CELT document E890000-022

Impressions of Tennyson

Patrick Augustine Sheehan

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Impressions of Tennyson

It was somewhere far back in the sixties that I first made Tennyson's acquaintance. I had picked up the little green duodecimo of "In Memoriam", probably at some bookstand in Maynooth College, and had taken it with me into the class-hall during the hour's preparation for the class of Ecclesiastical History. The pages in the latter science with which we were supposed to be interested, dealt with Monophysites and Monothelites, &c., and I found it weary reading. So, carefully concealing my little 12mo under a volume of Receveur, I plunged into the mystery and philosophy of "In Memoriam". I was startled, puzzled, entranced, mystified by turns. I had read a good deal of poetry; but nothing like this. Why, it was I myself that was talking to myself through these short but mysterious lines It was a revelation. I turned to a student who sat next me, his eyes glued to some book. “Look here,” said I, “did you ever read this?” Like Cædmon, the poet herd,
“Slow were his eyes, and slow his speech, and slow his musing step.”
So he paused, looked the book over, returned it with the words: “I have read it, and I date my education from that hour.” After twenty-five years' experience, that verdict too is mine.

William Morris thinks that Tennyson is incomparably greater than Browning. So do we. But why? Because Browning, like Shelley and Byron, was a spendthrift of talent. Independent, as far as money was concerned, of the estimate that the British public might put upon his works, and more or less careless of fame, he wrote as he pleased that series of philosophical conundrums which are called his poems. Probably in less than twenty years his long and most tedious productions will be found only on the shelves of some literary epicure, and he will be remembered only by his short and powerful dramatic pieces. Tennyson had always an eye to publishers and public. He never offended his age by the prolixity of Browning, or the indecencies of Swinburne. He is a type of the modern Englishman — quiet and correct. As has been well said, “his passions never leave a heart-ache, nor his philosophy a head-ache.” But could Tennyson have written "Saul"? I doubt it.


The supreme excellence of the late Poet-Laurete is his knowledge, minute and precise, of the moods of nations and the moods of men, and his marvellous success in interpreting one by the other. Think of that incomparable lyric:
Break, break, break!
On thy cold grey stones, O Sea!
and is there any simile in the whole range of British poetry equal to this in Merlin and Vivien, when speaking of Merlin's anticipation of evil to come, the poet says:
So dark a forethought rolled around his brain,
As on a dull day in an ocean cave
The blind wave feeling round his long sea-hall
In silence.

Probably, however, the most perfect line for music and metre he wrote is that in Maud: —
And sleep must lie down armed, for the villainous centre-bits
Grind on the wakeful ear in the hush of the moonless nights.

And the most perfect for music, and metre, and poetry, is that of Locksley Hall:—
Love took up the harp of life, and smote on all its chords with might, —
Smote the chord of Self, that, trembling, passed in music out of sight.
Which is also true of the “amor intellectualis” of the saint.

I have some dim recollection, however, of a certain line in Dante's Paradise, where sleep is described as trembling before it vanishes before the awakened senses of the sleeper.

Tennyson's declamatory pieces, such as Locksley Hall: Sixty years after, Despair, &c., &c., can hardly be regarded as very successful. Yet there must have been some unique charm in his recitation of his poems, which was marked by a curious but not unpleasing monotony, varied by occasional, and very unexpected inflections. I have before me a woodcut, taken from Rossetti's drawing of Tennyson reading Maud. It represents the poet in quite an unconventional and unusual dress and attitude — not at all the brigand we are used to. He was very fond of Maud, whose minor meanings he sometimes maintained had never been understood.


But the best story of his reading is that of Bayard Taylor: —

I spoke of the idyl of Guinevere as being, perhaps, his finest poem, and said that I could not read it aloud without my voice breaking down at certain passages. “Why, I can read it and keep my voice!” he exclaimed, triumphantly. This I doubted, and he agreed to try, after we went down to our wives. But the first thing he did was to produce a magnum of wonderful sherry, thirty years old, which had been sent him by a poetic wine dealer. Such wine I never tasted. “It was meant to be drunk by Cleopatra or Catherine of Russia,” said Tennyson. We had two glasses apiece, when he said, “To-night you shall help me to drink one of the few bottles of my Waterloo — 1815.” The bottle was brought, and after another glass all round, Tennyson took up the Idylls of the King. His reading is a strange, monotonous chant, with unexpected falling inflexions, which I cannot describe, but can imitate exactly. It is very impressive. In spite of myself, I became very much excited as he went on. Finally, when Arthur forgives the Queen, Tennyson's voice fairly broke. I found tears on my cheeks, and Mr. and Mrs. Tennyson were crying, one on either side of me. He made an effort, and went on to the end closing grandly. “How can you say,” I asked (referring to previous conversation), “that you have no surety of permanent fame? This poem will only die with the language in which it is written.” Mrs. Tennyson started up from her couch. “It is true!” she exclaimed; “I have told Alfred the same thing.”

Try it, reader. It is a hard task to any one possessed of the least sensibility.

One of the best papers ever written on Tennyson is that by Mr. Hutton, which appeared in Macmillan's Magazine. The opening sentence ran: “Tennyson was an artist before he was at poet.” But he remained an artist to the end, the best proof of which is that you cannot alter one word in a single line of his poetry, withoult altering it for the worse. I think Matthew Arnoldwas as great an artist as Tennyson — but not so great a poet. But Tennyson and Arnold spoil one's taste for ever for other poetry than theirs.

Yet, Tennyson took a good many of his inspirations from Shakspeare; whilst the influence of Wordsworth is unmistakeable.  p.605 In fact, Tennyson is Wordsworth set to music, and slightly sensualized.

Arthur Henry Hallam, the A. H. H. of "In Memoriam" was described by Tennyson to be “as near perfection as mortal man could be.” He was betrothed to a sister of the poet, then in her seventeenth year, and had begun to teach her Italian, when he set out on that fateful journey which ended in his sudden death in Vicencia. The following is one of the sonnets he addressed to his fianc´ee —

  1. Lady, I bid thee to a sunny dome,
    Ringing with echoes of Italian song;
    Henceforth to thee these magic halls belong,
    And all the pleasant place is like a home.
    Hark on the right with full piano tone.
    Old Dante's voice encircles all the air:
    Hark yet again, like flute-tones mingling rare,
    Comes the keen sweetness of Petrarca's moan.
    Pass then the lintel freely: without fear
    Feast on the music. I do better know thee
    Than to suspect this pleasure thou dost owe me
    Will wrong thy gentle spirit, or make less dear
    That element whence thou must draw thy life
    An English maiden and an English wife.

And perhaps the readers of THE IRISH MONTHLY will not regret having the following lines which the maturer judgment of Tennyson excluded from "Maud", although they were in the original manuscript: —

  1. Will she smile, if he presses her hand.
    This Lord Captain up at the hall?
    Captain? He to hold command!
    He can hold a cue, he can pocket a ball;
    And sure not a bantam-cockrel lives,
    With a weaker crow upon English land,
    Whether he boast of a horse that gains,
    Or cackle his own applause.
    Bought commission! Can such as he
    Be wholesome guards for an English throne,
    When if France but made a lunge, why she,
    God knows, might prick us to the backbone.
    What use for a single month to rage
    At the rotten creak of the State machine,
    Though it makes friend weep and enemy smile,
    The sons of a grey, board-ridden isle,  p.606
    Should dance in a round of old routine
    While a few great families lead the reels,
    And pauper manhood lies in the dirt,
    And Favour and Wealth with guided heels
    Trample service and tried dessert?

Tennyson's works already promise to become as fruitful fields for controversy as Browning's. He has already set at rest the much disputed question of the personality of
“him who sings
To one clear harp in divers tones”
by declaring that it was Goethe he meant. But now comes the question, who is the pilot referred to in that wonderful valedictory, "Crossing the Bar". There actually have been suggestions that he meant his late son, Lionel, or perhaps Arthur Henry Hallam, but from the fact that the poet wrote Pilot with an initial capital, and for other obvious reasons, there cannot be a doubt 1 that he meant that
Strong Son of God, Immortal Love,
Whom we who have not seen Thy face,
By faith, and faith alone embrace
Believing where we cannot prove.

Notwithstanding his "Higher Pantheism," and his opinion —
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

We prefer to take the former lines as a profession of Tennyson's faith; yet we would have wished for something less Socratic and Pagan, and more Christian than the circumstances and details of his last death hour.

The Weekly Register thinks Coventry Patmore an eligible candidate for the Laureateship. If Ireland had a voice, it would unquestionably give the laurel wreath to him who was the intimate friend (and, were we living in more Christian times, we should say, quite the equal) of Wordsworth and TennysonAubrey de Vere.


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Title (uniform): Impressions of Tennyson

Author: Patrick Augustine Sheehan

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Electronic edition compiled by: Beatrix Färber

Funded by: School of History, University College, Cork

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  • [Details to follow].

Canon Sheehan on the Internet

  • http://www.canonsheehanremembered.com.


  1. Alfred Lord Tennyson, Poems (London 1842).
  2. Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam (London 1850).
  3. Herman Joseph Heuser, Canon Sheehan of Doneraile: the story of an Irish parish priest as told chiefly by himself in books, personal memoirs, and letters (New York 1917).
  4. Arthur Coussens. P. A. Sheehan, zijn leven en zijn werken (Brugge/Bruges 1923).
  5. Michael P. Linehan, Canon Sheehan of Doneraile: Priest, Novelist, Man of Letters (Dublin 1952).
  6. James O'Brien (ed.), The Collected Letters of Canon Sheehan of Doneraile, 1883–1913 (Wells 2013).
  7. James O'Brien, Canon Sheehan of Doneraile 1852–1913: Outlines for Literary Biography (Wells 2013). [Bibliographical references 205–11.]
  8. Joachim Fischer, 'Canon Sheehan und die deutsche Kultur', In: Joachim Fischer, Das Deutschlandbild der Iren 1890–1939, (Heidelberg: Winter 2000).
  9. Gabriel Doherty (ed), Proceedings of Canon Sheehan Symposium (Cork 2014).

The edition used in the digital edition

‘Impressions of Tennyson’. In: The Irish Monthly: A Magazine of General Literature‍ 20.233. Ed. by Matthew Russell SJ, pp. 602–606.

You can add this reference to your bibliographic database by copying or downloading the following:

  editor 	 = {},
  title 	 = {Impressions of Tennyson},
  journal 	 = {The Irish Monthly: A Magazine of General Literature},
  editor 	 = {Matthew Russell SJ},
  address 	 = {Dublin},
  publisher 	 = {Irish Jesuit Province},
  date 	 = {November 1892},
  volume 	 = {20 },
  number 	 = {233},
  pages 	 = {602–606}


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Creation: By Patrick Augustine Sheehan (1852–1913)

Date: 1892

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Keywords: essay; prose; 19c; AlfredTennyson; Aubrey de Vere; poetry

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  1. 2014-12-01: File proofed (2); bibliographic details added, SGML and HTML versions created. (ed. Beatrix Färber)
  2. 2014-11-28: Text proofed (1); structural and content mark-up added; TEI header created; file parsed and validated. (ed. Beatrix Färber)
  3. 2014-01-24: Text scanned. (file capture Benjamin Hazard)

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  1. Since the poet's death his son, Hallam Tennyson, who is the second Lord Tennyson, has settled this question in accordance with our contributor's view. 🢀


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