Alfred Lord Tennyson as A Nature Poet

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An Intermediate between Romantic and Modern Poetry

      Alfred Tennyson's Nature poetry may be regarded as a link between two epochs of literature. The pantheism and didacticism of Wordsworth are gone, while the vagabond curiosity of the moderns has not yet appeared, but by his accurate and minute observation, Tennyson anticipates Hardy, Brooke, Bridges and Davies even as he anticipates Masefield in his magnificent seascapes. Again, he is a link between the subjectivism of the Romantic movement and the objectivity — so far as it goes, and with exceptions like De la Mare — of the Georgians. Tennyson’s poetry of Nature is subjective only when, and in so far as, he makes her the mirror of human moods and emotions. In another respect, too, his attitude to Nature hovers between two worlds. While science has laid its icy hand on Nature, making her red in tooth and claw — a monster, a discord and a dream, — the poet is not prepared to see in her, as Hardy and Conrad do, a matching indifference to man's hopes and ideas. He stands midway — like Arnold, with a difference — between Wordsworth and Shelley with their certitude and Hardy with his strenuous agnosticism.

Nature as a Background of Human Action

      In Tennyson's lyrical and narrative poetry, Nature does not stand apart from man's interests with a cold and ironic indifference, nor does she bring balm to his woes. It is not his faith "that every flower enjoys the air it breathes." Nor does he feel that one impulse from "the vernal wood can teach us more of god and man, of moral good and evil than all the sages can". Nature interests him only as the background of human action, and he draws upon the infinity of sea and sky for similes to illustrate an action or state of mind. A very short-sighted man, he examined with minute care things close to his eye, and he dwelt on the aspect of things in the far distances. The result was, the landscape of the middle distance escaped him.

      The starry heavens arched over his poetic consciousness. Frequent are the references to the constellations, and none is grander than in Locksley Hall:

Many a night...
Did I look on great Orion sloping slowly to the West
Many a night I saw the Pleiads rising thro' the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.

      The landscapes in In Memoriam aim at mirroring the movement of his inner life; and they achieve that purpose in either of the two ways. He describes an aspect of Nature in a succession of stanzas at the end of which we see the mood that governs it. Of this type are cantos XI and XV, which present two opposed moods in contrast.

      In Break, Break, Break, we have the climax of this subjective treatment of Nature. Its speechless agony, alternating with moments of relaxed grief finds a perfect image in Canto XIX of In Memoriam. The Lotos-Eaters is Tennyson's masterpiece in the merging of mood and Nature. The air is languid and swoons like those who have eaten of the lotos, breathing like one who has a weary dream. The moon stands in an idiotic coma. The streams seem to drowse as they move, falling and pausing and falling. Nature is gripped by the paralysing indolence.

      In employing Nature as a background, Tennyson either suggests it by dexterous touches scattered in the poem, as in Ulysses, or sketches it directly, as in Oenone, the former implying a subtler art. But the overtone in Oenone is, imaginatively no less than technically, a triumph. How the landscape unfolds, revealing Troas and Ilio's "column'd citadel, as the sun mops up the mists that put forth an arm and creep from pine to pine! "There is sheer magic in topmost Gargarus that stands up and takes the morning, as a lonely giant among the peaks. We can no more divide Oenone from the Nature in which she is placed than we can separate the soul from the body of a friend. She is involved in the Nature which surrounds her, and the Nature in which she lives has mixed itself with her thought and her passion. The landscape and the figures — particularly Aphrodite and Paris — illuminate each other.

Wider Aspect of Nature as Well as its Minutest Details

      Tennyson's pictures are his own. He could bring to perfect expression in words the observations of an eye that saw Nature as a whole, like a landscape, as well as in the minutest and most exquisite detail. The sleep and quiet of his own Lincolnshire countryside brood over much of his work, even in the romantic poems. It is that scene, etherealized by romance, and touched with the magic of sun and rain, which is pictured in The Lady of Shalott. He has, indeed, a special faculty for drawing Nature in repose. The enchanted island of the Lotos-Eaters is heavy with the atmosphere of dreams. Below the frozen hills of Morte d' Arthur is the stillness of

the level lake
And the long glories of the winter moon.

      Around their shores the Lotos-Eaters love to watch the calm, unruffled sea.

the crisping ripples on the beach,
And tender curving lines of creamy spray.

      But, beyond these it is interesting to note, up and down the poems the descriptions that flash in a sudden phrase, like

And at their feet the crocus brake like fire

Shot like a streamer of the northern morn,

      and, with that characteristic coining of a picturesque verb,

There lies the port; the vessel puffs the sail;
There gloom the dark green seas.

His Appreciation of Order

      "Lawn Tennyson" he has been jocularly called in allusion to that patient cultivation which gives to his poetry the well-ordered beauty of a garden rather than the untrimmed loveliness of Nature. But though for an ornate poet that criticism must necessarily be true in part, it is not, as has already been hinted, the whole truth concerning Tennyson. The artistry was the deliberate work of a poet, not the lucky freak of a juggler in words.

      Tennyson's appreciation of order is illustrated in his treatment of natural scenery. It is true that he sometimes gives us scenes of savage grandeur, as in

...the monstrous ledges slope and spill
Their thousand wreaths of dangling water-smoke.

      But he often describes still English landscapes, the "haunts of ancient peace", "plaited alleys" and "terrace lawn", "long, gray fields", "tracts of pasture sunny-warm", and all the ordered quiet of rural life.


      Nature, "red in tooth and claw" could never be "all in all" to Tennyson. It gave him a world of phenomena, a series of pleasant pictures, but that was not enough. For spiritual satisfaction he had to saturate the landscape with human associations and human feelings. And this he did with wonderful effect. He linked together, as it were, the land and the people who lived on it.

Select University Questions

1. Write a brief essay on Tennyson as a Nature poet, illustrating your answer with reference to some of his poems.

2. To what extent is it correct to say that Tennyson survives today chiefly
by virtue of his nature imagery?

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