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THIRTY-FOUR years ago the name of Alfred Tennyson was only known to a small circle of admirers; and the worthiest of these did not long remain to cheer his friend's labours by his sympathy and generous praise but departed, leaving to him a double legacy of enduring regrets and precious memories to enshrine in noble verse. A few years later, and Alfred Tennyson had still to content himself (like other and yet greater poets) with hoping to find "fit audience, though few;" perhaps, too, at times to complain that the fewness of an audience does not, of necessity, insure its fitness. But he "bated not a jot of heart or hope." He sent forth volume after volume clad in Hope's livery-one, too, robed in darker hues of mourning; and while he did so, his circle of admirers widened, till it has at last become extensive enough to include nearly all who can read English. Doubtless the hushing of political strife, and the absence of formidable competitors, have contributed to this result. The bards who sang while Arthur Wellesley fought, were numerous enough to form separate schools, and to divide the literary world into hostile camps of admirers and detractors; whilst that catholic spirit which, appreciating various styles of beauty fairly, should have meted even-handed justice to them all, was often hindered in its exercise by prejudice and party-spirit. It is far otherwise now. The British public has wisely ceased to inquire into its poets' political opinions; and there are few rival candidates for the distinction of being its chosen bard. Call upon any good judge to reckon up the names of men still living, who might (their fates favouring) have contended with Tennyson for his chap
let on something like equal terms, and you will find their number enlarged to four by the lenient, and confined to two by the severe. It was different fifty years ago. Then it might be hard for bystanders, seeing so many doing worthily in the race, to assign to each aspirant the place he had a right to occupy. Now we are getting used to see one man standing alone in the foremost rank, and none stepping forth to challenge his right to that pre-eminence. Thus, alike by his merit and his good fortune, has it come to pass that Mr Tennyson has been for some time the elect poet alike of the British Court and of the British nation; that he wears worthily on living brows that laurel which has before now only come in time to grace a poet's bier; and that, if he needs any fresh assurance that in his case the many have heartily accepted the verdict of the few, he has only to inquire of his publisher how many copies of Enoch Arden he has sold in the short time which has elapsed since its appearance.
The Laureate has been grateful beforehand to his admiring readers. He has written (we do not say it in any of the bitterness of his own misanthropic hero) "to the purpose, easy things to understand," for the most part; and things, too, which they will be the better for understanding. There is little to bewilder the reader in his new volume. He will find in it no such gusts of passion as drive confusing clouds over the clear moonlight in 'Maud;' which poem a young lady of our acquaintance finished perusing, uncertain whether its heroine were dead or alive. No metaphysics, no bits of recondite philosophy, no puzzles like the 'Palace of Art;' no mystic forms like those perplexing maidens in the
'Enoch Arden, &c.' By Alfred Tennyson, D.C.L., Poet-Laureate. London : Edward Moxon & Co.
101st division of 'In Memoriam,' about whose numbers and symbolic signification no two Tennysonians were ever known to agree. Cockneys indeed may find The Northern Farmer's' dialect difficult, and we ourselves cannot profess to think the sermon in 'Aylmer's Field' easier to take in at one hearing (though for a very different reason) than the most abstruse of Bishop Butler's. We also boldly risk the confession, that if 'The Voyage' has any one very decided meaning, of the half-dozen which might be fitted to it, we have failed to fathom its import. So, too, the latter of the two 'SeaDreams' is, we suppose, an allegory like the first. It may be that we think we see the truth it is meant to convey; but it is not so clearly put that it would be wise for any interpreter of dark sayings to stake his credit on its explanation while its author lives to contradict him. Hereafter, learned German critics may find a delightful mental exercise in expounding these two poems, and may evolve meanings for them out of their own internal consciousness to their heart's content. But, with the exception of these few passages, the book before us can be understood without a commentator. And, for the very reason that the scholiast's labours would be thrown away upon it, it is sure to delight the general reader. That, in these days, very painstaking person knows how to be thankful to great poets, when they condescend to write things which are not too hard for him. In his estimation this volume will very likely eclipse its predecessors. For does it not contain two stories, each as interesting as a novel, told in musical verse?-'Enoch Arden,' so like a tale by Mrs Gaskell; and 'Aylmer's Field,' which (before his reconciliation with the British aristocracy) would have made a firstrate subject for Mr Kingsley? Is it not pleasant to see such bright hues of poetry cast on seaside trips, as those with which the Laureate
here adorns his clerk's holiday? Will not some eyes which never wept over the sorrows of his young "May Queen," feel a kindly tear bedim them as his faithful photograph of the "Grandmother" in her elbow-chair appeals to their love for the aged? Will those by whose sweet voices this volume's shorter lyrics will be sung at Yule-tide, in many a hall and parsonage, care to be told that these later efforts are not worthy of those earlier songs which first taught England that Tennyson (like his own Elaine) could "sweetly make and sing"? Was not the Welcome to Alexandra' (here reprinted) copied as eagerly from one newspaper to another, as was the noble dedication of the 'Idylls' to the memory of the late Prince Consort; without a hint of how clearly these two poems show that, if other men have one reason for thinking it "better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting," poets have two?
Not that we at all mean to insinuate that the Laureate's new volume is calculated to give pleasure to none but those who read for entertainment. That smaller class who regard a poem as a work of art; who do not so much inquire what story it tells, as how it is told; who are its personages, as whether they are correctly represented readers, whose practised ears watch for the music of verse, moving its "many-twinkling feet" in varied cadence, will read Enoch Arden' (and much besides in this volume) with very complete satisfaction: unless they choose to spoil it by comparing them with the very greatest of their author's previous performances. For of the first of these new poems especially we may safely say, both with regard to its subject and execution, that if its author has not unfrequently soared higher, he has often sunk much lower, that though he has many times before attempted some far greater thing, those attempts have not always met with so full a measure of success.
Enoch Arden' is a true idyl (so we believe the word should be spelt). It is a simple story of a seafaring man's sorrows; not aspiring to the dimensions or pompous march of the strain which sings heroes and their exploits; but charming the heart by its true pathos, and the ear by a sweet music of its own. It fulfils, so far as we understand them, the conditions of the modern Idyl; which are, to depict the joys and sorrows of humble life-to describe those beauties of nature which, unperceived, enhance the former and soothe the latter-and (most important of all) to be short. Such notably (to take instances from the Laureate's earlier poems) are 'The Gardener's Daughter,' and 'Dora,' with their sweet English landscapes and true and tender feeling. Similar idyls abound in Wordsworth's poems; but had he undertaken such a tale as 'Enoch Arden,' we feel certain he would have left our last condition unfulfilled. The moralisings of Enoch in his solitude, the poet's own observations on his griefs, and on his Annie's disquietude, &c., might have enriched the poem with precious pearls of philosophy, but would certainly have robbed it of the merit of brevity. Now, one thing especially to be praised in 'Enoch Arden,' is the conciseness of language with which the poet tells his story. He indulges in no digressions, in no descriptions which are not required for its full comprehension; he rehearses no long conversations, and makes no unnecessary remarks of his own. On the one hand, there is no sentimental dawdling over the sad situations which occur in the narrative; on the other, there is no hurry in its march, and no excessive compression of any of its portions. These are excellences which it seems, to the inexperienced, easy to reach; the like may be their judgment on the smooth flow of the verse of this poem; and perchance some of our young friends may think that
to write thus is no very difficult attainment. We only answer, Let them try. It is well known that easy writing proves very hard reading. There is no doubt that the converse of this is true, and that, mostly, easy reading has been very hard writing. But art's true triumph is to make the reader insensible to the labour which it has cost. That expended on 'Enoch Arden' effects this so completely as to require, and well repay, very close attention.
Amongst other things, we have been struck by the delicate management of that slight infusion of the supernatural which adds dignity to its humble hero's fate; and it seems the more worth pointing out, because its necessary unobtrusiveness makes it liable to pass unnoticed.
Every one knows with what great effect the supernatural is introduced into works of imagination. It vastly enhances the importance of their heroes: for those must needs be of great account, for or against whom the Powers of the Unseen are fighting. And to the reader it discloses a vista into shadowy realms, which indefinitely enlarges the scenes presented to his view. But this powerful engine should be employed very sparingly. When an author leads us, as Southey does, into the intimate society of ghosts and genii, familiarity breeds contempt (as says the homely proverb), and they quickly lose their awfulness. Most of all is it needful to be cautious in our use of the supernatural in a tale of humble life and of modern times. The few superstitions which still linger amongst us, form no part of any recognised creed, and are not openly acknowledged even by those who hold them. It was different for the tragic poet who represented. witches in his plays when trials for witchcraft were of common occurrence; or for him who made his whole tragedy turn on an oracle's fulfilment when men still went to consult Apollo at Delphi. And even those poets took good care not
to strike lowly heads with these awful lightnings; to reserve their chief supernatural terrors for the fates of chieftains and kings. In a poem like Enoch Arden,' it would
"So these were wed, and merrily rang the
Merrily rang the bells, and they were wed.
be an unpardonable error to give She knew not what; nor loved she to be foreshadowings of the future anything like the place held by the words of the weird sisters in 'Macbeth,' or by the oracle's responses in the Edipus Tyrannus.' Tennyson has been so far from committing this mistake, that he scarcely calls the reader's attention to his prophecies, and not at all to their accomplishment. It is for this reason that we are particular in remarking them. They are of three sorts unconscious predictions, presentiments, and dreams.
The first unconscious prophecy occurs at the beginning of the poem. Its destined heroine, Annie, says to her two boy-playmates, in her childish ignorance, that "she would
be little wife to both." Wife to both her fate dooms her to be. The second is uttered later on, when her first husband tells her of the long voyage he means to undertake; and she exclaims, after vainly trying to dissuade him from it,
"Well know I
That I shall look upon your face no more.'
'Well, then,' said Enoch, 'I shall look on yours.'
In that most touching scene near the close of the poem, when Enoch, shrouded in the darkness without, gazes on his lost wife through the window, his own words come true; when, on his deathbed, he kindly says of her,
"She must not come, For my dead face would vex her afterlife,"
he causes the fulfilment of hers. In the next place, we have Annie's presentiments. Her husband's tools, as they sound for the last time in their house, strike her ear as if raising her own death-scaffold." And when, after she has long mourned him as dead, she marries again, we read :
Alone at home, nor ventured out alone." And, besides prediction and presentiment, we have Annie's mysterious dream, which (according to her own interpretation) justifies her second marriage. Still doubting Enoch's fate, she opens her Bible to see what words will first meet her eye. It falls on Under it not be?) Thereupon she falls a palm-tree." (The palm-tree should asleep and dreams-the truth. For she beholds Enoch seated "Under a palm-tree, over him the Sun;" as he doubtless was at that moment in the island on which he had been
wrecked, and where the ghostly
"He is gone, she thought, he is happy, he is singing
'Hosanna in the highest:' yonder shines The Sun of Righteousness, and these be palms
Whereof the happy people strowing cried 'Hosanna in the highest!'"
and the last obstacle to her marriage with Philip is removed.
Now these foreshadowings of the future may be believed or disbelieved at pleasure. Men may regard them as a guardian angel's warnings. They may equally consider them as mere singular coincidences. Their ancient credit yet survives to some extent. Of old men have echoed a chance wordspoken with one intent, caught up with another as an unerring and divine direction; and even few comparatively attach no weight whatever to dreams and presentiments. Especially would such a woman as Annie think her own of importance. We may be sure that,
after she knew the truth, she would often dwell on their mysterious meaning, and on how she had failed to apprehend it till too late. And thus these judicious touches of the supernatural make the tale in which they occur seem additionally natural and life-like.
But if the Laureate thus knows how to deal with the unwarranted beliefs of the simple, and how to extract from them poetic embellishment, he also knows how to make a noble use of their religious faith. The grandest and most poetical book in the English language lies as open to the poor as to the rich; and is often more deeply pondered by the former than by the latter. And it is not too much to say that some of the most beautiful passages in 'Enoch Arden' are those in which Holy Scripture is reverently quoted. Not to refer again to Annie's dream; how fine, for instance, are the quotations from the Bible in Enoch's homely farewell to her!— "Annie, my girl, cheer up, be comforted; Look to the babes, and till I come again Keep everything ship-shape, for I must
Is He not yonder in those uttermost
To the first nautical phrase we indeed strongly object. In real life men do not delight in the slang of their calling as much as books make them do-least of all in their most solemn moments. We hope to see ship-shape omitted in future editions. But who can fail to admire the rest of the speech? or to notice
how the way in which the sailor's voice, resting on the pause in the psalm he had weekly chanted, symbolises, as nothing else could do, his soul's repose on the, to him, all-consoling truth which it contains?
Curious felicities of expression of this sort occur often in the poem. We mean words which exactly render the thought, so arranged that their sound echoes, or forms a musical accompaniment to it. Of this the lines describing Annie's second marriage (quoted some way back) are an instance. The wedding-bells ring in the first two lines. Those which succeed run heavily with the weight of foreboding which they carry. Of the same sort is the description (earlier still in the poem) of the death of Annie's little one :—
"Howsoe'er it was, After a lingering-ere she was awareLike the caged bird escaping suddenly, The little innocent soul flitted away!
The idea of life escaping like a bird is indeed old, as most beautiful ideas are;* but the music of the lines (the hurried rhythm of the last one denoting the mother's anxiety, its abrupt conclusion how the little heart suddenly ceases to beat, and then the pause after it betokening the mother's sorrow) is Mr Tennyson's own.t
There is another secret of the Laureate's strength-one which has been often pointed out before-observable in the poem we are considering. The way in which he suits his background of landscape to the figures in his foreground, and so pictures the aspects of nature as seen by a human eye and felt by a human
We may earn some reader's thanks by
The "flitting" soul recalls to our mind Mr Merivale's admirable translation of the dying emperor's address to his own. quoting it here:
"Animula, vagula, blandula, Hospes comesque corporis, Quæ nunc abibis in loca,Pallidula, rigida, nudulaNec, ut soles, dabis jocos?",
"Soul of mine, pretty one, flitting one,
Never to play again, never to play?"