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English Literature Its History and Its Significance for the Life of the English Speaking World online

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of popular weakness and ignorance, and the peers, who came with the Normans
in triumph, are both stripped of their power and left as figureheads of a
past civilization. The last vestige of personal government and of the
divine right of rulers disappears; the House of Commons becomes the ruling
power in England; and a series of new reform bills rapidly extend the
suffrage, until the whole body of English people choose for themselves the
men who shall represent them.

Second, because it is an age of democracy, it is an age of popular
education, of religious tolerance, of growing brotherhood, and of profound
social unrest. The slaves had been freed in 1833; but in the middle of the
century England awoke to the fact that slaves are not necessarily negroes,
stolen in Africa to be sold like cattle in the market place, but that
multitudes of men, women, and little children in the mines and factories
were victims of a more terrible industrial and social slavery. To free
these slaves also, the unwilling victims of our unnatural competitive
methods, has been the growing purpose of the Victorian Age until the
present day.

Third, because it is an age of democracy and education, it is an age of
comparative peace. England begins to think less of the pomp and false
glitter of fighting, and more of its moral evils, as the nation realizes
that it is the common people who bear the burden and the sorrow and the
poverty of war, while the privileged classes reap most of the financial and
political rewards. Moreover, with the growth of trade and of friendly
foreign relations, it becomes evident that the social equality for which
England was contending at home belongs to the whole race of men; that
brotherhood is universal, not insular; that a question of justice is never
settled by fighting; and that war is generally unmitigated horror and
barbarism. Tennyson, who came of age when the great Reform Bill occupied
attention, expresses the ideals of the Liberals of his day who proposed to
spread the gospel of peace,

Till the war-drum throbb'd no longer, and the battle-flags were furled
In the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the world.

Fourth, the Victorian Age is especially remarkable because of its rapid
progress in all the arts and sciences and in mechanical inventions. A
glance at any record of the industrial achievements of the nineteenth
century will show how vast they are, and it is unnecessary to repeat here
the list of the inventions, from spinning looms to steamboats, and from
matches to electric lights. All these material things, as well as the
growth of education, have their influence upon the life of a people, and it
is inevitable that they should react upon its prose and poetry; though as
yet we are too much absorbed in our sciences and mechanics to determine
accurately their influence upon literature. When these new things shall by
long use have became familiar as country roads, or have been replaced by
newer and better things, then they also will have their associations and
memories, and a poem on the railroads may be as suggestive as Wordsworth's
sonnet on Westminster Bridge; and the busy, practical workingmen who to-day
throng our streets and factories may seem, to a future and greater age, as
quaint and poetical as to us seem the slow toilers of the Middle Ages.

LITERARY CHARACTERISTICS. When one is interested enough to trace the
genealogy of Victoria he finds, to his surprise, that in her veins flowed
the blood both of William the Conqueror and of Cerdic, the first Saxon king
of England; and this seems to be symbolic of the literature of her age,
which embraces the whole realm of Saxon and Norman life, - the strength and
ideals of the one, and the culture and refinement of the other. The
romantic revival had done its work, and England entered upon a new free
period, in which every form of literature, from pure romance to gross
realism, struggled for expression. At this day it is obviously impossible
to judge the age as a whole; but we are getting far enough away from the
early half of it to notice certain definite characteristics. First, though
the age produced many poets, and two who deserve to rank among the
greatest, nevertheless this is emphatically an age of prose. And since the
number of readers has increased a thousandfold with the spread of popular
education, it is the age of the newspaper, the magazine, and the modern
novel, - the first two being the story of the world's daily life, and the
last our pleasantest form of literary entertainment, as well as our most
successful method of presenting modern problems and modern ideals. The
novel in this age fills a place which the drama held in the days of
Elizabeth; and never before, in any age or language, has the novel appeared
in such numbers and in such perfection.

[Moral Purpose] The second marked characteristic of the age is that
literature, both in prose and in poetry, seems to depart from the purely
artistic standard, of art for art's sake, and to be actuated by a definite
moral purpose Tennyson, Browning, Carlyle, Ruskin, - who and what were these
men if not the teachers of England, not vaguely but definitely, with superb
faith in their message, and with the conscious moral purpose to uplift and
to instruct? Even the novel breaks away from Scott's romantic influence,
and first studies life as it is, and then points out what life may and
ought to be. Whether we read the fun and sentiment of Dickens, the social
miniatures of Thackeray, or the psychological studies of George Eliot, we
find in almost every case a definite purpose to sweep away error and to
reveal the underlying truth of human life. So the novel sought to do for
society in this age precisely what Lyell and Darwin sought to do for
science, that is, to find the truth, and to show how it might be used to
uplift humanity. Perhaps for this reason the Victorian Age is emphatically
an age of realism rather than of romance, - not the realism of Zola and
Ibsen, but a deeper realism which strives to tell the whole truth, showing
moral and physical diseases as they are, but holding up health and hope as
the normal conditions of humanity.

It is somewhat customary to speak of this age as an age of doubt and
pessimism, following the new conception of man and of the universe which
was formulated by science under the name of involution. It is spoken of
also as a prosaic age, lacking in great ideals. Both these criticisms seem
to be the result of judging a large thing when we are too close to it to
get its true proportions, just as Cologne Cathedral, one of the world's
most perfect structures, seems to be a shapeless pile of stone when we
stand too close beneath its mighty walls and buttresses. Tennyson's
immature work, like that of the minor poets, is sometimes in a doubtful or
despairing strain; but his _In Memoriam_ is like the rainbow after storm;
and Browning seems better to express the spirit of his age in the strong,
manly faith of "Rabbi Ben Ezra," and in the courageous optimism of all his
poetry. Stedman's _Victorian Anthology_ is, on the whole, a most inspiring
book of poetry. It would be hard to collect more varied cheer from any age.
And the great essayists, like Macaulay, Carlyle, Ruskin, and the great
novelists, like Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, generally leave us with a
larger charity and with a deeper faith in our humanity.

So also the judgment that this age is too practical for great ideals may be
only a description of the husk that hides a very full ear of corn. It is
well to remember that Spenser and Sidney judged their own age (which we now
consider to be the greatest in our literary history) to be altogether given
over to materialism, and to be incapable of literary greatness. Just as
time has made us smile at their blindness, so the next century may correct
our judgment of this as a material age, and looking upon the enormous
growth of charity and brotherhood among us, and at the literature which
expresses our faith in men, may judge the Victorian Age to be, on the
whole, the noblest and most inspiring in the history of the world.



O young Mariner,
You from the haven
Under the sea-cliff,
You that are watching
The gray Magician
With eyes of wonder,
_I_ am Merlin,
And _I_ am dying,
_I_ am Merlin
Who follow The Gleam.
. . . . . . .
O young Mariner,
Down to the haven
Call your companions,
Launch your vessel,
And crowd your canvas,
And, ere it vanishes
Over the margin,
After it, follow it,
Follow The Gleam.

One who reads this haunting poem of "Merlin and The Gleam" finds in it a
suggestion of the spirit of the poet's whole life, - his devotion to the
ideal as expressed in poetry, his early romantic impressions, his
struggles, doubts, triumphs, and his thrilling message to his race.
Throughout the entire Victorian period Tennyson stood at the summit of
poetry in England. Not in vain was he appointed laureate at the death of
Wordsworth, in 1850; for, almost alone among those who have held the
office, he felt the importance of his place, and filled and honored it. For
nearly half a century Tennyson was not only a man and a poet; he was a
voice, the voice of a whole people, expressing in exquisite melody their
doubts and their faith, their griefs and their triumphs. In the wonderful
variety of his verse he suggests all the qualities of England's greatest
poets. The dreaminess of Spenser, the majesty of Milton, the natural
simplicity of Wordsworth, the fantasy of Blake and Coleridge, the melody of
Keats and Shelley, the narrative vigor of Scott and Byron, - all these
striking qualities are evident on successive pages of Tennyson's poetry.
The only thing lacking is the dramatic power of the Elizabethans. In
reflecting the restless spirit of this progressive age Tennyson is as
remarkable as Pope was in voicing the artificiality of the early eighteenth
century. As a poet, therefore, who expresses not so much a personal as a
national spirit, he is probably the most representative literary man of the
Victorian era.

LIFE. Tennyson's life is a remarkable one in this respect, that from
beginning to end he seems to have been dominated by a single impulse, the
impulse of poetry. He had no large or remarkable experiences, no wild oats
to sow, no great successes or reverses, no business cares or public
offices. For sixty-six years, from the appearance of the _Poems by Two
Brothers_, in 1827, until his death in 1892, he studied and practiced his
art continually and exclusively. Only Browning, his fellow-worker,
resembles him in this; but the differences in the two men are world-wide.
Tennyson was naturally shy, retiring, indifferent to men, hating noise and
publicity, loving to be alone with nature, like Wordsworth. Browning was
sociable, delighting in applause, in society, in travel, in the noise and
bustle of the big world.

Tennyson was born in the rectory of Somersby, Lincolnshire, in 1809. The
sweet influences of his early natural surroundings can be better understood
from his early poems than from any biography. He was one of the twelve
children of the Rev. George Clayton Tennyson, a scholarly clergyman, and
his wife Elizabeth Fytche, a gentle, lovable woman, "not learned, save in
gracious household ways," to whom the poet pays a son's loyal tribute near
the close of _The Princess_. It is interesting to note that most of these
children were poetically inclined, and that two of the brothers, Charles
and Frederick, gave far greater promise than did Alfred.

When seven years old the boy went to his grandmother's house at Louth, in
order to attend a famous grammar school at that place. Not even a man's
memory, which generally makes light of hardship and glorifies early
experiences, could ever soften Tennyson's hatred of school life. His
complaint was not so much at the roughness of the boys, which had so
frightened Cowper, as at the brutality of the teachers, who put over the
school door a wretched Latin inscription translating Solomon's barbarous
advice about the rod and the child. In these psychologic days, when the
child is more important than the curriculum, and when we teach girls and
boys rather than Latin and arithmetic, we read with wonder Carlyle's
description of his own schoolmaster, evidently a type of his kind, who
"knew of the human soul thus much, that it had a faculty called memory, and
could be acted on through the muscular integument by appliance of birch
rods." After four years of most unsatisfactory school life, Tennyson
returned home, and was fitted for the university by his scholarly father.
With his brothers he wrote many verses, and his first efforts appeared in a
little volume called _Poems by Two Brothers_, in 1827. The next year he
entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where he became the center of a
brilliant circle of friends, chief of whom was the young poet Arthur Henry

At the university Tennyson soon became known for his poetical ability, and
two years after his entrance he gained the prize of the Chancellor's Medal
for a poem called "Timbuctoo," the subject, needless to say, being chosen
by the chancellor. Soon after winning this honor Tennyson published his
first signed work, called _Poems Chiefly Lyrical_ (1830), which, though it
seems somewhat crude and disappointing to us now, nevertheless contained
the germ of all his later poetry. One of the most noticeable things in this
volume is the influence which Byron evidently exerted over the poet in his
early days; and it was perhaps due largely to the same romantic influence
that Tennyson and his friend Hallam presently sailed away to Spain, with
the idea of joining the army of insurgents against King Ferdinand.
Considered purely as a revolutionary venture, this was something of a
fiasco, suggesting the noble Duke of York and his ten thousand men, - "he
marched them up a hill, one day; and he marched them down again." From a
literary view point, however, the experience was not without its value. The
deep impression which the wild beauty of the Pyrenees made upon the young
poet's mind is reflected clearly in the poem "Oenone."

In 1831 Tennyson left the university without taking his degree. The reasons
for this step are not clear; but the family was poor, and poverty may have
played a large part in his determination. His father died a few months
later; but, by a generous arrangement with the new rector, the family
retained the rectory at Somersby, and here, for nearly six years, Tennyson
lived in a retirement which strongly suggests Milton at Horton. He read and
studied widely, cultivated an intimate acquaintance with nature, thought
deeply on the problems suggested by the Reform Bill which was then
agitating England, and during his leisure hours wrote poetry. The first
fruits of this retirement appeared, late in 1832, in a wonderful little
volume bearing the simple name _Poems_. As the work of a youth only
twenty-three, this book is remarkable for the variety and melody of its
verse. Among its treasures we still read with delight "The Lotos Eaters,"
"Palace of Art," "A Dream of Fair Women," "The Miller's Daughter,"
"Oenone," and "The Lady of Shalott"; but the critics of the _Quarterly_,
who had brutally condemned his earlier work, were again unmercifully
severe. The effect of this harsh criticism upon a sensitive nature was most
unfortunate; and when his friend Hallam died, in 1833, Tennyson was plunged
into a period of gloom and sorrow. The sorrow may be read in the exquisite
little poem beginning, "Break, break, break, On thy cold gray stones, O
Sea!" which was his first published elegy for his friend; and the
depressing influence of the harsh and unjust criticism is suggested in
"Merlin and The Gleam," which the reader will understand only after he has
read Tennyson's biography.

For nearly ten years after Hallam's death Tennyson published nothing, and
his movements are hard to trace as the family went here and there, seeking
peace and a home in various parts of England. But though silent, he
continued to write poetry, and it was in these sad wandering days that he
began his immortal _In Memoriam_ and his _Idylls of the King_. In 1842 his
friends persuaded him to give his work to the world, and with some
hesitation he published his _Poems_. The success of this work was almost
instantaneous, and we can appreciate the favor with which it was received
when we read the noble blank verse of "Ulysses" and "Morte d'Arthur," the
perfect little song of grief for Hallam which we have already mentioned,
and the exquisite idyls like "Dora" and "The Gardener's Daughter," which
aroused even Wordsworth's enthusiasm and brought from him a letter saying
that he had been trying all his life to write such an English pastoral as
"Dora" and had failed. From this time forward Tennyson, with increasing
confidence in himself and his message, steadily maintained his place as the
best known and best loved poet in England.

The year 1850 was a happy one for Tennyson. He was appointed poet laureate,
to succeed Wordsworth; and he married Emily Sellwood,

Her whose gentle will has changed my fate
And made my life a perfumed altar flame,

whom he had loved for thirteen years, but whom his poverty had prevented
him from marrying. The year is made further remarkable by the publication
of _In Memoriam_, probably the most enduring of his poems, upon which he
had worked at intervals for sixteen years. Three years later, with the
money that his work now brought him, he leased the house Farringford, in
the Isle of Wight, and settled in the first permanent home he had known
since he left the rectory at Somersby.

For the remaining forty years of his life he lived, like Wordsworth, "in
the stillness of a great peace," writing steadily, and enjoying the
friendship of a large number of people, some distinguished, some obscure,
from the kindly and sympathetic Victoria to the servants on his own farm.
All of these he called with equal sincerity his friends, and to each one he
was the same man, simple, strong, kindly, and noble. Carlyle describes him
as "a fine, large-featured, dim-eyed, bronze-colored, shaggy-headed man,
... most restful, brotherly, solid-hearted." Loving solitude and hating
publicity as he did, the numerous tourists from both sides of the ocean,
who sought him out in his retreat and insisted upon seeing him, made his
life at times intolerable. Influenced partly by the desire to escape such
popularity, he bought land and built for himself a new house, Aldworth, in
Surrey, though he made his home in Farringford for the greater part of the

His labor during these years and his marvelous freshness and youthfulness
of feeling are best understood by a glance at the contents of his complete
works. Inferior poems, like _The Princess_, which was written in the first
flush of his success, and his dramas, which were written against the advice
of his best friends, may easily be criticised; but the bulk of his verse
shows an astonishing originality and vigor to the very end. He died very
quietly at Aldworth, with his family about him in the moonlight, and beside
him a volume of Shakespeare, open at the dirge in _Cymbeline:_

Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages.

The strong and noble spirit of his life is reflected in one of his best
known poems, "Crossing the Bar," which was written in his eighty-first
year, and which he desired should be placed at the end of his collected

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.

WORKS. At the outset of our study of Tennyson's works it may be well to
record two things, by way of suggestion. First, Tennyson's poetry is not so
much to be studied as to be read and appreciated; he is a poet to have open
on one's table, and to enjoy as one enjoys his daily exercise. And second,
we should by all means begin to get acquainted with Tennyson in the days of
our youth. Unlike Browning, who is generally appreciated by more mature
minds, Tennyson is for enjoyment, for inspiration, rather than for
instruction. Only youth can fully appreciate him; and youth, unfortunately,
except in a few rare, beautiful cases, is something which does not dwell
with us long after our school days. The secret of poetry, especially of
Tennyson's poetry, is to be eternally young, and, like Adam in Paradise, to
find every morning a new world, fresh, wonderful, inspiring, as if just
from the hands of God.

Except by the student, eager to understand the whoje range of poetry in
this age, Tennyson's earlier poems and his later dramas may well be
omitted. Opinions vary about both; but the general judgment seems to be
that the earlier poems show too much of Byron's influence, and their
crudeness suffers by comparison with the exquisitely finished work of
Tennyson's middle life. Of dramatic works he wrote seven, his great
ambition being to present a large part of the history of England in a
series of dramas. _Becket_ was one of the best of these works and met with
considerable favor on the stage; but, like all the others, it indicates
that Tennyson lacked the dramatic power and the humor necessary for a
successful playwright.

Among the remaining poems there is such a wide variety that every reader
must be left largely to follow his own delightful choice.[235] Of the
_Poems_ of 1842 we have already mentioned those best worth reading. _The
Princess, a Medley_ (1847), a long poem of over three thousand lines of
blank verse, is Tennyson's answer to the question of woman's rights and
woman's sphere, which was then, as in our own day, strongly agitating the
public mind. In this poem a baby finally solves the problem which
philosophers have pondered ever since men began to think connectedly about
human society. A few exquisite songs, like "Tears, Idle Tears," "Bugle
Song," and "Sweet and Low," form the most delightful part of this poem,
which in general is hardly up to the standard of the poet's later work.
_Maud_ (1855) is what is called in literature a monodrama, telling the
story of a lover who passes from morbidness to ecstasy, then to anger and
murder, followed by insanity and recovery. This was Tennyson's favorite,
and among his friends he read aloud from it more than from any other poem.
Perhaps if we could hear Tennyson read it, we should appreciate it better;
but, on the whole, it seems overwrought and melodramatic. Even its lyrics,
like "Come into the Garden, Maud," which make this work a favorite with
young lovers, are characterized by "prettiness" rather than by beauty or

Perhaps the most loved of all Tennyson's works is _In Memoriam_, which, on
account of both its theme and its exquisite workmanship, is "one of the few
immortal names that were not born to die." The immediate occasion of this
remarkable poem was Tennyson's profound personal grief at the death of his
friend Hallam. As he wrote lyric after lyric, inspired by this sad subject,
the poet's grief became less personal, and the greater grief of humanity
mourning for its dead and questioning its immortality took possession of
him. Gradually the poem became an expression, first, of universal doubt,
and then of universal faith, a faith which rests ultimately not on reason
or philosophy but on the soul's instinct for immortality. The immortality
of human love is the theme of the poem, which is made up of over one
hundred different lyrics. The movement takes us through three years, rising
slowly from poignant sorrow and doubt to a calm peace and hope, and ending
with a noble hymn of courage and faith, - a modest courage and a humble
faith, love-inspired, - which will be a favorite as long as saddened men
turn to literature for consolation. Though Darwin's greatest books had not
yet been written, science had already overturned many old conceptions of
life; and Tennyson, who lived apart and thought deeply on all the problems

Online LibraryWilliam Joseph LongEnglish Literature Its History and Its Significance for the Life of the English Speaking World → online text (page 40 of 53)