Literary Criticism On Alfred Tennyson Poetry

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1. Variety of Poetic Art

      Compton Rickell: In the wonderful variety of his (Tennyson's) verse he suggests all the qualities of England's greatest poets. The dreaminess of Spenser, the majesty of Milton, the natural simplicity of Wordsworth, the fantasy of Blake and Coleridge, the melody of Keats and Shelley, the narrative vigour of Scott and Byron, all these striking qualities are evident in successive pages of Tennyson's poetry. The only thing lacking is the dramatic powers of the Elizabethans.

2. Representative Quality

      Stopford Brooke: For more than sixty years he lived close to the present life of England, as far as he was capable of comprehending and sympathising with its movement; and he interwoven what he felt concerning it into his poetry. That Tennyson's poetry was an epitome of his times, that it exhibited the society, the art, the philosophy, the religion of his day, was proved by the welcome which all classes gave to it.

      Alfred Lyall: If we descend from the spheres of lofty speculation, and turn to the positive and practical aspects of Tennyson's poetry, we may allow that it undoubtedly represents the ideas and tastes, the inherited predilections, the prevailing currents of thought, of Englishmen belonging to his class and his generation. Moderation in politics, refined culture, religious liberalism chequered by doubt, a lively interest in the advance of scientific discovery coupled with alarm that it might lead us astray, attachment to ancient institutions, larger 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, and will be recognised as the salient features of the national character. In the direction of political ideas, his imaginative faculty enabled him sometimes not only to discern the movement, but also to lead the way.

3. Tennyson and the Conflict between Science and Religion

      Oliver Lodge: In the conflict between Science and Faith, our business was to accept the one without rejecting the other; and that he achieved. Never did his acceptance of the animal ancestry of man, for instance, upset his belief in the essential divinity of the human soul, its immortality, its supremacy, its eternal destiny.

      Harold Nicolson: Tennyson, faithfully reflecting the anxieties of his public, viewed the rise of democracy with dislike and apprehension, and he strove to sweeten such disturbing feelings with the sugar of human optimism and the milk of human compromise. His attitude towards the problem of faith and doubt, although more intense and painful, was not dissimilar....

      Compton Rickett: No poet was more exercised by religious problems than he; and no poet was more sensitive to scientific thought than he. But his attitude is an attitude of compromise; he propounded a via media between the materialistic science of his day and dogmatic Christianity. His solution for the heart-searching and uncertainties of the time was an undogmatic religion, that was at bottom intuitional. Historic Christianity scarcely weighed with him at all.

4. Tennyson and Nature

      Stopford Brooke: Mainly speaking, the difference between Wordsworth and Tennyson as poets of Nature consists in the absence from Tennyson's mind of any belief or conception of a life in Nature. He described Nature, on the whole, as she was to his own senses, as she appeared on the outside. He did it with extraordinary skill, observation, accuracy and magnificence. He did not conceive Nature as alive. He did not love her as a Living Being, as Wordsworth did. As a poet of Nature, he is vivid, accurate, lively, but cold.

      Harold Nicolson: The backgrounds of his poems are always scenes or landscapes which he had himself visited; their foregrounds and their similes are drawn from the flowers that he himself had culled.

      Harrison: Of flowers and trees he must be held to be the supreme master, above all who have written in English, perhaps indeed in any poetry. Tennyson has painted them all-flowers, wild and cultivated, trees, herbs, woods, downs and moors-with the magic of a Turner. As flowers, hills, trees and rivers uttered to Wordsworth a new moral decalogue, so they seemed to Tennyson, as they did to Turner, radiant with a fanciful beauty which no man had seen before.

5. Tennyson's Lyrical Art

      Harold Nicolson: For the songs of Tennyson, written separately or as interludes to break the flow of narrative, are among the best in the English language, and in them we find, as rarely in his other poems, the absolute ecstasy, the "purest" poetry perhaps, which he ever composed. For in his songs, and predominantly in the songs incorporated in The Princess, his poetic energy was concentrated wholly on the magic of words.

      Temperamentally, he possessed all the qualities of a lyric poet. His genius was essentially subjective. Ilis was a lonely soul, melancholy and afraid. The deepest note in his soul is one of frightened agony, as of some wild creature caught in a trap at night.

      Oliver Elton: Tennyson is more at home in classical lyrics.....ode like or commemorative — carefully concerted pieces, be they short or long, with full rolling lines, than in the briefer spontaneous kind.

      Harrison: The wealth as well as the beauty of Tennyson's lyrical production places him in the foremost rank of our lyricists, strong as our literature has been for many centuries in that form of poetry.

6. Tennyson's Art and Technique

      Herbert Grierson: With the exception of Gray, English poetry has produced nothing since Milton that is so obviously the result of strenuous and unwearied pursuit of form.

      Hadow: There is no English poet who can set before us more clearly and more concisely the essential features of a scene or landscape.

      George Saintsbury: Tennyson added to English poetry a body of work, which, 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 universality, in height and depth, of Milton in grandeur and lovely sublimity, of Wordsworth in ethical weight and grip of nature behind the veil, of Shelley in unearthliness, and of Keats in voluptuous spontaneity, yet deserves to be ranked with the best of these, except Shakespeare only, in virtue of its astonishing display of poetic art.

      Steadman: In whatever light, we examine the characteristics of the Laureate's genius, the complete and even balance of his poetry is from first to last conspicuous. It exhibits just that combination of lyrical elements which makes a symphony, wherein it is difficult to say what quality predominates. Reviewing minor poets, we think this one attractive for the wild flavour of his unstudied verse; another, for the gush and music of his songs; a third, for idyllic sweetness or tragic power; but in Tennyson we have the strong repose of art, whereof—as of the perfection of nature — the world is slow to tire.

      Harold Nicolson: Tennyson's very dexterous manipulation of vowel sounds, which might be said, indeed, to constitute his most original contribution to the harmonies of the English language, can be illustrated from many of his poems. In fact, it was his perfection of vowel balance which made his poetry so difficult to set to music, and he was himself fully aware of his talent in this direction, and would at times exploit it somewhat unduly.

      It must be admitted, indeed, that Tennyson was apt to exaggerate the importance of harmonies, and to rely a little too often and too lavishly upon the mere devices of a verse — upon onomatopoeia, epanaphora and alliteration.

      Steadman: Leaving the architecture of Tennyson's poetry and coming to the sentiments, which it seeks to express, we are struck at once by the fact that an idyllic, or picturesque mode of conveying that sentiment is the one natural to this poet, if not the only one permitted by his limitations. He does not, like Browning, catch the secret of a master-passion; on the contrary; he gives us an ideal picture of an ideal person, but set against a background more tangible than other artists can draw, making the accessories, and even the atmosphere, convey the meaning of his poem. As we study his verse, the sound and colour of it enters our soul, we think with him, we partake of his feelings, and are led to regions which he finds unable to open for us except in his suggestive way.

7. General Estimate

      Compton Rickett: If his philosophy of life is not a great and inspiring one, yet it has its place in the scheme of things; and we may supplement its message by the more tonic teaching of Browning and Meredith; while of Tennyson's work as a literary artist, and as a painter of English life, no lover of beautiful verse could speak too highly, as a word-painter of typical English scenery, as the exponent of the simple emotions of everyday life, he holds a treasured and honourable place. His delicacy and crystalline charm, his dignified and melodious utterance will always endear him to English men and women.

      E. Albert: He is not a supreme poet, and whether he will maintain the primacy among the singers of his own generation, as he undoubtedly did during his lifetime, remains to be seen; but, after all deductions are made, his high place in the Temple of Fame is assured.

      A.C. Bradley: To his contemporaries, he was a demigod; but younger men strongly assailed his patent literary mannerisms, his complacent acceptance of the evils of his time, his flattery of the great, and his somewhat arrogant assumption of the airs of immortality. Consequently, for twenty years after his death, his reputation suffered considerably. Once more reaction has set in, and his detractors have modified their attitude.

      Hadow: There are depths of feeling that he has not sounded, there are whole tracts of human life which he has not explored; but within the boundaries of his own realm he has set up for ever the example of staunch and fearless loyally to a high ideal. No poet ever understood more fully the 'glory of words', none has sounded a music more rich, more varied, education.

      F. Harrison: Even now full justice has hardly been done to Tennyson’s supremacy in form; or rather, the general reader, much as he loves his poems, is not quite aware of the infallible mastery of language they possess. In the whole range of English poetry, Milton alone can be held to show an equal or even greater uniformity of polish. Perfection and continuity of polish are certainly not the same thing as the highest poetry, but they are the note of the consummate artist. English poetry, for all its splendid achievements, is not remarkable for uniform perfection of form, as compared with the best poetry of Greece, of Rome and of Italy. Shakespeare himself (or perhaps it is his editors, his printers, or his pseudonyms) will at times break out into rant, and he is inordinately prone to indulge in conceits and quips. Nearly all our poets have their bad days, become careless, reckless, or prosy, lose complete self-control; or commit some error of taste, be it in haste, in passion, or some morbid condition of the creative fancy. Gray always writes like the scholar and the critic that he was, and Pope always writes with the neatness of a French 'wit'. But neither can uniformly avoid the commonplace, and thus they cannot claim the crown of absolute poetic form. Milton, we can forgive, the prolixity of his old age, never descends in his eagle's flight from the perfection of form. And more than all other poets, Tennyson, if he never soars to such heights as Milton, maintains this wonderful equality of measured beat.

      Hadow: He describes his own Lincolnshire country — folks with close sympathy, and with the humour that is born of sympathy; outside their limit he is little able to depict characters and tempers that are different from his own. All his best men are of one pattern — noble, courteous, chivalrous, a little deficient in force and passion, yet bold in adventure and temperate in success; the pattern, in short, of just such an English gentleman as Tennyson himself was. His women are hardly ever clearly seen — they are either mere sketches or pictures of which the features are incongruous. There are depths of feeling that he has not sounded, there are whole traces of human life which he has not explored; but within the boundaries of his own realm he has set up for ever the example of staunch and fearless loyalty to a high ideal.

      Harold Nicolson: The age of Tennyson is past; the ideals which he voiced so earnestly have fallen from esteem. The day may come, perhaps, when the conventions of that century will once again inspire the thoughtful or animate the weak. But, for the moment, it is not through these that any interest can be evoked. And thus, if we consider it reasonable and right that Tennyson should 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 forget the dulled monochrome of his middle years, forget the magnolia and the roses, the indolent Augusts of his island-home; forget the laurels and the rhododendrons. 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 on the fen: the far glimmer of marsh-pools through the reeds; the cold, the half-light and the gloom.

      Compton Rickett: He is a poet of discipline, not the poet of freedom. This fact impresses us in all his work, whether dealing with religion or with politics. It inspires his classical poems and animates the Idylls and Dramas. Arthur is a great man because he strove to make 'jarring earldoms' move to music and order: while in Locksley Hall Sixty Years After he becomes almost hysterical in his horror of lawlessness and licence. Tennyson's point of view is certainly valuable as a corrective to the anarchic tendencies in life and literature; but it is not productive of the greatest poetry. Compromise may be an excellent rule of conduct, but it does not thrill the imagination. It is a pleasant thing to sail in peaceful waters and hug the sheltering coast; but life after all is a great adventure, and little would be accomplished where there are no intrepid idealists willing to stake their all on a forlorn hope, or a wild adventure. It is good to cry out for more reverence; it is better to strive for ampler progress.

      F. Harrison: It would be too much to claim for Tennyson any such European influence as that of Byron, or the creative originality of Wordsworth, or Shelley. Byron, Wordsworth and Shelley were all fired with moral and social ideas which they preached and flung, or even stormed out, to their generation. Right or wrong, wholesome or morbid, these ideas filled them and their poems, and have to some degree moulded the thoughts of men, sometimes even by reaction and repulsion. There is something of the prophet and the reformer about them all; they dealt with the problems of the moral and social life of their age, the political and ethical evangels of an age of storm and change. That they were often wrong-headed, utopian, even mischievous, is true. But their imagination played very largely round the causes, the ideas, the dilemmas which shook society around them, and, in a certain degree, in new forms that shake us all today. Tennyson did this with far less conviction and with no such power. He meditated with exquisite cadences about death, futurity, reaction, but in a rather hesitating spirit and with the most musical seething of the age. He lay beside the nectar of his lovely melodies, and his bolts were
hurled below him in the valleys where men toil and fight Honest doubt and faint trust in the larger hope are often soothing, even soporific and beautiful but they do not make a new epoch in poetry or thought

      Alastair Thomson: Tennyson's greatest successes are in the idyll, the lyric, the monologue, and the short epistolary poem. His achievement in the longer poem is variable. The Princess of 1847 is a delightful but unequal narrative comedy, in the form of the mouth-to-mouth tale, by which a fantastic story is passed from narrator to narrator. The language has great charm, but the action slays into melodrama towards the end. In Memoriam, with Maud his major long work, is a single poem only by courtesy: a sequence of one hundred and thirty three lyric elegies, of different lengths but in the same abba quatrain, in which a great grief is examined, and understood. The action is that of an exploration of possibilities, a continual movement of supposition until faith in God’s purposes is reaffirmed. Maud was a new form: a monodrama, in which the single speaker moves through twenty-six scenes of despair and loathing of a corrupt commercial society, of love, the death of the beloved, madness, and the strangely vulgar conclusion in which he recovers his sanity by going to fight, and probably to die, in the Crimea. It is a bold experiment, a representation of that distorted single vision of reality which we often regard as characteristic of modern art. In the Idylls of the King, composed at intervals over a period of forty years, he makes an extended use of the idyll form of which he was a master — comparable with the use Browning made of the monologue in The Ring and the Book — with great skill he depicts the ruin of man's kingdom in the decline and fall of king Arthur's Camelot. Such loss is perhaps nearer to his heart than the triumph of the spirit in In Memoriam. But in considering the full effect of the Idylls, we have to take into account the frequent weaknesses of the archaic language, and its occasional air of earnest translation.

      Tennyson's long attachment to the Arthurian story (which Wordsworth, as well as Milton, had at one time considered as a subject), and the mingling of hesitation with a determination to make something of it, is roughly comparable. Nor is he among the most intellectual of poets. In reading Shelley, we are always aware of Shelley's thinking about the mystery of being. In reading Tennyson, we are aware rather of his characteristic fears of meaninglessness. (If the human will is often strong in him, the sense of some of his greatest effects. But the broadest and greatest effects, which we naturally and rightly associate with the long poem, are only intermittently present.)

      Compton-Rickett: Never does the fancy of the poet carry him into a realm of unreal imagery. The beautiful little touch bearing on the clouds of pollen that float from the staminal flower of the yew, exhibits yet again the exactitude of the botanists as well as the vision of the poet: 

Beneath a world-old yew, darkening half
The cloisters, on a gustful April morn,
That puff'd the swaying branches into smoke,

      A touch that reminds us of one not dissimilar in Enoch Arden, where he likens Philip to,

The working hee in blossom-dust
Blanch'd with his mill.

      Everywhere indeed the observation of the scientist is glorified by the sensibility of the artist, the stark fact is clad in lovely imagery. Thus, Tennyson's landscapes are never vague, they are visualised with an almost preternatural clarity. And if the objective scientific touch is one feature of his Nature poetry, another feature lies in its atmospheric subjectivity. Tennyson never paints Nature with Wordsworth, or even Byron, as something outside of Man, with a life-spirit purpose of its own. Nature for him is always a background for reflecting some human emotion; it carries no message or benison of its own, but harmonises with delicate adaptability to the mood of man.

      Charles Tennyson: All great poets have their special fields of excellence, and it is difficult to compare one usefully with another. Tennyson's blank verse has neither the majesty of Milton's nor the rhetorical splendour and freedom of Shelley's, nor the natural eloquence and dignity of Wordsworth's; but it has striking merits of its own, chief among which are, I think, its amazing flexibility and its power of achieving, through rhythm and vowel music, a lyrical, singing quality which no other poet has attained in the same degree. The lyrical quality appeared strikingly in Oenone, one of his earliest long poems in this metre, the first few lines of which provide an admirable example, if they are read with due emphasis on the broad and open vowel sounds.

      A. Lyall: Browning's obscurity, when he was engaged upon his minute mental anatomy, his manner of leaving his thoughts rough-hewn, are points of contrast with Tennyson's clear and chiselled phrasing; we have less light as we go deeper. The truth is that Browning's psychological studies are too diffuse and discursive for the compact and vivid treatment that is essential to poetry. And the peculiarity of his genius — the strain and hard service that he imposed upon the English tongue — placed him to some extent outside the right apostolic succession, in its direct line, of our national poets, of those who have enlarged the capacity of our language for imaginative and musical expression, without subjecting the instrument to rough usage. Among these, Tennyson may certainly be counted.

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