THE AGE OF TENNYSON

Warton Lecture on English Poetry, British Academy

Read 29 March 1939

SOME thirty years ago, walking in Sussex, I fell into conversation with an innkeeper, very proud of his neighbourhood and of the great men who had honoured it by being born, or coming to live, there. Then, as he ended the list, he suddenly added, 'But there: not one of them could have written Enoch Arden. What a beautiful piece that is!'

The volume of Poems 1842 established Tennyson in the regard of the critical public as the first, after Wordsworth, of living poets; a regard qualified, however, with certain misgivings as to his intellectual grasp, his power to bring under poetic control the turbulent manifold of contemporary life, misgivings which The Princess in 1847 certainly did not remove. In Memoriam was influential in extending his renown, but within a limited range: many of its earliest readers disliked it, many did not understand it, and those who admired it most were not always the best judges of its poetry. Maud in 1855 was a decided set-back: it puzzled, it irritated, it shocked. But with the first four Idylls of the King in 1859 the Laureate won the great educated public, and with Enoch Arden five years later, the people. Not in his own country only, for, as his German biographer has written, 'with Enoch Arden Tennyson took the heart of the German people by storm': a fact well illustrating a truth of which we have constantly to remind ourselves, that our Victorian Age is only the local phase of a cultural period common to all Western Europe and North America. Indeed we need not limit our view to the West, because I am fairly sure that if the last canto of Evgeny Onegin in Professor Elton's translation fell anonymously into the hands of one of our younger reviewers, he would unhesitatingly characterize Tatiana's refusal to desert her elderly husband for the man whom she still loves, as a typical example of Victorian smugness, unless, indeed, complacency was the word that week in vogue.

For the rest of his life Tennyson was The Poet: and to the people

-46-

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Victorian Essays
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Introduction 1
  • Victorian Centenary 13
  • The Age of Tennyson 46
  • Eyes and No Eyes 70
  • Thackeray 74
  • Mr and Mrs Dickens 79
  • The Schoolman in Downing Street1the Two Mr Gladstones, by G. T. Garratt. 82
  • Mr Gladstone 90
  • The Happy Family 110
  • The Greatest Victorian 116
  • The Mercian Sibyl 129
  • The Victorian Noon-Time 133
  • Sophist and Swashbuckler 142
  • The Faith of The Grandfathers 146
  • Tempus Actum 153
  • B. A. Kohnfeldt 158
  • Katherine Stanley And John Russell 162
  • Maitland 173
  • Topsy 178
  • The New Cortegiano 183
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