Across the walnuts and the wine
which he also found and loved in that other favourite, “The Miller’s Daughter,” the harmless gossip about old friends
who was dead,
Who married, who was like to be, and how
The races went, and who would rent the hall.
This suited “Old Fitz’s” temper absolutely. The humorous pococurantism, for cynicism it hardly is, of the quatrains put into the mouth of the Poet’s friend, each ending “but let me live my life,” breathes the very spirit of his own indolent, kindly Epicureanism, and indeed the poem might almost be taken as a record of a dialogue between the two friends in their early days.
He loved, too, the “Lord of Burleigh,” “The Vision[Pg 125] of Sin,” and “The Lady of Shalott.” The delicious idealism of these youthful pieces did not displease him. They had for him a “champagne flavour.” They were part of his own youth. For a brief hour of that fast-fleeting day, the wine of life had sparkled in his own glass, but then too soon turned flat and flavourless.
For two or three things every lover of Tennyson must thank FitzGerald. He it was who, about 1838, soon after their friendship began, got his friend, Samuel Laurence, to paint the earliest portrait of the Poet, “the only one of the old days and still the best of all to my thinking,” as he wrote in 1871. He, too, preserved and gave to Tennyson the drawing by Thackeray of the “Lord of Burleigh.” When the Poet was rather dilatory in calling at Spedding’s house to claim this portrait, FitzGerald wrote: “Tell him I don’t think Browning would have served me so, and I mean to prefer his poems for the future.” He also rescued from the flames some of the pages of the famous “Butcher’s Book,” the tall, ledger-like MS. volume, in which many of the early poems he so much loved were written, and gave them to the Library of Trinity College. About this he wrote:
December 4th, 1864.
Dear Alfred—Now I should be almost ready to be “yours ever, etc.” if I didn’t remember to ask you if you have any objection to my giving two or three of the leaves of your old “Butcher’s Book” (do you remember?) to the Library at Trinity College? An admirer of your’s there told me they would be glad of some such thing—It was in 1842, when you were printing the two good old volumes:—in Spedding’s rooms—and the “Butcher’s Book,” after its margins serving for pipe-lights, went leaf by leaf into the fire: and I told you I would keep two or three leaves of it as a remembrance. So I took a bit of my old favourite “Audley Court”: and a bit of another, I forget which: for I can’t lay my hands on them just now. But when I do, I shall give them to Trinity College unless you are strongly opposed. I dare say, however, you would give them [Pg 126]the whole MS. of one of your later poems: which probably they would value more.
Tennyson appreciated “Old Fitz’s” fine qualities as a critic, but he recognized their limitations, and in particular his “crotchets” and prejudices. He was himself, as is now generally recognized, a consummate critic, and withal a most kindly and catholic one. In my first conversation with him he said that he used to think Goethe a good critic. “He always discovered all the good he could in a man.” To his own contemporaries, especially towards Browning, for example, his attitude was very different, as FitzGerald acknowledged, from FitzGerald’s own. I did not like, I remember, to ask him what he thought of Browning, but his son encouraged me to do so. “You ask him,” he said. “He’ll tell you at once.” At last I did so. “A true genius, but wanting in art,” he said. And on another occasion he spoke rather more in detail to the same purpose.
A special friend of both Tennyson and FitzGerald was Thackeray. With him FitzGerald had been intimate even earlier than with Tennyson. They were friends at college, and had gone as young men together to Paris, Thackeray ostensibly to study art. FitzGerald knew Paris of old. His father had a home there when he was a child, and went there for a few months every year for some years.
When he was nearing seventy FitzGerald wrote the following delightful account of some of his recollections to Thackeray’s daughter:
Woodbridge, May 18th, 1875.
Dear Annie Thackeray—I suppose you love Paris as your Father did—as I used to do till it was made so other than it was, in the days of Louis XVIII. when I first lived in it. Then it was all irregular and picturesque; with shops, hotels, cafés, theatres, etc. intermixed all along the Boulevards, all of different sorts and sizes.
[Pg 127]Think of my remembering the then Royal Family going in several carriages to hunt in the Forest of St. Germain’s—Louis XVIII. first, with his Gardes du Corps, in blue and silver: then Monsieur (afterwards Charles X.) with his Guard in green and gold—French horns blowing—“tra, tra, tra” (as Madame de Sévigné says), through the lines of chestnut and limes—in flower. And then Madame (of Angoulême) standing up in her carriage, blear-eyed, dressed in white with her waist at her neck—standing up in the carriage at a corner of the wood to curtsey to the English assembled there—my mother among them. This was in 1817. Now you would have made a delightful description of all this; you will say I have done so, but that is not so. And yet I saw, and see, it all.
Whenever you write again—(I don’t wish you to write now) tell me what you think of Irving and Salvini; of the former of whom I have very different reports, Macready’s Memoirs seem to me very conscientious and rather dull; toujours Megready (as one W. M. T. irreverently called him). He seems to me to have had no humour—which I also observed in his acting. He would have made a better scholar or divine, I think: a very honourable, good man anywhere and anyhow.
With Thackeray himself he always maintained the same cordial relations as he did with Tennyson. But his literary attitude shifted and varied in the same way. Here, again, he preferred the early work which he had seen in process of creation. In later years, when they met him at Woodbridge, he said to “Alfred” and his son, “I hardly dare take down Thackeray’s early books, because they are so great. It’s like waking the Thunder.” He wrote of Thackeray in 1849: “He is just the same. All the world ‘admires Vanity Fair,’ and the author is courted by Dukes and Duchesses and wits of both sexes. I like Pendennis much, and Alfred said he thought it was quite delicious: it seemed to him so mature he said.” But a little later he took alarm at the Dukes and Duchesses, and wrote to Frederick Tennyson: “I am come to London, but I do not go to Operas or Plays, and have scarce time (and[Pg 128] it must be said, scarce inclination) to hunt up many friends—I get shyer and shyer even of those I knew. Thackeray is in such a great world that I am afraid of him; he gets tired of me and we are content to regard each other at a distance. You, Alfred, Spedding, and Allen, are the only men I ever care to see again.... As you know, I admire your poems, the only poems by a living writer I do admire, except Alfred’s.”
He told Hallam Tennyson that he greatly admired the charming scene in “Philip” where the young lady unexpectedly discovered her lover (Philip) on the box of the diligence, and quieted the screaming children inside by saying, “Hush! he’s there.”
In particular, he was very severe on anything he called “cockney,” speaking, that is, the language of the town, not of the country; in other words, dealing with nature and human nature at second-hand. To this his letters again and again return. Of “fine writing,” as he called it, even when it occurred in his own early work, he was unsparingly critical. Thus of Euphranor he wrote to Mrs. Kemble: “The Dialogue is a pretty thing in some respects but disfigured by some confounded smart writing in parts.” He thought this fault in particular, so he says in a letter to Frederick Tennyson, “the loose screw in American literature,” and deplored its presence in Lowell, a writer whom otherwise he liked. “I honestly admire his work in the main,” he says, “and I think he is altogether the best critic we have, something of what Ste. Beuve is in French.” He thought that Tennyson came to suffer from these defects in his later days, and that the artist overpowered the man.
The latest of Tennyson’s poems, of course, he did not live to see. He did not see, for instance, “Crossing the Bar.” What would he have thought of it? Another old friend of Tennyson, also a fastidious critic, the Duke of Argyll, in an unpublished letter of February 1, 1892,[Pg 129] writing of this and of the lines on the “Death of the Duke of Clarence,” says: “Magnificent, is all I can say of your lines in the Nineteenth. The two last things of yours that I have seen, this and the ‘Bar,’ are both perfect in their several ways, and such as no other man could have written. The ‘Bar’ is the type of what I define Poetry to be, great thought in true imagery and unusual expression. All the three are needed for the type thing. Much fine poetry is to me only eloquence, which is quite another thing.” With the last sentence FitzGerald would certainly have agreed, for it is what in other words he was himself constantly saying. But he seemed to require something more than great thoughts and true images and choice diction. Poignant and revealing touches, what he called in Crabbe “shrewd hits”; feeling, as well as, if not more than, thought—this was what he asked for. All Browning’s genius seemed to him emphase, cleverness, curiosity, “cockneyism.”
“The Dramatic Idylls,” he writes to Frederick Tennyson, “seemed to me ‘Ingoldsby.’ It seems to me as if the Beautiful being already appropriated by former men of genius, those who are not inspired, can only try for a Place among them by recourse to the Quaint, Grotesque, and Ugly in all the Arts,—what I call the Gargoyle style.” And again: “I always said he must be a cockney, and now I find he is Camberwell-born—
It once was the Pastoral cockney,
It now is the cockney Profound.”
The establishment of the Browning Society tried him specially. “Imagine a man abetting all this,” he writes. Tennyson had, through life, a high opinion of FitzGerald’s powers of criticism. They had often in their youth discussed the classics of all time and all times together, and also, with the poetic freedom of young men, their seniors, Shelley, and Byron, and[Pg 130] Wordsworth. It was FitzGerald who invented for the last the name by which he went in their circle, of the “Daddy.” They had fought for the ownership of the Wordsworthian line, the “weakest blank verse in the language”:
A Mr. Wilkinson, a clergyman.
It really was FitzGerald’s description, given in conversation, of the gentleman who was going to marry his sister. When he died in 1862 FitzGerald, writing to Tennyson, reminded him of the line.
“This letter,” he writes, “ought to be on a black-edged paper in a black-edged cover: for I have just lost a brother-in-law—one of the best of Men. If you ask, ‘Who?’ I reply, in what you once called the weakest line ever enunciated:
A Mister Wilkinson, a Clergyman.
You can’t remember this: in Old Charlotte Street, ages ago!”
In the valedictory verses Tennyson makes allusion to this critical habit:
And when I fancied that my friend
For this brief idyll would require
A less diffuse and opulent end,
And would defend his judgment well,
If I should deem it over nice,——
He himself was more catholic and generous. It was his generosity as well as their admiration for him which gave him the place he held among his brother poets and especially after he himself had won recognition among the younger men.
His relation to Browning, Patmore, and P. J. Bailey, to Matthew Arnold and Swinburne, to Watson and Kipling as to Dickens, Thackeray, and George Eliot, are well known. There is one writer who ought to be added to the list, who received some of his earliest encouragement from Tennyson—George Meredith. A letter, hitherto unpublished, written in January 1851, may illustrate this.[Pg 131] He had just, in some trepidation, sent Tennyson his first volume of poems, containing the now well-known “Love in the Valley.” As Meredith told me himself, Tennyson replied with an exceedingly kind and “pretty” letter, saying that there was one poem in the book he could have wished he had written, and inviting Meredith to come to see him. The following is Meredith’s answer:
Sir—When I tell you that it would have been my chief ambition in publishing the little volume of poems you have received, to obtain your praise, you may imagine what pride and pleasure your letter gave me; though, indeed, I do not deserve so much as your generous appreciation would bestow, and of this I am very conscious. I had but counted twenty-three years when the book was published, which may account for, and excuse perhaps many of the immaturities. When you say you would like to know me, I can scarcely trust myself to express with how much delight I would wait upon you—a privilege I have long desired. As I suppose the number of poetic visits you receive are fully as troublesome as the books, I will not venture to call on you until you are able to make an appointment. My residence and address is Weybridge, but I shall not return to Town from Southend before Friday week. If in the meantime you will fix any day following that date, I shall gladly avail myself of the honour of your invitation. My address here is care of Mrs. Peacock, Southend, Essex. I have the honour to be, most faithfully yours,
Alfred Tennyson, Esq.
The complement to “Old Fitz” was Carlyle. He was the friend of both FitzGerald and Tennyson. Gruff, grumbling, self-centred, satirical, at times even rude and rough, as he was, both of them seemed to have got not so much on his blind, as on his kind side from the first, and always to have remained there. Carlyle’s descriptions of Tennyson as a young man in the early “forties” and of the pleasure he had in his company are well known. “He seemed to take a fancy to me,” Tennyson said himself one day while we talked about[Pg 132] him at Farringford. They foregathered a good deal at this period, sat and smoked silently, walked and talked together, both by day and night. FitzGerald told Hallam Tennyson, years after, during the visit to Woodbridge, that Carlyle was much concerned at this period about his father’s poverty, and said to him, “Alfred must have a pension.” The story of the way in which he spurred on “Dicky” Milnes to secure the pension is now classical. What his special effect, if he had any, on Tennyson was, it might be difficult to estimate or analyse.
The younger generation to-day does not remember the period of Carlyle’s immense influence. It lasted just into the youth of my contemporaries and myself, or perhaps a little longer, and then began to wane and die away. He certainly was a “radio-active” force in the days and with the men of Tennyson’s youth,—Maurice, and Sterling, and “Dicky” Milnes, as he was a little later with Ruskin and Kingsley. FitzGerald, with his detachment and his fearless sincerity, estimated him as fairly as any one. “Do you see Carlyle’s Latter-Day Pamphlets?” he wrote. “They make the world laugh, and his friends rather sorry for him. But that is because people will still look for practical measures from him. One must be content with him as a great satirist who can make us feel when we are wrong, though he cannot set us right. There is a bottom of truth in Carlyle’s wildest rhapsodies.”
He wrote to Frederick Tennyson in 1850: “When I spoke of the ‘Latter-Day Prophet’ I conclude you have read or heard of Carlyle’s Pamphlets. People are tired of them and of him; he only foams, snaps, and howls and no progress people say. This is about true, and yet there is vital good in all he has written.” Again, in 1854, he says, “Carlyle I did not go to see, for I have really nothing to tell him, and I am[Pg 133] tired of hearing him growl, tho’ I admire him as much as ever.” “I wonder if he ever thinks how much sound and fury he has vented,” he writes on another occasion.
But the posthumous publication of Carlyle’s Letters, as he wrote about a fortnight before his own death, “raised him in FitzGerald’s esteem”; and his last effort was to go to Chelsea to see his statue, and the old house hard by which he had not seen for five-and-twenty years, to find it, alas, “deserted, neglected, and ‘To let!’”
Carlyle was indeed much what “Old Fitz” describes. He was a powerful solvent of his age. He destroyed many shams, “Hebrew rags,” “old clothes,” as he called them. Both by his own example and his fiery energy he inculcated the “Gospel of Work.” He was not a modern realist, but a man who dealt in realities, who perceived that virtue and beauty and faith are as real as vice and ugliness and unfaith, nay, perhaps more real; but that certainly neither are shams, neither God nor the Devil, though of shams, of false gods and false devils, there are many. His appreciation of poetry was, as is well known, but scant and intermittent. He used to banter Tennyson and call him “a Life-Guardsman spoiled by making poetry,” but he became converted even to his poems, though, as he said, this was surprising to himself. He “felt the pulse of a real man’s heart” in the 1842 volumes. “Ulysses” was a special favourite. He quoted again and again the lines:
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles whom we knew.
“These lines do not make me weep,” he said, “but there is in me what would fill whole Lachrymatories as I read.” He, fortunately, also “took a fancy” to Mrs. Tennyson when he met her as a bride at Tent Lodge, Coniston, partly because, in answer to one of his wild grumbles, she said, “That is not sane, Mr. Carlyle.”[Pg 134] An unpublished letter from Carlyle of the date October 1850, describes an admirer of Tennyson’s poems, an ill-starred but brave man, a skilful physician, a friend of Dr. John Carlyle at Leamington, who, after losing the greater part of his face by caries of the bone, had at last been cured, though awfully disfigured. “He fled to Keswick,” writes Carlyle, “and there he now resides, not idle still, nor forsaken of friends, or hope, or domestic joy—a monument of human courtesy, and really a worthy and rather interesting man. Such is your admirer and mine. Heaven be good to him and us.”
FitzGerald, in a letter to Frederick Tennyson, quotes with approval a criticism of Lowell’s that Carlyle “was a poet in all but rhythm”; and it would not be difficult to find “parallel passages” between Tennyson and Carlyle, between Sartor Resartus and “In Memoriam.” The Life of Sterling, too, should be read by any student anxious to “reconstitute the atmosphere” in which that poem grew up, and which, to a certain extent, it still breathes. But “parallel passages” are misleading. Suffice it to say that both went through the storm and stress of a doubting age, both took their stand on the solid rock of God and of real, healthy human nature,—both emerged in the “Eternal Yea.”
Froude, in his history of Carlyle’s Life in London, has a most interesting autobiographic passage about Carlyle’s position and influence in 1843, the time of the publication of Past and Present, which brings this out with special force. He says:
In this condition the best and bravest of my own contemporaries determined to have done with insincerity, to find ground under their feet, to let the uncertain remain uncertain, but to learn how much and what we could honestly regard as true and believe that and live by it. Tennyson became the voice of this feeling in poetry, Carlyle in what was called prose, though prose it was not, but something by itself with a form and melody of its own.
[Pg 135]Tennyson’s Poems, the group of Poems which closed with “In Memoriam,” became to many of us what the “Christian Year” was to orthodox Churchmen. We read them, and they became part of our minds, the expression in exquisite language of the feelings which were working in ourselves. Carlyle stood beside him as a prophet and teacher; and to the young, the generous, to every one who took life seriously, who wished to make an honourable use of it and could not be content with sitting down and making money, his words were like the morning reveille.
Others may come at last to the sad conclusion that nothing can be known about the world, that the external powers, whatever they may be, are indifferent to human action or human welfare. To such an opinion some men, and those not the worst, may be driven after weary observation of life. But the young will never believe it; or if they do they have been young only in name.
If the first paragraphs aptly “place” Tennyson and Carlyle, the last, though not intentionally, exactly suits their friend, the translator of the Rubáiyát. FitzGerald remained, as his friend the Master of Trinity College (W. H. Thompson) said, in “Doubting Castle.” Tennyson was the most hopeful, as well as the most balanced and sane, and therefore the most helpful of the three.
Toward the end of his life, Carlyle, in the Inaugural Address given by him as Rector of Edinburgh University, in which he summed up so many of the convictions of a lifetime, put forward the following description of the completely healthy human spirit. “A man all lucid and in equilibrium. His intellect a clear mirror, geometrically plane, brilliantly sensitive to all objects and impressions made on it, and imaging all things in their correct proportions, not twisted up into convex or concave and distorting everything so that he cannot see the truth of the matter without endless groping and manipulation—healthy, clear and free, and discerning all round about him.” He put this picture before young men as the[Pg 136] ideal to be aimed at by the intellectual student, and in particular by the man of letters. “But,” he said, “we can never never attain that at all.” Perhaps not altogether. Perhaps even he who invented the phrase for the poet’s duty of “holding the mirror up to Nature,” did not wholly attain to it. But, according to his measure, it is no bad description of Alfred Tennyson, with the “universality of his mind,” the simplicity of his good sense, the childlike sincerity of his spirit. This quality it was that both Carlyle and FitzGerald found and liked in him.
It has been said that Tennyson and FitzGerald read the same books. One of the best instances of this is to be found in a long letter of FitzGerald’s about posthumous fame and literary immortality. It was written to Cowell in 1847, and is given by Dr. Aldis Wright in his first collection. After speaking of Homer and the Iliad, FitzGerald writes:
Yet as I often think it is not the poetical imagination, but bare Science that every day more and more unrolls a greater Epic than the Iliad; the history of the world, the great infinitudes of Space and Time! I never take up a book of Geology or Astronomy but this strikes me. And when we think that Man must go on in the same plodding way, one fancies that the Poet of to-day may as well fold his hands, or turn them to dig and delve, considering how soon the march of discovery will distance all his imaginations and dissolve the language in which they are uttered. Martial, as you say, lives now after two thousand years: a space that seems long to us whose lives are so brief; but a moment, the twinkling of an eye, if compared (not to Eternity alone), but to the ages which it is now known the world must have existed, and (unless for some external violence) must continue to exist.
Lyell in his book about America, says that the Falls of Niagara, if (as seems certain) they have worked their way back southwards for seven miles, must have taken over 35,000 years to do so at the rate of something over a foot a year! Sometimes they fall back on a stratum that crumbles away from [Pg 137]behind them more easily: but then again they have to roll over rock that yields to them scarce more perceptibly than the anvil to the serpent. And these very soft strata, which the Cataract now erodes, contain evidences of a race of animals, and of the action of seas washing over them, long before Niagara came to have a distinct current; and the rocks were compounded ages and ages before those strata! So that, as Lyell says, the geologist, looking at Niagara forgets even the roar of its waters in the contemplation of the awful processes of time that it suggests. It is not only that the vision of Time must wither the Poet’s hope of immortality, but it is in itself more wonderful than all the conceptions of Dante and Milton.
This train of thought was evidently often present to FitzGerald’s mind. It oppressed him. It makes itself felt in the Rubáiyát. It was one of the many great ideas he imported into, or educed from, the old Persian Astronomer.
And fear not lest existence closing your
Account, and mine, should know the like no more;
The Eternal Saki from that Bowl has poured
Millions of Bubbles like us and will pour
When you and I behind the Veil are past:
Oh but the long long while the world shall last,
Which of our coming and departure heeds
As the Sev’n Seas should heed a pebble-cast.
It was even more constantly present to the mind of Tennyson. Astronomy and Geology had been among his favourite studies from his early youth, and remained so all his life. When I was walking with him toward the Needles and looking at the magnificent chalk cliff below the downs, and spoke about his felicitous epithet for it—“the milky steep,” he said, “The most wonderful thing about that cliff is to think it was all once alive.” The allusions to it in his poems are innumerable:
There rolls the deep where grew the tree,
O earth, what changes hast thou seen!
There where the long street roars, hath been
The stillness of the central sea.
[Pg 138]He was always “hearing the roll of the ages.” He, too, had read his Lyell, and the contemplation of geological time suggested to him exactly the same reflections which FitzGerald draws out. Indeed, it seems not unlikely that he himself may have imparted them to FitzGerald. For he has embodied just these thoughts in that noble late poem “Parnassus,” with a resemblance which is startling. But while the parallel between “Parnassus” and FitzGerald’s letter is extraordinarily close up to a certain point, the contrast, when it is reached, is even more striking, and is the fundamental contrast between the two men and their creeds:
What be those two shapes high over the sacred fountain,
Taller than all the Muses, and huger than all the mountain?
On those two known peaks they stand, ever spreading and heightening;
Poet, that evergreen laurel is blasted by more than lightning!
Look, in their deep double shadow the crown’d ones all disappearing!
Sing like a bird and be happy, nor hope for a deathless hearing!
Sounding for ever and ever? pass on! the sight confuses—
These are Astronomy and Geology, terrible Muses!
So far Tennyson agrees with Omar:
Ah make the most of what we yet may spend
Before we too into the dust descend;
Dust into dust and under dust to lie,
Sans wine, sans song, sans singer and sans end!
But then comes the divergence, conveyed with the exquisitely sympathetic change of rhythm:
If the lips were touch’d with fire from off a pure Pierian altar,
Tho’ their music here be mortal, need the singer greatly care?
Other songs for other worlds! the fire within him would not falter;
Let the golden Iliad vanish, Homer here is Homer there.