The Idylls of the King is, for the purposes of the present argument, the culminating achievement of Tennyson's artistic career, since the poet here conceived a work of major proportions which spoke home to his age and at the same time gave full expression to his own deepest intuitions. In none of his later writings do we to any like extent sense the operation of this double awareness. In fact, after about 1870 a deliberate split is observable in Tennyson's aesthetic intent. He continues to write poems in conformity with the prevailing tastes which he had exploited so successfully from the 1842 volume on. His invasion of the field of historical drama with Queen Mary in 1875 is perhaps the clearest evidence of his desire to reach as wide an audience as possible. On the other hand, in a return to and development of his earliest manner, he also produced a considerable number of poems anything [59/60] but popular in nature, which are fully intelligible only if interpreted as projections of subjective states of mind. Whichever the category to which they belong, the poems published during the last two decades of Tennyson's life not only continue to employ the characteristic motifs of dream, madness, vision, and the quest, but do so in an even more highly selective way.
The pessimistic tone that darkens the concluding Idylls is strongly marked in the treatments of contemporary life which are the late counterpart of the English Idyls of the 1842 and "Enoch Arden" volumes. The poems in dialect are less humorous than their predecessors; and in such works as "The First Quarrel," "The Wreck," "Despair," and "Forlorn" the melodramatic situations, as the titles suggest, usually have a gloomy outcome. The vigorously challenging tone of "Locksley Hall" has given way to the somewhat shrill petulance of "Locksley Hall" "Sixty Years After." A comparison of the two poems indicates Tennyson's growing disquietude over the road Victorian England was travelling. The sentiments of the speaker in the latter have the querulous quality of a man driven almost frantic by the decay of those values which had seemed to guarantee social stability. And, indeed, madness in Tennyson's later poetry is almost invariably a condition directly attributable to environmental pressures. Among other examples, "Rizpah" is the most forceful study of insanity as a form of individual release from the harsh workings of external circumstance. In the same way, as may be shown in such poems as "In the Children's Hospital," "Columbus," "Despair," and "Romney's Remorse," the value of dreams resides in the solace which they bring to wounded sensibilities. Through sleep the sufferer escapes from actuality. Indeed, just as he tended increasingly to portray madness as an unproductive aberration, so the later Tennyson in those poems which celebrate the active life inclines to distrust the dream state as a form of self-indulgence. Saint Telemachus, tempted to the false asceticism of a Saint Simeon Stylites, hears a mystic voice, saying: [60/61]
Thou deedless dreamer, lazying out a life
Of self-suppression, not of selfless love.
And Akbar feels that his dream of a universal church may by its very persuasiveness seduce him into complacency and so corrupt the will to act:
The shadow of a dream-an idle one
It may be. Still I raised my heart to heaven,
I pray'd against the dream. To pray, to do
To pray, to do according to the prayer,
Are, both, to worship Alla, but the prayers,
That have no successor in deed, are faint
And pale in Alla's eyes, fair mothers they
Dying in childbirth of dead sons.
I vowd Whate'er my dreams, I still would do the right
Thro' all the vast dominion which a sword,
That only conquers men to conquer peace,
Has won me.
On the other hand, a second body of poems proves that the ghostly promptings from the dark side of the human consciousness, which flicker through all Tennyson's work, visited the aging poet with greater and greater urgency. His need to believe in the existence of some controlling power outside the limitations of time and space had always been strong; towards the end of his life he was readier to accept the revelations of the inner mind, although its activities remained as much a mystery as ever to.him. Furthermore, the impulse to give expression while there was yet time to the complex intuitions of the imagination overruled that concern for the artist's communicative function which had led to the sublimation of the deeper meanings in so much of his previous writing. As a result, the later volumes contain such remarkable poems as The Ancient Sage and Vastness, in which the pretense of objectifying theme through didactic narrative is dropped, and the author lets his imagination have its way in highly personal and often cryptic utterance. [61/62]
This poetry, as the voice of Tennyson's inner being, is shot through with visions of a transcendental kind. Nor is it surprising to find that the pilgrimage of the spirit towards ultimate truth presents itself, as often as not, under the aspect of a quest. The machinery of vision and the quest thus continues to motivate the themes of many of the later poems; and in the case of two of the most notable, "Merlin and the Gleam" and "The Voyage of Maeldune," it prescribes the form. The first of these is a thinly disguised apologia for Tennyson's entire poetic career, viewed in terms of the generating impulses within each successive period. The "Voyage of Maeldune" is a broader allegoric representation of the life journey, rendered through symbols often perplexingly private. Analysis of these poems would only serve to explore ways of the imagination which have already been sufficiently travelled; but Tennyson's choice of the quest as a mode for embodying his profoundest spiritual convictions may suggest the inherently vitalistic habit of mind which is perhaps his strongest bond with the Victorian age. For in the quest, the active and contemplative life meet and are reconciled. It is the finite objective of revenge which holds Maeldune and his companions together and makes them persevere in their long and arduous journey, even though the wisdom garnered along the way invalidates the goal when it is at last in sight. And as Tennyson himself tells us in "Merlin and the Gleam," the vision becomes all the more compelling after it has been challenged by sorrowful recognition of the disparity between shadow and substance, the actual and the ideal in this world:
Clouds and darkness
Closed upon Camelot;
Arthur had vanishd
I knew not whither,
The king who loved me,
And cannot die;
For out of the darkness
Silent and slowly
The Gleam, that had waned to a wintry glimmer [62/63]
On icy fallow
And faded forest,
Drew to the valley
Named of the shadow,
And slowly brightening
Out of the glimmer,
And slowly moving again to melody
Fell on the shadow,
No longer a shadow,
But clothed with the Gleam.
The argument which emerges from the foregoing discussion should now be clear. Whether it be as an escape from actuality through dream or madness, or as an escape into higher truth through vision and the quest, the central emphasis in Tennyson's poetry develops from an inner rather than an outer awareness from the life of the imagination rather than from a sense of responsibility to society. For the conflict between the appearance of the external world and the reality of the individual consciousness which we have found to be the real theme of the Idylls of the King runs through nearly all the more serious poems of Tennyson's later period. The aged protagonist of Locksley Hall Sixty Tears After says: "All the world is ghost to me, and as the phantom disappears"; and the narrator of The Sisters elaborates this sentiment as follows:
My God, I would not live
Save that I think this gross hard-seeming world
Is our misshaping vision of the Powers
Behind the world, that make our griefs our gains.
The fine poem, which Tennyson wrote on the birth of his son Hallam under the title of "De Profundis," originates in a like conviction that the world as we sense it shadows a higher [63/64] realm of spiritual being. (The fact that the poet withheld until 1880 the publication of "De Profundis," although it was presumely written in 1852, might well be constructed as further evidence of his hesitancy in mid-career to reveal too openly the inner workings of his mind.) The poet speaks of "that true world within the world we see,/ Whereof our world is but the bounding shore," and then continues, addressing his child:
O dear Spirit, half-lost
In thine own shadow and this fleshly sign
That thou art thou-who wailest being born
And banisYd into mystery, and the pain
Of this divisible-indivisible world
Among the numerable-innumerable
Sun, sun, and sun, thru' finite-infinite space
In finite-infinite Time-our mortal veil
And shatter'd phantom of that infinite One,
Who made thee unconceivably Thyself
Out of His whole World-self and all in all-
But because such intimations from the recesses of the unconscious are intermittent, the dialogue between faith and doubt that we first overheard in "The Two Voices" goes on. It receives crowning expression in "The Ancient Sage," the theme of which is "this double seeming of the single world." Here the voice of denial belongs to the young man who is, significantly, a lyric poet. The sage advises his disciple to take up a life of human service as a means of making "the passing shadow serve thy will," and so extirpating from his thoughts the "black negation of the bier." As for himself, the sage, who, of course, speaks for Tennyson, has attained to full self-reliance, and as a result passed beyond the need for outside support. He admits that the truth as he knows it cannot be proved, but neither can the position of his sceptical pupil:
Thou canst not prove the Nameless, O my son,
Nor canst thou prove the world thou movest in,
Thou canst not prove that thou art body alone,
Nor canst thou prove that thou art spirit alone,
Nor canst thou prove that thou art both in one.
Thou canst not prove thou art immortal, no,
Nor yet that thou art mortal — nay, my son, [64/65]
Thou canst not prove that I, who speak with thee,
Am not thyself in converse with thyself,
For nothing worthy proving can be proven,
Nor yet disproven.
But the sage, we find, has known mystic revelations of a kind which Tennyson himself experienced, and through them he has come to place unshakable trust in the imagination as the highest of human faculties:
If thou wouldst hear the Nameless, and wilt dive
Into the temple-cave of thine own self,
There, brooding by the central altar, thou
Mayst haply learn the Nameless hath a voice,
By which thou wilt abide, if thou be wise,
As if thou knewest, tho' thou canst not know;
For Knowledge is the swallow on the lake
That sees and stirs the surface-shadow there
But never yet hath dipt into the abysm,
The abysm of all abysms, beneath, within
The blue of sky and sea, the green of earth,
And in the million-millionth of a grain
Which cleft and cleft again for evermore,
And ever vanishing, never vanishes,
To me, my son, more mystic than myself,
Or even than the Nameless is to me.
Yet the imagination not only conceives, it also shapes; and so it is that for Tennyson inner awareness allied with the artistic act as well as with the apprehension of philosophic truth. The source of all true inspiration is within the intuitional consciousness of the individual. This sense of the immateriality of the outward show, of the strangeness and mystery that always lie just under the appearance of things, of the unknowableness of the human mind in its instinctual perceptions is the germinal impulse in virtually all of Tennyson's best poetry. Hence his uneasy conviction that the age with its obsessive materialism could not really supply him the materials with which to work; hence also his recognition [65/66] of the subterfuges that were necessary in order to get Victorian society to listen to his message.
For these reasons Tennyson's genius was most at home when employed on traditional legends of proven narrative and moral interest, which could yet be made exemplificatory of deeper implications for the reader who cared to look below the surface. Two comparatively late poems of this kind best illustrate the author's final aesthetic position. One is "Demeter and Persephone." On first reading, this retelling of the familiar myth of the seasons seems hardly more than a rather tender rendering in elegiac terms of maternal devotion, consonant with the Victorian tendency to idealize domestic relationships. Yet it will be noticed on closer analysis that it is only in the first access of grief, when she thinks of her daughter as irretrievably lost, that Demeter suspends her generative function. Persephone, appearing in dream, explains that her periodic withdrawal from the phenomenal world to the nether region of shadows does not really involve a loss, but is mysteriously necessitated by the process of creation:
The Bright one in the highest
Is brother of the Dark one in the lowest,
And Bright and Dark have sworn that I, the child
Of thee, the great Earth-Mother, thee, the Power
That lifts her buried life from gloom to bloom,
Should be for ever and for evermore
The Bride of Darkness.
When interpreted in this way, "Demeter and Persephone" becomes a symbolic representation of Tennyson's entire poetic career. Beneath his artistic productivity lay dark depths of consciousness on communion with which, rather than on any external stimulus, depended his will to create.
"Tiresias," which Tennyson kept by him for many years before he decided to publish it in 1885, yields insight of a different kind into the poet's dispute with Victorian society. The prophet of the "song-built" city begins by lamenting the decline of his powers: [66/67]
These eyes, now dull, but then so keen to seek
The meanings ambusYd under all they saw,
The flight of birds, the flame of sacrifice,
What omens may foreshadow fate to man
And woman, and the secret of the Gods.
As with Tithonus, Tiresias' suffering is attributable to a vision of unearthly beauty. His punishment, however, entails loss of the faculty to compel belief through his art. The outraged goddess has decreed: "Henceforth be blind, for thou hast seen too much,/ And speak the truth that no man may believe." To his son Tiresias confesses that the vision still survives on the inner eye. The tragedy of his blindness is not that he cannot see what lies outside him, but that he is unable to share with the outer world the clarity of his interior perceptions:
Son, in the hidden world of sight that lives
Behind this darkness, I behold her still,
Beyond all work of those who carve the stone,
Beyond all dreams of Godlike womanhood,
Ineffable beauty, out of whom, at a glance,
And as it were, perforce, upon me flash'd
The power of prophesying — but to me
No power-so chain'd and coupled with the curse
Of blindness and their unbelief who heard
And heard not. . .
So "this power hath workd no good to aught that lives"; and the poet's impotent desire to influence the lives of his contemporaries has left him helpless victim to
The grief for ever born from griefs to be,
The boundless yearning of the prophet's heart —
Like Ulysses and like the Ancient Sage, Tiresias hands over the responsibility to act in society's behalf to less imaginative youth. In so doing he accepts his isolation with its burden of private intuitions. And the reasons which he gives epitomize the choice which the Victorian age sooner or later [67/68] imposed on all its true artists, however earnestly they might seek grounds for compromise:
Virtue must shape itself in deed, and those
Whom weakness or necessity have cramp'd
Within themselves, immerging, each, his urn
In his own well, draws solace as he may.
Last modified 27 July 2015