Essays and Reviews
by Terry Whalen
One of the First Score Poets*
are many thoughts that come to mind when Tennyson is
mentioned, and we are bidden to remember that he was
born a hundred years ago. Already he belongs to another
age, and the impartial dust of the great Abbey begins
to accustom him to immortality. He was not only the
chief poet of his time, he was once the chief poet of
the English race, one of the first score, and, as Matthew
Arnold reminded us, "in nothing is England so great
as in her poetry."
may seem to our strife-and-labor-deafened ears a fantastic
exaggeration, a mere making of phrases. And yet when
one sits down quietly in the shade of a tree and considers
the causes of the nations of men, what after all remains
of them that is as great as their spiritual and intellectual
achievements, their literatures and arts?
a hundred years from now what will our skyscrapers avail
if we have not been happy in them? The wealth of a country
may be greater or less, but that country which is without
prophets of the mind, without incentives to an ever-widening
life of the spirit and intelligence, is poor, indeed.
was fortunate in his life. He had the best in birth
and breeding and education that England has to give.
That was a great boon. He had neither poverty nor riches,
and the competence he acquired he made from the practice
of his heavenly calling. He was not a lover of his age.
He had none of Browning's sharp inquisitiveness about
the immediate drama of common life all around him, but
found himself rather a perplexed bystander in the confusion,
aims, and crumbling beliefs and new-sprung sciences
of the nineteenth century. He wrapped himself in his
poet's mantle and dwelt apart, a life of exceptional
dignity and reserve. Yet he was by no means a shirker
in the great battle, for he labored dutifully and splendidly
to the end.
an unfaltering adherence to the best that was in him,
and unceasing cultivation of his powers, he left behind
him in the imaginations of men the image of a beautiful
and eminent personality. Who will may read and enjoy
their haunting cadences echoeing through our English
tongue. His life, too, is as memorable. It should be
a rebuke and an inspiration to us; a rebuke to the man
of affairs who too often in the stress of daily living
forgets the greater and essential things, and allows
himself to become skeptical about poetry, about learning
and wisdom, and their supremacy in this world; an inspiration
to the doubting craftsman in any art who, beset by difficulties,
permits himself to be overborne by the caprice or seeming
materialism of his time, who fails to see poetry in
the splendid pulsing life of the world today, who is
tempted to cry out in weakness against the hard requirements
of his fortune, and abandon that spiritual battle which
it is his magnificent privilege to carry on.
is no privileged class in God's universe, the empire
of the good. But that of the artist-the seeker of truth
the interpreter and creator of beauty-comes nearest
to being one. Tennyson sat in the House of Peers. It
was the highest honor his appreciative country had to
bestow. But his place is among the lords of song, with
Virgil and Sophocles, with Danto and David, in that
great citizenship which knows neither creed nor country
and acknowledges only the supremacy of the best.
of The First Score Poets," in feature, "American
and English Scholars Celebrate Tennyson Centenary,"
New York Times, Aug. 1, 1909 [back]