n this category fall those poems which are self-consciously public in nature: the Horatian verse epistles, the official Laureate poems, and various other poems on political and nationalistic themes. One could make a case for the real distinction of many individual poems in the first two categories, but not, I think, for the highly charged political poems that issued from Tennyson's wrath arid indignation regularly throughout his career. These are not the Laureate Poems. When Tennyson became Laureate he was forced to find for the official poems a different, more comprehensive and inclusive point of view, arid a more detached stance, all of which made for much more interesting and powerful poetry. He did continue during this period to publish his “real feelings” without the softening of much art or distance, but he did so anonymously. It is this unquestionably inferior category which is, unfortunately, most revealing for my purposes. The fine poems in the first two categories can be given only a nod in passing.
First, the Laureate poems. Despite the excellence of Valerie Pitt's analysis of them, it is not easy to accept her very high estimate of their quality. It is true that in the great Wellington Ode one can see how skillfully Tennyson creates an elegiac community, a unity of sorrow in “hamlet and hall” (l. 7) and of all those in the “long long procession” (l. 15)- Surprisingly, he strives first to increase the community's sorrow and sense of loss: “The last great Englishman is low” (1. 18), but, having uttered this, he immediately turns from it-the next line says “he seemsthe last” [my italics]-and begins to build a new unity. The cohesiveness is provided by the power of the society to give honor and thus give life:
And through the centuries let a people's voice
In full acclaim, [216/217]
A people's voice,
The proof and echo of all human fame,
A people's voice, when they rejoice
At civic revel and pomp and game,
Attest their great commander's claim
With honour, honour, honour, honour to him,
Eternal honour to his name. [ll. 142-501]
It is not a new idea to suggest immortality through fame, of course, but Tennyson gives it quite a special emphasis by focusing not so much on the continuance of the dead man's name as on the power of the people to grant that continuance. It is the “people's voice,” as the recurrent phrase insists, that endures through the ages. The poem subtly promotes not the immortality of Wellington so much as the immortality of a unified and disciplined people. The duke finally becomes explicitly a “great example” (l. 220), showing that “the path of duty was [and will be] the way to glory” (l. 202) and teaching discipline, union, and peace. One sees, in other words, that the poem is rhetorically subtle and highly controlled. But one can also see how this and the other Laureate poems work deliberately to restrict their area of concern and to establish it both impersonally and abstractly. The impulse to cleanse, rejuvenate, and solidify is there, as it is in the major comedies, but it seems contained and modest in comparison to the boldly ambitious The Princess, In Memoriam, and Maud.
Much the same point may be made in relation to Tennyson's undoubted mastery of epistolary verse, where again the emphasis is on controlled grace and perfect felicity of phrasing. The most famous example is the sophisticated and charming ending of “To E. FitzGerald“:
And so I send a birthday line
Of greeting . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . which you will take
My Fitz, and welcome, as I know
Less for its own than for the sake
Of one recalling gracious times,
When, in our younger London days,
You found some merit in my rhymes, [216/217]
And I more pleasure in your praise. [ll. 45-46, 50-56]
The warm “My Fitz” is balanced by the self-depreciating “rhymes,” the deliberate understatement of “some merit,” and the quiet word pleasure. The emotion is expressed by being unexpressed, so that the commonest words, like gracious, become remarkably expansive when used to cover a whole range of emotional experience; gracious times. There is a warm sense of mutual understanding, of scarcely needing to state what is so well understood, that gives new life to simple language and includes the reader in its familiarity and sophistication. The last lines of “To the Rev. F. D. Maurice” achieve the same restrained warmth through the use of a slight, happy ambiguity: “Nor pay but one [visit], but come for many,/ Many and many a happy year” (ll. 47-48).
Again, while these epistolary poems are obviously expressions of a comic impulse, they are, like the Laureate poems, expressions of a very restrained, ordered comedy, The multiplicity and abandon associated with comedy are played down in order to emphasize the great control. Even the “Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington” works by deliberately simplifyingour response in order to specify our emotional attitude and create a restricted unity. Many diverse emotions are raised in the poem (it opens, we recall, by focusing our grief), but they are finally brought into a closed form, cast out, or superseded by the overriding force of oneness. This can he seen as a part of a great comic tradition, and no one can say that the tradition is in any sense deficient.
But it does seem that by the nineteenth century more chaotic, multitudinous strategies were beginning to prevail. The old, coherent certainties are gone, and even Dickens, who we can sense would have had a wonderful time manipulating vices and virtues, does not stay with the simplifying strategy for long. The Pickwick Papers begins that way, but before long Sam and Tony Welter appear, spraying subversive comments everywhere and disallowing — in fact attacking — the crystalline rhetoric and clear unity the novel had seemed to be advocating. Though there are no Wellers in Tennyson, his solutions in the long comic poems tend toward the same deliberate denial of simplicity and unity that we find in The Pickwick Papers. Only in these minor poems does he reach a level of assured public statement by a highly skillful process of selection and focusing. [217/218]
Beneath this level of confident and sophisticated art in Tennyson runs a kind of subterranean stream that feeds the direct political poems in the third category. These poems are made up of dark fears that are to the comic impulse approximately what a jungle howl is to a symphony. Critics often express astonishment that the same mind could produce both “St Simeon Stylites” and “The May Queen;” there is, surely, an equal distance between “Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington” and “Riflemen Form!“. I am aware that no one would deny this; the only reason for discussing these poems is that they represent an interesting perversion and reduction of many of Tennyson's major themes and -generic preoccupations. Though trivial, they are revealing.
Like most modern comic poets, Tennyson almost always envisioned the ideal social unit as the family, not the nation. But there was a part of him that had national opinions, very deeply held opinions on political issues accompanied by a deeply felt compulsion to express them. It is often said that Tennyson was not very intelligent in these matters, that “he really did hold a great many of the same views as Queen Victoria, though he was gifted with a more fortunate literary style,” (Chesterton, p. 162) or that he was, in a general way, “undoubtedly the stupidest” of English poets (Auden, p. x). To read his “views” in the Memoir or in his wife's and son's various recordings of his “Sayings” is a tedious and depressing business. But the quality of his intelligence is really not the problem; rather, it is the depth of uncontrolled, primitive feeling welling over in the poems that makes an unsympathetic reader think, not so much of defective intelligence as defective emotions, not a dull schoolteacher but a drunk in a bar declaiming on the moral decline. The poems are not unintelligent; they operate beneath the level of intelligence altogether. It was this plain primitivism, no doubt, that caused [218/219] John Stuart Mill to wonder if “they are meant for bitter ridicule of vulgar nationality,” “if they are to be taken seriously.” (Review, 42).
The vulgarity and bitterness Mill perceived in the early volumes continue to dominate these poems until Tennyson's death, There is absolutely no development, a fact which certainly suggests that they had no connection with Tennyson's notions of his duties as Laureate; similarly, the violence of the language suggests that neither were they connected with high-minded views of social duty, apostolic or otherwise. One can hardly imagine the Apostles countenancing such things as the hysterical reference to the French in the original version of “Riflemen Form!“:
Ready, be ready! the times are wild!
Bearded monkeys of lust and blood
Coming to violate woman and child! (see p. 1779 in the Ricks edition).
This is extreme even for Tennyson, but it suggests the level of simplicity, even brutality, on which much of his political poetry operates.
This poetry is dedicated to “law and order” in the peculiarly modern sense that slogan has acquired: it is reactionary, cautious, and terribly afraid. It meets the cataclysmic change of the nineteenth century with a childish, mocking jeer. The price Tennyson paid for his great poetry was this barbarous counter-strain, where he could, apparently, blow off steam and gather his resources for his important efforts. He relaxed from irony and comedy into poetry that was made as simple as possible so that the tension could be released. The political poetry is, perhaps, an artistic and emotional drainage system.
It is significant that when, as in “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” Tennyson was stirred by public events to write. ironically, he tried in revisions to dispose of the irony. In the 1855 version Tennyson changed the poised and tonally ambiguous ending to one that is bland and unidirectional. He also dropped the famous line, [219/220] “Some one had blundered.” John Ruskin wrote to him about this subversive line, urging him to restore it: “It was precisely the most tragical line in the poem,” (Memoir, I:411) he said. It is, in our sense, precisely the most ironic line, Though Tennyson later did restore it, the 1855 revision is interesting, in that it suggests riot so much timidity as Tennyson's Deed for emotional simplification in this genre. This statement is just the sort that would have infuriated Tennyson, but the truth is he cared very little for political life or even for the conception of “England” as a political unit. He could, after all, use them in this necessary but quite offhand way, releasing his tensions onto them so he could turn his mind to genuine work. The poems are sincere, of course; they have the sincerity of emotional doodles.
There is, as I have said, no discernible development throughout them. “English Warsong” in the 1830 volume might have been published at any time. Its shrill purpose is to convince any waverers that fear of death is shameful, deserving “withering scorn” (l. 5), and that, in any case, the enemy who will force us to confront death will hardly be able to manage it: “He is weak! we are strong; he a slave, we are free” (l. 30). One would suppose that the thought of death need hardly arise if “The child in our cradles is bolder than he” (l. 27), but one is not encouraged to supposeanything. The poem is full of such gaps, constantly returning to slogans and the obsessive “we are free.” This word free is the key term in all of Tennyson's national songs, popping up in chorus after emotional chorus' The comic principle of freedom is continually stated but never realized, since the motive of the poem is so obviously a fear that the vaunted freedom is or soon will be gone.
The poems strive for comedy without any optimism, and they spend an enormous amount of energy playing what might be called “Find the jailer.” The perception of bondage is reduced to a search for a cause, and since there is no real cause, the political poems can only use symbolic villains that are quite inadequate. Most often the scapegoat asked to bear the weight of responsibility for the frustration is France - "For the French the pope may shrive [220/221] 'em, / For the devil a whit we heed 'em” (“National Song“)-or, even better, Napoleon Buonaparte: “He thought to quell the stubborn hearts of oak, / Madman!-to chain with chains, and bind with bands / That island queen who sways the floods and lands / From Ind to Ind” (“Buonaparte,” ll. 1-4).
When actual war threatened in 1852, Tennyson rose to the challenge with vigorous attacks on all complexities. The one thing, he urged, was to “Arm, arm, arm!“: “Is this a time to cry for peace, / When we should shriek for rifles?” (“The Penny-Wise,” ll. 34-35). “Shriek” indeed. All those who stood in the way of the arming and the rifle clubs, war plans, and, one supposes, an invasion of the Continent, were quickly dismissed: the “O babbling Peace Societies” (“The Penny-Wise.,” l. 32); the tradesmen and “niggard throats of Manchester” (“The Third of February, 1852,” ll. 43-45), whom Tennyson more than suspected of promoting peace in order to build profits; the House of Lords for their niggling economies; and all those who foolishly urged religious, moral, or practical scruples against war.
Everything must be concentrated on the search for and the elimination of the villain:
Let your reforms for a moment go!
Look to your butts, and take good aims!
Better a rotten borough or so
Than a rotten fleet and a city in flames!
(“Riflemen Form!,” ll. 15-18). In the end, the major enemies are logic, reason, and especially prudence: “For her there lie in wait millions of foes, / And yet the 'Not too much' is all the rule she knows” (“Suggested by Reading an Article in a Newspaper,” ll. 59-60), Tennyson's snarling attack on British “respectability” and his inflamed defense of extremism make us aware that we are up against a kind of temporary hysterical paranoia, therapeutic to the writer, no doubt, but not conducive to great art. Poems like these are at the opposite pole from the poised reasonableness of the Laureate poems.
There is no evidence that Tennyson, for all his morbidity, was paranoid, but these poems do project a sense of betrayal on all sides. The political poems are only the crudest expression of the feeling of loss, an attempt to find a central enemy so that the ironic tension may be dissolved. Tennyson keeps returning in the later poems, not only in Maud, to the term “liar“- “peace-lovers we-but who can trust a liar?” (“Britons, Guard Your Own,” l. 14)-and Arthur's kingdom stands and falls on its central belief in absolute honesty. [221/222]
Again, this political expression seems to be a reduction of what in the Idylls is a sense of great cosmic trickery. The ironic apprehensions, then, are present in the political poems, which are not so much superficial politics as mistaken attempts to solve the ironic dilemma by reducing it to manageable, discreet terms.
What is remarkable, then, is not that Tennyson was attracted to simple escapes from his vision but that he was attracted to them so little. One might say that these poems are inferior only because Tennyson's ironic perception was so strong yet delicate that he could not put labels on the villains at all convincingly. In any case, a few poems on British hearts of oak are a small price to pay for Idylls of the King.
Web version created March 2001
Last modified 8 August 2016