[This was already Dallas's third notice in The Times of a volume of verse by the Poet Laureate. Tennyson's latest collection of sixteen lyrics was reviewed in almost six columns divided into two parts, the first quoting extensively from the new poems and the second discussing the Poet Laureate's status more generally; the extracts here represent the openings of each of the two parts. - Graham Law]

Tennyson's New Poems

Decorated initial I

n these times, when satirists tell us that poetry has died out, and that the most unsaleable of wares is a volume of poems, the Laureate issues a little book which, although this is for publishers the dead season of the year, goes off like a prairie on fire. Thousands on thousands of copies of it are now in circulation over all England. The young ones of our families rush to Tennyson as the god of their idolatry; the middle-aged, less enthusiastic, find that he is the only living poet whom they care for: and the old folks, although they scarcely understand him, and have some doubts as to his methods, are anxious to witness this new appearance of one who occupies a front place in modern literature. We reserve any criticism which we may have to offer on the long-expected work till another opportunity, but this need not prevent us from at once satisfying the curiosity of readers by giving them a short description and some specimens of it. The volume is tolerably well described in, the American advertisements as Idylls of the Hearth, a title under which it was at one time supposed that it would appear in this country. We refer to this title as well enough indicating a homeliness of subject and of treatment which stands in contrast to the heroic outlines of the Idylls of the King. Two of these domestic Idylls, one called Enoch Arden, the other Aylmer's Field, make up more than half of the volume. The former is the story of unknown sin, one of those tragedies which the Greek mind loved to dwell upon, and look into. Greek tragedy revolves in two cycles around the tale of Troy and the tale of Thebes. About that tale of Thebes - how Oedipus unknown to himself came to murder his father and marry his mother - heaps of tragedies have been written. Christian art on the other hand has avoided the questions raised by the fact of unknown or unconscious guilt, and Mr. Tennyson, in the first of his tales, touches it with a light hand. Enoch Arden is the story of a woman who commits bigamy without knowing it, the name of the tale being derived from the name of her first husband, who, having lived abroad as a sort of Robinson Crusoe, on a far away island, for about a dozen years, comes home an old broken man to find his wife the wife of another, his old schoolfellow Philip Ray. . . . [I 9a]

Enoch Arden's Despair drawn by Arthur Hughes; engraved by The Dalziels. 1866. [Click on the image for more information.]

The contents of Mr. Tennyson's new volume must now be pretty well known to the vast majority of his English readers. It is said that about 20,000 copies of it have been sold; and those who have not looked into the volume itself have had ample opportunities of becoming acquainted with it through the many and lengthy quotations which have appeared in this and other journals. As we now rise from the feast of good things provided by the Laureate, each man asks his neighbour what he thinks of it. Of course everyone indicates his pleasure in some little phrase peculiar to himself; but virtually all the opinions and verdicts which are pronounced resolve themselves into a statement similar to the answer which comes uppermost when one is asked to taste good old wine. "This is 1820 port," says the host, "tell me what you think of it." The guest answers that it is the true stuff - it is 1820 port. So all we hear about this new volume is that it is Tennyson. The lowest formula of thought is that A is A; the highest formula of theology is expressed in the phrase of the Mahommedans that Allah is Allah; and from causes which we shall presently try to explain, criticism on the greatest of living poets rarely gets beyond the formula that Tennyson is Tennyson. That, no doubt, is saying a great deal, but it is a great deal only to the initiated - to those who are within the circuit of his influence. To outsiders who know him not and understand him not, it indicates nothing but the greatness of his influence within a certain sphere.

The intellectual predominance of Mr. Tennyson just now in the world of poetry is a fact which must strike the most heedless observer, and which, because it is so obvious, is scarcely enough thought over. Our singing birds were perhaps never more plenteous than in these days. In all the booksellers' windows they are warbling most lustily - some of them endowed with rare notes. We have Browning, Coventry Patmore, Matthew Arnold, Aytoun, Bulwer Lytton, Sydney Dobell, Alexander Smith, Charles Mackay, Longfellow, Owen Meredith, Worsley, Thomas Woolner, Miss Ingelow, and many more whom, like Lord Houghton, it would be a pleasure to remember if they came before the public more distinctively and continuously as poets. Now, anybody who knows the writings of these men must have seen that in their several volumes there is an enormous expenditure of thought - deep and original thought, too, passionate thought, graceful thought, expressed not seldom with all the subtlety and force of which the language is capable. Amid this great chorus of poets the solo of Mr. Tennyson rises high and clear and unmistakable. There has been no doubt about it since the publication of the Idylls of the King. He overshadows the whole realm of song. Almost all the contemporary poets show signs of his influence over them, and not one of them has a chance of being duly heard in his presence. The public ear has been so trained to the Tennysonian note that, on the one hand, those who do not sing in unison with it are not relished, and, on the other hand, those who do are condemned as echoes. There is thus fast rising to view in the present century a phenomenon similar to one which marks the last - a poetical monarchy. . . . But the question suggests itself - Is a despotism of any kind good in literature? All honour to Mr. Tennyson that he has achieved this position of standing among us without a rival; and we do not mean to detract from that honour in asking whether the fact of its existence is for us a good sign. We accept the fact without hesitation; but we accept it in the full knowledge that it may be attended with consequences of doubtful advantage. . . . [II 4a]

Links to Related Material


[Dallas, Eneas Sweetland]. "Tennyson's New Poems," The Times (Parts I & II; 17 & 25 August 1864): 9a-c & 4a-d. [Review of Alfred Tennyson, Enoch Arden>, Etc., London: Moxon, 1864.]

Created 5 February 2024