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A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1780-1

Had greater poets than Tennyson


charge of prettiness is to be less completely ruled out; though it shows even greater mistake in those who do more than touch very lightly on it. In the earliest forms of the earlier poems not seldom, and occasionally in even the latest forms of the later, the exquisiteness of the poet's touch in music and in painting, in fancy and in form, did sometimes pass into something like finicalness, into what is called in another language _mignardise_. But this was only the necessary, and, after he was out of his apprenticeship, the minimised effect of his great poetical quality--that very quality of exquisiteness in form, in fancy, in painting, and in music which has just been stated. We have, it must be admitted, had greater poets than Tennyson. Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Shelley, undoubtedly deserve this preference to him; Wordsworth and Keats may deserve it. But we have had none so uniformly, and over such a large mass of work, exquisite. In the lighter fantastic veins he may sometimes be a little unsure in touch and taste; in satire and argument a little heavy, a little empty, a little rhetorical; in domestic and ethical subjects a little tame. But his handlings of these things form a very small part of his work. And in the rest none of all these faults appears, and their absence is due to the fact that nothing interferes with the exquisite perfection of the form. Some faults have been found with Tennyson's rhymes, though this is generally hypercriticism; and in his later years
he was a little too apt to accumulate tribrachs in his blank verse, a result of a mistaken sense of the true fact that he was better at slow rhythms than at quick, and of an attempt to cheat nature. But in all other respects his versification is by far the most perfect of any English poet, and results in a harmony positively incomparable. So also his colour and outline in conveying the visual image are based on a study of natural fact and a practice in transferring it to words which are equally beyond comparison. Take any one of a myriad of lines of Tennyson, and the mere arrangement of vowels and consonants will be a delight to the ear; let any one of a thousand of his descriptions body itself before the eye, and the picture will be like the things seen in a dream, but firmer and clearer.

Although, as has been said, the popularity of Lord Tennyson itself was not a plant of very rapid growth, and though but a short time before his position was undisputed it was admitted only by a minority, imposing in quality but far from strong in mere numbers, his chief rival during the latter part of their joint lives was vastly slower in gaining the public ear. It is not quite pleasant to think that the well-merited but comparatively accidental distinction of the Laureateship perhaps did more even for Tennyson in this respect than the intrinsic value of his work. Robert Browning had no such aid, his verse was even more abhorrent than Tennyson's to the tradition of the elders, and until he found a sort of back-way to please, he was even more indifferent to pleasing. So that while Tennyson became in a manner popular soon after 1850, two decades more had to pass before anything that could be called popularity came to Browning. It is, though the actual dates are well enough known to most people, still something of a surprise to remember that at that time he had been writing for very nearly forty years, and that his first book, though a little later than Tennyson's, actually appeared before the death of Coleridge and not more than a few months after that of Scott. Browning, about whose ancestry and parentage a good deal of mostly superfluous ink has been shed, was born, the son of a city man, on 7th May 1812, in the, according to the elder Mr. Weller, exceptional district of Camberwell. He was himself exceptional enough in more ways than one. His parents had means; but Browning did not receive the ordinary education of a well-to-do Englishman at school and college, and his learning, though sufficiently various, was privately obtained. _Pauline_, his first poem, appeared in 1833, but had been written about two years earlier. He did not reprint it in the first general collection of his verse, nor till after his popularity had been established; and it cannot be said to be of great intrinsic excellence. But it was distinctly characteristic:--first, in a strongly dramatic tone and strain without regular dramatic form; secondly, in a peculiar fluency of decasyllabic verse that could not be directly traced to any model; and, thirdly, in a certain quality of thought, which in later days for a long time received, and never entirely lost from the vulgar, the name of "obscurity," but which perhaps might be more justly termed breathlessness--the expression, if not the conception, of a man who either did not stop at all to pick his words, or was only careful to pick them out of the first choice that presented itself to him of something not commonplace.

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