Poems Critical Evaluation
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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This volume of Tennyson’s poetry contains, with the exception of the songs of THE PRINCESS and certain lyrics of IN MEMORIAM, some of the best poetry he ever wrote. In this 1842 volume is reprinted, often with considerable revision, the earlier poetry of 1830 and 1832 publications which critics had treated, with some justice, harshly. These revisions may be studied with some profit, for they illustrate how Tennyson was developing artistic consciousness during the famous “ten years silence” which followed the death of his best friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, in 1833. In this period Tennyson published few poems but worked steadily revising his early poems and wrote much of IN MEMORIAM as well as the new poems, first published in 1842. Since these new poems were composed after Hallam’s death, many reflect the various moods the poet experienced as a result of his loss.

Of the poems revised and republished, perhaps of all of Tennyson’s poems, “The Lady of Shalott” is best known. In this poem we see the characteristic Tennysonian landscape and the portrait of the isolated lady, as well as the handling of meter and special attention to the sounds of words for which the poet is known. Although landscapes may vary with the mood the poems portray in other Tennyson poems, nature usually harmonizes with and conveys the subject’s psychological state, as in IN MEMORIAM. Here, however, nature and human activity in the real world from which the lady is withdrawn contrast with the isolation; the lady of the poem finds herself drawn out of her contemplative life into the real world. Ordinarily in a Tennyson poem the landscape echoes the melancholy isolation and spiritual vacuum of the person, but in “The Lady of Shalott” the Keatsian richness of the sensuous detail emphasizes the variety and motion of the world outside the tower where the lady weaves secondhand images of that reality in her “magic web.”

It is the movement, the progress of daily life, of barges passing by on the river and people traveling to Camelot, that the lady perceives as a “shadow,” a reflection of life in her magic mirror. Knowing she cannot look upon real life because she suffers under a mysterious curse, she abandons herself to isolation until she grows tired of mere “shadow” and looks out upon “bold Sir Lancelot.” Dying, she floats down the river to Camelot, where her arrival mystifies the citizens.

Another characteristic poem is “Mariana in the South.” As in “The Lady of Shalott,” a natural landscape serves as background for a dramatically conceived feminine portrait, but in “Mariana in the South” nature corresponds to the person’s mood; we understand Mariana’s psychological state through her responses to nature. Her spiritual condition seems to reflect the barren dryness of the “empty-river bed” and of “shallows on a distant shore” and in the blinding light and oppressive heat of the southern landscape. Alone she worships her beauty at her “secret shrine,” the mirror; deserted by her lover she lives “forgotten, and love forlorn.” She finds promise of relief only in the “black shadow” of death which hovers over her house.

In “OEnone,” Tennyson retells the classical legend of Paris and the golden apple, but the poet approaches it from the point of view of OEnone, the mountain nymph deserted by Paris for Helen. Weary with life, OEnone now sings alone on the mountain in Ida. She tells of the contest in which Paris spurns power, “self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control” and accepts “the fairest and most loving wife in Greece” in return for awarding the prize to “Idalian Aphrodite.” The poem ends with OEnone’s dim foresight of the Trojan War and the destruction of a civilization which will accompany her own death.

One of Tennyson’s most famous poems, “The Palace of Art,” is according to the poet’s statement in a “sort of allegory. . . . of a soul.” This soul “did love beauty only” in all its forms, “knowledge” for its “beauty” alone, and failed to recognize “That Beauty, Good, and Knowledge are three sisters.” The narrator constructs for his soul “a lordly pleasure-house” where it can live apart from the world of men. The soul lives grandly in its magnificent structure, full of sights and sounds of nature, beautiful paintings, a complete paradise for the aesthetic soul. But after three years of intense pleasure, self-absorption, and gratification, the soul discovers despair, confusion, self-scorn, and doubts wrought by alienation and pride. For a year the soul dwells in this state until, throwing off its “royal robes,” it retreats to a “cottage in the vale,” where it can “mourn and pray.” The soul requests that the palace not be destroyed so that it may return, purged of guilt, ready to admit Love.

Tennyson evidently felt this conflict of life and art very strongly, and one wonders if in “The Palace” he actually resolved the conflict since the palace remains standing and the soul wishes to return. When Tennyson abandons himself to the claims of art, as he does in “The Lotos-Eaters,” his poetry achieves a quality many readers prefer. “The Lotos-Eaters” describes the emotional disengagement from life, from toil and strain, from fatherland and family, of Ulysses and his men in the land of lotus eaters. The men tire of their struggle and “swear an oath” to remain in that pleasant environment rather than renew their voyage homeward.

If “The Lotos-Eaters” shows Tennyson at his best in one area, “Ulysses” represents as well as any other poem in the collection his conviction that man’s life must be dedicated to action and involvement. This stately blank verse monologue dramatizes Ulysses as an old man dissatisfied with idleness and yearning to “drink/Life to the lees.” Not content to rest with memories of his glorious past, Ulysses leaves his kingdom to his son Telemachus and sails out to a newer world with his old comrades. Some greater task, “Some work of noble note, may yet be done.”

“The Two Voices,” a dialogue between “a still small voice” and the narrator of the poem, represents a dilemma the speaker feels about suicide. The “voice” offers a dozen or more reasons why death is preferable to life, but the narrator counters each argument. Finally a second voice whispers, “Be of better cheer” and promises a “hidden hope.” The speaker suddenly perceives the abiding presence of “love,” the ultimate design and end of creation manifest in “Nature’s living motion.”

Locksley Hall” presents a narrator returned to the scene of his youthful experiences with his “cousin Amy” whom he had loved and lost to another. He reminisces how in his youth he had optimistically felt at one with his age and envisioned a glorious future for the world. Amy and he loved each other until Amy, “servile” and a “puppet to a father’s threat” married another man. The speaker sees Amy’s fine nature coarsened by contact with her husband; he reflects bitterly on her unfaithfulness. He realizes that he “must mix with action” to prevent his withering in despair, and he wishes to immerse himself in the progress of his “wondrous Mother-Age.” Yet the disillusionment he had suffered left him with a jaundiced eye and he contemplates an escape to “Summer isles of Eden” where there will be “enjoyment more than in this march of mind.” Throwing off this romantic dream, however, the speaker resolves to take inspiration from the spirit of his age:

Forward, forward let us range,Let the great world spin for ever downthe ringing grooves of change.Thro’ the shadow of the globe wesweep into the younger day;Better fifty years of Europe than acycle of Cathay.