MACLACHLAN AND STEWART,
64 SOUTH BRIDGE.
LONDON: SIMPKIN, MARSHALL, & CO.
Since Macaulay took down Mr Robert Montgomery from the high place to which public favour had raised him, no poet has enjoyed such a bubble reputation as Mr Alfred Tennyson, Poet Laureate. We readily concede Mr Tennyson a niche in the Temple of Fame where the "mighty Homer shone;" but we will place him in the rank to which he is entitled, and not in that to which he has undeservingly been exalted, without discrimination, by popular acclamation. We cannot account for this great popularity otherwise than in the words of Mr Lewes, who says, "Men are for the most part like sheep, who always follow the bell-wether: what one boldly asserts, another echoes boldly; and the assertion becomes consolidated into a traditional judgment." This is Mr Tennyson's case. One prominent journal overloaded him with fulsome flattery, and then another, until the whole press took up the cry, and people hearing all this readily believed that a greater than Milton was in their midst. Mr Tennyson is now reaping the bitter fruits of excessive praise, for advantage has been taken of his last poem to tell him he only writes prose. Now, Gareth and Lynette is neither better nor worse than any of the Idylls of the King. It is full of the same faults and absurdities. In the former-instance these were overlooked—now they are loudly proclaimed. False sentiments and emotions, affectation and unnaturalness, absurd metaphors, bizarre imagination, want of animation, realism, and movement, poverty of description, inability to produce a complete picture of things animate or inanimate,—all these things are as prominent in any other part of Mr Tennyson's lengthy, frivolous poem, as in Gareth and Lynette. It is Mr Tennyson's eulogisers who have changed their opinion about his merit—not he who has changed his style. On the contrary, he has gone on improving it, until he has reached that high state of excellence, that condition of mind which the great literary lawgiver declared as absolutely necessary for him who would become a great poet. Let us indulge the hope that Mr Tennyson, starting from this great vantage-ground, may yet produce something equal to the reputation which he enjoys, and the office which he holds.
Mr Tennyson is possessed with an inordinate love of gallantry. Our poetic Don Quixote lives through his days in one long day-dream of chivalry and renown, among fair ladies and noble youths, tournaments, castles, and barons bold. His fancy, trained by daily exercise, leads him from the contemplation of the vulgar affairs of the present race of uninteresting mortals, to see again the antic capers of a rude people, hear their barbarous jargon, and note their savage customs. For Mr Tennyson's sake we regret there are no tilts now-a-days, no grim castles and iron-bars with prisoners fair, and love-sick knights to the rescue. The strain of thirteen hundred years, looking back, would not have put the vigour of his mind in jeopardy every hour. We can understand what this strain must have been, how it must have taken from the pith and marrow of his achievements. We can forecast the great things he might have accomplished, had he not imposed upon himself the tremendous task of journeying daily to the ante-medieval ages. It is difficult to make out the attraction which has drawn the Poet Laureate to those times, for in sooth he is no archaeologist. After Milton wrote his Comus, it was his intention to have written an epic poem with Arthur as its subject; but the lapse of years, the increase of knowledge, and a matured judgment, led him away from his early intention, and caused him to select the most elevated and noble theme which can inspire the mind or employ the pen of the poet. Arthur and his Round Table were put aside by Milton. It does not seem wrong to suppose, that the ambitious thought of doing what Milton left undone, entered into the mind of Mr Tennyson. The imagination of man is prone to discount his unreaped honours. No sooner then would the design of working out this undertaking form itself into a set purpose, than the fruitful fancy of the poet would crown his brow with the laurel wreath, and place his name on the lips of an admiring people. From that time until now, Mr Tennyson has been working at his task, and the silent pledge is fulfilled.
Mr Tennyson could not well have been more unfortunate in his choice of a subject. Arthur's life is so shadowy and dim, that his existence is regarded almost as mythical. Historians, in attempting to produce a concrete which will clearly define his individuality, and express the features of his chatacter, find that he fades away before the searching light of historical investigation. His father's name is unknown; his own name a subject of dispute. And all his great battles are a transfer to him from Kerdic. French writers of the present day are notorious for such historical slight-of-hand; and we know that their ancestors were worthy sires of these sons. For it is from the romancists of Brittany that the tale of Arthur and his Table Round has come to us. It has the true ring of the age in which it was produced,—the age of love and wine; the age when as many amorous ditties were written as business letters now-a-days. History was not respected; truth was not sought after; chivalry was esteemed virtue; and a scarred face was the witness to the honour and probity of its owner. Yet the wassailers of these days were refined compared with the barbarians of Arthur's time. Civilization had changed the form and features of the more modern race. But poor Guenivere lived too near to the outskirts of savagedom to be as beautiful as a houri, as lovely and enchanting as Heloise. The wand of the enchanter has never been more needed than in the case of Arthur's savage consort.
Before taking up with the monkish rubbish of Geoffrey of Monmouth, which exhibits an admixture of human and supernatural events, only equalled by the mythology of Greece and Rome, or the religious mysticism of the systems of Buddha and Mani, Mr Tennyson ought to have had a good assurance of his powers, for no one less gifted than Shakespeare or Scott could have brought life and form out of such a mass of incredibilities, The mind of an ordinary human being rejects them with disdain, But the eccentric-minded, the superstitious, and the lovers of what is marvellous, see in them the reflection of their own wisdom. They satisfy the cravings of their crazed imaginations by giving substance and form to their day dreams, no matter how inconsistent with probability they may be, or contrary to natural and fixed laws. Washerwomen and old nurses delight in them, and side by side with their visions of a better land, are placed the caricatures produced by an enfeebled mind, ignorant of its own history, struggling to realize, according to its light, the sense of a higher state of being. They live on, in sweet communionship with the phantoms of their own creation, fondly believing they are the spiritual manifestations of a pure belief. To them the fictitious theology of the witty monk is but the sign and seal of their own faith. History brings to the surface of her territory no surer fact than this—that the belief of one age becomes, in succeeding generations, the property of the credulous and the ignorant. The pathway which leads up to the abode of Truth is beset with many quagmires and bogs, and there be many who fall therein, but these venturesome pioneers become to us, who follow after, the signposts which, warning us by their misadventures, enable us to out-distance them in our journey thitherward. Intolerance views with gratified looks the unenviable and humiliating position of these brave hearts and lofty minds, and regards it as squaring with their title to consideration. But the just man, looking back and observing the distance by which he has outstripped the great sunk hearts, knows how to value the fervent love of Truth which led them to risk such terrible hazards, for he knows that it is by love such as theirs that he stands securely where he does, almost under the shadow of the abode of Truth. Had Geoffrey of Monmouth been a lover of Truth, had he been earnestly seeking for the path which leads to her dwelling-place, we would have respected his memory. Had he merely amplified the tales of the Bretons and preserved their fictitious character, we would have considered that his only object was to amuse. When, however, he not only amplifies, but tries to transform fiction into truth, he not only is not entitled to our regard but merits our censure. There can be no doubt that his intention in so doing was not to add reliable facts to illustrate history, but to gain proselytes to his faith by circulating, and giving credit to, a belief in supernatural agents, who were understood to exercise a power over the mind of man, to frustrate his designs, and punish his obstinacy. Weak spirits readily sank before a predicted train of coming evils. The children of Holy Church were preserved from all such calamities. To them who believed all these things were as a light to lighten; to them who believed not they were as a power of darkness. Believers came daily; the monks grew fat; and the Church prospered. This was the object of Geoffrey of Monmouth.
To this great lottery, and all would pull.
But all was glorious cheating, brave deceit,
Where some poor truths were shuffled for a bait
To credit him, and to discredit those,
Who after him should braver truths disclose."
But what Mr Tennyson's object is we cannot tell. To ask reasonable beings, living in the nineteenth century, to be delighted and instructed by a mass of falsehoods, impossibilities, and absurdities compared with which the story of Jack the Giant Killer is sober truth, is a demand which we cannot comprehend. How much wiser may any one be said to be, if he knows Arthur slew four hundred and seventy mighty men in one day, the wonders done by the mighty sword Excalibur, all about Sir Launcelot, Elaine, and their spotless boy Sir Galahad, how Galahad and his fellows were fed of the holy Sangreal, all about Sir Gawaine and Sir Ector's visions, and the proud black bulls which represented the sin and wickedness of the Round Table guests, how Sir Launcelot in his madness took a sword and fought with a knight and then leapt into bed, how Sir Percivale met with Sir Ector, and how they fought long, and each had almost slain other, and how, by miracle, they were both made whole, by the coming of the holy vessel of Sangreal? And yet upon this huddled mass of rubbish is raised a superstructure of Grecian design, which is to weather time.
Mr Tennyson we know is, and we say deservedly, a great favourite with young ladies of that age when love begins to shoot its arrows at their susceptible hearts. Florentina and Belvidera Ann think it so enchanting to be carried off by the naughty, satyr-dressed, king Mael: and then the bliss of being delivered by such a knight as Sir Galahad, without spot or blemish. But out of the tender regard we have for our fair readers, we must let them know that Mr Tennyson has been guilty of a parachronism, which flagrantly violates the perspective of history, and is calculated to jumble their views of the manners and customs of one age, with those of another. There were no tournaments, no Sir Gawaines and Sir Launcelots, in the days of king Arthur upon earth, for these brave displays of animal strength and love were not fashionable, at the earliest, before the middle of the eleventh century. And it was not until the latter part of the same century that the Franks delivered Constantinople from the power of the Turks, as they swept onward, in their first crusade, to the Holy City. Chivalry, at this date, did not wear the same complexion which it assumed, like a faded beauty, at a more advanced stage of its existence. Now it had nothing to hide; it had the pure glow of a healthy impulse colouring its fair front. For it was towards Jerusalem, Jerusalem with its endless fond remembrances of human sympathy, compassion, suffering, and an elder brother's love, that the eager glances of those bright eyes and hopeful hearts were directed. But in the weather glass of human institutions, the mercury of time fluctuates between change and decay. Ere the twelfth century was completed, a change had set in upon the fair aspect of chivalry, which was not to cease until all beauty and vigour had left the body, only to mark more vividly the decadence of what was once so admirable. The ennobling impulses disappeared before a degenerate love. The thoughts which drew men out of themselves were swamped in the stagnate pool of unhealthy pleasures. And then chivalry was lost to view. It is this chivalry which Mr Tennyson has decently and becomingly attired in the fashion of the present day, after the necessary ablutions were performed in private under his careful and exacting surveillance. We commend Mr Tennyson's prudence, although we cannot praise his judgment. Nor can we pass over the folly of clothing Arthur in the vesture, and surrounding him with the customs and manners, of the twelfth century, when it is said he lived in the beginning of the sixth. Instead of fighting like a savage, Arthur, by this transposition, prays like a saint. Yet for him Alban had died in vain. The shouts which lauded the preaching of Germanus and Lupus had ceased to reverberate throughout the land. Neo-Druidism was rampant. Pagan temples stood on the sites of the cathedrals of Canterbury, Westminster, and St Paul. For Arthur, Augustine preached and Cedmon sung in vain. Arthur and all his knights knew as much about the "holy vessel of Sangreal," as about the Koran or the Fisherman's Ring; more about a wild boar than a Pater Noster. No doubt the waves which brought the first seeds of Christianity had broken on the shores of England ere this time. But the fruit had only been gathered of that portion which sprang up quickly. That other portion which had been deeply sown, which was to blossom and bear much fruit, had not as yet opened into life,—that portion from whose luxuriance was to be gathered the seed which was to be wafted to every shore, so that every people and nation might taste the sweet fruits of a Redeemer's love. It was only towards the close of the seventh century that Cedmon sung that hymn of praise, which was to inaugurate the richest and purest hymnology in Christendom. Onward comes the heavenly chorus, fuller and more full, now swelling, then rising, in all its beauty and purity, to its highest amplitude, its full fruition in that hymn of Mr Lytes', which beautifully expresses the deep craving of the creature for the protection, sympathy, and love of the great Creator.
Poetry, in its highest form, is an ecstacy of words, extolling the purest sentiments, describing the loftiest conceptions, and expressing the golden thoughts of wisdom, by which sensibility is maintained, the imagination refined, and the mind enriched. In Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and Burns, we find this composite feature prominently displayed. The distribution of these qualities is not equal in all; there is more or less an excess of one over the other; but none are absent. This difference is accounted for by natural causes, and the nature and character of their subjects. Spenser's sentiments and conceptions are in excess of his knowledge of human nature. Shakespeare's knowledge of that vast mine of wealth, human nature, has never been equalled, and in all probability such an exhibition of it will never again be given; but his conceptions are not so lofty as Spenser's, they are fine spun: a beautiful net-work, of golden threads. His sentiments are as pure as Spenser's. It is necessary to point out that a distinction must be made between the sentiments of Shakespeare's villains, bullies, and swaggerers, and Shakespeare's own. Although Shakespeare has drawn villains and bullies to the life, yet we must not identify their thoughts and actions with his own, which were dictated by high moral principles, while his villains and bullies are notoriously without any. The character of Milton's genius is much more akin to Spenser, than Shakespeare or Burns. Milton and Spenser have neither wit nor humour; while on the other hand, the wit and humour of Burns and Shakespeare is keen, and jubilant. Shakespeare and Burns moreover were gifted, for it is a gift, with the deep tenderness which made them sympathize with, and reciprocate the emotion which is stirred by the sense of all that is fair and lovely, sad and . From this sentiment sprang into life the passionately fond Juliet, the simple tender Ophelia, the sparkling merry Rosalind, the immortal Jean, the lovely Annie Laurie and bonnie Highland Mary, characters who have excited more compassion, gained more sympathy, and interested the mind more than all the characters of history put together. And it is this same tenderness which makes us play the woman, over the sad story of Little Nell, which makes us sorrow with her old grandfather, when "They told him gently she was dead." Mr Tennyson cannot draw a tear, provoke laughter, or add to our senses the feelings of sublimity.
Great poets have always been great moral teachers. Philosophy receives from them but a secondary consideration. With them it is nothing compared with the great office of popularising the knowledge of the governance of the world, under the prescience of a beneficently wise God, of the retributive justice which overtakes them who will not listen to the voice of the charmer, of the loveliness, peace, and consolation of virtue. By admonition, entreaty, and illustration, they work out their great end and calling. They pass beyond the bootless problems of philosophy. They had grappled with them, and found their emptiness and hollowness. Such problems may engage and fascinate the mind, but they do not satisfy. There is something beyond philosophy, which man craves for, and feels he is capable of attaining to. It is his after life, to which all the circumstances by which he is here surrounded point. Compared with this, what matters it whether the brain is merely a muscular power capable of receiving impressions, and able to compare and reflect upon them, whether an impression is self or not self, whether conscience is a misnomer for moral rectitude, seeing that men without consciences have no moral sense, no knowledge of good and evil, whether mind as a power is extraneous to brain, whether the soul—the life that was breathed into man at the first—does develope and progress until perfection is reached, and whether or not mind, which we know can and does decay, will exist hereafter with that which we are led to believe influences it in its present state, but never will decay? There is no safety in knowing all these things. Faust, who had learned "all that philosophy can teach," found that it did not show the road to happiness. He sought it wrongfully, in a fearful pathway, on which no sunshine ever falls, lost footing, as the Poet Laureate would say, and fell beneath himself. A string of vain conceits lifts the philosopher from off his feet, and makes him cut such foolish capers, that men perforce are moved to pity. All his journeyings are contained within his own brain, but conceit is such a powerful magnifying glass, that it makes it appear as if they reached to heaven. Philosophy, like an artificial light, only serves to show the darkness by which we are surrounded. Philosophers, like moles, are continually working in the dark, and all their efforts are overturned by the ploughshare of Time:—
Ignorant of themselves, of God much more,
And how the world began, and how man fell
Degraded by himself, on grace depending?
Much of the Soul they talk, but all awrie,
And in themselves seek virtue, and to themselves
All glory arrogate, to God give none,
Rather accuse him under usual names,
Fortune and Fate, as one regardless quite
Of mortal things. Who therefore seeks in these
True wisdom, finds her not, or by delusion,
Far worse, her false resemblance only moets,
An empty cloud."
Thus have great poets regarded the vain subtleties of philosophy. Their office is to speak to a nation, and they speak in its language—not the language of a class to whom alone it is given to know the mysteries which are hidden under a few unpopular words. It is the undying interest of their theme which gains for them such a universal regard, such an attentive hearing. No matter in what form it may appear, the substance is ever the same. In the Faery Queene it is tender, sentimental, endearing, and entreating. In Paradise Lost, it is unrelenting, stern, impassive, and exacting. It is fervent, loving, and deeply emotional in the Cottar's Satarday Night. While in Shakespeare it is pathetic, just, merciful, and discriminating; well balanced the most of all. As "mercy becomes a throned monarch better than his crown," so religion becomes a great poet better than all his fame. If religion be, as it is, a matter of vital concern to a man of the meanest capacity, is it of no moment to a man of genius? Will intellect alone sweeten life, and secure an eternity of happiness? Does a great understanding dull the apprehension of the undimmed beauty of religion? Concerning all this we know to the contrary, "Tis mightiest in the mightiest." It is the centre round which their genius has circled, and which finally sheds a halo over it. The world were dark indeed, but for that light. Socrates and Cicero longed for it, and would have accounted themselves happy indeed had they found it. Are we to suppose, for it only can be supposition, that this great treasure was of little value to Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and Burns? Or was the light so dim that it did not colour all their thoughts, and give to every act an unknown charm? This is impossible: it must have been, indeed we know it to have been, strong and piercing. They did not hide their lights under a bushel, but they set them in golden candlesticks, ornamented with the most beautiful designs, all "carved out of the carver's brain." We do not imagine for instance, that the religion of the Cottar's Saturday Night is a mere incidental ceremony in the kitchen scene of a ploughman's humble cottage. It is the belief of a fervent, loving heart, intreating others by set purpose, and deliberate design, carefully and elaborately finished, to remember Robert Burns and the Cottar's Saturday Night, the foundation of his hope, his faith, the faith in which he lived and died, and through which he lives again. To us this is the highest aspect which the writings of a great poet present. And from this point of view, we look upon him as a great gift to a nation; we esteem him the counsellor of his people. He stands on a lofty eminence among his compeers, but his distinction is isolated, for his greatness is his own. Over and over again the lofty desire to stand where he stands is conceived in the minds of less gifted men. A proper estimate of their own power, and a just perception of its character, would preserve them from a profitless imitation, and save them from a ridiculous failure. But ambition makes a proper estimate impossible. The step is taken which is to lead on to glory, which is to place them on the pinnacle of Fame. They do not see their folly, they will never hear of it, for a hundred years must be fulfilled before a true verdict echoes back their shame.
Mr Tennyson, we believe, is a pure minded gentleman. And his poems seem to be the express image of his mind. They are read by the lovely daughters of England's peers. And it is no flight of fancy to picture one of these sentimental virgins poring over her tastefully bound copy, making a dog-ear where a pretty simile occurs, in order that she may get it by heart, or quote it appropriately the next time she writes to her dear, dear, Arthur, who she thinks is as stainless a knight as the spotless Sir Galahad. But a chastened nature, a nature such as Mr Tennyson seems to possess, will not make another great Milton. And we know we do Mr Tennyson no wrong when we say it is with Milton he earnestly hopes to be ranked. A hankering after the same subject, the same extreme love of Attic form, the same admiration of its dignity, severity, and grace, is common to both of them. But how unlike in genius. Milton would have regarded Mr Tennyson, and all his works, with the like feelings which Gulliver had for the Lilliputians and their houses, the tops of which he swept with the tails of his coat. The comparison may be odious, but the fault is Mr Tennyson's who provokes us to it. Milton's works form a library of history, poetry, and theology. He has enriched the State Paper Office of every court in Europe. A year of Mr Secretary Milton's correspondence is more valuable than the Coming and Going of Arthur and all his knights and their Round Table. His intellect was vast, masculine, strenuous, fitted and capable for all things; at one time descending to a mummer's play; at another rising to produce conceptions which for their blending of loftiness, boldness, dignity, and beauty stand unrivalled. He was majestic-minded, and all his conceptions comport with this, the ruling feature of his character. His shadow falls upon a hundred poets. No one may follow after him to take the crown from off his head. It is not distance, a lapse of years, which makes Milton as great as we know him to be. It is not Milton who grows greater, as we recede from the time in which he lived. His gigantic stature will never grow less. The hills which, to them who live near them, appear as mountains, only form a part of the upland to them who view them at a greater distance. Their distinction is lost; form and size become indefinite as we leave them behind. But there are other hills which never will merge into the surrounding high lying lands as we increase our distance from them. And their loftiness becomes more imposing when we see them towering, in all their greatness, above an upland of "hills o'er hills." Their solitary greatness gives us a sense of sublimity. They create the idea of a living power, as if the hand that fashioned them, had made them to speak of His strength and tell of His majesty. This, if we mistake not, is the feeling which strikes us with awe when we look upon the drear and companionless hills. So stands out great Milton, purpose-like, above the mass of poets, each of whom, in his own day, was looked upon as great, but whose greatness now only helps to show the greater greatness of another. Mr Tennyson has become even as a little hill
When the Poet Laureate put his tale of chivalry into blank verse, he resembled the dark beauty, who, to preserve her necklace of glass beads, put it into a casket of gold adorned with precious stones. The Idylls of the King is ill suited to maintain the grave dignity of blank verse. The substance has no relation whatever to the form, It is well fitted for expansiveness of thought, for full and swelling periods. It is quite in keeping with the unforced, natural, descriptions of nature, in all her various moods, which we find in the Seasons and the Task, or the ethical disquisitions of the Course of Time. And by Milton its capability has been tried to the uttermost. For in Paradise Lost we have the loftiest conceptions and utmost vigour of mind harmoniously blended together, as if it were meant to shew the full powers of a god-like man. The periods of Milton are like the angry billows of the sea as they break in succession upon the shore. As we watch the waves, we see them form, rise and curve upwards until they reach their highest, when they roll over and break one upon the other. In Milton's verse we hear again the full resonance of the everlasting waves, as one after another they tell of the power of the sea. But in Mr Tennyson's verse there is but the gurgle of a little brook, as it splutters over the stones which stop its unequal flow. The result of Mr Tennyson's attempt confirms our opinion, that the octo-syllabic form adopted by Sir Walter Scott is admirably suited for metrical romance, The merry jingle of the lines is quite in keeping with the fashion and purpose of the tale. Such a tale should be full of life and jollity, not prosaic, solemn, pompous, and awfully mysterious. Marmion is all stir and tumult from beginning to end; it resounds with the clash of arms and the clatter of the horses' hoof; it glitters with the spear head, polished helmet, and hauberk; it is full of striking adventures, and the foolish and vain purposes of life and love. No doubt this is not poetry in its highest forms; but Sir Walter Scott made no pretensions to be a great poet. He had an element of his own in which he revelled; but out of it he was easily over-reached. He knew it, and was both honest and wise enough to say it. Jeffrey took Sir Walter roughly to task for the fulness of detail in Marmion, as being inconsistent with the dignity of poetry. With certain forms and subjects richness of detail may lower the standard which is aimed at. But Sir Walter did not aim high—by no means too high for his object. His object was not to propound and disseminate, for countless centuries, swollen truths big enough to meet and satisfy the progressing demand of an ever increasing civilisation. He never taxed the elastic powers of his brain to such a dangerous extent. He had no inclination to utter anything beyond the reach of human intelligence. He filled up his canvas, and, we think, admirably well; but never to over-crowding. The colours were rich, and the proportions finely brought out. It was a good thing for Sir Walter, for Marmion, for us, that Jeffery was not at his ear as the tale flowed from his pen. Instead of a full, glowing, and correct picture of an age and its peculiar customs, we would have had a tale without interest or animation, a poem having greater faults than greater beauties, full of high-sounding airy nothings, vapid, pretentious, insipid, dull, and lifeless, like the Idylls of the King, in which, as Hume would have said, " ." Mr Tennyson has a horror of animalism; and therefore he has eschewed details, for they would have brought his vapoury, floating, thoughts to the earth. Chivalry would have been nothing in the eyes of a simpering miss, if she had been told that an usual mark of gallantry on the part of a knight was to allow a lady fair the high of eating from his plate. A privilege which, now-a-days, we regard as the special right of the lowest class of animals. Instead of heroic acts and disinterested deeds of daring, we would have had the puerilities and follies of a corrupt and profligate state of society. Mr Tennyson is too much infected with the refining tendency of the age to blunder in this direction; but it does not prevent him from " "
Some poets, to preclude all hindrance to continuous contemplation, have turned their backs upon the bustling world, and secluded themselves in some sequestered nooks. Kirke White hated the busy haunts of men; Wordsworth could only distil his diluted metaphysics in presence of the mountain rill; Cowper loved the alcove and grove with its trees and drooping branches; and pious Herbert delighted in the seclusion of Bemerton with its quaint church, porch, and little graveyard. Mr Tennyson also, for some time, has retired from the world— the world where men learn to know their fellows, where love, sympathy, and generosity are kept alive by the sight of pain, grief, and sorrow. No man may hope to be a great poet without a ripe knowledge of man's ways to man. And such knowledge is not to be gained in dell or dingle. We know what happened to Wordsworth and Southey when they took to the woods and forests. And Coleridge wrote and spoke his best under the hum of the great metropolis. It is not, therefore, surprizing that Mr Tennyson's sympathies should contract, that he should forget the aspect of every-day life, the strength of love, jealousy, envy, and revenge, during his seclusion from the world. It is no wonder to us that Mr Tennyson has not a warm place like Shakespeare, Burns, Dickens, and Sir Walter Scott in the hearts of the multitude. First of all he has written for a class of supreme beings—the educated class, we believe, whatever this may mean. Then the characters he brings before his audience lived so long ago, and so little is known about them that few if any are interested either in their doings or sayings. And then what they do and what they say is so absurdly artificial, bombastic, and far removed from common sense, that no one can be found who ever heard men who spake like these men. Men are drawn to books as men to men. There must be some common sentiment which draws the one to the other, a common link which unites heart with heart. It may be the delineation of the like features of our character, the description of the same feelings which have agitated our own hearts, the representation of our own forms of thought, and secret and most dearly cherished aspirations and hopes which makes a firm friend out of the pages of a book. But no such friend can be made out of the pages of Mr Tennyson. In the Idylls of the King, for instance, there is only one pregnant passage which all men would allow was gathered from wide-spread observation. And yet in the Dunciad the same truism may be found almost word for word as it stands in the Idylls of the King. Then again, the personality of Mr Tennyson's characters is so poorly defined that no one can form a proper or a satisfactory likeness of them. And when this is the case it is needless to remark that the interest of the reader can neither be gained nor sustained. Mr Tennyson has evidently got it into his head that kings and knights are superior beings; and therefore he has invented a style of corresponding thought which suits, in his imagination, the lofty mindedness of his great men. Their stature is great, and so the thoughts of ordinary human beings are not suited for them. They must utter great things and do great things. They must not be moved by a mean idea or vulgar desire. At every hazard their grave dignity must be maintained else the multitude would not believe in their greatness. It must never be told how poor a thing a king may be, how frivolous, sordid, and revengeful, like the most abject of his subjects. The result of this is that Mr Tennyson's characters have no character. Sir Galahad might say what Arthur says and still be Sir Galahad; and the last tall son of Bellicent and Lot might speak like the first and still remain the last to the last. It would be quite impossible for Iago to speak like Othello and still be Iago; and no one could ever confuse Goneril with Cordelia, or Portia with Juliet. On the other hand, what difference is there more than the name which distinguishes Guinevre from Elaine or either from Lynette? Mr Tennyson's touches are few; but he is neither Milton nor Dante, and therefore his touches fail to give individuality. Coolness and calmness of mind are admirable qualities for a philosopher or historian; but a soulless poet is always allowed to extinguish himself. Shakespeare is at his greatest in Hamlet. Milton adds beauty to passion in his splendid declamation in Samson Agonistes. Burns, through the intensity of his feelings, makes us love his Highland Mary and his bonnie Jean almost as fondly as himself. These poets were not afraid of having it known that they had passions. They never set up for being past desire, of being as spirituel as Madamoiselle Baptistine, who was only, "une peu de matiere contenant un lueur." Even Cowper can grow warm when he denounces sordidness and oppression. But Mr Tennyson is more enamoured of Horatio than ever Hamlet was. The effect of all this is, that his audience is introduced to a wax-work, in which all the figures, after having been suitably attired according to rank and fashion by the poet, are made to dance to the same monotonous tune. The spectacle soon becomes weariesome, and no one ever discovers an inclination to renew his acquaintance with it. Had Mr Tennyson not forgotten,
he would have made Arthur more like a man, and more like a king. In striving to make Arthur as splendid as his office, he has striven in vain, for he has simply produced a nonentity, a mere phantom king. The actions of Hector and Achilles cannot be reproduced in English thought without appearing ridiculous and fantastical.
Mr Tennyson is greatly inferior to Dryden, Pope, and Wordsworth. He has not the subtle-mindedness or masculine breadth of Dryden; the vigour, point, and propriety of Pope; or the pure and elevated idealism of Wordsworth. Simplicity is the main feature of the Poet Laureate's style. But simplicity cannot give elevation to passion, refinement to thought, or just expression to lofty conceptions. Moreover, simplicity has an awkward tendency always to degenerate into vulgarity and commonplace. It has taken this turn in the hands of Mr Tennyson, who has no vigour to give point to his language. The following passage, selected at random from Gareth and Lynette, will afford our readers an opportunity of becoming acquainted with vigorous writing:—
Huge on a huge red horse, and all in mail
Burnish'd to blinding, shone the Noonday Sun
Beyond a raging shallow. As if the flower,
That blows a globe of after arrowlets,
Ten thousand-fold had grown, flash'd the fierce shield,
All sun; and Gareth's eyes had flying blots
Before them when he turn'd from watching him,
He from beyond the roaring shallow roar'd,
'What doest thou, brother, in my marches here?'
And she athwart the shallow shrill'd again,
'Here is a kitchen knave from Arthur's hall
Hath overthrown thy brother, and hath his arms.'
'Ugh!' cried the Sun, and vizoring up a red
And cipher face of rounded foolishness,
Push'd horse across the foamings of the ford,
Whom Gareth met midstream; no room was there
For lance or tourney-skill; four strokes they struck
With sword, and these were mighty; the new knight
Had feared he might be shamed; but as the Sun
Heaved up a ponderous arm to strike the fifth,
The hoof of his horse slipt in the stream, the stream
Descended, and the Sun was wash'd away!"
The eminent absurdity of this passage, we think, it would be impossible to equal. The sequence is delightfully varied for the ready comprehension of the reader, whose imagination is presumed to be as much at variance with reason as this passage is. The personages change places more often than the representatives of flower grown ten thousand fold and the flashing of a shield. We have often read of the power and strength of the sun, and the feeling of awe it excites in the breasts of multitudes of the human race; but we were really not prepared to learn that it could strike any one, much less our Poet Laureate, with the sense of "rounded foolishness." We are astonished that Mr Tennyson's exquisite fancy did not suggest the propriety of completing his metaphor, by giving us the horrible hissing of the waters, when the Noonday Sun fell into the stream. Now Mr Tennyson may consider all this very fine, but most people will regard it as absurdly extravagant. Who can believe in a knight who is so very like the sun—the little sun, we mean? Such wild descriptions destroy the realism of the characters in the poem. They are not men, but abstractions. And this strange perversion runs through the whole poem. Where a passage so egregiously foolish like this is to be found, we know not. Through Southey's lengthy poems there are many commonplace and even poor passages; but the poorest is infinitely better than this rank nonsense of Mr Tennyson's. And yet Mr Tennyson is a great poet; he is the prince of dactylists; he is vigorous and archaic; his similes are beautiful; he is profound; few can fathom him; fewer understand him. Such are the phrases which are bandied about the character and style of the poet's poetry. Never was there a tamer poet than Mr Tennyson. An imitator of Homer, he is a complete antithesis to him:—. When naturally and properly you expect He to speak, She speaks instead; and when you are prepared to hear Gareth speak, the Noonday Sun (the flower of chivalry) roars beyond the roaring shallow; and after this wild-beast interchange of communication, Gareth. shrills, like a steam-engine, athwart the shallow; then the Sun (the flower of chivalry), who has a face of rounded foolishness, pushes his horse (one, we presume, out of Phoebus' car) across the foamings, not across the ford, be it observed, which would be too commonplace an action for the Sun, who must glide, horse and himself together, over the foamings, like a gondolier in his gondola moving along the moon-lit streams of the City of Song. Four strokes are struck with sword, and we are told they are mighty; then the Sun, when he is heaving up his ponderous arm, is washed away by the stream, his horse having slipt its hoof in the stream. If Mr Tennyson could be criticised on reasonable and fair grounds, we would take exception to the size and colour of the horse. It is such a horse as no knight could bestride, even suppose he is called the Noonday Sun; and the colour is the same which considers "very like natur." It is only Mr Tennyson who would think of forcing beauty out of a comparison between a
Bold was the work, and proved the master's fire;
A strong expression most he seemed t' affect,
And here and there disclosed a brave neglect."
His vigour is not vigour of thought. It is one of style. And consists merely of the abrupt interposition of useless words before the statement or description in the sentence is properly concluded. The effect of this is an absurd transition, unwarranted by the rules of , and most perplexing to a clear understanding of the poet's meaning. This is why many people cannot understand Mr Tennyson; this is his depth and profundity, of which we hear so much. It is because he says what he has to say in a manner more contorted, twisted, and abrupt than Carlyle, that the sense of it is not apparent at once. You have to stop, and think, and adjust, before you arrive at the meaning of Mr Tennyson's passages; and then, when you do arrive at them, you find your labour has been in vain, for they are meaningless. They turn out to be nothing but puerilities and insipid conceits, without point and relativity.
Mr Tennyson's sins against the English language are legion. Johnson has said that it would be impossible for anyone to translate Addison, on account of the free use he made of the idiom of the language. But no one, even suppose he possesses a more ample knowledge of our language than M. Taine, will be able to give a tolerable translation of the Idylls of the King. Adjectives, nouns, and adverbs are turned into verbs; adjectives into adverbs and present participles; nouns into adjectives. And a nominative and verb, before the conclusion of the sentence, occasionally part company with one another, and the verb sometimes displays a strong partiality for another subject. Sometimes all the Parts of Speech are jostled together in such a manner, that it is quite impossible, to tell in what capacity they are doing duty.
His insipid conceits are to be found on every page. For example, in Gareth and Lynette, which must be held to be the most matured production of the poet, we are told, on the first page,
The conceit lies, first of all, in putting a large P to pine; and then instead of saying, like an ordinary mortal, that it had lost its hold of the ground because the soil had been washed away from its roots, Mr Tennyson says it "lost footing." Of course it is to be understood that "lost footing" is poetical. But "lost footing" is not poetical. It does not elevate the accident which befell the pine. The idea suggested by "lost footing," originates from one of the simplest and most common place mishaps which occurs to all people alike. And the washing away of the soil about the roots of a tree is as common an event as the other. What gain is there therefore, in a poetical point, in describing a common natural occurrence, in the phraseology of another common natural occurrence, when the one will set in motion a different train of ideas from the other? Such art, if art it be, simply makes description unnatural, forced, affected, and ineffective. There is hardly a page of the Idylls of the King which is free from similar absurdities.
We have heard also of Mr Tennyson's verse. It has all the beauties of all the poets. The delicate rhythm of Christabel is exceeded by it; it is fuller than Johnson's; it is more musical, and flows easier than Pope's; and its numbers are richer than Dryden's—more elastic and resonant. Of the utter folly of this, any one who has the slightest acquaintance with poetry, must be aware. It is impossible to single out any poem of note in which there is less cadence than in the Idylls of the King. It is unequal and dissonant. The cadence is not "suited to the flood:" the numbers are not "wildly great;"
Mr Tennyson's verse does not lack for sound. There is so much shrilling, bellowing, roaring, and howling continually going on, that any one may easily be led to believe the poet had spent the greater part of his life in the neighbourhood of a menagerie.:
The Idylls of the King is a great failure, and as a poem it will be placed in the same category as Scott's Rokeby, and Southey's Thalaba, Not one person in a thousand can tell who wrote The Wits, or who wrote Madoc in Aztlan, yet both the authors were poets laureate: one was Sir William D'Avenant, the other Robert Southey, LL.D. It is plain the office-ship of Poet Laureate does not bestow immortality on its office-bearers. We have no prejudice against Mr Tennyson. We are only jealous for the honour of the great spirits who have helped to build up England's renown. We reverence their illustrious memory; we love to talk of the great things they accomplished; we visit the places consecrated by their dust, and when in solemn silence we think of him who sleeps in darkness, we involuntarily exclaim, "How great he was." We shall never think of Mr Tennyson after this fashion; we shall never say, we never have said, "How great he is." As we close our remarks, the city bells are ringing out the Old and ringing in the New Year, and, as we salute it, we bid a last farewell to the Idylls of the King.
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