here are, of course, other forms and other developments in Tennyson. It is a given that he wrote some extraordinarily interesting poems and some quite uninteresting ones, not that many would agree on which are which. It is not important to draw exact lines, though it is important to attempt an explanation of why poems like "The Spinster's Sweet-Arts" or "English Warsong" affect its as they do: with irritation or not at all. Most of these minor poems are striking for their simplicity, their grim single-mindedness and relentless narrowing of emotion and focus. They stand in marked contrast to the complexity, suggestiveness, and expansiveness of the other poems. One way to think of them is as a relaxation from the great tensions of irony and the difficult sort of comedy Tennyson wrote. It may seem odd to speak of "tensions" being produced in this way, but we have seen for some time that Tennyson was caught between the worlds of Pride and Prejudice and Hyperion, between the practical, novelistic world and the visionary, mythical world. The tension I am discussing, though not coincident with the other, ties over it and surely makes it understandable that simple poetic reductions might occasionally be inevitable. In any event, those poem which seem to me reductive fall into three [12/13] groups: the political and public poems, the domestic idyls, and the humorous and dialect poems. Some of these poems are excellent in their way, but they do not, I think, constitute the major part of Tennyson's achievement, nor do they contribute a great deal to his present reputation.
When Tennyson's first child died at birth, the poet wrote to John Forster, describing the event with his strange and characteristic mixture of the naïve and the sophisticated, the immediate and the detached:
The nurse dressed up the little body in pure white. He was a grand massive manchild, noble brow and hands, which he had clenched in his determination to be born. Had he lived, the doctor said he would have been lusty and healthy, but somehow he got strangled. I kissed his poor pale hands and came away and they buried him last night in Twickenham churchyard. [Charles Tennyson, p. 262]
Notice how Tennyson uses the typical locutions associated with nineteenth-century sentimentality — "the little body," "pure white," "poor pale hands — while suggesting the very opposite of sentimentality. The "core of toughness" always discernible in Tennyson's best poetry here controls and mutes the potential sentimentality by encasing it in accents of reserve and detachment. The bleak and naked quality of "but somehow he got strangled" or "they buried him last night in Twickenham churchyard," the staccato sentences, and the use of coordinations that simply string statements together, give the impression of artlessness, the refusal to rearrange, subordinate, and heighten — in fact, to interpret at all. The major impression is that of inexplicable awfulness temporarily mastered, of unbearable grief not overcome but suspended. The mixture of tones, in other words, provides a subtle and moving irony.
One way to look at the domestic idyls, the humorous poems, and the political poems is in terms of a dislocation of this ironic conjunction. The "core of toughness" is exaggerated into the uncontrolled energy and exhibitionistic release of the political poems; the tenderness and sentimentality become the humorous [13/14] poems or the static and hazy idyls of the hearth. All represent a relaxation from the strain and difficulty of the ironic or comic modes one finds in the major poetry. One notices, for instance, that Tennyson seemed to find it necessary to write the domestic idyls only during periods when his major poems were ironic in form. The domestic idyls begin to appear in the 1830 volume, there are some dozen of them in the Poems of 1842, and he begins writing them again in about 1860, just one year after the publication of the first installment of Idylls of the King. During the comic period, between The Princess and Maud, these poems virtually disappear. There is one exception: "The Brook" appeared in the Maud volume of 1853. Them were one or two, added to later editions of the 1842 poem too, but except for "The Brook," none was written in the "comic period," ie. between The Princess and Maud. There was apparently no need then for this therapeutic exercise, but they increase in direct proportion to the seriousness and dominance of his ironic vision.
Setting aside these minor poems, then, we are left with the poems that constitute Tennyson's claim to our attention, along with some revealing and interesting preliminary work. From The Devil and the Lady to Idylls of the King, the poet worked with irony and comedy, testing, reordering, and trying new combinations in an attempt to find an adequate form. In one of those irresponsible but penetrating remarks with which W. H. Auden filled the famous introduction to his edition of Tennyson's poems, he calls Tennyson "the great English poet of the Nursery." There is not much truth in this, but there is some. Tennyson's poetry hardly seems to "deal with human emotions in their most primitive states," (Auden, p. xvi) but it does express our most fundamental plights and hopes with an intensity and honesty that only a half-asleep Auden would ever call "stupid."
Last modified 28 March 2001