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For ten years Tennyson published nothing except a few pieces in periodicals. Perhaps he had been discouraged by the want of appreciation on the part of professional critics. But he was by no means driven from his art. This intervening period was devoted to serious study. He enlarged his intellectual range, and perfected himself in artistic expression. He ripened into maturity.
In 1842 appeared a new volume, in which are found many of his choicest pieces. He was no longer simply a master of lyrical harmony; he had become also a thinker and teacher. Here appears his first work in connection with the legend of Arthur and the Round Table. Milton and Dryden had both thought of the Arthurian cycle as the subject of an epic poem. It was reserved for Tennyson to realize the idea; and so well has he done his work, that we may congratulate ourselves that the older poets left the field unoccupied. Listen to the forceful beginning of the "Morte d'Arthur:
"So all day long the noise of battle rolled
Among the mountains by the winter sea.'
Where can we find a more graphic touch than the description of the flinging of Arthur's sword?
"The great brand
Made lightnings in the splendor of the moon,
And flashing round and round, and whirl'd in an arch,
Shot like a streamer of the northern morn,
Seen where the moving isles of winter shock
By night, with noises of the northern sea."
Here is a picture from "The Gardener's Daughter :
"For up the porch there grew an Eastern rose,
Stole all the golden gloss, and, wavering
Lovingly lower, trembled on her waist
Ah, happy shade - and still went wavering down,
"Dora" has the charm of a can hardly be read without tears.
Hebrew idyl- a poem that "Locksley Hall,” a story of
disappointed love, is known to all, and many of its lines have passed into daily use : —
"In the spring a livelier iris changes on the burnish'd dove;
In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.
Yet I doubt not through the ages one increasing purpose runs, And the thoughts of men are widened with the process of the suns.” "Godiva" is a story of heroic self-sacrifice with many an exquisite passage. As the heroine returned to the palace,
"All at once,
With twelve great shocks of sound, the shameless noon
Almost every poem deserves particular mention. "Edward Gray" and "Lady Clare" are delightful ballads in the old style. "Ulysses" is a strong treatment of a classic theme. "The Two Voices," "St. Simeon Stylites," and "The Vision of Sin," the poet enters the domain of theology. The little song called "Farewell" gives expression to a feeling of sadness that has arisen in every sensitive bosom.
"Flow down, cold rivulet, to the sea,
Thy tribute wave deliver;
No more by thee my steps shall be,
The burdening sense of loss on the death of a loved one never had stronger expression than in the little poem beginning, "Break, break, break: "
"And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But oh, for the touch of a vanish'd hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still."
In 1847 appeared "The Princess." The author called it "A Medley;" and such it is, composed of mediæval and modern elements. Half jest, and half earnest, it yet reaches a serious solution of the vexed problem of woman's education :
"For woman is not undeveloped man,
But diverse; could we make her as the man,
Not like to like, but like in difference.
Yet in the long years must they liker grow;
The man be more of woman, she of man;
He gain in sweetness and in moral height,
Nor lose the wrestling thews that throw the world;
Like perfect music unto noble words."
The romantic story is delightfully told; and the songs interspersed among the several parts are, perhaps, the finest in our language. Where can we match the “ Bugle Song?"
"The splendor falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story:
Blow, bugie; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.”
In 1850 appeared "In Memoriam," the best elegiac poem ever written, and one that will perhaps never have a rival. It is written in memory of Arthur Hallam, a bosom friend of
Tennyson's, and a young man of rich gifts of mind and heart. A bright career seemed open to him; but while travelling in Germany for his health, he suddenly died at Vienna, in 1833. The poet's heart was wrung with grief; and under the weight of bereavement, he set himself resolutely to a consideration of the great mysteries of life, death, God, providence, eternal life. He does not deal with these subjects like a theologian or philosopher; but rising above the plane of the understanding, he finds his answers in the cravings of the heart and the intuitions of the spirit.
No other poem is so filled with the thought and feeling peculiar to our age. It rejects the seductive materialism of recent scientific thought; it is larger and less dogmatic than our creeds. With reverent heart the poet finds comfort at last in the "strong Son of God:
"Thou wilt not leave us in the dust:
Thou madest man, he knows not why;
Thou seemest human and divine,
The highest, holiest manhood, thou:
Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
We have but faith: we cannot know;
For knowledge is of things we see;
But no single quotation is sufficient to illustrate the depth. and richness and beauty of this wonderful production.
The year in which "In Memoriam " appeared, Tennyson succeeded Wordsworth as poet laureate. The greater part of
his busy life he spent in retirement on the Isle of Wight, and more recently at Petersfield in Hampshire. He was greatly beloved by the circle of friends he admitted into his intimacy; but the greater portion of his time was spent among his books and flowers. In 1855 appeared "Maud, and Other Poems." The principal poem in this volume has much divided critical opinion, but it is safe to say that it falls below his usual high achievement. The meaning of the poem, as explained by the poet himself, is the reclaiming power of love: "It is the story of a man who has a morbid nature, with a touch of inherited insanity, and very selfish. The poem is to show what love does for him. The war is only an episode. You must remember that it is not I myself speaking. It is this man with the strain of madness in his blood, and the memory of a great trouble and wrong that has put him out with the world.” 1
"The Brook" is a charming idyl, containing a delicious, rippling inter-lyric:
"I come from haunts of coot and hern,
I make a sudden sally,
And sparkle out among the fern,
Whatever doubts touching the poet's genius may have been started by "Maud," they were forever cleared away in 1859 by the appearance of the "Idyls of the King." These poems were received with enthusiasm. Consisting at first of only fourEnid, Vivien, Elaine, and Guinevere- the poet afterwards wrought in the same field, until his ten idyls constitute a great epic poem. "Nave and transept, aisle after aisle," to use the language of Stedman, "the Gothic minster has extended, until, with the addition of a cloister here and a chapel yonder, the structure stands complete." These "Idyls" embody the highest poetic achievement of Tennyson's genius, and belong to the mountain summits of song. Brave knights, lovely women, mediæval splendor, undying devotion, and heart-breaking tragedies, are all portrayed with the richest poetic art
1 Century Magazine, February, 1893.