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Tennyson


Mr. Morton Luce has written a short study of Tennyson which has
considerable cultivation and suggestiveness, which will be sufficient to
serve as a notebook for Tennyson's admirers, but scarcely sufficient,
perhaps, to serve as a pamphlet against his opponents. If a critic has,
as he ought to have, any of the functions anciently attributed to a
prophet, it ought not to be difficult for him to prophesy that Tennyson
will pass through a period of facile condemnation and neglect before we
arrive at the true appreciation of his work. The same thing has happened
to the most vigorous of essayists, Macaulay, and the most vigorous of
romancers, Dickens, because we live in a time when mere vigour is
considered a vulgar thing. The same idle and frigid reaction will almost
certainly discredit the stateliness and care of Tennyson, as it has
discredited the recklessness and inventiveness of Dickens. It is only
necessary to remember that no action can be discredited by a reaction.

The attempts which have been made to discredit the poetical position of
Tennyson are in the main dictated by an entire misunderstanding of the
nature of poetry. When critics like Matthew Arnold, for example, suggest
that his poetry is deficient in elaborate thought, they only prove, as
Matthew Arnold proved, that they themselves could never be great poets.
It is no valid accusation against a poet that the sentiment he expresses
is commonplace. Poetry is always commonplace; it is vulgar in the
noblest sense of that noble word. Unless a man can make the same kind of
ringing appeal to absolute and admitted sentiments that is made by a
popular orator, he has lost touch with emotional literature. Unless he
is to some extent a demagogue, he cannot be a poet. A man who expresses
in poetry new and strange and undiscovered emotions is not a poet; he is
a brain specialist. Tennyson can never be discredited before any serious
tribunal of criticism because the sentiments and thoughts to which he
dedicates himself are those sentiments and thoughts which occur to
anyone. These are the peculiar province of poetry; poetry, like
religion, is always a democratic thing, even if it pretends the
contrary. The faults of Tennyson, so far as they existed, were not half
so much in the common character of his sentiments as in the arrogant
perfection of his workmanship. He was not by any means so wrong in his
faults as he was in his perfections.

Men are very much too ready to speak of men's work being ordinary, when
we consider that, properly considered, every man is extraordinary. The
average man is a tribal fable, like the Man-Wolf or the Wise Man of the
Stoics. In every man's heart there is a revolution; how much more in
every poet's? The supreme business of criticism is to discover that part
of a man's work which is his and to ignore that part which belongs to
others. Why should any critic of poetry spend time and attention on that
part of a man's work which is unpoetical? Why should any man be
interested in aspects which are uninteresting? The business of a critic
is to discover the importance of men and not their crimes. It is true
that the Greek word critic carries with it the meaning of a judge, and
up to this point of history judges have had to do with the valuation of
men's sins, and not with the valuation of their virtues.

Tennyson's work, disencumbered of all that uninteresting accretion which
he had inherited or copied, resolves itself, like that of any other man
of genius, into those things which he really inaugurated. Underneath all
his exterior of polished and polite rectitude there was in him a genuine
fire of novelty; only that, like all the able men of his period, he
disguised revolution under the name of evolution. He is only a very
shallow critic who cannot see an eternal rebel in the heart of the
Conservative.

Tennyson had certain absolutely personal ideas, as much his own as the
ideas of Browning or Meredith, though they were fewer in number. One of
these, for example, was the fact that he was the first of all poets (and
perhaps the last) to attempt to treat poetically that vast and monstrous
vision of fact which science had recently revealed to mankind.
Scientific discoveries seem commonly fables as fantastic in the ears of
poets as poems in the ears of men of science. The poet is always a
Ptolemaist; for him the sun still rises and the earth stands still.
Tennyson really worked the essence of modern science into his poetical
constitution, so that its appalling birds and frightful flowers were
really part of his literary imagery. To him blind and brutal monsters,
the products of the wild babyhood of the Universe, were as the daisies
and the nightingales were to Keats; he absolutely realised the great
literary paradox mentioned in the Book of Job: "He saw Behemoth, and he
played with him as with a bird."

Instances of this would not be difficult to find. But the tests of
poetry are those instances in which this outrageous scientific
phraseology becomes natural and unconscious. Tennyson wrote one of his
own exquisite lyrics describing the exultation of a lover on the evening
before his bridal day. This would be an occasion, if ever there was one,
for falling back on those ancient and assured falsehoods of the domed
heaven and the flat earth in which generations of poets have made us
feel at home. We can imagine the poet in such a lyric saluting the
setting sun and prophesying the sun's resurrection. There is something
extraordinarily typical of Tennyson's scientific faith in the fact that
this, one of the most sentimental and elemental of his poems, opens with
the two lines:

"Move eastward, happy earth, and leave
Yon orange sunset waning slow."

Rivers had often been commanded to flow by poets, and flowers to blossom
in their season, and both were doubtless grateful for the permission.
But the terrestrial globe of science has only twice, so far as we know,
been encouraged in poetry to continue its course, one instance being
that of this poem, and the other the incomparable "Address to the
Terrestrial Globe" in the "Bab Ballads."

There was, again, another poetic element entirely peculiar to Tennyson,
which his critics have, in many cases, ridiculously confused with a
fault. This was the fact that Tennyson stood alone among modern poets
in the attempt to give a poetic character to the conception of Liberal
Conservatism, of splendid compromise. The carping critics who have
abused Tennyson for this do not see that it was far more daring and
original for a poet to defend conventionality than to defend a cart-load
of revolutions. His really sound and essential conception of Liberty,

"Turning to scorn with lips divine
The falsehood of extremes,"

is as good a definition of Liberalism as has been uttered in poetry in
the Liberal century. Moderation is _not_ a compromise; moderation is a
passion; the passion of great judges. That Tennyson felt that lyrical
enthusiasm could be devoted to established customs, to indefensible and
ineradicable national constitutions, to the dignity of time and the
empire of unutterable common sense, all this did not make him a tamer
poet, but an infinitely more original one. Any poetaster can describe a
thunderstorm; it requires a poet to describe the ancient and quiet sky.


I cannot, indeed, fall in with Mr. Morton Luce in his somewhat frigid
and patrician theory of poetry. "Dialect," he says, "mostly falls below
the dignity of art." I cannot feel myself that art has any dignity
higher than the indwelling and divine dignity of human nature. Great
poets like Burns were far more undignified when they clothed their
thoughts in what Mr. Morton Luce calls "the seemly raiment of cultured
speech" than when they clothed them in the headlong and flexible patois
in which they thought and prayed and quarrelled and made love. If
Tennyson failed (which I do not admit) in such poems as "The Northern
Farmer," it was not because he used too much of the spirit of the
dialect, but because he used too little.

Tennyson belonged undoubtedly to a period from which we are divided; the
period in which men had queer ideas of the antagonism of science and
religion; the period in which the Missing Link was really missing. But
his hold upon the old realities of existence never wavered; he was the
apostle of the sanctity of laws, of the sanctity of customs; above all,
like every poet, he was the apostle of the sanctity of words.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton


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