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It would be difficult to overestimate the anxiety with which lovers of literature have awaited Lord Tennyson's biography of his illustrious father. If this book, so slowly prepared, had proved a failure, the fact would have been almost a public calamity. Such an opportunity of laying the foundations of a history of imaginative literature in the Victorian Age would never occur again, while the Letters of Matthew Arnold and the Life of Robert Browning had proved to us that disappointment might follow on the best possible intentions of a biographer. One's first duty, therefore, in speaking about the massive memoir of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, just published by his son Hallam, is to allay all fears of this kind. It is possible to carp at the arrangement of the parts of this book, at the conduct of its materials ; it is possible to point to minor issues where the critic may be allowed to find fault with the art of the biographer. But in the main, all fault-finding must be borne down by the extraordipary wealth and fulness of the treasure prodaced. When a lucky bag is opened, and a cataract of the most exquisite jewels pours from it, it is absurd, on the spot, to draw attention to questionable taste in some of the settings. For the moment we can but gape in pleased excitement at the unexpected richness of the gift. VOL. CLXV.-NO. 492.
33 Oopyright, 1897, by THE NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW PUBLISHING COMPANY, All rights roserved,
“Unexpected," I have allowed myself to say, for no one, I suppose, had any premonition of the variety and splendor of the material at Lord Tennyson's disposal. We knew that his father had lived a very sequestered existence, that he had taken no part in public affairs, that he had been a recluse and a saunterer all his days. External curiosity had examined every published record. In various volumes, of which Mr. Arthur Waugh's graceful and accomplished critical biography was the best, a mosaic of the mild events and emotions of the poet's outward career had been presented to us. It seemed impossible that there could be very much more to be said. There is nothing to be recorded about the career of a Cedar of Lebanon. The immobile grandeur of Tennyson in isolation seemed to preclude any excitement in the actual story of his life. All this proves, most happily, to have been an error. Lord Tennyson is the possessor of copious records and illustrations of the inward, mental life-records which exceed in volume those which we possess of any other poet of the importance of Tennyson. He enables us to look behind the curtain, to see the artist at work, and it is this which raises the biography to a rank in the first order of such writing.
Before we glance at the composition of the poet's character, a reflection may be permitted on the general impression which the life gives us. We are conscious in it of a singular slowness of progression. A sort of premonition of great length of days seems to have given the vital forces of Tennyson a leisurely method of advance. In this he resembles Dante, and still more Milton, who were not afraid of “wasting their time,” but could be silent long, and wait in patience for the heavenly spark to fall. By the side of poets fore-doomed to early death, such as Shelley and Kcats, in their rushing passion of utterance, Tennyson and Milton are positive tardigrades. This involves a curious question, this precipitancy being apparently the sign, though of course a wholly unconscious sign, of a sapped vitality. But there have been cases of apparent hurry in those who had a vast lifetime ahead of them. In particular, in Robert Browning, who, on the last occasion on which I saw him, not long before his death, surveying his long and over-copious poetical career, lamented to me the abundance of his work, and added, "I was always too much afraid of wasting my time." It was characteristic of Tennyson that he had the
fortitude, and the self-support, needful to the employment of long periods in apparent entire idleness, these being really stretches of invaluable incubating meditation.
The extension and serenity of Tennyson's career give his memoir a singular aspect of solidity. At the very foundation of the feverish, shallow “ literary life" of the last sixty years there is seen to extend this solid stratum of pure and austere imaginative art. From end to end of the reign, whatever there may happen to be above, there is Tennyson below, there is this one man, of incomparable distinction, living his life coolly, noiselessly, and persistently. As I put down the second of these volumes, a line by the old Platonist, Henry More, came suddenly to my memory :
“Ourselves live most, when most we feed our central fire." If this be true, no one has, in our age, lived more than the dreamy hermit of Farringford, for certainly no one has fed his central fire more sedulously. And this, it appears to me, is the secret of the strange fascination of this book. It is a record, so full as perhaps has never before been given to the world, of the growth and progress of the mind of a great imaginative artist.
The reader will naturally inquire what is the most important of the new features of an external kind which are added to our portrait of the poet. The answer must certainly be the revelation of the crisis, hitherto concealed with absolute success, which threatened, in 1844, to overwhelm his health and his material existence. Leaving the consideration of this for a moment, we may briefly refer to the interesting fulness in which the home-life in childhood at Somersby, already partly known to us, is detailed. The Cambridge period, 1828–31, is still but faintly defined for us in a few pages. The letters written by the poet to Arthur Hallam were all destroyed by the father of the latter, an inestimable loss to us. Those who were at college with Tennyson have almost wholly passed away, and little of the history of his mind in those important years is preserved. To the anecdotes and impressions collected by Lord Tennyson, I may perhaps be permitted to add one of some interest, which I think is new. The venerable Master of Trinity, Dr. Thompson, told me that on the occasion when he first saw Tennyson, I suppose in 1828,
the undergraduates were trooping in to dinner in Hall, and at the door he observed a very tall lad leaning against the doorway and
hesitating to enter, his lustrous eyes like those of a frightened animal. Dr. Thompson said that he could recall, after sixty years, this sudden picture to his mind's eye with complete distinctness, and that he was struck from this first moment by the magic of the face. Some of the phrases Lord Tennyson records for the first time are very interesting. Of a hasty speech the young poet remarked, “ That's the swift decision of one who sees only half the truth," and of a certain person," There's a want of central dignity in him.”
It is probable that the inner life was progressivg in silence during these undergraduate days, in which Tennyson seems to have awakened little or no interest in the minds of his elders and teachers, and a sort of inarticulate enthusiasm in those of a few select contemporaries. Unfortunately, his Cambridge letters appear to be lost.
One fragment of a somewhat alembicated epistle to an aunt>"I wish to Heaven I had Prince Hussain's fairy carpet to transport me along the deeps of air to your coterie "-seems to be the only scrap of his correspondence from Cambridge which his biographer has been able to discover. He sat “owl-like and solitary” in his rooms, and they were not in college. To myself, the most luminous touch is found in a story that Whewell, his tutor, suddenly called out in class, “Mr. Tennyson, what's the compound interest of a penny put out at the Christian era up to the present time?” with the result of making the unwilling young mathematician swim up out of what proved to be the entrancing depths of Virgil. I observe that Lord Tennyson mentions the excellent though irregular classical training which his father and his uncles had received from Dr. Tennyson at Somersby. In illustration of this, perhaps I may mention here that the poet told me that before he went up to matriculate at Trinity, his father insisted on hearing him recite by heart the entire four books of the Odes of Horace, an ordeal through which he satisfactorily passed on successive mornings in the rector's study.
The romantic expedition of certain Cambridge undergraduates to Spain, in 1830, in aid of the insurgents under Torrijos, remains shrouded in the deepest mystery. Lord Tennyson rather oddly remarks, “No further information upon this business has been preserved,” and we are left to gather that, for some reason or other, his father was not inclined
to talk about it in after-years. It was a serious matter : one of the young English enthusiasts—Boyd-was caught by the Spaniards and shot on the Esplanade of Malaga. On the imagination of Tennyson, whatever may have happened to him, it is certain that the gorges and cataracts of the Pyrenees laid an impress which it never lost, and which frequently appears in his writings. Moreover, in this wild expedition, and in the midst of breakneck adventures, he wrote part, at least, of his exquisite poem of “Enone."
When the undergraduate days are closed the new light thrown on the evolution of Tennyson's character becomes at once more vivid. The sudden and terrible grief of losing Arthur Hallam is seen to have been critical in the emotional career of the poet, but it is found to be a fable that it paralyzed his nervous energy. A friend writes early in 1834: “ Alfred, although much broken in spirits, is yet able to divert his thoughts from gloomy brooding, and keep his mind in activity.” The first artistic production of this period of overwhelming sorrow was, as we now learn, “The Two Voices," which originally bore the gloomier title, “Thoughts of a Suicide.” From this remarkable poem, by far the most serious that the poet had yet been inspired to write, Lord Tennyson quotes a MS. stanza cancelled by his father, not for any weakness of execution, but from its dismal excess; it comes after “under earth":
“From when his baby pulses beat
To when his hands in their last heat
The entire record of the effect of the loss of his exquisite friend upon the temperament of Tennyson, the modification of his mental attitude which ensued, the gradual growth of the poem which eventually became “ In Memoriam," and the severe selftuition in solitude at Sornersby, all combine to form a chapter of equal novelty and importance which we can do no more here than indicate.
The material conditions under which Tennyson lived in his early years have, until now, been carefully concealed from the world. His son, with a proper frankness, makes no further secret of the story, and it is of an extraordinary interest. Each of the children of the old rector of Somersby had, it seems, a little patrimony. As far as Alfred was concerned, it was just enough