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14 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Ghastly and Very Good but Never Great, 28 July 2010
This review is from: Selected Poems: Tennyson (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
Veering between ghastly and very good, Tennyson never quite makes it to sublime. A skilled and rhythmic wordsmith who perhaps tries a little too hard and in doing so exchanges emotional resonance for intellectual precision.

"Don't give me good generals, give me lucky generals," said Napoleon and maybe the same is true of poets. Tennyson had his share of luck, not least being the last man standing amongst the English Romantic poets -Coleridge, Shelly, Byron and Keats were all dead by 1842 when Tennyson published Poems, the collection of work that made his name, and Wordsworth was an old man of 72. So Tennyson filled a market gap with his somewhat sentimental and dreamy approach. At Wordsworth's death in 1850 the role of Poet Laureate (Britain's official poet in residence) became vacant and Wordsworth himself had recommended the 41 year-old Tennyson to succeed him. Queen Victoria's first choice candidate was the elderly Samuel Rogers but when he turned the job down, and with the Brownings in self-exile in Italy, Tennyson gained the role - using it successfully as a platform for self-promotion. He became (it is said) Victoria's favourite and in 1883 was granted the high honour of a Barony. He died a very old man of 83, a revered part of Victorian culture, and was buried in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner.

For all his contemporary success however, I think it's impossible not to admit that Tennyson's output is a bit mixed - perhaps hardly surprising over such a long career. There are some absolute clangers, like Ode on the Death of The Duke of Wellington, which he felt duty bound to produce given his official role. Then there is the highly romantic part of his output such as the Lady of Shallot and the Idylls of the Kings, which are the works that may be familiar from school. I recall my class reading Shallot aloud on a field trip to Tennyson's house at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight. These works are the poetic equivalent of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and many people are huge fans of such art, although for my taste it is too sugary.

The more serious part of Tennyson's output has two big components (in the sense of length) - In Memoriam, which took seventeen years to write, and Maud.

In Memoriam takes up over 100 pages - a third - of this edition and comprises 131 individual poems of various lengths but all written in the form ABBA (iambic tetrameter quatrains - so there!). The inspiration for these poems was the sudden death of Tennyson's best friend and prospective brother in law, Arthur Hallam, and the poems were written as a reflection on that friendship and loss. Tennyson weaves in bigger themes such as the meaning of existence, life after death and the nature of God. This last is mixed in with thoughts on some of the new Victorian science (such as fossil records and geology) that was questioning the traditional Bible view of creation. Since the poems were not originally written to be assembled into a whole, they don't flow from one thought to the next making it hard work for the reader. The experience is somewhat like being with an inconsolable, grieving friend. Their loss is very personal, their thoughts are scattered and nothing you say is going to make any difference. Whether you enjoy In Memorandum depends, I think, on how much empathy you would have for such a friend - Victoria apparently found this poem a great comfort after the death of her husband, Albert.

Maud is wholly different. Described as a monodrama, this is the story of the Narrator and Maud whose fathers agree at their births that they should be married. The plan goes wrong when the fathers quarrel but the Narrator and Maud still have feelings for each other and so the plot develops. Because this is a story it's a much easier read than In Memorandum and as a consequence Tennyson's ideas and phrasing fall more naturally to the reader.

For my money, Tennyson had a very high degree of competence generally falling short of real genius. He is very strong on rhythm and his frequent use of blank verse is effective in permitting him to get his thoughts across without letting the need for a rhyme tangle the sentence or line. There are plenty of neat expressions and interesting turns of phrase but he doesn't always nail it, so that much of the time the reader is left with a feeling that this is an intellectual not emotional exercise. It's rather like walking round a 19th century art gallery where it's clear that the artists can convincingly put paint on canvas but the pictures are not immediately revealing or appealing to a modern audience. As with art galleries, the trick is not to try to take in too much at once, and to avoid the dross. An occasional dipping in to Tennyson's better parts will give long-term rewards for the reader.
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 14 Oct 2010 22:15:24 BDT
E. Harris says:
I think you may have a typo in your review. The title of the work you describe is "In Memoriam". Of course, there may be some scholarly critique which says otherwise

In reply to an earlier post on 29 Oct 2010 11:51:58 BDT
Brownbear101 says:
Thank you

Posted on 19 Nov 2012 19:16:40 GMT
I'm not sure you should be reviewing the works of Tennyson, but the edition. Your personal generalisations are not very helpful.

In reply to an earlier post on 22 Nov 2012 09:47:24 GMT
Brownbear101 says:
Thank you. I'm afraid I don't agree, a review of the edition is useful to readers who know the works but not to those who are new to Tennyson. If all reviewers stuck to your formula then no review of a classic - Austen or Tolstoy, say - would say anything about the style or content of the work. For what it's worth this is an extremely professionally produced work by Penguin provided that you buy it in paperback as the Kindle edition has layout problems that render it unpleasant to read. Of course if you want a hardback edition as part of a long term library this is not the one for you.

In reply to an earlier post on 23 Nov 2012 17:57:23 GMT
[Deleted by the author on 23 Nov 2012 17:58:49 GMT]

Posted on 4 Feb 2013 18:31:01 GMT
M. R. Cox says:
A thoughtful and helpful review, Brownbear. After dithering, you're persuaded me to give Tennyson a "19th century art gallery" go. Thank you.

Posted on 1 Jun 2013 17:20:16 BDT
GlynLuke says:
I found this a thoughtful and useful review, thank you. I may not agree with all you say, but neither do I feel I need to, particularly as you`ve said it so well.

In reply to an earlier post on 21 Aug 2013 22:28:18 BDT
Brownbear101 says:
Many thanks. That's really how Amazon should be - opening up a debate not declaring a result. Do enjoy your reading.
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