CHAPTER XXXVIII. THE REACTION IN POETRY.
Alfred Tennyson. Early Works. The Princess. Idyls of the King.
Elizabeth B. Browning. Aurora Leigh. Her Faults. Robert Browning. Other
TENNYSON AND THE BROWNINGS.
ALFRED TENNYSON.—It is the certain fate of all extravagant movements, social or literary, to invite criticism and opposition, and to be followed by reaction. The school of Wordsworth was the violent protest against what remained of the artificial in poetry; but it had gone, as we have seen, to the other extreme. The affected simplicity, and the bald diction which it inculcated, while they raised up an army of feeble imitators, also produced in the ranks of poetry a vindication of what was good in the old; new theories, and a very different estimate of poetical subjects and expression. The first poet who may be looked upon as leading the reactionary party is Alfred Tennyson. He endeavored out of all the schools to synthesize a new one. In many of his descriptive pieces he followed Wordsworth: in his idyls, he adheres to the romantic school; in his treatment and diction, he stands alone.
EARLY EFFORTS.—He was the son of a clergyman of Lincolnshire, and was born at Somersby, in 1810. After a few early and almost unknown efforts in verse, the first volume bearing his name was issued in 1830, while he was yet an under-graduate at Cambridge: it had the simple title—Poems, chiefly Lyrical. In their judgment of this new poet, the critics were almost as much at fault as they had been when the first efforts of Wordsworth appeared; but for very different reasons. Wordsworth was simple and intensely realistic. Tennyson was mystic and ideal: his diction was unusual; his little sketches conveyed an almost hidden moral; he seemed to inform the reader that, in order to understand his poetry, it must be studied; the meaning does not sparkle upon the surface; the language ripples, the sense flows in an undercurrent. His first essays exhibit a mania for finding strange words, or coining new ones, which should give melody, to his verse. Whether this was a process of development or not, he has in his later works gotten rid of much of this apparent mannerism, while he has retained, and even improved, his harmony. He exhibits a rare power of concentration, as opposed to the diffusiveness of his contemporaries. Each of his smaller poems is a thought, briefly, but forcibly and harmoniously, expressed. If it requires some exertion to comprehend it, when completely understood it becomes a valued possession.
It is difficult to believe that such poems as Mariana and Recollections of the Arabian Nights were the production of a young man of twenty.
In 1833 he published his second volume, containing additional poems, among which were Enone, The May Queen, The Lotos-Eaters, and A Dream of Fair Women. The May Queen became at once a favorite, because every one could understand it: it touched a chord in every heart; but his rarest power of dreamy fancy is displayed in such pieces as The Arabian Nights and the Lotos-Eaters. No greater triumph has been achieved in the realm of fancy than that in the court of good Haroun al Raschid, and amid the Lotos dreams of the Nepenthe coast. These productions were not received with the favor which they merited, and so he let the critics alone for nine years. In 1842 he again appeared in print, with, among other poems, the exquisite fragment of the Morte d'Arthur, Godiva, St. Agnes, Sir Galahad, Lady Clara Vere de Vere, The Talking Oak, and chief, perhaps, of all, Locksley Hall. In these poems he is not only a poet, but a philosopher. Each of these is an extended apothegm, presenting not only rules of life, but mottoes and maxims for daily use. They are soliloquies of the nineteenth century, and representations of its men and conditions.
THE PRINCESS.—In 1847 he published The Princess, a Medley—a pleasant and suggestive poem on woman's rights, in which exquisite songs are introduced, which break the monotony of the blank verse, and display his rare lyric power. The Bugle Song is among the finest examples of the adaptation of sound to sense in the language; and there is nothing more truthful and touching than the short verses beginning,
Home they brought her warrior dead.
Arthur Hallam, a gifted son of the distinguished historian, who was betrothed to Tennyson's sister, died young; and the poet has mourned and eulogized him in a long poem entitled In Memoriam. It contains one hundred and twenty-nine four-lined stanzas, and is certainly very musical and finished; but it is rather the language of calm philosophy elaborately studied, than that of a poignant grief. It is not, in our judgment, to be compared with his shorter poems, and is generally read and overpraised only by his more ardent admirers, who discover a crystal tear of genuine emotion in every stanza.
IDYLS OF THE KING.—The fragment on the death of Arthur, already mentioned, foreshadowed a purpose of the poet's mind to make the legends of that almost fabulous monarch a vehicle for modern philosophy in English verse. In 1859 appeared a volume containing the Idyls of the King. They are rather minor epics than idyls. The simple materials are taken from the Welsh and French chronicles, and are chiefly of importance in that they cater to that English taste which finds national greatness typified in Arthur. It had been a successful stratagem with Spenser in The Fairy Queen, and has served Tennyson equally well in the Idyls. It unites the ages of fable and of chivalry; it gives a noble lineage to heroic deeds. The best is the last—Guinevere—almost the perfection of pathos in poetry. The picturesqueness of his descriptions is evinced by the fact that Gustave Dore has chosen these Idyls as a subject for illustration, and has been eminently successful in his labor.
Maud, which appeared in 1855, notwithstanding some charming lyrical passages, may be considered Tennyson's failure. In 1869 he completed The Idyls by publishing The Coming of Arthur, The Holy Grail, and Pelleas and Etteare. He also finished the Morte d'Arthur, and put it in its proper place as The Passing of Arthur.
Tennyson was appointed poet-laureate upon the death of Wordsworth, in 1850, and receives besides a pension of L200. He lived for a long time in great retirement at Farringford, on the Isle of Wight; but has lately removed to Petersfield, in Hampshire. It may be reasonably doubted whether this hermit-life has not injured his poetical powers; whether, great as he really is, a little inhalation of the air of busy every-day life would not have infused more of nature and freshness into his verse. Among his few Odes are that on the death of the Duke of Wellington, the dedication of his poems to the Queen, and his welcome to Alexandra, Princess of Wales, all of which are of great excellence. His Charge of the Light Brigade, at Balaclava, while it gave undue currency to that stupid military blunder, must rank as one of the finest battle-lyrics in the language.
The poetry of Tennyson is eminently representative of the Victorian age. He has written little; but that little marks a distinct era in versification—great harmony untrammelled by artificial correctness ; and in language, a search for novelty to supply the wants and correct the faults of the poetic vocabulary. He is national in the Idyls ; philosophic in The Two Voices, and similar poems. The Princess is a gentle satire on the age; and though, in striving for the reputation of originality, he sometimes mistakes the original for the beautiful, he is really the laurelled poet of England in merit as well as in title.
ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING.—The literary usher is now called upon to cry with the herald of the days of chivalry—Place aux dames. A few ladies, as we have seen, have already asserted for themselves respectable positions in the literary ranks. Without a question as to the relative gifts of mind in man and woman, we have now reached a name which must rank among those of the first poets of the present century—one which represents the Victorian age as fully and forcibly as Tennyson, and with more of novelty than he. Nervous in style, elevated in diction, bold in expression, learned and original, Mrs. Browning divides the poetic renown of the period with Tennyson. If he is the laureate, she was the acknowledged queen of poetry until her untimely death.
Miss Elizabeth Barrett was born in London, in 1809. She was educated with great care, and began to write at a very early age. A volume, entitled Essays on Mind, with Other Poems, was published when she was only seventeen. In 1833 she produced Prometheus Bound, a translation of the drama of AEschylus from the original Greek, which exhibited rare classical attainments; but which she considered so faulty that she afterwards retranslated it. In 1838 appeared The Seraphim, and other Poems; and in 1839, The Romaunt of the Page. Not long after, the rupture of a blood-vessel brought her to the verge of the grave; and while she was still in a precarious state of health, her favorite brother was drowned. For several years she lived secluded, studying and composing when her health permitted; and especially drawing her inspiration from original sources in Greek and Hebrew. In 1844 she published her collected poems in two volumes. Among these was Lady Geraldine's Courtship: an exquisite story, the perusal of which is said to have induced Robert Browning to seek her acquaintance. Her health was now partially restored; and they were married in 1846. For some time they resided at Florence, in a congenial and happy union. The power of passionate love is displayed in her Sonnets from the Portuguese, which are among the finest in the language. Differing in many respects from those of Shakspeare, they are like his in being connected by one impassioned thought, and being, without doubt, the record of a heart experience.
Thoroughly interested in the social and political conditions of struggling Italy, she gave vent to her views and sympathies in a volume of poems, entitled Casa Guidi Windows. Casa Guidi was the name of their residence in Florence, and the poems vividly describe what she saw from its windows—divers forms of suffering, injustice, and oppression, which touched the heart of a tender woman and a gifted poet, and compelled it to burst forth in song.
AURORA LEIGH.—But by far the most important work of Mrs. Browning is Aurora Leigh: a long poem in nine books, which appeared in 1856, in which the great questions of the age, social and moral, are handled with great boldness. It is neither an epic, nor an idyl, nor a tale in verse: it combines features of them all. It presents her clear convictions of life and art, and is full of philosophy, largely expressed in the language of irony and sarcasm. She is an inspired advocate of the intellectual claims of woman; and the poem is, in some degree, an autobiography: the identity of the poet and the heroine gives a great charm to the narrative. There are few finer pieces of poetical inspiration than the closing scene, where the friend and lover returns blind and helpless, and the woman's heart, unconquered before, surrenders to the claims of misfortune as the champion of love. After a happy life with her husband and an only child, sent for her solace, this gifted woman died in 1863.
HER FAULTS.—It is as easy to criticize Mrs. Browning's works as to admire them; but our admiration is great in spite of her faults: in part because of them, for they are faults of a bold and striking individuality. There is sometimes an obscurity in her fancies, and a turgidity in her language. She seems to transcend the poet's license with a knowledge that she is doing so. For example:
We will sit on the throne of a purple sublimity,
And grind down men's bones to a pale unanimity.
And again, in speaking of Goethe, she says:
His soul reached out from far and high,
And fell from inner entity.
Her rhymes are frequently and arrogantly faulty: she seems to scorn the critics; she writes more for herself than for others, and infuses all she writes with her own fervent spirit: there is nothing commonplace or lukewarm. She is so strong that she would be masculine; but so tender that she is entirely feminine: at once one of the most vigorous of poets and one of the best of women. She has attained the first rank among the English poets.
ROBERT BROWNING.—As a poet of decided individuality, which has gained for him many admirers, Browning claims particular mention. His happy marriage has for his fame the disadvantage that he gave his name to a greater poet; and it is never mentioned without an instinctive thought of her superiority. Many who are familiar with her verses have never read a line of her husband. This is in part due to a mysticism and an intense subjectivity, which are not adapted to the popular comprehension. He has chosen subjects unknown or uninteresting to the multitude of readers, and treats them with such novelty of construction and such an affectation of originality, that few persons have patience to read his poems.
Robert Browning was born, in 1812, at Camberwell; and after a careful education, not at either of the universities, (for he was a dissenter,) he went at the age of twenty to Italy, where he eagerly studied the history and antiquity to be found in the monasteries and in the remains of the mediaeval period. He also made a study of the Italian people. In 1835 he published a drama called Paracelsus, founded upon the history of that celebrated alchemist and physician, and delineating the conditions of philosophy in the fifteenth century. It is novel, antique, and metaphysical: it exhibits the varied emotions of human sympathy; but it is eccentric and obscure, and cannot be popular. He has been called the poet for poets; and this statement seems to imply that he is not the poet for the great world.
In 1837 he published a tragedy called Strafford; but his Italian culture seems to have spoiled his powers for portraying English character, and he has presented a stilted Strafford and a theatrical Charles I.
In 1840 appeared Sordello, founded upon incidents in the history of that Mantuan poet Sordello, whom Dante and Virgil met in purgatory; and who, deserting the language of Italy, wrote his principal poems in the Provencal. The critics were so dissatisfied with this work, that Browning afterwards omitted it in the later editions of his poems. In 1843 he published a tragedy entitled A Blot on the 'Scutcheon, and a play called The Dutchess of Cleves. In 1850 appeared Christmas Eve and Easter Day. Concerning all these, it may be said that it is singular and sad that a real poetic gift, like that of Browning, should be so shrouded with faults of conception and expression. What leads us to think that many of these are an affectation, is that he has produced, almost with the simplicity of Wordsworth, those charming sketches,The Good News from Ghent to Aix, and An Incident at Ratisbon.
Among his later poems we specially commend A Death in the Desert, and Pippa Passes, as less obscure and more interesting than any, except the lyrical pieces just mentioned. It is difficult to show in what manner Browning represents his age. His works are only so far of a modern character that they use the language of to-day without subsidizing its simplicity, and abandon the old musical couplet without presenting the intelligible if commonplace thought which it used to convey.
OTHER POETS OF THE LATEST PERIOD.
Reginald Heber, 1783-1826: a godly Bishop of Calcutta. He is most generally known by one effort, a little poem, which is a universal favorite, and has preached, from the day it appeared, eloquent sermons in the cause of missions—From Greenland's Icy Mountains. Among his other hymns are Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning, and The Son of God goes forth to War.
Barry Cornwall, born 1790: this is a nom de plume of Bryan Proctor, a pleasing, but not great poet. His principal works are Dramatic Scenes, Mirandola, a tragedy, and Marcian Colonna. His minor poems are characterized by grace and fluency. Among these are The Return of the Admiral; The Sea, the Sea, the Open Sea; and A Petition to Time. He also wrote essays and tales in prose—a Life of Edmund Keane, and a Memoir of Charles Lamb. His daughter, Adelaide Anne Proctor, is a gifted poetess, and has written, among other poems, Legends and Lyrics, and A Chaplet of Verses.
James Sheridan Knowles, 1784-1862: an actor and dramatist. He left the stage and became a Baptist minister. His plays were very successful upon the stage. Among them, those of chief merit are The Hunchback, Virginius and Caius Gracchus, and The Wife, a Tale of Mantua.
Jean Ingelow, born 1830: one of the most popular of the later English poets. The Song of Seven, and My Son's Wife Elizabeth, are extremely pathetic, and of such general application that they touch all hearts. The latter is the refrain of High Tide on the Coast of Lancashire. She has published, besides, several volumes of stories for children, and one entitled Studies for Stories.
Algernon Charles Swinburne, born 1843: he is principally and very favorably known by his charming poem Atalanta in Calydon. He has also written a somewhat heterodox and licentious poem entitledLaus Veneris, Chastelard, and The Song of Italy; besides numerous minor poems and articles for magazines. He is among the most notable and prolific poets of the age; and we may hope for many and better works from his pen.
Richard Harris Barham, 1788-1845: a clergyman of the Church of England, and yet one of the most humorous of writers. He is chiefly known by his Ingoldsby Legends, which were contributed to the magazines. They are humorous tales in prose and verse; the latter in the vein of Peter Pindar, but better than those of Wolcot, or any writer of that school. Combined with the humorous and often forcible, there are touches of pathos and terror which are extremely effective. He also wrote a novel called My Cousin Nicholas.
Philip James Bailey, born 1816: he published, in 1839, Festus, a poem in dramatic form, having, for its dramatis personae, God in his three persons, Lucifer, angels, and man. Full of rare poetic fancy, it repels many by the boldness of its flight in the consideration of the incomprehensible, which many minds think the forbidden. The Angel World and The Mystic are of a similar kind; but his last work, The Age, a Colloquial Satire is on a mundane subject and in a simpler style.
Charles Mackay, born 1812: principally known by his fugitive pieces, which contain simple thoughts on pleasant language. His poetical collections are called Town Lyrics and Egeria.
John Keble, 1792-1866: the modern George Herbert; a distinguished clergyman. He was Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and produced, besides Tracts for the Times, and other theological writings, The Christian Year, containing a poem for every Sunday and holiday in the ecclesiastical year. They are devout breathings in beautiful verse, and are known and loved by great numbers out of his own communion. Many of them have been adopted as hymns in many collections.
Martin Farquhar Tupper, born 1810: his principal work is Proverbial Philosophy, in two series. It was unwontedly popular; and Tupper's name was on every tongue. Suddenly, the world reversed its decision and discarded its favorite; so that, without having done anything to warrant the desertion, Tupper finds himself with but very few admirers, or even readers: so capricious is the vox populi. The poetry is not without merit; but the world cannot forgive itself for having rated it too high.
Matthew Arnold, born 1822: the son of Doctor Arnold of Rugby. He has written numerous critical papers, and was for some time Professor of Poetry at Oxford. Sorab and Rustam is an Eastern tale in verse, of great beauty. His other works are The Strayed Reveller, and Empedocles on Etna. More lately, an Inspector of Schools, he has produced several works on education, among which are Popular Education in France and The Schools and Universities of the Continent.