Greatness of Alfred Lord Tennyson as A Poet

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      There was a time when Tennyson was extolled as a poet-prophet, a supreme artist who was also a seer, one of those immortals in literature whose works have been a beacon-light through the ages. He was looked upon as the representative poet of Victorianism, one who voices forth 'the profoundest hopes and doubts, the noblest ideals and aspirations of the world's great age' that began with the intellectual revolution of the 19th century, and beckoned humanity towards a new Jerusalem. But his stock has since suffered a heavy slump. Victorianism has become a byword of reproach a synonym for sanctimonious hypocrisy, intellectual dishonesty, fondness for cant and empty sentimentalism; and Tennyson is specially associated with all these sins of Victorianism. His poetic art has been criticised as mere craftsmanship without inspiration, and his philosophy as a laboured plea for a narrow conservatism and insularity.

More Lyrical than Philosophical

      Though this criticism is not altogether undeserved, there is enough of genuine poetic quality in Tennyson's work to ensure his place among the great English poets. Lacking a structural imagination, Tennyson could never, of course, succeed in the long poem. Nor was he a great remedial thinker in poetry; in fact Tennyson mistook his vocation when he took himself seriously as a poet philosopher. Essentially moody and temperamental, he was too apt to clothe his prejudices or pre-conceptions in the language of modem philosophy, to mistake as instructions of the soul what really were only scared reactions of a sensitive spirit to a puzzling world. But when he does not seek to offer cheap consolations of a ready-made philosophy and simply gives expression in his lyrics to the quiverings of his finely strung temperament in a language at once musical and rich, Tennyson easily takes his place among the great lyric poets. He is particularly the poet of that grey region in consciousness where the tangible blends into the mysterious unknown. His is a spirit yearning in desire, and a wistful melancholy broods over most of his poetry, though at times he succeeds in catching vigour of life and action and can convey a simple, intense passion through a vivid, striking image. Too frequently, however, he lapses into a pretty, sometimes overstrung, sentimentalism that is rooted in his sensibility.

Influence of Romantic Poets

      In his poetic output Tennyson took much from his romantic predecessors and yet remained the most individual and original of poets. There is very little influence of Shelley and in spite of his spiritual affinity with Wordsworth there is very little of similarity with him in his poetic art.

      Byron is only faintly, reflected in his earlier work, Poems by the Two brothers. The influence of Coleridge's supreme craftsmanship is clearly visible in his technical skill, though it is more perceptible in his earlier efforts. The poet who influenced Tennyson most was Keats, whom he loved and admired and who shaped his poetic art. Keats's sensuousness, his delicate sensitiveness to external impressions and influences and his pensive melancholy fill his verses. Yet, his individual touch of clarity and love of detail are evident in all his works and make him an original artist in poetry. Of the two poets, Tennyson and Browing, who dominated Victorian Age, the former is more popular because he is more easily understood. As Legouis points out: "He experienced in his own being the intellectual movement of the century, he shared its anxieties, and reflected them in verse".

      Tennyson's Poetic genius was extraordinarily rich in certain qualities and he made noble use of them, they are everywhere apparent in his work. He is the poet of moods, of fantasies, of reveries, above all, of imaginative perception. It is not the active will or the constructive thought of man, but man as the mind that perceives and feels, and fancies — the infinitely varying gleam of sense and emotion and imagination all interwoven together i.e. Tennyson's subject. He was typically Victorian in his concepts. His deep interest in science and scientific discoveries, the broad results of its various branches, which were all the outcome of fixed law and order, had ingrained in him that deep and over-powering respect for the great law which underlines all cosmos. Tennyson with his strong faith in the established order of things is an advocate of disciplined order and gradual evolution in all spheres of human action and, therefore, distrustful of revolutionary fervour and hasty ill-conceived measures of reform. Liberty is to him that sober principle which "broadens down from precedent to precedent."

      A perfect artist by gift and temperament, Tennyson commanded a poetic technique remarkable for its perfect modulation of rhythm, its mastery over vowel-music and consonantal effects. His well chosen epithets and images imply a habit of brooding, an eye for close and sympathetic observation, a pictorial imagination and at times a passionate intensity of feeling. Though not a poet of Nature in a Wordsworthian sense, Tennyson had a capacity for keen observation of natural phenomena, and in his poetry he associates Nature with his themes to create a background of sympathy or to provide a contrast. Tennyson's poetry is fraught with a twilight quality, a subtle suggestiveness alongwith soft ease, airy beauty and a haunting romantic quality. He is in fact the inheritor of the romantic tradition, particularly the Keatisan, though he lacks the elemental strength of the earlier romanticists and his work differs from theirs as a garden does from a landscape.

      Tennyson has touched on various matters, political, social, religious and ethical, but his philosophy is neither great nor inspiring. Today, he is counted not as a thinker, but as a consummate literary artist. Hadow, points out, "No poet ever understood more fully the 'glory of words', none has rounded a music more rich, more varied, more pure in style, more beautiful in colour and tone."

Select University Questions

1. Write an essay on Merits and Demerits of Tennyson's literary works.
2. Discuss greatness of Tennyson as a Poet and his place in literary world.

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