John Sterling

 

 

[Rezension]

 

Poems by Alfred Tennyson. 2 vols. 12mo. London. 1842.

WHAT poetry might be in our time and land, if a man of the highest powers and most complete cultivation exercised the art among us, will be hard to say until after the fact of such a man's existence. Waiting for this desirable event, we may at least see that poetry, to be for us what it has sometimes been among mankind, must wear a new form, and probably comprise [386] elements hardly found in our recent writings, and impossible in former ones.

Of verses, indeed, of every sort but the excellent there is no want: almost all, however, so helpless in skill, so faint in meaning, that one might almost fancy the authors wrote metre from mere incapacity of expressing themselves at all in prose – as boys at school sometimes make nonsense-verses before they can construct a rational sentence. Yet it is plain that even our magazine stanzas, album sonnets, and rhymes in corners of newspapers aim at the forms of emotion, and use some of the words in which men of genius have symbolized profound thoughts. The whole, indeed, is generally a lump of blunder and imbecility, but in the midst there is often some turn of cadence, some attempt at an epithet of more significance and beauty than perhaps a much finer mind would have hit on a hundred years ago. The crowds of stammering children are yet the offspring of an age that would fain teach them – if it knew how – a richer, clearer language than they can learn to speak.

It is hard in this state of things not to conceive that the time, among us at least, is an essentially unpoetic one – one which, whatever may be the worth of its feelings, finds no utterance for them in melodious words.

Yet our age is not asleep. Great movements, various activities, are heard and seen on all sides. In the lowest department, that of mere mechanics, consider what fifteen years have done. It was only in the autumn of 1830, following close on the French three memorable days of July, that the Duke of Wellington opened the Manchester and Liverpool Railroad. The population of the busiest region on this earth were assembled round him, whom all acknowledged as the greatest man in England, at the inauguration of a new physical power, then felt to double the strength and swiftness of human beings. While, among myriads of gravely joyous faces, the new machines travelled at a speed matching that of eagles, the life of a great statesman shot off on a darker and more distant journey, and the thrill of fear and pain at his destruction gave the last human tragic touch to an event which would at any rate have retained for ever an historic importance. The death of Mr. Huskisson startled the fixed bosom of the veteran soldier, and those who were near perceived a quiver of the lip, a movement of the eye, such as had hardly been caused by the most unlooked-for and dreadful chances of his mighty wars. To a calm observer, the emotion of the whole multitude, great and small, might strangely have recalled far-distant ages and the feelings with which ancient peoples held every great event as incomplete, wanting the blood of a victim – too often human – [387] solemnly shed. In the most prosperous and peaceful of national triumphs the dark powers again claimed a share, and would not be forgotten.

Since then, about twelve years have passed, and behold what they have brought forth. Some seventy millions of money have been expended – more, at the lowest estimate, than four times as much as the Papacy was able to raise in a century and a half for the construction of its greatest monument, the costliest the world has ever seen. These seventy millions of pounds have been subscribed by private persons at their own choice in one small country, and have created nearly fifteen hundred miles of railroads – structures that surpass all pyramids and Cyclopean walls, and machines that would puzzle Archimedes, by which myriads of men are perpetually travelling like the heroes of fairy tales. It is probable that the roads of the Roman empire, the work of many centuries, did not cost so much of human labour, and they certainly did not exhibit so much greatness of thought, as those that we have built in less than twenty years. – In the state of society that has produced such results there may be, we know there is, enough torpor, even rottenness. But it cannot be, on the whole, an insignificant stage of human existence, one barren for imaginative eyes.

Or look at one of our general elections. The absurdities are plain, no doubt – has not the ocean froth and bubbles? But take the thing altogether, and observe the mixture and spread of interests and faculties brought into action – above all, the open boldness with which a nation throws itself into the streets and markets, casting off, in the faith that it can reproduce, its company of rulers, and letting the fools clamour, the poor groan, the rich humble themselves, and all men bring all to judgment, without a moment's fear but that quiet will spring out of the tumult, and a government be born from a mob. From the castle of the highest peer to the clay-stained tipplers in the alehouse, from the bench of bishops to the ranters in the moor-side smithy, all are stirred and fluttered, feverish with the same anxieties, debating in their different dialects the same questions, and all alike dependent on the omnipotence of an event which no man can absolutely control. Most of what they say is folly – most of their objects of hope and fear chimeras: but how full of throbbing business is the whole land, how braced are all the wishes and devices of all! Among so much of make-believe and sound, it is a great thing that the whole country must at least be willingly deceived if it is to be gained over – must seem to itself rationally persuaded; and that the most futile pretender can only cheat by aping, and so strengthening in others, the qualities in which he is [388] most deficient. At the blast of the newsmen's tin trumpets all shadows must walk out of their darkness into sunshine, and there be tried; when if many of the umbratile fraudulently pass muster, there is at least a public recognition of the laws of light.

Not merely is there a debate and seeming adjudication in every country-town on all matters over the whole globe which any tailor or brazier may choose to argue, but at last the tailor's and the brazier's voice does really influence the course of human affairs. The vote of the cobbler in an alley turns the poll for a candidate; the vote of the member gains the triumph of his party; and the success of his party decides on every question of peace or war over the globe, makes commercial treaties with Abyssinia, creates a white commonwealth among the savages of the Pacific Ocean, sends armaments to Pekin, and raises or lowers the price of silk grown among the Druses of Lebanon, and of opium sold on the frontiers of Tartary. Within a year after the election in an English village, its result is felt in the more or less cost of food and clothes in Kaffer huts, and in the value of the copper saucepan trafficked at Timbuctoo for palm-oil and black babies. This is not a vapid, insubstantial political existence for the mass of men, not one devoid of topics and emotions, however little they may hitherto have been used in any books but those of statistics and trade.

Or glance at the matter in another of its phases. In the midmost rush of London business, and all the clatter of its vehicles, turn aside through an open door, and what do we see? A large and lofty room, every yard of its floor and galleries crammed with human, chiefly female life – a prodigious sea of bonnets, and under each of these a separate sentient sea of notions, and feelings, and passions, all in some measure stirred by the same tides and gales – every one of them, however narrow at the surface, in depth unfathomable.

Altogether irrespectively of our present purpose, and on the most general grounds, it may be safely said that in one of these great Exeter Hall meetings there is more to strike us than almost anywhere else we know. The room is said to hold 4000 persons, and from its form they are all clearly visible at once – all of the middle or upper classes, well dressed, though often many of them in Quaker uniform, and at these times probably three-fourths of them women. Such assemblages are in truth, for a large part of the members, by far the most exciting outward events of life. The faces themselves are alone quite enough to prove no small share of moral culture in the mass. The delicately-curved mouths and nostrils, the open yet quiet and observant eyes, and a look of serious yet pleasurable elevation, mark very clearly a chosen class [389] of our country. The men are of course less pure and single in their stamp of feeling – business has marked on them its contractedness with its strength. Yet these also have an appearance of thought, although with some coxcombical importance and complacent theological primness. Take, however, the whole assemblage, all it is and all it represents, we know not where anything like it could be discovered. No Roman Catholic, no despotic, no poor, no barbarous, no thoroughly demoralised, we fear we must add no very instructed and well-organised community could ever exhibit such a gathering – voluntary be it remembered, chiefly female, all with money to spare, united for such remote and often fantastic objects: above all, under such leaders. For in the kind of persons guiding these bodies, and in their discourse, consists more than half the wonder. In the House of Commons, in the Courts of Law, we may hear nonsense enough. But in these places it is not the most vehement, the most chimerical – in other words, the most outrageous and silly, who bear the chiefest sway, but much the contrary. Now in such Strand-Meetings, for the purest and noblest purposes, it is plain enough that a loud tongue, combined with a certain unctuous silkiness of profession, and the most dismal obscuration of brain, may venture with success upon the maddest assertions, the most desperate appeals; and will draw sighs and even tears of sympathy, by the coarsest nonsense, from hundreds of the amiable and thoughtful persons dieted at home on Cowper, Fenelon, Wordsworth, and tuned to Nature's softest melodies. The carrier's horse (or was it ass?) that could draw inferences, is but a brute symbol of the spoken stuff that at religious meetings can draw admiration from the finest female bosoms. Such is the charm of twilight meanings and monstrous images used in behalf of some remote and generous object, and strengthened by the oneness of feeling in a multitude of accordant hearts. Very strange it is to witness the single thrill of some two thousand bonnets, to hear the deep long sigh from as many warm and gentle breasts, all inspired by the raving folly of some declaimer, or by the gravely numerical statements of moral facts as to distant countries proceeding from ill-informed and well-paid agents, and which those who know their falsity are sure enough not to seek the odium of refuting. The sure tact of goodness leads the greater part of the hearers right in home-concerns, but has no measure of probability for new experiments in remote lands. The faith which lives in the Infinite and Eternal, and is perpetually baffled in its search among present things, adds joyfully its charms, the transcendant element of all romance, to the faintest glimpse between distant clouds, and feels it a duty and delight to believe in the realised visions of credulous fancy.

[390] Yet who can think without a certain approval of the immense annual revenue, larger than that of some continental kingdoms, raised by these marvellous addresses to our best feelings? Who can compare, without some admiration mixed in his contempt, the coarse and brainless weakness of the talk on these occasions with the honest virtue, the moral elegance of heart in those whom it influences? Or who that lives in England can be unaware that very many among the auditors of these brazen mouth-pieces show in the whole course of their private lives, and in hard stern trials of all kinds, a simple self-forgetting nobleness and truth, beautifully contrasted with the ostentatious emptiness of the charitable melodrame?

On the whole, the country in which these varieties of good and evil are found mixed on such a scale can hardly be considered in a state of lifeless inertness. Its want cannot be of themes and interest, but rather of those able to seize what lies before them, and turn it to right imaginative use. For every one indeed knows that all our activities, mechanical, political, missionary, celestial, or diabolical, are the immediate outgrowths of the human beings engaged in such matters, and might be found with much more inside and beneath them in the hearts and lives of the individuals. This is all the poet requires; a busy, vigorous, various existence is the matter sine quâ non of his work. All else comes from within, and from himself alone. Now, strangely as our time is racked and torn, haunted by ghosts, and errant in search of lost realities, poor in genuine culture, incoherent among its own chief elements, untrained to social facility and epicurean quiet, yet unable to unite its means in pursuit of any lofty blessing, half-sick, half-dreaming, and whole confused – he would be not only misanthropic, but ignorant, who should maintain it to be a poor, dull, and altogether helpless age, and not rather one full of great though conflicting energies, seething with high feelings, and struggling towards the light with piercing though still hooded eyes. The fierce, too often mad force, that wars itself away among the labouring poor, the manifold skill and talent and unwearied patience of the middle classes, and the still unshaken solidity of domestic life among them – these are facts open to all, though by none perhaps sufficiently estimated. And over and among all society the wealth of our richer people is gathered and diffused as it has never been before anywhere else, shaping itself into a thousand arts of luxury, a million modes of social pleasure, which the moralist may have much to object against, but which the poet, had we a truly great one now rising among us, would well know how to employ for his own purposes.

Then, too, if we reflect that the empire and nation seated here [391] as in its centre, and at home so moving and multifarious, spreads its dominions all round the globe, daily sending forth its children to mix in the life of every race of man, seek adventures in every climate, and fit themselves to every form of polity, or it to them – whereafter they return in body, or at least reflect their mental influences among us – it cannot be in point of diversity and meaning that Britain disappoints any one capable of handling what it supplies.

See how Chaucer exhibits to us all that lay around him, the roughness and ignorance, the honour, faith, fancy, joyousness of a strong mind and a strong age, both tranquil within bounds which, as large enough for their uses, neither had tried to pass. How strikingly for us are those grating contrasts of social condition harmonised by the home-bred feeling that men as they then were had the liberty and space they then needed: the king and priest the all-sufficient guides of men's higher life, and all powers and even wishes finding ample room, each within the range marked out by custom! Every figure is struck off by as clear and cutting a stroke as that of a practised mower with his scythe – and of all these peculiarities of character, so blended in that world are strength and unconsciousness, not one ever rises into individuality of principle. In clearness, freedom, fulness, what delineation of our actual life can be at all compared with this? Of this poet how truly may it be said,

'O'er Chaucer's blithe old world, for ever new,
 In noon's broad sunbeam shines the morning dew;
 And while tired ages float in shade away,
 Unwearied glows with joy that clear to-day.'

In Shakespeare again, who never meant anything of the kind, that period, with its far deeper wants and more abundant forces, all lies softly, firmly drawn by every random jotting of his pen. For that, with all his unmatched reflectiveness, much was thus lightly done, seems no less certain at the hundredth perusal than obvious at the first. The stately courtesies and consecrated forms of the past, all still untroubled, but a new spirit rising within those antique walls, and as yet professing peaceful reverence, though it must one day shake them down; the heaven-storming imagination still toiling and sporting on the ground; the aimless bravery of knighthood still wearing its blazon of the starry cross, but going forth on real adventures for the conquest of our actual earth in east and west; thought blending, though almost unmarked, with all the romance of passion – and fancy, no longer gathering flowers and strewing them in childish sport, but weaving them into garlands for victorious conscience, and using them for the charactery of knowledge: all this is undeniably [392] there, though unintended, and only because the great mind of that and all time necessarily comprised and reproduced whatever was essential in his age. Ranks were still apart, customs unquestioned, forms holy, and natural truth and wisdom only the uncanonical but inevitable comment by which men undesignedly interpreted the page of prescription. And he who has best shown us all this as it truly was, yet sent forth at every breath a fiery element, of which he was himself scarce conscious, that should some day kindle and burn much still dear and venerable to him.

A gulf of generations lies between us and him, and the world is all changed around his tomb. But whom have we had to feel and express like this man the secret of our modern England, and to roll all out before him the immense reality of things as his own small embroidered carpet, on which he merely cared to sit down at his ease and smoke his pipe?

There have been but two writers among us whom every Englishman with a tincture of letters has read or heard of, aiming to shape poetically an image of human life. These are of course Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron. But see how different their aim has been from such a one as we hint at. The elder poet, with his wholesome sense and clear felicity, has indeed given us much of human fact, and this, as it could not be otherwise, in the colours of the time that he himself belonged to. But he has swayed the sympathies of the world in a great measure through their curiosity after the past, which he, more than all men in the annals of mankind, has taught us all to regard as alive and still throbbing in spirit, though its bones be turned to dust.

Byron has sought, through distance of place and foreign costume, the interest which Scott obtained from the strangeness of past ages; and it is but a small though a profound and irrepressible part of our far-spread modern mind that he has so well embodied in his scornful Harolds and despairing Giaours.

We have indeed one of his works, the only one, which is a splendid attempt at a creative survey of modern life, and contains all the essential elements of such performance. And in spite of the puerile egotisms and dawdling prate into which the poem so often wanders, the first five cantos of Don Juan, forming in point of bulk about a half, have more of fiery beauty and native sweetness in them than anything we know of in our modern literature. There is also a wide range and keenness of observation; and were some trivialities struck out, as they so easily might be, no capital defect would remain but the weakness of speculative culture visible in all Lord Byron's philosophical excursions. In the latter half of the poem, and unhappily when he is on English [393] ground, the lax shapelessness of structure, the endless slipshod, yawny loungings, and vapid carelessness of execution, become very disagreeable in spite of passages rich with imperishable beauty, wit, and vigour, such as no other modern Englishman or man could have approached. On the whole, with all its faults, moral and poetic, the earlier portion of this singular book will probably remain, like the first half of Faust, the most genuine and striking monument of a whole recent national literature. But the weakness as to all deeper thought, and the incomplete groundplan, place it somewhat lower than could be wished. And at best it is but one book, in an age that produces annual thousands.

Little therefore as is all that has been done towards the poetic representation of our time – even in the looser and readier form of prose romance – it is hard to suppose that it is incapable of such treatment. The still unadulterated purity of home among large circles of the nation presents an endless abundance of the feelings and characters, the want of which nothing else in existence can supply even to a poet. And these soft and steady lights strike an observer all the more from the restless activity and freedom of social ambition, the shifting changes of station, and the wealth gathered on one hand and spent on the other with an intenseness and amplitude of will to which there is at least nothing now comparable among mankind. The power of self-subjection combined with almost boundless liberty, indeed necessitated by it, and the habit of self-denial with wealth beyond all calculation – these are indubitable facts in modern England. But while recognised as facts, how far do they still remain from that development as thoughts which philosophy desires, or that vividness as images which is the aim of poetry! It is easy to say that the severity of conscience in the best minds checks all play of fancy, and the fierceness of the outward struggle for power and riches absorbs the energies that would otherwise exert themselves in shapeful melody. But had we minds full of the idea and the strength requisite for such work, they would find in this huge, harassed, and luxurious national existence the nourishment, not the poison, of creative art. The death-struggle of commercial and political rivalry, the brooding doubt and remorse, the gas-jet flame of faith irradiating its own coal-mine darkness – in a word, our overwrought materialism fevered by its own excess into spiritual dreams – all this might serve the purposes of a bold imagination, no less than the creed of the antipoetic Puritans became poetry in the mind of Milton, and all bigotries, superstitions, and gore-dyed horrors were flames that kindled steady light in Shakespeare's humane and meditative song.

[394] Of all our recent writers the one who might seem at first sight to have most nearly succeeded in this quest after the poetic Sangreal is Crabbe. No one has ranged so widely through all classes, employed so many diverse elements of circumstance and character. But nowhere, or very, very rarely, do we find in him that eager sweetness, a fiery spirituous essence, yet bland as honey, wanting which all poetry is but an attempt more or less laudable, and after all, a failure. Shooting arrows at the moon, one man's bow shoots higher than another's; but the shafts of all alike fall back to earth, and bring us no light upon their points. It needs a strange supernatural power to achieve the impossible, and fix the silver shaft within the orb that shoots in turn its rays of silver back into our human bosoms.

Crabbe is always an instructive and forceful, almost always even an interesting writer. His works have an imperishable value as records of his time; and it even may be said that few parts of them but would have found an appropriate place in some of the reports of our various commissions for inquiring into the state of the country. Observation, prudence, acuteness, uprightness, self-balancing vigour of mind are everywhere seen, and are exerted on the whole wide field of common life. All that is wanting is the enthusiastic sympathy, the jubilant love, whose utterance is melody, and without which all art is little better than a laborious ploughing of the sand, and then sowing the sand itself for seed along the fruitless furrow.

In poetry we seek, and find, a refuge from the hardness and narrowness of the actual world. But using the very substance of this Actual for poetry, its positiveness, shrewdness, detailedness, incongruity, and adding no new peculiar power from within, we do no otherwise than if we should take shelter from rain under the end of a roof-spout.

To Mr. Wordsworth of course these remarks on Crabbe would be by no means applicable. Yet even he has exhibited only one limited, however lofty region of life, and has made it far less his aim to represent what lies around him by means of self-transference into all its feelings, than to choose therefrom what suits his spirit of ethical meditation, and so compel mankind, out alike of their toilsome daily paths and pleasant nightly dreams, into his own severe and stately school of thought. The present movements of human life, nay its varied and spontaneous joys, to him are little, save so far as they afford a text for a mind in which fixed will, and stern speculation, and a heart austere and measured even in its pity, are far more obvious powers than fancy, emotion, or keen and versatile sympathy. He discourses indeed with divine wisdom of life and nature, and all their sweet and various [395] impulses; but the impression of his own great calm judicial soul is always far too mighty for any all-powerful feeling of the objects he presents to us. In his latest volume there is a poem with the date of 1803, At the Grave of Burns, full of reflective tenderness. But it is noticeable that even here Burns is interesting, not for his own sake and in his own splendid personality, but with reference to Mr. Wordsworth's mind and the effect of the peasant's poetry on him. We are glad indeed to have any pretext for citing this beautiful stanza (p. 53): –

'Well might I mourn that he was gone
 Whose light I hail'd when first it shone,
 When, breaking forth as Nature's own,
    It show'd my youth
 How verse may build a princely throne
    On humble truth.'

In thus pointing to the problem which poetry now holds out, and maintaining that it has been but partially solved by our most illustrious writers, there is no design of setting up an unattainable standard, and then blaming any one in particular for inevitably falling short of it. Out of an age so diversified and as yet so unshapely, he who draws forth any graceful and expressive forms is well entitled to high praise. Turning into fixed beauty any part of the shifting and mingled matter of our time, he does what in itself is very difficult, and affords very valuable help to all his future fellow-labourers. If he has not given us back our age as a whole transmuted into crystalline clearness and lustre, a work accomplished only by a few of the greatest minds under the happiest circumstances for their art, yet we scarce know to whom we should be equally grateful as to him who has enriched us with any shapes of lasting loveliness 'won from the vague and formless infinite.'

Mr. Tennyson has done more of this kind than almost any one that has appeared among us during the last twenty years. And in such a task of alchemy a really successful experiment, even on a small scale, is of great worth compared with the thousands of fruitless efforts or pretences on the largest plan, which are daily clamouring for all men's admiration of their nothingness.

The first of these two volumes consists of republished poems, and may be regarded, we presume, as all that Mr. Tennyson wishes to preserve of his former editions. He has sifted in most cases his earlier harvests, and kept the better grain. There are some additions of verses and stanzas here and there, many minute changes, and also beneficial shortenings and condensations. The second volume, however, is on the whole far advanced in merit beyond the first. There is more clearness, solidity, and [396] certainty of mind visible in it throughout: especially some of the blank-verse poems – a style almost unattempted in the earlier series – have a quiet completeness and depth, a sweetness arising from the happy balance of thought, feeling, and expression, that ranks them among the riches of our recent literature.

The collection includes poems of four markedly different kinds: –   1. The Idyllic, in which there is sometimes an epic calmness in representing some event or situation of private life, sometimes a flow of lyrical feeling, but still expanding itself in a narrative or description of the persons, events, and objects that fill the poet's imagination.   2. The purely Lyrical – odes, songs, and the more rapid ballads, where the emotion is not only uppermost, but all in all, and the occasions and interests involved appear but casually and in hints.   3. Fancy pieces; those, namely, of which the theme is borrowed or imitated from those conceptions of past ages that have now become extremely strange or quite incredible for us. In these the principal charm of the work can spring only from the vividness and grace of the imagery, the main idea making no direct impression on our feelings.   4. There is a class of Allegories, Moralities, didactic poems. We might add another, of Facetiæ; but in these the writer, though not unmeaning or without talent, seems far inferior to himself, and they happily fill but a small part of his pages.

The first and third of these classes – the Idylls and Fancies – are, in our view, of the greatest merit, and differ in little but the stranger and more legendary themes of the latter series, while they resemble each other in a somewhat spacious and detailed style of description, with, however, an evident general predominance of personal feeling, sometimes masked by the substitution of an imaginary narrator for the real poet.

We shall speak first of the second class, which we have called Odes. 'Claribel,' 'Lilian,' 'Isabel,' 'Madeline,' 'Adeline,' 'Eleanore,' and ' Margaret,' – all are raptures in honour of ladies. 'Isabel' is similar in style and plan to the rest, but differs by being addressed to a matron, not a maiden; and though, like the others eupnuistic enough, and coldly ingenious, is pleasant as a relief from the unrealities of rhetorical sentiment. There is a beautiful idea in it – with much verbal melody and many dainty phrases, far beyond the reach of any but a man of genius, however inaptly genius may be spent in dressing make-believe emotions with far-fetched rhythmic ornament. 'Claribel' is a sort of lament over a dead woman. The other young ladies seem to have the advantage of being still alive, but their poetic environment is not for that the less ghostly and preterna[397]tural. In all of these pieces the will to write poetry seems to us to have supplied (insufficiently) the place of poetic feeling; though one sees that only a poet could have written them. The heroines are moonshine maidens, in the number of whom Mr. Tennyson is really as unconscionable as Solomon or Mahomet. It may be suspected that neither the Arab prophet nor Jewish king would much have approved such questionable charms as black-beaded eyes, and crimson-threaded lips. We of a more metaphysical generation grow heartily weary of the delicacies, and subtleties, and super-fineries of so many mysterious passions, and phantom objects, as carefully discriminated as varieties of insects by Ehrenberg, or fossils by Owen. The whole style smells of musk, and is not without glimpses of rouge and pearl-powder. We have found nothing here at once more distinct and graceful than the following lines, and these are marred by the two final epithets: –

'His bowstring slacken'd, languid Love,
 Leaning his cheek upon his hand,
 Droops both his wings, regarding thee;
 And so would languish evermore,
 Serene, imperial Eleanore.'

Of the poem 'To      ,' much need not be said. 'Clear-headed friend' is the most ludicrously flat beginning of a serious poem that we have ever seen proceed from a real poet; and the construction of the final strophe is so obscure that we have in vain attempted to disentangle it into any meaning. Yet few readers can be required to spend as much time on such a matter as we are both bound and glad so to employ. In the same verses 'kingly intellect' is at least in that connection a phrase of vague rhetoric. The two little poems to the 'Owl' are at best ingenious imitations of the manner of some of Shakespeare's and his contemporaries' songs; well done enough, but not worth doing.

The 'Recollections of the Arabian Nights' is of a better kind. The writer does not in this seem painfully striving after topics, images, variations, and originalities, but writing from lively conception of a theme which offered in abundance the material suited to his fancy and ear. The poem is at once brilliant and pleasing: but we may remark that its merit is of a kind which presents itself somewhat too easily to a reader of the tales it recalls; that there is little progress in imagery, and none in thought, beyond the first stanza, in all the following thirteen; and that some meaning adapted to our modern European brains might perhaps have been insinuated under those gorgeous eastern emblems without injury to their genuine Asiatic import. The [398] gold and red arabesque repeats itself, square after square of the pattern, with undeniable splendour, but somewhat wearying monotony.

The 'Ode to Memory' aims at a far higher sort of excellence. Had it preceded, instead of following, Mr. Wordsworth 'Platonic Ode,' it would have been a memorable poem. The elder poet's solemn rapture on the 'Recollections of Childhood' is comparable, in its way, to the Portland funeral vase, were that lighted, as it ought to be, from within: on a purple ground, dark as midnight, still and graceful snow-white figures, admitting of endless interpretations, all more or less fitting, but none, perhaps, conclusive. Mr. Tennyson has caught some of the same feeling, and much of the rhythm, but has not even earned what was still within his power, the praise of a greater variety and richness of painting, nor has precipitated with Shelleyan passion the stream that slept so calmly in Mr. Wordsworth's mountain-lake.

There could hardly be a more decisive proof of Mr. Tennyson's inaptitude for Orphic song than the last six lines of this poem: –

'My friend, with thee to live alone,
 Methinks were better than to own
 A crown, a sceptre, and a throne.
 O strengthen me, enlighten me!
 I faint in this obscurity,
 Thou dewy dawn of memory.'

To tell Memory, the mystic prophetess to whom in these transcendant initiations we owe all notices connecting our small individuality with the Infinite Eternal, that converse with her were better than crowns and sceptres! Memory might perhaps reply – 'My friend, if you have not, after encircling the universe, traversing the abyss of ages, and uttering more than a hundred lines, forgotten that there are such toys on that poor earth as crowns and sceptres, it were better for you to be alone, not with, but without me.' Think how sublime a doctrine, that to have the beatific vision is really better than the power and pomp of the world. Philosophy, that sounds all depths, has seldom approached a deeper bathos.

Of the little poem called 'Circumstance' we shall quote the whole, pleased to find something that we can produce in support of our admiration for a large class of Mr. Tennyson's poems, on which we have not yet touched: –

'Two children in two neighbouring villages
 Playing mad pranks along the heathy leas;
 Two strangers meeting at a festival;
 Two lovers whispering by an orchard wall;
 Two lives bound fast in one with golden ease;
 [399] Two graves grass-green beside a gray church-tower,
 Wash'd with still rains, and daisy-blossomed;
 Two children in one hamlet born and bred; –
 So runs the round of life from hour to hour.'

Much is not attempted here, but the more performed. How simple is the language; how quietly flowing the rhythm; how clear the images; and with what pleasant enigmatic openness do the few lines set before us all the little tale of the two villagers, playing, parted, meeting, loving, wedding, dying, and leaving behind them two orphan children! It is a small tone of natural feeling, caught and preserved with genuine art, and coming home to every bosom that sweet words can penetrate at all.

'Fatima' is of a far higher pitch, but seems oddly misnamed. It is full of true and vehement, yet musical passion; and it suggests the strong flow of Lesbian poetry, and particularly the wellknown fragment of Sappho addressed to a woman. Whence, then, the name? Lesbos has hardly gained by becoming a part of Turkey, or Sappho by turning into Fatima. But the poem is beautiful: we scarcely know where in English we could find anything so excellent, as expressing the deep-hearted fulness of a woman's conscious love. Many will read it as if it belonged only to some Fatima or Sappho to feel with this entireness of abandonment. But there are hundreds of women in the West end of London – and in the East end too – who would find it only a strain that nature had already taught them.

'Lady Clara Vere de Vere' aims at less, and though of no very rare cast, is successful in all that it attempts. Mr. Tennyson seems to have intended to be very severe in this remonstrance to a flirt. But the damsel who deserved it would certainly rather have been flattered than provoked by such a tribute to her powers.

'The Blackbird,' 'The Death of the Old Year,' and 'Edward Gray,' are all sufficiently good for publication, but not for detailed criticism. 'Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere' is of similar tone, but not extraordinary merit. The last but one appears to be the best stanza: –

'Now on some twisted ivy-net,
 Now by some tinkling rivulet,
 On mosses thick with violet,
 Her cream-white mule his pastern set:
      And now more fleet she skimmed the plains
 Than she whose elfin prancer springs
 By night to eery warblings,
 When all the glimmering moorland rings
      With jingling bridle-reins.' – vol. II. p. 207.

[400] In one less careful of his melody – and we have few very recent writers so successfully careful of it – we should hardly make any remark on the harsh r's in these latter lines, so unsuitable to the vague and gliding fluency of the image.

Under the head of FANCIES we class all those poems relating to distant and marvellous circumstances and persons such as we can only conceive, and that very imperfectly, by a conscious removal of our thoughts into regions of which we have no experience, and which seem to us half impossible. In some instances the poet only attempts to reproduce outward relations of society and a kind of feeling which have departed from our common life – as in 'The Sisters,' 'The Beggar Maid,' 'St. Simeon,' and 'St. Agnes.' In others, and the greater number of these pieces, he rushes away with us into the ruins and sepulchres of old supernatural beliefs – dear to him, however, not as still partly credible, or as ever having been sacred and awful to mankind, but for the graceful strangeness of the figures that they suggest and are linked with. This mythological poetry is not of equal interest and difficulty with that which produces as brilliant and deep effects from the ordinary realities of our own lives. But it is far from worthless. Some German ballads of this kind by Goëthe and Schiller – nay, by Bürger and by Heine – have great power over every one, from the art with which the imagination is won to accept as true what we still feel to be so strange. This is done mainly by a potent use of the mysterious relation between man and nature, and between all men towards each other, which always must show itself on fitting occasions as the visionary, the ominous, the spectral, the 'eery,' and awful consciousness of a supernatural somewhat within our own homely flesh. It appears to us that Mr. Tennyson has neither felt so deeply as some other poets – Coleridge, for instance, in 'Christabel' – the moral ground on which this oracular introsentient part of man is firmly built, nor has employed its phantasmagoric power with such startling witchery. But there is almost always a vivid elegance and inward sweetness in his elfin song, whether Gothic or Grecian, and he sometimes even uses the legends of Pagan antiquity with a high perfection of dreamy music.

'The Dying Swan,' 'The Merman,' and 'The Mermaid,' are figments which he has not connected with any feeling that could render us willing to believe, nor with any meaning that would give them value as symbols. There is a kind of unhappy materialism in some of these attempts at spiritualising nature, and in the midst of some beautiful images we are stopped short by fancies equally farsought and unpleasant; see, for instance, vol. I. p. 73.

[401] There are, however, hardly any of these legendary poems that might not well be cited as examples of solid and luminous painting. We must admit that Mr. Tennyson has scarcely succeeded, perhaps has not tried, to unite any powerful impression on the feelings with his coloured blaze. It is painted – though well painted – fire. But in animated pomp of imagery, all in movement, like a work of Paolo Veronese, few things that we know could rival these compositions. His figures are distinct as those of brazen statuary on tombs, brilliant as stained glass, musical as the organ-tones of chapels. And as some of these romantic songs remind us of Paul Cagliari, others – those especially that have been dreamt upon the lap of the Greek Muse – are akin to the creations of a still greater painter than the Veronese, Correggio. So mild and mournful in interest are these, so perfect in harmony of images and rhythm, we almost grieve at last to waken from our trance and find we have been deluded by a Pagan vision, and by the echoes of oracles now dumb. Scarcely fabled magic could be more successful. The effect is the result evidently of great labour, but also of admirable art. As minstrel conjurations, perhaps, in English, 'Kubla Khan' alone exceeds them. The verse is full of liquid intoxication, and the language of golden oneness. While we read, we too are wandering, led by nymphs, among the thousand isles of old mythology, and the present fades away from us into a pale vapour. To bewitch us with our own daily realities, and not with their unreal opposites, is a still higher task; but it could not be more thoroughly performed.

The 'Morte d'Arthur,' the first poem in the second volume, seems to us less costly jewel-work, with fewer of the broad flashes of passionate imagery, than some others, and not compensating for this inferiority by any stronger human interest. The miraculous legend of 'Excalibar' does not come very near to us, and as reproduced by any modern writer must be a mere ingenious exercise of fancy. The poem, however, is full of distinct and striking description, perfectly expressed; and a tone of mild, dignified sweetness attracts, though it hardly avails to enchant us. The poet might perhaps have made the loss of the magic sword, the death of Arthur, and dissolution of the Round Table, a symbol for the departure from earth of the whole old Gothic world, with its half-pagan, all-poetic faith, and rude yet mystic blazonries. But it would be tyrannical exaction to require more philosophy in union with so fiery and productive a fancy. No one but Coleridge among us has ever combined a thoroughly speculative intellect with so restless an abundance of beautiful imagery as we find in Mr. Tennyson; and the younger minstrel [402] has as much of the reflection proper to an age like ours as any living poet except Mr. Wordsworth, and as any but a very few deceased ones.

The gift of comprehensive thoughtfulness does not, however, show itself to advantage in 'St. Simeon Stylites,' a kind of monological personation of a filthy and mad ascetic. We find exhibited, with the seriousness of bitter poetic irony, his loathsome, yet ridiculous attempts at saintship, all founded on an idea of the Divinity fit only for an African worshipping a scarecrow fetish made of dog's bones, goose-feathers, and dunghill-rags. This is no topic for Poetry: she has better tasks than to wrap her mantle round a sordid, greedy lunatic.

How different, how superior is 'Ulysses!' There is in this work a delightful epic tone, and a clear unimpassioned wisdom quietly carving its sage words and graceful figures on pale but lasting marble. Yet we know not why, except from schoolboy recollections, a modern English poet should write of Ulysses rather than of the great voyagers of the modern world, Columbus, Gama, or even Drake. Their feelings and aims lie far nearer to our comprehension – reach us by a far shorter line. Even of 'Godiva,' different as is the theme, a similar observation holds. It also is admirably well done; but the singularity and barbarousness of the fact spur, no doubt, the fancy, even told in plain prose, yet are far from rendering the topic favourable for poetry. The 'Day-Dream,' the old and pretty tale of the 'Sleeping Beauty,' is open to no such objection. Here the poetry was made to the writer's hand, and one cannot but wish that his grace, liveliness, and splendour had been employed on a matter of his own invention; * or, if borrowed, of some more earnest meaning. Yet, as graceful and lively description, as truth playing behind the mask of fairy-tale, the whole poem is most agreeable. It opens thus: –

'The varying year with blade and sheaf
    Clothes and reclothes the happy plains;
 Here rests the sap within the leaf,
    Here strays the blood along the veins.
 Faint shadows, vapours lightly curl'd,
    Faint murmurs from the meadows come,
 Like hints and echoes of the world
    To spirits folded in the womb.

 [403] Soft lustre bathes the range of urns
    On every slanting terrace-lawn.
 The fountain to his place returns
    Deep in the garden-lake withdrawn.
 Here droops the banner on the tower,
    On the hall-hearths the festal fires,
 The peacock in his laurel bower,
    The parrot in his gilded wires.

 Roof-haunting martins warm their eggs:
    In these, in those the life is stay'd.
 The mantles from the golden pegs
    Droop sleepily: no sound is made,
 Not even of a gnat that sings.
    More like a picture seemeth all
 Than those old portraits of old kings,
    That watch the sleepers from the wall.

 Here sits the butler with a flask
    Between his knees, half-drain'd; and there
 The wrinkled steward at his task;
    The maid-of-honour blooming fair:
 The page has caught her hand in his;
    Her lips are sever'd as to speak:
 His own are pouted to a kiss:
    The blush is fix'd upon her cheek.

 Till all the hundred summers pass,
    The beams, that through the oriel shine,
 Make prisms in every carven glass,
    And beaker brimm'd with noble wine.
 Each baron at the banquet sleeps,
    Grave faces gather'd in a ring.
 His state the king reposing keeps.
    He must have been a jolly king.

 All round a hedge upshoots, and shows
    At distance like a little wood;
 Thorns, ivies, woodbine, misletoes,
    And grapes with bunches red as blood;
 All creeping plants, a wall of green
    Close-matted, bur and brake and brier,
 And glimpsing over these, just seen,
    High up, the topmost palace-spire.

 When will the hundred summers die,
    And thought and time be born agen,
 And newer knowledge, drawing nigh,
    Bring truth that sways the soul of men?
 Here all things in their place remain,
    As all were order'd, ages since.
 Come, Care and Pleasure, Hope and Pain,
    And bring the fated fairy Prince.'

[404] At At last – two sections intervene – he comes and finds the lady: –

'A touch, a kiss! the charm was snapp'd.
    There rose a noise of striking clocks,
 And feet that ran, and doors that clapp'd,
    And barking dogs, and crowing cocks.
 A fuller light illumined all,
    A breeze through all the garden swept,
 A sudden hubbub shook the hall,
    And sixty feet the fountain leapt.

 The hedge broke in, the banner blew,
    The butler drank, the steward scrawl'd,
 The fire shot up, the martin flew,
    The parrot scream'd, the peacock squall'd,
 The maid and page renew'd their strife,
    The palace bang'd, and buzz'd, and clack'd.
 And all the long-pent stream of life
    Dash'd downward in a cataract.

 And last of all the king awoke,
    And in his chair himself uprear'd,
 And yawn'd, and rubb'd his face, and spoke,
    "By holy rood, a royal beard!
 How say you? we have slept, my lords.
    My beard has grown into my lap."
 The barons swore, with many words,
    "Twas but an after-dinner's nap.

 "Pardy," return'd the king, "but still
    My joints are something stiff or so.
 My lord, and shall we pass the bill
    I mention'd half an hour ago?"
 The chancellor, sedate and vain,
    In courteous words return'd reply;
 But dallied with his golden chain,
    And, smiling, put the question by.'

Another section follows before we have that entitled 'The Departure:' –

'And on her lover's arm she leant,
    And round her waist she felt it fold,
 And far across the hills they went
    In that new world which is the old:
 Across the hills, and far away
    Beyond their utmost purple rim,
 And deep into the dying day
    The happy princess follow'd him.

 "I'd sleep another hundred years,
    O love, for such anothr kiss;"
 [405] "O wake for ever, love," she hears,
    "O love, 'twas such as this and this."
 And o'er them many a sliding star,
    And many a merry wind was borne,
 And, stream'd through many a golden bar,
    The twilight melted into morn.

 "O eyes long laid in happy sleep!"
    "O happy sleep, that lightly fled!"
 "O happy kiss, that woke thy sleep!"
    "O love, thy kiss would wake the dead!"
 And o'er them many a flowing range
    Of vapour buoy'd the crescent-bark,
 And, rapt through many a rosy change,
    The twilight died into the dark.

 "A hundred summers! can it be?
    And whither goest thou, tell me where?"
 "O seek my father's court with me,
    For there are greater wonders there."
 And o'er the hills, and far away
    Beyond their utmost purple rim,
 Beyond the night, across the day,
    Through all the world she follow'd him.'
                                                – vol. II. p. 159.

The poems which we would class under the head MORALITIES, in which Reflection lifts the rod to silence Feeling, are scattered up and down the volumes under various titles. They almost all appear to us decided and remarkable failures, and only one or two of the shorter and slighter at all worthy of Mr. Tennyson.

The 'Palace of Art,' indeed, has the tints and force of poetry, and shows the author's characteristic power of distinct and deeply-dyed painting. But there is considerable affectation in some of the groupings both of words and things, and what is worse, the meaning, the morality, is trivial, and even mistaken. The writer's doctrine seems to be, that the soul, while by its own energy surrounding itself with all the most beautiful and expressive images that the history of mankind has produced, and sympathizing wholly with the world's best thoughts, is perpetrating some prodigious moral offence for which it is bound to repent in sackcloth and ashes. A more rational and not less religious view would seem to be, that we should repent of the errors we commit from the inactivity of our higher powers and feelings. We hardly know a notion worthier of Simeon [Stylites], or of some crack-brained sot repenting in the stocks, than this doctrine that the use of our noblest faculties on their right objects [406] is an outrage against our best duties. Happily, Mr. Tennyson's practice is wiser than the theory propounded in this piece; and his theory itself, if we may judge from the doctrinal parts of his second and more mature volume, is also much improved. The long and dull production called the 'Two Voices,' a dispute on immortality, adding nothing to our previous knowledge, and of which the substance might have been better given in three pages (or one) than thirty, has yet no such folly in it as the many-coloured mistake of the 'Palace of Art.'

In all Mr. Tennyson's didactic writing one sees too clearly that, unless when the Image enchains his heart, the Thought has far too little hold upon him to produce any lively movement of soul. His speculations have the commonplaceness, vagueness, and emptiness of dreams, though the dreams of genius; and hopefully do we trust that the poet will not again throw off his magic mantle for either the monkish gown or stoic robe.

We have now reached that class of poems which stand first in our list, and which we have entitled IDYLLS. We have reserved till now all special mention of them, as holding them the most valuable part of Mr. Tennyson's writings, a real addition to our literature. They have all more or less of the properly Idyllic character, though in three or four of them marked with the rapid and suggestive style of the ballad. In all we find some warm feeling, most often love, a clear and faithful eye for visible nature, skilful art and completeness of construction, and a mould of verse which for smoothness and play of melody has seldom been equalled in the language. The heartfelt tenderness, the glow, the gracefulness, the strong sense, the lively painting, in many of these compositions, drawn from the heart of our actual English life, set them far above the glittering marvels and musical phantasms of Mr. Tennyson's mythological romances, at first sight the most striking portion of his works.

Among the happier specimens of this class two are pre-eminent – the 'Gardener's Daughter,' and 'Dora.' These are both of them Idylls in the strictest sense of the term, and might rank with the eclogues of Theocritus and Virgil, and with some poems of Goëthe – as anecdotes drawn from rustic life and rounded into song. Especially, as compared with the antique models, we see in them all the gain that Christianity and civilization have brought to the relation of the sexes, and to the characters of women.

The 'Gardener's Daughter' is a husband's recollection of his successful love, the object of which has been withdrawn from him by death. The unrhymed verse has a quiet fulness of sound, and all the delineation a clear yet rich completeness of truth, that render the little work, though far from the loftiest, yet one of the [407] most most delightful we know. As English landscape-painting, what can exceed this?

   'Not wholly in the busy world, nor quite
Beyond it, blooms the garden that I love.
News from the humming city comes to it
In sound of funeral or of marriage bells,
And, sitting muffled in dark leaves, you hear
The windy clanging of the minster clock;
Although between it and the garden lies
A league of grass, wash'd by a slow broad stream,
That, stirr'd with languid pulses of the oar,
Waves all its lazy lilies, and creeps on,
Barge-laden, to three arches of a bridge
Crown'd with the minster-towers.   The fields between
Are dewy-fresh, brows'd by deep-udder'd kine,
And all about the large lime feathers low,
The lime a summer home of murmurous wings.'

Or take the companion picture, where this view is alive with human passion: –

   'There sat we down upon a garden mound,
Two mutually enfolded; Love, the third,
Between us, in the circle of his arms
Enwound us both; and over many a range
Of waning lime the gray cathedral towers,
Across a hazy glimmer of the west,
Reveal'd their shining windows: from them clash'd
The bells; we listen'd; with the time we play'd;
We spoke of other things; we coursed about
The subject most at heart, more near and near,
Like doves about a dovecote, wheeling round
The central wish, until we settled there.' – vol. II. p. 29.

'Dora,' though not so luxuriously beautiful, has less, indeed nothing, that could be spared without serious loss, and being only half the length of the former one, we shall extract it entire: –

   'With farmer Allan at the farm abode
William and Dora.   William was his son,
And she his niece.   He often look'd at them,
And often thought "I'll make them man and wife."
Now Dora felt her uncle's will in all,
And yearn'd towards William; but the youth, because
He had been always with her in the house,
Thought not of Dora.
                               Then there came a day
When Allan call'd his son, and said, "My son,
I married late; but I would wish to see
My grandchild on my knees before I die:
[408] And I have set my heart upon a match.
Now therefore look to Dora, she is well
To look to; thrifty too beyond her age.
She is my brother's daughter: he and I
Had once hard words, and parted, and he died
In foreign lands; but for his sake I bred
His daughter Dora: take her for your wife;
For I have wish'd this marriage, night and day.
For many years."   But William answer'd short,
"I cannot marry Dora; by my life,
I will not marry Dora."   Then the old man
Was wroth, and doubled up his hands, and said,
"You will not, boy! you dare to answer thus!
But in my time a father's word was law,
And so it shall be now for me. Look to't.
Consider: take a month to think, and give
An answer to my wish; or by the Lord
That made me, you shall pack, and nevermore
Darken my doors again."   And William heard,
And answer'd something madly; bit his lips,
And broke away.   The more he look'd at her
The less he liked her; and his ways were harsh;
But Dora bore them meekly.   Then before
The month was out he left his father's house,
And hired himself to work within the fields;
And half in love, half spite, he woo'd and wed
A labourer's daughter, Mary Morrison.
   Then, when the bells were ringing, Allan call'd
His niece and said, " My girl, I love you well;
But if you speak with him that was my son,
Or change a word with her he calls his wife,
My home is none of yours.   My will is law."
And Dora promised, being meek.   She thought,
"It cannot be: my uncle's mind will change!"
   And days went on, and there was born a boy
To William; then distresses came on him;
And day by day he pass'd his father's gate,
Heart-broken, and his father help'd him not.
But Dora stored what little she could save,
And sent it them by stealth, nor did they know
Who sent it; till at last a fever seized
On William, and in harvest time he died.
   Then Dora went to Mary.   Mary sat
And look'd with tears upon her boy, and thought
Hard things of Dora.   Dora came and said,
   "I have obey'd my uncle until now,
And I have sinn'd, for it was all thro' me
This evil came on William at the first.
But, Mary, for the sake of him that's gone,
[409] And And for your sake, the woman that he chose,
And for this orphan, I am come to you:
You know there has not been for these five years
So full a harvest: let me take the boy,
And I will set him in my uncle's eye
Among the wheat; that when his heart is glad
Of the full harvest, he may see the boy,
And bless him for the sake of him that's gone."
   And Dora took the child and went her way
Across the wheat, and sat upon a mound
That was unsown, where many poppies grew.
Far off the farmer came into the field,
And spied her not; for none of all his men
Dare tell him Dora waited with the child;
And Dora would have risen and gone to him,
But her heart fail'd her; and the reapers reap'd,
And the sun fell, and all the land was dark.
   But when the morrow came, she rose and took
The child once more, and sat upon the mound;
And made a little wreath of all the flowers
That grew about, and tied it round his hat
To make him pleasing in her uncle's eye.
Then when the farmer pass'd into the field
He spied her, and he left his men at work
And came and said, " Where were you yesterday?
Whose child is that?   What are you doing here?"
So Dora cast her eyes upon the ground,
And answer'd softly, "This is William's child!"
"And did I not," said Allan, "did I not
Forbid you, Dora?"   Dora said again,
"Do with me as you will, but take the child
And bless him for the sake of him that's gone!"
And Allan said, " I see it is a trick
Got up betwixt you and the woman there.
I must be taught my duty, and by you!
You knew my word was law, and yet you dared
To slight it.   Well – for I will take the boy;
But go you hence, and never see me more."
   So saying, he took the boy, that cried aloud
And struggled hard.   The wreath of flowers fell
At Dora's feet.   She bow'd upon her hands,
And the boy's cry came to her from the field,
More and more distant.   She bow'd down her head,
Remembering the day when first she came,
And all the things that had been.   She bow'd down
And wept in secret: and the reapers reap'd,
And the sun fell, and all the land was dark.
   Then Dora went to Mary's house, and stood
Upon the threshold.   Mary saw the boy
[410] Was not with Dora. She broke out in praise
To God, that help'd her in her widowhood.
And Dora said, " My uncle took the boy;
But, Mary, let me live and work with you:
He says that he will never see me more."
Then answer'd Mary, "This shall never be,
That thou shouldst take my trouble on thyself:
And, now I think, he shall not have the boy,
For he will teach him hardness, and to slight
His mother; therefore thou and I will go,
And I will have my boy, and bring him home;
And I will beg of him to take thee back:
But if he will not take thee back again,
Then thou and I will live within one house,
And work for William's child, until he grows
Of age to help us."
                             So the women kiss'd
Each other, and set out, and reach'd the farm.
The door was off the latch; they peep'd and saw
The boy set up betwixt his grandsire's knees,
Who thrust him in the hollows of his arm,
And clapp'd him on the hands and on the cheeks,
Like one that loved him; and the lad stretch'd out
And babbled for the golden seal, that hung
From Allan's watch, and sparkled by the fire.
Then they came in; but when the boy beheld
His mother, he cried out to come to her,
And Allan set him down; and Mary said:
   "O Father! – if you let me call you so –
I never came a-begging for myself,
Or William, or this child; but now I come
For Dora: take her back; she loves you well.
0 sir, when William died, he died at peace
With all men; for I ask'd him, and he said,
He could not ever rue his marrying me;
I had been a patient wife; but, sir, he said
That he was wrong to cross his father thus.
'God bless him!' he said, 'and may he never know
The troubles I have gone through!'   Then he turn'd
His face and pass'd – unhappy that I am!
But now, sir, let me have my boy, for you
Will make him hard, and he will learn to slight
His father's memory; and take Dora back,
And let all this be as it was before."
   So Mary said, and Dora hid her face
By Mary. There was silence in the room;
And all at once the old man burst in sobs :—
   "I have been to blame – to blame.   I have kill'd my son.
I have kill'd him – but I loved him – my dear son.
[411] May God forgive me ! – I have been to blame.
Kiss me, my children."
                               Then they clung about
The old man's neck, and kiss'd him many times.
And all the man was broken with remorse;
And all his love came back a hundredfold;
And for three hours he sobb'd o'er William's child,
Thinking of William.
                             So those four abode
Within one house together; and as years
Went forward, Mary took another mate;
But Dora lived unmarried till her death.' – vol. II. p. 33-41.

We shall leave this without comment, which, we trust, is needless.

'Audley Court,' and 'Walking to the Mail,' are in a lighter style, and with less of interest. 'The Talking Oak' is more important, but does not satisfy us so well. This also, like most of Mr. Tennyson's better poems, is love-inspired and love-breathing. But an ancient oak, that is won by a poet to utter Dodonæan oracles, would hardly, we conceive, be so prolix and minute in its responses. In 'Locksley Hall' the fancy is again at home. It is, perhaps, on the whole, the one of all these poems in which far-extended thought is best involved in genuine and ardent imagination. A quick and generous heart pours out through the lips of a young man who has been deceived by the woman he loved, and who, inflamed with disappointment, reviews at passionate speed – far unlike the prosaic slowness of professional reviewers – the images that the darkened world now presents to him, and the diverse paths of action that he is tempted to try. We know not what the author means by his hero's talk of comrades and bugle-horns; for all the rest is the direct outbirth and reflection of our own age. The speaker tells his former happiness in the following lines: –

'Then her cheek was pale and thinner than should be for one so young,
And her eyes on all my motions with a mute observance hung;

And I said, "My cousin Amy, speak, and speak the truth to me,
Trust me, cousin, all the current of my being sets to thee."

On her pallid cheek and forehead came a colour and a light,
As I have seen the rosy red flushing in the northern night.

And she turn'd – her bosom shaken with a sudden storm of sighs –
All the spirit deeply dawning in the dark of hazel eyes –

Saying, "I have hid my feelings, fearing they should do me wrong;"
Saying, " Dost thou love me, cousin ?" weeping, " I have loved thee long."

Love took up the glass of Time, and turn'd it in his glowing hands;
Every moment, lightly shaken, ran itself in golden sands.

[412] Love took up the harp of Life, and smote on all the chords with might
Smote the chord of Self, that, trembling, pass'd in music out of sight.

Many a morning on the moorland did we hear the copses ring,
And her whisper throng'd my pulses with the fulness of the Spring.

Many an evening by the waters did we watch the stately ships,
And our spirits rush'd together at the touching of the lips.

O my cousin, shallow-hearted!   O my Amy, mine no more!
O the dreary, dreary moorland!   O the barren, barren shore!

Falser than all fancy fathoms, falser than all songs have sung,
Puppet to a father's threat, and servile to a shrewish tongue!

Is it well to wish thee happy? – having known me – to decline
On a range of lower feelings, and a narrower heart than mine!'
                                                                    – vol. II. p. 94-96.

The images that haunt him, of the faithless maiden's married life with a despised husband, are full of bitter strength; but we prefer a small specimen of his more indistinct and wider notions: –

   'Can I but relive in sadness? I will turn that earlier page.
Hide me from my deep emotion, O thou wondrous Mother-Age!

Make me feel the wild pulsation that I felt before the strife,
When I heard my days before me, and the tumult of my life;

Yearning for the large excitement that the coming years would yield,
Eager-hearted as a boy when first he leaves his father's field,

And at night along the dusky highway near and nearer drawn,
Sees in heaven the light of London flaring like a dreary dawn;

And his spirit leaps within him to be gone before him then,
Underneath the light he looks at, in among the throngs of men;

Men, my brothers, men the workers, ever reaping something new:
That which they have done but earnest of the things that they shall do:

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'd with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;

Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain'd a ghastly dew
From 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 thro' the thunder-storm.'
                                                            – vol. II. pp. 103, 104.

'Lady Clare' is not memorable; but the 'Lord of Burleigh' well deserves citation, as an example of the skill with which a poet can find a true and complete imaginative interest in an anecdote of our actual refined life: –

[413] 'In her ear he whispers gaily,
    "If my heart by signs can tell,
 Maiden, I have watch'd thee daily,
    And I think thou lov'st me well."
 She replies in accents fainter,
    "There is none I love like thee."
 He is but a landscape-painter,
    And a village maiden she.
 He to lips, that fondly falter,
    Presses his without reproof;
 Leads her to the village altar,
    And they leave her father's roof.
  "I can make no marriage present;
    Little can I give my wife.
 Love will make our cottage pleasant,
    And I love thee more than life."

 They by parks and lodges going
    See the lordly castles stand:
 Summer woods, about them blowing,
    Made a murmur in the land.
 From deep thought himself he rouses,
    Says to her that loves him well,
  "Let us see these handsome houses
    Where the wealthy nobles dwell."
 So she goes by him attended,
    Hears him lovingly converse,
 Sees whatever fair and splendid
    Lay betwixt his home and hers;

 Parks with oak and chestnut shady,
    Parks and order'd gardens great,
 Ancient homes of lord and lady,
    Built for pleasure and for state.
 All he shows her makes him dearer:
    Evermore she seems to gaze
 On that cottage growing nearer,
    Where they twain will spend their days.
 O but she will love him truly!
    He shall have a cheerful home;
 She will order all things duly,
    When beneath his roof they come.

 Thus her heart rejoices greatly,
    Till a gateway she discerns
 With armorial bearings stately,
    And beneath the gate she turns;
 Sees a mansion more majestic
    Than all those she saw before:
 Many a gallant gay domestic
    Bows before him at the door.

 [414] And they speak in gentle murmur,
    When they answer to his call,
 While he treads with footstep firmer,
    Leading on from hall to hall;
 And, while now she wonders blindly,
    Nor the meaning can divine,
 Proudly turns he round and kindly,
    "All of this is mine and thine."

 Here he lives in state and bounty,
    Lord of Burleigh, fair and free;
 Not a lord in all the county
    Is so great a lord as he.

 All at once the colour flushes
    Her sweet face from brow to chin:
 As it were with shame she blushes,
    And her spirit changed within.
 Then her countenance all over
    Pale again as death did prove:
 But he clasp'd her like a lover,
    And he cheer'd her soul with love.

 So she strove against her weakness,
    Though at times her spirit sank;
 Shaped her heart with woman's meekness
    To all duties of her rank:
 And a gentle consort made he,
    And her gentle mind was such
 That she grew a noble lady,
    And the people loved her much.

 But a trouble weigh'd upon her,
    And perplex'd her, night and morn,
 With the burthen of an honour
    Unto which she was not born.
 Faint she grew, and ever fainter,
    As she murmur'd, "Oh, that he
 Were once more that landscape-painter,
    Which did win my heart from me!"

 So she droop'd and droop'd before him,
    Fading slowly from his side:
 Three fair children first she bore him,
    Then before her time she died.

 Weeping, weeping late and early,
    Walking up and pacing down,
 Deeply mourn'd the Lord of Burleigh,
    Burleigh-house by Stamford-town.
 And he came to look upon her,
    And he look'd at her and said,
 "Bring the dress, and put it on her,
    That she wore when she was wed."

 [415] Then her people, softly treading,
    Bore to earth her body, drest
 In the dress that she was wed in,
    That her spirit might have rest."
                                    – vol. II. pp. 201-205.

Every thoughtful reader of the poems which we have thus glanced through will be led to compare them with those on similar themes, of present human existence in the country, by the most profoundly reflective of our living poets, Mr. Wordsworth. 'Michael,' 'The Brothers,' the story of Margaret in the beginning of 'The Excursion,' 'Ruth,' – these also are English Idylls, drawn from the well-springs of Nature, and finished with the painful care of a great artist. How naked and bare they all are in their solemn stillness! Nor is it only in these poems, but even in works of lighter and gladder movement, that we are compelled to listen to the bard as to a grave teacher of moral truth, whom the spirit of spontaneous enjoyment, and even the sympathy with whatever is pathetic or grand in man, cannot hurry beyond the school of his compassionate but austere stoicism. Ignorance only, or lunacy, could deny him a deep internal power of true poetry. But even this, and not merely the manly passions and the soft affections, even the shaping and inspired imagination itself, is always subject to the considerate dominion of the moral idea. Emotion, the most general and obvious, the necessary impulse of all poetry in every age, is restrained in all his writings by the awful presence of self-centred will. The feelings are described rather than shared; the tragic passions summoned up only to be rebuked by a more solemn conjuration than their own; the free enjoyment of life and nature approved only within the bounds of unrelaxing caution; and love – the name bubbled by every wave of Hippocrene, and thundered in all the floods and storms of the main ocean of our being – is here a grave ritual sound spoken over the still waters drawn from the well of Truth for a penitential baptism.

Of course it would be far from our design to charge this great writer with want of feeling. A poet without feeling! Fire without warmth, and a heart without pulsation! But it is clear that his feelings are always strictly watched by his meditative conscience too strictly, not for wisdom, but for rapture. Not a prophet in the wilderness lifting up his testimony against an evil generation, for the heart of the seer must be red and fierce as molten iron—not a hermit in his cave retired from human joys, for the anchorite floats above his rocky floor, forgetful of laws and retributions, in an ecstasy of self-denying love, that supplies the place of decalogue and duties – but like the prophet and the monk, this poet turns aside from the busy ways of life to speculate, [416] in sage and sometimes awful rhetoric, on the wondrousness of existence, and the care with which we must tend the purity of its fountain in the heart. There is no face so lovely, no act so gushing over with keen life, that it can kindle at once the minstrel into song, hurrying him beyond all thought of wrong and right, and having warrant enough in the zealous heat which it inspires. Only in communion with the stars, the mountains, and the sea, the flowers of spring and autumn leaves, and all the simple mysteries of natural things, does his heart pour, without pause, a stream of melodious gladness, and fear no danger in its own happy ecstasies. Even in these solemn elevations of soul he does not forget to impose a scheme of toils on human life. Among streams and rocks he begins with discourse of virtue; and when he has risen on the ladder of his vision to the stars, we still hear him singing from the solar way, that it is by temperance, soberness, and chastity of soul he has so climbed, and that the praise of this heroic discipline is his last message to mankind. A noble temper of heart! A truly great man! He has strangely wedded his philosophic lore to the sweetness of poetry. But the poetry would have streamed out in a freer gush, and flushed the heart with ampler joy, had the moral been less obtruded as its constant aim.

In the younger of these two idyllic writers, on the whole the most genial poet of English rural life that we know – for Burns was of another language and country, no less than school – there is a very different stamp of soul. In his works there has been art enough required and used to give such clear and graceful roundness; but all skill of labour, all intellectual purpose, kept behind the sweet and fervid impulse of the heart. Thus, all that we call affection, imagination, intellect, melts out as one long happy sigh into union with the visibly beautiful, and with every glowing breath of human life. In all his better poems there is this same character – this fusion of his own fresh feeling with the delightful affections, baffled or blessed, of others – and with the fairest images of the real world as it lies before us all to-day. To this same tendency all legend and mystery are subordinate – to this the understanding, theorizing and dogmatizing, yet ever ministers, a loyal giant to a fairy mistress. In his better and later works the fantastic and ingenious brain, abounding in gold-dust and diamond-powder, and the playmate of sphinxes and hieroglyphic beasts, pours out its wealth, and yokes its monsters only for the service of that homely northern nature, without whose smile all wealth is for us but dead stones, and all mysteries but weary tasklike puzzles.

 

 

[Fußnote, S. 402]

* It is difficult to suppose that the poem was written before the exhibition of Mr. Maclise's picture of 'The Sleeping Beauty,' (1841) – a work displaying, like most of that rising artist's, great wealth and boldness of fancy and execution, but, like too many both of the paintings and the poems of our day, too ambitiously crowded, and forced and glaring in its περιεργια   zurück

 

 

 

 

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The Quarterly Review.
1842, September, S. 385-416.
URL: http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000527329

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