A Critical History of English Poetry

By Herbert J. C. Grierson; J. C. Smith | Go to book overview

Chapter Thirty-one
THE EARLY VICTORIANS

(I) TENNYSON

WE cannot fully understand Wordsworth or Byron or Shelley till we view them against their political background. It is not quite so with Tennyson ( 1809-1892). Except for a sonnet on Poland, the only foreign affairs that moved Tennyson to write were such as affected Britain, like the threat of French invasion in 1854 and the Crimean War. Nor did domestic politics yield him much to make a song about. He shared the watery Liberal faith in progress into which the millenary hopes of the Revolutionary Age had deliquesced, believing that the battle for the franchise had in principle been won, and now Freedom would slowly broaden down from precedent to precedent. At first the prospect was clouded by the Chartist agitation; in the hungry forties he had visions of a starving people coming on,

as a lion creeping nigher,
Stares at one that nods and winks behind a slowly-dying fire.

Hunger was in fact the driving force in that agitation; it died out when the Repeal of the Corn Laws assured the people of cheap bread. Then England entered on an era of peace and plenty, broken only by the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny. But there was another side to Tennyson; though he was a Liberal in politics, his temper was in many ways conservative. He hated pacifism, and was always ready to sound the call to arms when Britain was threatened. He was the first of Liberal Imperialists. Love of valour and pride of race inspired some of his most stirring poems--the Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington, The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Charge of the Heavy Brigade, The Defence of Lucknow, and the superb Revenge. Born and bred in a country rectory, he was deeply attached to English institutions and the English countryside; in his old age he came to fear that both were being endangered by the growth of democracy and the spread of indus

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