Tennyson’s Early Work

The Devil and the Lady and Unpublished Early Poems

by Alfred Tennyson, edited by Charles Tennyson
Indiana, 192 pp., $6.00

Alfred Tennyson
Alfred Tennyson; drawing by David Levine

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 In 1931 appeared Unpublished Early Poems, a fascinating and indispensable collection of juvenilia from manuscripts then in Sir Charles’s possession (now at Harvard).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 lit
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…

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