Craftsmanship Technique of Alfred Lord Tennyson Poetry

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      When we have admitted that Tennyson's men and women are often like the shadows, the Lady of Shalott pictured in her magic web, that his philosophy is sometimes shallow and wavering, that frequently he lacks true virility and power, we have to turn to the good in him which overmasters these defects. He had "a reasonable good ear in music;" yet far more than merely reasonable, and not so much for the tongs and the bones as for the sound and harmony of words. Nor was his eye less sensitive than his ear. He could play with a master's touch upon the instrument of his verse — its vowels and consonants, rhythm and rhyme; and he could paint with a cunning hand the colour and form of what he saw, especially in the exquisite detail of Nature in her vaster panorama. He is, indeed, of all our poets the greatest artists, working with infinite care and subtlety upon his canvas. Nearly all his poems were revised with deliberation and the most painstaking thoroughness.

Tennyson's Lucidity in Style

      Tennyson considered poetry as an art, and from the very beginning of his poetic career he practised to attain perfection in poetic art. In this connection, Harrison has pointed out: "The crown has been won, partly by the fact that Tennyson embalmed in exquisite verses the current tastes, creeds, hopes, and sympathies of the larger part of the reading public in our age" but mainly it was won by the supreme perfection of his form. In early life he formed a poetic style of his own; of quite faultless precision, musical, simple, and lucid. And in sixty years of poetic fecundity, his style may have gained in energy, but not in precision. It was never careless, never uncouth, never (or rarely) obscure. Every line was polished with the same unerring ear and the same infallible taste. "In some sixty thousand lines it is rare to find a really false rhythm, a truly bungling verse, a crude confusion of epithets, or a wily cacophony — such ragged stuff as Byron flung off on almost every other page, such redundancies as Shelley. Or Keats would pour forth in some hour of delirious rapture, such rank commonplace as too often offends us in Wordsworth..... Verses so uniformly harmonious as those of Tennyson with their witchery of words, yet so clear, so pure, so tender, so redolent of what is beautiful in nature, in man, woman — all this won over the entire public that cares for poetry, and truly deserve to win it."

Maintains Unity in Art of Construction

      Tennyson was extremely skillful in the construction of short pieces, and after 1832 he studied the art with the greatest care. The lighter pieces from the beginning, and from 1832 onwards the weighter ones as well, owe a great deal of their charm to the unity of impression which they convey. Always a poet of the fitting word and the exquisite phrase, Tennyson in his maturity never forgot the importance of the setting. Thus, Ulysses is the round and flawless delineation of the stoical mind,

Strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

      Few if any poems of equal length contain a great number of gems of expression. It is absolutely free from anything that could be wished away, and to add anything to it would be "wasteful and ridiculous excess." St. Simeon is a poem of a lower order; yet it is almost equally perfect in its own way as the diseased asceticism of the early saint. Again, The Two Voices and The Vision of Sin have the unity which belongs to a mental state vividly conceived. In The Palace of Art, there is a greater complexity; but there is a unity no less real. Every stanza is made to illustrate the soul centred in itself, proud of its own strength, feeding upon and satisfied with beauty, looking not beyond this world. A comparison between the text of 1832 and that of 1842 show how far this unity is due to transposition here, and to excision or addition there. "But the best proof of the great advance which Tennyson had made in the art of construction is to be found in The Lotos-Eaters. The moral influence had been omitted in 1832: it is recognised in the Choric Song, beginning, "Dear is the memory of our wedded lives" which was added in 1842. Partly for the same reason the original conclusion was omitted and a new one was substituted. The introduction of the Epicurean gods suggests thoughts reaching far beyond the lotos land. But there were other grounds as well for his change. By the substitution, Tennyson not only enriched The Lotos-Eaters in thought, but ennobled it in style."

His Excellence in Creating Proverbial Verses

      In technical excellence, as an artist in verse, Tennyson is the greatest of modern poets. Other masters, old or new, have surpassed him in special instances; but he is the one who rarely nods, and who alway finishes his verse to the extreme. Since the period of the Essay on Man, from what writer can you cull so many wise and fine proverbial phrases as from the poet who says:

'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
Kind hearts are more than coronets,
And simple faith than Norman blood;
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds;

       puts the theory of evolution in a couplet when he sings of

one far-off divine event,
To which the whole creation moves,

      who so tersely avows that:

      Knowledge comes but wisdom lingers; ....
Things seen are mighter than things heard,

      and, again:

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;

      From whom else so many of these proverbs, which are not isolated, but, as in Pope's works, recur by tens and scores? Curious felicities of verse:

Laborious orient ivory sphere in sphere;

      and unforgotten similes

Dear as remembered kisses after death;—

      such beauties as these occur in multitudes and literally make up the body of Tennyson's song.

Variety of Themes and Styles

      As Tennyson essayed a great variety of themes they naturally clothed themselves in a great variety of styles ranging from simplicity — sometimes studied, sometimes unsought, and sometimes false — to the elevated ornate; from noble eloquence to rhetoric and declamation; from the austere and grand to the wistful Lydian; from just harmony between style and thought to bathos; from the broken hysterical to nobly unfolding blank verse; from the picturesque to the reflective; from the grotesque to the graceful.

      He has "the noble and genuine simplicity", which sometimes has "the air of being striven for". But sometimes the simplicity belongs to the profoundest passion of thought, the simplicity that possesses the poet like a divine urge:

Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes
In looking on the happy autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more

or

      Again, what a far cry from the mock-heroic and grotesque style of The Princess (with the songs exempted) to the reflective despair of The Two Voices or its echoes in In Memoriam; the winged classical grandeur of Ulysses; from this to the soporific dreaminess of The Lotos-Eaters.

His Use of Metaphors

      Tennyson's use of metaphorical word and phrase is to be seen everywhere: 'Nature red in tooth and claw'; 'a thousand wants gnaw at the heels of men'; 'life is not idle ore, but iron dug from central gloom': 'I will drink life to the lees' 'roaming with a hungry heart'; 'to store and hoard myself'; 'this grey spirit'; 'until endurance grow, sinew'd with action'; 'I am on fire within'; 'a sorrow's crown of sorrow'; 'cold fires', 'yet with power to burn and brand his nothingness into man'. With or without metaphor, the diction is iridescent: 'Immantled in ambrosial dark'; 'engarlanded and diaper'd with inwrought flowers'; 'glow-worms tangled in a silver braid'; 'and glowing round her dewy eyes' 'The circle Iris of a night of tears...'

Use of Picturesque Words

      The use of picturesque double-shotted is one of Tennyson's never failing resources in creating the suggestiveness and melody of the line, and he has scores of them; Crimson-circled, sallow-rifted, many-fountained, argent-lidded, oriel-embrowing, rock-thwarted, swallow-flights, topaz-lights, hebebloom, ocean-ridges, sharp-smitten, green-rushing.

Tennyson's Diction

      Not a little of the pleasure we derive from Tennyson's diction is reminiscence of Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton and the Romantic poets harmonized with classical poets; and this pleasure is naturally bound to vary from student to student, according to the measure of his grounding in English and Classical literature.

A Great Quality of Condensation

      If there is any one quality more than another, which we can single out as that of Tennyson, it is condensation; a condensation which, in the words of Oliver Elton "is only limited by the law of beauty, and the perfect of which is always to make the pace of the poetry slower." His narrative verses, encrusted as they are with gemwork of imagery and intricate sound-sequence, compel us to pause and admire, rendering it impossible to race with the story. His style progressed, it is said, "from the luxuriant to the heroic." It would be truer to say that it progressed from the luxuriant to the classically finished, from misplaced elaboration to directness of presentation, from cloying sweetness to stateliness.

Conclusion

      J.C. Squire hardly exaggerates his gift of style when he says: "Whenever the impulse was strong he could do everything that could be done with words; not only were they perfectly chosen for the making of distinctions, but he had mastered them for every sort of elegance of expression and he never had an imaginative conception to which he was not equal."

      No responsible critic, however, ill-disposed he may be in general towards Tennyson, has refused to concede him a remarkable technical virtuosity, an almost overpowering control of the resources of the English language.

      But despite his endowment as artificer, or perhaps because of it, Tennyson was often perplexed by the difficulties of finding a subject matter commensurate with his craftsmanship. Mathew Arnold demanded of every great poet the capacity of the ancients to delineate a great action rather than the will of the moderns to find self-expression. But Tennyson in this respect belongs essentially with the moderns; with the major Romantics he was devoted first of all not to a general "criticism of life," but to an interpretation of private and personal experience, which might or might not lead to conclusions of broader relevance. And like our contemporaries, he was obliged as an artist to seek for himself sustaining values in the wastelands of the modern world where all things seemed relative, transient and inconclusive.

Select University Questions

1. Write an essay on Tennyson's craftsmanship as a poet. To what extant does his greatness depend upon his artistry?

2. “in technical excellence, as an artist in verse, Tennyson is the greatest of modern poets". Discuss.

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