Alfred Lord Tennyson as A Lyric Poet

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What is Lyric?

      Though the lyric, in the original Greek sense, denoted a poem meant to be sung to the lyre, in common usage, it has come to denote a poem of personal emotion which can be sung, with or without accompaniment. In its wider, but equally legitimate sense it means a poem of personal emotion, or personal thoughts and sentiments which has a song-quality. Even in this extended interpretation, melody and spontaneity are taken for granted. Tennyson's lyrical gift spanned both senses. The lyrics of In Memoriam are a landmark in English poetry, combining, as they do, the poetry of ideas with the poetry of feeling. Oliver Elton correctly observes that its power lies less in, playing over ideas than in playing with the logic of feeling — in the analysis of grief and hope, of memory, and vision.

Tennyson's Treatment of Varied Moods

      Like Coleridge, Tennyson, it has been said, is a poet, not so much of passion and passionate thinking as of moods, subtle, and luxurious and sombre, moods in which it is not always easy to discern the line that separates waking from dreaming.....The moods to which Tennyson has given poetic expression are as varied as his metres, and include a rare feeling for the beauty of English scenery, the interpretation of classical legend, reproduction of the soul of some Greek and Roman poets, as Thomas and Virgil, Lucretius and Catullus, the colour and beauty, if not the peculiar ethical and religious tone, of medieval romance, the complexities of mind and even pathological subtleties of emotion, the brooding of a sensitive spirit over the riddles of life and death and good and evil.

      Many of Tennyson's landscape-pieces are lyrics. "He divined," observer Grierson, "as Keats had before him (but Keats' eye was not, to a like extent, the dominant factor in his sensibility) that a picture presented with extraordinary precision of detail may, if every detail be relevant, contribute potently to the communication of a mood or feeling—the whole secret of pre-Raphaelitism. But he was also aware that mere description is no business of the poet who describes only to communicate feeling."

His Forte is Subjectivity

      Nicholson's remark: "That Tennyson's genius was essentially of a subjective, and not of an objective quality, will, I suppose, be now generally admitted; it is tempting even to consider how his genius would have developed had not the force and passion of his poetic temperament been hushed by quite ephemeral considerations. For had his lot fallen among other circumstances, or in a less cloying age; had that unfortunate element of caution been absent from his character; had some whim of fate let loose the vast reserve of emotions which were in him, and had he realised that what he felt was infinitely more important than what he thought, we might well have had a greater Francis Thompson — or who can tell? an earlier Swinburne. I am not so illiterate as to suggest that Tennyson would have been a better poet had he been a less reputable man and citizen. Yet even if he had retained his austerity, even if he had lost nothing of the sombre stateliness of his manner, a little more emotion, a little less accuracy, might well have rendered him our supreme poet of despair He was intended to be a subjective poet, and was forced by circumstances into fifty years of unnatural objectivity. He chose the easier and more prosperous course; he became the Laureate of his age; he subordinated the lyric to the instructional. And his poetry thereby has lost one half of its potential value."

Tennyson — A Frontrunner in Lyricism

      Harrison has observed: "From the early Claribel to the final Crossing the Bar, separated by some sixty years of production, Tennyson's pure lyrics stand in the front rank of English lyrical achievement. It is needless to dilate on what every one has admired — man, woman, and child; scholar, simple critic, or general public. Nor has the praise and delight in this exquisite music been excessive or mistaken. It is a field where the student of Sappho and Catullus join hands with the girl in the school room in unbounded admiration. The marvel is that these songs with their luscious melody, their Aeolic chiselling of phrase, their simple completeness, were the work of so young a poet, come forth full-fledged from the egg. Such pieces as Mariana, Fatima. The Merman and Mermaid, should be thrown off by an unknown youth is amazing. That such genius for melody should have retained to the age of eighty, and f produced in old age songs like The Trostle and Early Spring is almost more amazing. The wealth as well as the beauty of Tennyson's lyrical productions places him in the foremost rank of our lyricists—strong as our literature has been for many centuries in that form of poetry."

Tennyson's Great Lyrics

      Above all others are the songs in the The Brook, in The Princess, and in Maud. Of them all, no doubt, the songs in The Princess, are the most bewitching: 'The splendour falls on castle walls', 'Tears, idle tears', 'O swallow swallow', 'Now sleeps the crimson petal' and lastly, 'Come down, O maid', with its miraculous couplet. Even whilst under the spell of these siren chants, we must not suffer ourselves to be drawn into any false raptures. The lyrics, with all their charm, hardly rise to the Olympian radiance of a lyric by Sappho or Sophocles. They do not move us like Lycidas or Shakespeare's song. They have no audible ring that we have in Shelley's Skylark, and several others of Shelley's best lyrics. Nor have they that inexplicable pathos of Lovelace's Althea, and some Scottish songs of Burns and Scott. The music of Tennyson's loveliest songs is somewhat languorous. It is:

Music that gentler on the spirit lies,
Than tir'd eyelids upon tir'd eyes.

      Exquisite, but a little cloying—the true moan of the melancholy lotos eaters. No one thinks of putting Tennyson's place in poetry below that of Burns, Scott, or Coleridge. But even in his happiest lyrics, there is some want of the clarion note that they from time to time could sound.

A Criticism Against Tennyson

      We do not altogether hear Tennyson writing these verses spontaneously; we rather see him piecing them together, with consummate art, but without that ungovernable tempest of feeling which marks the highest lyric, so that speech fails the poet, and he bursts into unrestrainable song. Tennyson's lyrics are all exquisitely melodious and marvellously worked. But the very melody and the work somewhat lessen our sense of their spontaneous inspiration. And of all forms of poetry, lyric needs the sense of being inspired song, an inevitable outpouring of art.


      The essence of lyric is the feeling of passion, the thrill of joy, anguish or strife. No one can dispute the feeling of Tennyson's lyric; but it is usually clothed in such subtle graces of fancy, in such artful cadences, in such enamelled colouring, that it strikes more the imagination than the heart. We feel this even in such an exquisite ballad as Edward Gray. which, with all its pathos is somewhat too pretty, too artful, too modern. The songs are not quite simple, and the expression of feeling must be simple. Burns' songs are in verbal refinement mere peasant's snatches as compared with Tennyson's subtle modulations. But they produce a thrill in us. Tennyson's lyrics, as we all feel, have exquisite music: but it is the music of recitation, of memory, of thought, rather than of song. They are too luscious, too brocaded to be sung. But if they miss this thrill which forces forth the voice, they gain in poetic colour, in complex harmony, in translucence. Thousands of lovers of The Princess linger over the melting cadences of its songs without knowing that these lovely lines are composed in heroic blank verse — the same metre as Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes.

Select University Questions

1. Tennyson's imagination is less dramatic than lyrical: he is at his best when kindled by personal emotion and experience. Discuss.

2. "The best of Tennyson is in his lyrics. In these he touches the stars." Critically examine this statement.

3. "Tennyson is at his best in his lyrical and descriptive poems" Elucidate with illustrations.

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