Arnold on Tennyson

By Ullmann, S. O. A. | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Winter 1988 | Go to article overview

Arnold on Tennyson


Ullmann, S. O. A., Nineteenth-Century Prose


In The Yale Manuscript Arnold singles out Homer, the Old Testament, and Shakespeare for their distinction in both matter and manner that enabled them to achieve a rare wholeness. As examples of one-sided, incomplete achievements, he points to "the Greek philosophers (Epicurus, Empedocles)" who have only "the great way of thinking, coextensive with nature" and, on the other hand, Tennyson, who "has the thinking and feeling that is in nature ..." (180; c. 1850). This assessment of Tennyson as a mere stylist epitomizes Arnold's attitude that remained unaffected even by the publication of In Memoriam.

About June, 1850, Arnold purchased a copy as a present for his sister Jane, whose birthday was August 1st. She dated the volume "July, 1850." (1) Arnold must have read the poem before giving it to her. Yet he continued to think of Tennyson exclusively in terms of language and imagery, and, in fact, never regarded him as more than a poet with considerable verbal gifts and "poetic sentiment."

On December 2, 1866, he inscribed a poem on the verso of the half-title of a Selection from the Works of Alfred Tennyson (1865), which he gave at her request to his niece Mary (later Mrs. Humphry Ward). The poem, a Tennysonian pastiche, incorporates some brief quotations from Tennyson and uses the In Memoriam stanza. The poem emphasizes the lyric qualities of Tennyson's poetry (five references in twenty lines). There is, however, also a reference to the volume as "a treasure-house of priceless thought...." Kenneth Allott noted that this "should not be taken too seriously.... Clearly he could not use the same language in making a gift of Tennyson's poems to an enthusiastic schoolgirl as he used soberly to his friends and contemporaries...." "Treasure-house" may also have had special connotations for Arnold. In his Preface to Poems (1853), he denigrated Keats's "Isabella," despite the fact that it is "a perfect treasure-house of graceful and felicitous words and images" (CPW 1: 10). Arnold regularly put Tennyson in the misguided tradition that emphasized the beauty of the part rather than of the whole, the tradition of Keats "and those d--d Elizabethan poets generally" (CL 97). In 1860, Arnold described poems like In Memoriam as "holding forth in verse which for anything in the nature of the composition itself, may perfectly well go on forever." (2)

His usually uncomplimentary comments on Tennyson (not, as a rule, intended for publication) need to be put in context. When Arnold was beginning to write poetry seriously, his Oxford contemporaries assumed that Tennyson was the major poet of the coming age (the generation after Wordsworth). In the early 1840s, while Arnold was still an undergraduate, the Decade at Oxford thought it worth debating whether Wordsworth or Tennyson was the greater poet. Arnold knew Tennyson's early poetry so well that he had to be on his guard against Tennysonian echoes in his own work. (3) By 1847, he was attacking Tennyson for "dawdling with [the Universe's] painted shell" (CL 163). The fact that by 1850 Tennyson had come to be widely recognized as "our only living great poet," as Charles Kingsley expressed it in his anonymous review of In Memoriam for Fraser's Magazine (Jump 173) made Arnold all the more determined to focus on the limitations of Tennyson when compared with writers who really deserved to be called great. Even roughly contemporary Continental poets like Heine and de Musset seemed to him Tennyson's superiors (CL 154). Yet Tennyson was inescapably the living poet against whom English poets had to measure themselves. (4) The fact that a poet of Tennyson's limited endowments (as Arnold assessed them) was considered great must have reinforced his view of the "unpoetrylessness" of the age (CL 126).

The reference to the naivete of Tennyson's language and imagery seems mistaken now, but it was a commonplace early in Tennyson's career. It also needs to be recalled that in the 1830s and 1840s Tennyson was frequently compared with his romantic predecessors.

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