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An essay by Henry James

Tennyson's Drama

Title:     Tennyson's Drama
Author: Henry James [More Titles by James]

I. A review of Queen Mary. A Drama. By Alfred Tennyson. Boston: J. R. Osgood. 1875. Originally published in The Galaxy, September, 1875.

Queen Mary was produced at the Lyceum Theatre, London, in 1876. Mr. Irving playing the part of Philip II. It was Tennyson's wish that he should appear as Cardinal Pole, but in the acting version that character was eliminated. The part of Philip has been immortalized by Whistler's celebrated painting of Irving in that rôle. ED.

II. A review of Harold. A Drama. By Alfred Tennyson. London. 1877. Originally published in The Nation, January 18, 1877.


A new poem by Mr. Tennyson is certain to be largely criticised, and if the new poem is a drama, the performance must be a great event for criticism as well as for poetry. Great surprise, great hopes, and great fears had been called into being by the announcement that the author of so many finely musical lyrics and finished, chiselled specimens of narrative verse, had tempted fortune in the perilous field of the drama.

Few poets seemed less dramatic than Tennyson, even in his most dramatic attempts--in "Maud," in "Enoch Arden," or in certain of the Idyls of the King. He had never used the dramatic form, even by snatches; and though no critic was qualified to affirm that he had no slumbering ambition in that direction, it seemed likely that a poet who had apparently passed the meridian of his power had nothing absolutely new to show us. On the other hand, if he had for years been keeping a gift in reserve, and suffering it to ripen and mellow in some deep corner of his genius, while shallower tendencies waxed and waned above it, it was not unjust to expect that the consummate fruit would prove magnificent.

On the whole, we think that doubt was uppermost in the minds of those persons who to a lively appreciation of the author of "Maud" added a vivid conception of the exigencies of the drama. But at last Queen Mary appeared, and conjecture was able to merge itself in knowledge. There was a momentary interval, during which we all read, among the cable telegrams in the newspapers, that the London Times affirmed the new drama to contain more "true fire" than anything since Shakespeare had laid down the pen. This gave an edge to our impatience; for "fire," true or false, was not what the Laureate's admirers had hitherto claimed for him. In a day or two, however, most people had the work in their hands.

Every one, it seems to us, has been justified--those who hoped (that is, expected), those who feared, and those who were mainly surprised. Queen Mary is both better and less good than was to have been supposed, and both in its merits and its defects it is extremely singular. It is the least Tennysonian of all the author's productions; and we may say that he has not so much refuted as evaded the charge that he is not a dramatic poet. To produce his drama he has had to cease to be himself. Even if Queen Mary, as a drama, had many more than its actual faults, this fact alone--this extraordinary defeasance by the poet of his familiar identity--would make it a remarkable work.

We know of few similar phenomena in the history of literature--few such examples of rupture with a consecrated past. Poets in their prime have groped and experimented, tried this and that, and finally made a great success in a very different vein from that in which they had found their early successes. But the writers in prose or in verse are few who, after a lifetime spent in elaborating and perfecting a certain definite and extremely characteristic manner, have at Mr. Tennyson's age suddenly dismissed it from use and stood forth clad from head to foot in a disguise without a flaw. We are sure that the other great English poet--the author of "The Ring and the Book,"--would be quite incapable of any such feat. The more's the pity, as many of his readers will say!

Queen Mary is upward of three hundred pages long; and yet in all these three hundred pages there is hardly a trace of the Tennyson we know. Of course the reader is on the watch for reminders of the writer he has greatly loved; and of course, vivid signs being absent, he finds a certain eloquence in the slightest intimations. When he reads that

----"that same tide
Which, coming with our coming, seemed to smile
And sparkle like our fortune as thou saidest,
Ran sunless down and moaned against the piers,"

he seems for a moment to detect the peculiar note and rhythm of "Enoch Arden" or "The Princess." Just preceding these, indeed, is a line which seems Tennysonian because it is in a poem by Tennyson:

"Last night I climbed into the gate-house, Brett,
And scared the gray old porter and his wife."

In such touches as these the Tennysonian note is faintly struck; but if the poem were unsigned, they would not do much toward pointing out the author. On the other hand, the fine passages in Queen Mary are conspicuously deficient in those peculiar cadences--that exquisite perfume of diction--which every young poet of the day has had his hour of imitating. We may give as an example Pole's striking denial of the charge that the Church of Rome has ever known trepidation:

"What, my Lord!
The Church on Petra's rock? Never! I have seen
A pine in Italy that cast its shadow
Athwart a cataract; firm stood the pine--
The cataract shook the shadow. To my mind
The cataract typed the headlong plunge and fall
Of heresy to the pit: the pine was Rome.
You see, my Lords,
It was the shadow of the Church that trembled."

This reads like Tennyson doing his best not to be Tennyson, and very fairly succeeding. Well as he succeeds, however, and admirably skilful and clever as is his attempt throughout to play tricks with his old habits of language, and prove that he was not the slave but the master of the classic Tennysonian rhythm, I think that few readers can fail to ask themselves whether the new gift is of equal value with the old. The question will perhaps set them to fingering over the nearest volume of the poet at hand, to refresh their memory of his ancient magic. It has rendered the present writer this service, and he feels as if it were a considerable one. Every great poet has something that he does supremely well, and when you come upon Tennyson at his best you feel that you are dealing with poetry at its highest. One of the best passages in Queen Mary--the only one, it seems to me, very sensibly warmed by the "fire" commemorated by the London Times--is the passionate monologue of Mary when she feels what she supposes to be the intimations of maternity:

"He hath awaked, he hath awaked!
He stirs within the darkness!
Oh Philip, husband! how thy love to mine
Will cling more close, and those bleak manners thaw,
That make me shamed and tongue-tied in my love.
The second Prince of Peace--
The great unborn defender of the Faith,
Who will avenge me of mine enemies--
He comes, and my star rises.
The stormy Wyatts and Northumberlands
And proud ambitions of Elizabeth,
And all her fiercest partisans, are pale
Before my star!
His sceptre shall go forth from Ind to Ind!
His sword shall hew the heretic peoples down!
His faith shall clothe the world that will be his,
Like universal air and sunshine! Open,
Ye everlasting gates! The King is here!--
My star, my son!"

That is very fine, and its broken verses and uneven movement have great felicity and suggestiveness. But their magic is as nothing, surely, to the magic of such a passage as this:

"Yet hold me not for ever in thine East;
How can my nature longer mix with thine?
Coldly thy rosy shadows bathe me, cold
Are all thy lights, and cold my wrinkled feet
Upon thy glimmering thresholds, where the stream
Floats up from those dim fields about the homes
Of happy men that have the power to die,
And grassy barrows of the happier dead.
Release me and restore me to the ground;
Thou seëst all things, thou wilt see my grave;
Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn;
I, earth in earth, forget these empty courts,
And thee returning on thy silver wheels."

In these beautiful lines from "Tithonus" there is a purity of tone, an inspiration, a something sublime and exquisite, which is easily within the compass of Mr. Tennyson's usual manner at its highest, but which is not easily achieved by any really dramatic verse. It is poised and stationary, like a bird whose wings have borne him high, but the beauty of whose movement is less in great ethereal sweeps and circles than in the way he hangs motionless in the blue air, with only a vague tremor of his pinions. Even if the idea with Tennyson were more largely dramatic than it usually is, the immobility, as we must call it, of his phrase would always defeat the dramatic intention. When he wishes to represent movement, the phrase always seems to me to pause and slowly pivot upon itself, or at most to move backward. I do not know whether the reader recognizes the peculiarity to which I allude; one has only to open Tennyson almost at random to find an example of it:

"For once when Arthur, walking all alone,
Vext at a rumour rife about the Queen,
Had met her, Vivien being greeted fair,
Would fain have wrought upon his cloudy mood
With reverent eyes mock-loyal, shaken voice,
And fluttered adoration."

That perhaps is a subtle illustration; the allusion to Teolin's dog in "Aylmer's Field" is a franker one:

----"his old Newfoundlands, when they ran
To lose him at the stables; for he rose,
Two-footed, at the limit of his chain,
Roaring to make a third."

What these pictures present is not the action itself, but the poet's complex perception of it; it seems hardly more vivid and genuine than the sustained posturings of brilliant tableaux vivants. With the poets who are natural chroniclers of movement, the words fall into their places as with some throw of the dice, which fortune should always favour. With Scott and Byron they leap into the verse _à pieds joints, and shake it with their coming; with Tennyson they arrive slowly and settle cautiously into their attitudes, after having well scanned the locality. In consequence they are generally exquisite, and make exquisite combinations; but the result is intellectual poetry and not passionate--poetry which, if the term is not too pedantic, one may qualify as static poetry. Any scene of violence represented by Tennyson is always singularly limited and compressed; it is reduced to a few elements--refined to a single statuesque episode. There are, for example, several descriptions of tournaments and combats in the Idyls of the King. They are all most beautiful, but they are all curiously delicate. One gets no sense of the din and shock of battle; one seems to be looking at a bas relief of two contesting knights in chiselled silver, on a priceless piece of plate. They belong to the same family as that charming description, in Hawthorne's Marble Faun, of the sylvan dance of Donatello and Miriam in the Borghese gardens. Hawthorne talks of the freedom and frankness of their mirth and revelry; what we seem to see is a solemn frieze in stone along the base of a monument. These are the natural fruits of geniuses who are of the brooding rather than the impulsive order. I do not mean to say that here and there Tennyson does not give us a couplet in which motion seems reflected without being made to tarry. I open "Enoch Arden" at hazard, and I read of Enoch's ship that

----"at first indeed
Thro' many a fair sea-circle, day by day,
Scarce rocking, her full-busted figure-head
Stared o'er the ripple feathering from her bows."

I turn the page and read of

"The myriad shriek of wheeling ocean fowl,
The league-long roller thundering on the reef,
The moving whisper of huge trees that branched
And blossomed in the zenith";


"The sunrise broken into scarlet shafts
Among the palms and ferns and precipices;
The blaze upon the waters to the east;
The blaze upon his island overhead;
The blaze upon the waters to the west;
Then the great stars that globed themselves in Heaven,
The hollower-bellowing Ocean, and again
The scarlet shafts of sunrise."

These lines represent movement on the grand natural scale--taking place in that measured, majestic fashion which, at any given moment, seems identical with permanence. One is almost ashamed to quote Tennyson; one can hardly lay one's hand on a passage that does not form part of the common stock of reference and recitation. Passages of the more impulsive and spontaneous kind will of course chiefly be found in his lyrics and rhymed verses (though rhyme would at first seem but another check upon his freedom); and passages of the kind to which I have been calling attention, chiefly in his narrative poems, in the Idyls generally, and especially in the later ones, while the words strike one as having been pondered and collated with an almost miserly care.

But a man has always the qualities of his defects, and if Tennyson is what I have called a static poet, he at least represents repose and stillness and the fixedness of things, with a splendour that no poet has surpassed. We all of this generation have lived in such intimacy with him, and made him so much part of our regular intellectual meat and drink, that it requires a certain effort to hold him off at the proper distance for scanning him. We need to cease mechanically murmuring his lines, so that we may hear them speak for themselves.

Few persons who have grown up within the last forty years but have passed through the regular Tennysonian phase; happy few who have paid it a merely passive tribute, and not been moved to commit their emotions to philosophic verse, in the metre of "In Memoriam"! The phase has lasted longer with some persons than with others; but it will not be denied that with the generation at large it has visibly declined. The young persons of twenty now read Tennyson (though, as we imagine, with a fervour less intense than that which prevailed twenty years ago); but the young persons of thirty read Browning and Dante Rossetti, and Omar Kheyam--and are also sometimes heard to complain that poetry is dead and that there is nothing nowadays to read.

We have heard Tennyson called "dainty" so often, we have seen so many allusions to the "Tennysonian trick," we have been so struck, in a certain way, with M. Taine's remarkable portrait of the poet, in contrast to that of Alfred de Musset, that every one who has anything of a notion of keeping abreast of what is called the "culture of the time" is rather shy of making an explicit, or even a serious profession of admiration for his earlier idol. It has long been the fashion to praise Byron, if one praises him at all, with an apologetic smile; and Tennyson has been, I think, in a measure, tacitly classed with the author of "Childe Harold" as a poet whom one thinks most of while one's taste is immature.

This is natural enough, I suppose, and the taste of the day must travel to its opportunity's end. But I do not believe that Byron has passed, by any means, and I do not think that Tennyson has been proved to be a secondary or a tertiary poet. If he is not in the front rank, it is hard to see what it is that constitutes exquisite quality. There are poets of a larger compass; he has not the passion of Shelley nor the transcendent meditation of Wordsworth; but his inspiration, in its own current, is surely as pure as theirs. He depicts the assured beauties of life, the things that civilisation has gained and permeated, and he does it with an ineffable delicacy of imagination. Only once, as it seems to me (at the close of "Maud"), has he struck the note of irrepressible emotion, and appeared to say the thing that must be said at the moment, at any cost. For the rest, his verse is the verse of leisure, of luxury, of contemplation, of a faculty that circumstances have helped to become fastidious; but this leaves it a wide province--a province that it fills with a sovereign splendour.

When a poet is such an artist as Tennyson, such an unfaltering, consummate master, it is no shame to surrender one's self to his spell. Reading him over here and there, as I have been doing, I have received an extraordinary impression of talent--talent ripened and refined, and passed, with a hundred incantations, through the crucible of taste. The reader is in thoroughly good company, and if the language is to a certain extent that of a coterie, the coterie can offer convincing evidence of its right to be exclusive. Its own tone is exquisite; listen to it, and you will desire nothing more.

Tennyson's various Idyls have been in some degree discredited by insincere imitations, and in some degree, perhaps, by an inevitable lapse of sympathy on the part of some people from what appears their falsetto pitch. That King Arthur, in the great ones of the series, is rather a prig, and that he couldn't have been all the poet represents him without being a good deal of a hypocrite; that the poet himself is too monotonously unctuous, and that in relating the misdeeds of Launcelot and Guinevere he seems, like the lady in the play in "Hamlet," to "protest too much" for wholesomeness--all this has been often said, and said with abundant force. But there is a way of reading the Idyls, one and all, and simply enjoying them. It has been, just now, the way of the writer of these lines; he does not exactly know what may be gained by taking the other way, but he feels as if there were a pitiful loss in not taking this one. If one surrenders one's sense to their perfect picturesqueness, it is the most charming poetry in the world. The prolonged, delicate, exquisite sustentation of the pictorial tone seems to me a marvel of ingenuity and fancy. It appeals to a highly cultivated sense, but what enjoyment is so keen as that of the cultivated sense when its finer nerve is really touched? The Idyls all belong to the poetry of association; but before they were written we had yet to learn how finely association could be analysed, and how softly its chords could be played upon. When Enoch Arden came back from his desert island,

"He like a lover down through all his blood
Drew in the dewy, meadowy morning breath
Of England, blown across her ghostly wall."

Tennyson's solid verbal felicities, his unerring sense of the romantic, his acute perception of everything in nature that may contribute to his fund of exquisite imagery, his refinement, his literary tone, his aroma of English lawns and English libraries, the whole happy chance of his selection of the Arthurian legends--all this, and a dozen minor graces which it would take almost his own "daintiness" to formulate, make him, it seems to me, the most charming of the entertaining poets. It is as an entertaining poet I chiefly think of him; his morality, at moments, is certainly importunate enough, but elevated as it is, it never seems to me of so fine a distillation as his imagery. As a didactic creation I do not greatly care for King Arthur; but as a fantastic one he is infinitely remunerative. He is doubtless not, as an intellectual conception, massive enough to be called a great figure; but he is, picturesquely, so admirably self-consistent, that the reader's imagination is quite willing to turn its back, if need be, on his judgment, and give itself up to idle enjoyment.

As regards Tennyson's imagery, anything that one quotes in illustration is, as I have said, certain to be extremely familiar; but even familiarity can hardly dull the beauty of such a touch as that about Merlin's musings:

"So dark a forethought rolled about his brain,
As on a dull day in an Ocean cave
The blind wave feeling round his long sea-hall
In silence."

Or of that which puts in vivid form the estrangement of Enid and Geraint:

"The two remained
Apart by all the chamber's width, and mute
As creatures voiceless through the fault of birth,
Or two wild men, supporters of a shield,
Painted, who stare at open space, nor glance
The one at other, parted by the shield."

Happy, in short, the poet who can offer his heroine for her dress

----"a splendid silk of foreign loom,
Where, like a shoaling sea, the lovely blue
Played into green."

I have touched here only upon Tennyson's narrative poems, because they seemed most in order in any discussion of the author's dramatic faculty. They cannot be said to place it in an eminent light, and they remind one more of the courage than of the discretion embodied in Queen Mary. Lovely pictures of things standing, with a sort of conscious stillness, for their poetic likeness, measured speeches, full of delicate harmonies and curious cadences--these things they contain in plenty, but little of that liberal handling of cross-speaking passion and humour which, with a strong constructive faculty, we regard as the sign of a genuine dramatist.

The dramatic form seems to me of all literary forms the very noblest, I have so extreme a relish for it that I am half afraid to trust myself to praise it, lest I should seem to be merely rhapsodizing. But to be really noble it must be quite itself, and between a poor drama and a fine one there is, I think, a wider interval than anywhere else in the scale of success. A sequence of speeches headed by proper names--a string of dialogues broken into acts and scenes--does not constitute a drama; not even when the speeches are very clever and the dialogue bristles with "points."

The fine thing in a real drama, generally speaking, is that, more than any other work of literary art, it needs a masterly structure. It needs to be shaped and fashioned and laid together, and this process makes a demand upon an artist's rarest gifts. He must combine and arrange, interpolate and eliminate, play the joiner with the most attentive skill; and yet at the end effectually bury his tools and his sawdust, and invest his elaborate skeleton with the smoothest and most polished integument. The five-act drama--serious or humourous, poetic or prosaic--is like a box of fixed dimensions and inelastic material, into which a mass of precious things are to be packed away. It is a problem in ingenuity and a problem of the most interesting kind. The precious things in question seem out of all proportion to the compass of the receptacle; but the artist has an assurance that with patience and skill a place may be made for each, and that nothing need be clipped or crumpled, squeezed or damaged. The false dramatist either knocks out the sides of his box, or plays the deuce with the contents; the real one gets down on his knees, disposes of his goods tentatively, this, that, and the other way, loses his temper but keeps his ideal, and at last rises in triumph, having packed his coffer in the one way that is mathematically right. It closes perfectly, and the lock turns with a click; between one object and another you cannot insert the point of a penknife.

To work successfully beneath a few grave, rigid laws, is always a strong man's highest ideal of success. The reader cannot be sure how deeply conscious Mr. Tennyson has been of the laws of the drama, but it would seem as if he had not very attentively pondered them. In a play, certainly, the subject is of more importance than in any other work of art. Infelicity, triviality, vagueness of subject, may be outweighed in a poem, a novel, or a picture, by charm of manner, by ingenuity of execution; but in a drama the subject is of the essence of the work--it is the work. If it is feeble, the work can have no force; if it is shapeless, the work must be amorphous.

Queen Mary, I think, has this fundamental weakness; it would be very hard to say what its subject is. Strictly speaking, the drama has none. To the statement, "It is the reign of the elder daughter of Henry VIII.," it seems to me very nearly fair to reply that that is not a subject. I do not mean to say that a consummate dramatist could not resolve it into one, but the presumption is altogether against it. It cannot be called an intrigue, nor treated as one; it tends altogether to expansion; whereas a genuine dramatic subject should tend to concentration.

Madame Ristori, that accomplished tragédienne, has for some years been carrying about the world with her a piece of writing, punctured here and there with curtain-falls, which she presents to numerous audiences as a tragedy embodying the history of Queen Elizabeth. The thing is worth mentioning only as an illustration; it is from the hand of a prolific Italian purveyor of such wares, and is as bad as need be. Many of the persons who read these lines will have seen it, and will remember it as a mere bald sequence of anecdotes, roughly cast into dialogue. It is not incorrect to say that, as regards form, Mr. Tennyson's drama is of the same family as the historical tragedies of Signor Giacometti. It is simply a dramatised chronicle, without an internal structure, taking its material in pieces, as history hands them over, and working each one up into an independent scene--usually with rich ability. It has no shape; it is cast into no mould; it has neither beginning, middle, nor end, save the chronological ones.

A work of this sort may have a great many merits (those of Queen Mary are numerous), but it cannot have the merit of being a drama. We have, indeed, only to turn to Shakespeare to see how much of pure dramatic interest may be infused into an imperfect dramatic form. Henry IV. and the others of its group, Richard III., Henry VIII., Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Cæsar, are all chronicles in dialogue, are all simply Holinshed and Plutarch transferred into immortal verse. They are magnificent because Shakespeare could do nothing weak; but all Shakespearian as they are, they are not models; the models are Hamlet and Othello, Macbeth and Lear. Tennyson is not Shakespeare, but in everything he had done hitherto there had been an essential perfection, and we are sorry that, in the complete maturity of his talent, proposing to write a drama, he should have chosen the easy way rather than the hard.

He chose, however, a period out of which a compact dramatic subject of the richest interest might well have been wrought. For this, of course, considerable invention would have been needed, and Mr. Tennyson had apparently no invention to bring to his task. He has embroidered cunningly the groundwork offered him by Mr. Froude, but he has contributed no new material. The field offers a great stock of dramatic figures, and one's imagination kindles as one thinks of the multifarious combinations into which they might have been cast. We do not pretend of course to say in detail what Mr. Tennyson might have done; we simply risk the affirmation that he might have wrought a somewhat denser tissue. History certainly would have suffered, but poetry would have gained, and he is writing poetry and not history. As his drama stands, we take it that he does not pretend to have deepened our historic light.

Psychologically, picturesquely, the persons in the foreground of Mary's reign constitute a most impressive and interesting group. The imagination plays over it importunately, and wearies itself with scanning the outlines and unlighted corners. Mary herself unites a dozen strong dramatic elements--in her dark religious passion, her unrequited conjugal passion, her mixture of the Spanish and English natures, her cruelty and her conscience, her high-handed rule and her constant insecurity. With her dark figure lighted luridly by perpetual martyr-fires, and made darker still by the presence of her younger sister, radiant with the promise of England's coming greatness; with Lady Jane Grey groping for the block behind her; her cold fanatic of a husband beside her, as we know him by Velasquez (with not a grain of fanaticism to spare for her); with her subtle ecclesiastical cousin Pole on the other side, with evil counsellors and dogged martyrs and a threatening people all around her, and with a lonely, dreary, disappointed and unlamented death before her, she is a subject made to the hand of a poet who should know how to mingle cunningly his darker shades. Tennyson has elaborated her figure in a way that is often masterly; it is a success--the greatest success of the poem. It is compounded in his hands of very subtle elements, and he keeps them from ever becoming gross.

The Mary of his pages is a complex personage, and not what she might so easily become--a mere picturesque stalking-horse of melodrama. The art with which he has still kept her sympathetic and human, at the same time that he has darkened the shadows in her portrait to the deepest tone that he had warrant for, is especially noticeable. It is not in Mr. Tennyson's pages that Mary appears for the first time in the drama; she gives her name to a play of Victor Hugo's dating from the year 1833--the prime of the author's career. I have just been reading over Marie Tudor, and it has suggested a good many reflections. I think it probable that many of the readers of Queen Mary would be quite unable to peruse Victor Hugo's consummately unpleasant production to the end; but they would admit, I suppose, that a person who had had the stomach to do so might have something particular to say about it.

If one had an eye for contrasts, the contrast between these two works is extremely curious. I said just now that Tennyson had brought no invention to his task; but it may be said, on the other side, that Victor Hugo has brought altogether too much. If Tennyson has been unduly afraid of remodelling history, the author of Marie Tudor has known no such scruples; he has slashed into the sacred chart with the shears of a romantique of 1830. Although Tennyson, in a general way, is an essentially picturesque poet, his picturesqueness is of an infinitely milder type than that of Victor Hugo; the one ends where the other begins. With Victor Hugo the horrible is always the main element of the picturesque, and the beautiful and the tender are rarely introduced save to give it relief. In Marie Tudor they cannot be said to be introduced at all; the drama is one masterly compound of abominable horror; horror for horror's sake--for the sake of chiaroscuro, of colour, of the footlights, of the actors; not in the least in any visible interest of human nature, of moral verity, of the discrimination of character.

What Victor Hugo has here made of the rigid, strenuous, pitiable English queen seems to me a good example of how little the handling of sinister passions sometimes costs a genius of his type--how little conviction or deep reflection goes with it. There was a Mary of a far keener tragic interest than the epigrammatic Messalina whom he has portrayed; but her image was established in graver and finer colours, and he passes jauntily beside it, without suspecting its capacity. Marie Tudor is a lascivious termagant who amuses herself, first, with caressing an Italian adventurer, then with slapping his face, and then with dabbling in his blood; but we do not really see why the author should have given his heroine a name which history held in her more or less sacred keeping; one's interest in the drama would have been more comfortable if the persons, in their impossible travesty, did not present themselves as old friends. It is true that the "Baron of Dinasmonddy" can hardly be called an old friend; but he is at least as familiar as the Earl of Clanbrassil, the Baron of Darmouth in Devonshire, and Lord South-Repps.

Marie Tudor, then has little to do with nature and nothing with either history or morality; and yet, without a paradox, it has some very strong qualities. It is at any rate a genuine drama, and it succeeds thoroughly well in what it attempts. It is moulded and proportioned to a definite scenic end, and never falters in its course. To read it just after you have read Queen Mary brings out its merits, as well as its defects; and if the contrast makes you inhale with a double satisfaction the clearer moral atmosphere of the English work, it leads you also to reflect with some gratitude that dramatic tradition, in our modern era, has not remained solely in English hands.

Mr. Tennyson has very frankly fashioned his play upon the model of the Shakespearian "histories." He has given us the same voluminous list of characters; he has made the division into acts merely arbitrary; he has introduced low-life interlocutors, talking in archaic prose; and whenever the fancy has taken him, he has culled his idioms and epithets from the Shakespearian vocabulary. As regards this last point, he has shown all the tact and skill that were to be expected from so approved a master of language. The prose scenes are all of a quasi-humourous description, and they emulate the queer jocosities of Shakespeare more successfully than seemed probable; though it was not to be forgotten that the author of the "Palace of Art" was also the author of the "Northern Farmer." These few lines might have been taken straight from Henry IV. or Henry VIII.:

"No; we know that you be come to kill the Queen, and we'll pray for you all on our bended knees. But o' God's mercy, don't you kill the Queen here, Sir Thomas; look ye, here's little Dickon, and little Robin, and little Jenny--though she's but a side cousin--and all, on our knees, we pray you to kill the Queen farther off, Sir Thomas."

The poet, however, is modern when he chooses to be:

"Action and reaction,
The miserable see-saw of our child-world,
Make us despise it at odd hours, my Lord."

That reminds one less of the Elizabethan than of the Victorian era. Mr. Tennyson has desired to give a general picture of the time, to reflect all its leading elements and commemorate its salient episodes. From this point of view England herself--England struggling and bleeding in the clutches of the Romish wolf, as he would say--is the heroine of the drama. This heroine is very nobly and vividly imaged, and we feel the poet to be full of a retroactive as well as a present patriotism. It is a plain Protestant attitude that he takes; there is no attempt at analysis of the Catholic sense of the situation; it is quite the old story that we learned in our school-histories as children. We do not mean that this is not the veracious way of presenting it; but we notice the absence of that tendency to place it in different lights, accumulate pros and cons, and plead opposed causes in the interest of ideal truth, which would have been so obvious if Mr. Browning had handled the theme. And yet Mr. Tennyson has been large and liberal, and some of the finest passages in the poem are uttered by independent Catholics. The author has wished to give a hint of everything, and he has admirably divined the anguish of mind of many men who were unprepared to go with the new way of thinking, and yet were scandalised at the license of the old--who were willing to be Catholics, and yet not willing to be delivered over to Spain.

Where so many episodes are sketched, few of course can be fully developed; but there is a vivid manliness of the classic English type in such portraits as Lord William Howard and Sir Ralph Bagenhall--poor Sir Ralph, who declares that

"Far liefer had I in my country hall
Been reading some old book, with mine old hound
Couch'd at my hearth, and mine old flask of wine
Beside me,"

than stand as he does in the thick of the trouble of the time; and who finally is brought to his account for not having knelt with the commons to the legate of Charles V. We have a glimpse of Sir Thomas Wyatt's insurrection, and a portrait of that robust rebel, who was at the same time an editor of paternal sonnets--sonnets of a father who loved

"To read and rhyme in solitary fields,
The lark above, the nightingale below,
And answer them in song."

We have a very touching report of Lady Jane Grey's execution, and we assist almost directly at the sad perplexities of poor Cranmer's eclipse. We appreciate the contrast between the fine nerves and many-sided conscience of that wavering martyr, and the more comfortable religious temperament of Bonner and Gardiner--Bonner, apt "to gorge a heretic whole, roasted, or raw;" and Gardiner, who can say,

"I've gulpt it down; I'm wholly for the Pope,
Utterly and altogether for the Pope,
The Eternal Peter of the changeless chair,
Crowned slave of slaves and mitred king of kings.
God upon earth! What more? What would you have?"

Elizabeth makes several appearances, and though they are brief, the poet has evidently had a definite figure in his mind's eye. On a second reading it betrays a number of fine intentions. The circumspection of the young princess, her high mettle, her coquetry, her frankness, her coarseness, are all rapidly glanced at. Her exclamation--

"I would I were a milkmaid,
To sing, love, marry, churn, brew, bake, and die,
And have my simple headstone by the church,
And all things lived and ended honestly"--

marks one limit of the sketch; and the other is indicated by her reply to Cecil at the end of the drama, on his declaring, in allusion to Mary, that "never English monarch dying left England so little":

"But with Cecil's aid
And others', if our person be secured
From traitor stabs, we will make England great!"

The middle term is perhaps marked by her reception of the functionary who comes to inform her that her sister bids her know that the King of Spain desires her to marry Prince Philibert of Savoy:

"I thank you heartily, sir,
But I am royal, tho' your prisoner,
And God hath blessed or cursed me with a nose--
Your boots are from the horses."

The drama is deficient in male characters of salient interest. Philip is vague and blank, as he is evidently meant to be, and Cardinal Pole is a portrait of a character constitutionally inapt for breadth of action. The portrait is a skilful one, however, and expresses forcibly the pangs of a sensitive nature entangled in trenchant machinery. There is a fine scene near the close of the drama in which Pole and the Queen--cousins, old friends, and for a moment betrothed (Victor Hugo characteristically assumes Mary to have been her cousin's mistress)--confide to each other their weariness and disappointment. Mary endeavours to console the Cardinal, but he has only grim answers for her:

"Our altar is a mound of dead men's clay,
Dug from the grave that yawns for us beyond;
And there is one Death stands beside the Groom,
And there is one Death stands beside the Bride."

Queen Mary, I believe, is to be put upon the stage next winter in London. I do not pretend to forecast its success in representation; but it is not indiscrete to say that it will suffer from the absence of a man's part capable of being made striking. The very clever Mr. Henry Irving has, we are told, offered his services, presumably to play either Philip or Pole. If he imparts any great relief to either figure, it will be a signal proof of talent. The actress, however, to whom the part of the Queen is allotted will have every reason to be grateful. The character is full of colour and made to utter a number of really dramatic speeches. When Renard assures her that Philip is only waiting for leave of the Parliament to land on English shores she has an admirable outbreak:

"God change the pebble which his kingly foot
First presses into some more costly stone
Than ever blinded eye. I'll have one mark it
And bring it me. I'll have it burnished firelike;
I'll set it round with gold, with pearl, with diamond.
Let the great angel of the Church come with him,
Stand on the deck and spread his wings for sail!"

Mary is not only vividly conceived from within, but her physiognomy, as seen from without, is indicated with much pictorial force:

"Did you mark our Queen?
The colour freely played into her face,
And the half sight which makes her look so stern
Seemed, through that dim, dilated world of hers,
To read our faces."

In the desolation of her last days, when she bids her attendants go to her sister and

"Tell her to come and close my dying eyes
And wear my crown and dance upon my grave,"

Mary, to attest her misery, seats herself on the ground, like Constance in "King John"; and the comment of one of her women hereupon is strikingly picturesque:

"Good Lord! how grim and ghastly looks her Grace,
With both her knees drawn upward to her chin.
There was an old-world tomb beside my father's,
And this was opened, and the dead were found
Sitting, and in this fashion; she looks a corpse."

The great merit of Mr. Tennyson's drama, however, is not in the quotableness of certain passages, but in the thoroughly elevated spirit of the whole. He desired to make us feel of what sound manly stuff the Englishmen of that Tudor reign of terror needed to be, and his verse is pervaded by the echo of their deep-toned refusal to abdicate their manhood. The temper of the poem, on this line, is so noble that the critic who has indulged in a few strictures as to matters of form feels as if he had been frivolous and niggardly. I nevertheless venture to add in conclusion that Queen Mary seems to me a work of rare ability rather than great inspiration; a powerful tour de force rather than a labour of love. But though it is not the best of a great poet's achievement, only a great poet could have written it.


The author of Queen Mary seems disposed to show us that that work was not an accident, but rather, as it may be said, an incident of his literary career. The incident has just been repeated, though Harold has come into the world more quietly than its predecessor.

It is singular how soon the public gets used to unfamiliar notions. By the time the reader has finished Harold he has almost contracted the habit of thinking of Mr. Tennyson as a writer chiefly known to fame by "dramas" without plots and dialogues without point. This impression it behooves him, of course, to shake off if he wishes to judge the book properly. He must compare the author of "Maud" and the earlier Idyls with the great poets, and not with the small. Harold would be a respectable production for a writer who had spent his career in producing the same sort of thing, but it is a somewhat graceless anomaly in the record of a poet whose verse has, in a large degree, become part of the civilisation of his day.

Queen Mary was not, on the whole, pronounced a success, and Harold, roughly speaking, is to Queen Mary what that work is to the author's earlier masterpieces. Harold is not in the least bad: it contains nothing ridiculous, unreasonable, or disagreeable; it is only decidedly weak, decidedly colourless, and tame. The author's inspiration is like a fire which is quietly and contentedly burning low. The analogy is perfectly complete. The hearth is clean swept and the chimney-side is garnished with its habitual furniture; but the room is getting colder and colder, and the occasional little flickers emitted by the mild embers are not sufficient to combat the testimony of the poetical thermometer. There is nothing necessarily harsh in this judgment. Few fires are always at a blaze, and the imagination, which is the most delicate machine in the world, cannot be expected to serve longer than a good gold repeater. We must take what it gives us, in every case, and be thankful. Mr. Tennyson is perfectly welcome to amuse himself with listening to the fainter tick of his honoured time-piece; it is going still, unquestionably; it has not stopped. Only we may without rudeness abstain from regulating our engagements by the indications of the instrument.

Harold seems at first to have little, in form, that is characteristic of the author--little of the thoroughly familiar Tennysonian quality. Nevertheless, there is every now and then a line which arrests the ear by the rhythm and cadence which have always formed the chief mystery in the art of imitating the Laureate.

Meeting in the early pages such a line as

"What, with this flaming horror overhead?"

we should suspect we were reading Tennyson if we did not know it; and our suspicion would he amply confirmed by half a dozen other lines:

"Taken the rifted pillars of the wood."

"My greyhounds fleeting like a beam of light."

"Suffer a stormless shipwreck in the pools."

"That scared the dying conscience of the king."

Harold is interesting as illustrating, in addition to Queen Mary, Mr. Tennyson's idea of what makes a drama. A succession of short scenes, detached from the biography of a historical character, is, apparently, to his sense sufficient; the constructive side of the work is thereby reduced to a primitive simplicity. It is even more difficult to imagine acting Harold than it was to imagine acting Queen Mary; and it is probable that in this case the experiment will not be tried. And yet the story, or rather the historical episode, upon which Mr. Tennyson has here laid his hand is eminently interesting.

Harold, the last of the "English," as people of a certain way of feeling are fond of calling him--the son of Godwin, masterful minister of Edward the Confessor, the wearer for a short and hurried hour of the English crown, and the opponent and victim of William of Normandy on the field of Hastings--is a figure which combines many of the elements of romance and of heroism. The author has very characteristically tried to accentuate the moral character of his hero by making him a sort of distant relation of the family of Galahad and Arthur and the other moralising gallants to whom his pages have introduced us. Mr. Tennyson's Harold is a warrior who talks about his "better self," and who alludes to

"Waltham, my foundation
For men who serve their neighbour, not themselves,"

--a touch which transports us instantly into the atmosphere of the Arthurian Idyls. But Harold's history may be very easily and properly associated with a moral problem, inasmuch as it was his unhappy fortune to have to solve, practically, a knotty point which might have been more comfortably left to the casuists. Shipwrecked during Edward's life upon the coast of Normandy, he is betrayed into the hands of Duke William, who already retains as hostage one of his brothers (the sons of Godwin were very numerous, and they all figure briefly, but with a certain attempt at individual characterisation, in the drama). To purchase his release and that of his brother, who passionately entreats him, he consents to swear by certain unseen symbols, which prove afterwards to be the bones of certain august Norman saints, that if William will suffer him to return to England, he will, on the Confessor's death, abstain from urging the claim of the latter's presumptive heir and do his utmost to help the Norman duke himself to the crown.

This scene is presented in the volume before us. Harold departs and regains England, and there, on the king's death, overborne by circumstances, but with much tribulation of mind, violates his oath, and himself takes possession of the throne. The interest of the drama is in a great measure the picture of his temptation and remorse, his sense of his treachery and of the inevitableness of his chastisement. With this other matters are mingled: Harold's conflict with his disloyal brother Tostig, Earl of Northumberland, who brings in the King of Norway to claim the crown, and who, with his Norwegian backers, is defeated by Harold in battle just before William comes down upon him. Then there is his love-affair with Edith, ward of the Confessor, whom the latter, piously refusing to hear of his violation of his oath, condemns him to put away, as penance for the very thought. There is also his marriage with Aldwyth, a designing person, widow of a Welsh king whom Harold has defeated, and who, having herself through her parentage, strong English interests, inveigles Harold into a union which may consolidate their forces.

Altogether, Harold is, for a hero, rather inclined to falter and succumb. It is to his conscience, however, that he finally succumbs; he loses heart and goes to meet William at Hastings with a depressing presentiment of defeat. Mr. Tennyson, however, as we gather from a prefatory sonnet, which is perhaps finer than anything in the drama itself, holds that much can be said for the "Norman-slandered hero," and declares that he has nothing to envy William if

"Each stands full face with all he did below."

Edith, Harold's repudiated lady-love, is, we suppose, the heroine of the story, inasmuch as she has the privilege of expiring upon the corpse of the hero. Harold's defeat is portrayed through a conversation between Edith and Stigand, the English and anti-papal Archbishop of Canterbury, who watches the fight at Senlac from a tent near the field, while the monks of Waltham, outside, intone a Latin invocation to the God of Battles to sweep away the Normans.

The drama closes with a scene on the field, after the fight, in which Edith and Aldwyth wander about, trying to identify Harold among the slain. On discovering him they indulge in a few natural recriminations, then Edith loses her head and expires by his side. William comes in, rubbing his hands over his work, and intimates to Aldwyth that she may now make herself agreeable to him. She replies, hypocritically, "My punishment is more than I can bear"; and with this, the most dramatic speech, perhaps in the volume, the play terminates. Edith, we should say, is a heroine of the didactic order. She has a bad conscience about Harold's conduct, and about her having continued on affectionate terms with him after his diplomatic marriage with Aldwyth. When she prays for Harold's success she adds that she hopes heaven will not refuse to listen to her because she loves "the husband of another"; and after he is defeated she reproaches herself with having injured his prospects--

"For there was more than sister in my kiss."

Though there are many persons in the poem it cannot be said that any of them attains a very vivid individuality. Indeed, their great number, the drama being of moderate length, hinders the unfolding of any one of them.

Mr. Tennyson, moreover, has not the dramatic touch; he rarely finds the phrase or the movement that illuminates a character, rarely makes the dialogue strike sparks. This is generally mild and colourless, and the passages that arrest us, relatively, owe their relief to juxtaposition rather than to any especial possession of the old Tennysonian energy. Now and then we come upon a few lines together in which we seem to catch an echo of the author's earlier magic, or sometimes simply of his earlier manner. When we do, we make the most of them and are grateful. Such, for instance, is the phrase of one of the characters describing his rescue from shipwreck. He dug his hands, he says, into

"My old fast friend the shore, and clinging thus
Felt the remorseless outdraught of the deep
Haul like a great strong fellow at my legs."

Such are the words in which Wulfnoth, Harold's young brother, detained in Normandy, laments his situation:

"Yea, and I
Shall see the dewy kiss of dawn no more
Make blush the maiden-white of our tall cliffs,
Nor mark the sea-bird rouse himself and hover
Above the windy ripple, and fill the sky
With free sea-laughter."

In two or three places the author makes, in a few words, a picture, an image, of considerable felicity. Harold wishes that he were like Edward the Confessor,

"As holy and as passionless as he!
That I might rest as calmly! Look at him--
The rosy face, and long, down-silvering beard,
The brows unwrinkled as a summer mere."

We may add that in the few speeches allotted to this monarch of virtuous complexion this portrait is agreeably sustained. "Holy, is he?" says the Archbishop, Stigand, of him to Harold--

"A conscience for his own soul, not his realm;
A twilight conscience lighted thro' a chink;
Thine by the sun."

And the same character hits upon a really vigorous image in describing, as he watches them, Harold's exploits on the battle-fields:

"Yea, yea, for how their lances snap and shiver,
Against the shifting blaze of Harold's axe!
War-woodman of old Woden, how he fells
The mortal copse of faces!"

We feel, after all, in Mr. Tennyson, even in the decidedly minor key in which this volume is pitched, that he has once known how to turn our English poetic phrase as skilfully as any one, and that he has not altogether forgotten the art.

[The end]
Henry James's essay: Tennyson's Drama