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ourselves to speculate on the motives for such a choice of subject, which it is clear has always been on his mind, and of which, in early days, he himself wrote playfully
"“You know," said Frank,“ he burnt
Morte d'Arthur, The question leads us naturally to consider his poetical career. One motive undoubtedly is, that the scene lies on English ground; not that this is a necessity, for Sir E. B. Lytton carries away his hero first to Etruria, and then away to the North Pole; but we may be sure that Tennyson's knights would haunt the land of his birth, where his eyes first looked on the beauty of light and shade, plain and down, corn-field and flowing river.
For he is essentially the poet of the plains, of the domestic landscape, which says more to him than any other, because illuminated by the associations of childhood-of such scenery as he early indicates in his ‘Ode to Memory,' who, he says happily, sets her first pictures in a golden frame-and loves her first essays best.
· Artist like,
Purple-spiked lavender.”—Poems, p. 30. How constantly may scenes touched with more force and grace which occur in his later works be traced back to these earliest impressions of vastness and grandeur, where others only see dreary monotony; as in the three queens' lament in the Morte d'Arthur!'
Of lamentation like a wind, that shrills
Or hath come, since the making of the world.'—Poems, p. 198. Those trim gardens, the charm of the level counties, what a pleasant part they play throughout his poems! Even the Bedford levels—for such, or like them, we take the waste enormous marsh' to be—how often we seem to recognize the awe that dreary system of drainage produced on the imaginative child! It is to be noted that all the most telling touches and descriptions of nature belong to one order of landscape. The aspen, the poplar, the willow, the slow barge-laden river with its lilies, the waving corn-field meeting the distant horizon, the meadows deep in pasture, the farmsteads, the elms, the bee-baunted limes, the minster bell sounding the hours; always the city within sound or sight or conscious neighbourhood. How delightful, how home-like it all is! How we pause to take in the grateful quiet, the rural golden plenty of the essentially English scene ! With what an absolute perfection of language it is set before us ! Not that the poet's power over words is not as apparent when he paints distant lands. The intense breathless heat of a southern landscape, the alpine ledges with their wreaths of dangling water-smoke, are given with a new ard unrivalled vividness; and where has the Italian sky been rendered as in these few words?
* And deepening through the silent spheres,
Heaven over heaven rose the night." But not the less we see that his heart is where the sense of beauty first stirred within him. How sensible he has always been of the influence of country to determine the course of thought these lines show
• Thy dark eyes open'd not,
Nor first revealed themselves to English air,
For there is nothing here
Moulded thy baby thought.'— Eleanore, p. 78. And it is the peculiar charms of the English landscape, on which his eyes first opened, which are touched and retouched with an unwearying fondness of reiteration. It is a notable fact, that the first efforts of our greatest master of harmony, who has brought our language to a luxurious finish and smoothness unknown before, were censured for their rude truth. Every natural object and incident caught his young eye, occupied his mind, suggested food to his fancy. He liked every little feature of a scene so well, that his muse accepted it just as it was.
Thus hanging over a pool in some particular phase of feeling, a water
rat sprang in and rippled the calm mirror ;-it is, in fact, an incident which never loses its interest—he gave it a place in his love poem. But the animal was unclean in the critic's eyes, and the young poet's courage won him a sneer. Overhead, as he lay by this same pool, grew a horse-chestnut. He noted the gummy chestnut buds,' which mark the progress of spring to a nicety, and gained another sneer for having, like a truthful young artist, drawn what he saw. However, he took advice, and the passages now stand
Then leapt a trout. In lazy mood
I watched the little circles die.' and
"I came and sat
Were glistening to the breezy blue.'-Poems, p. 87. But there was one picture bearing on our main subject, too descriptive of that vastness and infinity which characterise a plain, for him to alter at any one's word. In the
Lady of Shalott’ the critic italicised the three opening lines for censure.
On either side the river lie
That clothe the wold and meet the sky.' Now it is clear the lady, and the river, the fields of barley and of rye, and the garden island in which she lived embowered, had taken some deep and early hold on his fancy. We have her story reproduced in the Idylls. The charm of the poem lies in the close rendering of a simple natural English landscape with its reapers, and the bustle of its highway, in connection with a wild fairy tale; giving a local habitation to a wild Arthurian legend of Sir Lancelot. In the Tempest' we may see the same happy effect of close detail in the landscape in giving reality to the poet's most fanciful creation. In the two other poems that relate to King Arthur, the · Morte d'Arthur,' and * Sir Galahad,' the country is as distinctly indicated. The frosty atmosphere giving such marvellous purity to the scene, tells us we are on English ground, and the few touches of description are all familiar. The knight passes through dreaming towns, whose streets are dumb with snow ;' and again by
Hostel, hall, and grange,
By bridge and ford, by park and pale ;' and where the false Sir Bedivere hides the mystic sword, instead of throwing it into the Mere, he concealed it
• There in the many-knotted water flags
That whistled stiff and dry about the marge.' VOL. II. No. III.
We can all fancy the scene. The English home of the legend is, then, one main reason of its attraction, the other probably the unchartered freedom of treatment which it admits. Mr. Tennyson has never had any faith whatever in good old times, in a golden age, when men were better than they are now.
He can coolly describe the records of chivalry as
"A hoard of tales that dealt of knights, Half legend, half historic, counts and kings, Who laid about them at their wills and died.'
Princess, p. 3. His ideal of human nature at its noblest is especially not a chivalrous one. He is jealous to deprive his more real and favourite examples of purity and heroism of adventitious distinctions. He will allow no prestige to mere rank
"A simple maiden in her flower
Is worth a hundred coats of arms.'
"Oh, what an easy thing is to descry
And at the last breake forth in his own proper kynde.' But with our poet even where titles and estates and ancient lineage figure in all their glory, it is a delight to refute the theory. It is the supposititious heiress, the nurse's child, who acts the heroic part, and tells the truth that loses her inheritance and risks her love. Our readers are familiar with the beautiful ballad of · Lady Clare'
Oh, and proudly stood she up,
And told him all her nurse's tale.' We have, to be sure, kings and princes in abundance, but of a very fanciful nursery-rhyme coinage, with as little as may be of the divinity that doth hedge a king; witness the pair of royal fathers in The Princess,' the jolly old kings 'wagging their baldness up and down' in laughter at the prince's disguise. And if it is not the chivalry, neither is it the purer manners of the ancient times which attract him. To him, Spenser's yearnings after the old virtue of King Arthur's day would be mere sentimentalism
'But antique Age, yet in the infancie
Then loyall love had royall regiment.' The loves of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere in the Idylls tell a different tale: Tennyson's line has rather been to show all times alike-the human heart with all its follies and frailties the same.
Nor has he chosen the subject as a field for more elevated thought and action to satisfy the ambitious aspirations of his admirers. The course of the poet's mind has led him from the mountain heights of song. In his youth, with the keenest susceptibility to every external influence, with senses alive to every impression, and a dreamy temperament led by eye and ear, his mind had yet hard-headed intervals of independent action, when he ranged in the abstract and wrinkled all our brows to follow his metaphysical subtleties. Of later years he has devoted himself to the intricacies of the heart instead of the intellect, and given us things easy to understand,' if we use his key to them. The range of subject from beginning to end of his career is certainly remarkable. When we look at Mr. Tennyson's collected poems, and the four volumes that have succeeded them, and mark the infinite variety of treatment, the depths that are sounded, the heights that are reached, the sympathy with nature, the tragic force, the knowledge, the feeling, the fancy, the playfulness and sweetness, the absolute command of language, the enchanting harmony of numbers, we cannot wonder that he was fixed upon to remove the reproach of our age, to show that the world had not outlived its poetry, that it could furnish an epic yet. What did an epic poet need which he had not shown himself to possess ? Take his . Ulysses' alone.
There are strains in music, master-pieces of great masters, epitomes of their genius, which in actual performance occupy a few minutes--a mere point of time; but fraught with such fulness of harmony, suggestive of such vast ideas, pressing on the soul with such a weight of undeveloped meaning, so absorbing both to sense, reason, and intellect, that the impression left on the memory is of an event engaging a considerable period of time; or rather, for the space when we sat under the spell, time ceased, and we were under another dispensation, dimly awake to the influences of that eternity which runs along with time, but is not measured by its moments or hours, which for ever broods over us, but eludes the slippery grasp of our senses.