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*A fourth as marble, statue-like and still,
Lay in a breathless, hush'd, and stony sleep;
Or the snow minaret on an Alpine steep. In grouping, colouring, and expression, Byron's picture strikes us to be decidedly the finer of the two. We need hardly say that there are many graceful flights of fancy, many pleasing bits of description, many happy epithets, many fine thoughts
, scattered over The Princess'; but the prosaic so predominates over the poetic element, that it fairly passes our comprehension how it ever passed muster as a whole. Byron certainly contrived to mix up an extraordinary variety of heterogeneous subjects in ‘Don Juan’; but ‘Don Juan’ was composed in a mocking, laughing spirit: it runs over with wit and humour; and we should feel much obliged to any one who would point out either wit or humour in The Princess.'
These faults of subject and construction were carefully eschewed in • The Idylls of the King,' published in 1859, which raised the author to the seventh heaven of popular favour. He was reported to have realised seven or eight thousand pounds by this small volume in a year. It was literally one which no library, drawing-room, or boudoir, could be without. It was the common topic of conversation amongst the higher classes; and the votaries of the dainty artificial style in composition raised shouts of triumph at its undeniable success. The malcontents were obliged to hold their tongues, or murmured aside with Old King Gama in. The Princess':
· These the women sang ;
They mastered me.' Fashion, we repeat, must always have a great deal to do with the popularity of any work of art that appeals to an acquired taste and affects independence of the ordinary sources of interest. Canning said that whoever pretended to prefer dry champagne to sweet, lied. This was going a little too far; but the preference is confined to a limited circle of connoisseurs with educated palates; and those who honestly prefer blank verse to rhyme are not more numerous than those who honestly prefer dry champagne to sweet. Then, again, Mr, Tennyson's tales of chivalry had none of the attractiveness of Scott's. The main narrative in each would merely have formed an episode in the genuine epic or regular romance. Although drawn from the same repository of traditional lore, and steeped in the same
carefully-prepared dye, “The Idylls,' four in number, look like so many pieces of rich tapestry, worked after a pattern for separate panels. The more we study them, the more forcibly are we impressed with the fertility of the author's fancy, the purity and elevation of his general tone of mind, his insight into the best parts of human nature, his comparative ignorance of the worst, and the poverty of his inventive faculty in constructing or embellishing a fictitious narrative. Surely the adventures that befell Geraint and Enid, when she is undergoing her trials, might have been varied with advantage. Her first transgression of his strict command to precede him without speaking, is caused by the discovery of three knights in ambush. These, duly warned by her, he slays, strips of their armour binds it on their horses, each on each,
And tied the bridle-reins of all the three
Before you;” and she drove them, thro' the waste.' Her second transgression occurs exactly in the same manner. She gives timely notice of three lurking robbers, and identically the same action is repeated. He kills them all, binds their armour on their horses, and issues exactly the same order to the uncomplaining wife :
'He follow'd nearer still: the pain she had
her heart. He has a third encounter with an entire troop, whom he disperses with equal ease, after unhorsing their leader; and when he is supposed dying from his wounds, with his head in Enid's lap, he is suddenly roused by her sharp and bitter cry against an insult offered her by his enemy :
• This heard Geraint, and grasping at his sword,
So died Earl Doorm by him he counted dead.' We are content to read tales of chivalry in the same spirit as Don Quixote.' A knight of the Round Table (or the Table Round, as the exigencies of verse require it to be called throughout) would not be worth his salt if he could not demolish any number of assailants by his single arm, or cut off a giant's head at a sweep; but we cannot help thinking that · Enid's' task
was beyond her strength, and that more appropriate and more original machinery might have been hit upon to place in broad relief the depth, purity, humility, and devotedness of a true woman's love, which we take to be the intended moral of • Enid.' There is hardly an incident in the combats which may not have been suggested by Ivanhoe.' The lances of the assailants splinter against the breast of Geraint, as they splintered against the breast of Richard in Sherwood Forest; and Geraint sinks down, from the effects of a concealed wound, like Ivanhoe.
This is repeated in Elaine,' where Lancelot is similarly wounded in the melée, and leaves the field (like the Black Knight) without claiming the prize. But in the development of fine feeling, relieved by natural weakness, Elaine' is unsurpassed. It was a difficult and delicate subject,—the unresisted sway of an unrequited passion over a pure-minded girl, the slave of her imagination and her heart, who falls in love with Lancelot, as Desdemona fell in love with Othello, for the deeds he had done and the soul that beamed in his face :
• He spoke and ceased : the lily maid Elaine,
agony, who was yet a living soul.
And loved him, with that love which was her doom.' It is the conventional thing for a damsel never to tell her love, but ‘let concealment, like a worm i' the bud, feed on her damask cheek.' Elaine does tell her love, and no sullying thought or suspicion is awakened by her burst of uncontrollable self-sacrificing tenderness :
"Then suddenly and passionately she spoke :
“ Your love," she said, “ your love—to be your wife.”
To serve you, and to follow you thro' the world.”' Lancelot's gentle words, soothing and flattering, but chilling and withering, prove her death-blow. She dies, after lingering through some touching pages, of that rare and some think) apocryphal disease, a broken heart; and her image on her bier has taken permanent rank, in painting and poetry, with that of Ophelia floating down the brook :
In her right hand the lily, in her left
But fast asleep, and lay as tho' she smiled.' The mixed emotions of Lancelot, and the Queen's jealous forebodings, equally exhibit the poet's mastery of the springs of thought and action; and we are almost tempted to ask why is not ·Elaine'a chapter of a great drama or epic, with unity of action, a beginning, a middle, and an end ? in which all the incidents should have a bearing on the plot, and all the characters should co-operate towards one common object of interest. Why are we eternally tantalised with specimens or fragments of a never-to-be-completed whole? Is it the power that is wanting, or the will? or is the will ever wanting where there consciously and indisputably exists the power ?
The absence of creative genius in Mr. Tennyson is thus mentioned by M. Taine :
'He is born a poet, that is, a builder of aerial palaces and imaginary castles. But the personal passion, and the absorbing pre-occupations which ordinarily master the hand of his peers, have failed him : he has not formed the plan of a new edifice in himself: he has built after all the others : he has simply chosen amongst the most elegant forms, the most ornate, the most exquisite. The utmost that can be said is that he has amused himself in arranging some cottage, thoroughly English and modern. If, in this recovered or renewed architecture, we look for the trace of him, we shall find it here and there in some frieze more finely sculptured, in some more delicate and graceful rosette; but we shall not find it marked and clear, except in the purity and elevation of the moral emotion that we shall carry away on leaving his museum.'
The chronological succession of Mr. Tennyson's Arthurian poems, or parts of poems, proves that he never conceived or comprehended the Arthurian period as a whole. The “Morte d'Arthur' was amongst his earlier productions; ‘The Coming of Arthur' (including the birth and marriage) amongst his last. He seems to have picked out a legend here and there as he wanted one for a subject, without regarding its connection with the rest.
Guinevere' is not even a short act of a drama. It consists of two scenes: one, in which the guilty Queen gives utterance to grief and repentance, mingled with bitter anger at those whose evil tongues and malice had brought her to shame ; a second, in which the blameless King pardons and utters a parting blessing over her. Both are replete with pathos and tenderness, with noble thoughts, with the purest essence of Christian charity and love; and the morality that breathes through them is in parts etherealised and sublimated till it becomes poetry. Thus, in the institution of the Round Table:
I made them lay their hands in mine and swear
And love of truth, and all that makes a man.' The figure of the King is Miltonic in its shadowy aweinspiring outline as he moves off:
And more and more
grayer, till himself became as mist
Before her, moving ghost-like to his doom.'
• I thought I could not breathe in that pure air,