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369px-Alfred_Lord_Tennyson_1869The Romantic period of English poetry in effect ended with Byron’s death in 1824. Coleridge and Southey lived on for several years, the latter as Poet Laureate until 1843. He was succeeded by Wordsworth, who died in 1850 when he was 80. This was more than 50 years after he and Coleridge had revolutionized poetry with the Lyrical Ballads of 1798.

However hardly anything he wrote in the latter half of his life was memorable and by the 40s a new generation was emerging. They could not but acknowledge the achievements of the older Romantics but, as Robert Browning put it in the Lost Leader, they also registered their disappointment.

Browning however was not the dominant poet of his age. That position belongs emphatically to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who at the age of just over 40, succeeded Wordsworth as Poet Laureate. Though he was not the first choice, his selection was eminently suitable, for he seemed to capture both the spirit of the Victorian Age, and its emotional predilections. This was established, in fact in 1950, with In Memoriam, an elegy for his great friend Arthur Hallam, who died young, and it strikingly conveyed the angst of a period in which old certainties about religion were fading away. Darwin’s discoveries about evolution shed doubts on what had long been thought of as the Gospel Truths of the Bible (including the Old Testament), while textual analysis of even the New Testament suggested that Jesus was not necessarily a divine being who had provided clear and convincing revelations to Man about God.

In a world of doubt, the truths that remained were not especially edifying. Perhaps the most telling line in the elegy is Tennyson’s description of

Nature red in tooth and claw

which is a far cry from the idea of an orderly universe created by an all powerful and good God. And yet, despite the qualms Tennyson expresses, the poem ends on a note of hope, based on faith that is not a matter of reason but springs from emotional commitment to

That God, which ever lives and loves,

One God, one law, one element,

And one far-off divine event,

To which the whole creation moves

 

Emotional commitment also provides consolation for the death of the beloved friend. Tennyson in fact married Hallam’s sister, and though this can be seen as a classic case of sublimation of sexuality (as has been argued with regard to Kipling’s marriage to Wolcott Ballestier’s sister too), I suspect emotional intensity would have sufficed for all relevant purposes in that day and age. Certainly Tennyson makes a great job of celebrating the communal festivities, the Christmases as they pass, that alleviate grief through affirming continuing family relationships.

Tennyson also wrote a couple of short elegies that are amongst his most memorable works. One is a simple expression of grief that is the more moving for its evocation of life continuing

Break, break, break,

On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!

And I would that my tongue could utter

The thoughts that arise in me.

O, well for the fisherman’s boy,

That he shouts with his sister at play!

O, well for the sailor lad,

That he sings in his boat on the bay!

The other, using sea imagery again to convey death transformed into a voyage of further exploration of another world, uses rhythm skillfully to convey a tide that comes in and moves out again, renewing itself after seeming to fade away.

Sunset and evening star,

And one clear call for me!

And may there be no moaning of the bar,

When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,

Too full for sound and foam,

When that which drew from out the boundless deep

Turns again home.

Tennyson’s other grand poem (there are lots that are great) was The Idylls of the King, an epic based on the Arthurian legend. Tennyson once claimed that, though he had an excellent ear and could write beautiful verse, he had never dealt with subject matter that lived up to this talent. This may seem a strange mixture of modesty and self-confidence, but I would suggest the modesty was excessive, for The Idylls is a magnificent work. Through a sequence of individual episodes that advance in intensity, it examines the collapse of the Arthurian ideal, with psychological as well as political insights. How unity of purpose can be destroyed, in a public body as well as within an individual, through indulgence of self as well as others in ways that seem initially trivial, is well worth studying for social as well as personal understanding.

Selective quotation cannot do justice to the work, but I will cite here the concluding passage, which sets the whole cycle in context, as part of a chain of cycles, in a constantly changing world. The consolation that had just previously been offered to the grieving Sir Bedivere, who sees the rising sun at the end, is based on faith, as with In Memoriam, but the faith here is also based on experience.

And slowly answer’d Arthur from the barge:

“The old order changeth, yielding place to new,

And God fulfils himself in many ways,

Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?

I have lived my life, and that which I have done

May He within himself make pure!…

Thereat once more he moved about, and clomb

Ev’n to the highest he could climb, and saw,

Straining his eyes beneath an arch of hand,

Or thought he saw, the speck that bare the King,

Down that long water opening on the deep

Somewhere far off, pass on and on, and go

From less to less and vanish into light.

And the new sun rose bringing the new year.

Tennyson’s understanding of old age and the human capacity to keep going is superbly expressed in one his best short poems, Ulysses, not the Homeric hero of the Odyssey who came back after long voyages to hearth and home, but an older version who sought to travel yet again.

 

I cannot rest from travel; I will drink

life to the lees. All times I have enjoyed

Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those

that loved me, and alone;….

I am part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough

Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades

Forever and forever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end.

To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!

As though to breathe were life! Life piled on life

Were all too little, and of one to me

Little remains; but every hour is saved

From that eternal silence, something more,

A bringer of new things;

All this I think militates against Harold Bloom’s vision of a morbid Tennyson who ‘has yielded up all fantasies of societal progress’. But it must be granted that the two poems he explores in his explication of Tennyson’s genius are incredibly dark. There is Mariana, expressing the despair of one of Shakespeare’s more mysterious characters

And ever when the moon was low,

And the shrill winds were up and away,

In the white curtain, to and fro,

She saw the gusty shadow sway.

But when the moon was very low

And wild winds bound within their cell,

The shadow of the poplar fell

Upon her bed, across her brow.

She only said, “The night is dreary,

He cometh not,” she said;

She said “I am aweary, aweary,

I would that I were dead!”

But one should not forget that, in Shakespeare’s play, even if in a forced manner, the story ends happily and Mariana gets her man. Similarly, though Maud is titled or the Madness, it is absurdly lively. Just as Bloom has his memories of Beatrice Lillie dancing cheerfully to the poem, I remember it providing the title for a College Revue (the Master being usefully called Maud). Interestingly enough Virginia Woolf used lines Bloom thought showed the paranoia of the narrator to suggest the splendor of Victorian expressions of love

There has fallen a splendid tear

From the passion-flower at the gate.

She is coming, my dove, my dear;

She is coming, my life, my fate;

The red rose cries, “She is near, she is near;”

And the white rose weeps, “She is late;”

The larkspur listens, “I hear, I hear;”

And the lily whispers, “I wait.

Tennyson certainly is ambivalent. But that befits the spirit of the age in which he lived, and which he represented so well. It was an age of increasing doubt, matched with power and authority such as has had no parallel until George Bush decided to ignore the world and march in wherever he wanted. Sadly the self doubt that decent Americans feel has no resonance in public discourse, given the strangehold the soundbite media has on opinion.

In Britain on the contrary, and that is why I continue to love the place and its denizens even when they they turn into the poodles of the more powerful, there is a stronger intellectual and emotional current of dissent. Unfortunately the soundbite culture makes it much less powerful now than it was in the Victorian era, and perhaps the impact of Beaverbrook and Northcliffe sounded the end of that world a century back. But the Victorians, even as they charged around taking over whatever they wanted, had a resonant conscience.

Thus, without being accused of being unpatriotic, and continuing to be the obvious choice to be Poet Laureate, Tennyson could write a sharper criticism than we would hear now of the war machine that takes over armies and nations when an enemy is identified. The poem is rousing and as one begins reading one thinks it celebrates the engagement. But despite admiration and sympathy for the soldiers, the message is crystal clear.

Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!

Charge for the guns!” he said.

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”

Was there a man dismayed?

Not though the soldier knew

Someone had blundered.

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die.

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

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