Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Notice of Alfred Tennyson,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XII: Literary Criticism - part 04 (1902), pp. 180-184


[page 180, continued:]


[Broadway Journal, July 19, 1845.]

WE do not know when we have seen in any American or British Journal an article we have so much admired, or one with whose opinions we have so thoroughly accorded, as with a late review, by Mr. Whipple, of Mr. Griswold’s “Poets and Poetry of the Nineteenth Century.” The paper appeared in the last number of the Whig Magazine. We extract some passages relating to Tennyson. They seem to us the very echo of thoughts which hitherto we have had an opportunity of expressing only in conversation. The injustice done in America to the magnificent genius of Tennyson is one of the worst sins for which the country has to answer.

Of all the successors of Shelley, he possesses the most sureness of insight. He has a subtle mind, a keen, passionless vision. His poetry is characterized by intellectual intensity, as distinguished from the intensity of feeling. He watches his consciousness with a cautious and minute attention, to fix, and condense, and shape into form, the vague and mystical shadows of thought and feeling, which glide and flit across it. He listens to catch the lowest whisperings of the soul. His imagination broods over the spiritual and mystical elements of his being, with the most concentrated power. His eye rests firmly on [page 181:] an object until it changes from film into form. Some of his poems are forced into artistical shape, by the most patient and painful intellectual processes. His utmost strength is employed on those mysterious facts of consciousness, which form the staple of the dreams and reveries of others. His mind winds through the mystical labyrinth of thought and feeling, with every power awake, in action, and wrought up to the highest pitch of intensity. The most acute analysis is followed, step by step, by a suggestive imagination which converts refined abstractions into pictures, or makes them audible to the soul through the most cunning combinations of sound. Everything that is done is the result of labor. There is hardly a stanza in his writings, but was introduced to serve some particular purpose, and could not be omitted without injury to the general effect. Everything has meaning. Every idea was won in a fair conflict with darkness, or dissonance, or gloom. The simplicity, the barrenness of ornament, in some of his lines, are as much the result of contrivance as his most splendid images. With what labor, for instance, with what attentive watching of consciousness, must the following stanza have been wrought into shape:

“All those sharp fancies, by down-lapsing thought

Stream’d onward, lost their edges, and did creep,

Roll’d on each other, rounded, smooth’d and brought

Into the gulfs of sleep.”

This intense intellectual action is displayed in his delineations of nature and individual character, as well as in his subjective gropings into the refinements of his own consciousness. In describing scenery, his microscopic eye and marvellously delicate ear, are exercised to the utmost in detecting the minutest relations and most evanescent melodies of the objects before him, in order that his representation of it shall include everything which is important to its full perception. His pictures of English [page 182:] rural scenery, among the finest in the language, give the inner spirit as well as the outward form of the objects, and represent them, also, in their relation to the mind which is gazing on them; but nothing is spontaneous; the whole is wrought out elaborately by patient skill. The picture in his mind is spread out before his detecting and dissecting intellect, to be transferred to words, only when it can he done with the most refined exactness, both as regards color, and form and melody. He takes into calculation the nature of his subject, and decides whether it shall he definitely expressed in images, or indefinitely through tone, or whether both modes shall he combined. His object is expression, in its true sense; to reproduce in other minds the imagination or feeling which lies in his own; and he adopts the method which seems best calculated to effect it. He never will trust himself to the impulses of passion, even in describing passion. All emotion, whether turbulent or evanescent, is passed through his intellect, and curiously scanned. To write furiously, would to him appear as ridiculous, and as certainly productive of confusion, as to paint furiously, or carve furiously. We only appreciate his art, when we consider that many of his finest conceptions and most sculptural images, originally appeared in his consciousness as formless and mysterious emotions, having seemingly no symbols in nature or thought.

If our position is correct, then most certainly nothing can be more incorrect than to call any poem of Tennyson’s unmeaning. Such a charge simply implies a lack in the critic’s mind, not in the poet’s. The latter always means something, in everything he writes; and the form which it is embodied is chosen with the most careful deliberation. It seems to us that the purely intellectual element in Tennyson’s poetry, has been over-looked, owing perhaps to the fragility of some of his figures and the dreariness of outline apparent in others. Many think him to be a mere rhapsodist, fertile in nothing but a kind of melodious empiricism. No opinion is more contradicted [page 183:] by the fact. Examine his poetry minutely, and the wonderful artistical finish becomes evident. There are few author who will bear the probe of analysis better.

The poetry of Tennyson is, moreover, replete with magnificent pictures, flushed with the finest hues of language, and speaking to the eye and the mind with the vividness of reality. We not only see the object, but feel the associations connected with it. His language is penetrated with imagination: and the felicity of his epithets leaves nothing to desire. “Godiva” is perfect as regards taste and the skill evinced in compelling the mind of the reader to sympathize with all the emotions of the piece. Like the generality of Tennyson’s poems, though short, it contains elements of interest capable of being expanded into a much larger space. But the poem which probably displays to the best advantage his variety of power, is “The Gardener’s Daughter.” It is flushed throughout with the most ethereal imagination, though the incidents and emotions come home to the common heart, and there is little appearance of elaboration in the style. It is bathed in beauty — perfect as a whole, and finished in the nicest details with consummate art. There is a seeming copiousness of expression with a real condensation; and the most minute threads of thought and feeling, — so refined as to be overlooked in a careless reading, yet all having relation to the general effect, — are woven into the texture of the style, with the most admirable felicity. “Locksley Hall,” “Œnorne,” “The May Queen,” “Ulysses,” “The Lotus Eaters,” “The Lady of Shalott,” “Marianna,” “Dora,” “The Two Voices,” “The Dream of Fair Women,” “The Palace of Art,” all different, all representing a peculiar phase of nature or character, are still all characterized by the cunning workmanship of a master of expression, giving the most complete form to the objects which his keen vision perceives. The melody of verse, which distinguishes all, ranging from the deepest organ tones to that [page 184:]

“Music which gentlier on the spirit lies,

Than tired eyelids upon tired eyes,”

is also of remarkable beauty, and wins and winds its way to the very fountains of thought and feeling.





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