The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

II. The Tennysons

§ 9. Summary

The very fulness of Tennyson’s popularity, unlike anything since Pope, provoked the inevitable reaction. To do justice to the great body of varied and splendid poetry he lived to complete without any such subsidence of original inspiration as is evident in all the later work of Wordsworth, relived though that is by fitful recurrences of the old magic, time was needed, time which separates unerringly the most accomplished writing and interesting thought from poetry, the expression of an imaginative, musical soul. It was on the thinker, the seer, that the greatest admirers of the old poet, Frederick Myers and others, were tempted to lay stress, the prophet of immortality in an age of positivism. But Tennyson was no seer like Blake or Wordsworth, no agile dialectician like Browning. He was a great sensitive soul, full of British prejudices but also with a British conscience, anxious to render a good account of the talent entrusted to him, to make art the handmaid of duty and faith, but troubled by the course of events and unable to find any solution save a faith in the “far future,” in a process that runs through all things, the

  • one far-off divine event,
  • To which the whole creation moves.
  • Since Shakespeare, there has been no poet so English in his prejudices and in his love of the soil and scenery of England, her peasants and her great sailors and soldiers. To speak of him as a representative Victorian is a mistake if it suggests that there was in him anything of Macaulay’s complacent pride in the “progress” of the age, economic and scientific. He was interested in, and his thought deeply coloured by, these; but, temperamentally, he belonged to the aristocratic, martial England of the period that closed in 1832, and the conflict of his temperament and his conscientious effort to understand and sympathise with his own age gave a complex timber to many of his poems. At heart, he was an aristocratic Englishman, distrustful of democracy, and disdainful of foreigners and foreign politics, passionately patriotic and troubled, above all, by a fear that democratic England was less jealous of her honour than the old, more intent on material welfare and peace at any price. At heart, he was a Christian in a quite undogmatic English fashion, a Christian of the old English rectory and village-church type, rich in the charities and the simpler pieties, with no touch of Browning’s nonconformist fervour, distrustful of Romanising dogmas and ritual, at once interested in, and profoundly troubled by, the drift of contemporary science and positivism. The beauties of English rural scenery and English gardens and villages are woven through and through the richly coloured tapestry of his poetry. Of his one journey to Italy he remembered only the discomfort of the rain and the daisy which spoke to him of England. Even for the dead it is better to lie in English soil:
  • we may stand
  • Where he in English earth is laid,
  • And from his ashes may be made
  • The violet of his native land.
  • And there are no such achievements by sea or land as those of English sailors and soldiers.

    It is not as a thinker or seer that Tennyson will live but as one of the most gifted and, with Milton and Gray, one of the few conscientious workmen among English poets. From Claribel to Crossing the Bar, the claim of his poetry is always the same, the wonderful felicity with which it renders in vivid picture, in varied but always dramatically appropriate metre, in language of the most carefully wrought euphony—no poet since Milton studied as Tennyson did the finer effects of well adjusted vowels and consonants—the single intense mood in which the poem has been conceived. He was not a great dramatist, he was not a great narrative poet. There is a more passionate, winged movement in the songs of other poets than his, songs that sing themselves more inevitably. His great achievement is in that class of meditative, musical, decorative poetry to which belong Milton’s L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, Gray’s Elegy, Keat’s odes. This is the type towards which all his poems tend even when they take different forms and are lyrical or include an element of narrative. And, if Tennyson has written nothing finer than Milton’s or Keat’s poems just named, he has given new qualities to the kind, and he has extended its range by his dramatic use of the idyll, the picture of a mood. Compared with Tennyson, Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats are poets of a single note, nature mystically interpreted, the sensuous delight of beauty, the “desire of the moth for the star.” The moods to which Tennyson has given poetic expression are as varied as his metres, and include a rare feeling for the beauty of English scenery, the mind of the peasant in many of its phases, humorous and tragic, the interpretation of classical legend, the reproduction of the very soul of some Greek and Roman poets, as Theocritus and Vergil, Lucretius and Catullus, the colour and beauty, if not all the peculiar ethical and religious tone, of medieval romance, complexities of mind and even pathological subtleties of emotion, the brooding of a sensitive spirit over the riddles of life and death and good and evil. Browning has a wider range, is less insular, more curious about exotic types and more subtle in tracing the dialectics of mood and situation. But he does not enter more intensely into the purely emotional aspect of the mood, and he does not steep the whole in such a wealth of colour and melody.

    Coming after the great romantics, Tennyson inherited their achievement in the rediscovery of poetic themes, the purification and enrichment of English poetic diction, the liberation and enrichment of English verse, and he uses them all as a conscious, careful artist. His poetry stands to theirs much as a garden to a natural landscape. The free air of passionate inspiration does not blow through it so potently; it lacks the sublimity of sea and moor and the open heavens. But there are compensations. The beauty of nature is enhanced by art, the massing of blooms, the varying of effects, the background of velvet lawn and grassy bank and ordered hedgerow; above all, by the enrichment of the soil which adds a deeper crimson to the rose, and blends with simpler blooms the splendours of the exotic. An imagination rich in colour, a delicate and highly trained ear, a thought which if not profound was nourished on the literature and philosophy of Greece and Rome—these were among Tennyson’s gifts to English poetry, and they go a long way to counterbalance such limitations as are to be found in his thought and feeling. The peerage conferred on him in 1884 was the recognition of the greatness of his reputation and the intensely national spirit of his work.