Page images
PDF
EPUB

with inability, is the artist. He moves “ from well to better, daily self-surpast," till he has no more power. We know when his power is lessening, for then he begins to repeat himself. We know that it still exists, however feebly, when, in the midst of repetitions, new things now and then appear.

And it is one of the happy things in Tennyson's career, that even till he was past eighty years of age, this creativeness—that is, this power of being inflamed with the love of Beauty and animated by her into creation—did not altogether die. In the very last volume he published there appeared a poem called The Gleam, which, if it was written shortly before the book was issued, was a new and beautiful blossom on his ancient tree. Those who, walking in an English park, have come upon an oak, broken off short by age or storm and hollow within, but whose rugged gnarls send forth leaves as delicate as those of its childhood, must have often thought, “There is

" the image of the great artist in his old age, of the great musician, the great painter, the great poet ;" and though Tennyson does not stand among the very mightiest, yet he had this singular and noble power of fresh creation in old age.

We are sure to find this creativeness in his youth. It appeared, as we have seen, in 1830, and I have discussed some forms of it in the previous chapter. Two forms of it, however, I omittedone, the drawing of " characters"; the other, the drawing of Nature. Both of these were more fully worked out in the volume of 1833. Both are new in manner, and interesting beyond themselves.

The types of character were drawn, each apart, like solitary statues. As a young man, he chose women on whom to try his prentice hand, and we have a series of these pictures, with fanciful names written underneath them. They are lifeless as women, lay figures with elaborate dresses ; wordpainted, nothing but words. There are no surprises in these characters, nothing inexplicable, nothing unexpected, nothing veiled, no profound simplicity, nothing which recalls a woman. They are, above all, logically worked out; one verse opens into another in an intellectual order. We can predict what is coming—as if their subjects moved in accordance to law. It was like a young man to try this, but it was a pity he did not prefer to draw his college companions, for the one man's character that he does outline is a fairlypainted type. Here are two verses of it :

Most delicately hour by hour
He canvass'd human mysteries ;
And trod on silk, as if the winds
Blew his own praises in his eyes,
And stood aloof from other minds
In impotence of fancied power.
With lips depress'd as he were meek,
Himself unto himself he sold;
Upon himself himself did feed :
Quiet, dispassionate and cold,
And other than his form of creed,
With chisell'd features clear and sleek.

But even that is more like an exercise in the description of a type than like the picture of a living man. Character is shown by clashing with character. It may “form itself in silence," but it is ignorant of itself till it can speak to others and answer their speech. Hence the Maker, who is

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

bound to paint men and women, almost always paints them in movement with or against one another. Tennyson did that fairly afterwards, but never superbly. The effort to make a type was always too much with him. The men and women in the Idylls of the King want life. The personal edges and angles have been worn away in order to establish the type. Enid, Tristram, Vivien, Arthur, even Lancelot who is the most living, are often like those photographs which are made by photographing the faces of a series of politicians or philosophers or artists one on the top of another. We get the general type or they say we get it-but we do not get a man. The men and women who are most actual in Tennyson's poetry are those whom he painted out of every-day life, and in the sphere of the common affections and troubles of mankindin stories like Enoch Arden, in country idylls like The Gardener's Daughter, Dora, The Brook; in the Lincolnshire dialect poems, which bring before us the most living persons in his books.

Nevertheless, the attempt Tennyson made at this time to draw separate characters is in harmony with the age in which he began to write. Character-making was once a favourite species of poetry, but it had not been done well since the time of Pope. None of the greater poets from Wordsworth to Keats took up this special form of art. But Tennyson, and with greater power Browning, deliberately insulated and painted a number of characters, and of generalised types of character, as if a certain driving force from without, a tendency of popular thought, urged them to make

make much of the

[ocr errors]

!

individual, as if society had concluded that it was to find its betterment in the support of strong individualities. And indeed this was the case in England in 1833. As great as the tendency is at present to collectivism, so great was the tendency then to individualism. It grew steadily in politics, even in art and religion, for thirty years, and then it began to abate. Large crowds of men laid all their lives in the hands of great leaders of thought ; and thus, while they maintained the necessity for

strong individualities, lessened individualism by collecting in mass under the banner of one man ; so curiously and so certainly do extremes cut their own throat. The individual, the powerful character, is everything, said Carlyle, and said it for more than forty years. This was partly a protest against the past dulness of society, it was still more the protest of the fear of the cultivated man that in the coming democracy all men would be levelled and a dull monotony rule supreme. Every valley, they cried, will be exalted and every mountain and hill brought low; there will be no varied scenery in

humanity. We hear that dread expressed by

Tennyson in Locksley Hall :

Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers, and I linger on the

shore, And the individual withers, and the world is more and more,

The verses which follow; the hero's desire to break all links of habit, to escape to summer isles, “where the passions, cramped no longer, shall have scope and breathing space"; where men shall be free to make themselves, continue the same thought. He had then in 1842, when Locksley Hall was published, realised fully the desire for individualism which was then rife in England. It was this force which pressed him in 1830 and 1833 into the writing of characters.

Secondly, I have drawn attention to the new way of painting Nature which Tennyson developed, and to the new world of Nature to which he introduced

He composed his Nature into pictures, a thing not done by Byron, Shelley, or Keats, or at least not so deliberately, not so consciously. This picture-composing of Nature is carried to much greater excellence in the volume of 1833. I might contrast Mariana in the South, a poem of 1833, with the Mariana of 1830, but it would not prove my point—that his power of naturepainting had increased. It suggests, however, another point with regard to Tennyson's natural description. Mariana in the South is not so good as its predecessor; and I believe that the reason of its comparative failure is that the scene is laid in the South, and Tennyson was so English, and so much the child of long habit, that when he got outside of this country, even outside of the landscape which surrounded him year after year, he did not choose so happily as in England the right thing to say in order to give the sentiment of the landscape. This is, however, subject to exception. What I say is true concerning his foreign landscapes, whenever he is working direct from Nature, or composing out of things he has seen. It is not true when he is deliberately inventing his landscape out of his own head, and with reference to his subject-as he is in Enone or The Lotos

« PreviousContinue »