Characteristic Features of Alfred Lord Tennyson Poetry

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      Alfred Lord Tennyson is chiefly remembered as the most representative poet of the Victorian Age. He was a national poet, whose poetry reflected the various important tendencies of his time. That is why he was so popular in his own day. But one whose poetry is so representative of his Age is apt to be less universal in his appeal. Therefore, with greater universality in his themes, Tennyson would have been far more popular both during and after his own time. But the set-back caused to his popularity by a certain want of universality is amply compensated by his being a poet-artist of a very high and permanent value. Today he is admired mainly as a literary artist of a very high order. His word-paintings of the external beauties of Nature, his careful observation, his accuracy in description to the minutest details, his keen sense of the value of words and phrases, his strong sense of music in words-all these make him a poet-artist in the truest sense. Prof. Webb has ably summed up the qualities of Tennyson as a poet: "His poetry, with its clearness of conception, and noble simplicity of expression, its discernment of the beautiful and its power of shaping it with mingled strength and harmony, has become an integral part of the literature of the world and so long as purity and loftiness of thought expressed in perfect form have power to charm, will remain a possession for ever." Now, let us discuss these characteristics more elaborately.

(i) As a Representative Poet

      The most notable feature of Tennyson's poetry is that it reflects the complex tendencies of the Victorian Age-social, political, religious and literary. That is why he is truly representative of that Age. If one wants to study the main currents of that time, one must read Tennyson, for he is the literary historian of that period. Like a dispassionate but intent spectator he closely watched the ebb and flow of events happening in his country. He remained keenly alive to the currents and cross-currents of affairs in every sphere of activity. His reading of current events was so accurate that, at times, he could even foresee coming changes and, when they actually came, he could as correctly shape and guide public opinion. He was not a visionary or a prophet merely dreaming of a glorious future. On the contrary, he was his nation's mouth-piece voicing her young hopes and aspirations.

      Tennyson lived in an age of intellectual ferment when the minds of people were actively preoccupied with the most vital problems of individual and national life, e.g. "religious doubts, social problems, the; revolt of the cultured mind against a corrupt society, pride in a far-flung Empire, the spirit of compromise so characteristic of the Victorian period." All these questions are faithfully reflected in Tennyson's poems. He was equally alive to the progress of science in his Age, and gave adequate expression to its scientific spirit. He was, thus, a truly national poet. Only a few examples will suffice to show his representative character as a poet. His Princess is an attempt, though facile and unacceptable to the modern mind, to solve an important social problem of the time-the position of women in society. His Locksley Hall Sixty Years After, reflects the change in social and political opinions with change in time. The Charge of the Light Brigade and Ode On The Death of the Duke of Wellington, are intensely patriotic poems reflecting the patriotism of Englishmen as well as his own. His most monumental work, In Memoriam, is his long drawn reflection on the existing questions of scepticism, faith and hope. Stopford A. Brooke aptly remarks about Tennyson as a representative poet of his age: "His age was vividly with him, and he wrote of patriotism, of the proper conception of freedom, of the sad condition of the poor, of the woman's position in the onward movement of the world, of the place of commerce and science in that movement, of war as the remedy of selfishness and evils of commerce and of the future race." To this may profitably be added a remark by Lyall, which runs thus: "Moderation in politics, refined culture, religious liberalism chequered by doubt, a lively interest in the advance of scientific discovery, coupled with alarm lest it might lead us astray, attachment to ancient institutions, firm views of the duty of the State towards its people, and increasing sympathy with poverty and distress-all these feelings and tendencies find their expression in Tennyson's poems."

      No doubt, Tennyson was very popular in his own time on account of the fact that he was truly representative of his age. But this very reason is responsible for the setbacks which his reputation and influence in the present time have received. A poet, whose poetry is mainly representative of his age, is not likely to be universal in his appeal. There is a certain lack of universal element in Tennyson's work and, therefore, he is not likely to enjoy a permanent reputation or wield a permanent influence on future generations. But, thanks to his merit as a great poetic artist, due to which his reputation and influence are bound to remain permanent, he will continue to rank as one of the greatest poets of England.

(ii) As a Poet of Nature

      Unlike Wordsworth, Tennyson is not a priest of Nature wanting to show her healing power to man. Nor, unlike Shelley, is he a visionary wanting to have a visitor of the Spirit behind Nature. As a poet of Nature, Tennyson is unique and differs even from Keats, with whom he has something in common in the descriptions of Nature. Moreover, Tennyson, unlike the aforesaid romantic poets, is not primarily a poet of Nature, yet he loves Nature, and loves to paint its beauties.

      Three influences combined to make him what he was, as a poet of Nature. The earliest influence is that of his habit as a boy to be a sympathetic observer of the external beauties of Nature and to record in his diary whatever of beauty he observed in Nature. Wordsworth stored his impression in his memory, but Tennyson preserved them in his notebook and made the best use of them in his poems. Secondly, the discoveries in natural science influenced his Nature-poetry. Tennyson's conception of Nature was completely altered by scientific researches of the time. Lastly, his own poetic imagination did a lot to mould his attitude towards Nature.

      The result of all these influences was that Tennyson's attitude towards Nature became unique. Unlike Wordsworth, Tennyson did not care to see a life or spirit beneath the eternal beauties or phenomena of Nature. Nor did he feel particularly interested in Nature "red in tooth and claw." Nor, unlike Keats was he satisfied merely with pleasant pictures of the sensuous beauties of Nature. Tennyson went a step forward. The first thing noticeable in his attitude is his scientific perception of the external aspects of Nature-accurate observation of the minutest details of Nature. He is a master of landscape painting, and his descriptions are realistic. The second feature, and this is the most important one that distinguishes him from other Nature-Poets, is that he linked Nature with man, and imparted human associations and moods to natural landscapes. He did so, not by investing Nature with an indwelling spirit but by delicately associating Nature with human feelings and moods. Thus, he made a happy blend of his accurate scientific observation with delicate poetic feeling, of the scientist and the artist.

      By investing nature with human moods and feelings, Tennyson profitably utilized human Nature as a suitable background for reflecting and portraying some human emotions. In other words, he found Nature as a nice means for decorating and emphasising human emotions by presenting them against a background of Nature expressing moods similar to those of the emotions. This is Tennyson's chief characteristic as a poet of Nature, a marked improvement upon Keats's attitude towards Nature, and a sharp contrast to that of Wordsworth and Shelley. In addition to his close observation of Nature, Tennyson believes with Coleridge that we interpret the moods of Nature according to our own and that Nature is happy or otherwise according as we are happy or otherwise. This belief often led him to describe and develop a human mood in terms of natural phenomena.

      Far better than any other poet, Wordsworth interpreted Nature's more august moods, Shelley subtly revealed her ecstasies, but Tennyson delicately harmonized Nature with the moods of man, and most artistically painted nature's changing and complex moods. In describing the various moods and emotions of man, Tennyson cleverly choose such scenes and aspects of nature as may heighten the effect of those moods and emotions. The leading emotion in The Lotos-Eaters is that of indolence. Tennyson uses only such aspects of nature as invariably intensify the atmosphere of indolence, e.g.,

And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep,
And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep

      In Tears Idle Tears, he beautifully imparts his own sad mood to Nature thus:

Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half awaken'd birds
To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square:
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.

      Another important feature of his treatment of Nature is that he does not regard Nature as sympathetic. Unlike Wordsworth, he believes neither in "Nature's holy plan", nor in her "healing power", over the sufferings of man. On the contrary, he regards Nature as cruel and unsympathetic. He writes:

For Nature is one with rapine, a harm no preacher can heal;
The may-fly is torn by swallow, and the sparrow spear'd by the shrike,
And the whole little wood, where I sit, is a world of plunder and prey.

      Tennyson also shows his awareness of the cruelty and waste in Nature. In In Memoriam, he refers to "Nature red in tooth and claw, with rapine". Being influenced by science, he looks at Nature through the eyes of an evolutionist and says that Nature cares neither for the single life nor for the type.

      "As an observer of Nature and as a painter of her innumerable aspects, great and small, Tennyson goes far beyond Wordsworth or any poet since Shakespeare", says Stephen Gwyn. Another special feature of his Nature poetry is his delight in the various shapes and sounds of water, as in The Lotos-Eaters, he writes of:

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

Or in Crossing the Bar: he writes of

...Such a tide as moving seems asleep
Too full for sound and form.

(iii) As a Poet of Man

      Tennyson's attitude towards man was in keeping with his own nature and character. A quiet, cautious, balanced and self-restrained person that he was, he could never persuade himself to like the rebellious and lowly aspects of life. He was strongly opposed to all vulgarity, revolt and wild uncontrolled enthusiasm. He believed in law and ordered progress and therefore loved to portray only sober, dignified, refined, and balanced persons, like princes, princesses, and refined and cultured men and women of good lineage. He liked to portray strong, serene and dignified characters. King Arthur, who had all these ideal virtues, is Tennyson's ideal of manhood. The same is his ideal of womanhood. He reveals his spirit of reverence and self-control in his conception of the passion of love and in his portraiture of womanhood. Love in his verse is a pure unselfish passion. Even the guilty love of Launcet of and Guinevere is described from a spiritual stand points in its evil effects rather than in any sensuous detail. His highest, ideal of love is found in the pure passion of wedded life: true love can exist only under the sanction of Duty and of Reverence for womanhood and one's higher self. He likes women like Allen - the hilly maid of Astolat in his Idylls of the King, or like Fatima, who are gentle, patient and loving. He could not tolerate vulgar eccentric youth and hot-blooded young visionaries. Like the gods, he believed in the depth and not the tumult of the human soul. Himself a thoroughly noble soul, he had a genuine respect for the ideals of Honour, Duty and Reverence. He writes:

Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control,
These three alone lead life to sovereign power.

      Secondly, he lays emphasis upon the importance of law and discipline in human life. Therefore, he dislikes the wandering or unsettled type of life like that of gypsies. He approves of settled life. That is why, in The Lotos-Eaters, the sailors of Ulysses are fed up with their wanderings on the sea, for:

Hateful is the dark blue sky,
Vaulted o' er the dark-blue sea

      and their endless wandering on the sea is a:

Sore task to hearts worn out with many wars
And eyes grown dim with gazing on pilot-stars.

      Therefore, they all ask for rest and settled life -

O rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more

      The third thing about his attitude towards man is that though he disliked the vulgar and the lowly, he was yet kind and sympathetic towards them. But his sympathy for them is rather cautious and patronizing. Far from trying to enter into the soul of the poor, he offered them his sympathy from a distance. He was never blind to the miseries and misfortunes of the poor. In his poems, e.g. The Lotos-Eaters, he pities them for their sorrows and hardships. But his expression of pity is artificial. It is not very genuine. It has none of the zeal of a champion about it. He did not like Shelley's radical democratic zeal, which sought to establish a classless society. An aristocrat at heart, Tennyson did not believe in the people's sovereignty. On the contrary, he was a believer of the Great Man Theory.

      Lastly, Tennyson, the poet of man, wanted to unite all men into a common bond of love and sympathy. But he did not realise that without great and radical changes in the existing social order, the harmony of all men in a common bond of love and sympathy could not be possible.

(iv) His Religious and Philosophical Views

      Tennyson tried to understand fully and sympathise with the movements and agitations of his time and expressed in his poetry what he felt about them. His poetry became an expression of his approval of what was noble, and disapproval of what was unhealthy and corrupt in the thought of the Age. Tennyson was a devout Christian, but not a religious fanatic, and an advocate of ordered progress, but not an ultra-modern. Therefore he equally welcomed the influences of historic Christianity and modern scientific thought. He bore an attitude of compromise between the two. He maintained an attitude which was neither purely scientific or rational, nor purely religious. He preached a halfway course between science and dogmatic Christianity and denounced neither science nor religion. But, in spite of his compromising attitude towards science, his faith in religion was not half-hearted, and the religious spirit dominated his poetry. He believed, and he was encouraged in his belief by his friends, that it was his function as an artist to penetrate and to interpret the inner meaning of the modern spirit to find a poetic expression alike for its religion and science. That he won considerable success in this task is attested by scientists one of whom declared Tennyson's mind to be "saturated with astronomy", and another declared him to be "the first poet since Lucretius who has understood the drift of science". He rendered signal service to his Age by his poetry, by creating and trying to revive religious reverence among thousands of readers, and by toning down some of the over-definite dogmatic creeds of his time. His views on religion are embodied in Two Voices, The Palace of Art, The Vision of Sin, St. Simeon Stylites, The Higher Pantheism, The Ancient Saga and In Memoriam. In The Palace of Art, The Vision of Sin and St. Simeon Stylites he denounced the futility of one-sided and excessive indulgence.

      On one occasion he is reported to have said to a friend: "There is something that watches over us and individually endures; that is my faith, and that's all my faith." That is the gist of his faith as expressed in his poetry. Further, his In Memoriam sums up his philosophy and faith and clearly defines his religious position. It is hope and not faith which he emphasizes in the poem. It is his hope that after all "somehow good will be the final goal of ill." With this hope to inspire him, and with his faith in God and human goodness, he chose the path of practical philosophy, rather than of the purely abstract. He chose to be neither an out-and-out rationalist nor a mystic like Vaughan and George Herbert (of the 17th century.) The only trace of mysticism to be found in him is his faith in the power of institutions to solve all difficulties and doubts concerning faith. He encouraged the doubters and did not altogether condemn those who looked at things religious through the glasses of science. "There lives" he says, "a first faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds." But he never encouraged those doubters, who were not honest and made only a pose of the sceptic. He had profound faith in God, which is expressed in the famous lines of In Memoriam:

That God, which ever lives and loves
One God, one law, one element,
The one far-off divine event
To which the whole creation moves.

      He reconciles the main currents of thought of his time and expresses them in his great poem In Memoriam. Queen Victoria admired this poem so much that she placed it next to the Bible for its religious spirit. Tennyson's philosophy was practical. He always preached the gospel of a brave life. In his own words, his poem, Ulysses, "gave his feeling about the need of going forward, and braving the struggle of life perhaps more simply than anything in In Memoriam." His two guiding principles were love which embraced the rich and the poor alike, and the principle of ordered progress, which was opposed to all impulsiveness. He had a strong tendency to idealise facts. He discerned a kind of poetical beauty in the daily routine of life, and saw heroism in the average man. He never under-rated ordinary people and with advancing years he learnt to read God everywhere. His Idylls embody his ideas of progress and preach the unconquerable strength of Hope. Due to his strong faith in God and human goodness, he believed that science will ultimately quench all desires and end war and the earth will then show "something kindlier, higher, holier". According to him the highest good lay in helping our fellow-men and not in empty pious sentiments. Thus his philosophy was truly practical.

(v) His Respect for Law and Ordered Progress

      An important trait of Tennyson's character was love of law and ordered progress. Naturally, therefore, it forms the leading note of his poetry. It is his firm belief that nothing in the world happens accidentally. On the contrary, everything in the world happens according to a definite plan. There is nothing, either in man or in Nature, which is not governed by the law, that is universal. This very faith he expresses in his In Memoriam: "nothing is that errs from Law". It is not the scientist's law, but the Law which, to Tennyson, is the decree or will of a wise and loving Providence "God is Law, say the wise; O soul, and let us rejoice..."

      He applies the same love of law and ordered progress to his political views. He denounces all revolutions and all "Raw haste" for he considers them to be but "half sister to Delay". He is not opposed to change or new institutions, for, according to him, the old order changeth, yielding place to new. But what he wants is slow and steady change and ordered progress. He is not opposed to liberty, but it must come in the natural course, as a result of long constitutional efforts-by evolution and not by revolution. Changes brought about by violation of law and order cannot endure long, and are bound to lead to injustice, injury, oppression and tyranny, heart-burning and, the worst of all things, the fear of all change.

      Similarly, in the domestic sphere Tennyson is opposed to all violent passions and emotional excitements, for these things destroy the happiness of family life. He wants disciplined passion and restrained emotion. He respects married love only. He strongly believes that domestic happiness can never be attained by lust or guilty amorous passion, that has not been chastened in the fire of pure love. His Lancelot and Guinevere deal with the subject of guilty love, but he takes care deliberately to avoid its sensuous aspects. Law has taught him that

Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control,
These three alone lead life to sovereign power.

      The same love of law and order is found in his attitude towards Nature and his descriptions of natural scenery. To Wordsworth, Nature was a living and speaking presence of Spiritual Thought. To Shelley, she was the Spirit of Love. To Tennyson, Nature is a process of Law. In his higher pantheism, he writes:

God is Law, say the wise; O soul, and let us rejoice,
For if He thunder by law, the thunder is yet His voice.

      His love of order is evident in his descriptions of natural scenery as well. Often he describes the quieter aspects of nature and the ordered quiet of rural life. He loves to paint quiet English landscapes, which are the "haunts of ancient peace."

(vi) His Treatment of Love and Passion

      As already mentioned above, Tennyson is opposed to lawless love and passion. He wrote a number of love-poems. But most of them deal with pure married love or higher spiritual love. According to him, only married love is sacred and must be respected. There is no place in his poetry for sensuality and impure or illicit love. Generally the love he deals with is different from the elemental passion of Byron's poetry, or from the transcendental passion of Browning. His love is purely domestic. His love consists of courting, wedding and the cheerful blessings and preoccupations of married life. Even in Maud, which has been characterised by Stephen Gwyn as a "triumph of sustained love", Tennyson has taken care to avoid the sensuous aspects of love and to emphasise only the spiritual side of it:

And most of all would I flee from the cruel madness of love
The honey of poison flowers and all the measureless ill.

      Tennyson calls Love - "strong son of God, immortal Love". In the Idylls, he emphasises the spiritual love of King Arthur and condemns the sinful love of Guinevere.

      The girls in Tennyson's poetry are shadowy figures, and do not have the beauty of actual life. They are imbued with higher feelings of love and are purely idealised figures. In Fatima alone, Tennyson paints the physical aspects of passion:

Last night, when some one spoke his name
From my swift blood that went and came
A thousand little shafts of flame
O Love, of fire! once he drew
With one long kiss my whole soul thro'
My lips, as sunlight drinketh dew.

(vii) As a Literary Artist

      R.C. Jebb writes: "The gifts by which Tennyson has won, and will keep, his place among the great poets of England are pre-eminently those of an artist. His genius for vivid and musical expression was joined to severe self-restraint, and to patience which allowed nothing to go forth from him until it had been refined to the utmost perfection that he was capable of giving to it. And his "law of pure and flawless workmanship" (as Matthew Arnold defined the artistic quality in poetry) embraced far more than language: the same instinct controlled his composition in the larger sense; it is seen in the symmetry of each work as a whole, in due subordination of detail, in the distribution of light and shade, in the happy and discrete use of ornament. There is no doubt that Tennyson will be remembered more as an artist than for anything else. R. Brimley Johnson writes: "Tennyson was before all things a flawless artist."

      (a) His Love of Beauty: What is an artist, if he hasn't natural passion for beauty. Tennyson has it in abundance, because he was born and brought up in the heart of a beautiful country, and from his early boyhood onwards, he cultivated his taste for beauty by his constant habit and practice of accurately observing and recording his impressions of beauty. He admired Keats, just because Keats was as much a lover of beauty and the past, as Tennyson himself was. Tennyson liked Keats's sensuousness, his delicate sensitivity to the external beauties of nature and his poetic beauty in scenic effects. Tennyson had all these tilings in common with Keats, but his descriptions of nature are entirely his own.

      Writes Stopford A. Brooke: "But the power of seeing beauty, and the love of beauty are not all that make the great artist. He must also have the power of shaping the beauty which he sees, and in a way peculiarly his own. There must be in the work - the personal touch, the individual surprise, the unique way, the unimitated-shaping which provokes imitation. We ought to feel in every artist's work; the immediate pressure of an original, personal creator, who has his own special manner with things and words. This is one of the main tests of genius. Of every great poet it is true, and it is plainly true of Tennyson. Every line is alive with own distinction."

      Tennyson's adoration of beauty, like that of Keats, is sincere and intense. His cult of beauty is embodied in his poems, The Poet, The Poet's Mind, The Poet's Song.!

      (b) His Minute and Accurate Observation of Nature: One aspect of Tennyson's art consists of his minute observation and accurate and clear reproduction of the scenes of Nature. In fidelity to detail, he is second to none. His descriptions give the impression that he has very thoroughly observed what he describes. There is no detail that escapes his keen eye. At times his observation is so accurate and scientific that it becomes almost photographic.

      (c) His Power of Expression: Tennyson has a rare power of painting, as if in a flash, an accurate picture in a word or a phrase. He can create an excellent pictorial effect for atmosphere "often flowering in a lonely world." The excess of ornament of his early poetry is given up in his later poems, in which he creates beauty in little strokes. His masterly strokes are highly suggestive by which the picture clearly rises before the reader's mind. In The Lotos-Eaters, instances of such pictorial expressions are "long-leaved flowers weep", "poppy hangs in sleep", "Creamy spray", "crisping ripples," etc.

      (d) His Avoidance of the Common place: Nothing that is not perfect or unusual in its beauty and effect appeals to his fine sensibilities and taste. Therefore, he particularly avoids all that is commonplace. He makes a conscious effort at selecting, not only the most apt idea or word or phrase, but one that has some uncommon beauty or appeal about it. For instance, he has a special liking for old Saxon words, which he often prefers to commonplace and familiar words. Similarly, he gives a poetic dress to the most commonplace idea. For instance, he describes ice bergs as 'moving isles of winter."

      (e) His Use of Repetition and Alliteration: One of his techniques for creating the effect of beauty or for emphasis is that he repeats a word in the same sense at different places, or in slightly different forms and different senses. In The Lotos-Eaters, he writes:

"...tired eye-lids upon tired eyes"

      Or, again -

Round their golden houses girdled with the gleaming World.

      (f) His Fastidiousness: Tennyson is a conscious and fastidious artist, that is why he lacks the spontaneity of the Romantic poets. On account of his fastidiousness, he believes in an artistic work of perfect finish even though he may have to produce it by conscious effort. He spared no pains to impart the best finish and perfection to his pieces, of poetic art by revising, re-writing and polishing them. The "jewelled and polished perfection" of his work, as George Saintsbury calls it, is the result of his conscious and repeated efforts. In this connection, Cazamian's remark is very apt: "While romanticism tended rather to lay stress on spontaneity of feeling, Tennyson deliberately emphasises the importance of discipline in form. He is an indefatigable, conscientious and meticulous artist. His poems after going through successive revisions are sometimes hardly recognizable, and almost closer to perfection."

      (g) His Lyricism, Rhythm and Music: Tennyson is a lover of simplicity and restraint. Therefore, most of his poetic work is marked by a certain Puritan simplicity and scholarly self-restraint. He does not like to paint the complex motives of human character or the wild excesses of emotion. Besides, Tennyson has a sure ear for music and metrical harmony, and the metrical flow of his lines is altogether free from the defects of rhythm and melody. He is a past-master in the art of harmonising the sense and the sound. Dunn writes: "He is a great poet because he is a great artist, a master of words and metres, a maker of magical music." Another critic writes of Tennyson's keen sense of rhythm and music: "While less powerful than Milton's at its best, Tennyson's blank verse always remains at a high level of excellence, and its simple grandeur of style and expression is peculiarly his own. It is in his lyrical poems, however, that his mastery of metre and rhythm best shows itself. He knows all the secrets of harmonious measures and melodious diction; he recast and published his earlier poems with such minute and scrupulous care that he has at length attained a metrical form more-perfect than has been reached by any other poet." Tennyson has a perfect knowledge of the musical value of vowel and consonant sounds and he makes a very skilful use of them to create varied effects. His song Tears, Idle Tears, I know not what they mean is intensely melodious. There is a languid sweetness in The Lotos-Eaters. The secret of his popularity lies in his painting-simple emotions, which are common to all and easily understandable.

      (h) His Classicism: Tennyson's love of classicism is evident, not only in his love of form, simplicity and restraint in style, but in his taste for classical allusions. He enriches his poetry by wide knowledge of classical literature. Many of his poems are interspersed with references to classical mythology. But, Tennyson never allows these references to clog the smooth flow of his verse, as is the case in Milton's epics. Tennyson's classical learning, instead of congesting, decorates his poems, and imparts a distinction to them. His Ulysses, Oenone and many other poems are marked by classical references.

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