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Alas! Coleridge's Christabel will have much to answer for.
It may be thought indeed that the ridiculousness above quoted, was meant by the author to be just what it is; an absurd caracole of his pen, merely to show its total independence of dull common sense—for we have known genius play many such pranks as these, with the evidently sole intention of verifying its imputed relationship to madness. Let us then select a poem of a more serious cast, and remembering to economize space, let us take the shortest that comes to hand. Here is a
“Two children in two neighbor villages
tower washed with still rains and daisy-blossomed; Two children in one hamlet born and bred; So runs the round of life from hour to hour.”
Now it is perfectly easy to discover the poetic spirit in these lines, but we complain, as we have a right to do, that the poet, while he professed to give us a picture of his thoughts, has purposely left so deep a shade upon his canvas, that we can do no more than distantly guess at his meaning. We will dwell no longer however upon our author's obscurity. This blemish upon his fair pages belongs, as we have said already, only to the first part of the first volume. His poetic pictures grow luminous as we advance, till at last very many of them beam out upon us in bright distinctness. The genius that is in him seems to struggle for a time for perfect utterance, but it soon gets the mastery, and the current of conquered words flows calm and transparent between its banks of beauty.
We might produce very much more of a similar character, but if our readers' ears are like our own, they will need nothing additional to convince them of the justness of our charge.
Yet another unpleasant oddity of our author is his excessive use of compound words ; and such compounds ! We have marked a few : —“Innocent-arch, cunning-simple, black-bearded, crimson-threaded, thorough-edged, subtle-paced, thickmeted, ray-fringed, light-glooming, sudden-curved, golden-netted, clearstemmed, silver-chiming, vary-colored, argent-lidded, dew-impearled, purple-spiked, self-pleached.” Did ever mortal ears endure a more abandoned set of compounds than are here met together ' Whatever may be true of the Greek and the German, the English language does not admit, except to a very limited extent, the use of compound words in poetry, and every poet who has made the attempt to introduce them, has miserably failed of success.
We come now to the pleasanter duty of praise. It must have been noted that the blemishes we have named in the poetry of Tennyson, are merely faults of expression. Passing through the covering of words, and looking directly upon the thoughts and feelings which they represent and embody, we find almost nothing at which to take exception; nothing unworthy of a true poet and a true man. On the contrary, there are every where manifested a nobleness of sentiment, a high self-respect, a love of truth and beauty for themselves alone, and a superiority to the artificial distinctions of society, which call out our respect for the man whose mind we are reading ; a feeling far above mere admiration of the skillful versifier. In thus making himself respected, even more than his poetry is admired, Tennyson represents the new school to which we have more than once alluded, and we now propose to illustrate a few of the most important moral positions which this new literature seems destined to occupy.
It is impossible to become acquainted with the poets of the last centuries, without being struck, even to disgust, by the unmanly and servile spirit which so often guided their pens. Milton indeed is a glorious exception. The sturdy puritan knew not how to degrade his genius before the accidental embodiments of rank and power around him, but he stands almost alone in his proud position. Even the great Shakspeare could humble himself into the flatterer of his “good queen Bess;” the virago and the vixen; whose whole character was a tertium quid, equidistant from the nobleness of man and the winning grace of woman. And among the poets of a lower rank, the repulsive characteristic of which we speak, is revealed more nakedly still. We see them fawning around the palaces of “the great,” and prostituting their modicum of poetical talent to the most unworthy purposes. We see them roaming the land, as it were, with dedications in their pockets, in search of patrons upon whom to pour out their fulsome eulogies; their only manifest object being a quid pro quo. They never seemed to understand, that man in his naked nature is higher than the nobleman or the king, and that God is higher than all. They had never
learned the lesson of the noble Burns, “The rank is but the guinea's stamp;” but with a sycophancy which we can not now regard without disgust, they crowded around the footstools of the rich and powerful, content to occupy a position but one remove above that of the court-jester and the court-fool. But those days are gone, not to return. The genius of the intellectual period upon which we are now entering is thoroughly democratic; there is to be no more worshiping of golden calves or heraldric griffins. It is not at all difficult to trace the course of this “movement,” which seems now to be fast approaching its consummation. It began in France ; Germany was not far behind, and even aristocratic England, learning from the Germans what national prejudice would not allow her to receive from her “natural enemies,” the French, is beginning to show no doubtful evidence of a total change in the spirit of her literature. Her men of genius can now look with a steady gaze upon the feudal assumptions of a thousand years, and boldly tell them that they burden the earth, and that the time has come when they must pass away. We can not linger over the particular proofs which render evident to our own mind the truth of this assertion, and perhaps it is scarcely needful to produce them. Any one who looks upon the present state of English literature, must see that a revolution has begun which promises the highest results to that nation, and through her, to all others—for every nation must follow where its literature leads. The revolution we say has begun, and without a miracle, its shadow goes not back upon the dial of the world. In place of any farther general remarks, let us recur now to the volumes of Tennyson, and seek there for illustrations of the point before us. It is impossible to find
any where upon his pages the shadow of a cringing and servile spirit. Truth is as true to him and beauty as beautiful, when clad in the russet garb of the peasant, as when glittering in purple and gold. He can find in the lowest walks of life, a sufficient heroine for one of the sweetest of his poems. Upon his scale of excellence, “Lady Clara Vere de Vere,” must take her place below the “Miller's Daughter.” “A simple maiden in her flower, ls worth a hundred coats of arms.” As this brief poem of “Lady Clara” expresses with more distinctmess than any other, the (what we must call for lack of a better word) democratic feelings of our author, we will dwell upon it with a little more particularity. The writer presents himself in the character of a “yeoman,” occupying of course a low social place in English life, and against Lady Clara, “the daughter of a hundred earls,” he brings this heavy charge : “You thought to break a country heart For pastime, ere you went to town.” He goes on to say, “At me you smiled, but unbeguiled, I saw the snare, and I retired:” and then adds with the proud accents of one who looks down from the height of his manhood upon titled and coronetted meanness, “You sought to prove how I could love, And my disdain is my reply: The lion on your old stone gates Is not more cold to you than I.” With Tennyson, the pride of birth is evidently the most contemptible and ludicrous of human absurdities. With him, “all the blood of all the Howards,” while it stagnates in the foolish veins of a “tenth transmitter,” is worthy of no respect. “Lady Clara Vere de Vere, I know you proud to bear your name, Your pride is yet no mate for mine,
“Howe'er it be, it seems to me 'Tis only noble to be good, Kind hearts are more than coronets, And simple faith than Norman blood." This is sound doctrine, and if there is a nation on earth where such a gospel needs to be preached, it is aristocratic England. If the frost-work of English society is ever to be melted, there is nothing that will do it so soon and so entirely as the fire of genius, and we are therefore glad to see that there is a feeling, and not only a feeling but an expression, among the rising men of that country, of rebellion against the social tyranny with which the nation has so long been cursed. God give them speedy success in pulling down the strong holds of this oppression. Another characteristic of Tennyson is, that he is the poet, not of memory but of hope. He has no sympathy with the party of the past; that body of men of which
every generation has many, who
are evermore striving to freeze the world into the forms of some previous age, who, if they had the power of the Israelitish general, would decree that the
“Earth should stand at gaze,
With these, we repeat, he has no sympathy. He seems rather to believe with St. Simon, when he says, “L’age d'or qu'une aveugle tradition a placé jusqu'ici dans le passé, est devant mous ;” and with Bacon, when he declares that the world was never yet so old as it is at the present moment, and that therefore the generations of men now living, are the true “ancients of the earth.” This party of the past may doubtless serve a useful purpose among men, and we would not therefore speak of it with total condemnation. Without it, the “fervida rota” of the world might set themselves on fire by their own velocity. These men are the ballast in the great ship of life, and so long as they confine themselves to their specific duty, it is well ; but when the ballast clamorously demands that not an anchor shall be lifted nor a sail spread, however fair the wind may blow, it is not well. To a large number of persons among us, the word “progress,” as it is sometimes used in this latter day, has a horrific sound. It is a comprehensive word indeed. Between the “Harlot's Progress” of Hogarth, and the “Pilgrim's Progress” of Bunyan, there is a vast difference, and if the men we speak of would distinguish between the two—but they will not. Every evidence of an onward movement, in whatever direction, flutters their souls with fear, and in their quivering apprehensions, the plunge of Niagara is always before them. The past—the holy, sacred, perfect past—such is the everlasting burden of their querulous song. They realize the crazy conception of the “Turned Head,” (vide “Diary of a Physician,”) and dress themselves with all their buttons on their backs. But we are erring from our path. Let us return once more to Tennyson. As the world grows old, his faith is that science, peace, truth, virtue; all that can elevate humanity and brighten it into a heavenly likeness, will go on to increase until they cover the whole surface of the earth. Dark as the picture now seems to one who looks upon it with the eye of naked fact alone, there is nevertheless no place for despair. “Yet I doubt not through the ages, one increasing purpose runs, And the #. ts of men are widened, with the process of the suns.”
There is a constant advance, not always uniform, not always visible, but real notwithstanding. To doubt it, is to doubt that God sits upon the throne of the universe, with an eye that watches all things, and a hand that turns them according to his pleasure. But we must let Tenny. son prophesy. Here is a picture of
what science and art will yet accomplish in the world.'
“Men, my brothers, men the workers, ever reaping something new ; That which they have done but earnest of the things that they shall do; For I }. into the future, far as human eye could see, Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonders that should be: Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails, Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales; Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rained a ghastly dew, From the nations' airy navies, grappling in the central blue : Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm, With the standards of the peoples plunging through the thunder-storm; Till the war-drum throbbed no longer, and the battle-flags were furled, In the parliament of man, the federation of the world."
And here is another view of the same great prophetic picture.
“To pass with all our social ties
It would be easy to find additional evidence that the genius of Tennyson looks forward and not backward, but the foregoing must suffice. It is certainly a happy sign for the world when its literature begins to turn toward the future, and away from the past except as it carries forward into the future all that the past has realized of truth and goodness. This indeed is a duty that must not be forgotten, but to be satisfied with this alone, to take the talent which time has hidden in the earth, and offer that without increase to the Master at his coming, is not all which he has a right to demand.
We inquire next concerning the religious aspect of the poems of Tennyson. Poets have never been remarkable for piety. Cowper, returning to some friend a borrowed volume of the “Lives of the Poets,” writes that, with a solitary exception, he has not been able to discover in any of them the slightest evidence of genuine religious principle. And since the day of Cowper, we have had a whole “Satanic school,” spouting its blasphemies, till even the wicked world could scarcely bear them any longer. The explanation of this singular fact, we shall make no attempt to give. It is enough for our present purpose simply to state the fact itself. We are far enough from desiring that every song should be a sermon. It is somewhat exorbitant to demand of the poet, that he shall turn the Westminster Catechism into verse, and set the Saybrook Platform to music, but we have a right to ask that he shall offer us nothing at least which is “contrary to sound doctrine.” Perhaps we ought to be satisfied if there is no positive offense against truth and purity, but less than this we surely ought not to endure. We have hitherto been much too tolerant in this respect, and have suffered genius to sanctify the crime of uttering foul and impious thoughts without restraint. No Christian people ought to endure, for an hour, such blasphemies as those of Shelley, such impieties as those of Byron, and such obscenities as those of Moore. We are happy to believe that the literature now coming into predominance, will be mainly free from these dark stains. So far at
least as Tennyson may be taken as
its representative, it is blameless. We have looked through his volumes with particular reference to this very point, and have found in them nothing whatever to condemn.
One of the poems of the first volume (which ranks among the longest and is perhaps the most beautiful of them all,) carries our author upon solemn ground, where we
should expect to find, if any where, some exposition of his religious sentiments. It is called the “MAY QUEEN,” and it may be worth our while to dwell upon it with some particularity. The scene opens upon the evening before “May day,” and it is “little Alice” who sings in the merriness of her heart, “You must wake and call me early, call me early, mother dear, Tomorrow'ill be the happiest time of all the glad new year; Of all the glad new year, mother, the maddest, merriest day, For I'm to be queen o' the May, mother, I'm to be queen o' the May.” In the first dawn of youth and beauty; flattered and caressed by all around her; with health beating its measured music in every vein; her picture of human life makes it nothing but a May day infinitely lengthened, through which she shall pass as queen, sporting in song and dance with her companions, and wearing upon her head the regal crown of flowers. No cloud as yet casts its shadow upon her future.
“The night-winds come and go, mother, upon the meadow-grass, And the happy stars above them seem to brighten as they pass; There will not be a drop of rain the whole of the livelong day, And I'm to be queen o' the May, mother, I'm to be queen o' the May.” And so, with the fluency of a happy heart, she pours her delight into the maternal ear, until from very weariness, she falls asleep to dream of the triumphs of the morrow. Part II, “New YEAR's Eve,” opens in a far different strain. Spring, summer, autumn have come and gone, and now it is the night of the last day of the year. The May queen is stretched upon her bed, a wasted invalid, with no hope of life remaining. Mournfully she speaks,
“If you're waking, call me early, call me early, mother dear, For I would see the sun rise upon the glad new year; It is the last new year that ever I shall see, Then you may lay me low i' the mould and think no more of me.”