The Tennysonian Philosophy.

From: Literary Sketches (1888)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Swan Sonnenschein Lowrey & Co. 1888 London

The Tennysonian Philosophy.

IT is interesting to contrast the present reputation of a great poet with the hostile criticism to which he was subjected during his previous career. Since the time when Coleridge declared that he “could scarcely scan” some of Tennyson’s verses, full fifty years have passed by, and the Poet Laureate has now obtained a literary eminence and wide-spread popularity such as probably no poet has ever enjoyed in his own lifetime. Almost every line that he now writes is greeted with universal applause, and the unsparing severity of former criticism has been succeeded by the almost servile adulation of a later age.

  Lord Tennyson’s claim to be the first poet of our time is generally based on the ground that he is the representative singer of the generation in which he lives, and that he has appreciated and expressed in his writings, more faithfully and more delicately than any other poet, the thoughts and feelings of his fellow-countrymen. He stands before us less in the light of a great teacher than a great singer; and if the soundness of his philosophical views be at any time called in question, his admirers generally are ready with the answer that the true function of the poet is not to instruct, but to please; not to lead, but to represent the age in which he lives. This may or may not be true as regards the duty of poets in general, but it certainly is not the course that has been followed by Lord Tennyson; it is not the view that he himself has taken of his own duties and capabilities. It would have been better for him and for all of us if he had thought it well to follow the wise example of Gray, and Collins, and Keats, and restrict himself to that art of poetry in which he has so few rivals. For if ever a poet has come near to perfection in his work, Lord Tennyson has done so in those poems where a great but simple thought had to be expressed, and where was no room for the introduction of any controversial matter. For example, in Ulysses we have a splendid representation of the indomitable energy of the will; in the Lotos Eaters of rest; in St. Agnes’ Eve, of purity and resignation; in Rizpah, of horror, and pity, and love. But, unfortunately, the Poet Laureate was not content with this simplicity of subject; he has deliberately descended into the arena of strife, and must be judged accordingly. Indeed, it was so obviously useless to attempt to exonerate him from this criticism that his earlier and more enthusiastic admirers boldly took the bull by the horns and claimed for him the position of a great teacher and thinker.1 It will be found, I fear, that his thoughts, when sifted, are light as chaff, and that his philosophical system is a mixture of opportunism and shallow optimist theories. In his delightful poem of Will Waterproof’s Lyrical Monologue, he has described the process of his own poetic inspiration, and the influence of his Muse:

“Until the charm have power to make
New life-blood warm the bosom,
And barren common-places break
In full and kindly blossom.”

  One could hardly desire a more correct description of Lord Tennyson’s poetical philosophy. It is expressed in language of the fullest and kindliest blossom; but the commonplaces of his thought will be found on investigation to be very barren indeed.

  Let us now proceed to consider the tendency of the Poet Laureate’s teaching on questions of religion, morality, and politics. Lord Tennyson is often claimed as an ally by the orthodox church party; but it may be doubted whether he is at heart a very sound champion of the faith, at any rate on the question of the truth of Christian dogma. It should be noticed that on this subject the assistance he has given to orthodox belief has been less by any outspoken avowal than by hints and suggestions, which imply a sympathetic feeling, but are no guarantee of personal adherence, He gives the Christian the advantage, so to speak, of the best position in his poems; he loves to throw a favourable light on the orthodox portions of the picture and an unfavourable light on the reverse; and thus in an indirect way he has undoubtedly done service to the church. But his attitude is always such as to suggest the idea that he believes Christian doctrine must be upheld less for its own inherent truth, than because it is bound up with some external advantage to mankind. As an instance of this indirect approval, we may refer to the passage in The Two Voices, where the speaker, after long hesitation between the advantages of death or life, is cheered by the sweet and balmy airs of a lovely Sabbath morning.

“Like softened winds that blowing steal,
When meres begin to uncongeal,
The sweet church bells began to peal.
On to God’s house the people prest:
Passing the place where each must rest,
Each entered like a welcome guest.”

  The sight of this solemn scene rescues the would-be suicide from the gloomy depths of his despair. It is a slight touch, but it is characteristic of Lord Tennyson’s narrow and partial delineations of human nature.

  Other examples will readily occur to the mind; perhaps the most striking is to be found in one of his later poems, In the Children’s Hospital. There, among various characters, we have a description of a terrible doctor, with red hair, big voice, big merciless hands, fresh from the surgery-schools of France, and addicted to the worst practices of vivisection, who roughly informs the hospital nurse that one of the children under her charge is dying and will need no more of her care. When she timidly suggests that there is the more need” to seek the Lord Jesus in prayer,” he treats her with brutal scorn;

“Then he muttered half to himself, but I know what I heard him say
‘All very well—but the good Lord Jesus has had his day.’”

  In this passage Lord Tennyson has deliberately gone out of his way to couple disbelief with roughness and brutality, and I cannot imagine anything more disingenuous than to draw a picture which may conceivably be true in itself, but is calculated to suggest an absolutely erroneous inference to the mind. There may be doctors like the one described, devoid of all gentleness and humanity; but it is not their belief or disbelief that has made them so. Gentleness is not an invariable concomitant of Christianity any more than of scepticism.

  We shall come to still worse instances by-and-bye on other questions, but this is no unfair example of the illogical and indirect aid which the Poet Laureate renders now and again to the church party on the subject of Christianity. He never meets the unbeliever face to face as an avowed opponent, but he sneaks behind him and trips him up unawares, or gives him a foul blow “below the belt,” while posing all the time as the impartial and philosophical by-stander who wrote those famous lines (but that was many a year ago),

“There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.”

Such is Lord Tennyson’s attitude with regard to Christianity. But there is another question in which he has taken a far more pronounced part, and has shown himself more and more intolerant and dogmatic in his advancing age; though, unfortunately, here also he has adopted that circuitous and illogical method which I have just noticed. The immortality of the soul is not merely the cardinal belief of the Poet Laureate’s philosophy-in that he would be at one with many of the best and noblest teachers of mankind; but it is the sine quâ non of his morality, the condition without which life is worthless, the criterion by which he passes immutable judgment on the characters of his fellow-men. To illustrate this it will be necessary to touch briefly on three or four of his poems, and first on In Memoriam, the tenderest and noblest of all his works. It is worthy of remark that in this poem, where he himself felt most deeply, he is least intolerant of the opinion of others. As he himself says:—

“If these brief lays, of sorrow born,
Were taken to be such as closed
Grave doubts and answers here proposed,
Then these were such as men might scorn.”

  This is a true and sensible estimate of the philosophical value not only of In Memoriam, but of all Lord Tennyson’s poetry; and had this wise thought been kept in remembrance such a poem as Despair would never have been written, and that ill-starred drama The Promise of May would never have made its brief appearance on the stage. But even in In Memoriam, tender and beautiful as the poem is, we may discover the germs of that fatal fallacy, lately developed to the full in the Poet Laureate’s philosophy, that happiness and morality in this present life are dependent on a belief in a future existence.

“Not only cunning casts in clay:
Let Science prove we are, and then
What matters Science unto men—
At least, to me? I would not stay.

Let him, the wiser man, who springs
Hereafter, up from childhood shape
His action like the greater ape,
But I was born to other things.”

Passing over this astounding misrepresentation of the theory of evolution, let the reader note well the extraordinary idea of “not staying;” for therein is struck the key-note of much of the Tennysonian philosophy. It is indeed sad that a great writer should lend his sanction to the foolish clamour, so often raised by those who cling desperately to some particular form of belief, that unless their special doctrine be true, life would no longer be worth living, and the call of duty would no longer fall with authority on our ears. How different from this cuckoo-cry are the noble words of Frederick Robertson, himself a far firmer believer than Lord Tennyson:—

  “If there be no God and no future state, yet, even then, it is better to be generous than selfish, better to be true than false, better to be brave than to be a coward. Blessed beyond all earthly blessedness is the man who, in the tempestuous darkness of the soul, has dared to hold fast to these venerable landmarks.”2

  This, however, is not the opinion of the Poet Laureate. With him there must be a sure belief in futurity, or there can be no action in the present. Virtue is not her own reward, as we have lately been taught by some mistaken moralists, but, as we learn from the poem entitled Wages, needs

“The glory of going on, and still to be.”

But let me quote Lord Tennyson’s own words:—

“The wages of sin is death: if the wages of virtue be dust,
Would she have heart to endure for the life of the worm or the fly?”

  One would have thought that even under these depressing circumstances a really religious and virtuous man would find much work to do in the world, and many a duty to perform; but virtue, in the gospel according to Lord Tennyson, thinks otherwise. Take away the eternity on which she has set her heart, and—“She will not stay.”

  But if there is some faulty teaching in Wages and In Memoriam, what shall we say when we come to Despair and The Promise of May? In the former of these we have a terrible picture of a hopeless life and attempted suicide; in the latter of a life spent in deliberate vice and heartless libertinism; in both we are given to understand that the evil is the direct consequence of scepticism and unbelief. Can anything be more grossly unfair and misleading than this? No doubt cases may occur where, in a peculiar class of character, loss of belief leads to unhappiness and even ruin; but that can hardly be held to justify a poet or dramatist in taking such individual cases and representing them as a general law. It would be at least equally easy to produce instances where exactly the contrary has occurred, where disbelief in the supernatural has led to a surer morality, a sounder judgment, and an altogether happier estimate of life. But, we know, any stick is good enough to beat a dog with; and, in his crusade against dogs of unbelievers, Lord Tennyson has no scruples as regards his choice of weapons.

  Since morality, according to the Poet Laureate’s teaching, is thus dependent on the holding of certain religious beliefs, we shall not be surprised if we find it taking strange forms in some of the characters which he has delineated in his poems. His treatment of the chief characters in the Idylls of the King, especially at the close of the story, will furnish a remarkable instance of his modus operandi. Anyone who has read Sir Thomas Malory’s History of King Arthur, compiled about the year 1470 from still earlier romances, must have noticed how greatly Lord Tennyson is throughout indebted to the old historian for the subject-matter and even the words of his E pie. But there is one important difference in his version of the Arthurian legend, and that too in the most vital and interesting part-the love of Lancelot and Guinevere. In the old story, though the fatal results of this guilty love are narrated sternly and unsparingly, the fact is never lost sight of that the lovers are true to each other to the bitter end; it is Lancelot and not the King who visits Guinevere in the sanctuary; it is Lancelot who, after the Queen’s death, bears her body from Almesbury to its resting-place at Glastonbury; it is Lancelot who lingers and agonizes over her tomb, until death relieves him from his sorrow, and “the angels heave up Sir Lancelot towards heaven, and the gates of heaven open against him.” Nothing can exceed the simple pathos and dignity of the story as thus told by the ancient historian, and those who know and love it cannot readily forgive Lord Tennyson for the alterations he has thought fit to introduce, however beautiful the language, in his Idyll Guinevere. The sudden repentance of the Queen; the discovery that Arthur, not Lancelot, is her own true lord; the one hope to be the mate of Arthur “hereafter in the heavens”—all this is very gratifying to the cheap and easy-going morality of the nineteenth century, but it is very untrue to nature, and very unlike the work of a great teacher.

  When we come to consider the poems in which Lord Tennyson treats of social subjects we shall find that here, even less than in religious questions, is he entitled to the position of a leader of thought. Perhaps the theme which he has handled most powerfully is the iniquity of the loveless marriages of fashionable life, the “woman-markets of the west.” In at least two poems this is the direct cause of the tragic ending, and in another and greater one it is closely connected with it. All readers must admire the noble scorn and indignation which are the keynote of Aylmer’s Field and the earlier Locksley Hall, and in few other poems can one find such splendour of language and imagery. Yet the mingled weakness and violence of Leolin in Aylmer’s Field disgust us almost as much as the amazing folly and selfishness of the hero of Locksley Hall, and in both poems the moral effect, which might otherwise have been very great, is ruined by the utterly foolish and immoral bearing of the most important character. It is very interesting to compare Locksley Hall with Mr. Browning’s The Worst of It and Mr. Swinburne’s The Triumph of Time. In all these poems we find the same subject-the character of a disappointed lover; but while Mr. Browning’s and Mr. Swinburne’s heroes bear their sorrows with noble and unselfish magnanimity, we find in Mr. Tennyson’s hero such vulgar selfishness and almost brutal violence as make the poem unspeakably inferior in dignity and moral effect.

  The subject of Maud is, of course, a much wider and deeper one, but its defects are substantially the same. The surpassing charm of this poem ought not to blind our eyes to the strange moral blemishes which are the more monstrous and unnatural owing to the beauty of their surroundings. Maud herself is indeed eminently pure and faultless, but the character of her lover is so drawn as to make him almost contemptible in the eyes of the reader. No doubt his character was meant to be that of a selfish solitary, redeemed by love and sorrow to a sense of our common human fellowship; but, unfortunately for the moral of the poem, the hero’s conduct is even more insane at the end than the beginning. The duel which brings about the final catastrophe could not have taken place but for his own wicked pride and childish folly; yet, amidst all his subsequent ravings, we never find a trace of true repentance or remorse. Then, again, the whole poem is saturated with “Jingoism” of the worst description, which reaches its culminating point when it is discovered that the one event which can comfort the bereaved lover, and restore him to a sphere of usefulness and activity, is—the Crimean war! What are we to think of the moral teaching of a writer who was so carried away by the bellicose spirit of the time as to use all the resources of his art and poetical skill to vilify peace and glorify war?

  I should like to remark, before leaving this part of our subject, that the characters drawn by Lord Tennyson are, with few exceptions, conspicuous for some grave defect, some moral flaw, which is the more fatal because it is unintentional on the part of the author. For of all faults to which a teacher of morality is liable, the worst is obviously that of not knowing whether he is describing what is moral or the contrary. If we study the Tennysonian characters, whether it be the hero of Maud, rushing off to the wars to kill other people because he has been unfortunate in his domestic career; or the hero of Locksley Hall, departing “seaward,” and invoking a thunderbolt on his Amy’s residence; or Leolin, in Aylmer’s Field, committing suicide on the news of Edith’s death; or the nurse in The Children’s Hospital passionately asserting that she could not serve in the wards unless Christianity were true; we shall recognise in all of them the same moral defect, the same lack of any solid faith and well-founded enthusiasm, such as alone can enable a man to fight the battle of life for the sake of virtue itself and without reference to any selfish ulterior consideration. They all mean well; but they are all subject to the same unfortunate weakness before alluded to, that, under the stress of trial or disappointment, they cannot stay.

  On the other hand, there is another class of characters, of a less violent and unreasonable type (and these are distinctly held up for our admiration), in which we shall find defects which, if not so glaring, are at least as inveterate and dangerous. How is it that in the Arthurian Idylls the sympathy of the reader is rather with the erring Lancelot then the blameless King? Surely because in the character of Arthur there is a deep blot of selfishness and unctuous self-approval. That long sermon which he pronounces over the prostrate Guinevere could hardly have been uttered by a man of deep and tender feeling; a true-hearted husband could hardly sum up his wife’s offences with the sang froid of a judge. The purity of Arthur is what Carlyle calls “the purity of dead dry sand; “and after reading his story one feels more strongly than ever that “best men are often moulded out of faults,” and that the blameless Arthur is not one of these.

  In Enoch Arden, we have, perhaps, the most truly heroic of all Mr. Tennyson’s heroes, though I cannot agree with the critics who would regard him as a similar conception to the Prometheus of Æschylus or Shelley.3 Yet the plot of the story, though the intent is pure, is strangely unfortunate in its conclusion. The noble endurance and self-sacrifice of Enoch is, as far as Annie’s peace of mind is concerned, spoiled and stultified by the result. The object of communicating the news of Enoch’s death is to relieve Annie’s mind of the fear that he may still be living; yet what would be the state of mind of a wife who learned, not that her former husband had long been dead, as she had hoped and been assured, but that his funeral was even now to take place; that he had been dwelling for a year in the same village as herself, and haunting her window like a ghost? It seems to be overlooked that there could be nothing but torture in such news as this, and that there is an unpardonable artistic blemish in leaving the story in such a helplessly morbid position.

  If we turn to the political teaching of Lord Tennyson, we shall find in it little more than a mild optimism, and an attempt to strike the golden mean by avoiding “the falsehood of extremes.”

“Ah yet, tho’ all the world forsake,
Tho’ fortune clip my wings,
I will not cramp my heart, nor take
Half views of men and things,
Let Whig and Tory stir their blood;
There must be stormy weather;
But for some true result of good
All parties work together.”

  The wisdom of such a doctrine is apparent rather than real; for history surely teaches us that truth does not always, or of necessity, lie between two extremes; there have been great questions as of Peace or War, Liberty or Slavery, where one party has been wholly and entirely in the right, and the other party wholly and entirely in the wrong. There are some great principles, even in politics, which one must accept and believe altogether, or not at all, and which one cannot afford to calculate or compromise. To be for ever straining to strike the balance between rival parties, and to assume a position of philosophic impartiality, is the characteristic of one who follows and does not lead the age, the mark of political scepticism rather than political wisdom.

  In short, the whole philosophy of Lord Tennyson’s writings is that of a “representative” and not an original poet. One may find in his works the current theories and speculations of the age, stated with marvellous force and unexampled felicity of expression, but the man who, amid the din of conflicting creeds, seeks for moral or religious guidance and support, such as thousands have sought and found in the teaching of Carlyle and Browning and Ruskin, will look in vain for such assistance in the writings of the Poet Laureate.

“The man of science himself is fonder of glory and vain;
An eye well practised in nature, a spirit bounded and poor;
The passionate heart of the poet is whirl’d into folly and vice.
I would not marvel at either, but keep a temperate brain.”

  Such seems to be the leading and ever-present idea of the Tennysonian philosophy. But in this endeavour it may be that something more is lost than is gained, for it is sometimes forgotten that the passionate hearts of poets are whirled into other things besides folly and vice, such things as noble enthusiasm, unshaken faith in mankind, and uncompromising love of the good. However temperate the brain may be, no system of mild optimism, expressed in however magnificent language, can be weighed in the balance against the wiser and truer, though more passionate, utterances of those poets who are the real teachers of mankind.

  After what we have seen of the Poet Laureate’s opinions, religious, social, and political, I do not think we can justly be surprised at his having become a member of the House of Lords. He was always a half-hearted Liberal in his youth; and in his old age he has become more and more illiberal and dogmatic. He cannot correctly be called a “Lost Leader,” for he never was a leader of thought, certainly not of advanced thought; yet, in one sense, he has done battle for the party of progress, for all true poets, apart from their teaching, must in some degree aid the great cause. And, whatever we may think of Lord Tennyson’s philosophical teaching, we must all alike admire and revere his grand poetical gifts; indeed it is just because we do so revere them, because we have known his poems from childhood, and have conned them over and over till they have become almost a part of our being, it is precisely for this reason that we deplore the intolerant tone of his later writings and the final hallucination which has made him deem it expedient to prefix to the name of Alfred Tennyson an empty and inglorious title.

  Yet it should be remembered that this last act, which excited such widespread surprise among almost all classes of Englishmen, was nothing more than the culminating point of a process which had long been going on. It cannot be denied that during the last ten years the whole weight of the Poet Laureate’s influence has been thrown more and more in favour of the aristocratic and reactionary party; while professing to stand aloof from the troubled element of politics, he has, for all practical purposes, done all that he could to arrest the march of free thought, and to hinder the awakening of the people. The bigoted and intolerant tone of many of his late poems, especially the sequel to Locksley Hall, has caused sorrow and disappointment to all true-hearted reformers, and is the more deplorable and inconsistent since it comes from one who formerly posed as himself a champion of independent thought and a lover of liberty. But, after all, it is perhaps better that reformers should now have in Lord Tennyson a professed opponent rather than a lukewarm friend; and, in spite of his great and deserved reputation as a poet, his loss to the cause of liberty will be found to be less serious than might at first sight be imagined. For, while we fully admit the greatness of his purely poetical powers, we have no hesitation in asserting that the thought which runs through his writings is as feeble as the expression is beautiful. His philosophy, if such it can be called, was false and hollow from the beginning, and has become more and more unscientific with increasing age and intolerance.

1 Three Great Teachers of our Age, Smith and Elder, 1865.
2 Address to Brighton working men.
3 Cf. Three Great Teachers of our Age. “Enoch Arden is, in fact, the Promethean poem of the day.”

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