Text: Edgar Allan Poe (???) (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of The Poems of Alfred Tennyson,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XI: Literary Criticism - part 04 (1902), pp. 127-131


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[page 127:]

THE POEMS OF ALFRED TENNYSON. TWO VOLS. 12MO. WILLIAM D. TICKNOR: BOSTON. CAREY & HART: PHILADELPHIA.

[Graham’s Magazine, September, 1842.]

OF the works of cotemporary English poets of the second class, perhaps none have been more commented upon or less read in America than those of Alfred Tennyson. The chief reason may be that never until now having been reprinted here, and a very small number only of the first English impressions having been imported, they have not been accessible to many whom the praises of the reviewers would have led to examine into their pretensions. The Cardinal de Richelieu, it is said, fancying himself as skilled in poetry as diplomacy, wrote a tragedy, which having been damned on its anonymous presentation to the critics, he tore into atoms and burned. For like cause Mr. Tennyson, soon after the publication of his “Poems, chiefly Lyrical,” committed all the copies of them he could regain to the fire. But the cardinal and our contemporary erred. Time, not fire, is the trier of verse. Upon the surface of the stream of ages the good will at some period rise to float for ever, the middling for a while live in the under current of the waters, and in the end, with the utterly worthless, sink into the oblivious mire at the bottom. To this conclusion Mr. Tennyson seems now to have been brought, for he has this summer republished his early poems, with many new ones which, though free from some of the more conspicuous faults of his first productions, generally lack their freshness, beauty and originality. We look in vain in the second volume of the [page 128:] edition before us for pieces surpassing his “Mariana,” “Oriana,” “Madeline,” “Adeline,” “Margaret,” “The Death of the Old Year,” or parts of “The Dream of Fair Women.” He excels most in his female portraitures; but while delicate and graceful they are indefinite; while airy and spiritual, are intangible. As we read Byron or Burns, beautiful forms stand before us, we see the action of their breathing, read the passionate language of their eyes, involuntarily throw out our arms to embrace them; but we have glimpses only of the impalpable creations of Tennyson, as far away on gold-fringed clouds they bend to listen to dreamlike melodies which go up from fairy lakes and enchanted palaces.

Tennyson has been praised as a strikingly original poet. He has indeed a bold and affluent fancy, whereby he tricks out common thoughts in dresses so unique that it is not always easy to identify them; but we have not seen in his works proofs of an original mind. He certainly is not an inventor of incidents, for most of those he uses were familiar in the last century. “Dora,” he acknowledges, was suggested by one of Miss Mitford’s portraits, and the “Lady Clare” by Mrs. Farrar’s “Inheritance;” “The Day Dream,” “The Lady of Shalott,” and “Godiva,” are versions of old tales, skilfully made, but showing no creative power. There is a statue-like definiteness and warmth of coloring about the following stanzas from the first of these poems which we have not elsewhere observed in his writings:

[[· · · · · · · ·]]

(Quotation.)

There is also a beautiful passage in “Godiva,” which we cannot forbear to quote:

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(Quotation.)

[page 129:]

A specimen of description, graphic, but not very poetical, is the following from the “Miller’s Daughter”:

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(Quotation.)

In “The Day Dream,” from which we have already quoted, the following lines will suggest to the reader’s mind the story of Rip Van Winkle, of Sleepy Hollow:

(Quotation.)

Tennyson frequently exhibits a rare sense of the beautiful, “a spirit awake to fine issues,” and, in his own language,

does love Beauty only

In all varieties of mould and mind,

And Knowledge for its beauty, or if Good,

Good only for its beauty.

Yet this sense is sometimes dead in him, and he exhibits as little taste as is possessed by ante-diluvian McHenry. A critic for whose judgment we have great respect, and who seems determined to believe Mr. Tennyson “the first original English poet since Keats, perhaps the only one of the present race of verse writers who carries with him the certain marks of being remembered hereafter with the classic authors of his language,” points to “St. Simeon Stylites” as the finest of his productions. It is not his worst, but if he had not written better we should desire none of his companionship. In the opening lines a devotee prays, in the very language of old cloister legends —

[[· · · · · · · ·]]

(Quotation.)

Recounting his mortifications, he says,

[[· · · · · · · ·]]

(Quotation.)

At length the miserable fool, with no rebuke for the craven thought that God is moved by penances like [page 130:] these instead of active efforts to promote His cause and human happiness, working miracles such as the earliest saints performed, climbs up into his airy home and there “receives the blessed sacrament.” Where is Mr. Tennyson’s “high spiritual philosophy,” and “transcendental light?” The ideas, imagery, and style of expression in this poem are familiar to all readers of monkish stories, and from the beginning of it to the end there are not half a dozen lines to be remembered when the book is closed.

We cannot foretell to what degree of popularity these poems will attain in America. The fewness of the copies here, before the appearance of the present edition, enabled some persons to steal the author’s livery and achieve great reputation among a class who will now transfer their admiration to him who “stole at first hand from Keats.” That Tennyson has genius cannot be denied, but his works have too little of many qualities, especially of manliness, to be long popular. We have better poets at home, Bryant, Longfellow, and others — who put “diamond thoughts in golden caskets; ” and all true critics will prefer their simple majesty or beauty to the fantastic though often tasteful and brilliant displays of Tennyson. The difference between them is like that which distinguishes the sparkling frost that vanishes in the sun from ingots of silver that may be raked into heaps and will last forever.

Our attention has been directed to resemblances between the poems of Tennyson and those of our own quaint and felicitous humorist, Doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes. We have not space for a parallel. The first is a man of fortune who has given twenty years to the poetic art; the last a young physician who, devoting [page 131:] all his time to a laborious profession, has little leisure for dalliance with the muse, and no ambition to win “a poet’s fame.” Yet even as a versifier Holmes is equal to Tennyson, and with the same patient effort and care, he would in every way surpass him.


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Notes:

Although collected by Harrison, Poe’s purported authorship of this item was doubted by T. O. Mabbott.


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[S:1 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of The Poems of Alfred Tennyson)