Influence On Alfred Lord Tennyson Poetic Art

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Early Influence

      The poetic development of Tennyson has been compared to that of John Keats, whose influence on his poetry was great and far-reaching, even though Tennyson was later disposed to disown it. As a matter of fact the superficial likeness can but ill-conceal their deeper temperamental and spiritual distinctions. Like Keats he started as a sensuous artist and worshipper of beauty, the picturesque, colourful and remote from every-day life, redolent of the pomp and luxury of Arabia or the weird magic of the Middle Ages or the mythological aura and pensiveness of the Classical past. But every where the details are precise, vivid and clear-cut and the artistry which combines the general atmosphere of mystery with the mathematical precision of the particular details is a precursor of the Pre-Raphaelite ideal which was much indebted to the 'sensuous' Keats. Yet here also one notices the difference between the two artists: while Keats engages all the senses and imparts considerable warmth and intensity into his sensuous descriptions, Tennyson is more purely a pictorial artist, with a strong sense of colour. 'Colour like the dawn' said Emerson, "flows over the horizon from his pencil in waves so rich that we do not miss the central form.

A Shadow of Byron

      Tennyson had a strikingly consistent development, a development from the purely artistic to the blend of thought with art. Tennyson was never of the school of Shelley. Shelley, he said, was often too much in the clouds for him; and there is very little of his work that has the ring of Shelley except perhaps The Lover's Tale. He did for a moment belong to the school of Byron, but the Byronic influence soon vanished. The poet who, among Tennyson's immediate predecessors, had by far the greatest influence over him, was Keats, and next to Keats, perhaps, Coleridge. The sensuousness of Keats attracted Tennyson.

Influence of Keats

      The line of development followed by Tennyson, under the painful awakening born of the ruthless exposure of the unsubstantial opulence in his early poetry, was like that of Keats; from 'fine excess' to a condensed and packed style alternating with verses of limpid simplicity and unadorned beauty. The mature manner of both is marked by slow, meditative and stately rhythm, where 'all the charms of all the muses often flower in a single phrase'. In the case of Tennyson, however, it is more often than not the beauty of a marble without blood and passion, while in Keats it is generally pulsing with life, even though caught in a state of suspended animation. Both were, from an early stage of the poetic career, divided between 'a life of sensation and a life of thought', between the worship of art in the ivory tower and the duty to their fellow beings, in the toils of difficulties and confusions in the arena of the actual life. The nature of this development in Tennyson can be studied in a nutshell in poems like The Palace of Art. It has been pointed out that the necessity of concentrating upon concrete humanity was urged upon Tennyson by his friend, A.H. Hallam, who pointed out that poems are good things but flesh and blood is better. So he finally decided to cast in his lot with his kind:

I will not shut me from my kind,
And lest I stiffen into stone,
I will not eat my heart alone
Nor feed with sighs a passing wind.

      Tennyson put Keats on a lofty pinnacle: and there is something of the innermost soul of poetry in almost everything he ever wrote. For no poet was more keenly alive than him to the importance of the sensuous element in the verse, and none was more readily responsive to the suggestions of sense. The sensitiveness to impression, on which the style of Keats is based, was the quality which was earliest developed in Tennyson. It was because of this quality that Edward Fitzgerald looked back upon the poems of 1842 and the earlier volumes as embodying the true and the great Tennyson. Fitzgerald never fully approved of the later poems, partly because he thought that from The Princess onwards Tennyson tried to put too much thought into his verse and overloaded it with politics and social philosophy and theology, things good in themselves, but in Fitzgerald's opinion detrimental to poetry. This other element too was in Tennyson from the start, but of grew in importance. It was Tennyson's ambition to become equal to the great sage poets, poets who are both great thinkers and great artists, like Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Dante and Goethe.

Influence of Coleridge

      In addition to his close observation of Nature, Tennyson believes along 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. 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. George Saintsbury says, Tennyson had added to English Poetry a body of work which, though not greatest contributed by any man, though falling short of Chaucer and Coleridge in fresh and original gift, of Spenser in uniform excellence and grasp of a huge subject, of Shakespeare in university, in height and depth and every other feature, of Milton in grandeur and lonely sublimity of Wordsworth in ethical weight and grip of nature behind the veil, of Shelley in unearthlyness, and of Keats in independence and voluptuous spontaneity, yet deserves to be ranked with the best of these, except Shakespeare only, by virtue of its astonishing display of poetic art.

      Tennyson considers his role as poet in the light of his duty to his society, which means the assumption of the cloak of social prophet and guide, offering instruction or a message for their consolation and enlightenment, to the reading public. Consequently, the final vision of Keats is broader and profounder than that of Tennyson, who, from the first, distinguished himself by a greater command over the musical and technical resources of the language, greater variety of themes and lyric moods, all of which were eventually pressed, for the most part, in the service of his duty to his country and to his reading public.

Select University Questions

1. Write an essay on Tennyson's poetic art.
2. Discuss the influence of other great poets on Tennyson's writing.

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