Monday, April 30, 2018

English Idyls and Other Poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Source of book: I own a complete collection of Tennyson’s poetry

Along with the general decline of interest in poetry has come a certain disdain for poets of the Romantic and Victorian Eras, of which Tennyson is one of the greatest. Perhaps it is the unabashed emotion, the love of beauty, the optimism? If it were merely an objection to the sexism and colonialism of the era, then other genres should have suffered too, and yet the novels are not so roundly mocked as the poetry. This is all a real shame, as some of the most beautiful, evocative, and perceptive poetry in the English language was written during the 19th Century.

Since I have the complete Tennyson (in a Modern Library hardback), I have been reading the poems roughly in order. I skipped the juvenalia, and started with the 1833 collection that made his reputation. Later, in 1842, Tennyson issued the first collection along with a new collection in a two-part Poems. It is the second half of that collection that forms the subject of this review.

As I alluded to above, reading Tennyson is, well, complicated. He was a man of his time. But also one who transcended his time. He was, perhaps by his nature, a conservative. At least in many ways. But he also was troubled by his times too, and to put him down as another jingoist and sexist Victorian is an oversimplification. In his religion too, he was...complicated. So many of his poems seem an affirmation of the typical Christian doctrines of his time and place, but he also expressed some fairly shocking sentiments about religion. I find that this actually fits well. Artists - particularly poets - live in the spaces in between. They deal with a part of life that cannot be easily divided into black and white. Poets speak of a reality that is more felt than seen, and truth that is more true because it is evoked, not stated outright. Tennyson struggled with debilitating depression for his entire life, and felt his personal tragedies deeply. It is only one who could feel and hurt as he did who could really grasp the truth in his line, “"There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds." That line comes from In Memoriam, his long lament for the death of his close friend.

So, for me, even as I wince at some of his lines, I find I am carried along in the beauty of his language, and recognize him as a true kindred spirit speaking across a century and a half.

The collection starts off with a series of what he terms “English Idyls.” These are narrative poems in blank verse, many on historical themes. After a brief introduction where the narrator (not necessarily, but possibly Tennyson himself) discusses the old versus the new with some friends. Eventually, he is coaxed into sharing his own tribute to the old days - namely, an epic poem about King Arthur. The result is “Morte D’Arthur,” which would eventually become the closing section of Idylls of the King. I still haven’t read all of Idylls yet, and it has been some years since I read any of it. (This is a shame, because I have a gorgeous hardback of Idylls. I have, however, read Malory’s version...) The language is just so gorgeous, it is hard to even describe it. It is just such that when you read it (as when you read or hear Shakespeare), you just feel the music of the poetry. I’ll quote just a bit of it - one of my favorite passages.

And slowly answer'd Arthur from the barge:
"The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils Himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?
I have lived my life, and that which I have done
May He within Himself make pure! but thou,
If thou shouldst never see my face again,
Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.
But now farewell. I am going a long way
With these thou seëst—if indeed I go—
(For all my mind is clouded with a doubt)
To the island-valley of Avilion;
Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadow'd, happy, fair with orchard-lawns
And bowery hollows crown'd with summer sea,
Where I will heal me of my grievous wound."

Read that out loud. Let the words wash over you. And then re-read it, focusing on what an epic deathbed statement it really is. Arthur accepts the changing of the world, and releases his power with that combination of faith and doubt that characterizes the best of Tennyson.

(I was also reminded that books like The Buried Giant, which I just read, or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court) make so much more sense if you have read the original Arthurian legends.)

“Morte D’Arthur” wasn’t the only poem in this collection that I had read before. In fact, there were a good number that are familiar enough that most of us have read them before in high school, college, and I hope in the years since. (Yeah, it’s depressing how many people haven’t really read poetry after graduation.)

One of those old friends was “Locksley Hall.” I read the whole thing in High School - we had to read excerpts, but I tend to like reading things in context. The plot is pretty simple. The young man returns to Locksley Hall, his college, and muses on his life. In particular, the woman that rejected him. The poem thus combines optimism for the future with the pain and bitterness of loss. Along the way, the poet condemns the materialism and classism that led to his rejection, and yet hopes that mankind will find a better way someday.

The poem is in rhymed couplets, in rather long lines of 15 syllables - really two sets of iambic tetrameter spliced together. If one were to split the lines, there would be a feminine ending on the first half, and a masculine ending on the second.

The poem is most famous, I suppose, for the line:

In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

And thus, the poet commences a conversation with his former beloved. He recalls the joy of their love. But boy, does it turn bitter. Tennyson doesn’t shy away from the ugly side of his nature.

Falser than all fancy fathoms, falser than all songs have sung,
Puppet to a father's threat, and servile to a shrewish tongue!

Is it well to wish thee happy?—having known me—to decline
On a range of lower feelings and a narrower heart than mine!

Yet it shall be; thou shalt lower to his level day by day,
What is fine within thee growing coarse to sympathize with clay.

As the husband is, the wife is: thou art mated with a clown,
And the grossness of his nature will have weight to drag thee down.

He will hold thee, when his passion shall have spent its novel force,
Something better than his dog, a little dearer than his horse.

What is this? his eyes are heavy; think not they are glazed with wine.
Go to him, it is thy duty, kiss him, take his hand in thine.

It may be my lord is weary, that his brain is overwrought:
Soothe him with thy finer fancies, touch him with thy lighter thought.

He will answer to the purpose, easy things to understand—
Better thou wert dead before me, tho' I slew thee with my hand!

Better thou and I were lying, hidden from the heart's disgrace,
Roll'd in one another's arms, and silent in a last embrace.

Cursed be the social wants that sin against the strength of youth!
Cursed be the social lies that warp us from the living truth!

Cursed be the sickly forms that err from honest Nature's rule!
Cursed be the gold that gilds the straiten'd forehead of the fool!

It goes on for a good while, as he imagines her life to a dull fool. Tennyson also rails at the fact that wealth is all the world cares for. He isn’t wrong, alas. But then, he turns to a more optimistic tone, speaking of his youthful idealism for the future. In his vision, he foresees a league of nations, a decline (and eventual end) of war, the triumph of reason over hate, and a more egalitarian future. Alas, he also says some condescending things about non-whites, and (in his passion against the faithless Amy) some insulting things about women. Sour notes in an otherwise beautiful and emotionally perceptive poem. Tennyson (who wasn’t that old, actually) intentionally wrote to describe youthful passions, good and bad, so perhaps one shouldn’t confuse the narrator with the poet.

One more line is so good that I have to quote it. Also, I recognized it as the source of the title from a rather good book I read last year.

Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.

Again, as I have so many times when reading Tennyson, I marveled at the music inherent in this line. It sings, it lives. Every word has both meaning in itself and in its context - it’s place in the constellation of sounds as the line rushes on.

The next poem intrigued me both because of its theme and because the person to whom it was dedicated was unnamed. Subsequent research indicated that it was probably a reference to Keats - whose scandalous (by Victorian standards) love letters were published after his death. It is even more true in our own age, when to be a celebrity of any sort means to have all one’s skeletons exposed.

To ——
After Reading a Life and Letters

‘Cursed be he that moves my bones.’
Shakespeare’s Epitaph.

YOU might have won the Poet’s name,
    If such be worth the winning now,
    And gain’d a laurel for your brow
Of sounder leaf than I can claim;

But you have made the wiser choice,
    A life that moves to gracious ends
    Thro’ troops of unrecording friends,
A deedful life, a silent voice:

And you have miss’d the irreverent doom
    Of those that wear the Poet’s crown;
    Hereafter, neither knave nor clown
Shall hold their orgies at your tomb.

For now the Poet cannot die,
    Nor leave his music as of old,
    But round him ere he scarce be cold
Begins the scandal and the cry:

‘Proclaim the faults he would not show;
    Break lock and seal: betray the trust;
    Keep nothing sacred: ’tis but just
The many-headed beast should know.’

Ah, shameless! for he did but sing
    A song that pleased us from its worth;
    No public life was his on earth,
No blazon’d statesman he, nor king.

He gave the people of his best;
    His worst he kept, his best he gave.
    My Shakespeare’s curse on clown and knave
Who will not let his ashes rest!

Who make it seem more sweet to be
    The little life of bank and brier,
    The bird that pipes his lone desire
And dies unheard within his tree,

Than he that warbles long and loud
    And drops at Glory’s temple-gates,
    For whom the carrion vulture waits
To tear his heart before the crowd!

Again, Tennyson wears his heart on his sleeve, and says exactly what he thinks. A kindred spirit indeed.

I also wanted to quote what might be Tennyson’s shortest poem. It is pretty nice - but I quote it here primarily because it was the first Tennyson poem I read to my very small kids over a decade ago. It was the perfect illustration of the poetic art, from rhyme to meter to the use of repeated sounds to evoke a picture.

The Eagle

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

I want to end this with what I have to say is on my list of 10 favorite poems. I swear I have re-read this at least once a year since I started this blog. (And numerous times before that.) It really encapsulates a lot of my own feelings - and more and more as I have gone from youth to middle age. Sure, I am not burdened with a kingdom (and I definitely would prefer to have my lovely bride accompany me on any and all adventures), but I too know my time is limited. I really have no desire to waste it, particularly in trying to change people who have no incentive to change. I have indeed shaken the dust off my feet the last few years, to use another great line. Anyway, enjoy.


It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

         This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

         There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

I really could analyze nearly every line. But why? A poem like that can stand without comment, as a monument to internal truth, and the drive I feel to live while I am alive. 


Not sure why “idylls / idyls” is spelled differently. I tried to find something online, and it appears to have been spelled both ways. If anyone has a guess, let me know…

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