Updated November 25, 2018


Some years ago I visited the English department of a university in Pakistan and, on entering the chairman’s office, the first thing that caught my eye was a large framed portrait of Alfred Tennyson, hung conspicuously on the wall much as a foreign country’s president’s portrait hangs in an embassy. It amused me to reflect that here we were in the 21st century and still beholden to imperialist propaganda from Victorian times that made us poor colonials believe that Tennyson — sorry, one should say Alfred Lord Tennyson in a voice full of reverence — was a great poet.

This recent memory came to my mind when I was rereading Lord Byron’s Don Juan, an experience that released a much older memory, going back nearly 70 years when I was barely a teenager in Bombay’s [Mumbai] Don Bosco High School. English poetry had my ear first entranced with its music when we came to Byron’s poems in an anthology we were reading aloud in class. From then on, many of my evenings were spent with my best friend Hari reciting Byron and then the other Romantics.

When we discovered Tennyson, what impressed us was that when he, too, was relatively young, he had lost his friend, which had led him to write his poem ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’. The poem impressed us greatly. We read it again and again, first because we instantly related to it, seeing ourselves as the two friends in the poem, imagining that one was bereaving the hypothetical loss of the other. Then, as we began to comprehend that Tennyson’s larger theme concerned the meaning of life, it flattered us to think we were understanding the poem’s deeper meaning. It made us think we were adults. Seeing his argument that placed the Christian God, and what is now known as Creationism, above any secular theory, such as Evolution, our discussion of his argument further flattered us — not just adults, we were serious thinkers, top order intellectuals, no less! We repeated the verses that proved some point. I still remember one:

“Are God and Nature then at strife, That Nature lends such evil dreams? So careful of the type she seems, So careless of the single life...”

Our being impressed by the poem was a consequence of our being impressed with ourselves that we, neither 15 years old yet, understood complex serious ideas that engaged our elders in heated discussion.

This approach to reading is based on what I call the principle of the flattered self: the reader’s presumptive discovery of complex ideas in a simple and often poorly composed text inflates the esteem which that reader nourishes for his own intellect. It results in his concluding that since he sees such ‘deep’ meaning in it, therefore the text has to be a masterly work. But were the reader to pause and look for the language and metrical disposition of the verse that go into the making of a good poem, what would he see? In the verse just quoted, the strife/life, dreams/seems rhymes could not be more banal, nor the da-dum/da-dum rhythm more monotonous, and the language no more than a prosaic statement that merely conveys the idea without the poet searching for some figure that might make it imaginatively striking.

In fact, ‘In Memoriam’, a poem of nearly a hundred pages, does not, in its thousands of lines, contain a single phrase that excites the imagination. The nearest the poet comes to finding an image that is not a common received idea of imagery is when he describes time as “a maniac scattering dust.” And there never is a rhyme that is not of the life/wife level that only a poetaster will not be embarrassed by, to say nothing of the need to find a rhyme for “love” and frequently to come up with “move” and, as in the very first stanza of the poem, “prove” — a problem all English-language poets have had finding a rhyme for “love”, since there’s not much one can do with words such as “wove”, “cove”, “rove”, to say nothing of “shove”. The poet Roy Fuller caused a minor sensation in the 1960s when he published a poem in which he surprised us with a new rhyme for “love”: “Rachmaninov”.

Yet, for a good hundred years ‘In Memoriam’ was considered one of the precious gems of English poetry, and even T.S. Eliot begins his essay on it with the declaration that “Tennyson is a great poet”, and states that his “metrical accomplishment is astonishing” and that he had “the finest ear of any English poet since Milton.” Eliot’s comments on ‘In Memoriam’ — as when he quotes three stanzas that include lines such as “Dark house, by which once more I stand” and “He is not here, but far away”, and in which the rhymes are stand/hand, street/beat, more/door, sleep/creep, away/day, again/rain, and goes on to state of such puerile writing, “This is great poetry” — are so blatantly inconceivable as coming from the poet who changed the very direction of English poetry by fiercely rejecting 19th century sugary romanticism, that one can’t help wondering if Eliot was not making an elaborate joke. I expect not, but from reading his voluminous critical essays and letters one knows that he sometimes puts on a mask to appear profoundly serious when he wants not to commit himself and so makes a statement that sounds profound, but is quite empty, as when towards the end of his essay on ‘In Memoriam’, he talks about “what we most quickly see about Tennyson is that which moves between the surface and the depths.” Think of that, and imagine what ghostly figure must move there, perhaps doing a dervish dance, or, as one of my students would say, “Whatever!”

One has only to read Tennyson’s longer later poems to see that he had no depth at all — for example, ‘Enoch Arden’, a romantic novelette dressed up as a poem in which no amount of talk about Tennyson’s poetical genius can convince one that the story which is a long cliché (three children, two little boys and a girl, who “play’d at keeping house” grow to become a love triangle — well, any simpleton can make up the rest of the story) when, to make it sound like a poem, all that the great poet can come up with are phrases such as “the dawn of rosy childhood” and “the new warmth of life’s ascending sun.” Oh, come on now! Is such schoolboy drivel supposed to be composed by the poet who had the finest ear since Milton?

It is hard to understand how such juvenile writing could have been considered poetry by his contemporaries in whose minds the glorious odes of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley and, especially, Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan must still have been present as the high poetical standard of the time. It is harder still to believe that even later generations continued to accord high honour to Tennyson, when the true great poets among his contemporaries were Robert Browning and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

An astonishingly original and perfectly executed poetical art in just one of Browning’s dramatic monologues or one of Hopkins’s sonnets is enough to show that the best Tennyson has to offer is glaringly mediocre by comparison. Granted that Hopkins was not discovered till the 20th century and Browning remained marginalised before Ezra Pound showed his relevance to modernism. But still, the prominence accorded to Tennyson — not only by his contemporaries, but by authoritative voices in our own day — cannot be supported when we compare his work with the best of English poetry, ancient and modern.

Where Eliot sometimes veiled his critical reservations in politely ambiguous language, leaving the reader to choose the meaning that confirmed his own viewpoint, Pound never disguised his criticism of writers he deplored and could be directly insulting. In his 1917 essay on George Crabbe he attacked Tennyson and his adoring British public and, referring to Queen Victoria with admirable republican contempt as “Viccy”, said that Tennyson wrote “for Viccy’s ignorant ear.” Pound was absolutely correct when, in this same essay, he pointed out that the Victorian public was so squeamish that it read Shakespeare in an “expurgated and even emended” edition. Tennyson’s chaste writing was just the Victorian public’s cup of tea — taken, I may add, with two lumps of sugar: one of syrupy familiar ideas that have been scrupulously bowdlerised, the second the simpleton’s notion of versification.

No one denies that there are some very sweet lines in Tennyson — for example, “There is sweet music here that softer falls/ Than petals from blown roses on the grass”— but a poem’s overall aesthetic appeal is not achieved by one or two beautiful spots on an otherwise very plain figure, and there’s a limit to how often we can resort to the moon and roses and think that that converts our trite language into poetry. Go back to Byron and even a random glance at a few stanzas of Don Juan will show what a real great poet can do to present his ideas in a language that has an exquisite intellectual freshness without being portentous, how delightfully inventive he can be with his versification though working under the constraint to write nearly 2000 stanzas in the strict form of ottava rima. But no, Byron’s ideas, when not threatening to stain their clean-bedsheet brains with sexual explicitness, were too taxing for the Victorians, who preferred the vapidity of William Wordsworth’s ‘Excursion’ which Byron, always right on the mark, dismissively labelled “a drowsy frowzy poem.”

That censoring Victorian preference for ideas that did not shock middlebrow taste and for a style that abjured formal experimentation has prevailed in England as a literary colonialism ever since, preserving and fostering mediocrity as serious literature as recently as 2016 when a memorial stone was laid in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner in honour of Philip Larkin. It made him the latest viceroy in the Tennysonian empire that Viccy — sorry, I meant Her Imperial Majesty Queen Victoria — of the ignorant ear would have approved.

The columnist is a poet, novelist and literary critic. His works include the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short fictions, Veronica and the Góngora Passion. He is Professor emeritus at the University of Texas

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 25th, 2018