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ALFRED TENNYSON moves on his way through life, heard, but by the public unseen. We might put to him a question similar to that which Wordsworth put to the cuckoo :
“O blithe new-comer! I have heard,
Or but a wandering voice ?" And our question would have like answer. That is, we should get just as much from the man as Wordsworth got from the cuckoo. We should have to look wise, and add
“ Even yet thou art to me
No man; but an invisible thing,
A voice, a mystery." Many an admiring reader may have said, with Solomon of old, “I sought him, but I could not find him ; I called him, but he answered me not.” If you want a popular poet, you generally know pretty well where to look for him. In the first place, you may make certain that London contains him. You may trace him to a coterie, probably a very recherché and exclusive one ; you may look for him at midnight in some hot and crowded drawing-room, surrounded by
the fairest of incense burners, and breathing volumes of ambrosial essences with a very complacent air ; you may find him as the great gun of a popular periodical; you may meet him at some dilettante breakfast; you may follow him from one great dinner-table to another, and at last to that of the Lord Mayor. But in few or none of these places will you find Alfred Tennyson. “He is gone down into his garden, to his beds of spices, to feed in his garden and gather lilies." You may hear his voice, but where is the man? He is wandering in some dream-land, beneath the shade of old and charmed forests, by far-off shores, where
“ All night The plunging seas draw backward from the land
Their moon-led waters white: by the old mill-dam, thinking of the merry miller and his pretty daughter; or is wandering over the open worlds, where
“ Norland whirlwinds blow." From all these places ; from the silent corridor of an ancient convent; from some shrine where a devoted knight recites his vows : from the drear monotony of “the moated grange," or the ferny forest beneath the “ talking oak,” comes the voice of Tennyson, rich, dreamy, passionate, yet not impatient; musical with the airs of chivalrous ages, yet mingling in his song the theme and the spirit of those that are yet to come.
The genius of Tennyson is essentially retiring, meditative, spiritual, yet not metaphysical ; ambitious only that itself, and not the man, shall be seen, heard, and live. So that his song can steal forth; catch by a faint but aërial prelude the ear quick to seize on the true music of Olympus; and then, with growing and ever-swelling symphonies, still more ethereal, still fuller of wonder, love, and charmed woe, can travel on amid the listening and spell-bound multitude, an invisible spirit of melodious power, expanding, soaring aloft, sinking deep, coming now as from the distant sea, and filling all the summer air; so that it can thus triumph in its own celestial energy, the poet himself would rather not be found. He seems to steal away under the covert of friendiy boughs; to be gone to caves and hiding crags, or to follow the stream of the grey moorland, gathering
" From old well-heads of haunted rills,
Jewel, or shell, or starry ore." The orator may climb heights of most imperial influence over the public mind, the statesman of power over the public destiny, the merchant may gather stupendous wealth from every zone, the patriot produce and carry on to success the most dazzling schemes for human good: these disturb not the equanimity of Tennyson-the spirit of poetry that is conferred on him he accepts as his fortune, his duty, and his glory. In short, he has all that he can conceive of, or desire. He knows that through that his applauses, though less riotous than those of the orator, will endure the longer; that he has
in it a commission to work with or against the statesman, as that man may be good or evil; that even into the ear of the princeliest wealth he can whisper a startling word of human counsel, or can move to deeds of mercy; and that there is no patriot who can be more patriotic than him whose voice, from day to day and year to year, is heard in the stillest and most teachable hours of the most amply endowed and teachable natures. Over all the faculties, the ranks, the influences of human life, poetry maintains a suggestive and immortal supremacy, for it becomes the more aspiring spirit of the age in the school and the closet ere it comes forth upon the world. It mingles itself with whatever is generous, ambitious, perceptive of greatness and of virtue, and often speaks in the man in power by a deed of glorious beneficence that falls like a blessing from heaven on the heart of afflicted genius.
Of this profound and blessed reliance on the all-sufficiency of his art, perhaps no poet ever furnished a more complete example than Alfred Tennyson. There is nothing stirring, nothing restless, nothing ambitious, in its tone ; it has no freaks and eccentricities by which it seeks to strike the public notice. There are no evidences of any secret yet palpable artifices at work to urge it on, and thrust it before you in magazines and reviews. Quiet in itself, it comes quietly under your eye, naturally as the grass grows or the bird sings, and you see, hear, and love it. From this absence of all bustle and parade of introduction, or of the violence of attack upon it from the display of prominent antagonist principles, political or theological, as in the cases of Byron and Shelley, we are often surprised to find Tennyson still wholly unread in quarters where poetry is read with much avidity, and to hear others lamenting that he does not put forth a poem more commensurate with his purely poetic temperament. But the very nature of Tennyson's genius is to be contented with what it is. It is happy in itself as the bird upon the bough. It is rolled into itself, living and rejoicing in its own being and blessedness. It has no deadly thirst for draughts of spirits from other worlds, no feverish wrestlings for mere notoriety, no ostentatious display of gigantic agonies and writhings under a dark destiny, no pictures of plunging down into depths of mystery and of woe beyond the diving powers of ordinary mortals. It is healthy, clear, joyous, for the most part, and musical as nature itself. In entering into the region of Tennyson's poetry, you enter one of sun and calm,—the land of romance, of dream, of fairy; the land of beauty, glory, and repose, stretching on through all the regions of the earth, wherever genius has alit in any age, wherever mind has put forth its forms of divinest grace. It belongs to what may be termed the romantic school, yet it is often purely classical. You see in such poems as the Lotus Eaters, Enone, Ulysses, &c., that Tennyson loves to sit by the immortal wells of Homer; to wander amid the godlike habitants of the Greek Elysium. But whether there, or at the court of “great Haroun Alraschid,” or in the spellbound castles of German Legend, or in our own middle ages, he alike infuses into all his subjects the spirit of the romantic: that spirit which at once invests everything which it touches with the vitality of beauty, of tenderness, and of purity heavenly, and yet
“Not too good
For human nature's daily food." Alfred Tennyson loves to individualize ; to select some person or scene from the multitude or the mass, and to throw himself wholly into it. From the heart of this personage or group of personages he speaks for the time, the unerring oracle of human nature. Te are seized, engrossed, charmed, entranced, for the space of this impersonation ; for it is human nature in all the power of its benuty and its greatness, of its passions and its sufferings, of its eternal yearnings and its unquenchable love, its daring, its crime and deso lation, that unfolds to you its history and its inner life. There is no man, except Shakspeare, who has more thoroughly and eminently possessed this faculty of interpretation, of comprehending and giving voice to the infinite laws and movements of universal humanity ; and there is no other who has been endowed for the purpose with a gift of speech so rich, genial, and specially demonstrative. We have no misgivings, as we read Tennyson, whether anything be poetry or not; we have no feeling of a want in the phraseology. Thought, language, imagery, all flow together from one source; that of a genius creative in all the attributes of life, or in the life itself,—in colour, taste, motion, grace, and sentiment. Whatever is produced, lives. It is no dead form ; it is no half sentient form ; it is perfect in spirit, in beauty, and in abode.
The poetry of Tennyson, like that of Shakspeare, scems to possess a music of its own. It is evidently evolved amid the intense play of melodies which are as much a part of the individual mind itself, as the harmonies of nature are a part of nature. Like Shakspeare, Tennyson is especially fond of, or rather haunted by musical refrains, and airs that are not invented, but struck out; that cannot be conceived by any labour of thought, but are inspired ; and that once communicated to the atmosphere, will go chiming on for ever.
" Motions flow
To an unheard melody,
Of richest pauses evermore
Drawn from each other, mellow-deep." Of these refrains, Oriana, and the Lady of Shalott, present striking examples.
" When Norland winds pipe down the sea,
Oriana." Or you may take the very first little melody with which this volume opons.
* Where Claribel low lieth
At noon the wild bee hummeth
About the mossed head-stone:
At midnight the moon cometh
And looketh down alone.
Her song the lint white swelleth,
The clear-voiced mavis dwelleth,
The fledgling throstle lispeth, Where Claribel low-lieth.
The slumberous wave outwelleth,
The babbling runnel crispeth, " At eve the beetle boometh
The hollow grot replieth,
Where Claribel low-lieth." This little poem derives its charm, much easier to feel than to describe, from the instinctive selection of the most exquisitely beautiful imagery, and the most felicitous phraseology. Nature, with her loveliest attributes, is made to express the regrets of affection.
But the progress of mind and purpose is very conspicuous in the poems of Tennyson. The first volume of his present edition is rich to excess with all the charms of genius ; but it can bear no comparison with the elevated character and human object of many poems in the second volume. In the earlier stages of his career, the gay poet rather luxuriates in the wealth of sentiment than the golden ore of virtue, which he finds stored up by all-bountiful nature, for the use of his genius. He chants many merry ditties, full of elastic grace, like that to Airy, Fairy Lilien. He draws female characters glorious as divinities, affluent in charms, warm with love, the Isabels, and Eleanors, and Madelines of the volume. He works out another class of lyrical poems, such as Mariana in the Moated Grange, The Miller's Daughter, The Lady of Shalott, all most inimitable of their kind, where every word is, as it were, a jewel of poetry too precious ever to be lost again. Where the landscape is painted with the pencil of a great master-a Claude or a Poussin of poetry-where we see the golden corn-field, the evening sun gleaming on the old towers of enchanted beauty, where the birds sing, and the river runs as in a glorified dream ; where every knight in his burnished greaves, or lady in her tapestried chamber, is presented as in the glass of Agrippa, living, moving, yet alone in the charmed scene of an unapproachable life! Where every minute falls numbered and weighed from the hand of Time, and a great sentiment of weary existence and waiting is gradually let down upon you with the pressure of a nightmare! Or again, where the scenery and loves of rural life are, as in the Miller's Daughter, sketched with the pleasing and buoyant heart of Nature herself, and we are made to feel what brooks of love and happiness, bankful, flow through many a lowly place ! Beyond these advance the passionate sorrow of Oriana, the drowsy richness of the Lotus Eaters, the splendid painting of The Palace of Art, and the Dream of Fair Women ; but not one of these is to be compared for a moment to Locksley Hall, or the Two Voices, in breadth of human sympathy, in a development of the great spirit of progress, in a union of all that those earlier poems possess of vigorous and beautiful with that sense of duty