Hearts of Controversy

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Author: Alice Christiana Thompson Meynell

Some Thoughts of a Reader of Tennyson

Fifty years after Tennyson’s birth he was saluted a great poet by that unanimous acclamation which includes mere clamour. Fifty further years, and his centenary was marked by a new detraction. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish the obscure but not unmajestic law of change from the sorry custom of reaction. Change hastes not and rests not, reaction beats to and fro, flickering about the moving mind of the world. Reaction—the paltry precipitancy of the multitude—rather than the novelty of change, has brought about a ferment and corruption of opinion on Tennyson’s poetry. It may be said that opinion is the same now as it was in the middle of the nineteenth century—the same, but turned. All that was not worth having of admiration then has soured into detraction now. It is of no more significance, acrid, than it was, sweet. What the herding of opinion gave yesterday it is able to take away to-day, that and no more.

But besides the common favour-disfavour of the day, there is the tendency of educated opinion, once disposed to accept the whole of Tennyson’s poetry as though he could not be "parted from himself," and now disposed to reject the whole, on the same plea. But if ever there was a poet who needed to be thus "parted"—the word is his own—it is he who wrote both narrowly for his time and liberally for all time, and who—this is the more important character of his poetry—had both a style and a manner: a masterly style, a magical style, a too dainty manner, nearly a trick; a noble landscape and in it figures something ready-made. He is a subject for our alternatives of feeling, nay, our conflicts, as is hardly another poet. We may deeply admire and wonder, and, in another line or hemistich, grow indifferent or slightly averse. He sheds the luminous suns of dreams upon men & women who would do well with footlights; waters their way with rushing streams of Paradise and cataracts from visionary hills; laps them in divine darkness; leads them into those touching landscapes, "the lovely that are not beloved;" long grey fields, cool sombre summers, and meadows thronged with unnoticeable flowers; speeds his carpet knight—or is that hardly a just name for one whose sword "smites" so well?—upon a carpet of authentic wild flowers; pushes his rovers, in costume, from off blossoming shores, on the keels of old romance. The style and the manner, I have said, run side by side. If we may take one poet’s too violent phrase, and consider poets to be "damned to poetry," why, then, Tennyson is condemned by a couple of sentences, "to run concurrently." We have the style and the manner locked together at times in a single stanza, locked and yet not mingled. There should be no danger for the more judicious reader lest impatience at the peculiar Tennyson trick should involve the great Tennyson style in a sweep of protest. Yet the danger has in fact proved real within the present and recent years, and seems about to threaten still more among the less judicious. But it will not long prevail. The vigorous little nation of lovers of poetry, alive one by one within the vague multitude of the nation of England, cannot remain finally insensible to what is at once majestic and magical in Tennyson. For those are not qualities they neglect in their other masters. How, valuing singleness of heart in the sixteenth century, splendour in the seventeenth, composure in the eighteenth; how, with a spiritual ear for the note—commonly called Celtic, albeit it is the most English thing in the world—the wild wood note of the remoter song; how, with the educated sense of style, the liberal sense of ease; how, in a word, fostering Letters and loving Nature, shall that choice nation within England long disregard these virtues in the nineteenth-century master? How disregard him, for more than the few years of reaction, for the insignificant reasons of his bygone taste, his insipid courtliness, his prettiness, or what not? It is no dishonour to Tennyson, for it is a dishonour to our education, to disparage a poet who wrote but the two—had he written no more of their kind—lines of "The Passing of Arthur," of which, before I quote them, I will permit myself the personal remembrance of a great contemporary author’s opinion. Mr. Meredith, speaking to me of the high-water mark of English style in poetry and prose, cited those lines as topmost in poetry:-

On one side lay the ocean, and on one Lay a great water, and the moon was full.

Here is no taint of manner, no pretty posture or habit, but the simplicity of poetry and the simplicity of Nature, something on the yonder side of imagery. It is to be noted that this noble passage is from Tennyson’s generally weakest kind of work—blank verse; and should thus be a sign that the laxity of so many parts of the "Idylls" and other blank verse poems was a quite unnecessary fault. Lax this form of poetry undoubtedly is with Tennyson. His blank verse is often too easy; it cannot be said to fly, for the paradoxical reason that it has no weight; it slips by, without halting or tripping indeed, but also without the friction of the movement of vitality. This quality, which is so near to a fault, this quality of ease, has come to be disregarded in our day. That Horace Walpole overpraised this virtue is not good reason that we should hold it for a vice. Yet we do more than undervalue it; and several of our authors, in prose and poetry, seem to find much merit in the manifest difficulty; they will not have a key to turn, though closely and tightly, in oiled wards; let the reluctant iron catch and grind, or they would even prefer to pick you the lock.

But though we may think it time that the quality once over-prized should be restored to a more proportionate honour, our great poet Tennyson shows us that of all merits ease is, unexpectedly enough, the most dangerous. It is not only, with him, that the wards are oiled, it is also that the key turns loosely. This is true of much of the beautiful "Idylls," but not of their best passages, nor of such magnificent heroic verse as that of the close of "A Vision of Sin," or of "Lucretius." As to the question of ease, we cannot have a better maxim than Coventry Patmore’s saying that poetry "should confess, but not suffer from, its difficulties." And we could hardly find a more curious example of the present love of verse that not only confesses but brags of difficulties, and not only suffers from them but cries out under the suffering, and shows us the grimace of the pain of it, than I have lighted upon in the critical article of a recent quarterly. Reviewing the book of a "poet" who manifestly has an insuperable difficulty in hacking his work into ten-syllable blocks, and keeping at the same time any show of respect for the national grammar, the critic gravely invites his reader to "note" the phrase "neath cliffs" (apparently for "beneath the cliffs") as "characteristic." Shall the reader indeed "note" such a matter? Truly he has other things to do. This is by the way. Tennyson is always an artist, and the finish of his work is one of the principal notes of his versification. How this finish comports with the excessive ease of his prosody remains his own peculiar secret. Ease, in him, does not mean that he has any unhandsome slovenly ways. On the contrary, he resembles rather the warrior with the pouncet box. It is the man of "neath cliffs" who will not be at the trouble of making a place for so much as a definite article. Tennyson certainly WORKED, and the exceeding ease of his blank verse comes perhaps of this little paradox—that he makes somewhat too much show of the hiding of his art.

In the first place the poet with the great welcome style and the little unwelcome manner, Tennyson is, in the second place, the modern poet who withstood France. (That is, of course, modern France—France since the Renaissance. From medieval Provence there is not an English poet who does not own inheritance.) It was some time about the date of the Restoration that modern France began to be modish in England. A ruffle at the Court of Charles, a couplet in the ear of Pope, a tour de phrase from Mme. de Sevigne much to the taste of Walpole, later the good example of French painting— rich interest paid for the loan of our Constable’s initiative—later still a scattering of French taste, French critical business, over all the shallow places of our literature—these have all been phases of a national vanity of ours, an eager and anxious fluttering or jostling to be foremost and French. Matthew Arnold’s essay on criticism fostered this anxiety, and yet I find in this work of his a lack of easy French knowledge, such as his misunderstanding of the word brutalite, which means no more, or little more, than roughness. Matthew Arnold, by the way, knew so little of the French character as to be altogether ignorant of French provincialism, French practical sense, and French "convenience." "Convenience" is his dearest word of contempt, "practical sense" his next dearest, and he throws them a score of times in the teeth of the English. Strange is the irony of the truth. For he bestows those withering words on the nation that has the fifty religions, and attributes "ideas"—as the antithesis of "convenience" and "practical sense"—to the nation that has the fifty sauces. And not for a moment does he suspect himself of this blunder, so manifest as to be disconcerting to his reader. One seems to hear an incurably English accent in all this, which indeed is reported, by his acquaintance, of Matthew Arnold’s actual speaking of French. It is certain that he has not the interest of familiarity with the language, but only the interest of strangeness. Now, while we meet the effect of the French coat in our seventeenth century, of the French light verse in our earlier eighteenth century, and of French philosophy in our later, of the French revolution in our Wordsworth, of the French painting in our nineteenth-century studios, of French fiction—and the dregs are still running—in our libraries, of French poetry in our Swinburne, of French criticism in our Arnold, Tennyson shows the effect of nothing French whatever. Not the Elizabethans, not Shakespeare, not Jeremy Taylor, not Milton, not Shelley were (in their art, not in their matter) more insular in their time. France, by the way, has more than appreciated the homage of Tennyson’s contemporaries; Victor Hugo avers, in Les Miserables, that our people imitate his people in all things, and in particular he rouses in us a delighted laughter of surprise by asserting that the London street-boy imitates the Parisian street-boy. There is, in fact, something of a street-boy in some of our late more literary mimicries.

We are apt to judge a poet too exclusively by his imagery. Tennyson is hardly a great master of imagery. He has more imagination than imagery. He sees the thing, with so luminous a mind’s eye, that it is sufficient to him; he needs not to see it more beautifully by a similitude. "A clear-walled city" is enough; "meadows" are enough— indeed Tennyson reigns for ever over all meadows; "the happy birds that change their sky"; "Bright Phosphor, fresher for the night"; "Twilight and evening bell"; "the stillness of the central sea"; "that friend of mine who lives in God"; "the solitary morning"; "Four grey walls and four grey towers"; "Watched by weeping queens"; these are enough, illustrious, and needing not illustration.

If we do not see Tennyson to be the lonely, the first, the ONE that he is, this is because of the throng of his following, though a number that are of that throng hardly know, or else would deny, their flocking. But he added to our literature not only in the way of cumulation, but by the advent of his single genius. He is one of the few fountain-head poets of the world. The new landscape which was his—the lovely unbeloved—is, it need hardly be said, the matter of his poetry and not its inspiration. It may have seemed to some readers that it is the novelty, in poetry, of this homely unscenic scenery—this Lincolnshire quality—that accounts for Tennyson’s freshness of vision. But it is not so. Tennyson is fresh also in scenic scenery; he is fresh with the things that others have outworn; mountains, desert islands, castles, elves, what you will that is conventional. Where are there more divinely poetic lines than those, which will never be wearied with quotation, beginning, "A splendour falls"? What castle walls have stood in such a light of old romance, where in all poetry is there a sound wilder than that of those faint "horns of elfland"? Here is the remoteness, the beyond, the light delirium, not of disease but of more rapturous and delicate health, the closer secret of poetry. This most English of modern poets has been taunted with his mere gardens. He loved, indeed, the "lazy lilies," of the exquisite garden of "The Gardener’s Daughter," but he betook his ecstatic English spirit also far afield and overseas; to the winter places of his familiar nightingale:-

When first the liquid note beloved of men Comes flying over many a windy wave;

to the lotus-eaters’ shore; to the outland landscapes of "The Palace of Art"—the "clear-walled city by the sea," the "pillared town," the "full-fed river"; to the "pencilled valleys" of Monte Rosa; to the "vale in Ida"; to that tremendous upland in the "Vision of Sin":-

At last I heard a voice upon the slope Cry to the summit, Is there any hope? To which an answer pealed from that high land, But in a tongue no man could understand.

The Cleopatra of "The Dream of Fair Women" is but a ready-made Cleopatra, but when in the shades of her forest she remembers the sun of the world, she leaves the page of Tennyson’s poorest manner and becomes one with Shakespeare’s queen:-

We drank the Libyan sun to sleep.

Nay, there is never a passage of manner but a great passage of style rebukes our dislike and recalls our heart again. The dramas, less than the lyrics, and even less than the "Idylls," are matter for the true Tennysonian. Their action is, at its liveliest rather vivacious than vital, and the sentiment, whether in "Becket" or in "Harold," is not only modern, it is fixed within Tennyson’s own peculiar score or so of years. But that he might have answered, in drama, to a stronger stimulus, a sharper spur, than his time administered, may be guessed from a few passages of "Queen Mary," and from the dramatic terror of the arrow in "Harold." The line has appeared in prophetic fragments in earlier scenes, and at the moment of doom it is the outcry of unquestionable tragedy:-

Sanguelac—Sanguelac—the arrow—the arrow!—Away!

Tennyson is also an eminently all-intelligible poet. Those whom he puzzles or confounds must be a flock with an incalculable liability to go wide of any road—"down all manner of streets," as the desperate drover cries in the anecdote. But what are streets, however various, to the ways of error that a great flock will take in open country—minutely, individually wrong, making mistakes upon hardly perceptible occasions, or none—"minute fortuitous variations in any possible direction," as used to be said in exposition of the Darwinian theory? A vast outlying public, like that of Tennyson, may make you as many blunders as it has heads; but the accurate clear poet proved his meaning to all accurate perceptions. Where he hesitates, his is the sincere pause of process and uncertainty. It has been said that Tennyson, midway between the student of material science and the mystic, wrote and thought according to an age that wavered, with him, between the two minds, and that men have now taken one way or the other. Is this indeed true, and are men so divided and so sure? Or have they not rather already turned, in numbers, back to the parting, or meeting, of eternal roads? The religious question that arises upon experience of death has never been asked with more sincerity and attention than by him. If "In Memoriam" represents the mind of yesterday it represents no less the mind of to-morrow. It is true that pessimism and insurrection in their ignobler forms—nay, in the ignoblest form of a fashion—have, or had but yesterday, the control of the popular pen. Trivial pessimism or trivial optimism, it matters little which prevails. For those who follow the one habit to-day would have followed the other in a past generation. Fleeting as they are, it cannot be within their competence to neglect or reject the philosophy of "In Memoriam." To the dainty stanzas of that poem, it is true, no great struggle of reasoning was to be committed, nor would any such dispute be judiciously entrusted to the rhymes of a song of sorrow. Tennyson here proposes, rather than closes with, the ultimate question of our destiny. The conflict, for which he proves himself strong enough, is in that magnificent poem of a thinker, "Lucretius." But so far as "In Memoriam" attempts, weighs, falters, and confides, it is true to the experience of human anguish and intellect.

I say intellect advisedly. Not for him such blunders of thought as Coleridge’s in "The Ancient Mariner" or Wordsworth’s in "Hartleap Well." Coleridge names the sun, moon, and stars as when, in a dream, the sleeping imagination is threatened with some significant illness. We see them in his great poem as apparitions. Coleridge’s senses are infinitely and transcendently spiritual. But a candid reader must be permitted to think the mere story silly. The wedding-guest might rise the morrow morn a sadder but he assuredly did not rise a wiser man.

As for Wordsworth, the most beautiful stanzas of "Hartleap Well" are fatally rebuked by the truths of Nature. He shows us the ruins of an aspen wood, a blighted hollow, a dreary place, forlorn because an innocent stag, hunted, had there broken his heart in a leap from the rocks above; grass would not grow there.

This beast not unobserved by Nature fell, His death was mourned by sympathy divine.

And the signs of that sympathy are cruelly asserted by the poet to be these woodland ruins—cruelly, because the daily sight of the world blossoming over the agonies of beast and bird is made less tolerable to us by such a fiction.

The Being that is in the clouds and air . . . Maintains a deep and reverential care For the unoffending creature whom He loves.

The poet offers us as a proof of that "reverential care," the visible alteration of Nature at the scene of suffering—an alteration we have to dispense with every day we pass in the woods. We are tempted to ask whether Wordsworth himself believed in a sympathy he asks us—on such grounds!—to believe in? Did he think his faith to be worthy of no more than a fictitious sign and a false proof?

Nowhere in the whole of Tennyson’s thought is there such an attack upon our reason and our heart. He is more serious than the solemn Wordsworth.

IN MEMORIAM, with all else that Tennyson wrote, tutors, with here and there a subtle word, this nature-loving nation to perceive land, light, sky, and ocean, as he perceived. To this we return, upon this we dwell. He has been to us, firstly, the poet of two geniuses—a small and an immense; secondly, the modern poet who answered in the negative that most significant modern question, French or not French? But he was, before the outset of all our study of him, of all our love of him, the poet of landscape, and this he is more dearly than pen can describe him. This eternal character of his is keen in the verse that is winged to meet a homeward ship with her "dewy decks," and in the sudden island landscape,

The clover sod, That takes the sunshine and the rains, Or where the kneeling hamlet drains The chalice of the grapes of God.

It is poignant in the garden-night:-

A breeze began to tremble o’er The large leaves of the sycamore, . . . And gathering freshlier overhead, Rocked the full-foliaged elm, and swung The heavy-folded rose, and flung The lilies to and fro, and said "The dawn, the dawn," and died away.

His are the exalted senses that sensual poets know nothing of. I think the sense of hearing as well as the sense of sight, has never been more greatly exalted than by Tennyson:-

As from beyond the limit of the world, Like the last echo born of a great cry.

As to this garden-character so much decried I confess that the "lawn" does not generally delight me, the word nor the thing. But in Tennyson’s page the word is wonderful, as though it had never been dull: "The mountain lawn was dewy-dark." It is not that he brings the mountains too near or ranks them in his own peculiar garden-plot, but that the word withdraws, withdraws to summits, withdraws into dreams; the lawn is aloft, alone, and as wild as ancient snow. It is the same with many another word or phrase changed, by passing into his vocabulary, into something rich and strange. His own especially is the March month—his "roaring moon." His is the spirit of the dawning month of flowers and storms; the golden, soft names of daffodil and crocus are caught by the gale as you speak them in his verse, in a fine disproportion with the energy and gloom. His was a new apprehension of nature, an increase in the number, and not only in the sum, of our national apprehensions of poetry in nature. Unaware of a separate angel of modern poetry is he who is insensible to the Tennyson note—the new note that we reaffirm even with the notes of Vaughan, Traherne, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake well in our ears—the Tennyson note of splendour, all-distinct. He showed the perpetually transfigured landscape in transfiguring words. He is the captain of our dreams. Others have lighted a candle in England, he lit a sun. Through him our daily suns, and also the backward and historic suns long since set, which he did not sing, are magnified; and he bestows upon us an exalted retrospection. Through him Napoleon’s sun of Austerlitz rises, for us, with a more brilliant menace upon arms and the plain; through him Fielding’s "most melancholy sun" lights the dying man to the setting-forth on that last voyage of his with such an immortal gleam, denying hope, as would not have lighted, for us, the memory of that seaward morning, had our poetry not undergone the illumination, the transcendent vision, of Tennyson’s genius.

Emerson knew that the poet speaks adequately then only when he speaks "a little wildly, or with the flower of the mind." Tennyson, the clearest-headed of poets, is our wild poet; wild, notwithstanding that little foppery we know of in him—that walking delicately, like Agag; wild, notwithstanding the work, the ease, the neatness, the finish; notwithstanding the assertion of manliness which, in asserting, somewhat misses that mark; a wilder poet than the rough, than the sensual, than the defiant, than the accuser, than the denouncer. Wild flowers are his—great poet—wild winds, wild lights, wild heart, wild eyes!

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Chicago: Alice Christiana Thompson Meynell, "Some Thoughts of a Reader of Tennyson," Hearts of Controversy, ed. Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915 and trans. Evans, Sebastian in Hearts of Controversy Original Sources, accessed January 26, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BNTZYMCN3JK3B8V.

MLA: Meynell, Alice Christiana Thompson. "Some Thoughts of a Reader of Tennyson." Hearts of Controversy, edited by Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915, and translated by Evans, Sebastian, in Hearts of Controversy, Original Sources. 26 Jan. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BNTZYMCN3JK3B8V.

Harvard: Meynell, AC, 'Some Thoughts of a Reader of Tennyson' in Hearts of Controversy, ed. and trans. . cited in , Hearts of Controversy. Original Sources, retrieved 26 January 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BNTZYMCN3JK3B8V.