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M. TAINE ON TENNYSON AND ALFRED DE MUS8ET.
T SAID that the first poetical efforts of Tennyson were characterized by an absence of extravagance, moody bitterness, discontent with existing social arrangements, and all kinds of lawlessness or irregularity. Neither of licentiousness nor of satiric fury do we find a trace. We have exquisite perception of beauty, impassioned love of beauty, resolute trust or at least sustaining hope that beauty, unaided by ruder spells, will prove strong enough to attract an audience fit though few. Meaner allurements are proudly rejected. "There is a strange earnestness," says Arthur Hallam, in his valuable review of his friend's poems, " in his worship of beauty." Not only do these poems display no vulgar smartness, but no fun, no humor, no caricature. A Greek severity of style is everywhere apparent; a reverence as of one for whom song has in very truth the sacredness of worship. And even if we decide that, in the work of Tennyson as a whole, there is too much of rule and measure, too marked an absence of humor, too little of the wild witching graces of freedom, we arc, I think, safe in regarding the classic purity, the chastened enthusiasm—in one word, the moderation, of his first poems, as a good omen. The earnestness noted by Hallam was the best proof of capacity to take pains, the best guarantee of staying power. A similar spirit was strong in young Milton, strong also in Keats. Not only colossal genius, but concentrated and intense effort, are attested by Endymion, Lamia, Hyperion. I have been deeply impressed, in studying the early drawings of Turner, with the witness they bear that, for him also, the ministry of beauty had in it something of the earnestness of worship. It is not only that they show invincible patience, untiring pains, but that there is in them an instinctive shrinking from all exaggeration, from all sensational emphasis, from all tendency to jest. An imperious consciousness seems to warn him, as it warned the great Greek sculptors, that the slightest indulgence in caricature unfits the eye and the hand for their highest achievement—namely, to strike, in obedience to the sovereign imagination, the line of art. There is a gravity, a pure and solemn graciousness, in all Turner's early work, which only his superlative sense of beauty and love for light prevent from becoming formal. These are not the only instances that might be adduced to prove that a religious earnestness of application, and a reverent regard for purity and truth, have generally characterized the early period of those who have done great things cither in painting or in poetry.
"The early period;" yes, but has not Tennyson carried too much into manhood the moral fastidiousness, as well as the patient elaboration, of his first manner? M. Taine answers the question, not formally,indeed, yet explicitly enough, in the affirmative; and devotes fourteen or fifteen pages of his clever, but, I must be permitted to say, rather shallow essay on Tennyson, to a demonstration that he is the magnus Apollo of respectable mediocrity. M. Taine is too skilful a literary artist to give us a regular argument upon the subject. He adopts the more entertaining but equally effective method of setting before us a picture of that particular aspect of English society of which Tennyson's poetry is, he holds, at once the outcome and ihe mirror, contrasting it with a corresponding picture of French society, of which Alfred de Musset's poetry is the reflection, and leaving us to decide for ourselves, or rather suggesting very clearly that we ought to agree with him in deciding, that Alfred de Musset's is the greater and the manlier. M. Taine is one of the liveliest of companions; and though it is
wholly impossible for me to quote so long a passage, I shall need no apology for placing, in a brief summary, the main features of his description of the country and people whose; favorite poet is Tennyson, and of the country and people whose favorite poet is Alfred de Musset, before my readers. He begins with England.
Landing at Dover or Newhaven, you take rail and survey the country through which you are rapidly whirled. On all hands there are gentlemen's mansions, on the sides of lakes, on the shores of bays, on the banks of rivers, on every point where the hill-side offers a picturesque view. In these houses live the men who constitute the great world of England; London is for them but a place of business (rendezvous d'affaires); in the country they live, amuse themselves, receive their friends. The mansion is pretty and well - arranged; the lawn, soft as velvet, is rolled every morning. Here a huge rhododendron blooms like a bouquet, murmuring with bees; there honeysuckles and roses hang in clusters and festoons; elms, yewtrees, oaks show in the background their masses of foliage and their strength of stem. If we walk into the meadows, we see great oxen couched upon the rich grass, and sheep whose snowy wool suggests that they have just come from the washing. Entering the house, we note the careful commodiousness, we experience a studious anticipation of our least wants. All is correct, trim, highly finished; you fancy that the objects have had prizes at an Industrial Exhibition, or at least honorable mention. A fastidious cleanliness, as of Holland, reigns around, and the look of spick-and-span faultlessness is kept up by an array of domestic servants three times as numerous as in France. The whole domestic machine moves without a jar. You enter into conversation with your host. You find that his soul is serene and balanced. On leaving the university, he found his path in life marked out for him; he had no call to revolt against his Church, which is half reconciled to reason (a demi raisonnable), or against the constitution of his country, which is nobly liberal. He is tormented with no doubts, carried yvay by no theories, puzzled by no contradictions. He marries, looks after his tenantry, performs magisterial duties, cultivates polities, gets up associations, speaks at meetings, inspects schools, introduces improvements. He is potent and respected. He has the pleasures of self-complacency and of a quiet conscience. "Without doubt he is cultivated and occupied; ho is instructed, knows several languages, is desirous of precise information, and is kept by his newspapers au courant of all new ideas and discoveries." He rides, walks, hunts, lives much in the open air, and resists the ensnarements of that sedentary life which elsewhere conducts the man of our time to agitation of brain, enfeeblement of muscle, and excitement of nerves. "Such is the world, elegant and sensible, refined in point of well-being, regulated in point of conduct, which the tastes of a dilettante and the principles of a moralist shut into a kind of flowery enclosure, and prevent from looking beyond it."
Could any poet, asks M. Taine, be better adapted for such a world than Tennyson? Without being a pedant, he is moral. You can read him in the bosom of the family. He is not at war with society and life; he speaks nobly, tenderly, of God and the soul, without ecclesiastical partisanship; he has no violent expressions, no scandalous sentiments; there is no fear of his perverting any one. You could close his book, and straightway, without sense of contrast, hear " the gravo voice of the master of the mansion, who, before his kneeling domesties, reads family prayers." Nevertheless, in turning from his volume, you have on your lips a smile of pleasure. Its landscape painting delights the lover of the country. The ladies have been charmed with the poet's portraits of women. "They love him because they feel that he loves them." The exquisite finish of his style, his carefully-selected ideas, his chiselled sentences, suit the elegance of the scene. His poetry seems made
expressly for those citizens, rich, cultivated, and free, who arc the chiefs of modern England. "It forms part of their luxury as of their morality, is an eloquent confirmation of their principles, and a costly piece of furniture in their saloons."
Crossing now to France, and taking train for Paris, we find ourselves in a different world. There are on the route chateaux of nobles and houses of rich citizens; but it is not among these that you can look, as in England, for the world of thought, of elegance, of taste, that leads the nation. There are two peoples in France—the dining, sleeping, yawning Provincials; the thinking, daring, wide-awake and voluble Parisians. It is at the men of Paris we must look if we would know France. Behold them in the evening when the streets are lit up, and a luminous dust-haze envelops the busy, noisy, elbowing crowd, that swarms before the theatres, and sits behind the panes of the cafes. Their faces are haggard, their glance unquiet, their gestures nervous. Most of them are bald before thirty. If they are to have pleasure, they must have it in the form of excitement. "The dust of the boulevard impregnates the very ice that they eat." Their joys are artificial, and, as it were, snatched hastily while hurrying past; there is in those joys, therefore, something distempered and irritating, something akin to the glare of the cafes and the hollow gayety of the theatres. Patience, moderation, are unknown. Haste and exaggeration are the rule. Their minds are athirst for excitement, and they require every day "a provision of colored words, of piquant aneedotes, of new truths, of diversified ideas." They soon fall victims to ennui, and yet ennui is to them insufferable. They devote all their powers to self-amusement, and yet find that they are hardly amused at all. The succession of excitement and fatigue keeps their nerves on the strain, and their varnish of heartless gayety cracks twenty times a day, to reveal, beneath, a gulf of pain and of burning. But how keen-edged is their intellect, how free is their spirit! Bow