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To what extent Tennyson is a romantic poet?

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Lord Alfred Tennyson, a consummate poetic artist, consolidated and refined the tradition bequeathed to him by his predecessors in the Romantic Movement (especially Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, Shelley). Beginning in the after math of Romantic Movement, Tennyson’s development as a poet is a romantic progression from introverted and inert states of mind towards emancipated consciousness.

The growth of consciousness, and the relationship between the self and the world beyond, are fundamental concerns of romantic poetry and poetic theory. The aesthetic implications of this self-realization are seen in the characteristically symbolic modes of Romantic poetry: in the sensuous imagery, which embodies states of feeling rather than being purely descriptive, in the subjective use of mythological fable, and in the adoption of dramatic persona. Tennyson employs each of these self-expression.

Most of the poems in 1830 volume are mood-paintings, and word pictures of highly sensitized, delicately attuned, febrile sensibility. The subject of ‘Mariana” , the girl deserted by her lover to pine alone in ‘the moated grange’, is taken from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, but Tennyson is not concerned with the love story. It is a poem in which ‘the feeling therein developed given importance to the action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feelings.” The characteristically romantic fusion of feeling with perception makes the silent-decaying house and its desolate landscape an embodiment of Mariana’s consciousness.

The Romantic poet, contrary to classic art, in which life is glorified and made beautiful and holy and something that in itself possesses “a supreme value over and above all other things” regards life “as false nature”; he is chained down to life by “a heavy weight of hours”; he is tired with life and cries for “restful death” or is “half in love with easeful death”. The mariners of The Lotos Eaters contemplate over life as being crushed under heavy and weary toil:

“Death is the end of life;ah, why Should life all labour be?”

And thus bring weary with life full of toil and ‘war with evil’ they urge:

“Give us long rest or death, drak death or dreadful ease,”

In this line we get a touch of Keatsian echo.

Passion and fascination for the past is an integral part of Romanticism and a longing for the “lost and gone” is the distinctive Tennysonian note. The quality for Tennyson most distressingly characterizes the present is its emptiness. “To me”, Tennyson once wrote to Emily Sellwood, “the far-off world seems nearer than the present, for in the present is always something unreal and indistinct, but the other seems a good solid planet, rolling round its green hills and paradises to the harmony of more steadfast laws.” Whereas the present seemed to Tennyson empty and unreal, the past “that good solid planet” was a world of plentitude of stability.

“Loksley Hall” embodies the feelings concerning the past. As the scene of the persona’s reverie and focal point of his memories, Locksley Hall becomes a veritable symbol of the past itself. The hall and its surroundings recall to the protagonist his “youthful sublime”:

“When the centuries behind me like a fruitful land reposed;

When I clung to all the present for the promise that is closed;

When I dept into the future far as human eye could see,

Saw the vision of the world all the wonder that would be.”

Thus the youthful bliss, which the scene evokes is especially characterized by the seeming continuity of past, present and future; the condition of happiness implies the perfect integration of the three temporal realms into a single bright vision.

In Memoriam stands as Tennyson’s most elaborate descant on the subject of loss and weaves together virtually all of the thoughts and feelings regarding the past and the passing of time, that pervade his work, especially that of pre-laureate period. In the elegy the loss of his friend becomes the “one pure image of regret” (CII) embodying those various longings and deprivations, which constitute Tennyson’s passion for past.

In “Ulysses” and “Tithonus” Tennyson dramatizes the contrast between what is now and what once was; between present and past. For Ulysses the past is glorious and the present hour of decaying; and for Tithonus the past id youthful enjoyment and the present ageing predicament.

A sense of dissatisfaction with the real world, often leading to a desire to escape from that world, constitutes the very essence of Romanticism. Again, Romanticism is to be found in the continuous search for avenues of escape from the world of facts. The poem “The Lotos Eaters” is not only about Lotos Island, it is a product of the Lotos Land of Tennyson’s mythological imagination. The most notable feature of this land of the lotos-eaters is its timelessness. It is “a land/In which it seemed always afternoon”, “A land where all things always seemed the same”. Time stands still and change and transience are unknown; the Lotos Land bears much testimony with the ideal world of Keats as described in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or “Ode to a Nightingale”.

This static existence is carefully set in sharp contrast to the ceaseless motion of the sea – “the wandering fields of barren foam” on which Odysseus and his men have been wearisomely journeying. The sea then represents a temporal existence and also the harsh facts of the world that assil and overthrow the equilibriums of life, from which the lotos fruits offer escape into “dreamful ease”. As a realm beyond the reach of time, the land of the lotos eaters depicts an imaginative ideal.

In his treatment of Nature, Tennyson is subjective only when he makes her the mirror of human moods and emotions. Both subjectivity and treatment of Nature are essence of Romantic movement.

Detailed accuracy almost invariably characterizes Tennyson’s treatment of nature. As we find in “Locksley Hall”-

“In the speing a fuller crimson comes upon the robin’s breast,

In the spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest.”

The poet’s eyes have indeed been upon his object; he has looked steadily at things for himself; he records carefully what he has seen. The use of natural images to achieve a dream landscape is again characteristic. The details are often well observed-

“A land of streams! Some, like a downward smoke,

Slow-dropping veils of thinnest lawn, did go;

Three silent pinnacles of aged snow

Stood sunset flushed…………………….”

[The Lotos Eaters: Tennyson]

Tennyson’s attitude to nature sometimes scientific –

“The hills are shadows, and they flow

From form to form, and nothing stands;

They melt like mist, the solid sands,

Like clouds they shape themselves and go.”

Here the poet is not thinking about the ordinary appearance of nature. He is thinking about what science has told him of the evolution of the world. His interpretation of nature is thus illuminated and transformed by science. The hills here become mere fleeting shadows – those everlasting hills, which from time immemorial have been for men, who judge by appearances alone, the pillars of the universe and the very symbols of eternity.

The landscapes in “In Memoriam” aim at mirroring the moment of his inner life. Nature “red in tooth and claw” could never be “all in all” to Tennyson. It gave him a world of phenomena, a series of pleasant pictures, but that was not enough. For spiritual satisfaction he had to saturate the landscape with human associations and human feelings. And this he did with wonderful effect. He linked together, as it were, the land and the people who lived on it.

Though Tennyson does not share some traits of the Romantics in his poetry like ‘the negative capability’ of Keats or seeing Nature as a living being influencing human soul or teaching man moral lessons, there are many qualities of the Romantic movement that we come across in Tennyson’s poetry. Had Tennyson been born a century earlier, he would have been a great Romantic.

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