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Chapter 9

--LAST YEARS.

The end of 1884 saw the publication of Tiresias and other Poems,
dedicated to "My good friend, Robert Browning," and opening with the
beautiful verses to one who never was Mr Browning's friend, Edward
FitzGerald. The volume is rich in the best examples of Tennyson's
later work. Tiresias, the monologue of the aged seer, blinded by
excess of light when he beheld Athene unveiled, and under the curse
of Cassandra, is worthy of the author who, in youth, wrote OEnone and
Ulysses. Possibly the verses reflect Tennyson's own sense of public
indifference to the voice of the poet and the seer. But they are of
much earlier date than the year of publication:-


"For when the crowd would roar
For blood, for war, whose issue was their doom,
To cast wise words among the multitude
Was flinging fruit to lions; nor, in hours
Of civil outbreak, when I knew the twain
Would each waste each, and bring on both the yoke
Of stronger states, was mine the voice to curb
The madness of our cities and their kings.
Who ever turn'd upon his heel to hear
My warning that the tyranny of one
Was prelude to the tyranny of all?
My counsel that the tyranny of all
Led backward to the tyranny of one?
This power hath work'd no good to aught that lives."


The conclusion was a favourite with the author, and his blank verse
never reached a higher strain:-


"But for me,
I would that I were gather'd to my rest,
And mingled with the famous kings of old,
On whom about their ocean-islets flash
The faces of the Gods--the wise man's word,
Here trampled by the populace underfoot,
There crown'd with worship--and these eyes will find
The men I knew, and watch the chariot whirl
About the goal again, and hunters race
The shadowy lion, and the warrior-kings,
In height and prowess more than human, strive
Again for glory, while the golden lyre
Is ever sounding in heroic ears
Heroic hymns, and every way the vales
Wind, clouded with the grateful incense-fume
Of those who mix all odour to the Gods
On one far height in one far-shining fire."


Then follows the pathetic piece on FitzGerald's death, and the
prayer, not unfulfilled -


"That, when I from hence
Shall fade with him into the unknown,
My close of earth's experience
May prove as peaceful as his own."


The Ancient Sage, with its lyric interludes, is one of Tennyson's
meditations on the mystery of the world and of existence. Like the
poet himself, the Sage finds a gleam of light and hope in his own
subjective experiences of some unspeakable condition, already
recorded in In Memoriam. The topic was one on which he seems to have
spoken to his friends with freedom:-


"And more, my son! for more than once when I
Sat all alone, revolving in myself
The word that is the symbol of myself,
The mortal limit of the Self was loosed,
And past into the Nameless, as a cloud
Melts into Heaven. I touch'd my limbs, the limbs
Were strange not mine--and yet no shade of doubt,
But utter clearness, and thro' loss of Self
The gain of such large life as match'd with ours
Were Sun to spark--unshadowable in words,
Themselves but shadows of a shadow-world."


The poet's habit of


"Revolving in myself
The word that is the symbol of myself" -


that is, of dwelling on the sound of his own name, was familiar to
the Arabs. M. Lefebure has drawn my attention to a passage in the
works of a mediaeval Arab philosopher, Ibn Khaldoun: {17} "To arrive
at the highest degree of inspiration of which he is capable, the
diviner should have recourse to the use of certain phrases marked by
a peculiar cadence and parallelism. Thus he emancipates his mind
from the influence of the senses, and is enabled to attain an
imperfect contact with the spiritual world." Ibn Khaldoun regards
the "contact" as extremely "imperfect." He describes similar efforts
made by concentrating the gaze on a mirror, a bowl of water, or the
like. Tennyson was doubtless unaware that he had stumbled
accidentally on a method of "ancient sages." Psychologists will
explain his experience by the word "dissociation." It is not
everybody, however, who can thus dissociate himself. The temperament
of genius has often been subject to such influence, as M. Lefebure
has shown in the modern instances of George Sand and Alfred de
Musset: we might add Shelley, Goethe, and even Scott.

The poet's versatility was displayed in the appearance with these
records of "weird seizures", of the Irish dialect piece To-morrow,
the popular Spinster's Sweet-Arts, and the Locksley Hall Sixty Years
After. The old fire of the versification is unabated, but the hero
has relapsed on the gloom of the hero of Maud. He represents
himself, of course, not Tennyson, or only one of the moods of
Tennyson, which were sometimes black enough. A very different mood
chants the Charge of the Heavy Brigade, and speaks of


"Green Sussex fading into blue
With one gray glimpse of sea."


The lines To Virgil were written at the request of the Mantuans, by
the most Virgilian of all the successors of the


"Wielder of the stateliest measure
ever moulded by the lips of man."


Never was Tennyson more Virgilian than in this unmatched panegyric,
the sum and flower of criticism of that


"Golden branch amid the shadows,
kings and realms that pass to rise no more."


Hardly less admirable is the tribute to Catullus, and the old poet is
young again in the bird-song of Early Spring. The lines on Poets and
their Bibliographies, with The Dead Prophet, express Tennyson's
lifelong abhorrence of the critics and biographers, whose joy is in
the futile and the unimportant, in personal gossip and the sweepings
of the studio, the salvage of the wastepaper basket. The Prefatory
Poem to my Brother's Sonnets is not only touching in itself, but
proves that the poet can "turn to favour and to prettiness" such an
affliction as the ruinous summer of 1879.

The year 1880 brought deeper distress in the death of the poet's son
Lionel, whose illness, begun in India, ended fatally in the Red Sea.
The interest of the following years was mainly domestic. The poet's
health, hitherto robust, was somewhat impaired in 1888, but his vivid
interest in affairs and in letters was unabated. He consoled himself
with Virgil, Keats, Wordsworth, Gibbon, Euripides, and Mr Leaf's
speculations on the composite nature of the Iliad, in which
Coleridge, perhaps alone among poets, believed. "You know," said
Tennyson to Mr Leaf; "I never liked that theory of yours about the
many poets." It would be at least as easy to prove that there were
many authors of Ivanhoe, or perhaps it would be a good deal more
easy. However, he admitted that three lines which occur both in the
Eighth and the Sixteenth Books of the Iliad are more appropriate in
the later book. Similar examples might be found in his own poems.
He still wrote, in the intervals of a malady which brought him "as
near death as a man could be without dying." He was an example of
the great physical strength which, on the whole, seems usually to
accompany great mental power. The strength may be dissipated by
passion, or by undue labour, as in cases easily recalled to memory,
but neither cause had impaired the vigour of Tennyson. Like Goethe,
he lived out all his life; and his eightieth birthday was cheered
both by public and private expressions of reverence and affection.

Of Tennyson's last three years on earth we may think, in his own
words, that his


"Life's latest eve endured
Nor settled into hueless grey."


Nature was as dear to him and as inspiring as of old; men and affairs
and letters were not slurred by his intact and energetic mind. His
Demeter and other Poems, with the dedication to Lord Dufferin,
appeared in the December of the year. The dedication was the lament
for the dead son and the salutation to the Viceroy of India, a piece
of resigned and manly regret. The Demeter and Persephone is a modern
and tender study of the theme of the most beautiful Homeric Hymn.
The ancient poet had no such thought of the restored Persephone as
that which impels Tennyson to describe her


"Faint as a climate-changing bird that flies
All night across the darkness, and at dawn
Falls on the threshold of her native land."


The spring, the restored Persephone, comes more vigorous and joyous
to the shores of the AEgean than to ours. All Tennyson's own is
Demeter's awe of those "imperial disimpassioned eyes" of her
daughter, come from the bed and the throne of Hades, the Lord of many
guests. The hymn, happy in its ending, has no thought of the grey
heads of the Fates, and their answer to the goddess concerning "fate
beyond the Fates," and the breaking of the bonds of Hades. The
ballad of Owd Roa is one of the most spirited of the essays in
dialect to which Tennyson had of late years inclined. Vastness
merely expresses, in terms of poetry, Tennyson's conviction that,
without immortality, life is a series of worthless contrasts. An
opposite opinion may be entertained, but a man has a right to express
his own, which, coming from so great a mind, is not undeserving of
attention; or, at least, is hardly deserving of reproof. The poet's
idea is also stated thus in The Ring, in terms which perhaps do not
fall below the poetical; or, at least, do not drop into "the utterly
unpoetical":-


"The Ghost in Man, the Ghost that once was Man,
But cannot wholly free itself from Man,
Are calling to each other thro' a dawn
Stranger than earth has ever seen; the veil
Is rending, and the Voices of the day
Are heard across the Voices of the dark.
No sudden heaven, nor sudden hell, for man,
But thro' the Will of One who knows and rules -
And utter knowledge is but utter love -
AEonian Evolution, swift or slow,
Thro' all the Spheres--an ever opening height,
An ever lessening earth."


The Ring is, in fact, a ghost story based on a legend told by Mr
Lowell about a house near where he had once lived; one of those
houses vexed by


"A footstep, a low throbbing in the walls,
A noise of falling weights that never fell,
Weird whispers, bells that rang without a hand,
Door-handles turn'd when none was at the door,
And bolted doors that open'd of themselves."


These phenomena were doubtless caused by rats and water-pipes, but
they do not destroy the pity and the passion of the tale. The lines
to Mary Boyle are all of the normal world, and worthy of a poet's
youth and of the spring. Merlin and the Gleam is the spiritual
allegory of the poet's own career:-


"Arthur had vanish'd
I knew not whither,
The king who loved me,
And cannot die."


So at last


"All but in Heaven
Hovers The Gleam,"


whither the wayfarer was soon to follow. There is a marvellous hope
and pathos in the melancholy of these all but the latest songs,
reminiscent of youth and love, and even of the dim haunting memories
and dreams of infancy. No other English poet has thus rounded all
his life with music. Tennyson was in his eighty-first year, when
there "came in a moment" the crown of his work, the immortal lyric,
Crossing the Bar. It is hardly less majestic and musical in the
perfect Greek rendering by his brother-in-law, Mr Lushington. For
once at least a poem has been "poured from the golden to the silver
cup" without the spilling of a drop. The new book's appearance was
coincident with the death of Mr Browning, "so loving and
appreciative," as Lady Tennyson wrote; a friend, not a rival, however
the partisans of either poet might strive to stir emulation between
two men of such lofty and such various genius.

Andrew Lang

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