« PrécédentContinuer »
and young, I became thus first acquainted with the poet's name. The review now appears savage and unfair ; the critic, undoubtedly, was of the family of Bunyan's Mr. Bats'-eyes, in his inability to discern the germs of greatness, and the already unfolding beauties which make this old thin duodecimo to us so precious; but in fairness it must be added, that Mr. Tennyson had given some provocation to satire. His verses were not simply dull, like Lord Byron's ‘Hours of Idleness,' in which no human being can to this day perceive the elements of a ' Childe Harold ;' but were often exquisitely ludicrous in their puerile simplicity. Here is the description of his study, over which the Quarterly made merry :
'O! darling room, my heart's delight,
Now it is no real discredit to Mr. Tennyson to have written, even to have published things like this. His after-achievements not only make amends for the act; they justify it. The youth is conscious of the gift ; but at first knows not how to exercise it. The faculty is there, but immature and untrained. Of this insufficiency also he is conscious, and practises his powers on light and trivial materials. Like the young sculptor who shapes his little rude images of clay, or the young artist who by his sketches of grotesques, and pretty impossibilities, acquires sweep and power, or the young novelist who delights in inventing the fanciful and childish contrivances of the fairy tale—so the young poet employs his unripe faculties on material which, if he spoils, does not much matter, and by failure learns how to succeed. His very genius, while it makes the earliest successes more beautiful, makes his earliest failures more absurd. It is instructive to compare the quotations in that Review, as well as those made by · Blackwood’a little earlier, * with Mr. Tennyson's later republications of those same
juvenile poems. The 'little study warm and white' has disappeared, of course; many sketches, pretty enough, but childish, have been also condemned; in other pieces the absurd expressions and lines sneered at by the critics have been amended, and sometimes, indeed, a slight change has made all the difference between ludicrous weakness and exceeding beauty. The elements of beauty were there before, but they needed just one magic touch to blind them into perfect loveliness. Many illustrations might be quoted. Thus, in the ‘Miller's Daughter' the damsel is leaning from the window above the stream, when her lover passing by, looking lazily into the water, is startled by her reflection there. In the earlier edition, he thus tells the tale :
A water-rat from off the bank
I saw your troubled image there.' This is not very picturesque, perhaps ; and the reviewer makes very merry with the water rat.' But now let us look at the modern version :
* There leapt a trout. In lazy mood
I watched the little circles die ;
And there a vision caught my eye;
A glowing arm, a gleaming neck,
Within the dark and dimpled beck.' Again, in A Vision of Fair Women,' the Poet had pictured the phantom of Iphigenia, arising before him to tell the dread story of her sacrifice by the hosts of Greece.
Dimly I could descry
Waiting to see me die.
The temples, and the people, and the shore :
Slowly—and nothing more. 'What touching simplicity ! sneers the reviewer—'what pathetic resignation ! he cut my throat-nothing more! One might indeed ask what more she would have ?
To such criticism Tennyson replies, by remodelling the last stanza as follows:
'The high masts flickered as they lay afloat,
The crowds, the temples wavered, and the shore;
Touched ; and I knew no more.'
We may trace a similar progress in the poet's manner of treating deeper themes. Already in his youthful days he shewed that the mysteries of being were a topic of his thoughts, and he essayed occasional flights into the realms of philosophy. But he did not try to astonish the world with a 'Night and the Soul,' or a' Festus.' My readers may smile at the following extracts from a philosophic poem of Mr. Tennyson's, which made Christopher North at the time very angry, and the readers of ‘Blackwood' very merry. I need not say that it has now vanished from the collection.
I am any man's suitor,
this life is pleasant,
In Eternity no past.
I cannot tell if that somewhat be I.' Here, undoubtedly, is at least the germ of vast metaphysical questions, and a very evident, although faint and inadequate expression, of a sense of their difficulty. Perhaps, too, the poet intended to set forth the nothingness of all human knowledge, or as our modern philosophers might express it, the impossibility of attaining a knowledge of the Absolute. This intention appears yet more plainly in the tone of banter into which the poem immediately degenerates :
'Why the life goes when the blood is spilt ?
But now let us listen to our poet's later discoursings on the same theme. The same, I say, for although the above may be doggrel, its theme is substantially one with that of the noblest songs in 'In Memoriam. It is the same mind too that still strives to pierce to the heart of the mystery, and urges still unanswered questions, but in how altered a mood, and with what different music! True, there is something more in the change than the mere artist's growth. The influences of a sacred sorrow have done much to call forth the true being of the man. He has not only studied, but he has wept and endured. The later, as compared with the earlier verses, disclose the history of a chastened heart as truly as of an expanding intellect. Where another poet might have only chafed against his trouble and striven to fling off his burden in indignation, or to defy it with a proud despair, Tennyson accepts the sorrow with humility and love, derives from the hour of patient endurance new insight into the secret of life, new yearnings towards the heaven of eternal truth; and the very language in which he records the insufficiency of all human knowledge becomes a lofty hymn of praise.
Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
Whom we, that have not seen Thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Thou madest Life in man and brute ;
Thou madest death; and lo, Thy foot
Thou madest man, he knows not why.
He thinks he was not made to die;
"That which we dare invoke to bless;
Our dearest faith ; our ghastliest doubt ;
"I found Him not in world or sun,
On eagle's wing, or insect's eye ;
Not thro' the questions men may try,
If e'er, when faith had fall’n asleep
I heard a voice, Believe no more!
That tumbled in the godless deep:
"A warmth within the breast would melt
The freezing reason's colder part,
And like a man in wrath the heart
Stood up and answered “I have felt.'" But still Faith pretends not to be knowledge. Let the spirit of speculation succeed to the spirit of trust, and
'I falter where I firmly trod:
And, falling with my weight of cares
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.' Few lessons are more valuable to young men of intellect and genius than those suggested by this comparison of the past with the present of Alfred Tennyson. There is an old proverb, “The poet is born, not made. Rather should we read it, The poet is born, and made. Men there may have been as richly dowered at the first as he. But they have disdained to wait, to labour. Life with its lessons has been unheeded, or has only ministered to the idolatry of self. Perhaps with a wild impatience they have meddled at once with the highest themes, girded their untrained energies to a task of might, or exhausted the wealth of their minds in one prodigal display. I have referred to 'Festus. Many still vividly remember the impression made upon them by that wild, wonderful, fantastic, yet often deeply thoughtful and most musical poem. Take it for all in all, this generation has seen no such outburst of genius. But this was twenty years ago. What has its author done since? Who now speaks of “The Age, a Satire ? The advertisements inform us, indeed, that the writer has again taken up his
pen; but it is to write an Essay on the International policy of the Great Powers.' Has he then abandoned poetry ? Not, it should seem, until poetry bas abandoned him.
Now the very slightness of Mr. Tennyson's first attempts, the calmness with which he accepted the rebuffs of the critics, the consciousness of power which stimulated his long-continued and patient toil, the persistency of his self-culture and the humility of his self-restraint, are to me as glorious as anything in his poetic gifts, and vindicate his right as much to a moral as to an intellectual supremacy among the poets of the
age. Select material, ye who write,' says the wise old Roman, ' equal to your powers.' The young poet is often ambitious to soar at once to the starry heights of thought. It would be better for him to wait until his pinions are strengthened. To train one's