[PDF Notes] Short notes on the development of Tennyson’s art

The poetry of the Romantic Revival, with one exception, had little influence on the poetic development of Tennyson. Byron’s influence may be traced in the volume of Poems by M Brothers; but it is only a trace. Of Shelley, there is nothing; with Wordsworth he had a certain spiritual affinity but as artists they have scarcely anything in common.

No doubt he owed a, technical debt to the supreme skill of Coleridge as a merits; but save in the imitative period of the early volume just referred to, Coleridge did nothing to shape Tennyson’s art. Keats alone, whom the poet admired and revered above all his immediate predecessors, affected his poetic development.

The sensuousness of Keats, the delicate sensitiveness of external impression’ the atmosphere to pensive beauty that hung over his scenic pictures, these matters appealed intensely to young Tennyson.

The merits of Tennyson’s first volume, Poems, chiefly Lyrical, lie in their grace and melody. Many of them were revised by the poet later almost out of recognition, but The Recollection of the Arabian Nights, Mariana in the Mooted Grange, and the pretty vignettes of girl-hood, remain to testify to the delicate artistry of the new writer.

The chief defect of this early work is a thinness of inspiration. The volume of 1833 strikes at once a stronger and more varied note: Fatima has a fire about it that is lacking not merely in his earlier efforts, but in a good deal of his later verse; we have The Lady of Shallot, not so lovely a piece of mediaeval magic as she appeared after his final revision, but beautiful none the less; above all there is The Lotos-Eaters, a tone picture of exceeding charm, that was to shape as one of Tennyson’s most enchanting poems. The popular note of sentiment is struck successfully in The Miller’s Daughter and The May Queen, though their poetical merit is on a distinctly lower level.

In 1842 he published two slight volumes largely consisting of extensions from the earlier volumes, made with scrupulous care, and some new English Idylls. The nature of the revision showed how keen a self-critic the poet was, and how wisely he had taken to heart the bitter wisdom of his reviewers.

It is an arguable point whether he ever did anything better than the work contained in the volume’ of 1842; but he certainly did some things as well, and as certainly increased the variety and plasticity of his art.

In the same year as saw the publication of In Memoriam, the poet wrote his great Ode on the Death of Duke of Wellington. Then a few years later, in 1855; came Maud. The neurotic hero is so morbid and hysterical from the outset that his final laps into madness fails to affect the reader with the dramatic intensity that was needed.

Tennyson’s interest in the old mediaeval cycle dated from the thirties. The Lady of Shallot testifies to that; while in The Passing of Arthur he struck a stronger and more vibrant note that he succeeds in doing with any of the subsequent Idylls. Tennyson’s re-shaping and modernizing (for so it was in essence) of the legends were started in 1859 and concluded in 1885. Technically, the Idylls are a great achievement.

Tennyson’s blank verse is inexpressibly finer in quality than any attempted by the poets of the Romantic Revival; and to rival it one must go back to Milton. Previous to these Arthurian stories he made various essays into blank verse with notable results, e.g., Ulysses, Lucretius, Aylmer’s Field-but he had never tried on so large a scale as in the Idylls’, and it he cannot match the majestic organ notes of Milton, his verse has a grace, a flexibility, a noble cadence and what is peculiarly Tennyson’s, a delicate and caressing tenderness.

The fresh developments we have to note in Tennyson’s later years are in the direction of drama. Hitherto his work has no dramatic tendency; it had been for the most part descriptive and panoramic in quality.

It had shown a great power of observing things, and an active interest in the simple, general attributes of men and women but with rare exceptions it had shown little interest in the simple, general attributes of men and women but with rare exceptions it had shown little interest in concrete individuals. He was a great student of character, not of characters; and his poetic method, with its detailed elaboration, did not seem suited to the swift, decisive way of the dramatist.

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