Elizabeth Barrett Browning sends a warm-hearted letter; and Jowett, who enjoyed giving advice, evidently sat him down readily to reply when Mrs. Tennyson asked whether he could suggest any subjects for poetry:
I often fancy that the critical form of modern literature is like the rhetorical one which overlaid ancient literature, and will be regarded as that is, at its true worth in after times. One drop of natural feeling in poetry, or the true statement of a single new fact, is already felt to be of more value than all the critics put together.
Four “Idylls” came out in 1859, to be rapidly and largely taken up by the English public, with many congratulations from personal friends. Thackeray sends, after reading them, a letter full of his characteristic humour and cordiality:
“The landlord”—at Folkestone—“gave two bottles of his claret, and I think I drank the most, and here I have been lying back in the chair and thinking of those delightful ‘Idylls’; my thoughts being turned to you; and what could I do but be grateful to that surprising genius which has made me so happy?”
The Duke of Argyll wrote that Macaulay had been delighted with it, whereupon the Poet responds to his Grace somewhat caustically:
My dear Duke—Doubtless Macaulay’s good opinion is worth having, and I am grateful to you for letting me know it, but this time I intend to be thick-skinned; nay, I scarcely believe that I should ever feel very deeply the pen-punctures of those parasitic animalcules of the press, if they kept themselves to what I write, and did not glance spitefully and personally at myself. I hate spite.
Ruskin, on the other hand, is but half pleased; could not quite make up his mind about that “increased quietness of style”; feels “the art and finish in these[Pg 362] poems a little more than I like”; wishes that the book’s nobleness and tenderness had been independent of a romantic condition of externals; and suggests that “so great power ought not to be spent on visions of things past, but on the living present.”
These latter sentences touch upon, or at least indicate, a line of criticism upon the general conception of the “Idylls,” as seen in their treatment of the Arthurian legend, with which, although it may appear inadequate, some of us are not indisposed to agree. Romanticism has been defined, half seriously, as the art of presenting to a people the literary works which can give the greatest imaginative pleasure in the actual state of their habits and beliefs. The “Idylls” adapted the mythical tales of the Round Table to the very highest standard of æsthetic taste, intellectual refinement, and moral delicacy prevailing in cultivated English society. And by that society they were very cordially appreciated. Undoubtedly the figure of Arthur—representing a stainless mirror of chivalry, a warrior king endowed with the qualities of patriotic self-devotion, clemency, generosity, and noble trustfulness, yet betrayed by his wife and his familiar friend, and dying in a lost fight against treacherous rebels—did present a lofty ideal that might well affect a gravely emotional people. Moreover, the poem is a splendidly illuminated Morality, unfolding scenes and figures that illustrate heroic virtues and human frailties, gallantry, chivalric enterprise, domestic perfidy, chaste virginal loves, and subtle amorous enchantments. It abounds also in descriptive passages which attest the close attention of the Poet’s eye and ear to natural sights and sounds, and his supreme art of fashioning his verse to their colours and echoes. In short, to quote from the biography,
he has made the old legends his own, restored the idealism, and infused into them a spirit of modern thought and of ethical[Pg 363] significance; setting his characters in a rich and varied landscape; as indeed otherwise these archaic stories would not have appealed to the world at large.
This indeed he has done well. And yet it is not possible to put away altogether the modern prejudice against unreality, the sense of having here a vision not merely of things that are past, but of things that could never have been, of a world that is neither ancient nor modern, but a fairy land peopled with knights and dames whose habits and conversation are adjusted to the decorous taste of our nineteenth century. The time has long passed when men could look back on distant ages much as they looked forward to futurity, through a haze of unbounded credulity. Not every one has been able to overcome the effect of incongruity produced by a poem which invests the legendary personages of mediæval romance with morals and manners of a fastidious delicacy, and promotes them to be the embodiment of our own ethical ideals. If, indeed, we regard the “Idylls” as beautiful allegories, we may be content, as their author was, with the suggestion that King Arthur represents Conscience, and that the poem is “a picture of the different ways in which men looked on conscience, some reverencing it as a heaven-born king, others ascribing to it an earthly origin.” We may then be satisfied with learning, from the Poet himself, that “Camelot, for instance, a city of shadowy palaces, is everywhere symbolic of the gradual growth of human beliefs and institutions, and of the spiritual development of man.” In the light of these interpretations the poem is a beautifully woven tissue of poetic mysticism, clothing the old legend of chivalry with esoteric meaning. We can accept and admire it freely, remarking only that the deeper thoughts of the present generation do not run in an allegorical vein, and that such a vesture, though of the finest texture and embroidery, waxes old speedily.[Pg 364] “The ‘Holy Grail,’” said Tennyson, “is one of the most imaginative of my poems. I have expressed there my strong feeling as to the reality of the Unseen”; and truly it is a marvellous excursion into the field of mystical romance. But Tennyson also said that “there is no single fact or incident in the ‘Idylls,’ however seemingly mystical, which cannot be explained as without any mystery or allegory whatever”; and herein lies our difficulty. For, unless they can be read as wholly allegorical, there is an air of unreality about those enchanting pictures, as of scenes and persons that could never have existed anywhere. That Tennyson is a master of the art of veiling the lessons of real life under a fairy story, we know from the subtle symbolism with which he tells, in the “Lady of Shalott,” the tale of sudden absorbing love, hopeless and unregarded, sinking into despair—a true parable, understood of all men and women in all times. But those who have no great skill at deciphering the Hyponoia, the underlying significance, of the “Idylls” may be pardoned for confessing to an occasional feeling of something abstract, shadowy, and spectacular in the company of these knights and dames.
FitzGerald, after reading the “Holy Grail,” writes (1870) to Tennyson:
The whole myth of Arthur’s Round Table Dynasty in Britain presents itself before me with a sort of cloudy Stonehenge grandeur. I am not sure if the old knights’ adventures do not tell upon me better touched in some lyrical way (like your “Lady of Shalott”) than when elaborated into epic form. I never could care for Spenser, Tasso, or even Ariosto, whose epic has a ballad ring about it.... Anyhow, Alfred, while I feel how pure, noble, and holy your work is—and whole phrases, lines, and sentences of it will abide with me, and, I am sure, with men after me—I read on till the “Lincolnshire Farmer” drew tears from my eyes. I was got back to the substantial rough-spun Nature I knew; and the old[Pg 365] brute, invested by you with the solemn humour of Humanity, like Shakespeare’s Shallow, became a more pathetic phenomenon than the knights who revisit the world in your other verse. There! I cannot help it, and have made a clean breast.
If the extreme realism of some modern writers has been rightly condemned as truth divorced from beauty, we may say that it has been by his skill in maintaining their indissoluble union that Tennyson’s best work shows its peculiar strength and has earned its enduring vitality. He excels in the verisimilitude of his portraiture, in the authentic delineation of character, preserving the type and developing the main lines of thought and action by imaginative insight, with high artistic fidelity in details. I venture to anticipate that his short monodramatic pieces in blank verse—his studies from the antique, like “Ulysses” and “Tithonus,” and his poems of English life, breathing the true idyllic spirit, like the “Gardener’s Daughter” and “Aylmer’s Field”—will sustain their popularity longer than the Arthurian Idylls. Nor can some of us honestly agree with the unqualified praise bestowed by high authority (as the Memoir testifies) on “Guinevere,” where the scene between the king and the queen at Almesbury, with all its elevation of tone and purity of sentiment, is not very far from a splendid anachronism. But the epilogue “To the Queen,” which closes the Arthurian epic, brings us back to modern thought and circumstance by its ringing protest against faint-heartedness in English politics.
The “Northern Farmer,” written in 1861, was at that time a novelty in form and subject. It gave a strong lead, at any rate, to that school of rough humorous versification, largely relying on quaint turns of ideas and phrases, on racy provincial dialect and local colouring generally, which has since had an immense success in the hands of minor artists. We may take it to have begun, for the last century, with the Biglow Papers.[Pg 366] This form of metrical composition has latterly spread, as a species of modern ballad, to the Indian frontier and the Australian bush, but has little or no place in any language except the English. Such character sketches, taken direct from studies of rude life, have been always common in popular comic song, yet I believe that no first-class poet, after Burns and before Tennyson, had turned his hand to this kind of work; nor has anything been since produced upon the artistic level of the first “Northern Farmer.” “Roden Noel,” writes Tennyson, “calls the two ‘Northern Farmers’ photographs; but I call them imaginative”—as of course they are, being far above mere exact copies of some individual person.
There are some very readable impressions de voyage gathered out of journals of tours made about this time (1860) in France and England, and the letters maintain their high level of interest. Upon the death of Macaulay, Tennyson writes to the Duke of Argyll:
I hardly knew him: met him once, I remember, when Hallam and Guizot were in his company. Hallam was showing Guizot the Houses of Parliament, then building, and Macaulay went on like a cataract for an hour or so to those two great men, and, when they had gone, turned to me and said, “Good morning; I am happy to have had the pleasure of making your acquaintance,” and strode away. Had I been a piquable man I should have been piqued: but I don’t think I was, for the movement after all was amicable.
Then follows an account, by Mrs. Bradley, of a visit to Farringford, with “its careless ordered garden close to the ridge of a noble down”; and at the end of the Memoir is an appendix containing, among other things, Arthur Hallam’s striking critical appreciation of “Mariana in the South,” a poem which must be ranked as a masterpiece by all exiled Englishmen who have dreamt of their native breezes and verdure, under the blinding glare and intolerable heat of a tropical summer. Mr. Aubrey de[Pg 367] Vere has contributed a reminiscence describing the effect produced upon himself and others by the poems of 1832-45, with a dissertation upon their style and philosophic significance. And in this manner the course and circumstances of the Poet’s life are set out, with much taste and regard for proportionate value of the materials for those singularly untroubled years through which he rose steadily from straitened means in youth to comparative affluence in middle age, and from distinction among a group of choice spirits to enduring fame as the greatest of poets born in the nineteenth century.
When, in 1864, Tennyson returned with “Enoch Arden” to the romance of real life among his own people, the poem was heartily welcomed, and sixty thousand copies were speedily sold. Spedding declared it to be the finest story he had ever heard, and added (in our opinion quite rightly) that it was “more especially adapted for Alfred than for any other poet.” Yet the plot, so to speak, of this pathetic narrative is as ancient as the Odyssey, for it rests upon a situation that must have been common in all times of long and distant voyaging, when men disappeared across the seas, were not heard of for years, and their wives were counted as widows. A well-known sailor’s ditty tells in rude popular rhymes the same story of the wandering mariner’s return home, to find himself forsaken and forgotten; and it frequently occurs in the folklore of the crusades. The first title in the proof-sheets of the “Enoch Arden” volume was “Idylls of the Hearth,” and here, says his biographer,
he writes with as intimate a knowledge, but with greater power (than in 1842), on subjects from English life, the sailor, the farmer, the parson, the city lawyer, the squire, the country maiden, and the old woman who dreams of her past life in a restful old age.
No great poet, in fact, has travelled for his subjects so[Pg 368] little beyond his native land; and so his best descriptive work shows the painter’s eye on the object, with the impressions drawn fresh and at first hand from Nature, as in the poetry of primitive bards who saw things for themselves. His letters and notes teem with observations of wild flowers and wild creatures, of wide prospects over sea and land; and even when he followed Enoch Arden into the world that was to himself untravelled, he could surprise those who knew it by his rendering of tropical scenery.
A very good account, by the late Mr. Locker-Lampson, of his tour through France and Switzerland with Tennyson in 1869, has preserved for us the flavour of his table and travelling talk upon literature, and occasionally upon religious problems. Into the philosophical or metaphysical abyss he did not let down his plummet very far; he recognized the limits of human knowledge, and for the dim regions beyond he accepted Faith as his guide and comforter. In regard to the poets—“As a boy,” he said, “I was a great admirer of Byron, so much so that I got a surfeit of him, and now I cannot read him as I should like to do.” Probably this habit of premature and excessive indulgence in Byron has blunted many an eager admirer’s appetite, and has had something to do with the prevailing distaste for him, wherein we think that he has fallen into unmerited neglect. Of Shelley Tennyson said that there was “a great wind of words in a good deal of him, but that as a writer of blank verse he was perhaps the most skilful of the moderns. Nobody admires Shelley more than I once did, and I still admire him.” For Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” he had a profound admiration; yet even in that poem he thought “the old poet had shown a want of literary instinct,” and he touched upon some defects of composition; but he ended by saying emphatically that Wordsworth’s very[Pg 369] best is the best in its way that has been sent out by moderns. He told an anecdote of Samuel Rogers. “One day we were walking arm and arm, and I spoke of what is called Immortality, and remarked how few writers could be sure of it. Upon this Rogers squeezed my arm and said, ‘I am sure of it.’”
His wife’s journal of this time is full of interest, recording various sayings and doings, conversations, correspondence, anecdotes, and glimpses of notable visits and visitors, Tourguéneff, Longfellow, Jenny Lind, Huxley, and Gladstone, to the last of whom Tennyson read aloud his “Holy Grail.” At the house of G. H. Lewes he read “Guinevere,” “which made George Eliot weep.” The diary is a faithful and valuable memorial of English country life at its best in the middle of the last century. Living quietly with his family, he was in constant intercourse with the most distinguished men of his day, and was himself honoured of them all.
In 1873 Tennyson had declined, for himself, Mr. Gladstone’s offer of a baronetcy. In 1874 this offer was repeated by Mr. Disraeli, who does not seem to have known that it had been once before made, in a high-flying sententious letter, evidently attuned to the deeper harmonies of the mysterious relation between genius and government.
A government should recognize intellect. It elevates and sustains the spirit. It elevates and sustains the spirit of a nation. But it is an office not easy to fulfil, for if it falls into favouritism and the patronage of mediocrity, instead of raising the national sentiment, it might degrade and debase it. Her Majesty, by the advice of her Ministers, has testified in the Arctic expedition, and will in other forms, her sympathy with science. But it is desirable that the claims of high letters should be equally acknowledged. That is not so easy a matter, because it is in the nature of things that the test of merit cannot be so precise in literature as in science. Nevertheless, etc. etc.
[Pg 370]The honour, even thus offered, was again respectfully declined, with a suggestion that it might be renewed for his son after his own death; but this was pronounced impracticable.
The Metaphysical Society was founded by Tennyson and two others in 1869, and a list of the members is given in the Memoir, which touches on the style and topics of the debates, and on the umbrage taken by agnostic friends at the profound deference shown by Tennyson to Cardinal Manning. A letter from Dr. James Martineau describes the Poet’s general attitude toward the Society’s discussions; he sent his poem on the “Higher Pantheism” to be read at the first meeting; and he was “usually a silent listener, interposing some short question or pregnant hint.” The letter discourses, in expansive and perhaps faintly nebulous language, upon the influence of his poetry on the religious tendencies of the day.
That in a certain sense our great Laureate’s poetry has nevertheless had a dissolving influence upon the over-definite dogmatic creeds within hearing, or upon the modes of religious thought amid which it was born, can hardly be doubted. In laying bare, as it does, the history of his own spirit, its conflicts and aspirations, its alternate eclipse of doubt and glow of faith, it has reported more than a personal experience; he has told the story of an age which he has thus brought into Self-knowledge.... Among thousands of readers previously irresponsive to anything Divine he has created, or immeasurably intensified, the susceptibility of religious reverence.
After taking into due account the circumstances in which Dr. Martineau’s letter was written, to many readers this high-flying panegyric will seem to have in some degree overshot its mark.
It has been my duty, in reviewing this Memoir, to pass under some kind of critical survey the more important writings of Lord Tennyson, in particular[Pg 371] relation to the narrative of his life, and to the formation of his views and opinions. I am, however, placed in some embarrassment by the fact that this work is for the most part done already in the volumes themselves. They contain ample quotations from letters and articles by very eminent hands, written with all the vigour of immediate impressions when the poems first appeared. And some of the reminiscences that have since been contributed to the biography by personal friends deal so thoroughly with its literary side as to fall little short of elaborate essays; so that on the whole not much is left to be said by the retrospective reviewer. We are met with this difficulty in taking up the chapters on the Historical Plays, which set before us, with an analysis of the plays by the biographer himself, a catena of judgments upon them, unanimously favourable, by the highest authorities. Robert Browning writes with generous enthusiasm of “Queen Mary.” Froude, the most dramatic of historians, expresses unbounded admiration: “You have reclaimed one more section of English history from the wilderness, and given it a form in which it will be fixed for ever. No one since Shakespeare has done that.” Gladstone, Mr. Aubrey de Vere, Longfellow, G. H. Lewes and his wife, the statesmen, the poets, and the men of letters, each from his own standpoint attests the merits of one or another play, in letters of indisputable strength and sincerity. Nor can it be doubted that these pieces contain splendid passages, and fine engravings, so to speak, of historical personages, with a noble appreciation of the spacious Elizabethan period, and of the earlier romantic episodes. The dramatic art provides such a powerful instrument for striking deep into the national mind, and success in this form of high poetic execution is so lasting—while it is so rare—that almost every great English poet has written plays. On the other hand, few of them have[Pg 372] ventured, like Tennyson, to face the capricious ordeal of the public theatre, where the vox populi is at least so far divine that it pronounces absolutely and often incomprehensibly.
“For Tennyson to begin publishing plays after he was sixty-five years of age was thought to be a hazardous experiment”; though I may remark that he started with the advantage of a first-class poetic reputation, which stimulated public curiosity. But he knew well the immense influence, for good or for ill, that the stage can bring to bear on the people; and for the stage all his plays were directly intended, not for literature, in the expectation that the necessary technical adaptations might be supplied by the actors or the professional playwright. Their historical truth, their vigorous conceptions of motive and circumstance, and their poetic force received ample acknowledgment. W. G. Ward, who was “grotesquely truthful,” though ultramontane, broke out into unqualified praise after listening to the reading of “Becket.” On the stage, where first impressions are all-important, the pieces had their share of success. Browning writes of the “tumult of acclaim” which greeted the appearance of “Queen Mary”; and of “Becket” Irving has told us that “it is one of the three most successful plays produced by him at the Lyceum.”
It is a question, often debated, whether in these latter days the theatre can be made a vehicle for the artistic representation of history. Literature, a jealous rival of all her sister arts, has so vastly extended her dominion over the people, she speaks so directly to the mind, without need of plastic or vocal interpretation, she is so independent of accessories and intermediaries, that her competitive influence weighs down all other departments of imaginative and pictorial idealization, religious or romantic. Against this stream of tendency even[Pg 373] Tennyson’s genius could hardly make sufficient headway to conquer for his plays a lasting hold upon English audiences; and moreover his primal vigour had been spent upon other victories. Yet to have held the stage at all, for a brief space, is to have done more than has been achieved by any other poet of this (last) century. In 1880 his drama, “The Cup,” was produced with signal success at the Lyceum; and Tennyson summed up his theatrical experience by observing that “the success of a piece does not depend on its literary merit or even on its stage effect, but on its hitting somehow,” wherein Miss Ellen Terry agreed with him.
The annals of his daily life, throughout all this later part of it, consist of extracts from letters, journals, and memorials of intercourse, which abound with appropriate, amusing, and valuable matter, connected by the biographer’s personal recollections. We have thus a many-coloured mosaic, in which many figures and characters are reproduced by a kind of literary tessellation; while, as to the Poet himself, his habits, wise or whimsical, his thoughts from year to year on the subjects of the day, his manner of working, are all preserved. The correspondence of his friends maintains its high level of quality. Mr. W. H. Lecky gives us, in one of the best among all the reminiscences, a fine sample of his own faculty for delineation of character, bringing out the Poet’s simplicity of soul, his love of seclusion, the scope of his religious meditations, the keen sensibility (acquired by long culture) of his rhythmic ear, and also his susceptibility to the hum and pricking of critics.
Many persons spoke of your father as too much occupied with his poetry. It did, no doubt, fill a very large place in his thoughts, and it is also true that he was accustomed to express his opinions about it with a curiously childlike simplicity and frankness. But at bottom his nature seemed to be singularly modest. No poet ever corrected so many lines in deference to[Pg 374] adverse criticism. His sensitiveness seemed to me curiously out of harmony with his large powerful frame, with his manly dark colouring, with his great massive hands and strong square-tipped fingers.
His son records how in lonely walks together Tennyson would chant a poem that he was composing, would search for strange birds or flowers, and would himself take flight on discovering that he was being stalked by a tourist. Among the letters is one from Victor Hugo, in the grand cosmopolitan style, beginning “Mon Éminent et Cher Confrère,” professing love for all mankind and admiration for noble verse everywhere; another from Cardinal Newman, smooth and adroit; there is also a note by Dr. Dabbs of his colloquy with Tennyson, showing how he began with the somewhat musty question about the incompatibility of Science with Religion, and found the Poet, as we infer, tolerably dexterous with the foils. Renan called, and put the essence of his philosophy into one phrase, “La vérité est une nuance”; there are jottings of talks with Carlyle, and a long extract from the journal of a yachting voyage with Mr. Gladstone, who said, “No man since Aeschylus could have written the Bride of Lammermoor.” It would be doing less than justice to the biography if I did not choose a few samples from an ample storehouse, and it would be unfair to make too many quotations, even from a book which surpasses all recent memoirs as a repertory of characteristic observations and short views of life and literature, interchanged by speech or writing, with many notable friends and visitors.
In 1883 the Queen, on the recommendation of Mr. Gladstone, offered Tennyson a peerage, which, after some rumination, he accepted, saying, “By Gladstone’s advice I have consented, but for my own part I shall regret my own simple name all my life.” We are to suppose that the Prime Minister’s only misgiving “lest[Pg 375] my father might insist on wearing his wideawake in the House of Lords” had been duly overcome; and so next year the Poet, having taken his seat, voted, not without some questioning and doubts of the time’s ripeness, for extension of franchise. No more worthy representative of literature has ever added lustre to that august assembly than he who now took his seat on the cross benches, holding no form of party creed, but contemplating all. From a man of his traditions and tastes, his dislike of extravagance, his feeling for the stateliness of well-ordered movement, at his age, moderation in politics was to be expected; and indeed we observe that he commended to his friends Maine’s work on Popular Government, which carries political caution to the verge of timidity. But Tennyson, like Burke, had great confidence in the common sense and inbred good nature of the English people. “Stagnation,” he once said, “is more dangerous than revolution.” As he was throughout consistently the poet of the via media in politics, the dignified constitutional Laureate, so he was spared the changes that passed over the opinions of Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge, who were Radicals in youth, and declined into elderly Tories. Undoubtedly the temper of his time affected his politics as well as his poetry, for his manhood began in the calm period which followed the long stormy years when all Europe was one great war-field, and when the ardent spirits of Byron and Shelley had been fired by the fierce uprising of the nations.
In 1885, being then in his seventy-sixth year, Lord Tennyson published “Tiresias,” preluding with the verses to E. FitzGerald, so vigorous in tone and so finely wrought, with their rhymes ringing true to the expectant ear like the chime of a clear bell. Some years before, he had paid a passing visit at Woodbridge to “the lonely philosopher, a man of humorous[Pg 376] melancholy mark, with his gray floating locks, sitting among his doves.... We fell at once into the old humour, as if we had been parted twenty days instead of so many years.” It is a rarity in modern life that two such men as Tennyson and FitzGerald, whose mutual friendship was never shaken, should have met but once in some twenty-five years, although divided by no more space than could be traversed by a three hours’ railway journey. “Tiresias” was soon followed by “Locksley Hall: Sixty Years After”; then, in 1889, came “Demeter” and other poems; until, in 1892, the volume containing the “Death of Œnone” and “Akbar’s Dream” closed the long series of poems which had held two generations under their charm. One line in the second “Locksley Hall” its author held to be the best of the kind he had ever written:
Universal ocean softly washing all her warless isles;
though in my poor judgment the harmony seems marred by the frequent sibilants, which vex all English composers; and the suggestion that the sea would become stormless when the land should be at peace may be thought overbold.
It was but seasonable that his later poetry should have been tinged with autumnal colouring. The philosophic bent of his mind had necessarily grown with increasing years; its range had been widened by constant assimilation with the scientific ideas of the day, with social and political changes; but as far horizons breed sadness and wistful uncertainty, so his later verse leans more toward the moral lessons of experience, toward[Pg 377] reflective and retrospective views of life and character. In poetry, as in prose, the sequel to a fine original piece has very rarely, if ever, been successful; though the second part, when it follows the first after a long interval, often exhibits the special value that comes from alteration of style and the natural changes of mood. Tennyson himself thought that “the two ‘Locksley Halls’ were likely to be in the future two of the most historically interesting of his poems, as descriptive of the tone of the age at two distant periods of his life.” In my opinion, the interest is less historical than biographical, in the sense that the second poem takes its deeper shade from the darkening that seems to have overspread his later meditations. For the interval of sixty years had, in fact, brought increased activity and enterprising eagerness to the English people; and the gray thoughts of the sequel, the heavier feeling of errors and perils encompassing the onward path toward the remote ideal, are the Poet’s own. He employed them, it is true, for the dramatic presentation of old age, and disclaimed any identity with the imaginary personage.
However this may be, the poems that appeared toward the close of his long literary career show a change of manner. We miss, to some degree, the delicate handling, the self-restraint, the serene air of his best compositions; there is a certain gloominess of atmosphere, breaking out occasionally into vehement expression, in the rolling dithyrambic stanzas of “Vastness,” “The Dawn,” or “The Dreamer.” In the “Death of Œnone,” the beautiful antique nymph of Tennyson’s youth, deserted and passionately lamenting on many-fountained Ida, has become soured and vindictive. She is now a jealous wife, to whose feet[Pg 378] Paris, dying from the poisoned arrow, crawls “lame, crooked, reeling,” to be spurned as an adulterer, who may “go back to his adulteress and die.” Here the Poet abandons the style and feeling of Hellenic tradition; the echo of the old-world story has died away; it is rather the voice of some tragedy queen posing as the injured wife of modern society; and one remembers that the Homeric adulteress, Helen of Troy, went back to live happily and respected with her husband in Sparta. It was not to be expected that Tennyson’s later inspirations should reach the supreme level of the poems which he wrote in his prime, or that there should be no ebb from the high-water mark that he touched, in my opinion, fifty years earlier in 1842. Yet hardly any poet has so long retained consummate mastery of his instrument, or has published so little that might have been omitted with advantage or without detriment to his permanent reputation. And it will never be forgotten that he wrote “Crossing the Bar” in his eighty-first year.
It is clear from the Memoir, at any rate, that the burden of nigh fourscore years weakened none of his interest in literature and art, in political and philosophical speculation, or diminished his resources of humorous observation and anecdote. Among many recollections he told of Hallam (the historian) saying to him, “I have lived to read Carlyle’s French Revolution, but I cannot get on, the style is so abominable;” and of Carlyle groaning about Hallam’s Constitutional History: “Eh, it’s a miserable skeleton of a book”—bringing out into short and sharp contrast two opposite schools, the picturesque and the precise, of history-writing.[Pg 379] Robert Browning’s death in December 1889 distressed him greatly; it was, moreover, a forewarning to the elder of two brothers, if not equals, in renown. In 1890 Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was Tennyson’s junior by only twenty-three days, wrote to him:
I am proud of my birth-year, and humbled when I think of who were and who are my coevals. Darwin, the destroyer and creator; Lord Houghton, the pleasant and kind-hearted lover of men of letters; Gladstone, whom I leave it to you to characterise, but whose vast range of intellectual powers few will question; Mendelssohn, whose music still rings in our ears; and the Laureate, whose “jewels five words long”—many of them a good deal longer—sparkle in our memories.
He wrote kindly to William Watson and Rudyard Kipling, whose patriotic verse pleased him; and twelve months later Watson paid a grateful tribute to his memory in one of the best among many threnodies. He spoke of Carlyle’s having come to smoke a pipe with him one evening in London, “when the talk turned upon the immortality of the soul, upon which Carlyle said, ‘Eh, old Jewish rags, you must clear your mind of all that. Why should we expect a hereafter?’” and likened man’s sojourn on earth to a traveller’s rest at an inn, whereupon Tennyson turned the simile against him. His son describes how the old man’s “dignity and repose of manner, his low musical voice, and the power of his magnetic eye kept the attention riveted.” In August 1892 Lord Selborne and the Master of Balliol visited him; but
... he did not feel strong enough for religious discussions with Jowett, and begged Jowett not to consult with him or argue with him, as was his wont, on points of philosophy and religious doubt. The Master answered him with a remarkable utterance: “Your poetry has an element of philosophy more to be considered than any regular philosophy in England”;