Book Review: Selected Poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

 
Title: Selected Poems
Author: Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Genre(s): poetry
Length: 256 pages
Published: 1993 (by Gramercy Books; original poems from the 1800s)
Rating: ★★★★

 

Overview:

Prior to this year, I’d only read a few of Tennyson’s poems—“The Charge of the Light Brigade” and “Mariana”—so I decided to fix that deficiency by picking up a collection of his works (also, in part, because a friend of mine spoke highly of him and my curiosity was peaked). There are a plethora of his poetry collections available, so I don’t know how I ended up with one of the most obscure of them—other than that it was one of two available at my local library. Nevertheless, it proved to be a good introduction to his works.

 

Style/Voice:

Much like the Pushkin poetry collection I reviewed last year, Selected Poems is divided into two sections: lyric and short narrative poems, and two longer works, “In Memoriam” and “Maud” (I’ve included a full list of poems at the end of the post). This collection had a much stronger advantage than The Bronze Horseman, however, because the poems were originally written in my native language—which I think, in addition to several other factors, made it easier to understand and enjoy each piece. There was little need for reading background information about the author or learning stylistic techniques in order to understand a poem because the ones used by Tennyson were familiar to me.

Tennyson displays a variety of meters, rhyme schemes, topics, and even dialects in his poems (Northern Farmer: New Style comes to mind), yet there’s always a sense that his writing is his. Each piece has a calm, thoughtful, steady quality, musing and shifting in and out of the physical world and the world of the mind with ease, and drawing upon each in order to describe the other. I noticed this most acutely when reading In Memoriam (which, spoilers, was my favorite of the bunch); here’s an example from Section XII (12):

Lo, as a dove when up she springs

  To bear thro’ Heaven a tale of woe,

  Some dolorous message knit below

The wild pulsation of her wings;

Like her I go; I cannot stay;

  I leave this mortal ark behind,

  A weight of nerves without a mind,

And leave the cliffs, and haste away

Another example—though much longer—is section XCV (95):

By night we linger’d on the lawn,

  For underfoot the herb was dry;

  And genial warmth; and o’er the sky

The silvery haze of summer drawn;

And calm that let the tapers burn

  Unwavering: not a cricket chirr’d:

  The brook alone far-off was heard,

And on the board the fluttering urn:

And bats went round in fragrant skies,

  And wheel’d or lit the filmy shapes

  That haunt the dusk, with ermine capes

And woolly breasts and beaded eyes;

While now we sang old songs that peal’d

  From knoll to knoll, where, couch’d at ease,

  The white kine glimmer’d, and the trees

Laid their dark arms about the field.

But when those others, one by one,

  Withdrew themselves from me and night,

  And in the house light after light

Went out, and I was all alone,

A hunger seized my heart; I read

  Of that glad year which once had been,

  In those fall’n leaves which kept their green,

The noble letters of the dead:

And strangely on the silence broke

  The silent-speaking words, and strange

  Was love’s dumb cry defying change

To test his worth; and strangely spoke

The faith, the vigour, bold to dwell

  On doubts that drive the coward back,

  And keen thro’ wordy snares to track

Suggestion to her inmost cell.

So word by word, and line by line,

  The dead man touch’d me from the past,

  And all at once it seem’d at last

The living soul was flash’d on mine,

And mine in this was wound, and whirl’d

  About empyreal heights of thought,

  And came on that which is, and caught

The deep pulsations of the world,

Æonian music measuring out

  The steps of Time — the shocks of Chance–

  The blows of Death. At length my trance

Was cancell’d, stricken thro’ with doubt.

Vague words! but ah, how hard to frame

  In matter-moulded forms of speech,

  Or ev’n for intellect to reach

Thro’ memory that which I became:

Till now the doubtful dusk reveal’d

  The knolls once more where, couch’d at ease,

  The white kine glimmer’d, and the trees

Laid their dark arms about the field:

And suck’d from out the distant gloom

  A breeze began to tremble o’er

  The large leaves of the sycamore,

And fluctuate all the still perfume,

And gathering freshlier overhead,

  Rock’d the full-foliaged elms, and swung

  The heavy-folded rose, and flung

The lilies to and fro, and said,

“The dawn, the dawn,” and died away;

  And East and West, without a breath,

  Mixt their dim lights, like life and death,

To broaden into boundless day.

I enjoyed “In Memoriam” most not simply because of its beautiful imagery and Tennyson’s adept grasp of the process of grief, but because the use of iambic meter was so fluid and peaceful to read. Each stanza read like a melody sung in a low, steady voice. But all his poems retained a measure of that quality even when the meter or rhyme scheme changed.

Another stylistic element that stood out as I read is Tennyson’s use of “older” language. If you look at the stanzas from “In Memoriam,” you’ll notice a) many words shortened with apostrophes (ev’n, thro’, reveal’d, glimmer’d, rock’d, etc.) and b) word choices or spellings that aren’t comment in modern English (lo, mixt, etc.). In other sections, the no-longer-used informal forms of “you” (thee, thou, thine) are used. This wasn’t difficult for me to get used to as I read, but for some it may be a challenge to make those words seem normal enough that your brain doesn’t get caught up on them when they’re used.

One last pattern, which I think should be mentioned, is Tennyson’s use of ancient literature and myth both for the subject of his poems and for references within his poems. For example, “The Lady of Shallot” and “Morte D’Arthur” are both Arthurian; “The Lotos-Eaters,” “Ulysses,” “Tithonus,” and “Tiresias” all draw upon Greek mythology. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is written about a battle during the Crimean War. Additionally, many poems not only utilize Biblical and Christian language but deal with those subjects outright. I found the latter references easy to comprehend due to my religion and background, but often didn’t understand the Arthurian or Greek references because I’m very unfamiliar with those stories (beyond basics). This didn’t make it impossible to enjoy the poems that centered on those subjects, but required more focused reading as well as research in order to grasp them better.

 

Objectionable Content:

I truly cannot remember much—if any—objectionable content in these poems. A few poems (“The Charge of the Light Brigade,” “Morte D’Arthur,” “Maud,” etc.) describe battle, war, or killing, but the descriptions don’t read the same as if they had been written in prose. There may have been instances of people or characters drinking wine or other alcoholic beverages. What would likely be most objectionable to more sensitive readers is that many poems deal with grief, death, and sorrow, which some may want to avoid depending upon their mood or own personal struggles. Overall, though, there’s very little to put in this category.

 

Conclusion:

My lack of technical knowledge about poetry still makes me wary to attempt to review a poetry collection as I would a novel or nonfiction book, so I judge collections like Selected Poems more as a reader than a writer. My overall score for Selected Poems is 4/5 stars, in large part because I truly loved “In Memoriam (without “In Memoriam,” it may have been more of a 3.5/5). Tennyson captured the process of grieving in such a touching, personal way, and did so with truly beautiful language and form. It’s one of the few poems I’ve read that seem to demand a re-read in the future. Now, on the flip side, poetry is still a slow reading process for me, and this Tennyson’s works were rarely an exception (other than the very short works). My brain is still very much in the “prose” mode of reading. But even though I took long breaks as I work thought this collection, I still ended with a distinct sense of enjoyment; even though I didn’t love every poem, reading this book was an enjoyable and beneficial experience. So if you’re interested in reading more poetry or were ever interested in Tennyson’s writings, I recommend giving his poems a try—especially “In Memoriam,” even though it’s a long piece.

Also, as I did with The Bronze Horseman, here are the poems that were my favorites (in no ranking order):

  • Mariana
  • Over The Dark World Flies the Wind
  • Move Eastward, Happy Earth
  • The Splendor Falls
  • “Flower in the Crannied Wall”
  • In Memoriam

Lastly, as promised earlier in the post, here is the complete list of poems contained in this particular collection:

  • Lyric and Short Narrative Poems
    • Mariana
    • The Lady of Shalott
    • Mariana in the South
    • The Lotos-Eaters
    • Ulysses
    • Over The Dark World Flies the Wind
    • Tithonus
    • Lines [“Here Often, When a Child, I Lay Reclined”]
    • Tiresias
    • Agnes’ Eve
    • Break, Break, Break
    • The Epic [Morte D’Arthur]
    • Morte D’Arthur
    • Dora
    • Locksley Hall
    • Move Eastward, Happy Earth
    • The Eagle
    • A Farewell
    • Sweet and Low
    • The Splendor Falls
    • Tears, Idle Tears
    • O Swallow, Swallow
    • Ask Me No More
    • Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal
    • Come Down, O Maid
    • The Charge of the Light Brigade
    • Northern Farmer: New Style
    • The Revenge
    • Rizpah
    • Beautiful City
    • The Oak
    • The Making of Man
    • God and the Universe
    • The Dreamer
    • Crossing the Bar
  • In Memoriam A. H. H.
  • Maud; A Monodrama

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