To those who still read him Alfred Lord Tennyson often seems to have emerged straight from his own fabled “haunts of coot and fern.” The silliness of some of his best-known poems is impossible to ignore — all the more so since those same poems prove equally impossible to erase from the memory; like his “flower in the crannied wall,” they sink stubborn roots in the mind. Who can forget — or forgive — “The Charge of the Light Brigade”? Worse, like that babbling brook, easily the most annoying rivulet in literature, he seems to go on forever. In my tattered copy of his poems, one of those old Modern Library Giants I have kept with me for half a century now, his poems and plays cover 1,122 pages, many of them double-columned. His output was immense, his energy unflagging. His command of every sort of verse — lyric, dramatic and epic — ranging from deceptively simple songs to poems in Lancashire dialect as well as to experiments in quantitative measures (he was steeped in Greek and Latin poetry) is daunting and remains unrivalled.
Tennyson has had his detractors. Carlyle dismissed “The Princess” of 1847 as “very gorgeous, fervid, luxuriant, but indolent, somnolent, almost imbecile.” Edward FitzGerald called it “a wretched waste of power.” He fared even less well in the 20th century. The Modernists lampooned him as “Alfred Lawn Tennison,” seeing him as the epitome of a specious gentility. The modern insistence on a poetry close to common speech has made Tennyson’s verse appear suspiciously high-falutin. He is “rhetorical” and nowadays rhetoric is equated with insincerity. Most damning, there is that Tennysonian “music,” the solemn lilt of his lines: “Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean” or “Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white…” We sense something manipulative in the hypnotic lull of such cadences and resist them.
Today a worse fate has befallen Tennyson, even though he stands among the greatest of English poets. Today he’s hardly read at all. You can graduate in English without having read a line of Tennyson. And poets, who should know better, seem to be quite ignorant of his work. When I taught a poetry class a few years ago in London I was surprised when my students, most of them middle-aged, thanked me for introducing them to such poets as Milton and Tennyson; these were poets they “had never read in school.”
Tennyson’s greatness doesn’t rest on some hidden “modernity” waiting to be discovered in his work. On the contrary: he is irreplaceable just because his sensibility is so utterly different from ours. To appreciate him demands audacity of imagination; it means viewing the world from unexpected, almost alien angles. When the Irish poet William Allingham first met Tennyson on June 28, 1851, he was startled by his “hollow cheeks and the dark pallor of his skin” which gave him “an unhealthy appearance”. Allingham went on to remark that Tennyson “was a strange and almost spectral figure”.
That spectral strangeness infuses Tennyson’s poetry. It is present from the beginning. It glimmers in such great early poems as “Mariana” or “The Lotos-Eaters,” in “Ulysses” and “Tithonus,” as well as in his little-known masterpiece “The Vision of Sin.” It transfigures the incomparable quatrains of In Memoriam from first to last. In “Maud,” one of his wildest and strangest works, he could write:
My life has crept so long on a broken wing Thro’ cells of madness, haunts of horror and fear, That I come to be grateful at last for a little thing.
It seems odd to think of Tennyson — he of the eagle that “clasps the crag with crooked hands” — as nursing “a broken wing.” But he was, in a way, broken. There was his terrible melancholy, the madness rampant in his family and the death, in 1833, of his beloved friend Arthur Hallam. He never got over Hallam’s death. Tennyson didn’t exaggerate when he claimed he “hated publication.” He refused to rush into print. He spent 17 years writing In Memoriam before finally publishing it in 1850.
If Tennyson’s cadences often exhibit a dying fall, that may be because he is the supreme poet of grief. Grief was a kind of labour; it had to be quarried out of the hard ground of remembrance. In the second poem of In Memoriam, he wrote:
Old yew, which graspest at the stones That name the underlying dead, Thy fibres net the dreamless head, Thy roots are wrapt about the bones.
That “old yew” (with its sly pun on “you”) is emblematic of Tennyson himself. All his finest verse was “wrapt about the bones” of those he loved. This isn’t a fashionable stance. It’s something stranger, something tinged with timelessness. And nothing today is less fashionable than that.