He wrote also several historical dramas, the best of which is Becket (1884); but his genius was essentially lyrical, not dramatic. Crossing the Bar, written in his eighty-first year, is not only the finest product of his later years, but also one of the very best of Victorian lyrics.
[Illustration: FACSIMILE OF MS. OF CROSSING THE BAR.]
General Characteristics.—Tennyson is a poetic interpreter of the thought of the Victorian age. Huxley called him “the first poet since Lucretius who understood the drift of science.” In these four lines from The Princess, Tennyson gives the evolutionary history of the world, from nebula to man:—
“This world was once a fluid haze
Till toward the center set the starry tides,
And eddied into suns, that wheeling cast
The planets: then the monster, then the man.”
Tennyson’s poetry of nature is based on almost scientific observation of natural phenomena. Unlike Wordsworth, Tennyson does not regard nature as a manifestation of the divine spirit of love. He sees her more from the new scientific point of view, as “red in tooth and claw with rapine.” The hero of Maud says:—
“For nature is one with rapine,
a harm no preacher can heal;
The Mayfly is torn by the swallow, the sparrow spear’d by the
And the whole little wood where I sit is a world of plunder and
The constant warfare implied in the evolutionary theory of the survival of the fittest did not keep Tennyson from also presenting nature in her gentler aspects. In Maud, the lover sings—
“...whenever a March-wind sighs,
He sets the jewel-print of your feet
In violets blue as your eyes,”
and he tells how “the soul of the rose” passed into his blood, and how the sympathetic passion-flower dropped “a splendid tear.” As beautiful as is much of Tennyson’s nature poetry, he has not Wordsworth’s power to invest it with “the light of setting suns,” or to cause it to awaken “thoughts that do lie too deep for tears.”
The conflict between science and religion, the doubts and the sense of world-pain are mirrored in Tennyson’s verse. The Two Voices begins:—
“A still small voice spoke unto
Thou art so full of misery
Were it not better not to be?”
His poetry is, however, a great tonic to religious faith. The closing lines of In Memoriam and Crossing the Bar show how triumphantly he met all the doubts and the skepticism of the age.
Like Milton, Tennyson received much of his inspiration from books, especially from the classical writers; but this characteristic was more than counterbalanced by his acute observation and responsiveness to the thought of the age. Locksley Hall Sixty Years After shows that he was keenly alive to the social movements of the time.