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Tennyson Leads The Victorian Writers Post by :proview Category :Essays Author :George Hamlin Fitch Date :November 2011 Read :1124

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Tennyson Leads The Victorian Writers


Of all the great English writers of the Victorian age it is probable that the next century will give the foremost place to Tennyson. Better than any other poet of his day, he stands as a type of the English people in obedience to law, in strong religious faith, in splendid imaginative force and in a certain unyielding cast of mind that made him bide his time during the dark years when he was bitterly criticized or coldly neglected. Tennyson had to the full the poet's temperament, but he had also a superb physique, which carried him into his eighty-fourth year. From a boy he was a lover of nature, and in nearly every poem that he wrote are found many proofs of his close observation in English woods and fields. Through a period of general skepticism he kept unimpaired his strong faith in God and in immortality that lends so much force to his best verse.

Tennyson's genius found its natural expression in verse, and it is his distinction that while he explored many realms of thought he was always clear and always musical. Browning had more passion, but it was the misfortune of the author of The Ring and the Book that he could not refrain from a cramped and obscure style of verse that makes much of his work very hard reading. Many Browning societies have been formed to study the works of the poet whom they are proud to call master; but Tennyson needs no societies, as the man in the street and the woman whose soul is troubled can understand every line he has written. Nor is Tennyson lacking in passion, as any one may see by reading Locksley Hall or Maud.

Tennyson summed up in his poetry all the spiritual aspiration and the eager search for knowledge of his time. He explored all domains of thought, and he enriched his verse with the fruit of his studies. All the great elemental forces are found in his poems: he is the laureate of love and sorrow, of grief and aspiration. Throughout his verse runs the great natural law that the man who is not pure in heart can never see the glory of the poet's vision.

The purity of his own life was reflected in his verse, just as the mad license and the furious self-indulgence of Byron are mirrored in Don Juan, Manfred and Cain. Even to extreme old age Tennyson preserved that high poetic faculty which he manifested in early youth. One of his latest poems, Crossing the Bar, is also one of the finest in the language, breathing the old man's assurance of a life beyond the grave and a reunion with the dear friend of his youth, whom he mourned and immortalized in In Memoriam.

Alfred Tennyson had one of the finest lives in the roll of English authors. He was born in 1809 and lived to 1892. He spent his early years in one of the most beautiful parts of Lincolnshire. He enjoyed the personal training of his father, a very accomplished clergyman, and much of his boyhood and youth was spent in the open air. In this way he absorbed that knowledge of birds and animals, trees and flowers and all the aspects of nature which is reflected in his verse. As a youth he experimented in many styles of verse, and when only eighteen he issued, with his brother Charles, Poems by Two Brothers. The next year he and Charles entered Trinity College, Cambridge. There they received the greatest impulse toward culture in a society of undergraduates known as the "Apostles." Its membership included Thackeray, Trench, Spedding, Monckton Milnes and Alfred and Arthur Henry Hallam, sons of the famous author of The Middle Ages.

In his second year at college Tennyson won the Chancellor's gold medal with his prize poem, Timbuctoo, and in the following year he published his first volume, Poems, Chiefly Lyrical. He left college without a degree, and in 1833 he issued another volume of poems which contained some of his best work--The Lady of Shalott, The Lotos Eaters, The Palace of Art and A Dream of Fair Women. Any one of these poems if issued to-day would make the reputation of a poet, but this book made little impression on the Victorian public which had lost its taste for poetry and was devoted mainly to prose fiction. The world has yet to catch the note of this master singer.

In 1837 Arthur Hallam, Tennyson's friend and other self, the one man who predicted that he would be the greatest poet of his age, died suddenly in Vienna while traveling abroad. The shock made a profound impression on Tennyson. For ten years he put forth no work. Finally, in 1842, he issued two volumes of poems that at once caught the public fancy. Among the poems that brought him fame were Locksley Hall, Lady Godiva, Ulysses, The Two Voices and Morte d' Arthur. The latter was the seed of the splendid Idylls of the King. Five years later he published The Princess, with its beautiful songs, and three years after In Memoriam the greatest elegiac poem in the language, in which he lamented the fate of Arthur Hallam and poured forth his own grief over this irreparable loss. In the same year he married Miss Emily Sellwood, who made his home a haven of rest and of whom he once said that with her "the peace of God came into my life."

Maud, his most dramatic poem, was issued in 1855. As early as 1859 he published the first part of The Idylls of the King, but it was not until 1872 that the complete sequence of the Idylls was given to the public. These Arthurian legends are cast by Tennyson in his most musical blank verse, and he has given to them a tinge of mysticism that seems to lift them above the everyday world into a realm of pure romance and chivalry.

Enoch Arden, a domestic idyll, written in 1864, made a great hit. It was followed by several plays--Queen Mary, Harold, Becket and others--all finely written, but none appealing to the great public. Up to his last years Tennyson remained the real laureate of his people, his words always tinged with the fire of inspiration. Only three years before his death he wrote Crossing the Bar, a poem which met with instant response from the English-speaking world because of its signs of courage in the face of death and its proofs of steadfast faith in the life beyond the grave.

No adequate estimate of Tennyson's work can be made in the small space allotted to this article. All that can be done is to mention a few of his best works and to quote a few of his stirring lines. If the reader will study these poems he will be pretty sure to read more of Tennyson. To my mind, Locksley Hall is Tennyson's finest poem, as true to-day as when it was written seventy years ago. The long, rolling, trochaic verse, like the billows on the coast that it pictures, suits the thought. The poem is the passionate lament of a returned soldier from India over the mercenary marriage of the cousin whom he loved. Here are a few of the lines that will never die:

Many a night I saw the Pleiades, rising through the mellow shade, Glitter like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid. 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. Cursed be the sickly forms that err from honest Nature's rule! Cursed be the gold that gilds the straiten'd forehead of a fool! Comfort? Comfort scorn'd of devils! this is truth the poet sings, That a sorrow's crown of sorrow is remembering happier things. But the jingling of the guinea helps the hurt that Honor feels, And the nations do but murmur, snarling at each other's heels. Mated with a squalid savage--what to me were sun or clime? I the heir of all the ages in the foremost files of time. Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward, let us range, Let the great world spin forever down the ringing grooves of change. Thro' the shadow of the globe we sweep into the younger day: Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.

It would be difficult among the poets of the last century to parallel these passages for their imaginative sweep and magnetic appeal to the reader. The new criticism that disparages Tennyson and raises Browning to the seventh heaven calls Locksley Hall old-fashioned and sentimental, but to me it is the greatest poem of its age. Next to this I would place In Memoriam, which has never received its just recognition. Readers of Taine will recall his flippant Gaelic comment on Tennyson's conventional but cold words of lament. Nothing, it seems to me, is further from the truth. The many beautiful lines in the poem depict the changing moods of the man who mourned for his dead and finally found comfort in the words of the Bible--the only source of comfort in this world for the sorely wounded heart. The whole poem, as his son Hallam says, emphasizes the poet's belief "in an omnipotent and all-loving God, who has revealed himself through the highest self-sacrificing love in the freedom of the human will and in the immortality of the soul."

The meter of In Memoriam serves to fix the poem in the memory. It seems to fit the thought with perfect naturalness. It is not strange that Queen Victoria should have placed this poem next to the Bible as a means of comfort after the loss of her husband, whom she loved so dearly that all the attractions of power and wealth never made her forget him a single day.

The Idylls of the King are also unappreciated in these days, yet they contain a body of splendid poetry that cannot be duplicated. They represent the author's dreams from early youth, when his imagination was first fired by old Malory's chronicle of the good King Arthur. They breathe a chivalry as lofty as Sidney's, and they teach many ethical lessons that it would do the present-day world good to take to heart. These noble poems, cast in the most musical blank verse in our literature, were the work of thirty years, written only when the poet felt genuine inspiration. They represent, as the poet told his son, "the dream of a man coming into practical life and ruined by one sin. It is not the history of one man or of one generation, but of a whole cycle of generations." And the old poet added these fine words: "Poetry is like shot silk with many glancing colors. Every reader must find his own interpretation according to his ability and according to his sympathy with the poet."

Other fine poems of Tennyson which one should read are the noble Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington, Break, Break, Break, the perfect songs in The Princess, and Crossing the Bar. If you read these aright you will wish to know more of Tennyson, the poet who reconciled science and religion and kept his old faith strong to the end.

(The end)
George Hamlin Fitch's essay: Tennyson Leads The Victorian Writers

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