Alfred Lord Tennyson


This is an essay by an important writer Leigh Hunt (1784-1859). He was an influential critic and essayist who published in journals such as the Examiner. He is the author of a book on Lord Byron, Lord Byron and Some of his Contemporaries (1828). The following essay shows Hunt's critical appreciation of Tennyson's poetry at a very early stage of Tennyson's career.

Only one of these volumes is entirely new. The first, as the author intimates in two successive dates at the beginning and middle of it, and a little more copious bit of information in four lines at the conclusion, is for the most part a collection of former volumes, and some of the poems in it have been "considerably altered." Others, he might have added, have been left out; and, retaining what he has, we do not see good reason for the omission: so that the present publication is neither an entire collection, nor a thoroughly satisfactory selection, which is a pity.

We state our objections first, that we may get rid of the unpleasant part of our task, and enjoy the subsequent approbation with more comfort; for, though reviewers are supposed to take a special delight in censure, and we ourselves must in candour confess that we know what it is to be tempted to go the way of all critical flesh, and how strong the desire in the young reviewer is to make the importance of the judgment-seat felt; but a little more Christian reflection made us discern the danger which our love of truth was undergoing, especially towards persons who differed with us in opinion; and, though we must never cease to find fault where truth demands it, and where the book is of importance enough to render fault-finding necessary (for wretched books may surely be left to their own natural death, without exciting a shabby desire to kill them), yet, so far from giving either into this once reigning bad habit of reviews, or into the other pick-thank extreme of indiscriminate praise, or following the still more common and servile practice of giving the greatest praise to none but authors in fashion, and being afraid of doing justice to others perhaps far superior, we shall make it our business to give as cheerful and even reverential eulogy to genius, in whatever quarter we find it, as we shall jealously guard that right and sincerity of objection which alone can render it thoroughly valuable. We would not give wholesale, indiscriminate laudation to Shakspeare himself, as long as human nature is what it is, and no man perfect. Neither, on the other hand, shall any reigning fashion induce us to take common-place for invention, or the soothing of the languors of soft ears for a masculine versification.

We are compelled to say, then, in justice to the very respect which we entertain, and the more which we desire to entertain, for the genius of Mr. Tennyson, that the above "lettings out of the bag" of his dates and alterations, are a little too characteristic of a certain mixture of timidity and misgiving with his otherwise somewhat defying demands upon our assent to his figments and his hyphens , and that we have greater objections to a certain air of literary dandyism, or fine-gentlemanism, or fastidiousness, or whatever he may not be pleased to call it, which leads him to usher in his compositions with such exordiums as those to Morte d' Arthur , and Godiva ; in the former of which he gives us to understand that he should have burnt his poem but for the "request of friends;" and, in the latter, that he "shaped" it while he was waiting "for the train at Coventry," and hanging on the bridge "with grooms and porters." Really this is little better than the rhyming fine-ladyism of Miss Seward, who said that she used to translate an ode of Horace "while her hair was curling." And, if the "grooms and porters." have any meaning beyond a superfluous bit of the graphic, not in keeping with his subject, it is a little worse, for why should not Mr. Tennyson, in the universality of his poetry, be as content to be waiting on a bridge, among "grooms and porters," as with any other assortment of his fellow-men? Doubtless he would disclaim any such want of philosophy; but this kind of mixed tone of contempt and nonchalance, or, at best, of fine-life phrases with better fellowship, looks a little instructive, and is, at all events, a little perilous. There is a drawl of Bond-street in it. We suspect that these poems of Morte d' Arthur and Godiva are among those which Mr. Tennyson thinks his best, and is most anxious that others should regard as he does; and therefore it is that he would affect to make trifles of them. The reader's opinion is at once to be of great importance to him, and yet none at all. There is a boyishness in this, which we shall be happy to see Mr. Tennyson, who is no longer a boy, outgrow.

So of his hyphens and his dots, his sëers, low-lieths , and Eleanoras , and the intensifications of his prefix a---aweary, amany, anear ; it is "affectations, 'oman," as Sir Hugh says; and a very unnecessary bad compliment both to his readers and himself, as if they did not know how to read, or could never enough see the merit of his quantities and qualities without the help of his lackadaisical particle. Upon a like principle we object to his excessive fondness for repeating a lyrical "burthen." His "aweary, aweary," in the Moated Grange , may indeed help us to sympathise with the fatigue of the inhabitant; but four "Orianas" to every stanza, in the ballad of that name, amounting to forty-four in all, burlesque all music and feeling, and become a parrot-cry instead of a melody. This, too, in a poem full of beauty!

We trust that in his next publication Mr. Tennyson will show that he has acquired energy enough to get rid of these mixtures of weakness with his strength. We do not wish him, merely because critics object to them, to leave out some of his second or third-best productions, as he seems to have done, and this, too, while retaining his most objectionable; we desire to see him once for all at ease both with his critics and himself, acknowledge what is juvenile or faulty, or rather perceive it without saying anything about the matter; and, whether he discountenances anything or nothing of what he has done, cease to combine misgiving with rashness, and airs of the drawing-room with the enlargement he really possesses, and give us a good, wholesome, satisfactory, and enduring quintessence of the best part of him. He has fancy, imagination, expression, thought, knowledge, and music, too---in short, all the materials of an admirable contemplative poet, and in some instances his success has been already great, and his name, we trust, will be lasting. But at present he still shows a little too much of the spoiled child. He is indolent, over-refining, is in danger of neutralizing his earnestness altogether by the scepticism of thought not too strong, but not strong enough to lead or combine, and he runs, or rather reposes, altogether upon feelings (not to speak it offensively) too sensual. His mind lives in an atmosphere heavy with perfumes. He grows lazy by the side of his Lincolnshire water-lilies; and, with a genius of his own sufficient for original and enduring purposes (at least we hope so), subjects himself to the charge of helping it too much with the poets gone before him, from Homer to Wordsworth, and to Shelley and Keats. But we will touch upon most of the poems in their order, and thus best show what we mean. The beautiful passages that we shall have to quote in eulogy will luckily far more than repay the reader and ourselves for any unpleasant necessity of finding fault.


Mr. Tennyson is at present a kind of philosophical Keats, without the later judgment of that extraordinary genius, and of a turn of mind less naturally and thoroughly given to poetry, in its essence. But there can be no doubt that he is a genuine poet too in his degree (a sacred name---pray let him know how to value it, and be at his ease with it): and there is a class of poetry in which we think he may obtain for himself a name, perhaps as great in its way as that of the other, and one of an independent sort, and that is in a mixture of thought and feeling, more abundant in the former respect than Keats, and more pleasurable and luxuriant in the latter than Wordsworth. We have already characterized, at the beginning of our article, his poetical merits as well as defects, and surely out of all these he might produce another volume which, if less in bulk than the two before us, would have a far greater real abundance. His poems of Mariana , and A Character , and the Merman and Mermaid , and Oriana (in spite of its burden), and the Miller's Daughter , and Simeon Stylites , and the Two Voices , are almost all written in a style as clear and compact as the fancy and imagination are poetical, and the thinking profound; and we hope to see the day when Mr. Moxon will oblige us with a volume including these, and containing new ones nothing inferior to the old.

Such is the position, in the opinion of poets and lovers of genuine poetry (the opinion of critics, and of the public, may not as yet be quite in accordance with the former), which Mr. Tennyson has attained after having been before the world during ten or twelve years. With the first class his genius was at once recognized---with the critics and the public it has, as usual, been matter of slow progress and much contest; but we think that, on the whole, he has little reason to be dissatisfied, and no reason at all, when we consider the ill treatment and tardy admission of the claims of Shelley, of Keats, and of Wordsworth.

Leigh Hunt. From "Poems by Alfred Tennyson". The Church of England Quarterly Review. Vol. XII, 1842.