Tennyson the Dreamer
by William A. Quayle
My earliest recollections of Alfred Tennyson are associated with the
old Harper's volume, green-bound, large-paged, and frontispieced with
two pictures of the poet—one of them, a face bearded, thoughtful, with
eyes seeming not to see the near, but the remote; a head well-poised
and noble, with hair tangled as if matted by the wind; the face, as I a
lad thought, of a dreamer and a poet; and my first impressions, I
think, were right, since the years are confirmatory of this first
conviction. The second portrait pictured the poet wrapped in his
cloak, standing, lost in thought, alone upon a cliff, gazing solitary
at the sea, and listening. If I do not mistake, these pictures caught
the poet's spirit in so far as pictures can portray spirit. Tennyson
was always alone beside a sea, looking, listening, dreaming; and as
dreamer this article purposes portraying him.
Tennyson was, his life through, a recluse. He dwelt apart. He was as
one who stands afar oft and listens to the shock of battle, hears the
echo of cannon's roar, and so conceives a remote picture of the tragedy
of onset. English poetry began with Chaucer, outrider to a king,
associate with State affairs, participant in those turbulencies
recorded in Froissart's voluble "Chronicles." He was a courtier. Camp
and king's antechamber and embassage and battle made the arsis and
thesis of his poetry, and his poems are a picture of Edward III's age,
accurate as if a king's pageant passing flung shadow in a stream along
whose bank it marched. Spenser was a recluse, looking on the world's
movement as an Oriental woman watches the street from her latticed
window. Shakespeare was bon vivant, a player, therefore a brief
chronicler of that time and of all times. He floated in people as
birds in air. Dramatists have need to study men and women as a
sculptor does anatomy. Seclusions are not the qualifications for
dramatic art. Dryden was court follower and sycophant and a literary
debauchee. Milton was publicist. Burns, loving and longing for courts
and society, was enforced in his seclusion, and therefore angry at it.
Wordsworth dwelt apart from men, as one who lives far from a public
thoroughfare, where neither the dust nor bustle of travel can touch his
bower of quiet; in its quality of isolation, Grasmere was an island in
remote seas. Keats was a lad, dreaming in some dim Greek temple,
listening to a fountain's plash at midnight which never whitened into
Nor does there seem to be reasonable room for doubt that poetry, aside
from the drama, gains by seclusion and solitude. Much of Bayard
Taylor's verse has a delicious flavor of poetry. He could write
dreamily, as witness "The Metempsychosis of the Pine" and "Hylas," or
he brings us into an Arab's tent as fellow-guest with him; but he
belonged too much to the world. Traveler, newspaper correspondent,
translator, ambassador, he was all these, and his varied exploits and
attrition of the crowded world hindered the cadences of his poetry.
William Cullen Bryant lost as poet by being journalist, his vocation
drying up the fountains of his poetry. America's representative poet,
James Russell Lowell, was editor, essayist, diplomat, poet,—in every
department distinguished. His essay on Dante ranks him among the great
expositors of that melancholy Florentine. Yet who of us has not wished
he might have consecrated himself to poetry as priest to the altar? We
gained in the publicist and essayist, but lost from the poet. And our
ultimate loss out-topped our gain; for essayists and ambassadors are
more numerous than poets. Had Lowell been a man of one service, and
that service poetry, what might he not have left us as a poet's
bequest? Would he had lived in some forest primeval, from whose
shadows mountains climbed to meet the dawns, and streams stood in
silver pools or broke into laughter on the stones, and where winds
among the pines were constant ministrants of melody! Solitudes
minister to poets. You can hear a fountain best at midnight, because
then quiet rules.
Tennyson was a solitary. Hallam Tennyson's biography of the laureate
resents the opinion that his father was unsocial, but really leaves the
commonly-received opinion unrefuted. Tennyson's reticence and love of
contemplation and aloneness amounted to a passion. He was not a man of
the people. He fled from tourists as if they brought a plague with
them. He did nothing but dream. You might as easily catch the
whip-poor-will, whose habitation changes at an approaching step, as
Tennyson. His was not in the widest sense a companionable nature. He
cared to be alone and to be let dream, and resented intrusion and a
disturbance of his solitude. Some have dreamless sleep, like the
princess in "The Sleeping Beauty;" others sleep to dream, and to wake
them by a hand's touch or a voice, however loved, would be to break the
sweet continuity of their dreams. Seeing Tennyson was as he was, his
solitude helped him. I think moonlight was wine to his spirit, and the
dim voices of rolling breakers heard afar woke his passion and his
"Break, break, break,
On thy cold, gray stones, O sea!"
was what his spirit needed as qualification to
"Utter the thoughts that arise in me."
A dramatist needs the touching of living hands and sound of living
human voices, the uproar of the human sea; for is he not poet of street
and court and market-place and holiday? But there is a poetry which
needs these accessories as little as a lover needs a throng to keep him
company. Tennyson's poetry was such. We are not to conceive him as
Lord Tennyson and inhabitant of the House of Lords. He did not belong
there save as a recognition of splendid ability. If we are to get a
clew to his genius, he must always be conceived as a recluse, who truly
heard the world's words, but at a dim remove. There is remoteness in
his poetry. The long ago was the day whose sunlight flooded his path.
The illustrious Greek era and the Mediaeval Age were fields where his
hosts mustered for battle. Consider how little of Tennyson's noblest
poetry belongs to his own era. "The May Queen;" "Locksley Hall," and
its complement, "Sixty Years After;" "In a Hospital Ward;" "The
Grandmother;" his patriotic effusions; "Maud;" and "In Memoriam," sum
up the modern contributions; nor is all of this impregnated with a
genuinely modern spirit. "Enoch Arden" might have belonged to a
lustrum of centuries ago, and "The May Queen" to remote decades. He
writes in the nineteenth century, rarely of it, though, as is
inevitable, he colors his thoughts of long-ago yesterdays with the
colors of to-day. He is not strictly a contemporaneous poet. "Dora,"
"The Gardener's Daughter," and others of the sort, have no time
ear-marks. "The Princess" discusses a living problem, but from the
artistic background of a knightly era. "Locksley Hall," earlier and
later, "Maud" and "In Memoriam" are about the only genuinely
contemporaneous poems. My suggestion is, Tennyson hugs the shadows of
yesterdays; nor need we go far to find the philosophy of this seizure
of the past. Romance gathers in twilights. It is hard to persuade
ourselves that those heroisms which make souls mighty as the gods,
belong to here and now. Imagination fixes this golden age in what
Tennyson would call "the underworld" of time. Greek mythology was the
essential poetry of nature, and mediaevalism the essential poetry of
manhood. Nothing, as appears to me, was more accurate and in keeping
with Tennysonian genius than this choosing Greek antiquity and
mediaevalism as the theater for his poetry; for he was the chief
romance poet since Edmund Spenser. Spenser and Tennyson are the poets
laureate of chivalry. What Spenser did in his age, that Tennyson did
in his. So recall the chronological location of Tennyson's poetry.
"Tithonus," "Oenone," "Ulysses," "Tiresias," "Amphion," "The
Hesperides," "The Merman," "Demeter and Persephone." Do we not seem
rather reading titles from some classic poet than from a poet of the
The historical trilogy belongs to the mediaeval centuries; "Harold," "à
Becket," and "Queen Mary" are of yesterday. Tennyson reached backward,
as a child reaches over toward its mother. "Boadicea" belongs to a
still earlier age of English history; and certainly "The Idyls of the
King" "Sir Galahad," "St. Simeon Stylites," "St. Agnes," "The Mystic,"
"Merlin and the Gleam," belong to the romantic, half-hidden era of
history and of thought. "Sir John Oldcastle" and "Columbus" belong to
the visible historic era, while in his wonderful "Rizpah" the poet has
knit the present to dim centuries of the remotest past; and the tragic
"Lucretius" takes us once more into the classic period. To the purely
romantic belong "Recollections of the Arabian Nights," "The
Lotos-Eaters," "The Talking Oak," "A Dream of Fair Women," and
"Godiva." Now subtract these poems and their kin from the bulk of
Tennyson's poetry, and the remainder will appear comparatively small.
Certainly we may affirm with safety that Tennyson was poet of the past.
You can get the poetry of the Alhambra only by moonlight; and to a mind
so wholly poetic as Tennyson's it seemed possible to get the poetry of
conduct only by seeing it in the moonlight of departed years. To-day
is matter-of-fact in dress and design; mediaevalism was fanciful,
picturesque, romantic. Chivalry was the poetry of the Christ in
civilization; and the knight warring to recover the tomb of God was the
poem among soldiers, and in entire consonance with his nature,
Tennyson's poetic genius flits back into the poetic days, as I have
seen birds flit back into a forest. In Tennyson's poetry two things
are clear. They are mediaeval in location; they are modern in temper.
Their geography is yesterday, their spirit is to-day; and so we have
the questions and thoughts of our era as themes for Tennyson's voice
and lute. His treatment is ancient: his theme is recent. He has given
diagnosis and alleviation of present sickness, but hides face and voice
behind morion and shield.
Tennyson celebrates the return to nature. This return "The Poet's
"The rain had fallen, the Poet arose;
He passed by the town and out of the street;
A light wind blew from the gates of the sun,
And waves of shadow went over the wheat,
And he sat him down in a lonely place,
And chanted a melody loud and sweet,
That made the wild-swan pause in her cloud,
And the lark drop down at his feet.
The swallow stopt as he hunted the bee,
The snake slipt under a spray;
The wild hawk stood with the down on his beak,
And stared, with his foot on the prey;
And the nightingale thought, 'I have sung many songs,
But never a one so gay;
For he sings of what the world will be
When the years have died away.'"
Away from palaces to solitude; out of cities to hedgerows and the woods
and wild-flowers,—there is the secret of perennial poetry. And
Tennyson is the climax of this dissent from Pope and Dryden as
elaborated in Goldsmith, Cowper, Burns, Thomson, and Wordsworth. The
best of this wine was reserved for the last of the feast; for Tennyson
appears to me the greatest of the nature poets. And this return to
nature, as the phrase goes, means taking this earth as a whole, which
we are to do more and still more. Thomson's poetry was not pastoral
poetry at its best; seeing inanimate nature is not in itself sufficient
theme for poetry, lacking passion, depth, power. Sunrise, and flowing
stream, and tossing seas are valuable as associates of the soul and
helping it to self-understanding. Tennyson took both men and nature
into his interpretation of nature. His voice it is, saying,
"O would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me!"
The sea helps the soul's lack by supplying words and music. Tennyson
never was at his best in a National Ode, unless one speaks from the
elocutionary standpoint, because such tasks lack the poetical essential
of spontaneity, and because, too, the themes seem to carry him outside
of his nature-mood. Art in our century has gone out of doors. Scenery
has never had lovers as now; and participative in this mood is
Tennyson. He lives under the sky. He loved to be alone; and nature is
loneliness as well as loveliness. Nor is his love of nature a passing
passion, but is passionate, intense, endearing. He never outgrew it.
"Balin and Balan" is as beautiful with nature-similes as were "Enid"
and "Oenone." In Tennyson we have the odors of the country and the sea
and the dewy night. He is laureate of the stars. Nature is not
introduced, but his poems seem set in nature as daisies in a meadow.
He was no city poet. Of the poet Blake, James Thomson writes:
"He came to the desert of London town
Gray miles long.
He wandered up, he wandered down,
Singing a quiet hymn."
Not so Tennyson. London and he were compatriots, but not friends; for
he belonged to the quiet of the country woods, and the clamor of
sea-gulls and sea-waves, whose very tumult drown the voice of care.
Tennyson was to express the yearning of his era, and his poems are a
cry; for, like a babe, he has
"No language but a cry."
Our yearning is our glory. The superb forces of our spirits are
inarticulate, and can not be put to words, but may be put to the melody
of a yearning cry. Souls struggle toward expression like a dying
soldier who would send a message to his beloved, but can not frame
words therefor before he dies. Our pathos is—and our yearning is—
"O would that my lips could utter
The thoughts that arise in me!"
But we have no words; and Holmes, in his most delicately-beautiful
poem, entitled "The Voiceless," has made mention of this grief:
"We count the broken lyres that rest
Where the sweet wailing singers slumber;
But o'er their silent sister's breast
The wild-flowers, who will stoop to number?
A few can touch the magic string,
And noisy Fame is proud to win them:
Alas for those that never sing,
But die with all their music in them!
Nay, grieve not for the dead alone,
Whose song has told their heart's sad story,—
Weep for the voiceless, who have known
The cross without the crown of glory!
Not where Leucadian breezes sweep
O'er Sappho's memory-haunted billow,
But where the glistening night-dews weep
On nameless sorrow's churchyard pillow.
O hearts that break and give no sign
Save whitening lip and fading tresses,
Till Death pours out his cordial wine,
Slow-dropped from Misery's crushing presses,—
If singing breath or echoing chord
To every hidden pang were given,
What endless melodies were poured,
As sad as earth, as sweet as heaven!"
Souls cry, "Give us a voice;" and nature enters into our yearning
moods. The autumn and the rain grieve with us, and June makes merry
with us as at a festival, and the deep sky gives room for the soaring
of our aspirations, and the solemn night says, "Dream!" And for our
heartache and longing, Tennyson is our voice; for he seems near
neighbor to us. He lay on a bank of violets, and looked into the sky,
and heard poplars pattering as with rain upon the roof. Really, in all
Tennyson's poems you will be surprised at the affluence of his
reference to nature. His custom was to make the moods of nature to be
explanatory of the moods of the soul. Man needs nature as birds need
air, and flowers, and waving trees, and the dear sun. Tennyson will
make appeal to
"The flower in the crannied wall"
by way of silencing the agnostic's prating against God. Hear him:
"Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies—
Hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower,—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is."
Here follow a few, among many, very many, delicious references to the
out-of-door world we name nature, as explanatory of the indoor world we
"Who make it seem more sweet to be
The little life on bank and brier,
The bird that pipes his lone desire
And dies unheard within his tree."
"A thousand suns will stream on thee,
A thousand moons will quiver;
But not by thee my steps shall be,
Forever and forever."
"Storm'd in orbs of song, a growing gale."
"I saw that every morning, far withdrawn,
Beyond the darkness and the cataract,
God made himself an awful rose of dawn,
"There let the wind sweep and the plover cry;
But thou go by."
"As through the land at eve we went,
And pluck'd the ripen'd ears,
We fell out, my wife and I,—
O we fell out, I know not why,
And kiss'd again with tears.
For when we came where lies the child
We lost in other years,
There above the little grave,—
O there above the little grave,
We kiss'd again with tears."
"Set in a cataract on an island-crag,
When storm is on the heights of the long hills."
"Tall as a figure lengthen'd on the sand
When the tide ebbs in sunshine."
"Ask me no more: the moon may draw the sea;
The cloud may stoop from heaven, and take the shape,
With fold to fold, of mountain or of cape;
But O too fond, when have I answered thee?
Ask me no more."
"And she, as one that climbs a peak to gaze
O'er land and main, and sees a great black cloud
Drag inward from the deeps, a wall of night."
"That like a broken purpose wastes in air."
"To rest beneath the clover sod,
That takes the sunshine and the rains,
Or where the kneeling hamlet drains
The chalice of the grapes of God."
"So be it: there no shade can last
In that deep dawn behind the tomb,
But clear from marge to marge shall bloom
The eternal landscape of the past."
"I sleep till dusk is dipt in gray."
"But Summer on the steaming floods,
And Spring that swells the narrow brooks,
And Autumn, with a noise of rooks,
That gather in the waning woods."
"From belt to belt of crimson seas,
On leagues of odor streaming far,
To where in yonder Orient star
A hundred spirits whisper 'Peace.'"
"There rolls the deep where grew the tree:
O earth, what changes thou hast seen!
There where the long street roars, hath been
The stillness of the central sea.
The hills are shadows, and they flow
From form to form, and nothing stands;
They melt like mist, the solid lands,
Like clouds they shape themselves and go."
"If e'er when faith had fall'n asleep,
I heard a voice, 'Believe no more,'
And heard an ever-breaking shore
That tumbled in the godless deep."
"As slopes a wild brook o'er a little stone,
Running too vehemently to break upon it."
"Whole, like a crag that tumbles from the cliff,
And like a crag was gay with wilding flowers;
And high above a piece of turret stair,
Worn by the feet that now were silent, would
Bare to the sun, and monstrous ivy-stems
Claspt the gray walls with hairy-fibered arms,
And suck'd the joining of the stones, and look'd
A knot, beneath, of snakes; aloft, a grove."
"For as a leaf in mid-November is
To what it was in mid-October, seem'd
The dress that now she look'd on to the dress
She look'd on ere the coming of Geraint."
"That had a sapling growing on it, slip
From the long shore-cliff's windy walls to the beach,
And there lie still, and yet the sapling grew:
So lay the man transfixt."
That listens near a torrent mountain-brook,
All thro' the crash of the near cataract hears
The drumming thunder of the huger fall
At distance, were the soldiers wont to hear
His voice in battle, and be kindled by it."
"And in the moment after, wild Limours,
Borne on a black horse, like a thunder-cloud
Whose skirts are loosen'd by the breaking storm,
Half ridden off with by the thing he rode,
And all in passion, uttering a dry shriek,
Dash'd on Geraint"
"Where, like a shoaling sea, the lovely blue
Play'd into green, and thicker down the front
With jewels than the sward with drops of dew,
When all night long a cloud clings to the hill,
And with the dawn ascending lets the day
Strike where it clung: so thickly shone the gems."
"As the southwest that blowing Bala Lake
Fills all the sacred Dee. So past the days."
"In the midnight and flourish of his May."
"Only you would not pass beyond the cape
That has the poplar on it."
"And at the inrunning of a little brook,
Sat by the river in a cove and watch'd
The high reed wave, and lifted up his eyes
And saw the barge that brought her moving down,
Far off, a blot upon the stream, and said,
Low in himself, 'Ah, simple heart and sweet,
You loved me, damsel, surely with a love
Far tenderer than my Queen's!'"
"Rankled in him and ruffled all his heart,
As the sharp wind that ruffles all day long
A little bitter pool about a stone
On the bare coast."
"A carefuler in peril did not breathe
For leagues along that breaker-beaten coast
Than Enoch. . . . And he thrice had pluck'd a life
From the dread sweep of the down-streaming seas."
"All-kindled by a still and sacred fire,
That burned as on an altar."
"With kisses balmier than half-opening buds
Of April, and could hear the lips that kiss'd,
Whispering I knew not what of wild and sweet,
Like that strange song I heard Apollo sing,
While Ilion, like a mist, rose into towers."
"Dearer and nearer, as the rapid of life
Shoots to the fall."
"That sets at twilight in a land of reeds."
"And wearying in a land of sand and thorns."
"Pelleas and sweet smell of the fields
Past, and the sunshine came along with him."
"By a mossed brookbank on a stone
I smelt a wildweed flower alone;
There was a ringing in my ears,
And both my eyes gushed out with tears."
"Clash like the coming and retiring wave."
"Quiet as any water-sodden log
Stay'd in the wandering warble of a brook."
"The wide-wing'd sunset of the misty marsh."
From these quotations, not exhaustive, but representative, one may see
in how gracious a sense Tennyson was a pastoral poet, in that he and
his thought haunted the brookside and the mountainside, the shadow and
the sunshine, the dark night, or dewy eve, or the glad dawn, always.
Therefore is Tennyson a rest to the spirit. He takes you from your
care, and ends by taking your care from you. He quiets your spirit. I
go to his poems as I would go to seashore or mountain; and a quiet
deep, as the gently falling night, wraps my spirit. Bless him always
for the rest he knows to give and cares to give!
Tennyson's genius is lyrical rather than either dramatic or epic. What
music is like his? Say of his poems, in words of James Whitcomb Riley,
"O but the sound was rainy sweet!"
Not great Milton was more master of music than he; though Milton's was
the melody of wide ocean in open sea, or crash of waves upon the rugged
rocks, or wrathing up the yellow sands in tumult of majestic menace.
Tennyson's music is rather the voice of gentle waters, or the cadence
of summer's winds in the tree-tops, or like human voices heard in some
woodland. In either poet is no marred music. Mrs. Browning fell out
of time; Tennyson never. His verse is like some loved voice which
makes perpetual music in our heart. Read all of his poetry, and how
diversified soever his meter is, music never fails; yet his lyrics are
not as those of Burns, whose words sing like the brook Tennyson has
sung of. Burns's melody is laughter: it babbles, it sighs for a
moment, but will sing. But Tennyson's is not laughter. He is no
joyous poet. Burns has tears which wet his lashes, scarcely his
cheeks. Tennyson's cheeks are wet. He is the music of winds in
pine-trees in a lonely land, or as a sea breaking upon a shore of rock
and wreck; but how passing sweet the music is, stealing your ruggedness
away, so that to be harsh in thought or diction in his presence seems a
Lyric differs from epic poetry in sustainedness. One form of poetry
runs into another imperceptibly, as darkness into daylight or daylight
into darkness, so that the dividing line can not be certified. Lyric
poetry may be dramatic in spirit, as Browning's "The Ring and the
Book;" or dramatic poetry may be lyric in spirit, as Milton's "Comus."
Tennyson has written drama and epic too; for such, I think, clearly he
proposed the "Idyls of the King" to be. This we must say: Despite the
genial leniency of Robert Browning's criticism of the dramatic success
of "Harold," and "Becket," and "The Cup," we may safely refuse
concurrence in judgment. Trying made the failure of the play
impossible when he was character in them. There is no necessity of
denying that the so-called trilogy has apt delineation of character,
and that Green, the historian, was justified in saying that "Becket"
had given him such a conception of the character of that courtier and
ecclesiastic as all his historical research had not given; nor need we
deny that these dramas are rich in noble passages. These things go
without the saying, considering the author was Alfred Tennyson. In
attempting a criticism of the dramatic value, however, the real
question is this: Would not "Harold" and "Queen Mary" have been greater
poems if thrown out of the dramatic into the narrative form, like
"Guinevere" or "Enoch Arden?" "Maud" is really the most dramatic of
Tennyson's poems, and in consequence the least understood. Most men at
some time espouse what they can not successfully achieve. Was not this
Tennyson's case? Are not the portrayal of character and the rhythm and
the melody of the drama qualities inherent in Tennyson, and are they in
any distinct sense dramatic? If we declare Tennyson neither epic nor
dramatic, but always lyric, adverse criticism melts away like snow in
summer. As lyrist, all is congruous and enthralling. "The Idyls of
the King," as a series of lyric romances, is beyond blame in technique.
Tennyson tells a story. Dramatic poetry takes the story out of the
poet's lips and tells itself. The epic requires a strong centrality of
theme, movement, and dominancy, like a ubiquitous sovereign whose power
is always felt in every part of his empire. Viewing "The Idyls of the
King" as singing episodes, told us by some wandering minstrel, not only
do they not challenge hostile criticism, but they take rank among the
noblest contributions to the poetry of any language. "Columbus,"
"Ulyses," "Eleanore," "Enoch Arden," "Lucretius," "The Day-Dream,"
"Locksley Hall," "Dora," "Aylmer's Field," "The Gardener's Daughter,"
have all the subdued beauty of Wordsworth's narrative poems, and are as
certainly lyric as those unapproachable lyrics in "The Princess." The
ocean is epic in its vast expanse; tragic in its power to crush Armadas
on the rocks and let them
"Rot in ribs of wreck;"
and lyric in its songs, whether of storm outsounding cataracts, or the
singing scarce above the breath of waves that silver the shores of
summer seas. Commend me to the ocean, and give all the ocean to me.
Dispossess me of no might nor tragedy nor melody. Let the whole ocean
be mine. So, though Tennyson be not epic as Milton, nor dramatic as
Browning, he is yet a mine of wealth untold. He is more melodious than
Spenser (and what a praise!) Tennyson can not write the prose, but
always the poetry of life. So interpreted, how perfect his execution
becomes! His words distill like dews. Take unnumbered extracts from
his poems, and they seem bits of melody, picked out from nature's book
of melodies, and in themselves and as related they satisfy the heart.
Let these songs sing themselves to us:
"Ask me no more: the moon may draw the sea;
The cloud may stoop from heaven and take the shape,
With fold to fold, of mountain or of cape;
But O too fond, when have I answer'd thee?
Ask me no more.
Ask me no more: what answer should I give?
I love not hollow cheek or faded eye;
Yet, O my friend, I will not have thee die!
Ask me no more, lest I should bid thee live;
Ask me no more.
Ask me no more: thy fate and mine are seal'd;
I strove against the stream and all in vain;
Let the great river take me to the main;
No more, dear Love, for at a touch I yield;
Ask me no more."
"Thy voice is heard through rolling drums,
That beat to battle where he stands;
Thy face across his fancy comes,
And gives the battle to his hands:
A moment, while the trumpets blow,
He sees his brood about thy knee;
The next, like fire he meets the foe,
And strikes him dead for thine and thee."
"O love, they die in yon rich sky,
They faint on hill or field or river;
Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
And grow forever and forever.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying."
"Sweet and low, sweet and low,
Wind of the western sea,
Low, low, breathe and blow,
Wind of the western sea!
Over the rolling waters go,
Come from the dying moon, and blow,
Blow him again to me;
While my little one, while my pretty one, sleeps.
Sleep and rest, sleep and rest,
Father will come to thee soon;
Rest, rest, on mother's breast,
Father will come to thee soon;
Father will come to his babe in the nest,
Silver sails all out of the west
Under the silver moon:
Sleep, my little one, sleep, my pretty one, sleep."
And "Tears, Idle Tears," is beyond all praise. Passion was never wed
to music more deliriously and satisfyingly. I am entranced by this
poem always, as by God's poem of the starry night:
"Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean;
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes
In looking on the happy autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.
Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,
That brings our friends up from the under world;
Sad as the last which reddens over one
That sinks with all we love below the verge;
So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.
Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awaken'd birds
To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.
Dear as remember'd kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feign'd
On lips that are for others; deep as love,
Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more."
All these lyrics are such delights as leave us silent, seeing we have
no words to tell the glow of spirit we feel. The genius of lyric
poetry is its power of condensation. The drama may expand, the lyric
must condense, and Tennyson has the lyric power, summing up large areas
of thought and feeling into a single sentence or a few verses, which
presents the quintessence of the lyric method. Immense passion poured
into the chalice of a solitary utterance—this is a song. Let the
harpist sit and sing, nor stop to wipe his tears what time he
sings,—only let him sing! Tennyson was as some rare voice which never
grows husky, but always sounds sweet as music heard in the darkness,
and when he speaks, it is as if
"Up the valley came a swell of music on the wind."
Tennyson is poet of love. Love is practically always the soil out of
which his flowers grow. Our American bards say little of love, and we
feel the lack keenly. Love is the native nobleman among
soul-qualities, and we have become schooled to feel the poets must be
our spokesmen here where we need them most. But Bryant, nor Whittier,
nor Longfellow, nor yet Lowell, have been in a generous way erotic
poets. They have lacked the pronounced passion element. Poe, however,
was always lover when he wrote poetry, and Bayard Taylor has a
recurring softening of the voice to a caress when his eyes look love.
Tennyson, on the contrary, is scarcely less a love poet than Burns,
though he tells his secret after a different fashion. Call the roll of
his poems, and see how just this observation is. Love is nodal with
him as with the heart. Bourdillon was right in saying:
"The night has a thousand eyes,
The day has one;
Yet the light of the bright world dies
With the dying sun.
The mind has a thousand eyes,
And the heart but one;
Yet the life of a whole life dies
When love is done."
In many poets, love is background, not picture, or, to change a figure
as is meet, love is a minor chord in song. In Shelley, I would say
that love was a sort of afterglow upon the landscape, and softens his
rigid anarchy into something like beauty. With Tennyson is a very
different offering to love. It is omnipresent, though not obtrusively
so; for he never obtrudes his main meanings. They rather steal on you
as springtime does. You catch his meaning because you are not blind
nor deaf. He hints at things as lovers do, and is as one who would not
thrust his company upon you, so modest and reticent is he; yet we do
not mistake him. Love is always close at hand, and in some form is
never absent. "Mariana," "Lady of Shalott," "Locksley Hall," "Maud,"
"The Sisters," "The Talking Oak," "Edward Gray," "The Miller's
Daughter," "Harold," "Queen Mary," "Enoch Arden," and "The Idyls of the
King,"—is not love everywhere? These are poems of love between men
and women as lovers; but there is other love. In Tennyson: love of
country, as in his "The Revenge," "The Charge of the Light Brigade,"
and others; love of nature, as "The Brook;" the love of Queen, as in
the dedication in "The Idyls of the King;" love of a friend (and such
love!) flooding "In Memoriam" like spring tide's; love to God, as "St.
Agnes' Eve," "Sir Galahad," and in "King Arthur." By appeal to book do
we see how his poems constitute a literature of love, for he is in
essence saying continuously, "Life means love," and we shall not be
those to say him nay. May we not safely say no poet has given a more
beautiful and sympathetic explication of love in its entirety?
Browning has expressed the sex-love more mightily in Pompilia and
Caponsacchi. Tennyson has, however, given no partial landscape; he has
presented the whole. Love of the lover, of the widowed heart, of the
friend, of the parent, of the patriot, of the subject to sovereign, of
the redeemed of God. Truly, this does impress us as a nearly-completed
circle. If it is not, where lies the lack? Love is life, gladness,
pathos, power. A humblest spirit, when touched with the unspeakable
grace of love, becomes epic and beautiful, as is illustrated in "Enoch
Arden." Herein see a sure element of immortality in Tennyson. The
race will always with alacrity and sympathy read of love in tale or
poem; and this poet is always translating love's thought into speech.
And may not this prevalence of love in his poetry account for
Tennyson's lack of humor? In his conversation, as his son tells us, he
was even jocular, loving both to hear and to tell a humorous incident,
and his laughter rang out over a good jest, a thing of which we would
have next to no intimation in his poetry; for save in "Will
Waterproof's Lyrical Monologue" and "The Northern Farmer," and possibly
in "Amphion," his verse contains scarcely a vestige of humor.
Certainly his writings can not presume to be humorous. To Cervantes,
chivalry was grotesque; to Tennyson, chivalry was poetry,—there lay
the difference. Our laureate caught not the jest, but the real poetry
of that episode in the adventure of manhood; and this I take to be the
larger and worthier lesson. Cervantes and Tennyson were both right.
But Tennyson caught the vision of the surer, the more enduring truth.
With love, as with chivalry, he saw not the humor, but the beauty of
it; and beauty is always touched with melancholy. I have sat a day
through reading all this poet's verse, and confess that all the day I
was not remote from tears, but was as one walking in mists along an
ocean shore, so that on my face was what might be either rain or tears.
"Love took up the glass of Time, and turned it in its
Every moment lightly shaken, ran itself in golden sands.
Love took up the harp of life, and smote on all the
chords with might;
Smote the chord of self, that, trembling, passed in music
out of sight."
And Tennyson is the picture poet. I feel in reading him as if I were
either out of doors with pictures seen at first-hand, or in a gallery
with picture-crowded walls. He is painter among poets, his art being
at once admirably inclusive and exclusive—including essentials,
excluding the irrelevant. He is consummate artist, giving pictures of
things, and, what is vastly more difficult, pictures of moods. With
him, one never feels and sees, but feels because he sees. His ability
to recreate moods for us is quite beyond praise, and is such subtle art
as defies analysis or characterization, but wakens wonder and will not
let it sleep. Poets are, as is affirmed by the lord of all the poets,
"Of imagination all compact;"
and may we be delivered from a colorless world and an unimaginative
life; for such is no life at all! God would have men dream and
prophesy. Because the poet is artist and dreamer, his word, in one
form or another, is "like," a word patented by poets; and all who use
it are become, in so far, poets. Now, with Tennyson, all things
suggest pictures, as if soul were itself a landscape; wherefore, as has
been shown, he riots in nature-scenes. A simile, when full, like a
June day of heaven, contains a plethora, an ampleness, for which you
shall seek in vain to find rules, much less to make them; which is to
say that a perfect simile will betimes do something for which no reason
can be assigned, yet so answering to the largest poetry of the occasion
as to fill the mind with joy, as if one had discovered some new flower
in the woods where he thought he knew them all. One instance shall
suffice as illustrative:
Of lamentation like a wind, that shrills
All night in a waste land, where no one comes,
Or hath come, since the making of the world."
Considering the comparison, we must grant that, submitted to the
judgment of cold logic, the figure is superfluous and faulty; for, as a
simple matter of fact, a wind blowing where no one comes or has come
would be not so lonely as one blown across a habitable and inhabited
land. From the standpoint of common observation, the simile might be
set down as inaccurate. But who so blind as not to see that there is
no untruth nor superfluity in the poet's art? He means to give the air
of utter loneliness and sadness, and therefore pictures an untenanted
landscape, across whose lonely wastes a lonely wind pursues its lonely
way; and thus having saturated his thought with sadness, he transfers
the loneliness of the landscape to the winged winds. This seems to me
the very climacteric of exquisite artistic skill, and I am always
delighted to the point of laughter or of tears; for moods run together
in presence of such poetry. No poet of my knowledge so haunts the
illustrative. In reading him, so perfect are the pictures that your
fingers itch to play the artist's part, so you might shadow some beauty
on every page. Some painter, working after the manner of Turner's
"Rivers of France," might make himself immortal by devoting his life to
the adequate illustration of Tennyson. As his verses sing themselves,
so his poems picture themselves. He supplies you with painter's
genius. A verse or stanza needs but a frame to be a choice painting.
When told that the fool
"Danced like a withered leaf before the hall,"
we must see him, so vivid the scene, so lifelike the color.
I will hang some pictures up as in a gallery:
"Ever the weary wind went on,
And took the reed-tops as it went"
"I, that whole day,
Saw her no more, although I linger'd there
Till every daisy slept."
"Love with knit brows went by,
And with a flying finger swept my lips."
"Breathed like the covenant of a God, to hold
From thence through all the worlds."
"Night slid down one long stream of sighing wind,
And in her bosom bore the baby. Sleep."
"The pillar'd dusk of sounding sycamores."
"And in the fallow leisure of my life."
"Her voice fled always through the summer land;
I spoke her name alone. Thrice-happy days!
The flower of each, those moments when we met,
The crown of all, we met to part no more."
"Now, now, his footsteps smite the threshold stairs
"The drooping flower of knowledge changed to fruit
Of wisdom. Wait."
"Tall as a figure lengthen'd on the sand
When the tide ebbs in sunshine."
"Love, like an Alpine harebell hung with tears
By some cold morning glacier; frail at first
And feeble, all unconscious of itself,
But such as gather'd color day by day."
"I could no more, but lay like one in trance,
That hears his burial talk'd of by his friends,
And can not speak, nor move, nor make one sign,
But lies and dreads his doom."
"Behold, ye speak an idle thing:
Ye never knew the sacred dust;
I do but sing because I must,
And pipe but as the linnets sing.
I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
'T is better to have loved and lost,
Than never to have loved at all.
But brooding on the dear one dead,
And all he said of things divine,
(And dear to me as sacred wine
To dying lips is all he said).
And look thy look, and go thy way,
But blame not thou the winds that make
The seeming-wanton ripple break,
The tender-pencil'd shadow play.
Beneath all fancied hopes and fears,
Ah me! the sorrow deepens down,
Whose muffled motions blindly drown
The bases of my life in tears.
Be near me when my light is low,
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick,
And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of being slow.
I can not love thee as I ought,
For love reflects the thing beloved;
My words are only words, and moved
Upon the topmost froth of thought.
From point to point, with power and grace
And music in the bounds of law,
To those conclusions when we saw
The God within him light his face.
And while the wind began to sweep
A music out of sheet and shroud,
We steer'd her toward a crimson cloud
That landlike slept along the deep.
Abiding with me till I sail
To seek thee on the mystic deeps,
And this electric force, that keeps
A thousand pulses dancing, fail.
And hear at times a sentinel,
Who moves about from place to place,
And whispers to the worlds of space,
In the deep night, that all is well."
"Brawling, or like a clamor of the rooks
At distance, ere they settle for the night."
"In words whose echo lasts, they were so sweet."
"That I could rest, a rock in ebbs and flows."
"But as a man to whom a dreadful loss
Falls in a far land, and he knows it not."
"The long way smoke beneath him in his fear."
"Then, after all was done that hand could do,
She rested, and her desolation came
Upon her, and she wept beside the way."
"Seam'd with an ancient sword-cut on the cheek,
And bruised and bronzed, she lifted up her eyes
And loved him, with that love which was her doom."
"And in the meadows tremulous aspen-trees
And poplars made a noise of falling showers."
"No greatness, save it be some far-off touch
Of greatness to know well I am not great."
"Hurt in the side, whereat she caught her breath;
Through her own side she felt the sharp lance go."
"Rankled in him and ruffled all his heart,
As the sharp wind that ruffles all day long
A little bitter pool about a stone
On the bare coast."
"Thy shadow still would glide from room to room,
And I should evermore be vext with thee
In hanging robe or vacant ornament,
Or ghostly footfall echoing on the stair."
"Far off a solitary trumpet blew.
Then, waiting by the doors, the war-horse neigh'd
As at a friend's voice, and he spake again."
"Through the thick night I hear the trumpet blow."
"And slipt aside, and like a wounded life
Crept down into the hollows of the wood."
"Then Philip, with his eyes
Full of that lifelong hunger, and his voice
Shaking a little like a drunkard's hand."
"Had he not
Spoken with That, which being everywhere
Lets none, who speaks with Him, seem all alone,
Surely the man had died of solitude."
"Because things seen are mightier than things heard."
"For sure no gladlier does the stranded wreck
See through the gray skirts of a lifting squall
The boat that bears the hope of life approach
To save the life despair'd of, than he saw
Death dawning on him, and the close of all."
"And he lay tranced; but when he rose and paced
Back toward his solitary home again,
All down the narrow street he went,
Beating it in upon his weary brain,
As though it were the burthen of a song,
'Not to tell her, never to let her know.'"
"Torn as a sail that leaves the rope is torn
"Nay, one there is, and at the eastern end,
Wealthy with wandering lines of mount and mere."
"Prick'd with incredible pinnacles into heaven."
"An out-door sign of all the warmth within,
Smiled with his lips—a smile beneath a cloud;
But Heaven had meant it for a sunny one."
"All the old echoes hidden in the wall."
"Their plumes driv'n backward by the wind they made
In moving, all together down upon him
Bare, as a wild wave in the wide North sea,
Green-glimmering toward the summit, bears, with all
Its stormy crests that smoke against the skies,
Down on a bark, and overbears the bark,
And him that helms it, so they overbore
Sir Lancelot and his charger."
"There lies a vale in Ida, lovelier
Than all the valleys of Ionian hills.
The swimming vapor slopes athwart the glen,
Puts forth an arm, and creeps from pine to pine,
And loiters, slowly drawn. On either hand
The lawns and meadow-ledges midway down
Hang rich in flowers, and far below them roars
The long brook falling through the clov'n ravine
In cataract after cataract to the sea.
Behind the valley topmost Gargarus
Stands up and takes the morning; but in front
The gorges, opening wide apart, reveal
Troas and Ilion's column'd citadel,
The crown of Troas."
"One seem'd all dark and red—a tract of sand,
And some one pacing there alone,
Who paced forever in a glimmering land,
Lit with a low large moon.
One show'd an iron coast and angry waves.
You seem'd to hear them climb and fall
And roar rock-thwarted under bellowing caves,
Beneath the windy wall.
And one, a full-fed river winding slow
By herds upon an endless plain,
The ragged rims of thunder brooding low,
With shadow-streaks of rain.
And one, the reapers at their sultry toil.
In front they bound the sheaves. Behind
Were realms of upland, prodigal in oil,
And hoary to the wind.
And one, a foreground black with stones and slags,
Beyond, a line of heights, and higher
All barr'd with long white cloud the scornful crags,
And highest, snow and fire.
And one, an English home—gray twilight pour'd
On dewy pastures, dewy trees,
Softer than sleep—all things in order stored,
A haunt of ancient Peace."
Each stanza is a picture, bound, not in book nor gold, but in a stanza.
"Like flame from ashes."
"Sighing weariedly, as one
Who sits and gazes on a faded fire,
When all the goodlier guests are past away."
"As the crest of some slow-arching wave
Heard in dead night along that table-shore
Drops flat, and after the great waters break
Whitening for half a league, and thin themselves
Far over sands marbled with moon and cloud,
From less and less to nothing."
"Belted his body with her white embrace."
"And out beyond into the dream to come."
"Thus, as a hearth lit in a mountain home,
And glancing on the window, when the gloom
Of twilight deepens round it, seems a flame
That rages in the woodland far below."
Looking at these landscapes, can words add weight to the claim for
Alfred Tennyson as a painter?
And Tennyson is as pure as the air of mid-ocean. His moral qualities
are in no regard inferior to his artistic qualities, although from
centuries of poets we might have been schooled to anticipate that so
sensitive and poetic a nature had been sensual, concluding a lowered
standard of ethics, theoretical or practical, one or both, especially
considering his earliest literary admiration was that poetic Don Juan,
Lord Byron, whose poems were a transcript of his morals, where a
luxuriant imagination and a poetic diction were combined in a high
degree, and so the poet qualified to be a bane or blessing of a
commanding order, he choosing so to use his extraordinary gifts as to
pollute the living springs from which a generation of men and women
drank. What we do find is, a Tennyson as removed from a Byron in moral
mood and life as southern cross from northern lights. The morals of
both life and poems are as limpid as the waters of pellucid Tahoe; and
purest women may read from "Claribel" to "Crossing the Bar," and be
only purer from the reading. Henry Van Dyke has written on "The Bible
in Tennyson," an article, after his habit, discriminating and
appreciative, in the course of which he shows how some of the delicious
verse's of the laureate are literal extracts from the Book of God, so
native is poetry to that sublime volume; though I incline to believe
the larger loan of the Bible to Tennyson is the purity of thought
evidenced in the poet's writings, and more particularly in the poet's
life. Who has not been touched by the Bible who has lived in these
later centuries? Modern life may no more get away from the Bible than
our planet may flee from its own atmosphere. We can never estimate the
moral potency of such a poet, living and writing for sixty years,
though we may fairly account this longevity of pure living and pure
thinking and pure writing among the primary blessings of our century.
That two such pure men and poets as Tennyson and Browning were given a
single race in a single century is abundant cause for giving hearty
thanks to God. They have purified, not our day only, but remote days
coming, till days shall set to rise no more, and have given the lie to
the poor folly of supposing highest genius and purest morality to be
incompatibles; for in life and poem, and in the poem of life, they have
swept clouds from our sky, until all purity stands revealed, fair as
the morning star smiling at Eastern lattices. In Tennyson is no
slightest appeal to the sensual. He hates pruriency, making protest
against it with a voice like the clangor of angry bells. In "Locksley
Hall Sixty Years After," he speaks wisely and justly, in sarcasm that
bites as acids do:
"Rip your brother's vices open, strip your own foul
Down with Reticence, down with Reverence—forward,
naked—let them stare.
Feed the budding rose of boyhood with the drainage of
Send the drain into the fountain lest the stream should
Set the maiden fancies wallowing in the trough of Zolaism,
Forward, forward, aye and backward, downward, too,
in the abysm.
Do your best to charm the worst, to lower the rising
race of men."
And this is Tennyson the aged, whose moral eyes were as the physical
eyes of Moses on Pisgah, "undimmed." Bless him for his aged anger!
Happily, to-day, realism has lost its charm. We have had enough living
in sewers, when the suburbs were near with their breezy heights and
quiet homes. Stench needs no apostle. The age has outgrown these
hectic folk, who, in the name of nature, lead us back to Pompeii.
Gehenna needs not to be assisted. Jean Valjean, bent on an errand of
mercy, fled to the sewers of Paris, his appeal to these foul subways
being justified, since he sought them under stress for the preservation
of a life. Does this prove that men should take promenades in the
sewers as if they were boulevards? An author is not called on to tell
all he knows. Let writers of fiction assume that the public knows
there are foul things, and needs not to be reminded of them, and let
the romancist avoid them as he would a land of lepers.
Those who companied with Tennyson through his beautiful career were
helped into a growing love of purity. He had no panegyric for lust and
shame and sensuality, but made us feel they were shameful, so that we
blushed for those who had not the modesty to blush for themselves. We
are ashamed for Guinevere and Lancelot, and are proud of Enid and
Elaine and Sir Galahad and King Arthur; and in them, and in others,
have been helped to see the heroic beauty of simple virtue. This is an
incalculable gain for soul. When we have learned that profligates,
whatever their spasms of flashy achievements, are poor company, and
that the pure are evermore good company, and goodness is a quest
worthier than the quest for the golden grail, we have risen to nobility
of soul which can never become out of date.
Noah was not more clearly a preacher of righteousness in his day than
Tennyson in his, of whom say, as highest encomium we know to pronounce,
"He made goodness beautiful to our eyes and desirable to our hearts;
and, beyond this, made it easier for us to be good."
Over all this poet wrote, he might have looked straight in God's eye,
and prayed, as King Arthur:
"And that which I have done
May he within himself make pure!"
And we chant, sending our muse after him,—
"Nor was there moaning of the bar
When he set out to sea."
To him saying, "We love him yet, and shall while life endures,"
borrowing Whittier's God-speed to the dead Bayard Taylor:
"Let the home-voices greet him in the far,
Strange land that holds him; let the messages
Of love pursue him o'er the chartless seas
And unmapped vastness of his unknown star!
Love's language, heard above the loud discourse,
Of perishable fame, in every sphere
Itself interprets; and its utterance here,
Somewhere in God's unfolding universe,
Shall reach our traveler, softening the surprise
Of his rapt gaze on unfamiliar skies!"