Alfred Lord Tennyson Intense Reaction Against Popularity

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      Tennyson's immense popularity with his contemporaries was followed by an intense reaction against him. In fact this reaction had started during his lifetime, though it reached its climax in the last decade of the nineteenth century. In 1869, when Tennyson was at the height of his fame, one of the reviewers of his poetry remarked: "Mr. Tennyson has not merely been overpraised, but qualities have been ascribed to him the very reverse of his real merits. He has been thought to have profound intellect, whereas he has merely a receptive intellect: he has been thought to have dramatic imagination, whereas few poets are more self-contained and self-receptive. He has the sobriety of language which is so impressive; but he has not the largeness of grasp..." Steadman remarked in 1887: "The influence of Alfred Tennyson has been almost unprecedentedly dominant, fascinating, extended, yet of late has somewhat vexed the public mind. Its reposeful charm has given it a more secure hold upon our affections than is usual in this era, whose changes are the more incessant because much more is crowded into a few years than of old. Even of this serene beauty we are wearied; a murmur arises; rebellion has broken out; the Laureate is irreverently criticised, suspected, no longer worshipped as demi-god. Either because he is not a demi-god, or that through long security he has lost the power to take the buffets and rewards of fortune with equal thanks, he does not move entirely contented within the shadow that for the hour has crossed his triumphal path." Bradley remarked in 1914 in his book, Miscellany: "At the time of his death, nearly a quarter of a century ago, Tennyson was immensely popular; and of a large part of the public it may be fairly said that it did not recognise his weakness and even liked him." After a while, criticism arose and so far as it spread, became intense. "To care for his poetry is to be old-fashioned, and to belittle it is to be in the movement." says Bradley.

Reaction against Tennyson

      The reaction against Tennyson is based on two serious charges — a certain want of profundity in matter, and a somewhat excessive prettiness, a sort of dandyism and coquetry in form. It is true that the philosophy that we find in, In Memoriam and in other poems of Tennyson do not appeal to the modern mind, as it has lost the charm of novelty. Moreover, the moral ideas which the poetry of Tennyson embodies are rather conventional and there is nothing startling about them. Further the virtues he cares about most are mainly of one type: self-control, self-sacrifice, faithfulness, loyalty to law and to obligations, personal and social patriotism, and the like. The poems which enshrine these ideas do not lack originality, and the significance of these ideas themselves is not easily exhausted: but of course they do not arrest the reader's attention to the same degree as do the ideas contained in some of the poems by Browning or Arnold; Nor do they resemble ideas which are popular now. Though Ulysses breathes the spirit of adventure in a much higher sense of that word, yet the 'idea' is here adopted from Dante; and neither the adventure in Merlin and Gleam nor that portrayed in In Memoriam is of the kind that would appeal to the modern mind.

      Until forty years ago, spiritually-minded scientists and philosophers saw in Tennyson a metaphysical intelligence strong enough to establish the foundations of religion, all the stronger for their having been battered by the onset of science. He gave, they said, the homeless, drifting thought of mans anchorage, when the solid ground of faith was dissolving everywhere. He gave them a view of the world in accordance with the conclusions of modern science, which was nevertheless spiritually solacing.

His Superficial Sentimentalism

      Today, we see more clearly the superficial character of that reconciliation between "Doubt and Faith", with which even great minds credited him in the last century. We do not read Tennyson to have our spiritual doubts solved.

      There was another strand in his poetical outfit which jars on us today, though it greatly pleased his contemporaries. Both in their material environment and in the world of ideas people were being whirled from change to change in a delicious tempo. In their desire to escape from the maddening jolt of the times and tired of the stormy romanticism of Byron, they liked to bask in the poetry of sugared sentiment—of soft, sweet and tender domesticities. His proverbial wisdom and gnomic lines often fall flat upon us;

Not once or twice in our rough island-story,
The path of duty was the way to glory.

      Well, neither 'the bard' nor the cloying sentimentalist nor the goody-goody moralizer has much to offer us now. Nor do we care to frequent the Tennyson bridge over the gulf between Science and Faith. Hugh I Anson Fausset feels him to be "essentially the poet of delicate sometimes mystical sensuousness, rarely able to transmute his opinions into passionate convictions." W.H. Auden, granting him perhaps the finest ear in English poetry, finds him "undoubtedly the stupidest of English poets, learned only in the arts of Melancholia." Professor Baum says that Tennyson, because of the emotional poverty of his private life and because of an absence of inner fire and spiritual energy in him felt that his task was to understand and reveal to his readers the true inwardness of his age. Says Professor Baum "It was an impossible task, certainly for a sensitive and reclusive man, with a strong inherited melancholy, disinclined to face the slings and arrows of the critics, and with only mediocre intellectual endowment." However, according to J.H. Buckley, Tennyson, was the voice and sometimes indeed the conscience of Victorian culture.

      Nicolson tries to rescue Tennyson from himself and from his age, and to identify and celebrate these limited aspects of his work which can still be appreciated by modern readers: "And thus, if we consider it reasonable and right that Tennyson should also stand among the poets, let us, for the present, forget, the delicate Laureate of a cautious age; the shallow thought, the vacant compromise; the honeyed idyll, the complacent ode.....let us recall only the low booming of the North Sea upon the dunes; the grey clouds lowering above the world; the moan of the night wind."

His Mastery in Phrase and Melody

      Tennyson's secret lies in his magic of phrase and melody, "both at the service of an imagination that can vividly picture scenes of nature and record moments of exquisite perception." For a memorable consummation of picture-making rhythm, recall Tithonus's words to the goddess of the Dawn:

The sweet eyes brighten slowly close to mines,
Ere yet they blind the stars, and the wild team
Which love there yearning for thy yoke, arise,
And shake the darkness from their loosen'd manes,
And beat the darkness into flakes of fire.

      His moods were varied, and he had authentic lyrical power to communicate them with all the accessories of phrase, music and imagery. Style, the gift of the gods, was pre-eminently his. It has been rightly said: "he could make moments immortal — sudden gleam of sun, a gust of wind in the forest, the white breaking of a wave; it is these that in return will give him immortality.

His Artistry in Language and Imagery

      Indeed, Tennyson is a lord of "language" a master craftsman and musician. And more: he is one of the great landscapists of literature: with an eye for the minute no less than for large effects. Of seascapes he has an amazing repertory. F.L. Lucas pertinently observes. "Disappointment with Tennyson, reaction against him, arise from going to his poetry for what it does not really give. He will not provide the mystic consolation some find in Wordsworth; he has not the intellectual courage of Ibsen or Hardy; do not ask him for the passion of the Ballads, or Burns, or Byron, or Emily Bronte; he cannot draw character like Chaucer or Shakespeare, or even Crabbe; he cannot tell a story, unless it be short like The Lady of Shalott or Morte d' Arthur." We should go to him, he says, for his exquisite Nature imagery. "In the trembling of autumn holly-hocks, in the moonlit mists of December, in the larches and lapwings of the spring, in the looming trees of summer darkness and the little chirping cries of summer dawn, his memory is there. Because of him the very earth has become more beautiful."

More than Mere a Representative of Victorian England

      Douglas Bush thus defends Tennyson: "Tennyson was much more than a polished mirror of Victorian England. It is easy to catalogue deficiencies, but it is wiser to enjoy the many things he did superbly. And we should not take shallowness for granted. Beneath the beautiful surfaces there are revelations of the dark abyss in which the poet's deepest self lives. In the essential nature of his idealism and his disillusioned melancholy, his pervading sense of irreparable loss, he is very much our contemporary, the poet of an age of anxiety."

      It is probably still too soon to estimate Tennyson's real position among the English poets, nor is it a matter of much concern that we should try to do so. We live in an age still in acute reaction against the ethics and aesthetics of his, and it must be left for men at some future time to judge him with detachment. If he was not an original thinker, neither was he a shallow one, and his poetry reflects many of the great dilemmas of his own and of all ages.

Select University Questions

1. Discuss the reaction against Tennyson's poetry in the twentieth century.

2. What demerits are found by the modern age in Tennyson's poetry? What merits if any does it get from his poetry?

3. Write a brief essay on the aspects of Tennyson that the modern
age reacts against and those that still appeal to present day sensibilities.

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