The Devil and the Lady and Unpublished Early Poems
Tennyson’s precocity was astonishing, and it is excellent that the clearest evidence of this is now available again. In 1930 his grandson (now Sir Charles Tennyson) published the remarkable versedrama, The Devil and the Lady, which Tennyson had written between fourteen and sixteen. In 1931 appeared Unpublished Early Poems, a fascinating and indispensable collection of juvenilia from manuscripts then in Sir Charles’s possession (now at Harvard). But both were in limited editions of 1500 copies, so that it is an event of some importance that they are now reissued.
To read The Devil and the Lady is exhilarating and saddening. Exhilarating, because of the imaginative gusto and skill of the pastiche—Tennyson throws himself into mimicking or outdoing Shakespearean and Jacobean verse, as when Amoret bursts out against her departed husband:
Thou crazy dotard, crusted o’er with age
As thick as ice upon a standing pool!
Thou shrunken, sapless, wizen Grass- hopper,
Consuming the green promise of my youth!
The plot itself draws on plays like Ben Jonson’s The Devil is an Ass, in its assurance that a woman is a match for the Devil, its delight in learned jargon and canting Latin, its hyperbolical oddness in simile and metaphor. Sometimes there is a tone that reminds us that, while Browning seems to have lacked almost all Tennyson’s poetic virtues, there is a side of Tennyson which is splendidly Browningesque and which suggests we just missed having a poet able to combine the best of such different worlds:
I’ th’ grey o’ th’ morning on a blue nos’d Monk
And pluck’d him by the beard, whereat he shrunk
In all his sinews like a sensitive plant
And chatter’d from the bottom of his cowl
“Apage Sathanas iniquissime!”
Whereat I tripp’d him up and laid him prone
Holding close conference with his Mother Earth
About the damage of his splinter’d nose,
And having punch’d him fundamen- tally
With my strong hooves, I left him bruised and battered
As a beefsteak.
And yet this makes sad reading too, simply because of regret at how thoroughly Tennyson managed to suppress in himself this kind of verbal vitality, this kind of boisterous strength. There is “The Vision of Sin” with its macabre gaiety. And there is “St. Simeon Stylites,” of which Edward FitzGerald noted: “This is one of the Poems Tennyson would read with grotesque Grimness, especially at such passages as ‘Coughs, Aches, Stitches, etc.,’ laughing aloud at times.” But it is hard to think of much mature Tennyson which has this note, or which manages to integrate such a note into a fuller range. And to put The Devil and the Lady beside the plays which Tennyson so painstakingly and massively devised when he was over sixty is to be aware of a real shrinkage and perhaps even shrinking. Yet it is hard to think of a quicker way of disposing of certain misconceptions as to Tennyson’s native misconceptions than by insisting on The Devil and the Lady.
Unpublished Early Poems is notable too. Most of the poems are superior to those which Tennyson published in Poems by Two Brothers (1827), from which some of them had been rejected on the grounds that they were too distant from public taste. From Tennyson’s boyhood, Sir Charles published a translation à la Pope, a visionary poem on Armageddon and some somber poems which make it clear that the later death of Arthur Hallam came almost as a terrible confirmation of Tennyson’s deepest fears rather than simply as a shock. From Cambridge, the poems are more relaxed, and include nine sonnets (some of which are a good deal better than any which Tennyson published). And from 1830-42, a mixed bag, descriptive, political, and sardonic. All were very well worth printing. And as Professor Rowland Collins points out in a foreword to this reprint, “These poems are of especial value to the modern scholar because they seem to be the only substantial Tennyson juvenilia which will be allowed to meet the light of day!” This is because when Tennyson’s son Hallam presented manuscripts to college and university libraries, it was on the strict understanding that no one should ever copy them or quote from them any unpublished material. The outstandingly valuable collection is at Trinity College, Cambridge, and it has been said that Sir Charles and the present Lord Tennyson requested the College to relax the conditions but without success. The moral muddle, how to reconcile piety and common sense, is obvious enough, though anyone who knows the sheer informativeness of the Trinity manuscripts is likely to feel indignant. It seems plain that no college or university, dedicated surely to the free pursuit of learning, should ever accept manuscripts on such terms. And it is frustrating to be reminded that, because Sir Charles’s manuscript of Armageddon had been damaged, his first nine lines have many words missing—words which could so very easily be supplied from a Trinity manuscript. It is hard to believe that Tennyson would have preferred the publication of a mutilated manuscript to that of an unmutilated one. The donor’s terms apply, it seems, in perpetuity. Meanwhile it is all the more important that we have this reprint.
It is a pity, though, that it is a facsimile and not a second edition. Not that Sir Charles is anything but an accurate scholar; but—due largely to his own researches—a good deal has been found out since 1930-1. Of a sonnet about Rose, he had shrewdly noted: “The last line suggests that the lament is for the departure of some human rose from the Somersby district”; so it is unfortunate that the note does not now incorporate the discoveries made by Professor R. W. Rader a couple of years ago, and now consolidated in his excellent study of “Maud” published by the University of California Press in 1963. Tennyson’s infatuation with his rich neighbor Rosa Baring, a Baring, tinges more than one of these poems (“far too costly to be mine”), and so helps us to see them as part of the growing disillusionment with “marriage-hindering Mammon” which leads through “Locksley Hall” and “Edwin Morris” to “Maud” and “Aylmer’s Field.” Of course it is not surprising that Sir Charles, now in his eighty-fifth year, did not wish to undertake a second edition; and in any case we are already sufficiently in his debt. But couldn’t a research assistant have been found? The notes are always helpful but could with advantage have been fuller; in widening the public for the volumes (from that of a limited edition to that of “the modern scholar”), the nature and density of the annotations might have been changed too. The Devil and the Lady made no attempt to trace the literary references and allusions. And Professor W.D. Paden has discovered a great deal of relevant and useful material about the sources and allusions of these early poems. There is a similar point with the manuscripts and texts; fuller details would have been welcomed by the scholar, especially when a note refers us to more than one version of a poem. “I have found a slightly different version written by Tennyson in ink in a proof copy of the volume of 1832”—at which anyone who knows that the proof copy is at Lincoln gets a quiet glow of self-satisfaction. “Now at Lincoln” would have been worth adding. The poem “Britain” refers us to “a long unpublished poem,” but that has since been published, and a brief note would have helped those who have a genuine interest in Tennyson (this long poem is extremely important) but who are not full-time Tennysonians.
In his preface, Sir Charles drew attention to
…one curious characteristic of Teennyson’s methods of composition of which various examples occur in this volume. I have noted in these early poems a number of lines which the poet used again, often years afterwards, in quite different contexts, in his published work.
It is an important point, and here too a few more notes might have been added: for example, that Tennyson transferred the line “The deep pulsations of the world” from its setting of relaxed Horatian charm in “An Idle Rhyme” to the majesty of “In Memoriam.” And similarly with
A million gossamers in field and fold
Were twinkling into green and gold.
The habit was a perennial and strange one of Tennyson’s, and Sir Charles has noted, here and elsewhere, some remarkable examples.
Sometimes sources still unpublished throw light on these poems. It is well known that Tennyson’s first notable success, the poem “Timbuctoo” with which he won the Gold Medal at Cambridge in 1829, was a refurbishing of his poem on “Armageddon.” Hallam Tennyson tells us that Tennyson’s father “had desired him to compete, so unwillingly he patched up an old poem on ‘The Battle of Armageddon,’ and came out prizeman.” Sir Charles, after printing “Armageddon,” noted that “a comparison of the two poems shows that only a very small quantity of ” ‘Armageddon’ was actually incorporated in ‘Timbuctoo’.” “Timbuctoo” has 248 lines, of which 44 may be found, all but verbatim, in “Armageddon” as here reprinted. But among the Trinity manuscripts (and so unpublishable) if a different draft of “Armageddon”—and one which makes it clear that about 120 lines, roughly half of “Timbuctoo,” were lifted bodily from “Armageddon.” Which must be the most remarkable example even in Tennyson of this habit of self-quotation or self-borrowing. And in fairness it must be pointed out that for Tennyson both Armageddon and Timbuctoo had, as subjects, a visionary mystery. It is not as if we were to discover that John Crowe Ransom’s “Armageddon” had originally been a poem on Timbuctoo. The text of Unpublished Early Poems, then, and of The Devil and the Lady is of indisputable and permanent importance. The notes (and this is hardly surprising, over thirty years later) need some modification and expansion. To say so, is certainly not to look this excellent gift horse in the mouth.