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THE BRITISH

QUARTERLY REVIEW.

OCTOBER 1, 1880.

ART. I.-Tennyson's Poems.

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Or the vast amount written on Mr. Tennyson's poetry but a small portion has been devoted to serious analytical criticism. Professor Wilson's attack, Blackwood's Magazine,' vol. xxxi., full of the boisterous spirits of the writer, was too obviously unfair to be taken as a true opinion, though there was in it much of real and discerning literary insight. Lord Houghton's article in 'The Westminster Review,' vol. xxxviii., able and admirably written, was yet too much in the tone of a discoverer of unknown lands, who thinks all is magnificently fair which strikes upon him with a sense of newness. This, together with Mr. George Brimley's paper, republished in his collected Essays, and an article in 'The London Review,' vol. i., 1835, are perhaps the only sustained attempts to deal with the real intellectual phenomena presented by Mr. Tennyson's works.

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But these all date from a period far away from modern readers, and reviewers have for many years gazed on the poems as men gazed on the sun before spectrum analysis. Able and enthusiastic eulogies have been written from time to time in all the leading periodicals as new works have appeared; here and there attempts have been made to discover esoteric meanings in plain and simple narrative of old chivalric tales but little has been done to understand them as they are, and explain them, to show their relation to literature, to art, to nature, or to life, to estimate the kind and causes of their beauties or defects. Reviews have been for the most part one chorus of indiscriminate praise. There was a period when The Times' would at least always essay, if it did not compass literary criticism, but the notices of Mr. Tennyson's

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recent poems have been almost comic in their abnegation of all a critic's functions. That, for instance, on The Lover's Tale,' simply quoted as specimens 133 lines of the poem, together with the larger portion of the little preface, and the remainder of the notice was simply an expansion of the following thoughts, if thoughts they can be called: piracy would be popular if, as was in this instance the case, piracy often enforced publication. This is a remarkable poem for a boy of nineteen, but the essential characteristics of the boy's style are those of the man's.' The greater part of other recent reviews have been of the same kind, extracts and platitudes, extracts for the sake of extracting, not as exemplifying a statement or enforcing a position, platitudes in place of thought to save readers the trouble of thinking, of which, to do them justice, they are rarely desirous. This action of the critics. in the case of the later poems has only accentuated a conviction long growing in our mind, that criticism of Tennyson was needed and in some respects almost untried, and in the following pages we shall endeavour to supply the want.

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Since the greater portion of this article was written, now more than a year since, two papers have appeared in The Cornhill' annotating Mr. Tennyson as carefully as critic ever edited Greek play, and working out in detail a good deal of what is here sketched. It has not seemed to us, however, that our own broader examination of principles with but few details is superseded by those excellent studies, to which we would refer all who wish to verify our own conclusions more fully than our space will allow us.

We need not pause to prove the popularity of the works in question. Of course there have been larger sales of single poems. No such rush for copies has ever taken place in Tennyson's case as in that of Byron or Scott, even when by publishing a ballad in a magazine, a cheap form was adopted which placed the poem within the reach of all. Perhaps, too, in one given year, now some time ago, the works of Martin Farquhar Tupper, D.C.L., may have sold a more considerable number of copies than were sold in the same year of Tennyson, but if so the balance was soon redressed. Even evangelical doctrine could not make Tupper's work seem poetry for more than a brief season, and the Laureate's poems have reached quarters where Byron never and Scott seldom came. We do not doubt that at this moment in England more poetry of Tennyson is known by heart, and more could be quoted, than of all the other poets in the language fused into one.

Some of the causes of this popularity are trivial, yet worth a moment's notice. In the first place, Tennyson is thoroughly easy. The great poets who present the most difficulty are loved by their students with a passion often in proportion to the difficulty with which they are approached, and those students can never for a moment believe that the more popular poet is worthy to stand beside their own chosen one. Eschylus and Euripides, Dante and Tasso, Wordsworth and Scott, Browning and Tennyson, are instances of the contrast we mean; the first of each pair is incomparably the higher poet, but the multitude who read for relaxation and not for study, for facile delight and not for wise counsel, for titillation of fancy, and not for the calm satisfaction of intellect, will never believe it, nor are they able to understand or apprehend it.

When we say that Tennyson is easy, we do not mean that there are not here and there passages requiring explanation, and which if an annotated edition were ever published would lead to controversy. The unfoldings of a mind so stored with literature and science will always present difficulties to those who are less educated than the writer, So long as 'In Memoriam' is read people will ask, Who sings to one clear harp in divers tones, that men may rise on stepping-stones of their dead selves to higher things'? What is the meaning of 'before the crimson circled star had fallen into her father's grave'? So long as they read the early poems, and have not read Dante, they will fail to understand the words in The Vision of Sin,' God made Himself an awful rose of dawn.' But beyond the difficulty of allusion or quotation there is little difficulty of idea, and none, or almost none, of diction. The words, and this is no light praise, follow each other in their natural prose sequence; there is no effort or straining after metre or rhyme; the words are the best suited to express the meaning whether considered as poetry or as prose.

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We open the volume at hand absolutely at random and read

Lying, robed in sunny white

That loosely flew to left and right—
The leaves upon her falling light—
Thro' the noises of the night

She floated down to Camelot :

And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,

The Lady of Shalott.

Now, if dismissing for a moment all sense of the assonance of rhyme, we would write this into prose, we shall find that

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only two changes are possible: we should read 'flew loosely' instead of loosely flew,' and place the word ' among' at the beginning instead of the end of the line.

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Again, opening the volume equally at random, we find the arras on the walls of the chambers in The Palace of Art' showed, one,

the reapers at their sultry toil.

In front they bound the sheaves. Behind
Were realms of upland, prodigal in oil,
And hoary to the wind.

And one a foreground black with stones and slags,
Beyond, a line of heights, and higher

All barr'd with long white cloud the scornful crags,
And highest, snow and fire.

And one, an English home-gray twilight pour'd
On dewy pastures, dewy trees,

Softer than sleep-all things in order stored,

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A haunt of ancient peace.

In this passage the only words which could be transposed are the third line of the second stanza, which might in prose read better, the scornful crags all barred with long white cloud,' which, if the rhyme be of no importance, is an equally good line. Now take a passage in Ulysses, where the question is in no degree complicated by assonance, and we find that no change at all is needed

You and I are old;

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:

The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,

'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, aud sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

If the same test be applied to the works of almost any other poet we shall find a very different result. Take Mr. Browning in a passage also chosen by the simple test of opening the volume anywhere—

Fear death?-to feel the fog in my throat,
The mist in my face,

When the snows begin, and the blasts denote
I am nearing the place,

The power of the night, the press of the storm,
The post of the foe;

Where he stands, the Arch Fear in a visible form,
Yet the strong man must go;

For the journey is done and the summit attained,
And the barriers fall,

Though a battle's to fight ere the guerdon be gained,
The reward of it all.

To put this highly elliptical passage into prose would need no mere transposition of words, but a paraphrase; it requires and repays study, but the students are to the readers of poetry as, perhaps, one in a hundred.

The only other passage we will here quote shall be Mr. Matthew Arnold's finest sonnet, which better than any other will exemplify the difference between the poet who writes for scholars only, and him who, indeed, delights scholars, but can be understood at a glance by all.

So far as I conceive the world's rebuke

To him addressed, who would recast her new,
Not from herself her fame of strength she took,
But from his weakness, who would work her rue.
Behold!' she cries, so many rages lulled,
So many fiery efforts quite cooled down!
Look, how so many spirits, long undulled,
After short commerce with me, fear my frown!
Thou, too, when thou against my crimes would cry,
Let thy foreboded homage check thy tongue!'
The world speaks well: yet might her foe reply,
'Are wills so weak? Then let not mine wait long.
Hast thou so rare a poison? Let me be

Keener to slay thee, lest thou poison me.'

We have taken modern poets only for purpose of comparison, and but a few instances; but the test is one easily applied, and in most cases will be applied, with the same result.

Another great reason of Tennyson's popularity is the homely, we may even say commonplace, character of his subjects, within the comprehension of all. They rarely quicken the pulses or stimulate the brain, and therefore suit the average English mind. De Musset's, 'On ne badine pas avec l'amour,' will always find more readers than Victor Hugo's Marion Delorme,' 'Romeo and Juliet' than 'King Lear.' However pathetic are De Musset's play and the graceful tragedy of Shakespeare's youth, they do not stir the deep of human souls, or open the pit of fiery hell which lies. deep in the central heart of each great nature, as in the heart of our mother, the earth. Take the whole of Tenny

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