The Books: Six Centuries of Great Poetry: A Stunning Collection of Classic British Poems from Chaucer to Yeats: Alfred Lord Tennyson

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Six Centuries of Great Poetry: A Stunning Collection of Classic British Poems from Chaucer to Yeats, edited by Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

There are lines from Tennyson which reverberate through my whole life, and not just the most famous “red in tooth and claw” lines. For example (and this is my favorite of all of Tennyson’s words he ever wrote):

THE splendour falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story:
The long light shakes across the lakes,
And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, farther going!
O sweet and far from cliff and scar
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!
Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O love, they die in yon rich sky,
They faint on hill or field or river:
Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
And grow for ever and for ever.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.

And then, he also wrote what I consider to be one of the most chillingly perfect descriptions of despair in the canon:

On the bald street breaks the blank day.

Many writers go their whole lives without ever writing such a perfect line. I do have some beef with his philosophical statement “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” (I’m with Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black who replied to that line, “Try it”), but that’s the thing with Tennyson. He is a poet of deep feeling, with an overlay of Importance – he was not just a man who wrote for himself, he was Poet Laureate after all (succeeding Wordsworth in the job), and he did have a love of pontification. So while I may not agree that it is “better” to have “loved and lost”, I am still amazed that someone actually WROTE such a line. A line that we continue to argue about today. Tennyson is full of such lines.

He had such huge influence in his day. He was a world-famous man. A poet laureate. A man who knew how to rise to the occasion. This is held against him in more cynical times. People still seem conflicted about Tennyson. And there actually were some detractors, even in his current age, but the establishment loved him. He wrote poems that highly visible people found comforting. He would try anything. He started off as a young boy, mimicking Alexander Pope (which seems to have been a rite of passage for many poets), and he was still mimicking others in his old age. His forte, however, were elegies. In those, you can see his real talent expressing itself naturally.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, wonderful religious poet, wrote to a friend:

Do you know, a horrible thing has happened to me. I have begun to doubt Tennyson.

He was like a God. Turning away from Tennyson took courage. His influence was that strong. So whether poets were paying homage to him, or fighting against him, the fact remains: Tennyson was the one to challenge.

The bower we shrined to Tennyson
Is roof-wrecked; damps there drip upon
Sagged seats, the creeper-nails are rust,
The spider is sole denizen;
Even she who voiced those rhymes is dust,
Thomas Hardy, “An Ancient to Ancients”

L.M. Montgomery, a huge Tennyson fan herself (he factors quite a bit in Anne of Green Gables, if you remember the game Anne and her friends played one day, re-enacting one of his poems, which led to Anne nearly being drowned) wrote in her journal:

I cannot think he is a supremely great poet. There is something lacking in him. He is very beautiful — very graceful. In short, the Perfect Artist. But he seldom lets us forget the artist — we are never swept away — Not he — he flows on serenely. And that is good. But an occasional bit of wild nature would make it better still.

Michael Schmidt, in his Lives of the Poets writes:

Even excluding the plays, it is a vast body of work: poems of feeling and of sentiment, poems of thought and of received opinion. When Browning acquired an audience, he turned garrulous. Tennyson turned sententious. But the Representative Voice does not merely entertain doubts, he actually feels them; his politics, like his religion, are rooted in memory of the past and fear of the future. A liberal, he distrusts progressivism even as he acknowledges the injustices and evils that make it necessary. Tennyson is an intellectual enigma, which is why many take him to be a philosopher speaking for their own indecision and doubt.


Poet Matthew Arnold wrote in a letter to his mother in 1860:

The real truth is that Tennyson, with all his temperament and artistic skill, is deficient in intellectual power; and no modern poet can make very much of his business unless he is pre-eminently strong in this.

Here is Lucy Maud Montgomery again, in her journal:

I detest Tennyson’s ‘Arthur’! If I’d been Guinevere, I’d have been unfaithful to him too. But not for Lancelot — he is just as unbearable in another way. As for Geraint, if I’d been Enid, I’d have bitten him. These ‘patient Griseldes’ of women deserve all they get! I like Tennyson because he gives me nothing but pleasure. I cannot love him because he gives me nothing but pleasure … I love best the poets who hurt me. But I think I shall have some love for Tennyson after this — for today I read a verse in ‘In Memoriam’ which I do not think I can ever have read carefully before — which scorched me with a sudden flame of self-revelation and brought to me one of those awful moments when we look into the abysses of our own natures and recoil in horror. The verse was:

Do we indeed desire the dead
Should still be near us at our side?
Is there no baseness we would hide,
No inner vileness that we dread?”

Look at how she wrestles with him here. I love “I like Tennyson because he gives me nothing but pleasure. I cannot love him because he gives me nothing but pleasure.” I do not feel that strongly about it, but I can see her point. The “blow bugle blow” sequence is, to my taste, some of the most beautiful language ever written. It is its own onomatopoeia. It IS an echo. There is philosophy there as well, although the beauty of the phrase may obscure it. Not sure my feelings on that. I’m a gut-level poetry lover, not an analyzer, although reading poetical analysis is one of my great passions, perhaps because it is not a skill I have myself. Agreement is not what I am looking for. But perspectives. Different ones. I usually accept that so-and-so is a Big Deal if the majority of people say he is. I am not inclined to toss Henry James onto the trash just because I don’t like his books. I love reading about Henry James from those who adore him. It’s a necessary perspective shift. Henry James is important, I grant him that. I love watching poets wrestle with Tennyson. It seems to be an example of the kind of people I love most: people who take Art seriously. At least seriously enough to argue about it (without shouting, in all caps, YOU SUCK, that is. People who think that is arguing are not worth a moment of my time.)

Tennyson was born in 1809. His father was a rector. Tennyson had an older brother, Charles – also a writer. They published a book together. He went to Trinity College, and was already publishing books of verse there. He met Arthur Hallam at Trinity, a friend and critic, whose early death in 1833 affected Tennyson greatly and inspired him to write In Memoriam, a series of elegies that really “hit” with the public.

Michael Schmidt again, on the impact of In Memoriam:

The debt to the Greek poets, to Horace and to other classical writers, is clear in the images and conventions such as the garden of Adonis. The suppressed sensual – even sexual – feeling has a strange potency. There are phrasal echoes of the full-fledged classical elegies. Those models helped him imbue personal loss – physical, emotional and spiritual – with universal reverence. The widowed Queen Victoria took solace from the poem; it was read by soldiers and widows as though written out of their own grief. In the sixth elegy he writes, “Never morning wore / To evening but some heart did break.” He invites readers to attach their own grief to his. With Virgilian tact he touches the deep sentiment of the age: helpless sadness of loss, fear of a shrouded future, a generalized guilt and religious doubt. The poem enacts a “ritual of recovery” – moving from despair by stages not to happiness but to a wan wisdom, metaphysical rebirth, a meeting beyond the grave, “soul in soul.”…

Tennyson spoke to and for his age in In Memoriam. Its success as a long poem depends on its fragmentariness. The sections are elegiac idylls, assembled into a sequence. Like Maud, the sequence hangs together thanks to what Eliot called “the greatest lyrical resourcefulness that a poet has ever shown.” Elegies and poems of aftermath were Tennyson’s forte. He was a gray beard from the beginning.

In 1850, he became poet laureate. Michael Schmidt writes, “The Ode on Wellington and The Charge of the Light Brigade are masterpieces of laureate art. Few laureates are so transparently sincere, prompt and prosodically competent in the execution of their duties. ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade‘ entered the common memory.” Tennyson was suited to the job. We don’t live so much in a poetic age now, and Poet Laureate has become a job that has been argued about on a political and sociological front (just look at the recent brou-hahas in England): Can a poet, assumed to be left-wing (often wrongly), write FOR an “establishment” such as a government, which is often assumed to be intrinsically bad and evil? It’s a stupid conversation, in my opinion, and everyone needs to relax. However, this is the atmosphere in which we live in today. But Billy Collins, poet laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, wrote a poem about September 11 called “The Names“, that in my opinion can stand beside “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, in terms of great pieces of Laureate art. Collins understood the nature of his job. He rose to the occasion. Here is Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade:

The Charge Of The Light Brigade
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Memorializing Events in the Battle of Balaclava, October 25, 1854
Written 1854

Half a league half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred:
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns’ he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismay’d ?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Some one had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d & thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turn’d in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army while
All the world wonder’d:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack & Russian
Reel’d from the sabre-stroke,
Shatter’d & sunder’d.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
While horse & hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro’ the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder’d.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

That’s pretty damn good, if you ask me.

Ellen Terry, great stage actress of the Victorian age (I have written about her quite a bit), knew Tennyson – first, through her failed bizarre marriage to painter GF Watts, who helped immortalize her as a teenager with a couple of famous paintings of her as Ophelia in Hamlet. She was basically a kid when she married Watts, and she was thrust into his weird melancholic world of submerged homosexuals and “artists”, many of whom treated her with snotty disregard. She was a tomboy, liked romping about, and she was completely stifled in that hothouse atmosphere. Through Watts, she met Tennyson. Tennyson knew Henry Irving (the actor-manager who created The Lyceum Theatre, one of the most successful companies in history, and Ellen Terry’s later business partner), and they often tried to collaborate on things. Tennyson wrote plays, too, and always offered them to Henry Irving. But long before that, Ellen Terry met Tennyson separately, as a teenage bride to an older man who was clearly gay (all of this is only clear now, Terry had no idea what was going on at the time), and in her wonderful memoir The Story of my Life (my review here), she leaves a fascinating glimpse of Tennyson, the private man, and his kindness to this young woman who suddenly came into his orbit:

Little Holland House, where Mr. Watts lived, seemed to me a paradise, where only beautiful things were allowed to come. All the women were graceful, and all the men were gifted. The trio of sisters – Mrs. Prinsep (mother of the painter), Lady Somers, and Mrs. Cameron, who was the pioneer in artistic photography as we know it today – were known as Beauty, Dash, and Talent. There were two more beautiful sisters, Mrs. Jackson and Mrs. Dalrymple. Gladstone, Disraeli and Browning were among Mr. Watts’ visitors. At Freshwater, where I went soon after my marriage, I first saw Tennyson.

As I write down these great names I feel almost guilty of an imposture! Such names are bound to raise high anticipation, and my recollections of the men to whom some of the names belong are so very humble.

I sat, shrinking and timid, in a corner – the girl-wife of a famous painter. I was, if I was anything at all, more of a curiosity, of a side-show, than hostess to these distinguished visitors…

Tennyson was more to me than a magic-lantern shape, flitting across the blank of my young experience, never to return. The first time I saw him he was sitting at the table in his library, and Mrs. Tennyson, her very slender hands hidden by thick gloves, was standing on a step-ladder handing him down some heavy books. She was very frail, and looked like a faint tea-rose. After that one time I only remember her lying on a sofa.

In the evenings I went walking with Tennyson over the fields, and he would point out to me the differences in the flights of different birds, and tell me to watch their solid phalanxes turning against the sunset, the compact wedge suddenly narrowing sharply into a thin line. He taught me to recognize the barks of trees and to call wild flowers by their names. He picked me the first bit of pimpernel I ever noticed. Always I was quite at ease with him. He was so wonderfully simple…

It was easy enough to me to believe that Tennyson was a poet. He showed it in everything, although he was entirely free from any assumption of the poetical role…

At Freshwater I was still so young that I preferred playing Indians and Knights of the Round Table with Tennyson’s sons, Hallam and Lionel, and the young Camerons, to sitting indoors noticing what the poet did and said. I was mighty proud when I learned how to prepare his daily pipe for him. It was a long churchwarden, and he liked the stem to be steeped in a solution of sal volatile, or something of that kind, so that it did not stick to his lips. But he and all the others seemed to me very old. There were my young knights waiting for me; and jumping gates, climbing trees, and running paper-chases are pleasant when one is young.

It was not to inattentive ears that Tennyson read his poems. His reading was most impressive, but I think he read Browning’s “Ride from Ghent to Aix” better than anything of his own, except, perhaps, “The Northern Farmer”. He used to preserve the monotonous rhythm of the galloping horses in Browning’s poem, and made the words come out sharply like hoofs upon a road. It was a little comic until one got used to it, but that fault lay in the ear of the hearer. It was the right way and the fine way to read this particular poem, and I have never forgotten it.

In after years I met Tennyson again, when with Henry Irving I acted in two of his plays at the Lyceum… To him and to the others my early romance was always the most interesting thing about me. When I saw them in later times, it seemed as if months, not years, had passed since I was Nelly Watts.

I like that he was kind to her. The same cannot be said for the rest of that group.

For the excerpt today, here is his poem “Ulysses”. It’s a very fine poem.


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 enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed 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 honoured of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers;
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breath 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 grey 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 through 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,
‘Tis 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 though
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.

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2 Responses to The Books: Six Centuries of Great Poetry: A Stunning Collection of Classic British Poems from Chaucer to Yeats: Alfred Lord Tennyson

  1. Nick says:

    I love Tennyson, too. My wife is a poet, in the MFA program at UM (where Jane Langton was an undergrad AND postgrad). Surprising how many people who oughta know better dismiss him these days out of hand (not my wife—but any number of young poets, on their journey to workshop mediocrity). Ellen Terry’s charming recollections of him fit my image—a good, gentle, unassuming man, whose life was an extension of his art. The opening scene to the film version of Anne of Green Gables is unforgettable, as she wanders along in the woods, dreamily reading The Lady of Shalott. While I understand what Lucy Maud is saying, I disagree in the sense that I can personally confer upon him first-rank status. I believe him to be among the great poets. Far as Matthew Arnold, he thought the same of Shelley, you know; like many contemporary creators of middling, dissonant verses, especially those of a moralizing bent like Arnold, perhaps he envied their music.

    Tennyson has seen me through some difficult times, and I shall never forget him for that. My favorite of his poems is probably Maud, mainly because it meant so much to me then.

    “But now shine on, and what care I,
    Who in this stormy gulf have found a pearl
    The countercharm of space and hollow sky,
    And do accept my madness, and would die
    To save from shame one simple girl—

    “Would die, for sullen-seeming death may give
    More life to love than is or ever was
    In our low wirld, where it’s sweet to live.
    Let no one ask me how it came to pass;
    It seems that I am happy, that to me
    A livelier emerald twinkles in the grass,
    A purer sapphire melts into the sea.

    “She is coming, my own, my sweet;
    Were it ever so airy a tread,
    My heart would hear her and beat,
    Were it earth in an earthy bed;
    My dust would hear her and beat,
    Had I lain for a century dead;
    Would start and tremble under her feet,
    And blossom in purple and red.”

  2. sheila says:

    Nick – God, that is good stuff.

    Let no one ask me how it came to pass;
    It seems that I am happy, that to me
    A livelier emerald twinkles in the grass,
    A purer sapphire melts into the sea.

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