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 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.

But often Tennyson’s curious felicity in seeing nature, especially every mood and form of water, exists for itself, or puts on Parnassian dress, or fills odd corners of a tapestry. Like Dickens, for whom the evocation of a building or room may be a full-scale dramatic novella, Tennyson persuades us to drop the adjective in that ancient canard: mere description.

Dangerously, even complacently dependent in boyhood and early manhood on the whims of a hard-nosed rich lawyer grandfather, “the Old Man of the Wolds”; like his brothers Charles, Frederick, Arthur, and Septimus (Edward early went mad, and Horatio’s youth saved him) nearly shattered by the consequences of his callow uncle Charles Tennyson d’Eyncourt’s being made heir instead of his father, the first-born and rightful heir, Alfred could hardly have been expected to rise far or often above the normally melodramatic Victorian attitudes toward money and property, “the rentroll Cupid of our rainy isles.” His genius was to sense how universal such attitudes were. Like his nature poetry, the flaring rant of “Locksley Hall”—

Cursèd be the social wants that sin against the strength of youth!
Cursèd be the social lies that warp us from the living truth!

Cursèd be the sickly forms that err from honest Nature’s rule!
Cursèd be the gold that gilds the straitened forehead of the fool!

or “Aylmer’s Field” or Maud must often be enjoyed for itself, detached from worrisome considerations of form or moral coherence.

Black-and-white responses to all social matters were epidemic at the time; it probably had something to do with the sudden need to improvise new careers. In any event, Tennyson slowly built up a body of work, including several charming “English Idyls” of the middle period, “Enoch Arden,” “Aylmer’s Field,” and other “tragic” tales that spoke with heartfelt sincerity for thousands of the young caught in a financial or social squeeze and forced to postpone marriage or give it up for some preposterous scruple. He himself was married at forty-one after a ten-year quasi engagement. Only when the apostolic Charles Kingsley had read In Memoriam in a private trial printing and assured Emily that Alfred was indeed what she had begun to suspect, quite safe enough for marriage, did the secret wedding take place. By then he was making about five thousand a year from his books, chiefly The Princess, and a small government pension wangled by friends years before, and could look his in-laws in the eye.

Tennyson’s great friend, the poet Arthur Hallam, the subject of In Memoriam, seems in letters to have been deeply in love with Tennyson’s sister Emily, but had to endure the same humiliating horse-trading between the Hallam and Tennyson families before his own engagement could be settled. This unnerving conjunction between the old flesh-market and new romantic conceptions of marriage was grist to Tennyson’s mill, his passionately naïve handling of which was a major pillar of his reputation. And when one thinks of how many of Byron’s heroes simply heaved their lady-loves across the backs of horses and made off into the night, Tennyson’s agonized candor puts him securely in the ranks of the sympathetic antiromantics.

Ricks treats Tennyson’s religious speculations straightforwardly in his In Memoriam chapter, more I think to placate the Victorian heavyweights he summons as witnesses than to settle anything. Like the impeccable answer he gives to the problem of suggested homosexuality in the same poem (after no fewer than four and a half pages of astute temporizing)—“But does it matter?”—George Eliot’s downrightness would seem to suffice: “Whatever was the immediate prompting of In Memoriam, whatever the form under which the author represented his aim to himself, the deepest significance of the poem is the sanctification of human love as a religion.” Precisely! and no mean undertaking either, but surely this subverts Eliot’s famous formula, “Its faith is a poor thing, but its doubt is a very intense experience.”

Ricks is interesting about Hallam:

It is often said that what Tennyson found, needed, and loved in Hallam was some sweet unlikeness to his own darkness of mind. The black blood of the Tennysons was drawn to the buoyant blood of the Hallams. But in fact Hallam was himself subject, frequently and fiercely, to the darkest feelings. His health, both physical and mental, was not strong….

It was in the summer of 1829 that he confided in Milnes his fears of going mad and of turning atheist: “In my fits of gloom I so often look death, and insanity in the face, that the impulse to leave some trace of my existence on this bulk of atoms gathers strength from the warning that I must be brief.”

Not only Hallam’s dogged efforts to have his friend published and his long review of 1831 which provided the early poems with a rationale4 were reasons, then, for the attachment, but also a pooling of miseries that would have been impossible between Tennyson and his hopelessly distracted father.

If there is a rule that holds good throughout this poet’s work, it is that when he mentions Purity in any connection he is engaging in the universal Victorian fret about people having too much pleasure from sex, too often, too soon, or too riskily. On no other subject is he so much the tiresome uncle. This “plot” may energize parts of the Idylls, but it also severely damages them as a whole.

Mr. Tennyson has lowered the note and deformed the outline of the Arthurian story, by reducing Arthur to the level of a wittol, Guenevere to the level of a woman of intrigue, and Launcelot to the level of a “co-respondent.” Treated as he has treated it, the story is rather a case for the divorce-court than for poetry…. The debased preference of Mr. Tennyson’s heroine for a lover so much beneath her noble and faithful husband is as mean an instance as any day can show in its newspaper reports of a common woman’s common sin.

This is only a fragment of Swinburne’s long, funny tirade against the Idylls. Tennyson was the eminent floggee of a nation addicted to flogging. But sometimes he deserved it.

In dealing with Idylls of the King, Ricks seems to show an uncharacteristic fatigue. But this is only apparent. One sees in his dismissal of such patent family entertainments as “Gareth and Lynette,” “The Marriage of Geraint,” or “Pelleas and Ettarre” as “broadly unsuccessful” a reluctance to dilute his praise of the greatly gloomy Tennyson with too much indulgence of his crowd-pleasing side. The high romantic foolery of the Idylls is always incidental—good hearthside fun, the domestications of Malvolio in the malign seneschal Sir Kay, or the Shakespearian fool in Sir Dagonet, and so on. Nevertheless Ricks’s hostility to the inner moral design of these poems results in his missing something important.

About midway in their composition, the poet must have begun to realize that the completion of Arthur’s first mission to root out Rome and subdue the “caitiff” border knights called for some relaxation in Camelot’s painfully stiff protocol—all those musclebound jocks proving their doctrine orthodox with apostolic blows and knocks. Throughout the poems Tennyson’s domesticated common sense twists the verse against his apparent intentions. One sees this in the harlot Ettarre’s mocking of her feckless lover as “Sir Boy” and “Sir Baby.” Best of all one sees it in Sir Tristram’s eloquent reply to Isolt in “The Last Tournament”:

   …can Arthur make me pure
As any maiden child? lock up my tongue
From uttering freely what I freely hear?
Bind me to one? The wide world laughs at it.
And worldling of the world am I, and know
The ptarmigan that whitens ere his hour
Woos his own end; we are not angels here
Nor shall be: vows—I am wood- man of the woods,
And hear the garnet-headed yaf- fingale
Mock them: my soul, we love but while we may….

One can be sure that Tennyson’s subversive subconscious had saved those exquisite birds for just such a moment. Throughout the Idylls we are never allowed to forget that Arthur sets impossibly narrow standards of conduct which all the ritual thwacking and hewing cannot hope to satisfy. One side effect is the disastrous Grailmania that decimates the ranks. It is one of history’s most trenchant ironies that the Kennedy administration should have been persuaded to adopt Camelot as its symbol.

On Maud, the “monodrama” that has baffled criticism like the hallowed effusion of some genius inmate of bedlam, Mr. Ricks is much to the point. Its original subtitle was or the Madness, and it is based on an episode of calf love with a heartless minx suggestively called Rosa Baring, revealed to the world by Professor R. W. Rader in a remarkable job of sleuthing.5 Tennyson’s erotic susceptibilities were as keen as his superego was censorious. Here the Tennysonian black blood becomes a very Phlegethon; all his major themes are engaged. For the rest of his life the poet read it aloud to anyone who would listen.

In the light of the subcult of madness that runs through modernist verse, this brilliant poem seems far easier to take today than it did, say, to Gladstone, who conscientiously wrestled with every word that Tennyson published. (Imagine FDR writing a twenty-page exegesis of Wallace Stevens!) Having, as he should, rejected the sympathy that Tennyson never really solicits for his hero (who may be partly based on his obstreperous brother Frederick), Ricks goes on:

It is a poem about losing someone whom you have never really had…. For Maud is an unprecedented evocation of a deep fear of love…. The essential madness is the fear of love, and the hero is not thinking of traditional cheerful pangs, but of the worst psychic cowardice and dismay….

…The point is not simply that the hero of Maud is the sort of person who (fortunately for the poem, unfortunately for him) has splendidly various “successive phases of passion”; rather, that he is so near madness—and does indeed go mad—that it is possible, apt, and compelling for “successive phases of passion in one person [to] take the place of successive persons.”

Much more than this one cannot say for Tennyson’s dramatic intelligence. Except for a certain operatic richness in The Cup, which went down well with the London audience that saw Henry Irving in an opulent production, and a few well-researched, vigorous episodes in Queen Mary and Becket, the penultimate years of play-writing were the practical failure one would have expected. But Becket, produced by Irving, who, according to Sir Charles, “had an almost mystical admiration for the play” and who said that “no dramatic poetry and no character had influenced him so much,” ran for 112 nights the year after the poet died, was revived in 1904 and 1905, was a great success in America in 1895, and was the last play in which Irving acted. Such a tenacious hold did Tennyson’s mind still have on the late Victorians.

Meanwhile, in a succession of shorter poems—“The Ancient Sage,” “Vastness,” “Parnassus,” “By an Evolutionist,” “The Dawn,” and “The Making of Man”—poems analogous to those striking last painting-sketches of Titian’s at Venice, “realistic and yet strangely exultant” in Francis Golffing’s phrase,6 he was preparing a final apotheosis. Free at last of the demons of the press and the countinghouse—he left an earned estate of £58,000 when he died—he could survey the future in a rough and careless mood. As different as possible from the suave perfections of a “Tithonus” or “Ulysses,” these poems are the best illustration in English of the truth of Eliot’s remark that “in estimating for ourselves the greatness of a poet we have to take into account also the history of his greatness.”

I stood on a tower in the wet,
And New Year and Old Year met,
And winds were roaring and blow- ing;
And I said, “O years, that meet in tears,
Have ye aught that is worth the knowing?
Science enough and exploring,
Wanderers coming and going,
Matter enough for deploring,
But aught that is worth the know- ing?”
Seas at my feet were flowing,
Waves on the shingle pouring,
Old Year roaring and blowing,
And New Year blowing and roar- ing.

This Issue

November 2, 1972