With the collection of poems published in 1842 Tennyson begins to assume his familiar guise as Victorian prophet. The dilemma of the divided will persists, but has become so overlaid by other concerns as to be all but unrecognizable to the reader not familiar with poet's habits of mind in their germinal state. The protagonist of Locksley Hall undergoes [12/13] the same crisis of doubt that found subjective expression in "Supposed Confessions of a Second-rate Sensitive Mind" and "The Two Voices"; but now larger social implications are involved. To bring the theme home to his age, Tennyson embeds it in melodramatic narrative of a kind dear to his heart: namely, crossed love between lovers of unequal worldly station. Furthermore, the poem concludes on a very much more positive note than "The Two Voices." After rejecting the temptation to sink into sensuality on an Eastern island, the hero takes the more manly decision to join the army and fight for his country. [Tennyson habitually associated the East with laxity of will and self-indulgence. See, for example, "The Hesperides," "Tithonus," and "The Voyage."]
Such a poem as "Tithonus" indicates Tennyson's growing disposition to disguise his private thoughts under extrinsic layers of meaning. Although not published until 1860, "Tithonus" was contemporary in conception with "Ulysses" (text). This extraordinarily beautiful and moving treatment of classical myth is usually read as an utterance of its author's grief over Hallam's death; but, like "The Lady of Shalott," it is also almost certainly a symbolic representation of Tennyson's a aesthetic philosophy. Taken so, Eos stands for the Keatsian ideal of beauty which holds the poet in bondage. Tithonus remembers the first thrilling visitations of the creative impulse:
Ay me! ay me! with what another heart
In days far-off, and with what other eyes
I used to watch-if I be he that watchd
The lucid outline forming found thee; saw
The dim curls kindle into sunny rings;
Changed with thy mystic change, and felt my blood
Glow with the glow that slowly crimsond all
Thy presence and thy portals, while I lay,
Mouth, forehead, eyelids, growing dewy-warm
With kisses balmier than half-opening buds
Of April, and could hear the lips that kiss'd
Whispering I knew not what of wild and sweet,
Like that strange song I heard Apollo sing,
While Ilion like a mist rose into towers. [13/14]
Now, weighed down by age (a metaphor, perhaps, for Tennyson is desolation over the loss of his friend), the speaker asks only that he be allowed to return to share the common lot of his fellowmen:
Let me go; take back thy gift.
Why should a man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men,
Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance
Where all should pause, as is most meet for all?
The general run of new poems published in 1842, however, does not require, nor indeed call for, such probing after ulterior meanings. Tennyson had been less inattentive to criticisms of his previous work than be pretended; and in his desire for a wider measure of recognition he was beginning to court the public. The direction in which he was tending is clear from new developments which now begin to manifest themselves in his writing. In the first place, whereas he bad before viewed contemporary life in the subjective and individualistic terms of "The Two Voices," he now made a determined effort to write poems of topical Interest, realistic in situation and conventional in tone. These are the so, called En lisb Idyls, sentimental narratives of domestic life. Along with "Locksley Hall," but more obviously addressed to Victorian tastes, the 1842 volumes included the following poems in this manner: "The Gardener's Daughter," "Dora," "Audley Court," "Walking to the Mail," "The Talking Oak," "Lady Clare," "Edward Gray" and "The Lord of Burleigh." Although now and then the more sombre and moody streak in Tennyson's temperament cropped up, it was kept subservient to the controlling tone of bland tractability. In "Walking to the Mail," for instance, Sir Edward Head's spiritual malady, so similar to that portrayed in "Locksley Hall," provides matter for no more than a passing comment, and that of a moralizing kind:
No, sir, he,
Vext with a morbid devil in his blood
That veil'd the world with jaundice, hid his face
From all men, and commercing with himself, [14/15]
He lost the sense that handles daily life—
That keeps us all in order more or less—
And sick of home went overseas for change.
A like change takes place in the conduct of many of the poems derived from the author's reading. Tennyson's uneventful life made him more reliant than most English poets on literary sources of inspiration; but as we have seen in the cases of "The Lady of Shalott," "The Lotos-Eaters," and "Tithonus," his happiest use of myths or legends generally involved a reinterpretation of their original significance in terms of some private and highly personal insight. In the 1842 collection, however, the reworking is undertaken with a didactic intent. As a result, the poet's handling of traditional stories frequently appears by modern standards overly explicit and rather offensively moralistic. The titles of these poems too often bring to mind the edifying tag-lines which incorporate their themes. Thus, for example: "Morte d'Arthur" ("The old order changeth, yielding place to new"), "Godiva" ("So the Powers, who wait/ On noble deeds, cancell'd a sense misused"), "Sir Galahad" ("My strength is as the strength of ten,/ Because my heart is pure").
In this body of poetry, too, we begin to recognize the Tennyson who was to constitute himself the advocate and defender of so many of the Victorians' cherished shibboleths. In particular, that dream of progress towards an Utopia social order, which was so deeply ingrained in the age, keeps recurring throughout these poems: in "Morte d'Arthur," "Locksley Hall," "The Golden Year" (first published in 1846), "The Day-Dream," "The Poet's Song." Likewise, passing references to aesthetic matters (in "The Gardener's Daughter," "The DayDream," and "The Golden Year") show Tennyson moving towards the Ruskinian positions that art is incidental to life, that beauty only shines in use, and that the artist is a product of his society. In her description of the proper ends of poetry Princess Ida of "The Princess" endorses that commingling of ethics and aesthetics which made for the highest artistic accomplishment in the eyes of the age: [15/16]
But great is song
Used to great ends; ourself have often tried
Valkyrian hymns, or into rhythm have dash'd
The passion of the prophetess; for song
Is duer unto freedom, force and growth
Of spirit, than to junketing and love.
Yet, as Tennyson drew closer to the laureateship and popular recognition as the official poetic voice of Victorian England, doubts lingered in his mind-if not so much the old ones of his capacity to fill this role, then new and equally grave ones occasioned by a clearer comprehension of the compromises necessary to fame. In a mood half humorous, half bitter, the speaker in "Will Waterproof's Lyrical Monologue" contrasts the conditions of literary success in the nineteenth century to those pertaining in previous periods:
Hours when the Poet's words and looks
Had yet their native glow,
Nor yet the fear of little books
Had made him talk for show;
But, all his vast heart sherris-warm'd,
He flash'd his random speeches,
Ere days that deal in ana swarm'd
His literary leeches.
More biting are the lines in "Walking to the Mail" which castigate society for its callous and blundering disregard for originality of mind:
What know we of the secret of a man?
His nerves were wrong. What ails us who are sound,
That we should mimic this raw fool the world,
Which charts us all in its coarse blacks or whites,
As ruthless as a baby with a worm,
As cruel as a schoolboy ere he grows
To pity–more from ignorance than will.
The evolution of the poet's aesthetic theories between 1832 and 1850, his annus mirabilis, is best illustrated by In Memoriam. [16/17] Anyone at all familiar with the poetry of Tennyson knows something of the history and influence of this elegy, which traces the author's progress from grief-stricken despair over Hallam's death to an ultimate affirmation of faith which all Victorian England, from the Queen down, accepted as meeting the needs of the modern spirit. What is less generally recognized is that In Memoriam is also an intimate record of Tennyson's thinking about the nature and purpose of his poetry during the period of seventeen years in which the elegy from its start as a collection of random lyrics grew into a highly formalized apologia.
By 1850, the year when In Memoriam was published, Tennyson had relinquished for good and all the confessional tone that runs through so much of his youthful poetry, including the early sections of In Memoriam itself. In the Prologue to the poem, not written until 1849, the poet could say with the diffidence of hindsight: "Forgive these wild and wandering cries,/ Confusions of a wasted youth." On this evaluation, In Memoriam is the best commentary. The author passes through four readily identifiable stages of development in clarifying his artistic intent; and these stages are roughly equivalent to his psychological advance from unrestrained grief through emotional numbness to hesitant hope and the eventual recognition that bereavement has provided a basis for religious certainty.
At the outset the poet is too overcome by Hallam's loss to use poetry as anything but a means of release, though he does pause to wonder over the vagaries of the imagination which can convert every emotion into grist for its mill:
What words are these have fallen from me?
Can calm despair and wild unrest
Be tenants of a single breast,
Or Sorrow such a changeling be?
He writes without forethought, speaking of himself as "that delirious man" [17/18]
Whose fancy fuses old and new,
And flashes into false and true,
And mingles all without a plan.
By the nineteenth poem, however, a greater degree of objectivity has led to the discovery that the poetic impulse occurs only in moments of comparative detachment, such as follow on paroxysms of sorrow. As the artist regains control, he is increasingly reluctant to put his faculties at the disposal of undisciplined emotion. There is even a touch of scorn in the thirty-fourth poem with its reference to
Fantastic beauty; such as lurks
In some wild poet, when he works
Without a conscience or an aim.
Tennyson now enters a phase when, personal suffering somewhat alleviated, he can scrutinize his aesthetic motives more closely. Hallam's death has opened up tragic depths within his consciousness and left a sense of inability to deal adequately in poetic terms with the profounder implications of the experience. He thinks of the Gospel story and concludes that the noblest expressions of spiritual truth are directly provocative of action:
Tho' truths in manhood darkly join,
Deep-seated in our mystic frame,
We yield all blessing to the name
Of Him that made them current coin;
For Wisdom dealt with mortal powers,
Where truth in closest words shall fail,
When truth embodied in a tale
Shall enter in at lowly doors.
And so the Word had breath, and wrought
With human hands the creed of creeds
In loveliness of perfect deeds,
More strong than all poetic thought...
By contrast his obsession with self in the name of art seems unworthy; he has "loiter'd in the master's field,/ And darkend [18/19] sanctities with song." Yet there remains the indisputable fact that poetry assuages his stricken feelings as no other outlet can: "But in the songs I love to sing/ A doubtful gleam of solace lives." This being true, he will continue to think of his muse as the unpretending handmaiden of a private impulse:
If these brief lays, of Sorrow born,
Were taken to be such as closed
Grave doubts and answers here proposed,
Then these were such as men might scorn.
Her care is not to part and prove;
She takes, when harsher moods remit,
What slender shade of doubt may flit,
And makes it vassal unto love;
And hence, indeed, she sports with words,
And better serves a wholesome law,
And holds it sin and shame to draw
The deepest measure from the chords;
Nor dare she trust a larger lay,
But rather loosens from the lip
Short swallow-flights of song, that dip
Their wings in tears, and skim away.
For this self-imposed limitation in scope Tennyson presents in the seventy-seventh poem additional historical justification. Since the modern age offers no themes comparable to those which inspired the masterpieces of the past, the contemporary poet cannot hope for lasting fame and may as well confine his art to his own individual concerns.
By the eighty-fifth poem, however, Tennyson has seen hope dawn; and concurrently he begins to wonder, though as yet without any great amount of confidence, whether his poetic insights are solely attributable to grief playing with symbols and "pining life" fed on fancies. The dream allegory of the one hundred and third poem, which has interesting affinities with "The Palace of Art," sounds a new and altogether more ambitious note. Here the poet first confesses that his [19/20] suffering has been largely self-regarding. He has made out of Hallam's memory an idol to be set up in the private shrine of the imagination and worshipped, with the poetic faculties, represented as maidens, presiding over the rites as votaries. But now to Tennyson, as to the hero in "Locksley Hall," has come "a summons from the sea," in response to which he has gone out into the world, there to be greeted by the living presence of his friend grown to heroic size. As Tennyson boards the ship, so often for him a symbol of the active life Hallam likewise admits the maidens, who have "gather'd strength and grace/ And presence, lordlier than before" in preparation for the nobler demands henceforth to be made of them. After this it is not surprising in the one hundred and eighth poem to find the author renouncing the self-absorbed and inconclusive brooding of the earlier lyrics, and embracing in exchange that concept of participation in the common lot for which Tithonus had yearned:
I will not shut me from my kind,
And, lest I stiffen into stone,
I will not eat my heart alone,
Nor feed with sighs a passing wind.
What find I in the highest place,
But mine own phantom chanting hymns?
And on the depths of death there swims
The reflex of a human face.
I'll rather take what fruit may be
Of sorrow under human skies:
'T is held that sorrow makes us wise,
Whatever wisdom sleep with thee.
His doubts superseded by a firm faith in human destiny, Tennyson could look back as an artist and find that he had not undergone his spiritual ordeal in vain:
I trust I have not wasted breath:
I think we are not wholly brain,
Magnetic mockeries; not in vain,
Like Paul with beasts, I fought with Death. . . [20/21]
Confident that he has attained self-mastery, the poet is ready — "I to go on to other things." The Epilogue to "In Memoriam" brings before us an emotionally mature Tennyson who has not only silenced the disputation of the two voices, but has also brought his poetry into tune with the spirit of the age— or so he chooses to believe. In this conviction he can pretend in retrospect to disown as either frivolous or ineffectual the promptings of an inner awareness so much at variance with what he now feels his poetic mission to be:
No longer caring to embalm
In dying songs a dead regret,
But like a statue solid-set,
And moulded in colossal calm.
Regret is dead, but love is more
Than in the summers that are flown,
For I myself with these have grown
To something greater than before;
Which makes appear the songs I made
As echoes out of weaker times,
As half but idle brawling rhymes,
The sport of random sun and shade.
Last modified 2015