Tennyson is, in the words of W. J. Long, “probably the most representative literary man of the Victorian era.” His work is an authentic epitome of all the important features of his age. Whatever be our estimate regarding his greatness as a poet-and most modern critics are convinced of his mediocrity-there can be no doubt about the representative value of his work. He is as good a representative and chronicler of his age as Chaucer, Spenser, and Pope were of their own respective ages.
Tennyson’s career as a poet extended over more than half a century during which period many changes occurred. In his poetry he kept pace with the changing times. Stopford Brooke says: “For more than sixty years he lived close to the present life of England, as far as he was capable of comprehending and sympathising with its movements; and he inwove what he felt concerning it into his poetry.” It does not mean, however, that he had no individuality of his own: he did have individuality, though it was not he alone but also the ethos of his age that found utterance in his poetry. He was the Poet Laureate, but we can even call him the national poet without any hesitation. He indeed fixed for the future generations the essence and the spirit of his age. Tennyson did not concern himself much with the externals of contemporary life, such as the international conflicts: except for the Cremian War we will find little mention of contemporary upheavals and conflicts in his poetry; but the deeper currents of contemporary thought and feeling run in his poetic compositions and are worthy of examination by a student of the Victorian ethos. In this sense he bears a curious resemblance to Chaucer, the unofficial chronicler of the later fourteenth century.
A Champion of Order:
The victorian age was singularly unemotional and stood for balance, order, and discipline. The radicalism, revolutionism, and even the individualism of the romantics like Shelley had already become a thing of the past. All enthusiasm, excitement, or prophetic fervour was eyed with suspicion by the sane Victorians who were terribly afraid of disorder and anarchy. Even the Victorian “Chartists” (those who stood for the extension of political power to the working-classes) believed in constitutional means to effect political changes and would have been offended at being dubbed “revolutionaries.” Evolution not revolution, was the slogan. England and the Continent had enough of excitement. What was needed now was calm thinking and constructive action. The Victorians, as a critic puts it, “had enough of tremendous thoughts in familiar shape. They now wanted familiar thoughts in tremendous shape.”
Now, Tennyson reflects adequately the Victorian respect for balance and order, and the corresponding fear and contempt for lawlessness and disorder. Many a time he expresses his love of England, which is partly generated by her political stability. Order in England is not only a reason of Tennyson’s pride in his country, but also his love for it. At a place he says about England
It is the land that free men till,
That sober-suited freedom chose;
The land where girl with friends and foes,
A man may speak the thing he will.
A land of settled government;
A land of just and old renown.
Attention may be directed to the last but one line of the passage quoted above. “Nothing is,” proclaims Tennyson “that errs from law.” According to Compton-Rickett, the Victorian age witnessed a shift from individualism to collectivism. In other words, individual impulses came increasingly under the discipline of social conventions. Tennyson is an exponent of this shift in thought. His love of order is reflected in the most quoted of his lines:
The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And god fulfils Himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
From the first line it must be noted what the old order changes yielding place to a new order, not to disorder or chaos. Tennyson is not for stagnancy or the status quo, but he is not for change that would hurl everything into chaos. In these beliefs he represents his age.
The Rise of Democracy:
This moral terror of revolution and anarchy makes Tennyson, necessarily, a reactionary, or, at least, a conventionalist. The Victorian age was, so to say, a “middle-aged” period, wedded to a plethora of social conventions. Nevertheless, it witnessed a gradual change from aristocracy to democracy. According to Compton-Rickett, an important feature of the Victorian age was “the steady advance of democratic ideals.” Things moved surely though steadily towards the ultimate Chartist goal of universal suffrage. How far does Tennyson reflect this change in his poetry? It must be understood that Tennyson was not another Ruskin. He clung to old order of aristocracy but when he found the swelling tide of democracy impossible to be checked, he persuaded himself to strike a compromise between aristocracy and democracy. He was an aristocrat by birth, upbringing and his ways of thinking, but we cannot but admit that he had a genuinely sympathetic interest in the common people and common things. If he wrote The Princess, Maud, and The Idylls of the Kings, he also wrote such poems as Dora and Enoch Arden which are concerned with poor people.
Female Suffrage and Education:
Tennyson’s conservatism is also apparent from his views on female suffrage and education, which, in the Victorian age, were burning topics. He did not associate himself with the loud-mouthed suffragists of his age. Nor did he think highly of formal education for the fair sex. He could have readily agreed with Addison that “family is the proper sphere for a woman to shine in.” Like Addison he was for keeping a wedge between the two sexes either of which was supposedly designed by God for a particular function and was endowed accordingly.
Man for the field and woman for the hearth,
Man for the sword and for the needle she,
Man to command and woman to obey,
All else confusion.
The last line should be considered with reference to Tennyson’s love of order, which we have detailed above.
The Princess (1847), one of the major poems of Tennyson, deals with the contemporary issue of female education which aroused an acrimonious strife between its supporters and opponents. Of course, Tennyson ranged himself on the side of its opponents. Higher education in his view was likely to kill the essential feminity of women. In the poem just referred to he shows the apparent untenability of the views of Princess Ida on female education. She establishes a university for women and, very like a Victorian “suffragette”, shrieks for the rights of women. She even refuses to marry the prince to whom she was betrothed in her childhood. But where does all this end? Ida’s intransigence is gone and she marries the prince. Tennyson implies that she is “reformed” as she gives up her cry for equality, loses her obstreperousness, and agrees to be, what Coventry Patmore would call, “the aneel in the house.”
Love, Sex, and Social Taboos:
Tennyson is a representative Victorian in his attitude to love and sex. About these things Victorians were indeed quite prudish. Even a trivial impropriety of dress (not to speak of the modern “topless” and the “mini-skirt”, which, in the opinion of the house in the annual debate of the Oxford Union held in 1966, “does not go far enough”) would send the Victorian martinets into paroxysms of rage. They were indeed very touchy about sex which they were prone to treat with a hush-hush incommodiousness. Thackeray, Dickens, George Eliot, and others who were stark realists in everything else did not dare lift the lid off the animality of their characters. They approached the beast of sex gingerly, and with gloves on. Tennyson is no exception. In his treatment of love and sex he has neither the frank conviviality of Fielding, nor the voluptuousness of Marlowe or Spenser, nor the ribaldry of Chaucer of the Miller’s Tale. He does not think of love in terms of the Platonic transcendentalism of Shelley; he does think of it as an earthly.
Passion, but refuses to excoriate it, not to speak of exploring its interior. Unbridled passion he looks down upon, especially when it is non-conjugal. Such passion would be destructive of social order and has to be viewed as a disintegrating and mischievous force. Too often does he proffer the sermon of rising above one’s animality.
A rise and fly
The reeling faun, the sensual feast,
Move upward, working out the beast,
And let the ape and tiger die.
Tennyson’s lovers are always full-dressed. They love each other like perfect Victorians and are invariably married. A typical instance is provided by The Lady of Shallot in which we are introduced to “two young lovers” walking together in the moonlight. Before the reader should get scandalised, Tennyson reassures him that these lovers were “lately wed. “Marriage and procreation are exalted by Tennyson as the symbols of order and human immortality. But licentiousness is to be curbed as it is symptomatic of disorder.
Religion, Science, and “the Victorian Compromise”:
According to Compton-Rickett, the progress of scientific thought was one of the two most important features of the Victorian era (the other one being, as already pointed out, “the steady advance of democratic ideals”). The progress of science tended to undermine the very foundations of the Christian faith by calling into question many a scriptural “truth.” Darwin’s evolutionary doctrine, which traced the descent of human beings from apes, gave a serious blow to Genesis and shook the Christian belief in the immortality of the human soul, not to speak of a plethora of minor points of the Christian doctrine. Needless to say, all this caused an earthquake in the realm of contemporary thinking and brought many an adamant-built edifice tumbling to the ground. All Victorian writers, in some way or other, give expression to the doubts and the consequent spiritual disturbance generated by scientific discoveries. Some of the Victorians clung to the old faith and aspersed what they called the new-fangled opinions, others went over to the side of science and turned agnostics, and still some others tried in panic to effect some sort of compromise between the two conflicting forces (of science and belief). Tennyson, on the whole, may be classed with the third group-the one which stood for what is often called “the Victorian Compromise.” He was too greatly affected by the development of science to remain an orthodox Christian, but still he was not so much affected as to turn an unqualified agnostic like, say, T. H. Huxley. In his poetry we often meet with an evidence of his groping for a moral stance, though it is true that he has fewer doubts than Arnold and he is much more of a facile optimist than most of his sensitive1 and introspective contemporaries. “No poet,” says a critic, “was more exercised by religious problems than he; and no poet was more sensitive to scientific thought than he. ” But his attitude was an attitude of compromise and he propounded a via media between materialistic science and dogmatic Christianity He was not much of a sceptic, though he could say:
There remains more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
In Memoriam, no doubt, the ultimate questions of life, death, and immortality are somewhat probed into. Likewise, in The Two Voices and elsewhere doubt and faith are tentatively probed. But the whole thing ends in a reassuring note of faith in God:
The sun, the moon, the stars, the hills and the plains, Are not these,
O Soul, the vision of Him who reigns?
That nothing walks with aimless feet.
That not one life shall be destroyed.
And there are men who are not just ape-like but “Godlike”–obviously not the descendants of apes.
Tho’ world on world in myriad myriads roll
Round us, each with different powers,
And other forms of life than ours
What know we greater than the soul?
On God and Godlike men we build our trust.
Such “trust” may be pejoratively called facile optimism or smug complacency but it is essentially Victorian, even more Victorian than the much-publicized “Victorian Compromise.”
These fundamental aspects of Victorian thought (along with such minor elements as militant patriotism and colonialism) entitle Tennyson to be considered a representative Victorian. He was indeed a great poet, even though his representative value may be much greater than his intrinsic value. “It will be right,” to conclude with Lyall, “for the future historians to treat Tennyson as a representative of the Victorian period and to draw inferences from his work as to the general, intellectual and political tendencies of the nineteenth century.”