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THE POETRY OF TENNYSON.
It is now my business, after the general account given in the former paper, of the successive points in the poet's training, and of the sequence of his works, to gather up, as well and briefly as I can, the general result; and to set forth the impression which Mr. Tennyson's writings make upon the mind as a whole. The true poet is an interpreter. His loftiest aim is to tell us, not what he dreams, but what he sees.
There is a truth, a beauty, a harmony in nature, if he can but find it out. Points of meeting there are between the outer world and the human soul, where, if we may so apply the sacred language, the invisible may be discerned through the visible. But that this discernment may be true, the faculty of observation must be well-trained and clear. The facts of the world must be seen as they are, and watched and studied with patient care. Many poets have cared to see in the vast bright universe around them nothing but the reflection of themselves; or, at least, their own moods of feeling have coloured all. Nature is the background of their stage, the scenery which exists only to illustrate the play of stormy passion, of light wit, or of intellectual power. Like the lover in Locksley Hall,' when they are in a genial mood, they find the moorland full of music, and the sea-beach sublime ; but when misanthropic and unhappy, it is,
'O, the dreary, dreary moorland! O, the barren, barren shore ! The great passionate personality of Byron fills the scene, and all nature is there as its minister. Wordsworth, on the other hand, studies the external world with true enthusiastic reverence, but studies his own spirit more. He is occupied with the images of nature that are mirrored in his own clear soul, clear and pure as those mountain lakes he loved ; and in proportion to the intensity of his self-consciousness, is the vividness of his delineation.
It is this that makes him the greatest of reflective poets. Tennyson, on the other hand, looks at nature and at the facts of life, full in the face, as far as possible putting away all self-consciousness, and with no disturbing heat of passion. Or if, as in “In Memoriam,' there is a mood of feeling which overspreads and colours all, he knows how to distinguish between the inward and the outward, between the changeful impression, and the abiding reality. Shakespeare and Tennyson are the greatest of English objective poets. Their finest pictures are independent of themselves. Mr. Tennyson would never VOL. III.- NEW SERIES.
have classified his works as Wordsworth has done : Poems of Reflection,'' of Sentiment,' 'of Imagination,' and the like. He has not, indeed, a word to say of his own moods, plans, purposes, in writing; he saw, and so he wrote; or if in higher strain he utters the language of deep emotion, or of profound thought, or tells of some bright unearthly vision, he still remains true to what he himself has sought out and observed of the deep reality of things. Compare Wordsworth's Prefaces, or Sir Bulwer Lytton's, with Tennyson's. Indeed, the latter has given us no preface at all, properly so called ; for it is only after much search that, on the back of the last page of his Poems, we discover, in the smallest of type, all that the author has to tell us of his works. Here it is, in extenso :
[.The second division of this volume was publisbed in the winter of 1832. Some of the poems have been considerably altered. Others have been added, which, with one exception, were written, in 1833.']
The determination thus apparent that readers shall take his writings for what they are worth, without any explanation, vindication, or suggestion from himself, is but in consistency with his unvarying, earnest endeavour to get at the truth of things, unembarrassed by any cross lights from his own mental status or idiosyncrasy. The surpassing vividness of his descriptive poetry is a result of the same untroubled clearness of perception. Has he the commonest object to set before us, he does it thoroughly. There are no vague generalities, none of the epithets by which poets describe rather the impression made upon them, than the thing itself. painters take any scene which Tennyson has fully depicted, and endeavour separately to reproduce it faithfully upon canvas, their pictures could not materially differ. This, of itself, argues not only high delineative power, but power of a special order. It is easy to say that a waterfall is lofty, magnificent, or wonderful. Tennyson would hardly trouble himself to say this, but in living words would depict the cataract, and leave his readers to see its loftiness, magnificence, and wonder for themselves. This rare faculty might be abundantly illustrated from 'The Lotus Eaters,' The Dream of Fair Women,' or the 'Morte d'Arthur. We take, however, a few stanzas descriptive of certain pictures iu the gallery of the · Palace of Art.
"One seem'd all dark and red, a tract of sand,
And some one pacing there alone,
Lit with a low large moon.
You seem'd to hear them climb and fall,
Beneath the windy wall.
Let two great
And one, a full-fed river winding slow
By herds upon an endless plain, The ragged rims of thunder brooding low, With shadow-streaks of rain.
reapers at their sultry toil. In front they bound the sheaves. Behind Were realms of upland, prodigal in oil,
And hoary to the wind.
Beyond, a line of heights, and higher,
And highest, snow and fire.
On dewy pastures, dewy trees,
A haunt of ancient peace.' Another quotation, of yet higher finish, and more vivid exactness, may be cited from · The Idylls of the King.'
* Then rode Geraint into the castle court,
In those days when, as shown in the former paper, thought was weakest and least mature, the same descriptive faculty was exhibited, often with spontaneous and wonderful perfection. From the first, the poet feels, and makes us to see, that there is something in the world of nature worth comprehending, and setting forth in its full beauty. This conviction was the starting point of his poetic career; and to its intensity, while as yet there was no sound strong judgment to regulate its expression, we may trace bis most egregious early failures. Thus, he wishes in one of his now excluded poems, that when he is dead and buried, some kind friend would come to his head-stone, when the days are still,' and 'whisper low,' to tell him if the woodbines blow, and if bees are on the wing ;' ceasing then awhile that he may 'hear the throstle sing. This is as ludicrous as the early incongruities of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. In fact, as we remember once seeing suggested by a shrewd critic, Mr. Tennyson's genius is in many respects strikingly analogous to that of the school of artists whom most men now delight to honour. The blunders and grotesque absurdities which these painters at first committed in the honest attempt to depict what they saw, would have been impossible to inferior men. All but those who were in the secret of their true and simple purpose, declared in preference for the old conventionalities. But amid scornful criticism, and blatant derision, the pre-Raphaelites worked on, for they knew that the truth must prevail, and that if the conceptions of the painter might ever embody the deeper realities of the universe, it must be through a steady faithfulness to the truth of outward things. The facts of nature were the steps by which they strove to ascend to the unseen. Take an illustration from Mr. Hunt's two greatest pictures. The microscopic accuracy of the flowers which in their wild luxuriance carpet the ground, indicates one stage, at least, in the painter's ascent to the conception of the sublime sadness of Him who stands at the door and knocks :-and the doves in the court of the Temple, with the pleased gaze of the rosy boy who is watching them, reveal to us how the artist observed and studied until his dreams were visited by some not upworthy semblance of the Divine Child to whom the mother so fondly clings. So may we not say of Tennyson—his studies of nature are close, accurate, patient, that so he may advance to what is beyond. He toils with loving care among the leaves and flowers, because he knows that they are not the mere surface ornament of a dead and barren earth, but the embroidery of the veil behind which shines the glory that is invisible.
Yet nature of itself is insufficient. Study, cherish it for its own sake, and, in direct opposition to Wordsworth's teaching, it will betray the heart that loves.' The pre-Raphaelites from the first believed in something of which art was but the shadow, and because
of the Divine beauty, they strove to be faithful to the things that they saw. Tennyson, too, is true to nature, because of his intense faith in that which is beyond. This is the meaning, as I take it, of that grandest of his earliest poems, The Palace of Art.' This 'art,' in fact, collects from all creation whatever can minister to the soul's delight. Nature contributes its choicest beauties, the world of intellect and literature adds its charms; taste is gratified to the very full; all luxury and splendour is there, and amidst it the spirit of man is supreme, rejoicing to the uttermost in its rich possessions, and owning nothing superior to them or to itself. The soul, thus crowned, ignores all claims of duty, looks down with a sublime and scornful contempt upon human affairs, excepting, indeed, as their record has been woven into the stately fabric of history. Thus she sits ‘as God,
' exulting in the possession of every material and philosophic gratification,
• Singing and murmuring in her feastful mirth,
Joying to feel herself alive,
Lord of the senses five;
'Tis one to me!" ! And what is the end of all this? A sudden, overwhelming sense of desolation! The poet finely and truly refrains from any analysis of the thoughts and convictions which crowd in upon the mind, and reveal the hollowness of every fancied delight. Nay, perhaps, the deep sense of dissatisfaction and misery is not to be referred to any processes of the reason at all. A mysterious sense of want, a craving, all but too late, for something better and higher than man’s
poor miserable self,' as Carlyle would say, oppresses her with sore despair.' Duty neglected becomes a haunting terror. The futuro is a thought of mystery and dread.
'She, mouldering with the dull earth's mouldering sod,
Inwrapt tenfold in slothful shame,
Lost to her place and name;
And nothing saw for her despair,
No comfort anywhere ! Perhaps, nowhere in modern literature is there a more impressive commentary on the experience of that wisest yet surely most foolish of kings, who in a 'Palace of Art of his own, withheld not his heart from any joy,' but found that all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun.' So mourns the soul in her lordly pleasure house :-