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Alfred Tennyson, a non-fiction book by Andrew Lang


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The Poems, and such criticisms as those of Spedding and Sterling, gave Tennyson his place. All the world of letters heard of him. Dean Bradley tells us how he took Oxford by storm in the days of the undergraduateship of Clough and Matthew Arnold. Probably both of these young writers did not share the undergraduate enthusiasm. Mr Arnold, we know, did not reckon Tennyson un esprit puissant. Like Wordsworth (who thought Tennyson "decidedly the first of our living poets, . . . he has expressed in the strongest terms his gratitude to my writings"), Arnold was no fervent admirer of his contemporaries. Besides, if Tennyson's work is "a criticism of Life," the moral criticism, so far, was hidden in flowers, like the sword of Aristogiton at the feast. But, on the whole, Tennyson had won the young men who cared for poetry, though Sir Robert Peel had never heard of him: and to win the young, as Theocritus desired to do, is more than half the battle. On September 8, 1842, the poet was able to tell Mr Lushington that "500 of my books are sold; according to Moxon's brother, I have made a sensation." The sales were not like those of Childe Harold or Marmion; but for some twenty years new poetry had not sold at all. Novels had come in about 1814, and few wanted or bought recent verse. But Carlyle was converted. He spoke no more of a spoiled guardsman. "If you knew what my relation has been to the thing called 'English Poetry' for many years back, you would think such a fact" (his pleasure in the book) "surprising." Carlyle had been living (as Mrs Carlyle too well knew) in Oliver Cromwell, a hero who probably took no delight in Lycidas or Comus, in Lovelace or Carew. "I would give all my poetry to have made one song like that," said Tennyson of Lovelace's Althea. But Noll would have disregarded them all alike, and Carlyle was full of the spirit of the Protector. To conquer him was indeed a victory for Tennyson; while Dickens, not a reading man, expressed his "earnest and sincere homage."

But Tennyson was not successful in the modern way. Nobody "interviewed" him. His photograph, of course, with disquisitions on his pipes and slippers, did not adorn the literary press. His literary income was not magnified by penny-a-liners. He did not become a lion; he never would roar and shake his mane in drawing- rooms. Lockhart held that Society was the most agreeable form of the stage: the dresses and actresses incomparably the prettiest. But Tennyson liked Society no better than did General Gordon. He had friends enough, and no desire for new acquaintances. Indeed, his fortune was shattered at this time by a strange investment in wood- carving by machinery. Ruskin had only just begun to write, and wood- carving by machinery was still deemed an enterprise at once philanthropic and aesthetic. "My father's worldly goods were all gone," says Lord Tennyson. The poet's health suffered extremely: he tried a fashionable "cure" at Cheltenham, where he saw miracles of healing, but underwent none. In September 1845 Peel was moved by Lord Houghton to recommend the poet for a pension (200 pounds annually). "I have done nothing slavish to get it: I never even solicited for it either by myself or others." Like Dr Johnson, he honourably accepted what was offered in honour. For some reason many persons who write in the press are always maddened when such good fortune, however small, however well merited, falls to a brother in letters. They, of course, were "causelessly bitter." "Let them rave!"

If few of the rewards of literary success arrived, the penalties at once began, and only ceased with the poet's existence. "If you only knew what a nuisance these volumes of verse are! Rascals send me theirs per post from America, and I have more than once been knocked up out of bed to pay three or four shillings for books of which I can't get through one page, for of all books the most insipid reading is second-rate verse."

Would that versifiers took the warning! Tennyson had not sent his little firstlings to Coleridge and Wordsworth: they are only the hopeless rhymers who bombard men of letters with their lyrics and tragedies.

Mr Browning was a sufferer. To one young twitterer he replied in the usual way. The bard wrote acknowledging the letter, but asking for a definite criticism. "I do not think myself a Shakespeare or a Milton, but I KNOW I am better than Mr Coventry Patmore or Mr Austin Dobson." Mr Browning tried to procrastinate: he was already deeply engaged with earlier arrivals of volumes of song. The poet was hurt, not angry; he had expected other things from Mr Browning: HE ought to know his duty to youth. At the intercession of a relation Mr Browning now did his best, and the minstrel, satisfied at last, repeated his conviction of his superiority to the authors of The Angel in the House and Beau Brocade. Probably no man, not even Mr Gladstone, ever suffered so much from minstrels as Tennyson. He did not suffer them gladly.

In 1846 the Poems reached their fourth edition. Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton (bitten by what fly who knows?) attacked Tennyson in The New Timon, a forgotten satire. We do not understand the ways of that generation. The cheap and spiteful genre of satire, its forged morality, its sham indignation, its appeal to the ape-like passions, has gone out. Lytton had suffered many things (not in verse) from Jeames Yellowplush: I do not know that he hit back at Thackeray, but he "passed it on" to Thackeray's old college companion. Tennyson, for once, replied (in Punch: the verses were sent thither by John Forster); the answer was one of magnificent contempt. But he soon decided that


"The noblest answer unto such
Is perfect stillness when they brawl."


Long afterwards the poet dedicated a work to the son of Lord Lytton. He replied to no more satirists. {5} Our difficulty, of course, is to conceive such an attack coming from a man of Lytton's position and genius. He was no hungry hack, and could, and did, do infinitely better things than "stand in a false following" of Pope. Probably Lytton had a false idea that Tennyson was a rich man, a branch of his family being affluent, and so resented the little pension. The poet was so far from rich in 1846, and even after the publication of The Princess, that his marriage had still to be deferred for four years.__

On reading The Princess afresh one is impressed, despite old familiarity, with the extraordinary influence of its beauty. Here are, indeed, the best words best placed, and that curious felicity of style which makes every line a marvel, and an eternal possession. It is as if Tennyson had taken the advice which Keats gave to Shelley, "Load every rift with ore." To choose but one or two examples, how the purest and freshest impression of nature is re-created in mind and memory by the picture of Melissa with

"All her thoughts as fair within her eyes,
As bottom agates seen to wave and float
In crystal currents of clear morning seas."

The lyric, "Tears, idle tears," is far beyond praise: once read it seems like a thing that has always existed in the world of poetic archetypes, and has now been not so much composed as discovered and revealed. The many pictures and similitudes in The Princess have a magical gorgeousness:

"From the illumined hall
Long lanes of splendour slanted o'er a press
Of snowy shoulders, thick as herded ewes,
And rainbow robes, and gems and gem-like eyes,
And gold and golden heads; they to and fro
Fluctuated, as flowers in storm, some red, some pale."


The "small sweet Idyll" from

"A volume of the poets of her land"

pure Theocritus. It has been admirably rendered into Greek by Mr Gilbert Murray. The exquisite beauties of style are not less exquisitely blended in the confusions of a dream, for a dream is the thing most akin to The Princess. Time does not exist in the realm of Gama, or in the ideal university of Ida. We have a bookless North, severed but by a frontier pillar from a golden and learned South. The arts, from architecture to miniature-painting, are in their highest perfection, while knights still tourney in armour, and the quarrel of two nations is decided as in the gentle and joyous passage of arms at Ashby de la Zouche. Such confusions are purposefully dream-like: the vision being a composite thing, as dreams are, haunted by the modern scene of the holiday in the park, the "gallant glorious chronicle," the Abbey, and that "old crusading knight austere," Sir Ralph. The seven narrators of the scheme are like the "split personalities" of dreams, and the whole scheme is of great technical skill. The earlier editions lacked the beautiful songs of the ladies, and that additional trait of dream, the strange trance- like seizures of the Prince: "fallings from us, vanishings," in Wordsworthian phrase; instances of "dissociation," in modern psychological terminology. Tennyson himself, like Shelley and Wordsworth, had experience of this kind of dreaming awake which he attributes to his Prince, to strengthen the shadowy yet brilliant character of his romance. It is a thing of normal and natural points de repere; of daylight suggestion, touched as with the magnifying and intensifying elements of haschish-begotten phantasmagoria. In the same way opium raised into the region of brilliant vision that passage of Purchas which Coleridge was reading before he dreamed Kubla Khan. But in Tennyson the effects were deliberately sought and secured.

One might conjecture, though Lord Tennyson says nothing on the subject, that among the suggestions for The Princess was the opening of Love's Labour's Lost. Here the King of Navarre devises the College of Recluses, which is broken up by the arrival of the Princess of France, Rosaline, and the other ladies:

King. Our Court shall be a little Academe,
Still and contemplative in living art.
You three, Biron, Domain, and Longaville,
Have sworn for three years' term to live with me,
My fellow-scholars, and to keep those statutes.
* * *
Biron. That is, to live and study here three years.
But there are other strict observances;
As, not to see a woman in that term.
* * *
[Reads] 'That no woman shalt come within a mile of my Court:' Hath
this been proclaimed?
Long. Four days ago.
Biron. Let's see the penalty. [Reads] 'On pain of losing her tongue.'


The Princess then arrives with her ladies, as the Prince does with Cyril and Florian, as Charles did, with Buckingham, in Spain. The conclusion of Shakespeare is Tennyson's conclusion -

"We cannot cross the cause why we are born."

The later poet reverses the attitude of the sexes in Love's Labour's Lost: it is the women who make and break the vow; and the women in The Princess insist on the "grand, epic, homicidal" scenes, while the men are debarred, more or less, from a sportive treatment of the subject. The tavern catch of Cyril; the laughable pursuit of the Prince by the feminine Proctors; the draggled appearance of the adventurers in female garb, are concessions to the humour of the situation. Shakespeare would certainly have given us the song of Cyril at the picnic, and comic enough the effect would have been on the stage. It may be a gross employment, but The Princess, with the pretty chorus of girl undergraduates,

"In colours gayer than the morning mist,"

went reasonably well in opera. Merely considered as a romantic fiction, The Princess presents higher proofs of original narrative genius than any other such attempt by its author.

The poem is far from being deficient in that human interest which Shelley said that it was as vain to ask from HIM, as to seek to buy a leg of mutton at a gin-shop. The characters, the protagonists, with Cyril, Melissa, Lady Blanche, the child Aglaia, King Gama, the other king, Arac, and the hero's mother--beautifully studied from the mother of the poet--are all sufficiently human. But they seem to waver in the magic air, "as all the golden autumn woodland reels athwart the fires of autumn leaves. For these reasons, and because of the designed fantasy of the whole composition, The Princess is essentially a poem for the true lovers of poetry, of Spenser and of Coleridge. The serious motive, the question of Woman, her wrongs, her rights, her education, her capabilities, was not "in the air" in 1847. To be sure it had often been "in the air." The Alexandrian Platonists, the Renaissance, even the age of Anne, had their emancipated and learned ladies. Early Greece had Sappho, Corinna, and Erinna, the first the chief of lyric poets, even in her fragments, the two others applauded by all Hellas. The French Revolution had begotten Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her Vindication of the Rights of Women, and in France George Sand was prominent and emancipated enough while the poet wrote. But, the question of love apart, George Sand was "very, very woman," shining as a domestic character and fond of needlework. England was not excited about the question which has since produced so many disputants, inevitably shrill, and has not been greatly meddled with by women of genius, George Eliot or Mrs Oliphant. The poem, in the public indifference as to feminine education, came rather prematurely. We have now ladies' colleges, not in haunts remote from man, but by the sedged banks of Cam and Cherwell. There have been no revolutionary results: no boys have spied these chaste nests, with echoing romantic consequences. The beauty and splendour of the Princess's university have not arisen in light and colour, and it is only at St Andrews that girls wear the academic and becoming costume of the scarlet gown. The real is far below the ideal, but the real in 1847 seemed eminently remote, or even impossible.__

The learned Princess herself was not on our level as to knowledge and the past of womankind. She knew not of their masterly position in the law of ancient Egypt. Gynaeocracy and matriarchy, the woman the head of the savage or prehistoric group, were things hidden from her. She "glanced at the Lycian custom," but not at the Pictish, a custom which would have suited George Sand to a marvel. She maligned the Hottentots.

"The highest is the measure of the man,
And not the Kaffir, Hottentot, Malay."

The Hottentots had long ago anticipated the Princess and her shrill modern sisterhood. If we take the Greeks, or even ourselves, we may say, with Dampier (1689), "The Hodmadods, though a nasty people, yet are gentlemen to these" as regards the position of women. Let us hear Mr Hartland: "In every Hottentot's house the wife is supreme. Her husband, poor fellow, though he may wield wide power and influence out of doors, at home dare not even take a mouthful of sour-milk out of the household vat without her permission . . . The highest oath a man can take is to swear by his eldest sister, and if he abuses this name he forfeits to her his finest goods and sheep."

However, in 1847 England had not yet thought of imitating the Hodmadods. Consequently, and by reason of the purely literary and elaborately fantastical character of The Princess, it was not of a nature to increase the poet's fame and success. "My book is out, and I hate it, and so no doubt will you," Tennyson wrote to FitzGerald, who hated it and said so. "Like Carlyle, I gave up all hopes of him after The Princess," indeed it was not apt to conciliate Carlyle. "None of the songs had the old champagne flavour," said Fitz; and Lord Tennyson adds, "Nothing either by Thackeray or by my father met FitzGerald's approbation unless he had first seen it in manuscript." This prejudice was very human. Lord Tennyson remarks, as to the poet's meaning in this work, born too early, that "the sooner woman finds out, before the great educational movement begins, that 'woman is not undeveloped man, but diverse,' the better it will be for the progress of the world."

But probably the "educational movement" will not make much difference to womankind on the whole. The old Platonic remark that woman "does the same things as man, but not so well," will eternally hold good, at least in the arts, and in letters, except in rare cases of genius. A new Jeanne d'Arc, the most signal example of absolute genius in history, will not come again; and the ages have waited vainly for a new Sappho or a new Jane Austen. Literature, poetry, painting, have always been fields open to woman. But two names exhaust the roll of women of the highest rank in letters--Sappho and Jane Austen. And "when did woman ever yet invent?" In "arts of government" Elizabeth had courage, and just saving sense enough to yield to Cecil at the eleventh hour, and escape the fate of "her sister and her foe," the beautiful unhappy queen who told her ladies that she dared to look on whatever men dared to do, and herself would do it if her strength so served her." {6} "The foundress of the Babylonian walls" is a myth; "the Rhodope that built the Pyramid" is not a creditable myth; for exceptions to Knox's "Monstrous Regiment of Women" we must fall back on "The Palmyrene that fought Aurelian," and the revered name of the greatest of English queens, Victoria. Thus history does not encourage the hope that a man-like education will raise many women to the level of the highest of their sex in the past, or even that the enormous majority of women will take advantage of the opportunity of a man-like education. A glance at the numerous periodicals designed for the reading of women depresses optimism, and the Princess's prophecy of


"Two plummets dropped for one to sound the abyss
Of science, and the secrets of the mind,"

is not near fulfilment. Fortunately the sex does not "love the Metaphysics," and perhaps has not yet produced even a manual of Logic. It must suffice man and woman to

"Walk this world
Yoked in all exercise of noble end,"

of a more practical character, while woman is at liberty

"To live and learn and be
All that not harms distinctive womanhood."


This was the conclusion of the poet who had the most chivalrous reverence for womanhood. This is the eirenicon of that old strife between the women and the men--that war in which both armies are captured. It may not be acceptable to excited lady combatants, who think man their foe, when the real enemy is (what Porson damned) the Nature of Things.

A new poem like The Princess would soon reach the public of our day, so greatly increased are the uses of advertisement. But The Princess moved slowly from edition to revised and improved edition, bringing neither money nor much increase of fame. The poet was living with his family at Cheltenham, where among his new acquaintances were Sydney Dobell, the poet of a few exquisite pieces, and F. W. Robertson, later so popular as a preacher at Brighton. Meeting him for the first time, and knowing Robertson's "wish to pluck the heart from my mystery, from pure nervousness I would only talk of beer." This kind of shyness beset Tennyson. A lady tells me that as a girl (and a very beautiful girl) she and her sister, and a third, nec diversa, met the poet, and expected high discourse. But his speech was all of that wingless insect which "gets there, all the same," according to an American lyrist; the insect which fills Mrs Carlyle's letters with bulletins of her success or failure in domestic campaigns.

Tennyson kept visiting London, where he saw Thackeray and the despair of Carlyle, and at Bath House he was too modest to be introduced to the great Duke whose requiem he was to sing so nobly. Oddly enough Douglas Jerrold enthusiastically assured Tennyson, at a dinner of a Society of Authors, that "you are the one who will live." To that end, humanly speaking, he placed himself under the celebrated Dr Gully and his "water-cure," a foible of that period. In 1848 he made a tour to King Arthur's Cornish bounds, and another to Scotland, where the Pass of Brander disappointed him: perhaps he saw it on a fine day, and, like Glencoe, it needs tempest and mist lit up by the white fires of many waterfalls. By bonny Doon he "fell into a passion of tears," for he had all of Keats's sentiment for Burns: "There never was immortal poet if he be not one." Of all English poets, the warmest in the praise of Burns have been the two most unlike himself--Tennyson and Keats. It was the songs that Tennyson preferred; Wordsworth liked the Cottar's Saturday Night.

{5} The author of the spiteful letters was an unpublished anonymous person.

{6} The Lennox MSS. _


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