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The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine | January 1856

Alfred Tennyson

An Essay.    In Three Parts.

Part I.

ALTOGETHER disbelieving, and reprehending with the strongest indignation, the doctrine upon which so many of the critics of the present day seem to act, however they might shrink from maintaining it in so many words, that the reviewer, by virtue of his office, is superior to the writer reviewed, and knowing full well not only at what an infinite height above me is the poet upon whom I have taken on myself to pass a judgment, but also that a critique upon him, which by any partiality can be called adequate, is utterly beyond my power, it is with the greatest diffidence that I approach my subject. But whatever I shall advance will have been carefully weighed, and will be the result of several years' almost uninterrupted reading of the Author. Would that every reviewer of a great writer could say as much.

The essay will extend through three numbers,—a length which it is hoped will not appear too great to the reader, if he reflects how great a work it is to criticise a great poet—to be in some sort an interpreter between him and the public. Indeed, as it is, there will be but too good cause for complaint of the criticism attempted here, as sketchy and imperfect. The first part will be devoted to the Miscellaneous Poems, and The Princess; the second to In Memoriam; the third to the volume last published.

In commenting upon the Miscellaneous Poems, I have the choice of two methods; either to make meagre remarks upon many, or to examine a very few at greater length. The latter appears to me beyond doubt to be preferred. Accordingly, I shall particularize only three; The Lady of Shalott; The Two Voices; and The Vision of Sin; in each of which I shall point out and enforce one or more of the principal excellencies of their author. It is surely unnecessary to state that I do not consider these limited severally to the poems in which I shall call attention to them. Let one example suffice. I shall observe upon his melody in The Lady of Shalott; but scarcely one unmelodious line, if one at all, exists in the whole of his works.

No fitter poem than The Lady of Shalott can be taken for illustrating a faculty very desirable, if not absolutely requisite in poetry—painting in words. There is a mysterious sympathy between the different branches of Art, which binds them all into one closely connected whole. There are well-known instances, such as Michael Angelo and Leonardo da Vinci, of men who have united in their single selves the painter, the architect, the sculptor, and the poet. The love of music expressed by poets is far too common to require example. Not that this is what I shall intend when I shall say presently that the great poet is a musician.


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But not only that; he is also a painter. One of the most remarkable instances of verbal painting is a Tale, which might almost with exact propriety be called a poem—Sintram and his Companions, by De la Motte Fouqué. But not inferior even to the German Romancer is the English poet. I have selected The Lady of Shalott because this pictorial power so

pervades it throughout, that almost every new passage paints a new picture. But to the common eye still more striking than any of these are some of the pictures in The Palace of Art and Morte d'Arthur, which, accordingly, I quote in preference, commending the whole of The Lady of Shalott to the reader’s private examination.

One seem'd all dark and red—a tract of sand,
  And someone pacing there alone,
Who paced forever in a glimmering land,
  Lit with a low large moon.
Or in a clear-wall'd city on the sea,
  Near gilded organ-pipes, her hair
Wound with white roses, slept St. Cecily;
  An angel look'd at her.
Or mythic Uther's deeply-wounded son
  In some fair space of sloping greens
Lay, dozing in the vale of Avalon
  And watch'd by weeping queens.

The Palace of Art.

       A chapel nigh the field
A broken chancel with a broken cross,
That stood on a dark strait of barren land.
On one side lay the Ocean, and on one
Lay a great water, and the moon was full.
But the other swiftly strode from ridge to ridge;
Clothed with his breath, and looking, as he walk'd,
Larger than human on the frozen hills.
   Then saw they how they hove a dusky barge,
Dark as a funeral scarf from stem to stern,
Beneath them; and descending they were ware
That all the decks were dense with stately forms
Black-stoled, black-hooded, like a dream—by these
Three Queens with crowns of gold.

Morte d'Arthur.


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I will now explain in what sense I said that the poet is a musician other than as he is a lover of music. There have been those, surely a few only who have despised, or affected to despise, the mere language, whether of poetry or prose, maintaining that the matter is all in all, or at least so entirely principal, as to make the words, provided they are perspicuous, of little importance. Again there are others, perhaps a few likewise, who feel and acknowledge an altogether magical power in language. The generality come between these extremes, affected considerably by verbal force and sweetness, but very far from comprehending the full significance of words. In the second class I would place myself. Much verse do I know with good, even original, sentiments given in lucid and forcible language, to which I cannot yield the name of poetry, though at first somewhat puzzled to render a reason for my refusal, till supplied by Carlyle, who tells me that poetry is song,—that is, that poetry requires as one essential the free, spontaneous flow of music. Here I would I could dive deep into the mystery of music, and fully explain why ancient philosophers by musical meant good and orderly, show the intimate union they saw or felt between the measured flow of musical sounds and the good actions and peaceful thoughts of a well-regulated life. In default of this, I ask the reader to call back to his memory the sense of moral good which has made him happy while listening to some quiet melody, and with the recollection of this within him, let him read In Memoriam, and examine himself whether its calm refined rhythm does not produce the same feeling of moral satisfaction.

Let him not fancy that this rhythm is merely the result of labour and practice, added to what is called a good ear; as little let him imagine that it is addressed to the ear alone; for it is meant through the ear to reach the soul. But surely to prove that music is allied to poetry is superfluous; how closely allied I have not space, if ability, to determine; it were more to the purpose to show that the poems of Tennyson are musical. And here I am perplexed from very abundance of material. His voice is the richest-toned that sings, a lyre of widest range, or rather all instruments in one. It is gilding refined gold to praise his melody; one might as well gravely enunciate that Shakespeare was a master of the human heart. You cannot open his poems without finding it, everywhere perfect of its kind, whether it be the fairy-like flow of The Lady of Shalott, the dreamy smoothness of the Lotos-Eaters, the measured dignity of Morte d’Arthur, the fiery, sometimes furious, energy, with the most rapid and abrupt transitions of Locksley Hall, that rhythmical perfection of In Memoriam, which I am really at a loss to characterize, except by saying that it seems to me the very maturity of a power of versification unequalled even before, moulded in colossal calm, or lastly, the superlative sweetness and softness of that already oft-quoted serenade, Come into the garden, Maud. I am averse to the easy practice of making quotations, but, as I have chosen The Lady of Shalott as a sort of text to which to append my observations upon Tennyson's versification, a few passages from it may not only be allowed, but looked for. I give them without any comment.


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  Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Through the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river,
                   Flowing down to Camelot.
  By the margin, willow-veil'd,
Slide the heavy barges, trail'd
By slow horses, and unhail'd
The shallop flitteth, silken-sail'd,
                  Skimming down to Camelot.
  In the story east-wind straining,
The pail yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining,
Heavily the low sky raining,
                  Over tower'd Camelot.
  Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chaunted loudly, chaunted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowely,
And her eyes were darkedn'd wholly,
                  turn'd to tower'd Camelot. Camelot.

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In The Two Voices I shall particularize only the union of intellect. and feeling which, as it is one of the most essential qualifications of poetry, so it distinguishes many of Tennyson's longer poems in the highest degree. Indeed if I were to select that which I think most excellent in him, I should have little hesitation in choosing this. In his smaller poems, from the very nature of the case, there is often little room for it, or rather it would be entirely out of place; but in The Palace of Art, The Two Voices, The Vision of Sin, In Memoriam, (I name only some of his very greatest; but the list might easily be enlarged,) some of the most important and most difficult questions of life are discussed with an intellectual keenness and accuracy only to be expected from a philosopher, yet with all the melody, warmth and deep feeling of the greatest of poets. Mere philosophy, whether physics or psychology or metaphysics, is fit only for prose works, professedly and openly philosophical: there is something essentially prosaic in it; its chief requisites, precision, logical order, freedom from metaphor, the employment of the intellect alone, these, if not separately, at least when united, are altogether alien to poetry; and verse, in which philosophy is philosophically treated, has no more claim to rank as poetry than the Ethics of Aristotle, or the Second Book of the Novum Organum, if put with as little violence as possible into metre. But philosophy, poetically treated, true philosophical poetry, the great problems of life handled at once with intellectual subtlety and warmth of feeling, I regard as the highest kind of poetry of all; nay, it may be I am blinded by love, but I cannot help

looking upon it as the highest effort of human genius. Uniting the interest of the subject themselves,—acuteness of reason and strength of feeling,—the wonderful magic of language,—the equally wonderful magic of rhythm, drawing and painting to the imagination,—so coming home at once to the souls, the minds, the hearts, the ears, eves and fancies of men, it seems to me to have a grand comprehensiveness of beauty, which no other work of man comprises. I say advisedly it seems to me: for I know well that to one man one thing seems, and is, greatest, and to another man another thing; that to the man of science there is nothing so great as science, to the painter nothing so noble as pictures, to the musician nothing so deep and So let it be; for truth and beauty, though of absolute certainty, are of infinite range; so that, though because of our fallen intellect there is now no one mind that can take in all knowledge and all beauty, yet beauty and truth can embrace all intellects and all tastes.

The Two Voices would itself afford an ample subject for a review; and beautiful as music, indeed not only admits of, but requires, one; but my limits prevent me from saying at the present more than this, that I place it the highest of the Miscellaneous poems,—surpassed even by In Memoriam only by the latter being of greater length.

The Vision of Sin, beside being, as its name imports, a vision, is also an Allegory. A few words therefore about poetical Visions and Allegories


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in general, and Tennyson's handling of them in particular, will be necessary before I enter more in detail upon the poem itself.

A poetical Vision, as it is most difficult for the poet to employ, so is it not easy for the critic to describe what it is. Whatever it may have in common with the dreams of sleep, it has so much distinct from them that it is upon No account to be classed simply among them. Two characteristics alone, its continuity and sequence, are sufficient to distinguish it from them. But that it has much in common with them is equally plain, as in the following instances, the first from The Vision of Sin:

And I thought I would have spoken,
And warned that madman, ere it grew too late,
But, as in dreams I could not

The second from A Dream of Fair Women:

With that sharp sound, the white dawn's creeping beems,
Stolen to my brain, dissolved the mystery
Of folded sheep.

though it is worthy of notice that this is the only passage in that poem which contains unmistakeably any feature peculiar to sleeping dreams.

On the other hand the continuity and sequence point to a day dream, the Vision of Inspiration, which poets really see, even in these later days. But whatever is its nature, it has been by universal consent conceded to the poet, though it has proved one of the most unmanageable and perilous of all his instruments. Young poets are constantly taking it in feeble and unskilful hands to their own hurt. Alas, their dreams are too often of men neither waking nor sleeping, nor indeed in any other state which the rest of the world knows of. But in nothing is Tennyson more felicitous than in his treatment of visions. Consistent, significant and beautiful, they yet so remind the reader of his own dreams as to convince him that the poet writes from experience. His narration of actual dreams is exact. I give a few examples,


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Till now at noon she slept again,
     And seem'd knee-deep in mountain grass,
And heard her native breezes pass,
    And runlets babbling down the glen,
She breathes in sleep a lower moan,
    And murmuring, as at night and morn,
She thought "My spirit is here alone,
    Walks forgotten, and is forlorn."
Dreaming she knew it was a dream;
    She felt he was, and was not there.

Mariana in the South.

And then to bed, where half in doze I seem'd
To float about a glimmering night and watch
A full sea, glazed with muffled moonlight, swell
On some dark shore just seen that it was rich.

The Princess.

"When in the down I sink my head,
     Sleep, Death’s twin-brother, times my breath;
     Sleep, Death’s twin-brother, knows not Death,
Nor can I dream of thee as dead:
I walk as ere I walk'd forlorn,
     When all our path was fresh with dew,
     And all the bugle breezes blew
Reveilleé to the breaking morn.
But what is this? I turn about,
     I find a trouble in thine eye
     Which makes me sad I know not why,
Nor can my dream resolve the doubt:
But ere the lark hath left the lea
     I wake, and I discern the truth,
     It is the trouble of my youth
That foolish sleep transfers to thee."

In Memoriam.

But The Vision of Sin is also an Allegory. Allegories are perhaps a still more dangerous instrument of poetry than Vision. For beside the difficulty of treating them, there is something particularly unsatisfactory in the knowledge that you must not rest in the story, but must convert your flesh and blood men and women, into abstractions, into principles and emotions, into virtues and vices. Human nature loves and delights in the personal, and shrinks from the abstract; and especially poetry shuns abstractions, and holds close to persons. It is this very love of the personal that makes poets write allegories; but the reader is strongly tempted to get rid of the abstractions altogether, and turn the allegory into a mere tale. And it is as moral stories that The Faerie Queen, The Pilgrim's Progress, and The Ancient Mariner are read for the most part. Fortunately some of their great lessons are so entirely on the surface, that he who runs cannot help but read. Certainly few care to enter minutely into the details, to find the moral bearing of this fact and that fact. For the interpretation of an allegory involves the mysterious connection between the outward and the inward, which makes our daily life a marvel and a symbol. That it subsists all perhaps are conscious, though the multitude very dimly and partially; the spiritual meaning of many visible things many understand, but the entire significance of the whole no man can comprehend. However, as it is necessary that the story should be complete in itself, it may happen that parts of it have no immediate secondary meaning.

But in some allegories the connection between the primary and secondary meanings is very close, of which I know no apter instance than Poe’s Tale of William Wilson, the story of which is so self-complete that it is possible that many have read it without suspecting that the double of the narrator is his conscience, yet its moral signification is most closely interwoven with its literal; as for instance, to bring forward one out of many, the second William Wilson cannot speak above a low, though distinct whisper, like the still small voice of conscience. And that this union in The Palace of Art and The Vision of Sin is very intimate, is palpable; but how intimate it is this is not so easy to see. I shall give a somewhat lengthy explanation of The Vision of Sin, in which I shall show that particular facts in the story, as the rising of the fountain, have a direct moral signification; if a similar analysis were made of The Palace of Art, I have little doubt that the details of this also would be found to be each immediately symbolical.—As it is against The Vision of Sin, that a charge not unfrequently laid against Tennyson in general, is perhaps most frequently and most plausibly brought, nay, as I have heard many confess that it is wholly unintelligible to them, it may be doing a service to his readers if I offer an explanation of it, an explanation which I cannot positively declare to be the true one, but which is the result of many very careful readings, and much reflection, and which has been assented to by all, and some of them well read in the poet, to whom I have communicated it.


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And here will be the fittest place for me to endeavour to answer that charge of obscurity which I regard as entirely unfounded, if not presumptuous. For it does not imply merely difficulty, but unnecessary unintelligibility, the consequence either of ignorance of the subject, or of indolence, or of affectation.

Now, let us first consider what a poet is. Is he a man like ourselves? Has he our thoughts and feelings? Does he speak like common men? Yes, we answer emphatically, yes; it is the very circumstance that he sympathizes with us. that he knows what we think and feel, and puts our thoughts and feelings into language, that makes us so love and honour him; makes us look upon him as a brother and a king. But he does not stop here.

The great poet has a mind of such wide range as to comprehend the thoughts and feelings of all mankind; as nothing is too low, so nothing is too high for him; workman and monarch, clown and philosopher, he understands and speaks for all. Who shall dare to attempt to limit his power? Who shall be bold, presumptuous enough to say, Thus far, but no farther; thou shalt speak to me of things which I can at once understand, of every-day matters, of loves and marriages, of births and deaths; but if thou speakest to me of things beyond me, of things not apparent to the senses, or easily apprehended by the reason, then I will stop my ears, and call thee fool to thy face.

No one surely would dare to use express language so presumptuous, yet in effect this is being said to poets every day. But to such a one I would answer, Who art thou that thou shouldest define the limits of that which thou oughtest rather humbly to receive and gladly to welcome? Thinkest thou that the poet was sent into the world gifted with the faculty divine merely to please men by descriptions of every-day things? though of a truth this is an important part of his office; but there are other, and far higher parts than this.

He sees deeper than other men: he beholds what is not apparent to the senses and the reason, dulled and narrowed as they are in this world of eating and money-making, of hunting after pleasure, and honour, and power. And it is his peculiar and highest office to teach men this knowledge, and to keep alive in their hearts the apprehension and love of spiritual things. And now an important difference between the parts of a poem to which the word obscure can be applied, is laid open.

The obscurity may lie either in the words or in the matter. Verbal obscurity is entirely to be condemned as the genuine mark of imperfect knowledge, unearnestness, or affectation. But very different is the case with obscurity of mat ter. Here the author is writing down to his reader, and the very nature of the case necessitates obscurity, but mark, obscurity only in the sentiments.

The language itself may be accurate and clear at the first glance to one who understands the subject. Of this the best instance that occurs to me is a book recently published, but probably already well known, The Institutes of Metaphysics, by Ferrier, wherein that vexed question, the very cross of philosophers, is treated with a verbal clearness which shines out in most grateful contrast and relief to the darkness of the subject. And this is the case with The Two Voices, The Vision of Sin, the chapters of In Memoriam which are called obscure, and other poems or passages of Tennyson, against which that charge is brought.

For his language, so far from being dark and vague, is remarkable for its precision and perspicuity. Ideas, which must have passed across the minds of many men many times, but impalpably and transiently, apparently impossible to be fixed in language, he has put out into plain exact words.


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Instances of this occur everywhere in his poems, perhaps most of all in The Two Voices, but I will make a single quotation, and that from A Dream of Fair Women.


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to be continued…

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