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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)

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 serene Tennyson is no less real. The thinking Tennyson gains strength over his lifetime of accretions and sheddings until, in a few striking last poems, he speaks as a true prophet, anticipating some of Edmund Wilson’s ultimate pronouncements on the youth of the world. Seen in the concentrated new light shed by Mr. Ricks, Tennyson’s career is much less mysterious, becoming a small epic of self-mastery filled with fascinating cross-lights, advances and retreats, victories and evasions. (Ricks is especially good on evasion.) The testimony of Hawthorne, James, Carlyle, FitzGerald, and many others that Tennyson was an endearing paragon of shaggy, arch-druidical English humanity is borne out by these new readings.

Hawthorne’s observation of the poet as he shuffled around an art gallery in 1857:

Tennyson is the most picturesque figure, without affectation, that I ever saw…. His face was very dark, and not exactly a smooth face, but worn, and expressing great sensitiveness, though not, at that moment, the pain and sorrow which is seen in his bust…. I heard his voice; a bass voice, but not of resounding depth; a voice rather broken, as it were, and ragged about the edges, but pleasant to the ear. His manner, while conversing with these people, was not in the least that of an awkward man, unaccustomed to society…. I was indescribably sensible of a morbid painfulness in him, a something not to be meddled with…. He is exceedingly nervous, and altogether as un-English as possible; indeed, an Englishman of genius usually lacks the national characteristics, and is great abnormally, and through disease.

First and forever a Hamlet, Tennyson could always summon up a Learlike authority. Hamlet, after all, had never noticeably exerted himself to make a living, and Tennyson was every inch a maker. This assurance, always doubted but never entirely lost, grew to an encompassing divinatory poetic intelligence—very British and Magian, barely Christian at all in any of the stricter senses—that lands him safely beyond Auden’s taunt of his having been “undoubtedly the stupidest” poet in the language. Mr. Auden in 1947 was in the throes of forging his own grand American-style synthesis of the best that had been thought and said, especially by the crisis theologians of Morningside Heights. Intelligence was very much a willed, systematic affair.

What Auden chiefly missed was the extreme diffidence inseparable from Tennyson’s equally extreme subjectivity, a diffidence about the modes of faith or the need for certainty. Even Auden didn’t want a poet to be that poetic. As a matter of fact, Tennyson was a voracious reader of poetry in several languages, English fiction (he read whole sets of novelists from Dickens to Marie Corelli), of history and the sciences. He was a founding member of the famous Metaphysical Society and dutifully read German philosophy. One can doubt that even Matthew Arnold really knew more in the sense of having read it.

Emerson was one of Tennyson’s first admirers and passed his copy of the Poems of 1832 to Margaret Fuller, who, together with Poe (for whom Tennyson was “the greatest who ever lived”), organized the first fan club in either country, mostly of young women who found themselves flatteringly mirrored in Claribel, Isabel, Lilian, Adeline, Rosalind, Margaret, Eleänore, Fatima, Mariana, and Oriana of the first volumes—“the girly poems” to Edward FitzGerald.2 Emerson finally met the poet in 1848 at a dinner with Coventry Patmore and though thinking him too sluggish and self-contented—“a perfect music-box of all manner of delicate tones and rhythms”—came home and wrote his most pungently urbane book, English Traits, many of whose maxims interpret Tennyson better than he knew.

They have in themselves what they value in their horses, mettle and bottom.

They are rather manly than warlike. When the war is over, the mask falls from their affectionate and domestic tastes, which make them women in kindness…. The two sexes are co-present in the English mind…. The English delight in the antagonism which combines in one person the extremes of courage and tenderness.

A saving stupidity masks and protects their perception, as the curtain of the eagle’s eye.

[Of Tennyson] Through all his refinement, too, he has reached the public,—a certificate of good sense and general power, since he who aspires to be the English poet must be as large as London, not in the same kind as London, but in his own kind.

One needs some sense of Tennyson’s “animal” strength in order to reach the outer limits of his art. Here is a riddle spoken by Merlin to Queen Bellicent when she questions the truth of his story of Arthur’s arrival in Britain.

   “Rain, rain and sun! a rainbow in the sky!
A young man will be wiser by and by;
An old man’s wit may wander ere he die.

Rain, rain and sun! a rainbow on the lea!
And truth is this to me, and that to thee;
And truth or clothed or naked let it be.

Rain, sun, and rain! and the free blossom blows:
Sun, rain, and sun! and where is he who knows?
From the great deep to the great deep he goes.”

And then:

Know ye not the riddling of the Bards?
“Confusion, and illusion, and rela- tion,
Elusion, and occasion, and eva- sion?”

Such ideas of imagination are congenial to those who value precision in all its ranges, who are hospitable to what Whitehead called “muddled” thinking at moments when precision, but not vision, is beside the point. Tennyson was fated to lose the esteem of those who took him too literally, who were muddled even about muddle.

But there is another, quite different sense in which Tennyson is magical, in what Swinburne called his “damnable accuracy”; the born entertainer, the connoisseur of children (Dodgson met and liked him, made hilarious fun of Maud in Alice:3 ” ‘In most gardens,’ the Tiger-lily said, ‘they make the beds too soft, so that the flowers are always asleep.’ This sounded a very good reason, and Alice was quite pleased to know it.”), the deeply humorous, forbearing, country-loving fantasist of such poems as “The Church-Warden and the Curate” or the two “Northern Farmer”s.

This Tennyson was kindled by the famous eye, a far keener, more curious eye than Wordsworth’s, which Swinburne thought was even finer than the famous ear. (Eliot said that he had “the finest ear of any poet since Milton,” Auden that “he had the finest ear, perhaps, of any English poet.”) Clearly eyes and ears are not autonomous organs, so their exaltation by the critics is another sign of the poet’s parabolical instincts.

   Nigh upon that hour
When the lone hern forgets his melancholy
Lets down his other leg, and stretching, dreams
Of goodly supper in the distant pool.

Surprised by such interludes, by superb lyrical rhetoric,

   let the wild
Lean-headed Eagles yelp alone, and leave
The monstrous ledges there to slope, and spill
Their thousand wreathes of dan- gling water-smoke,
That like a broken purpose waste in air:
So waste not thou; but come….

one is readier than the harried Victorian critics, whose notions of the constructive will in art were rigidly tied to ideas of social ambition and decorum, to let such passages coalesce in one’s mind into a separate poetic world that flows in and out of the main narrative. Sometimes the two merge entirely, in poems like “The Kraken” (a lost masterpiece), “Mariana,” “Tithonus,” “The Lotos-Eaters,” “St. Simeon Stylites,” “Ulysses,” “Lucretius,” etc.; or in the more splendid final episodes of the Idylls.

   Down in a casement sat,
A low sea-sunset glorying round her hair
And glossy-throated grace, Isolt the queen.

* * *

…but when the dolorous day
Grew drearier toward twilight fall- ing, came
A bitter wind, clear from the North, and blew
The mist aside, and with that wind the tide
Rose, and the pale King glanced across the field
Of battle. But no man was moving there;
Nor any cry of Christian heard thereon,
Nor yet of heathen; only the wan wave
Brake in among dead faces, to and fro
Swaying the helpless hands, and up and down
Tumbling the hollow helmets of the fallen,
And shivered brands that once had fought with Rome,
And rolling far along the gloomy shores
The voice of days of old and days to be.

  1. 1

    A Selection from Tennyson (London, 1947).

  2. 2

    For an amusing account of these poems, see Leigh Hunt’s essay in Tennyson: The Critical Heritage, edited by John Jump (Barnes & Noble, 1967).

  3. 3

    Empson is good about this in his chapter on Alice in Some Versions of Pastoral (New Directions).

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