At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: October 15, 1892


       My Dear Francesca,—You will ere this have heard of the death of Tennyson. I know how profoundly this will affect you, with what a sense of loss, and the regret that follows when we know that a great force has finally ceased. We have that feeling of satisfaction, too, at the rounding and due fulfilment of a perfect career, and, as a reaper who finishes his work, we have seen him at sundown collecting the last gleanings and going joyfully home, "carrying his sheaves with him." And what a glorious harvest his has been! From the commencement how individual was his utterance, how perfectly clear and sincere. Although in those first poems you can detect sometimes faint echoes of Keats and Milton, yet his accent was emphatically his own. He may have caught from Wordsworth that desire for simplicity in narrative which we find completed in "Dora" or "The Gardener's Daughter," but how different is the actual result from the simplicity of his predecessor! He was the fountain-head of nearly all the main streams of poetic expression in his own age. In him we find the germs of the school in which Morris and Rossetti were the leaders, Matthew Arnold could not escape his influence, nor Coventry Patmore, nor anyone who has written verse since the year 1832, when "The Lady of Shallot," "Oenone" and "The Palace of Art" first saw the light. In fact no poet has ever influenced the style and aims of his contemporaries to such an extent. And his influence was all for good. In the mere technique of his art he set a standard which raised the level of the verse of his time and which made every writer strive for a similar perfection. If it was Keats' object to "load every rift of his subject with ore," it was Tennyson's to make every line ring like pure gold; and, if absolute success were not impossible for mortals, it might be said absolutely that he had succeeded. And his generation came panting after him, lured on by that style which seemed so easily perfect, by that diction which seemed so simply pure. But both were his own, and, although he has had imitators, he has had no approach of a rival. He had a way of transfiguring the common incidents and occupations of every-day life, making them melt and glow, as it were, in the heat of his imagination. I would recall to your mind those lines in "Enoch Arden" where he tells of Enoch's visits to the hall with the Friday's fish:—

                                       For in truth
Enoch's white horse, and Enoch's ocean spoil
In ocean-smelling orier, and his face,
Rough-reddened with a thousand winter gales,
Not only to the market cross were known,
But in the leafy lanes behind the down,
Far as the portal-warding lion-whelp,
And peacock-yew tree of the lonely hall,
Whose Friday's fare was Enoch's ministering.

       That is a fair example of his incomparable art. Its greatest achievement is "In Memoriam." To have carried a poem in a stanza which has all the elements of monotony inherent in itself to such a splendid and amazing perfection, so full of variety both in material and execution, abounding in such infinite charm of description and melody and music, is a sufficient reason upon which to base his claim for immortality. This one poem is also evidence of what labor he was willing to give to his art. It is only the man who has himself written verse who can appreciate the work which went to the making of those lines which seem the perfection of natural ease. And this consummate art was in the service of a lofty and beautiful idea. The desire for and belief in the ultimate good in human destiny, and the wish for a larger faith and a more hopeful creed, these were the subjects of which he naturally wrote. And with what an effect we know, for there is hardly a public speaker either in the pulpit or on the platform who does not enforce and vivify his argument for liberality of thought or for belief in the ultimate good of human pain and defeat by quotations from Tennyson.
       This year 1892 will take its place with those other dates, 1616, 1674, 1850, in the memory of mankind as marking the close of a genius in the direct line of Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth, and, in common with yourself and that multitude of souls who have been elevated and carried away by his spirit, I would drop a blossom of remembrance upon the grave of Alfred Tennyson.

       One would give some of his happiest hours to know what were the thoughts of Alfred Tennyson as he lay through that last night silent,t he autumn moonlight all across his bed, the wind whistling in his manor oaks, and his left hand, that blameless hand, resting upon the open pages of "Cymbeline." Surely no man's death was ever more beautiful; the master poet of his race and age, gentle, "noble and sincere," passing to sleep in the very fulness of his fame, with all the pride and love of England at his feet! When Tennyson was laid in Westminster Abbey by the side of Browning the two greatest and most beloved Englishmen of their time were laid close together. Browning was the more robust nature. His grasp of life was more various, more eager, more abundantly fruitful. But Tennyson was the nobler mind and the more picturesque and dignified figure. All the art and intellect of his country and all its generous spirit have attached themselves to him as they have to no other man since Dryden.
       About the circumstances and details of Tennyson's life we know little. In his case, as in the case of Browning and Matthew Arnold, a noble reticence has always been maintained, which is rare and admirable in an age when a ravenous curiosity and hunger for petty notoriety override the sense of dignity even in those from whom we expect better. But this at least we know, that the name of the dead laureate has always been associated with the fairest and loftiest impressions; that he was one of those who never did or "uttered anything base"; that his life was that of a poet-philosopher, wise and dignified, a life eminently human in the distinctive meaning of the word, the life of one who realised to the point of practice the beauty, sacredness and deep meaning of this earthly existence. His only fault, we are told, was a tendency at times to be moody, abstracted, and unsocial.
       Notwithstanding that the world has read Tennyson for more than 60 years, his rank among English poets is not yet surely settled; it may, however, be taken for granted that he is among the half dozen greatest. It is a trite observation in criticism that he is the poetic successor and inheritor of Keats and Wordsworth in an almost equal degree. While he has not the exquisite and unapproachable spontaneity in beautiful creation that Keats possessed, nor that strange simplicity of touch which in Wordsworth was so powerfully penetrating, yet he has a kingly and triumphant mastery of versification, a march and sweep of numbers, a perfection and variety of phrase and cadence, in which through the study and practice of a long life he has far exceeded his masters. In the "Lady of Shallot" he fathered the pre-Raphaelite school. His "Oenone" is one of the most beautiful poems in the language—of its kind the most beautiful; and the "In Memoriam" the wisest and the loftiest. In blank verse he does not compare favorably with Milton or Keats or Wordsworth, or even with Shelley, a fact of which he was, no doubt, conscious, inasmuch as he gave so modest a form to his stories of Arthur, calling them idylls rather than anything more pretentious, yet in these very tales there is a quality of dignity and beauty and sweet human sympathy that will be more than sufficient to render them immortal. It were useless to go over the long list of lyrics and meditative pieces which are belovedly familiar to every English ear, and which assuredly can only perish with the language.

       By the death of Tennyson England loses the greatest and undoubtedly the last of her great line of truly national poets. He was the ideal laureate, not only of the country but of the nation. No other English singer has sung as he has England's heroic deeds by land and sea. The ballad of the "Revenge," probably the most heroic ballad ever written, may never be equalled in any literature. And such poems as "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and the magnificent "Ode on the Death of Wellington" are alone in the language for strength and beauty. As the court singer he has also done better work than might have been expected. His lines to the Queen "In Memoriam" are full of depth of feeling and stately beauty, and could not be improved upon. All through he is essentially the great English singer. He cannot be called the laureate of the empire, nor is he a great world-singer but by right of his large genius. In this field it may be finally found that Browning is the greater. But whatever judgment the future may bring as to his lasting qualities, Tennyson's place as the greatest English poet of the nineteenth century, and as one of the greatest of any other century, is well established. It is almost certain that he is the last of the great English poets, and this fact adds to the greatness of his loss to the English people. And in his death we feel a sense of the gradual passing away of that great kingdom which has ruled for so long the modern world. There may be the great empire of the future with its singers, or perchance a republic, for all we know, but with Tennyson dies the last of the grand old Saxon bards whose hearts were England's and for England alone. All of the greater bulk of his work, from the "Idylls of the King" down, is on English themes, and imbued with the old English spirit. And no one will ever be able to disassociate the name of Tennyson from that of the historical greatness of his native land. Like Chaucer and Spenser, he seems a part of the soil, and his memory will ever be connected with her—

                                   "Castle walls
And snowy summits old in story."

       Even in the early unrest of his young manhood, which we find in "Locksley Hall," his nature was in close sympathy, though unconsciously, with the great aristocratic nationality of which he was one of the noblest developments. Then the easy success of his work, and its sudden great aristocratic nationality of which he was one of the noblest developments. Then the easy success of his work, and its sudden great popularity strangled in its infancy the demon of unrest that would never at its worst have made him the republican that Shelley was. With all the majestic splendor of his lofty lyrical faculty, which would in itself have given him a high place in the world's literature, the close association of his best work with all that is best in the life of England will, I think, ever remain his most distinguishing characteristic. Browning is decidedly un-English, and is a poet for all the world, and Swinburne has identified his genius less with the history of his people than with its language. Matthew Arnold has been, and is, the poet of the higher thought, not so much of modern England as of all English-speaking peoples of the last part of this century and of the immediate future. These three, Browning, Arnold and Swinburne, have much to do with the great republic of letters the world over, the first two for thought, and the last in his capacity as a great political artist. But this is not, truly speaking, so of Tennyson, though in his prime, as a literary artist, probably no one man ever influenced his contemporaries as he did. But widely now as he may be read and appreciated, and for all his great gifts, he will never be the close friend to thinking and poetical minds that Arnold or Browning will be. His splendid genius has covered more ground than any other contemporary poet except Browning. But so much of it is so artistically well done that it palls by its very fineness of finish, and it is so like one of his cultured English parks that we long for a ruggedness that is more of nature. He has touched on so many subjects that it has been said that to read him well is to acquire a liberal education. But for all its greatness his verse is not the poetry of the mature man of to-day, but leads up to it. I mean as far as the inspiring thought is concerned. "In Memoriam" is a poem of remarkable beauty, and is perhaps as great a mirror as we have of the modern soul in its relationship to final hope and aspiration, and in this sense it is his greatest poem. But in a certain way we of the latter end of this century have outgrown this stage of the "Infant crying in the night," though we will never outgrow the artistic beauty of style in which it is expressed. We, that is many of us, have accustomed our eyes to the gloom as it is, and begin already to see beauties and vastness of glory in the darkness that our fathers but lately dreaded. This must be, I believe, the keynote of the poet of the future. In creating a new religious attitude we have made a new world with its ideals, and our poets must, as ever, be our truest religious leaders or else fall into disuse.
       It can be said of Tennyson that he was great as a national poet, great as a lyrical artist, perhaps the most exquisite song writer in the language, and almost great as a dramatic writer. This is where he failed, and in this he failed all through. He had the great artistic qualities, but with too little grasp of human life outside of history and society so-called. Noble, polished, stately, serene, his splendid genius might be likened to a lofty table-land high up on the slopes of Parnassus, far above the little peaks and foothills, and yet not so high as to reach those ethereal peaks many of whose rugged and uneven slopes stretch far below him.