But the grand poetical quality in which this volume gives to its author a new rank and standing is the dramatic power: the power of drawing character and of representing action. These faculties have not been precocious in Mr. Tennyson: but what is more material, they have come out in great force. He has always been fond of personal delineations, from Claribel and Lilian down to his Ida, his Psyche, and his Maud; but they have been of shadowy quality, doubtful as to flesh and blood, and with eyes having little or no speculation in them. But he is far greater and far better when he has, as he now has, a good raw material ready to his hand, than when he draws only on the airy or chaotic regions of what Carlyle calls unconditioned possibility. He is made not so much to convert the moor into the field, as the field into the rich and gorgeous garden. The imperfect nisus which might be remarked in some former works has at length reached the fulness of dramatic energy: in the Idylls we have nothing vague or dreamy to complain of: everything lives and moves, in the royal strength of nature: the fire of Prometheus has fairly caught the clay: every figure stands clear, broad, and sharp before us, as if it had sky for its background: and this of small as well as great, for even the “little novice” is projected on the canvas with the utmost truth and vigour, and with that admirable effect in heightening the great figure of Guinevere, which Patroclus produces for the character of Achilles, and (as some will have it) the modest structure of Saint Margaret’s for the giant proportions of Westminster Abbey. And this, we repeat, is the crowning gift of the poet: the power of conceiving and representing man.
We do not believe that a Milton—or, in other words, the writer of a “Paradise Lost”—could ever be so great as a Shakespeare or a Homer, because (setting aside all other questions) his chief characters are neither human, nor can they be legitimately founded upon humanity; and, moreover, what he has to represent of man is, by the very law of its being, limited in scale and development. Here at least the saying is a true one: Antiquitas saeculi, juventus mundi; rendered by our poet in “The Day-dream,”
For we are ancients of the earth,
And in the morning of the times.
The Adam and Eve of Paradise exhibit to us the first inception of our race; and neither then, nor after their first sad lesson, could they furnish those materials for representation, which their descendants have accumulated in the school of their incessant and many-coloured, but on the whole too gloomy, experience. To the long chapters of that experience every generation of man makes its own addition. Again we ask the aid of Mr. Tennyson in “Locksley Hall":—
Yet I doubt not through the ages one increasing
And the thoughts of men are widened with the process of the suns.