The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 10. Charles Tennyson
The name Tennyson may have overshadowed for a time, in the long run it has given an adventitious interest to, the work of the poet laureate’s brothers, Frederick and Charles. Frederick went from Louth grammar school to Eton, and from Eton to Cambridge, where, after a year at St. John’s college, he migrated to Trinity where he was joined by his brothers. He distinguished himself by gaining the Browne medal with a Greek ode on Egypt. The cadence of the closing lines lingered in the ears of Sir Francis Doyle all his life: [char] But he did not make so strong an impression on his contemporaries as the younger brothers. The greater part of his subsequent life was spent in Italy, and the last thirty-five years in Jersey. At Florence, he came under the influence of the spiritualistic influences which attracted Mrs. Browning and gave the world Mr. Sludge, “The Medium”; and in his later life he became an ardent Freemason and Swedenborgian. He was a great reader, a student of art and a passionate lover of music. His first volume of poems Days and Hours was published in 1854. Thereafter, he published nothing until 1890, when he issued a long volume of blank verse idylls called The Isles of Greece, followed, in 1891, by a volume of classical stories, Daphne and other Poems, and, in 1895, under the title of Poems of the Day and Year, a selection from the earlier printed poems with some additions.
Charles Tennyson graduated at Cambridge in 1832 and was ordained in 1835. On succeeding to a small estate by the will of a grand-uncle he took the name of Turner. The greater part of his life was spent as vicar at Grasby in Lincolnshire, where he cultivated his delicate, meditative verse, writing sonnets on incidents in his daily life, public events, theological topics and other subjects. He died at Cheltenham in 1879.
Charles Tennyson’s poems, with few exceptions, were sonnets, in the Italian form, but with a fresh set of rimes in the second quartet of the octave. Fifty were published in 1830 and were added to, as occasion suggested, till Sonnets, Old and New, published in 1880, numbered more than three hundred. Not many of this number reveal the intensity of feeling and perfection of form which are essential to the sonnet. Coleridge was attracted by the young Tennyson’s sonnets, as, at an earlier age, he had been by the not very dissimilar sonnets of Bowles with their pensive sentiment and occasionally felicitous description. But, when at his best, Tennyson-Turner is a finer artist than Bowles. Some of the earlier, indeed, show an uncertain grasp of the form, the last lines betraying an heroic effort to complete the fourteen and finish. He wrote too many on occasional themes and theological polemics. But the best of those inspired by aspects of natural scenery and simple incidents have the charm of felicitous workmanship and delicate feeling. The Lattice at Sunrise, The Buoy-Bell, The Ocean and some others suggest Wordsworth in a minor key, and Letty’s Globe, like the grander sonnet of Blanco White, is a poem in which art and chance seem to have combined to produce a poem surprisingly felicitous alike in conceit and execution.
If Charles Tennyson is a pleasing lesser poet, Frederick strikes one as a poet in whom the possibility of greater things was never realised. His character and occasional lines in his work impressed FitzGerald, who, after 1842, was never a whole-hearted admirer of the poet laureate’s work. “You are now the only man I expect verse from,” he wrote to Frederick in 1850, “such gloomy, grand stuff as you write … we want some bits of strong, genuine imagination”; and Browning spoke of him as possessing all the qualities of his brother Alfred, but in solution. “One always expected them to crystallise—but they never did.”
There is certainly more of the large manner about him than Charles. His imagery, especially his personifications, is more imaginative; his verse has more of sweep and flow. But he never took to heart, as Alfred did, the lesson of brevity: “I felt certain of one thing then, if I meant to make any mark at all it must be by shortness, for the men before me had been so diffuse.” Frederick’s classical idylls and narratives are excessively diffuse. They contain some of his best work, charming description, tenderness of feeling—passion they lack as, in some degree, does the work of all the Tennysons. There is none that would not have gained by concentration of treatment.