Tennyson—The Poet of Friendship
EATS had lain beneath the Roman violets six years, and Shelley
somewhat less than five, when a little volume of poems was
published in England. It was called Poems by two Brothers. No
one took any notice of it, and yet in it was the first little
twitter of one of our sweetest singing birds. For the two
brothers were Alfred and Charles Tennyson, boys then of sixteen
and seventeen. It is of Alfred that I mean to tell you in this
last chapter. You have heard of him already in one of the
chapters on the Arthur story, and also you have heard of him as a
friend of Carlyle. And now I will tell you a little more about
Alfred Tennyson was born in 1809 in the Lincolnshire village of
Somersby. His father was the rector there, and had, besides
Alfred, eleven other children. And here about the Rectory
garden, orchard and fields, the Tennyson children played at
knights and warriors. Beyond the field flowed a brook—
To purl o'er matted cress and ribbed sand,
Or dimple in the dark of rushy coves,
Drawing into his narrow earthen urn,
In every elbow and turn,
The filter'd tribute of the rough woodland."
Of the garden and the fields and of the brook especially, Alfred
kept a memory all through his long life. But at
seven he was
sent to live with his grandmother and go to school at Louth,
about ten miles away. "How I did hate that school!" he said,
long afterwards, so we may suppose the years he spent there were
not altogether happy. But when he was eleven he went home again
to be taught by his father, until he went to Cambridge.
At home, Alfred read a great deal, especially poetry. He wrote,
too, romances like Sir Walter Scott's, full of battles, epics in
the manner of Pope, plays, and blank verse. He wrote so much
that his father said, "If Alfred die, one of our greatest poets
will have gone." And besides writing poems, Alfred, who was one
of the big children, used to tell stories to the little ones,—stories
these of knights and ladies, giants and dragons and all
manner of wonderful things. So the years passed, and one day the
two boys, Charles and Alfred, resolved to print their poems, and
took them to a bookseller in Louth. He gave them £20 for
the manuscript, but more than half was paid in books out of the
shop. So the grand beginning was made. But the little book caused
no stir in the great world. No one knew that a poet had broken
The next year Charles and Alfred went to Cambridge. Alfred soon
made many friends among the clever young men of his day, chief
among them being Arthur Hallam, whose father was a famous
At college Tennyson won the Chancellor's prize for a poem on
Timbuctoo, and the following year he published a second little
volume of poems. This, though kindly received by some great
writers, made hardly more stir than the little volume by "Two
Tennyson did not take a degree at Cambridge, for, owing to his
father's failing health, he was called home. He left college,
perhaps with no very keen regret, for his heart was not in
sympathy with the teaching. In his undergraduate days he wrote
some scathing lines about
it. You "teach us nothing," he said,
"feeding not the heart." But he did remember with tenderness
that Cambridge had been the spot where his first and warmest
friendship had been formed.
Soon after Alfred left college, his father died very suddenly.
Although the father was now gone the Tennysons did not need to
leave their home, for the new rector did not want the house. So
life in the Rectory went quietly on; friends came and went, the
dearest friend of all, Arthur Hallam, came often, for he loved
the poet's young sister, and one day they were to be married. It
was a peaceful happy time—
"And all we met was fair and good,
And all was good that Time could bring,
And all the secret of the Spring,
Moved in the chambers of the blood."
Long days were spent reading poetry and talking of many
"Or in the all-golden afternoon
A guest, or happy sister, sung,
Or here she brought the harp and flung
A ballad to the brightening moon.
"Nor less it pleased the livelier moods,
Beyond the bounding hill to stray,
And break the live long summer day
With banquet in the distant woods."
And amid this pleasant country life the poet worked on, and
presently another little book of poems appeared. Still fame did
not come, and one severe and blundering review kept Tennyson, it
is said, from publishing anything more for ten years.
But now there fell upon him what was perhaps the darkest sorrow
of his life. Arthur Hallam, who was traveling on the Continent,
died suddenly at Vienna.
When the news came to Tennyson that his
friend was gone—
"That in Vienna's fatal walls
God's finger touch'd him, and he slept,"
for a time joy seemed blotted out of life, and only that he might
help to comfort his sister did he wish to live, for—
"That remorseless iron hour
Made cypress of her orange flower,
Despair of Hope."
As an outcome of this grief we have one of Tennyson's finest
poems, In Memoriam.
It is an elegy which we place beside Lycidas
and Adonais. But In Memoriam strikes yet a sadder note. For in
Lycidas and Adonais Milton and Shelley mourned kindred souls
rather than dear loved friends. To Tennyson, Arthur Hallam was
"The brother of my love"—
"Dear as the mother to the son
More than my brothers are to me.
In Memoriam is a group of poems rather
than one long poem—
"Short swallow-flights of song, that dip
Their wings in tears, and skim away."
It is written in a meter which Tennyson believed he had invented,
but which Ben Jonson and others had used before him. Two hundred
years before Jonson had written a little elegy beginning—
"Though Beautie be the Marke of praise,
And yours of whom I sing be such
As not the world can praise too much,
Yet is't your vertue now I raise."
Here again we see that our literature of to-day is no new born
thing, but rooted in the past. Jonson's poem,
however, is a mere
trifle, Tennyson's one of the great things of our literature.
The first notes of In Memoriam were written when sorrow was
fresh, but it was not till seventeen years later that it was
given to the world. It is perhaps the most perfect monument ever
raised to friendship. For in mourning his own loss Tennyson
mourned the loss of all the world. " 'I' is not always the author
speaking of himself, but the voice of the human race speaking
thro' him," he says.
After the prologue, the poem tells of the first bitter hopeless
grief, of how friends try to comfort the mourners.
"One writes, that 'Other friends remain,'
That 'Loss is common to the race'—
And common is the common-place,
And vacant chaff well meant for grain.
"That loss is common would not make
My own less bitter, rather more:
Too common! Never morning wore
To evening, but some heart did break."
And yet even now he can say—
"I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all."
And so the months glide by, and the first Christmas comes, "The
time draws near the birth of Christ," the bells ring—
"Peace and goodwill, goodwill and peace,
Peace and goodwill, to all mankind.
"This year I slept and woke with pain,
I almost wish'd no more to wake,
And that my hold on life would break
Before I heard those bells again."
But when Christmas comes again the year has brought calm if not
"Again at Christmas did we weave
The holly round the Christmas hearth;
The silent snow possess'd the earth,
And calmly fell our Christmas-eve:
"The yule-log sparkled keen with frost,
No wing of wind the region swept,
But over all things brooding slept
The quiet sense of something lost.
"As in the winters left behind,
Again our ancient games had place,
The mimic picture's breathing grace,
And dance and song and hoodman-blind."
The years pass on, the brothers and sisters grow up and scatter,
and at last the old home has to be left. Sadly the poet takes
leave of all the loved spots in house and garden. Strangers will
soon come there, people who will neither care for nor love the
dear familiar scene—
"We leave the well-beloved place
Where first we gazed upon the sky;
The roofs, that heard our earliest cry,
Will shelter one of stranger race.
"We go, but ere we go from home,
As down the garden-walks I move,
Two spirits of a diverse love
Contend for loving masterdom.
"One whispers, 'Here thy boyhood sung
Long since its matin song, and heard
The low love-language of the bird
In native hazels tassel-hung.'
"The other answers, 'Yea, but here
Thy feet have stray'd in after hours
With thy lost friend among the bowers,
And this hath made them trebly dear.' "
The poem moves on, and once again in the new home Christmas comes
round. Here everything is strange, the very bells seem like
strangers' voices. But with this new life new strength has come,
and sorrow has henceforth lost its sting. And with the ringing
of the New Year bells a new tone comes into the poem, a tone no
more of despair, but of hope.
"Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
"Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
"Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
"Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be."
After this the tone of the poem changes and
the poet says—
"I will not shut me from my kind,
And, lest I stiffen into stone,
I will not eat my heart alone,
Nor feed with sighs a passing wind:
"Regret is dead, but love is more
Than in the summers that are flown,
For I myself with these have grown
To something greater than before."
One more event is recorded, the wedding of the poet's youngest
sister, nine years after the death of his friend.
And with this
note of gladness and hope in the future the poem ends.
Time heals all things, and time healed Tennyson's grief. But
there was another reason, of which we hardly catch a glimpse in
the poem, for his return to peace and hope. Another love had
come into his life, the love of the lady who one day was to be
his wife. At first, however, it seemed a hopeless love, for in
spite of his growing reputation as a poet, Tennyson was still
poor, too poor to marry. And so for fourteen years he worked and
waited, at times wellnigh losing hope. But at length the waiting
was over and the wedding took place. Tennyson amused the guests
by saying that it was the nicest wedding he had ever been at.
And long afterwards with solemn thankfulness he said, speaking of
his wife, "The peace of God came into my life before the altar
when I wedded her."
A few months before the wedding Wordsworth had died. One night a
few months after it Tennyson dreamt that the Prince Consort came
and kissed him on the cheek. "Very kind but very German," he
said in his dream. Next morning a letter arrived offering him
One of the first poems Tennyson wrote as laureate was his Ode on
the Death of Wellington. Few people liked it at the time, but
now it has taken its place among our fine poems, and many of its
lines are familiar household words.
Of Tennyson's many beautiful short poems there is no room here to
tell. He wrote several plays too, but they are among the least
read and the least remembered of his works. For Tennyson was a
lyrical rather than a dramatic poet. His long poems besides In
The Princess, Maud,
and the Idylls of the King. The
Princess is perhaps the first of Tennyson's long poems that you
will like to read. It is full of gayety, young life,
It is a mock heroic tale of a princess who does not wish to marry
and who founds a college for women, within the walls of which no
man may enter. But the Prince to whom the Princess has been
betrothed since childhood and who loves her from having seen her
portrait only, enters with his friends disguised as women
students. The result is confusion, war, and finally peace. The
story must not be taken too seriously; it is a poem, not a
treatise, but it is interesting, especially at this time. For
even you who read this book must know that the question has not
yet been settled as to how far a woman ought to be educated and
take her share in the world's work. But forget that and read it
only for its light-hearted poetry. The Princess is in blank
verse, but throughout there are scattered beautiful songs which
add to the charm. Here is one of the most musical—
"Sweet and low, sweet and low,
Wind of the western sea,
Low, low, breathe and blow,
Wind of the western sea!
Over the rolling waters go,
Come from the dying moon, and blow,
Blow him again to me;
While my little one, while my pretty one, sleeps.
"Sleep and rest, sleep and rest,
Father will come to thee soon;
Rest, rest, on mother's breast,
Father will come to thee soon;
Father will come to his babe in the nest,
Silver sails all out of the west
Under the silver moon:
Sleep, my little one, sleep, my pretty one, sleep."
In the Idylls of the King, Tennyson, as you have already heard in
Chapter IX, used the old story of Arthur. He used the old story,
but he wove into it something new, for we are meant to see in his
twelve tales of the round table
an allegory. We are meant to see
the struggle between what is base and what is noble in human
nature. But this inner meaning is not always easy to follow, and
we may cast the allegory aside, and still have left to us
beautiful dream-like tales which carry us away into a strange
wonderland. Like The Faery Queen, the Idylls of the King is full
of pictures. Here we find a fairy city, towered and turreted,
dark woods, wild wastes and swamps, slow gliding rivers all in a
misty dreamland. And this dreamland is peopled by knights and
ladies who move through it clad in radiant robes and glittering
armor. Jewels and rich coloring gleam and glow to the eye, songs
fall upon the ear. And over all rules the blameless King.
"And Arthur and his knighthood for a space
Were all one will, and thro' that strength the King
Drew in the petty princedoms under him,
Fought, and in twelve great battles overcame
The heathen hordes, and made a realm and reign'd."
One story of the Idylls I have already told you. Some day you
will read the others, and learn for yourselves—
"This old imperfect tale,
New-old, and shadowing Sense at war with Soul
Rather than that gray King, whose name, a ghost,
Streams like a cloud, man-shaped, from mountain peak,
And cleaves to cairn and cromlech still; or him
Of Geoffrey's book, or him of Malleor's."
Tennyson led a peaceful, simple life. He made his home for the
most part in the Isle of Wight. Here he lived quietly,
surrounded by his family, but sought after by all the great
people of his day. He refused a baronetcy, but at length in 1883
accepted a peerage and became Lord Tennyson, the first baron of
his name. He was the first peer to receive the title purely
because of his literary
work. And so with gathering honors and
gathering years the poet lived and worked, a splendid old man.
Then at the goodly age of eighty-four he died in the autumn of
He was buried in Westminster, not far from Chaucer, and as he was
laid among the mighty dead the choir sang Crossing the Bar, one
of his latest and most beautiful poems.
"Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
"But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
"Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
"For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar."
With Tennyson I end my book, because my design was not to give
you a history of our literature as it is now, so much as to show
you how it grew to be what it is. In the beginning of this book
I took the Arthur story as a pattern or type of how a story grew,
showing how it passed through many stages, in each stage gaining
something of beauty and of breadth. In the same way I have tried
to show how from a rough foundation of minstrel tales and monkish
legends the great palace of our literature has slowly risen to be
a glorious house of song. It is only
an outline that I have
given you. There are some great names that demand our reverence,
many that call for our love, for whom no room has been found in
this book. For our literature is so great a thing that no one
book can compass it, no young brain comprehend it. But if I have
awakened in you a desire to know more of our literature, a desire
to fill in and color for yourselves this outline picture, I shall
be well repaid, and have succeeded in what I aimed at doing. If
I have helped you to see that Literature need be no dreary lesson
I shall be more than repaid.
"They use me as a lesson-book at schools," said Tennyson, "and
they will call me 'that horrible
Tennyson.' " I should like to
think that the time is coming when schoolgirls and schoolboys
will say, "We have Tennyson for a school-book. How nice." I
should like to think that they will say this not only of
Tennyson, but of many other of our great writers whose very names
come as rest and refreshment to those of us who have learned to
Book To Read
Tennyson for the Young, Alfred Ainger.