In the year 1889 the poet's health had permitted him to take long
walks on the sea-shore and along the cliffs, one of which, by reason
of its whiteness, he had named "Taliessin," "the splendid brow." His
mind ran on a poem founded on an Egyptian legend (of which the source
is not mentioned), telling how "despair and death came upon him who
was mad enough to try to probe the secret of the universe." He also
thought of a drama on Tristram, who, in the Idylls, is treated with
brevity, and not with the sympathy of the old writer who cries, "God
bless Tristram the knight: he fought for England!" But early in
1890 Tennyson suffered from a severe attack of influenza. In May Mr
Watts painted his portrait, and
"Divinely through all hindrance found the man."
Tennyson was a great admirer of Miss Austen's novels: "The realism
and life-likeness of Miss Austen's Dramatis Personae come nearest to
those of Shakespeare. Shakespeare, however, is a sun to which Jane
Austen, though a bright and true little world, is but an asteroid."
He was therefore pleased to find apple-blossoms co-existing with ripe
strawberries on June 28, as Miss Austen has been blamed, by minute
philosophers, for introducing this combination in the garden party in
Emma. The poet, like most of the good and great, read novels
eagerly, and excited himself over the confirmation of an adult male
in a story by Miss Yonge. Of Scott, "the most chivalrous literary
figure of the century, and the author with the widest range since
Shakespeare," he preferred Old Mortality, and it is a good choice.
He hated "morbid and introspective tales, with their oceans of sham
philosophy." At this time, with catholic taste, he read Mr Stevenson
and Mr Meredith, Miss Braddon and Mr Henry James, Ouida and Mr Thomas
Hardy; Mr Hall Caine and Mr Anstey; Mrs Oliphant and Miss Edna Lyall.
Not everybody can peruse all of these very diverse authors with
pleasure. He began his poem on the Roman gladiatorial combats;
indeed his years, fourscore and one, left his intellectual eagerness
as unimpaired as that of Goethe. "A crooked share," he said to the
Princess Louise, "may make a straight furrow." "One afternoon he had
a long waltz with M- in the ballroom." Speaking of
"All the charm of all the Muses
Often flowering in a lonely word"
in Virgil, he adduced, rather strangely, the cunctantem ramum, said
of the Golden Bough, in the Sixth AEneid. The choice is odd, because
the Sibyl has just told AEneas that, if he be destined to pluck the
branch of gold, ipse volens facilisque sequetur, "it will come off of
its own accord," like the sacred ti branches of the Fijians, which
bend down to be plucked for the Fire rite. Yet, when the predestined
AEneas tries to pluck the bough of gold, it yields reluctantly
(cunctantem), contrary to what the Sibyl has foretold. Mr Conington,
therefore, thought the phrase a slip on the part of Virgil. "People
accused Virgil of plagiarising," he said, "but if a man made it his
own there was no harm in that (look at the great poets, Shakespeare
included)." Tennyson, like Virgil, made much that was ancient his
own; his verses are often, and purposefully, a mosaic of classical
reminiscences. But he was vexed by the hunters after remote and
unconscious resemblances, and far-fetched analogies between his lines
and those of others. He complained that, if he said that the sun
went down, a parallel was at once cited from Homer, or anybody else,
and he used a very powerful phrase to condemn critics who detected
such repetitions. "The moanings of the homeless sea,"--"moanings"
from Horace, "homeless" from Shelley. "As if no one else had ever
heard the sea moan except Horace!" Tennyson's mixture of memory and
forgetfulness was not so strange as that of Scott, and when he
adapted from the Greek, Latin, or Italian, it was of set purpose,
just as it was with Virgil. The beautiful lines comparing a girl's
eyes to bottom agates that seem to
"Wave and float
In crystal currents of clear running seas,"
he invented while bathing in Wales. It was his habit, to note down
in verse such similes from nature, and to use them when he found
occasion. But the higher criticism, analysing the simile, detected
elements from Shakespeare and from Beaumont and Fletcher.
In June 1891 the poet went on a tour in Devonshire, and began his
Akbar, and probably wrote June Bracken and Heather; or perhaps it was
composed when "we often sat on the top of Blackdown to watch the
sunset." He wrote to Mr Kipling -
"The oldest to the youngest singer
That England bore"
(to alter Mr Swinburne's lines to Landor), praising his Flag of
England. Mr Kipling replied as "the private to the general."
Early in 1892 The Foresters was successfully produced at New York by
Miss Ada Rehan, the music by Sir Arthur Sullivan, and the scenery
from woodland designs by Whymper. Robin Hood (as we learn from Mark
Twain) is a favourite hero with the youth of America. Mr Tom Sawyer
himself took, in Mark Twain's tale, the part of the bold outlaw.
The Death of OEnone was published in 1892, with the dedication to the
Master of Balliol -
"Read a Grecian tale retold
Which, cast in later Grecian mould,
Somewhat lazily handled of old."
Quintus Calaber, more usually called Quintus Smyrnaeus, is a writer
of perhaps the fourth century of our era. About him nothing, or next
to nothing, is known. He told, in so late an age, the conclusion of
the Tale of Troy, and (in the writer's opinion) has been unduly
neglected and disdained. His manner, I venture to think, is more
Homeric than that of the more famous and doubtless greater
Alexandrian poet of the Argonautic cycle, Apollonius Rhodius, his
senior by five centuries. His materials were probably the ancient
and lost poems of the Epic Cycle, and the story of the death of
OEnone may be from the Little Iliad of Lesches. Possibly parts of
his work may be textually derived from the Cyclics, but the topic is
very obscure. In Quintus, Paris, after encountering evil omens on
his way, makes a long speech, imploring the pardon of the deserted
OEnone. She replies, not with the Tennysonian brevity; she sends him
back to the helpless arms of her rival, Helen. Paris dies on the
hills; never did Helen see him returning. The wood-nymphs bewail
Paris, and a herdsman brings the bitter news to Helen, who chants her
lament. But remorse falls on OEnone. She does not go
By the long torrent's ever-deepened roar,"
but rushes "swift as the wind to seek and spring upon the pyre of her
lord." Fate and Aphrodite drive her headlong, and in heaven Selene,
remembering Endymion, bewails the lot of her sister in sorrow.
OEnone reaches the funeral flame, and without a word or a cry leaps
into her husband's arms, the wild Nymphs wondering. The lovers are
mingled in one heap of ashes, and these are bestowed in one vessel of
gold and buried in a howe. This is the story which the poet
rehandled in his old age, completing the work of his happy youth when
he walked with Hallam in the Pyrenean hills, that were to him as Ida.
The romance of OEnone and her death condone, as even Homer was apt to
condone, the sins of beautiful Paris, whom the nymphs lament, despite
the evil that he has wrought. The silence of the veiled OEnone, as
she springs into her lover's last embrace, is perhaps more affecting
and more natural than Tennyson's
"She lifted up a voice
Of shrill command, 'Who burns upon the pyre?'"
The St Telemachus has the old splendour and vigour of verse, and,
though written so late in life, is worthy of the poet's prime:-
"Eve after eve that haggard anchorite
Would haunt the desolated fane, and there
Gaze at the ruin, often mutter low
'Vicisti Galilaee'; louder again,
Spurning a shatter'd fragment of the God,
'Vicisti Galilaee!' but--when now
Bathed in that lurid crimson--ask'd 'Is earth
On fire to the West? or is the Demon-god
Wroth at his fall?' and heard an answer 'Wake
Thou deedless dreamer, lazying out a life
Of self-suppression, not of selfless love.'
And once a flight of shadowy fighters crost
The disk, and once, he thought, a shape with wings
Came sweeping by him, and pointed to the West,
And at his ear he heard a whisper 'Rome,'
And in his heart he cried 'The call of God!'
And call'd arose, and, slowly plunging down
Thro' that disastrous glory, set his face
By waste and field and town of alien tongue,
Following a hundred sunsets, and the sphere
Of westward-wheeling stars; and every dawn
Struck from him his own shadow on to Rome.
Foot-sore, way-worn, at length he touch'd his goal,
The Christian city."
Akbar's Dream may be taken, more or less, to represent the poet's own
theology of a race seeking after God, if perchance they may find Him,
and the closing Hymn was a favourite with Tennyson. He said, "It is
a magnificent metre":-
Once again thou flamest heavenward, once again we see thee rise.
Every morning is thy birthday gladdening human hearts and eyes.
Every morning here we greet it, bowing lowly down before thee,
Thee the Godlike, thee the changeless in thine ever-changing skies.
Shadow-maker, shadow-slayer, arrowing light from clime to clime,
Hear thy myriad laureates hail thee monarch in their woodland rhyme.
Warble bird, and open flower, and, men, below the dome of azure
Kneel adoring Him the Timeless in the flame that measures Time!"
In this final volume the poet cast his handful of incense on the
altar of Scott, versifying the tale of Il Bizarro, which the dying
Sir Walter records in his Journal in Italy. The Churchwarden and the
Curate is not inferior to the earlier peasant poems in its expression
of shrewdness, humour, and superstition. A verse of Poets and
Critics may be taken as the poet's last word on the old futile
"This thing, that thing is the rage,
Helter-skelter runs the age;
Minds on this round earth of ours
Vary like the leaves and flowers,
Fashion'd after certain laws;
Sing thou low or loud or sweet,
All at all points thou canst not meet,
Some will pass and some will pause.
What is true at last will tell:
Few at first will place thee well;
Some too low would have thee shine,
Some too high--no fault of thine -
Hold thine own, and work thy will!
Year will graze the heel of year,
But seldom comes the poet here,
And the Critic's rarer still."
Still the lines hold good -
"Some too low would have thee shine,
Some too high--no fault of thine."
The end was now at hand. A sense of weakness was felt by the poet on
September 3, 1892: on the 28th his family sent for Sir Andrew Clark;
but the patient gradually faded out of life, and expired on Thursday,
October 6, at 1.35 A.M. To the very last he had Shakespeare by him,
and his windows were open to the sun; on the last night they were
flooded by the moonlight. The description of the final scenes must
be read in the Biography by the poet's son. "His patience and quiet
strength had power upon those who were nearest and dearest to him; we
felt thankful for the love and the utter peace of it all." "The life
after death," Tennyson had said just before his fatal illness, "is
the cardinal point of Christianity. I believe that God reveals
Himself in every individual soul; and my idea of Heaven is the
perpetual ministry of one soul to another." He had lived the life of
heaven upon earth, being in all his work a minister of things
honourable, lovely, consoling, and ennobling to the souls of others,
with a ministry which cannot die. His body sleeps next to that of
his friend and fellow-poet, Robert Browning, in front of Chaucer's
monument in the Abbey.