restricted access In Memoriam
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[ 323 In Memoriam1 Tennyson is a great poet, for reasons that are perfectly clear.2 He has three qualities which are seldom found together except in the greatest poets: abundance, variety, and complete competence. We therefore cannot appreciate his work unless we read a good deal of it. We may not admire his aims: but whatever he sets out to do, he succeeds in doing, with a mastery which gives us the sense of confidence that is one of the major pleasures of poetry. His variety of metrical accomplishment is astonishing. Without making the mistake of trying to write Latin verse in English, he knew everything about Latin versification that an English poet could use; and he said of himself that he thought he knew the quantity of the sounds of every English word except perhaps scissors.3 He had the finest ear of any English poet since Milton. He was the master of Swinburne; and the versification of Swinburne, himself a classical scholar, is often crude and sometimes cheap in comparison with Tennyson’s. Tennyson extended very widely the range of active metrical forms in English: in Maud alone the variety is prodigious .4 But innovation in metric is not to be measured solely by the width of the deviation from accepted practice. It is a matter of the historical situation : at some moments a more violent change may be necessary than at others. The problem differs at every period. At some times, a violent revolution may be neither possible nor desirable; at such times, a change which may appear very slight is the change which the important poet will make. The innovation of Pope, after Dryden, may not seem very great; but it is the mark of the master to be able to make small changes which will be highly significant, as at another time to make radical changes, through which poetry will curve back again to its norm.5† There is an early poem, only published in the official biography, which already exhibits Tennyson as a master.6 According to a note, Tennyson later expressed regret that he had removed the poem from his Juvenilia;7 it is a fragmentary Hesperides, in which only the “Song of the Three Sisters” is complete. The poem illustrates Tennyson’s classical learning and his mastery of metre. The first stanza of the “Song of the Three Sisters” is as follows: The Golden Apple, the Golden Apple, the hallow’d fruit, Guard it well, guard it warily, Essays, Reviews, Commentaries, and Public Letters: 1936 324 ] Singing airily, Standing about the charmèd root. Round about all is mute, As the snowfield on the mountain-peaks, As the sandfield at the mountain-foot. Crocodiles in briny creeks Sleep and stir not: all is mute. If ye sing not, if ye make false measure, We shall lose eternal pleasure, Worth eternal want of rest. Laugh not loudly: watch the treasure Of the wisdom of the West. In a corner wisdom whispers. Five and three (Let it not be preach’d abroad) make an awful mystery: For the blossom unto threefold music bloweth; Evermore it is born anew, And the sap in threefold music floweth, From the root, Drawn in the dark, Up to the fruit, Creeping under the fragrant bark, Líquid góld, hóneyswéet thró and thró.                         [(slow movement)] Keen-eyed Sisters, singing airily, Looking warily Every way, Guard the apple night and day, Lest one from the East come and take it away.8 A young man who can write like that has not much to learn about metric; and the young man who wrote these lines somewhere between 1828 and 1830 was doing something new. There is something here9† not derived from any of his predecessors. In some of Tennyson’s early verse the influence of Keats is visible – in songs and in blank verse; and less successfully, there is the influence of Wordsworth, as in “Dora.”10 But in the lines I have just quoted, and in the two Mariana poems, “The Sea Fairies,” “The LotosEaters ,” “The Lady of Shalott” and elsewhere, there is something wholly new.11 [ 325 In Memoriam All day within the dreamy house,    The doors upon their hinges creak’d; The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse    Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek’d, Or from the crevice peer’d about.12 The blue fly sung in the pane (the line would be ruined if you substituted sang for sung) is enough...