The Magician

The Poems of Tennyson

edited by Christopher Ricks
Norton, 1,835 pp., $12.50


by Christopher Ricks
Macmillan and Collier Books, 349 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Alfred Tennyson
Alfred Tennyson; drawing by David Levine

No one should be surprised that a true estimate of England’s great poet of Evolution—the nineteenth-century master in English of the pathos of time and distance—should have been so long evolving. Compared with the work of his friend Edward FitzGerald, a tidy, lifelong devotion to a single poem, Tennyson’s was continental, each mental landscape so distinct and finished that his earliest critics, in several respects more acute than his later, were often the proverbial blind men describing an elephant. Christopher Ricks is a first-rate critic of Tennyson. After editing a nicely produced, 1,835-page variorum edition of all the poetry except the plays, he must have begun his critical book the least inclined of Tennyson’s modern critics to attribute the poet’s successes to chance or mere Ossianic inspiration. For sheer energy and persistence, tempered by a good-natured confidence in the grounds of his advocacy, by a readiness to open the courtroom to a babble of sharply contending opinions, the book is a landmark of post-Leavisite criticism.

No other major poet has been more professional. In his next-to-last chapter, Mr. Ricks says something fresh about this, the poet’s habitual “self-borrowing,” his many and generally happy revisions.

The dangers of melancholia, even of madness, were not remote from Tennyson; in a world of unending flux, a world where all seemed ephemeral (even the works of the greatest poets), a world where personal identity was a mystery, and often a burden, Tennyson found some rallying point in the continuity of his own creativity….

Tennyson’s self-borrowings go to the heart of his poetic skill and of his preoccupation with time. They also bring out the conflict which is often felt in reading Tennyson, the conflict between confidence in his extraordinary expertise and faint uneasiness about the extent to which the expertise is verbal or purely verbal.

For himself Ricks resolves the conflict by affirming even solider grounds for Tennyson’s once prodigious renown than the “abundance, variety and complete competence” on which Eliot based his imputation of greatness. Relying on the evidence of Sir Charles Tennyson’s candid, sweet-tempered biography of his grandfather, which appeared in 1949, too late to influence Eliot’s important essay of 1936 or Auden’s outcry of a decade later,1 and on a full perusal of materials in the Lincoln Tennyson Center and elsewhere, Mr. Ricks, assuming Tennyson’s radical but ever-baffled honesty, recounts a “snarled web of family feud, bitterness, genteel poverty, drunkenness, madness, and violence” within which the poet grew up and out of which he made his finest poetry, a poetry of loss, despair, frustration, desolation, stasis, regret, and regression. “A Virgil among the Shades, the saddest of all English poets, among the Great in Limbo,” Eliot somewhat tendentiously put it.

This poetry of loss was the highest, but only the highest, reach of Tennyson’s astonishing range of feeling and skill; the more modest and whimsical, sometimes amusing, often…

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