Gateway to the Classics: English Literature for Boys and Girls by H. E. Marshall
English Literature for Boys and Girls by  H. E. Marshall

Tennyson—The Poet of Friendship

K 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 him.

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—

"That loves

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 silence.

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 historian.

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 Brothers."

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 things—

"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 forgetfulness—

"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 the Laureateship.

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 Memoriam  are 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, and color. 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 1892.

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 love them.

Book To Read

Tennyson for the Young,  Alfred Ainger.

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