[The follow passages appear in Stopford A. Brooke's Life and Letters (1865). George P. Landow, Professor of English and the History of Art, Brown University, has scanned it from the text of the 1902 edition (see bibliography) and formatted it in HTML.]
Tennyson's "Vision of Sin"
Tennyson's 'Vision of Sin,' too mystical for most people, has long been to me the shadowing of an awful truth : and the way in which high feelings subside into the despair of self, or scorn of others, is one of the most terrible facts of our humanity. I have seen how moral wreck and ruin here and hereafter may tremble upon the destiny of a single individual heart, and how, if such a one heart should fall into callousness or sin or recklessness, personal goodness would cease to be a matter of care ; nay, dreadful to say, might become loathsome, as implying superiority to that other, and then there would be nothing left but plunge after plunge into degradation and vileness. So it is that feelings in themselves not ungenerous may become the very ministers and railroads which smooth the way for evil. At least, this is the utterance of the deepest thought on and result of what I have seen in life. It is expressed, perhaps, mystically, as it were, afar off, in indefinite and abstract terms, but it is no abstraction or vague dream. [No. 94, p. 222]
Robertson defends In Memoriam
Your questions about Eternity and a Future State puzzle me. Time is but (to us) the succession of ideas, long or short, as they are few or many; and eternity, as we use the word, means nothing more than the endlessness of this succession. The distinction made by religious people between Eternity and Time, is an unthinking one. Eternity seems to^me a word expressive of a negation; it does but deny a termination to that mental state which we call time, for time is a subjective thing; existing that is, in us, not externally to us — a mode of our being. Do you remember that little book, 'The Stars and the Earth?' It made very comprehensible how time is merely dependent upon our limitations, and how to an unlimited being there must be no time — how, in short, the annihilation of the sense of space would be the annihilation of the idea of time. As to what our being in a future state shall be, what its enjoyments, or whether the affections here shall be those there, and whether they shall be, as here, mutable or progressive, I confess myself utterly without a clue to decide. To my mind and heart, the most satisfactory things that have been ever said on the future state are contained in the 'In Memoriam.' By the bye, The Times has attacked the Poem; allowed it much merit, but criticised severely. Part of the criticism is just, and part miserably small. The use of such antiquated words as 'Burgeon,' 'Gnarr,' may be objectionable. Be it so. Well, two words in a poem are not quite fatal to a claim of genius. The charge of irreverence is utterly false —
And dear as sacramental wine * [* The lines have been altered and not improved :
'And dear to me as sacred wine,* &c. — ED.]
To dying lips, is all he said —
The reviewer is very severe on this. But does human friendship convey no grace of God to the soul? Do holiest remembrances of God's saintliest reveal nothing of God? If they do, how exquisite here the word 'sacramental' is, as applied to them. Oh, most foolish Thunderer! Then he is very merry about the shadow waiting for the keys 'to cloke me from my proper scorn,' talks of Hobbs and locks unpickable. Blind beetle! the shadow, death, has been identified in a previous page; the reader is in possession of the metaphor. Tennyson prays that he may be hidden in "this shadow from his own scorn before he — 'forgets,' I think, for I have not the passage before me. The reviewer objects to the word 'cloke,' because shadows do not cloke. Nor does light clothe; but if the poor man had read 'robed in light,' he would have thought it quite correct, because it is a common expression. Another —
That each who seems a separate whole
Should move his rounds, and fusing all
The skirts of self again, should fall,
Remerging in the general soul.
'Of the two mysteries, the shadow with the cloke is probably the easier;' so says the reviewer, who, in this, as well as other places, evidently copies almost whole sentences from Macaulay's castigation of Robert Montgomery; but this critic is not a Macaulay. Now to the passage. The subject is the possibility of the loss of personal consciousness in the hereafter, and of being resolved into the consciousness of the universe. Possibly the unhappy wight did not know that this is a theory largely held by foreign metaphysicians. It is quite clear that he never read the deep, wondrous Hindoo mythology, at the very root of which this conception lies. The 'skirts of self' are simply the outskirts of individuality — that which marks off the conscious Entity from the All — an expression which requires thought, no doubt; but, then, the theory which he is opposing is not quite as easy as the articles of the daily newspapers, with which this gentleman is familiar; and I do not see why Mr. Tennyson is to be expected to make the statement of it intelligible at first reading to a penny-a-liner. Then comes the criticism about the whole being exaggerated, and expressed sometimes in terms of amatory fondness. Exaggeration is, of course, to be tried? by the affections of a paid literateur or politician!
A statist art thou, in the van
Of public conflicts trained and bred
First learn to love one living man,
Then mayst thou think upon the dead.
Of course it is exaggerated love to those who feel feebly. Then, as to the amatory tenderness : this, too, is ignorance of human nature; the friendship of a schoolboy is as full of tenderness, and jealousy, and passionateness, as- even love itself. I remember my own affection for G. R. M. How my heart beat at seeing him ; how the consciousness of his listening while I was at reading or translating annihilated the presence of the master; how I fought for him; how, to rescue him at prisoners' base, turned the effect of mere play into a ferocious determination, as if the captivity were real; how my blood crept cold with delight when he came to rescue me, or when he praised me. And this miserable quill-driver, in the very spirit of flunkeyism, calls this poem exaggerated, because all the poetry of the affections is made ludicrous by remembering that this Amaryllis was a barrister at the Chancery bar. If the Chancery bar, or any other accident of a man's environment, destroys the real poetry of life, then the human soul has no worth but that which comes from its trappings — an idea which I reckon about the most decisive proof of a vulgar soul which can be found. As to the tenderness, too, he is obliged to include Shakspeare in the accusation. Now, it may be a very presumptuous thing to say, but it is just conceivable that Shakspeare knew as much about what is human and true, and what is the true mode of expressing it in words, as this writer. [No. 122, pp. 230-31]
Brooke, Stopford A. Life and Letters of Fred[erick]. W. Robertson, M. A., Incumbent of Trinity Chapel, Brighton, 1847-53. People's Edition. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co., 1902.
Last modified 16 July 2006