« PreviousContinue »
ENGLISH POETRY AND POETS OF THE PRESENT DAY. POEMS BY ALFRED TENNYSON, Miss
ELIZABETH BARRETT BARRETT, COVENTRY PATMORE, R. H. HORNE, and ROBERT BROWNING : London : MILLER, Oxford-street.
WHEN we consider the matter-of-fact character of the present age, a period in which no great questions, such as moved the minds of men and nations during the half-century preceding it, are agitated; when it also occurs to us that national minds, at least in any one department of genius, seem to require a certain time to lie fallow after being worked to their utmost; these reflections will be fully sufficient to account for the recent dearth of good poetry in England. At one time it appeared as if, while the great masters of the last generation were successively dropping away, there was no likelihood of their places being filled. Though this fear is far from being entirely removed, no small part of it has been dissipated by the actual performance of some of the new school, and the promise already given by others.
First on our list, very far first, stands ALFRED TENNYSƠN. It is unfortunate for him that he has no better men to contend with, for the inferiority of his contemporaries naturally leads your careless readers and talkers to say, 'To be sure TENNYSON is the best poet we have, but then who else is there ? Now this is not a fair way to speak of the author of • Mariana’ and “Morte d'Arthur.' He is not a poet comparative, but a poet positive. Place him in any age, among any men, he would still be a great poet. To explain and vindicate our assertion, it will be necessary to examine the circumstances under which TENNY8ON's poetry grew up, and his points of resemblance to, or difference from, his pre. decessors. The BYRONic school — that of unmixed passion - carried every thing before it for a time. Like other manias, it had its day. Shelley the English Æschylus, made a slight diversion, but he was not easy to comprehend fully, much less imitate ; and the public, when sated with the purely sensuous, naturally betook itself to the opposite ex. treme, the purely intellectual poetry of WORDSWORTH, which in its turn fairly displaced the other, and became the model for juvenile rhymesters and the ideal of newly-fledged critics. Still there was a large class who, while they admitted WORDSWORTH's claims as a poet, could not help also perceiving that he was as deficient in some qualities of a great poet as Byron had been in others, and who rather admired his verses as works of art than felt them as poems. Now Tennyson precisely supplies this deficiency in the intellectual school, or to speak more accurately, he has brought about the proper union of the two schools. He was the only man who could do it. HENRY TAYLOR had no lack of dash and spirit, with wonderful power of portraying character; but
τουτόν τον άνδρα βιβλίον διέφθoρεν. . WORDSWORTH's unfortunate theory of poetry has - not spoiled hini, for he is not a man
to be spoiled, but prevented him from doing much that he might have done. He censures SHELLEY on principle, not because his poetry wants grandeur or sublimity, but because it does not leave a sufficiently real impression on the mind. His own energy he seems to regard as a fault, and seeks to tame down. But in TENNYSON We find the various aspects of the poetic mind duly exhibited. There is epic narration and deep philosophy, picturesque description and voluptuous painting, each in its place. Unlike WORDSWORTA, he has passion ; unlike Taylor, he is not afraid of showing his passion ; unlike Byron, he is never passion's slave. Even in that bitter and despairing retrospect of a life, Locksley Hall, the intellectual and moral nature of the meditative Caucasian ever asserts its supremacy amid the wild outpourings of soul of the ruined man and disappointed lover.
Thus far TENNYSON has been considered merely as an eclectic, a combiner of the excellencies of those who preceded him. But to stop here would be doing him injustice. There are some striking peculiarities of his poetry which can scarcely escape the most superficial reader. The first is the wonderful melody of his versification. This is displayed as well in the more ordinary poetic metres, as in those which he has himself invented. Of his blank verse it is not too much to say that it is the most harmonious in the language. And to prove our assertion, we refer to those master-pieces, 'Enone' and * Morte d'Arthur.' Even where the syllables are redundant, the melody is unimpaired, and what is usually a blemish, becomes an additional beauty. We allude to such lines
• Beautiful Paris, evil-hearted Paris,
The metre of The Palace of Art'is a marvellous combination. It will be observed that the whole weight of each verse is thrown upon the emphatic short line at the close. We really consider it the most artfully-modulated in any language with which we are acquainted, except perhaps the Alcaic stanza of HORACE. Great as TENNYSON's art is, this harmonious conjunction must be attributed to his genius rather than to any elaboration. That the metre of itself has no innate capability, is shown by MONKTON MILNES • Palm Leaves' where it is imitated, together with several others of the TENNYSONIAN stanzas. The contrast is lamentable ; there is the same numerical structure, the same amount of syllables, but the verse is lifeless, the melodious flow is utterly wanting.*
This then, the first peculiar excellence of TENNYSON, we ascribe to his original genius. The second is undoubtedly the work of art, of much painful study and repeated polish. We refer of course to his felicity of language, and particularly of epithet. In this point of view, TENNYSON’s expressions are best described by one of his own lines:
• The words where each one tells.'
Especially we say is this applicable to his adjectives, the management of which is so great a test of the poet and artist. They are never otiose, ánd we frequently meet with a long succession of lines in which every epithet is a picture. Even when they are heaped profusely together, each individual one helps to give life and color : E. G.
WHERE with puff'd cheek the belted hunter blew
I WOULD the white cold heavy-plunging foam
This precision and elegance is the result of much correction and study, as a comparison of the first and second editions will show. For much of this we are no doubt indebted to the savage review of said first edition in the Quarterly. It was exactly the same sort of
THERE is one solitary and striking exception to the perfection of TENNYSon's rhythm; the frequent use of flower' as a dissyllable, which sadly enfeebles the lines in which it occurs. VOL. XXV.
stuff that • killed poor Keats;' but ALFRED was not to be knocked over so easily. The harsh censure was to him wholesome advice, which he has used to good purpose. Of all the passages assailed by the reviewer, there is but one which has not been either entirely expunged or carefully re-written.
But there were many poems in these earlier volumes, which have received no subsequent correction, and which needed none, about which the hostile critic, as it was not his business to praise them, preserved a discreet silence. Ai Mariana' none have ever carped. The ballad of Oriana, with its plaintive refrain, is exceedingly pathetic, though its claim to originality is somewbat doubtful. The resemblance which it bears to · Fair HELEN of Kirkconnel can scarcely be accidental. As that very beautiful old ballad may not be familiar to all our readers, we annex a few stanzas in corroboration of our assertion :
"CURSED be the heart that thought the thought,
And died to succor me!
I would were where HELEN lies!
Says Haste and come to me!'
O Helen fair! O HELEN chaste !
Beneath the kirk-yard tree!
O that I were where HELEN lies!
Night and day on mne she cries ;
The various female characters are also reproduced without alteration. The usual criticism upon these is, that they are very beautiful, but somewhat unreal and vague. We have remarked, however, that the speaker or writer usually made an exception in favor of some particular one, which led to the suspicion in our own mind that it came near to his ideal standard, of the realization of that standard which he had found for himself. For ourselves we confess to a penchant for ELEANORE:
'Serene, imperial ELEANORE.' There are few passages in the language that can match the gorgeous description which concludes his picture of her, involving as it does some magnificent imitations, or rather transfusions, of Sappho and CATULLUS:
His bow-string slacken'd, languid Love
And a languid fire creeps
Through my veins to all my frame
From thy rose-red lips My name
Floueth; then as in a swoon
With dinning sound my ears are rife,
My tremulous tongue faltereth, But when I see thee roam with tresses unconfined I lose my color, I lose my breath, While the amorous odorous wind
I drink the cup of a costly death Breathes low between the sunset and the moon, Brimm'd with delicious draughts of warmest life; Or in a shadow y saloon
I die with my delight before On silken cushions half reclined,
I hear what I would hear from thee; I watch thy grace, and in its place
Yet tell my name again to me, My heart a charmed slumber keeps,
I would be dying evermore ; While I muse upon thy face;
So dying ever, ELEANORE.' • Morte bonâ Morior, dulci nece necor,' as old WALTER DE MApes hath it. Reader, do you know an ELEANORE?
Most of the other poems in the first volume have been subjected to considerable altera
tion. Enone' is a beautiful succession of pictures. Most of it reads like a translation, by some master in the art, of some long-lost Idyll of Theocritus. This poem has undergone many changes and corrections. In some places we are disposed to doubt whether the original version has been or can be improved. The same observation applies to the • Lotos Eaters. The first conclusion, in which all images that suggest repose were aptly combined in lulling and harmonious numbers, has been changed to a stream of long rolling powerful verse, vividly embodying the epicurean notion of the divine life removed from all earthly concerns. It is hard to choose between the two, but we cannot help wishing that such lines as these had been preserved at any sacrifice :
.We will eat the Lotos sweeter
And no more roam
On the summit of the brine,
Hark ! how sweet the horned ewes bleat
On the solitary shore ;
And the foam-white waters pour ;
And the heavy melon sleeps,
On the lerel of the shore,
The text of this dreamy and fanciful poem is to be found in two lines of the Odyssey:
Τωνδ ' όστις λωτοιο φάγος μεδιηδέα καρπών
The · Lady of Shalote' seems to have had more trouble expended on its revision than any other of the re-published poems. We doubt whether it was worth it, as even in its present state it loses by comparison with the poems around it. As there has been no little doubt respecting its meaning, some taking it for an allegory, it may be as well to state that the original story (Irom which the poet has scarcely deviated) is to be found in the latter part of that glorious old Romance, “Morte d'Arthur,' where it forms a beautiful episode.
The Palace of Art is generally quoted by Tennyson's admirers as the poem by which he must stand or fall. Though preferring to it others in the present collection, • Morte d'Arthur' for instance, we cannot deny that it is the poem most characteristic of his genius, most Tennyson, so to speak, of any that he has written. The versification of this poem bears signs of extreme polish before its first publication. The changes since made in it are generally not so much alterations as omissions; retrenchment of superfluities, or what appeared to the author to be such. We are inclined to think that in some cases he has over-refined upon it, and cut it down too much. For instance, the description of Europa :
• Or sweet Europa's mantle blew unclasped
From off her shoulder backward borne,
The mild bull's golden horn.'
• He through the streaming crystal swam, and rolled
Ambrosial breaths that seemed to float
Updrew her sundalled foot.'