The Age of Tennyson — Reflections from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poetry
Born in 1804 in Lincolnshire Alfred Lord Tennyson was the fourth child to a total of twelve children born to George Clayton Tennyson, rector of Somersby, who emptied all his frustrations and distress on his family by abusing them. Mental illnesses were prevalent throughout the family and even caused the death of a few of his brothers. As an escape from this general unhappy state, Tennyson started writing and continued to influence the themes in many of his well-known works. He was not even 18 when he published his first collection of poems, Poems by Two Brothers, which included most of his compositions as well as a few of his other brothers’, which was, considering his great virtuosity reflected in those verses, a remarkable achievement for his age. He was excellent at penning short poems, rich in imagery like Tears, Idle Tears, Crossing the Bar, The Charge of the Light Brigade and Break, Break, Break but much of his verse had mythological themes and was influenced by the Romantics. After the death of Wordsworth, he was appointed as the Port Laureate and had found an ardent admirer of his work, in Queen Victoria.
Tears, Idle tears
One of Tennyson’s poems with seemingly little ambiguity, Tears, Idle tears does delve into deeper philosophical ideas of Tennyson; the dolour represents of his own confusion and no exact answers for his emotions. The title itself is contemplation on the nature of tears. Are the tears idle and thus not meaningful or does the fact that the tears are idle, meaning, not triggered by grief that has affected the speaker immediately, be an indication that they are a consequence of deeper, more complex reasons that can not be understood by the rational mind. This explanation would correspond with the fact that he refers to the tears as ‘idle’ at first, but in line three says that they ‘rise in the heart’. There is no obvious reason or occasion for his tears and reacts saying ‘I know not what they mean’. However by the end of the first stanza he realised that it is the longing to relive the past is what which has led to such a dramatic reaction. He started with the first stanza without knowing how it will end.
The second stanza continues with the speaker lamenting over the days that are no more and ironically uses the words sad and fresh to describe the days gone by because in his memory everything has stayed the same and therefore he grieves further. The past is as fresh as the first beam seen glittering on a ship’s sail that carries his friends, dead in body or friendship, more or less consistent with the myth of sea creatures carrying the souls of the dead. Moreover, the metaphor of the ship is later reversed to darken the image of the ship at dusk.
“That sinks with all we love below the verge;
So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more”
The third stanza delves deeper into this darkness, combining it with death. The dark summer dawns are strange to a dying person for whom happy summer days are not a promise of gladness but of gloom. The dying person is more awake and conscious of the sorrow and hopelessness than the “half-awaken’d birds” at dawn. Furthermore, the well-known sound of the birds takes up a sort of strangeness, unfamiliarity or even surrealism.
In the final stanza he’s overcome with sadness and likens his life to death because though he is living in the present he is surrounded in his thoughts by memories that appear greener, happier. The days gone by are a hopeless fancy like the lover that cheats, the one that forgets. It is as deep and unforgettable as one’s first love and just as regrettable for it exists no more.
“Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more.”
The theme of the poem is a regret which at first seems aimless and quickly escalates to something intensely distressful. According to Graham Hough, “The poem gets its power over the feelings from the way that these strong and clearly realised individual sources of sorrow are used to suggest another kind of sorrow, more inevitable and universal.” . He argues that the words ‘death in life’ are of great importance and brings to mind Coleridge’s life-in-death imagery in The Ancient Mariner which symbolises the misère de l’homme sans Dieu — the state of the fallen man who is left with no salvation, having denounced supernatural aid. The absence of any supernatural or Christian imagery complements the general tone of despair. Despair is considered to be the eight deadly sin and therefore deeply demonic (which is suggested in the second stanza with the mention of ‘underworld’). But, on the other hand, Leo Spitzer argues that Hough, in criticising Tennyson, has not considered the very second line which calls his sorrow ‘some divine despair’ and that it could quite literally mean ‘the despair of some God’. The poem follows the conventional verse form by indicating where a line ends and thereby defining and completing the same. However, it is without rhyme because it doesn’t specify a specific emotion or situation with clear boundaries but is about abundant, unmanageable sorrow that won’t let go.
In 1835, James Spedding remarked that Tennyson was “a man always disconnected with the present till it became his past and then he yearns toward it and worships it, but is discontented because it is the past”. Years after penning down Tears, Idle Tears, Tennyson says, “It is what I have always felt, even as a boy, and what, as a boy I called the ‘passion of the past’”.
Break, Break, Break
Much like Tears, Idle Tears , Break, Break, Break contains simple eloquence as well as similar themes and parallel imagery. Break, Break, Break belongs to a collection Tennyson titled Poems, published in 1842. As much as he was a poet of the Victorian period, Tennyson wrote poetry that was more genuine and real as opposed to to older traditions and stricter forms.
In the first stanza, he likens the sea crashing against the stones to his thoughts and emotions. The rocks erode, but it takes eternity for them to go away completely. He believes nobody would understand him and that talking about what goes on in his mind is as useless as the sea’s efforts to break the stones.
In the next bit, Tennyson describes the people of the sea- the fisherman’s boy and the sailor’s lad. He describes their innocence and their care-free attitude towards the world. They speak out what is in their mind without apprehension or fear of judgement. He envies their courage and probably wishes to be able to do the same. Another possibility is that he is slightly scornful about such people who talk without giving their words much thought. As an intellectual, he feels that his words would not be accepted or even heard by common men and this heightens the feeling of isolation building within him.
One may argue that the implications are coarser and slightly more confusing. For instance the observation that the ships that go under the hill are ‘stately’, is irrelevant and suggests that they fulfil their mission, unperturbed and thus, goes against the mood of the poem. The sounds and sensations remain even though the hand and voice are distant and can never return again. This is another cry for the days that will never return.
“But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!”
The last stanza starts once again with the title. If the intent was to mourn the death of a loved one, the idea comes around full circle, with the disturbing thoughts and memories that rose, now reminding him of how they will never come back again. Perhaps, he merely longs for a period in the past that is gone forever and that nobody would listen to his lament because, he is, according to the world, supposed to move on.
Like In Memoriam, this poem is most likely dedicated to Tennyson’s friend Arthur Hallam. The change brought about in his life by hi ‘s friend’s death is extreme but he can do nothing about it due to the irreversibility of the nature of death. The ‘cold, grey stones’ are representative of the dead and of gravestones and thus fit in perfectly with the mood of the poem. He is stricken with grief and finds no joy in the songs of the sailor’s son or the lively shouts of the fisherman’s boy. The word ‘break’ itself, by nature, is a rough sounding word that is repeated thrice to portray the poet’s despondence and indifference to sounds of words that would, in a state of gladness, be considered cacophonous to a poet.
“Modern fame is nothing” said Tennyson to William Allingham. “I’d rather have an acre of land. I shall go down, down! I’m up now. Action and reaction”. Years later during the terrible period of 1914–1918 was when the unofficial works of the dead Laureate were fished out. For an age that demanded of poetry, reality of emotional impulse, Harold Nicholson reduced Tennyson to “a morbid and unhappy mystic… afraid of death and sex and God”. T.S. Eliot boldly called him ‘a great poet’; he saw in him ‘emotion so deeply suppressed’, that resulted in the blackest melancholia, whereas Auden conceded that Tennyson ‘had the finest ear, perhaps, of any English poet’. In Tennyson’s poetry, the public and private worlds are fused. In such a case, criticism must act upon life as well art.
A poet of unique genius, his ideas flow in the current of his melancholic sensibility. The theme of loss appeared early in Tennyson’s poetry as the talisman of imaginative energy. He was one of the most ‘occasional’ of poets; his imagination roar only to his own promptings or to the lure of an event that suggested the subjective drama of loss defeat and disappointment. Tennyson saw the crisis of art and society as a war of values, a matter of conscience. No age of poetry can be called the age of one man with such critical accuracy as the later nineteenth century is, the Age of Tennyson. Much of his work, designed for public performance caused him to get the living world of shops and ships and going to sea, under poetic control. Moreover, he has dealt with philosophy and religion, extensively in his works. Tennyson has done utmost of what could be asked of a poet, not just embracing his deepest, darkest personal thoughts and ideas but also furnished it in the most brilliant natural imagery that his imagination could provide with.
Killham, John. Critical essays on the poetry of Tennyson. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964. Print.