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SOCIETY IN FRANCE.
son grew up amidst a society which, in the vital organs, was substantially sound. In France the succession, since the seventeenth century, had been triumphant Popery, consolidated despotism, Voltaireism, rebellion, despair; in England it had been Protestantism, constitutional government, scientific and industrial progress. If Alfred de Musset proved his sincerity by being true to the prevailing sentiment of France, Tennyson proved his sincerity by being true to the practical ideal which he saw around him in England. Society in France I believe to be now much more sound; but it is of the France and the England of 1830 that I have been speaking.
Tennyson's Poems On Maekiaoe.
r I \E[E earliest poem in which Tennyson takes for his subject -*- the marriage relationship is The Miller's Daughter, the earliest, and in some respects the most delightful, though not, by a great deal, the most powerful. What is, perhaps, most surprising about it is that it should be the work of a young man; for though it breathes the sweetest freshness of youth, it contains the quintessence of what I cannot define except by coining the queer-looking word, "elderly -gentleman -liness." It is pervaded with the pensive quietude, the subdued but mellow radiance, of life's afternoon. With consummate dramatic power the unmarried poet relates the experience, and depicts the feelings, of one who has been long married. Other young poets have bestirred themselves to give burning expression to the ardor of the lover—to show the flaming eyes and heaving breast of Apollo as he pursued his Daphne; young Tennyson throws his strength into verses in which are described the proud constancy, the satisfied devotion, of the husband.
Look thro' mine eyes with thine. True wife,
My other dearer life in life,
Goethe's, Schiller's, Burns's lovers speak of moments of rapture; this lover speaks of the peace that has been the atmosphere of his life for many years.
The scenery of the poem is no longer that of Lincolnshire; it is that which surrounds Cambridge. A mill is pointed out in the vicinity of that town, which can stand as well for the mill of the poem as the cottage under Salisbury Crags at Edinburgh, shown as that of David Deans, stands for the cottage in which Scott placed the heroine of the Heart of Midlothian. Here, as always, Tennyson paints by particular touches, not by vague generalities. In the crystal eddies of the mill-dam, the minnows " glance and poise." If you looked at minnows every day for a week, you would not learn much more about them than lies in these two words. The whole biography of a minnow is there. To poise in perfect stillness and almost perfect invisibility, and then to become visible for the tenth part of a second in that strange glancing gleam, or glint, of the silvery side, as the tiny creature darts away—this is the complete circle of a minnow's observable activities. There is a subtle imaginative keeping, though the poet probably had no thought of it, between the quietness of emotional tone throughout the poem and the circumstance that the lover first sees Alice reflected in water. "The reflex of a beauteous form, a glowing arm, a gleaming neck," caught his eye in the mill-dam as he was listlessly angling; he looked up, he saw her leaning from the window-ledge, their eyes met, and they loved. There is a curious maturity of observation in the following verse:
My mother thought, What ails the boy?
For I was altcr'd, and began
And with the certain step of man.
A piece of knowledge this which one would expect to be more clearly apprehended by an old man than by a stripling. Often, indeed, as life goes on, and as we live over again in meditation the scenes of by-gone years, our own actions and the feelings and motives of other people, which were dim to us at the time. become distinct. Experience has taught us to interpret. In exquisite dramatic accordance, also, with the retrospective interest of an elderly man, is the specification of objects which happy love clothed, for him, with a new charm. Had you asked the youth, he would have spoken only of his Alice; the old man dwells garrulously, and with Morland-likc picturesqueness of detail, on the objects which had been gilded with the light of love.
I loved the brimming wave that swam
Thro' quiet meadows round the mill,
The pool beneath it never still,
The dark round of the dripping wheel,
Made dusty with the floating meal.
But quiet as is its tone and tenderly domestic as is its spirit, there is nothing conventional in The Miller's Daughter. Here, as decisively as in any work of Byron's or Alfred de Musset's, the rights of the heart arc asserted, the essentials of a just, wise, and seemly marriage arc postulated, the fundamental ordinance on which a healthful and happy social system can be reared is laid down. When I refer to Byron and Alfred de Musset I do not mean to imply that they give the good side of domestic life, but only that Tennyson casts out, as vigorously as they cast out, the demon of worldliness that turns the hearth into a pandemonium. Writers of the atheistie-revolutionary or Satanic school jeer at the family, laugh domestic sentiment to scorn, and thus in effect advocate a dissolution of society. Tennyson addresses himself to the more difficult task of denouncing the conventionality and Mammon-worship, by which marriage may be rendered the vilest slavery and the bitterest torment, while, at the same time, he celebrates that true marriage, that healthful and holy family life, which has its roots in mutual affection, in mutual fitness, and which is guarded by a THE MILLER'S DAUGHTER.
constancy as strong as heaven's blue arch, and yet as spontaneous as the heart-beats of a happy child.
In this poem we have these things only in germ, but the germ is beautiful. The young squire marries the miller's daughter. All the traditions of worldliness, all the rules of Mammon-worship, all those buckram proprieties which are woven into shrouds and cerements to crush the soul out of living men and women, are defied in such an arrangement. Had the boy-squire's father been alive, it might not have been practicable. In no instance does Tennyson make the father bend his pride to consent to the unequal marriage of a son or of a daughter. But, like Chaucer, Shakspeare, and Ruskin, he seems to have lurking somewhere in his heart a faith that women, when they are good, are infinitely good, infallibly wise, capable of getting nearer to the mother-heart of nature than men. The squire, had he been alive, might have made insuperable difficulties, but the mother did what was right.
And slowly was my mother brought
To yield consent to my desire:
I might have look'd a little higher;
And I was young—too young to wed:
Go fetch your Alice here," she said:
What I have said, however, in praise of Tennyson's treatment of the marriage relationship would require grave qualification if The Miller's Daughter were his sole poem upon the subject. Perfect as the piece is in its way, its character is too negative. The Satanic people might plausibly urge that, if this is a delineation of ideal marriage, it is indeed a state of ignoble though pleasurable repose. The bracing and inspiring influences of rightly constituted marriage are not even hinted at.