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    Tennyson

    by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
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    Mr. Morton Luce has written a short study of Tennyson which has
    considerable cultivation and suggestiveness, which will be sufficient to
    serve as a notebook for Tennyson's admirers, but scarcely sufficient,
    perhaps, to serve as a pamphlet against his opponents. If a critic has,
    as he ought to have, any of the functions anciently attributed to a
    prophet, it ought not to be difficult for him to prophesy that Tennyson
    will pass through a period of facile condemnation and neglect before we
    arrive at the true appreciation of his work. The same thing has happened
    to the most vigorous of essayists, Macaulay, and the most vigorous of
    romancers, Dickens, because we live in a time when mere vigour is
    considered a vulgar thing. The same idle and frigid reaction will almost
    certainly discredit the stateliness and care of Tennyson, as it has
    discredited the recklessness and inventiveness of Dickens. It is only
    necessary to remember that no action can be discredited by a reaction.

    The attempts which have been made to discredit the poetical position of
    Tennyson are in the main dictated by an entire misunderstanding of the
    nature of poetry. When critics like Matthew Arnold, for example, suggest
    that his poetry is deficient in elaborate thought, they only prove, as
    Matthew Arnold proved, that they themselves could never be great poets.
    It is no valid accusation against a poet that the sentiment he expresses
    is commonplace. Poetry is always commonplace; it is vulgar in the
    noblest sense of that noble word. Unless a man can make the same kind of
    ringing appeal to absolute and admitted sentiments that is made by a
    popular orator, he has lost touch with emotional literature. Unless he
    is to some extent a demagogue, he cannot be a poet. A man who expresses
    in poetry new and strange and undiscovered emotions is not a poet; he is
    a brain specialist. Tennyson can never be discredited before any serious
    tribunal of criticism because the sentiments and thoughts to which he
    dedicates himself are those sentiments and thoughts which occur to
    anyone. These are the peculiar province of poetry; poetry, like
    religion, is always a democratic thing, even if it pretends the
    contrary. The faults of Tennyson, so far as they existed, were not half
    so much in the common character of his sentiments as in the arrogant
    perfection of his workmanship. He was not by any means so wrong in his
    faults as he was in his perfections.

    Men are very much too ready to speak of men's work being ordinary, when
    we consider that, properly considered, every man is extraordinary. The
    average man is a tribal fable, like the Man-Wolf or the Wise Man of the
    Stoics. In every man's heart there is a revolution; how much more in
    every poet's? The supreme business of criticism is to discover that part
    of a man's work which is his and to ignore that part which belongs to
    others. Why should any critic of poetry spend time and attention on that
    part of a man's work which is unpoetical? Why should any man be
    interested in aspects which are uninteresting? The business of a critic
    is to discover the importance of men and not their crimes. It is true
    that the Greek word critic carries with it the meaning of a judge, and
    up to this point of history judges have had to do with the valuation of
    men's sins, and not with the valuation of their virtues.

    Tennyson's work, disencumbered of all that uninteresting accretion which
    he had inherited or copied, resolves itself, like that of any other man
    of genius, into those things which he really inaugurated. Underneath all
    his exterior of polished and polite rectitude there was in him a genuine
    fire of novelty; only that, like all the able men of his period, he
    disguised revolution under the name of evolution. He is only a very
    shallow critic who cannot see an eternal rebel in the heart of the
    Conservative.

    Tennyson had certain absolutely personal ideas, as much his own as the
    ideas of Browning or Meredith, though they were fewer in number. One of
    these, for example, was the fact that he was the first of all poets (and
    perhaps the last) to attempt to treat poetically that vast and monstrous
    vision of fact which science had recently revealed to mankind.
    Scientific discoveries seem commonly fables as fantastic in the ears of
    poets as poems in the ears of men of science. The poet is always a
    Ptolemaist; for him the sun still rises and the earth stands still.
    Tennyson really worked the essence of modern science into his poetical
    constitution, so that its appalling birds and frightful flowers were
    really part of his literary imagery. To him blind and brutal monsters,
    the products of the wild babyhood of the Universe, were as the daisies
    and the nightingales were to Keats; he absolutely realised the great
    literary paradox mentioned in the Book of Job: "He saw Behemoth, and he
    played with him as with a bird."

    Instances of this would not be difficult to find. But the tests of
    poetry are those instances in which this outrageous scientific
    phraseology becomes natural and unconscious. Tennyson wrote one of his
    own exquisite lyrics describing the exultation of a lover on the evening
    before his bridal day. This would be an occasion, if ever there was one,
    for falling back on those ancient and assured falsehoods of the domed
    heaven and the flat earth in which generations of poets have made us
    feel at home. We can imagine the poet in such a lyric saluting the
    setting sun and prophesying the sun's resurrection. There is something
    extraordinarily typical of Tennyson's scientific faith in the fact that
    this, one of the most sentimental and elemental of his poems, opens with
    the two lines:

    "Move eastward, happy earth, and leave
    Yon orange sunset waning slow."

    Rivers had often been commanded to flow by poets, and flowers to blossom
    in their season, and both were doubtless grateful for the permission.
    But the terrestrial globe of science has only twice, so far as we know,
    been encouraged in poetry to continue its course, one instance being
    that of this poem, and the other the incomparable "Address to the
    Terrestrial Globe" in the "Bab Ballads."

    There was, again, another poetic element entirely peculiar to Tennyson,
    which his critics have, in many cases, ridiculously confused with a
    fault. This was the fact that Tennyson stood alone among modern poets
    in the attempt to give a poetic character to the conception of Liberal
    Conservatism, of splendid compromise. The carping critics who have
    abused Tennyson for this do not see that it was far more daring and
    original for a poet to defend conventionality than to defend a cart-load
    of revolutions. His really sound and essential conception of Liberty,

    "Turning to scorn with lips divine
    The falsehood of extremes,"

    is as good a definition of Liberalism as has been uttered in poetry in
    the Liberal century. Moderation is _not_ a compromise; moderation is a
    passion; the passion of great judges. That Tennyson felt that lyrical
    enthusiasm could be devoted to established customs, to indefensible and
    ineradicable national constitutions, to the dignity of time and the
    empire of unutterable common sense, all this did not make him a tamer
    poet, but an infinitely more original one. Any poetaster can describe a
    thunderstorm; it requires a poet to describe the ancient and quiet sky.

    I cannot, indeed, fall in with Mr. Morton Luce in his somewhat frigid
    and patrician theory of poetry. "Dialect," he says, "mostly falls below
    the dignity of art." I cannot feel myself that art has any dignity
    higher than the indwelling and divine dignity of human nature. Great
    poets like Burns were far more undignified when they clothed their
    thoughts in what Mr. Morton Luce calls "the seemly raiment of cultured
    speech" than when they clothed them in the headlong and flexible patois
    in which they thought and prayed and quarrelled and made love. If
    Tennyson failed (which I do not admit) in such poems as "The Northern
    Farmer," it was not because he used too much of the spirit of the
    dialect, but because he used too little.

    Tennyson belonged undoubtedly to a period from which we are divided; the
    period in which men had queer ideas of the antagonism of science and
    religion; the period in which the Missing Link was really missing. But
    his hold upon the old realities of existence never wavered; he was the
    apostle of the sanctity of laws, of the sanctity of customs; above all,
    like every poet, he was the apostle of the sanctity of words.
    If you're writing a Tennyson essay and need some advice, post your Gilbert Keith Chesterton essay question on our Facebook page where fellow bookworms are always glad to help!

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