reader of the Odyssey. The poem is not of such sustained merit in the execution as some of the others; but the general impression resembles an effect of climate in a landscape: we see the objects through a drowsy, relaxing, but dreamy atmosphere, and the inhabitants seem to have inhaled the like. Two lines near the commencement touch the key-note of the poem: –

' In the afternoon they came unto a land
  Wherein it seemèd always afternoon.'

The above extracts by no means afford an idea of all the variety of beauty to be found in these volumes. But the specimens we have given may, we hope, satisfy the reader, that if he explore further for himself, his search will be rewarded. We shall only subjoin a few remarks, tending to an estimation of Mr. Tennyson's general character as a writer and as a poet.

 

There are in the character of every true poet, two elements, for one of which he is indebted to nature, for the other to cultivation. What he derives from nature, is fine senses: a nervous organization, not only adapted to make his outward impressions vivid and distinct (in which, however, practice does even more than nature), but so constituted, as to be, more easily than common organizations, thrown, either by physical or moral causes, into states of enjoyment or suffering, especially of enjoyment: states of a certain duration; often lasting long after the removal of the cause which produced them; and not local, nor [419] consciously physical, but, in so far as organic, pervading the entire nervous system. This peculiar kind of nervous susceptibility seems to be the distinctive character of the poetic temperament. It constitutes the capacity for poetry; and not only produces, as has been shown from the known laws of the human mind, a predisposition to the poetic associations, but supplies the very materials out of which many of them are formed *. What the poet will afterwards construct out of these materials, or whether he will construct anything of value to any one but himself, depends upon the direction given, either by accident or design, to his habitual associations. Here, therefore, begins the province of culture; and, from this point upwards, we may lay it down as a principle, that the achievements of any poet in his art will be in proportion to the growth and perfection of his thinking faculty.

Every great poet, every poet who has extensively or permanently influenced mankind, has been a great thinker; – has had a philosophy, though perhaps he did not call it by that name; – has had his mind full of thoughts, derived not merely from passive sensibility, but from trains of reflection, from observation, analysis, and generalization; however remote the sphere of his observation and meditation may have lain from the studies of the schools. Where the poetic temperament exists in its greatest degree, while the systematic culture of the intellect has been neglected, we may expect to find, what we do find in the best poems of Shelley – vivid representations of states of passive and dreamy emotion, fitted to give extreme pleasure to persons of similar organization to the poet, but not likely to be sympathized in, because not understood, by any other persons; and scarcely conducing at all to the noblest end of poetry as an intellectual pursuit, that of acting upon the desires and characters of mankind through their emotions, to raise them towards the perfection of their nature. This, like every other adaptation of means to ends, is the work of cultivated reason; and the poet's success in it will be in proportion to the intrinsic value of his thoughts, and to the command which he has acquired over the materials of his imagination, for placing those thoughts in a strong light before the intellect, and impressing them on the feelings.

The poems which we have quoted from Mr. Tennyson prove incontestably that he possesses, in an eminent degree, the [420] natural endowment of a poet – the poetic temperament. And it appears clearly, not only from a comparison of the two volumes, but of different poems in the same volume, that, with him, the other element of poetic excellence – intellectual culture – is advancing both steadily and rapidly; that he is not destined, like so many others, to be remembered for what he might have done, rather than for what he did; that he will not remain a poet of mere temperament, but is ripening into a true artist. Mr. Tennyson may not be conscious of the wide difference in maturity of intellect, which is apparent in his various poems. Though he now writes from greater fulness and clearness of thought, it by no means follows that he has learnt to detect the absence of those qualities in some of his earlier effusions. Indeed, he himself, in one of the most beautiful poems of his first volume (though, as a work of art, very imperfect), the 'Ode to Memory,' confesses a parental predilection for the 'first-born' of his genius. But to us it is evident, not only that his second volume differs from his first as early manhood from youth, but that the various poems in the first volume belong to different, and even distant stages of intellectual development; – distant, not perhaps in years – for a mind like Mr. Tennyson's advances rapidly – but corresponding to very different states of the intellectual powers, both in respect of their strength and of their proportions.

From the very first, like all writers of his natural gifts, he luxuriates in sensuous * imagery; his nominal subject sometimes lies buried in a heap of it. From the first, too, we see his intellect, with every successive degree of strength, struggling upwards to shape this sensuous imagery to a spiritual meaning ; to bring the materials which sense supplies, and fancy summons up, under the command of a central and controlling thought or feeling. We have seen, by the poem of 'Mariana,' with what success he could occasionally do this, even in the period which answers to his first volume; but that volume contains various instances in which he has attempted the same thing, and failed. Such, for example, are, in our opinion, the opening poem, 'Claribel,' and the verses headed 'Elegiacs.' In both, [421] there is what is commonly called imagination – namely, fancy: the imagery and the melody actually haunt us; but there is no harmonizing principle in either; – no appropriateness to the spiritual elements of the scene. If the one poem had been called 'A solitary Place in a Wood,' and the other, 'An Evening Landscape,' they would not have lost, but gained. In another poem, in the same volume, called 'A Dirge,' and intended for a person who, when alive, had suffered from calumny – a subject which a poet of maturer powers would have made so much of, Mr. Tennyson merely glances at the topics of thought and emotion which his subject suggested, and expatiates in the mere scenery about the grave. *

Some of the smaller poems have a fault which in any but a very juvenile production would be the worst fault of all: they are altogether without meaning: none at least can be discerned in them by persons otherwise competent judges of poetry; if the author had any meaning, he has not been able to express it. Such, for instance, are the two songs on the Owl; such, also, are the verses headed 'The How and the Why,' in the first volume, and the lines on To-day and Yesterday, in the second. If in the former of these productions Mr. Tennyson aimed at shadowing forth the vague aspirations to a knowledge beyond the reach of man – the yearnings for a solution of all questions, soluble or insoluble, which concern our nature and destiny – the impatience under the insufficiency of the human faculties to penetrate the secret of our being here, and being what we are – which are natural in a certain state of the human mind; if this was what he sought to typify, he has only proved that he knows not the feeling – that he has neither [422] experienced it, nor realized it in imagination. The questions which a Faust calls upon earth and heaven, and all powers supernal and infernal, to resolve for him, are not the ridiculous ones which Mr. Tennyson asks himself in these verses.

But enough of faults which the poet has almost entirely thrown off merely by the natural expansion of his intellect. We have alluded to them chiefly to show how rapidly progressive that intellect has been. * There are traces, we think, of a continuance of the same progression, throughout the second as well as the first volume.

In the art of painting a picture to the inward eye, the improvement is not so conspicuous as in other qualities; so high a degree of excellence having been already attained in the first volume. Besides the poems which we have quoted, we may refer, in that volume, to those entitled, 'Recollections of the Arabian Nights,' 'The Dying Swan,' 'The Kraken,' and 'The Sleeping Beauty.' The beautiful poems (songs they are called, but are not) 'In the glooming light,' and 'A spirit haunts the year's last hours,' are (like the 'Mariana') not mere pictures, but states of emotion, embodied in sensuous imagery. From these, however, to the command over the materials of outward sense for the purpose of bodying forth states of feeling, evinced by some of the poems in the second volume, especially 'The Lady of Shalott' and 'The Lotos-eaters,' there is a considerable distance; and Mr. Tennyson seems, as he proceeded, to have raised his aims still higher – to have aspired to render his poems not only vivid representations of spiritual states, but symbolical of spiritual truths. His longest poem, 'The Palace of Art,' is an attempt of this sort. As such, we do not think it wholly successful, though rich in beauties of detail; but we deem it of the most favourable augury for Mr. Tennyson's future achievements, since it proves a continually increasing endeavour towards the highest excellence, and a constantly rising standard of it.

We predict, that, as Mr. Tennyson advances in general spiritual culture, these higher aims will become more and more [423] predominant in his writings; that he will strive more and more diligently, and, even without striving, will be more and more impelled by the natural tendencies of an expanding character, towards what has been described as the highest object of poetry, 'to incorporate the everlasting reason of man in forms visible to his sense, and suitable to it.' For the fulfilment of this exalted purpose, what we have already seen of him authorizes us to foretell with confidence, that powers of execution will not fail him; it rests with himself to see that his powers of thought may keep pace with them. To render his poetic endowment the means of giving impressiveness to important truths, he must, by continual study and meditation, strengthen his intellect for the discrimination of such truths; he must see that his theory of life and the world be no chimera of the brain, but the well-grounded result of solid and mature thinking; – he must cultivate, and with no half devotion, philosophy as well as poetry.

It may not be superfluous to add, that he should guard himself against an error, to which the philosophical speculations of poets are peculiarly liable – that of embracing as truth, not the conclusions which are recommended by the strongest evidence, but those which have the most poetical appearance; – not those which arise from the deductions of impartial reason, but those which are most captivating to an imagination, biassed perhaps by education and conventional associations. That whatever philosophy he adopts will leave ample materials for poetry, he may be well assured. Whatever is comprehensive, whatever is commanding, whatever is on a great scale, is poetical. Let our philosophical system be what it may, human feelings exist: human nature, with all its enjoyments and sufferings, its strugglings, its victories and defeats, still remain to us; and these are the materials of all poetry. Whoever, in the greatest concerns of human life, pursues truth with unbiassed feelings, and an intellect adequate to discern it, will not find that the resources of poetry are lost to him because he has learnt to use, and not abuse them. They are as open to him as they are to the sentimental weakling, who has no test of the true but the ornamental. And when he once has them under his command, he can wield them for purposes, and with a power, of which neither the dilettante nor the visionary have the slightest conception.

We will not conclude without reminding Mr. Tennyson, that if he wishes his poems to live, he has still much to do in order to perfect himself in the merely mechanical parts of his craft. In a prose-writer, great beauties bespeak forgiveness for innu[424]merable negligences; but poems, especially short poems, attain permanent fame only by the most finished perfection in the details. In some of the most beautiful of Mr. Tennyson's productions there are awkwardnesses and feeblenesses of expression, occasionally even absurdities, to be corrected; and which generally might be corrected without impairing a single beauty. His powers of versification are not yet of the highest order. In one great secret of his art, the adaptation of the music of his verse to the character of his subject, he is far from being a master: he often seems to take his metres almost at random. But this is little to set in the balance against so much excellence; and needed not have been mentioned, except to indicate to Mr. Tennyson the points on which some of his warmest admirers see most room and most necessity for further effort on his part, if he would secure to himself the high place in our poetic literature for which so many of the qualifications are already his own.

 

 

[Die Anmerkungen stehen als Fußnoten auf den in eckigen Klammern bezeichneten Seiten]

[409] * We allude to the second line of the second stanza. The concluding words of the line appear to us altogether out of keeping with the rest of the poem.   zurück

[412] * In this most striking passage, which we should have thought would have commanded admiration from every one who can read, all that the Quarterly Reviewer could see is, that the rhymes are incorrect.   zurück

[413] * This exquisite line, the egregious critic of the Quarterly distinguishes by italics as specially absurd! proving thereby what is his test of the truth of a description, even of a physical fact. He does not ask himself, Is the fact so? but, Have I ever seen the expression in the verses of any former poet of celebrity?   zurück

[413] † We omit the remaining stanza, which seems to us a 'lame and impotent conclusion,' where no conclusion was required.   zurück

[418] * The small critic of the Quarterly finds fault with the frequent repitition, in Œnone's recital, of the following two verses: –
                      ' O mother Ida, many-fountained Ida,
                        Dear mother Ida, hearken ere I die.'
To return continually to the same refrain is, as the reader must have observed even in our extracts, a frequent practice of Mr. Tennyson and one which, though occasionally productive of great beauty, he carries to a faulty excess. But on this occasion, if ever, it was allowable. A subject from Greek poetry surely justifies imitation of the Greek poets. Repititions similar to this are, as everybody knows, universal among the pastoral and elegiac poets of Greece, and their Roman imitators: and this poem is both pastoral and elegiac.   zurück

[419] * It may be thought, perhaps, that among the gifts of nature to a poet, ought also to be included a vived and exuberant imagination. We believe, however, that vivedness of imagination is no further a gift of nature, than in so far as it is a natural consequence of vived sensations. All besides this, we incline to think, depends on habit and cultivation.   zurück

[420] * Sensuous, a word revived by Coleridge, as he himself states, 'from our elder classics.' It is used by Milton, who, in his little tract on Education, says of poetry, as compared with rhetoric, that it is 'less subtile and fine, but more simple, sensuous, and passionate.' The word sensual is irretrievably diverted to another meaning; and a term seems to be required, which (without exciting any ethical associations) shall denote all things pertaining to the bodily senses, in contradistinction to things pertaining to the intellect and the mental feelings. To this use, the word sensuous seems as well adapted as any other which could be chosen.   zurück

[420] † We conceive ourselves warranted, both by usage and the necessity of the case, in using the word spiritual as the converse of sensuous. It is scarcely necessary to say that we do not mean religious.   zurück

[421] * There are instances in the volume, of far worse failures than these. Such are the two poems 'The Merman' and 'The Mermaid.' When a poet attempts to represent to us any of the beings either of religious or of popular mythology, we expect from him, that, under the conditions prescribed by the received notion of those beings, some mode of spiritual existence will be figured, which we shall recognise as in harmony with the general laws of spirit, but exhibiting those laws in action among a new set of elements. The faculty of thus bringing home to us a coherent conception of beings unknown to our experience, not by logically characterizing them, but by a living representation of them, such as they would, in fact, be, if the hypothesis of their possibility could be realized – is what is meant, when anything is meant, by the words creative imagination. Mr. Tennyson not only fails in this, but makes nothing even of the sensuous elements of the scene: he does not even produce, what he in no other instance misses – a suitable representation of outward scenery. He is actually puerile.
    Of the two productions (the most juvenile, we should think, of the set) – 'An English War Song,' and 'National Song,' we can only say, that unless they are meant for bitter ridicule of vulgar nationality, and of the poverty of intellect which usually accompanies it, their appearance here is unaccountable. The sonnet, 'Buonaparte,' in the second volume, though not so childish in manner, has still something of the same spirit which was manifested in the two just cited (if they are to be taken as serious.)   zurück

[422] * With the trifling exceptions already mentioned, the only pieces in the second volume which we could have wished omitted are, the little piece of childishness beginning 'O darling room,' and the verses to Christopher North, which express, in rather a common-place way, the author's resentment against a critique, which merited no resentment from him, but rather (all things considered) a directly contrary feeling.
    One or two poems, of greater pretension than the above, may be considered not indeed as absolute, but as comparative failures. Among these we must place the second poem in the volume (which affords to the Quarterly critic the opportunities for almost his only just criticisms); and even, notwithstanding its fine sonorous opening, the 'Hesperides.'   zurück

 

 

 

 

Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The London Review.
1835, Juli, S. 402-424.
URL: http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008893085

Gezeichnet A.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

 

 

Zeitschriften-Repertorium

 

Kommentierte und kritische Ausgabe

 

 

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Edition
Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer