A Study of Poetry
By Bliss Perry
Public Domain Books
Believing as I do that a study of the complete work of some modern poet should accompany, if possible, every course in the general theory of poetry, I venture to print here an outline of topical work upon the poetry of Tennyson. Tennyson’s variety of poetic achievement is so great, and his technical resources are so remarkable, that he rewards the closest study, even on the part of those young Americans who cannot forget that he was a “Victorian”:
Topical Work Upon Tennyson
THE METHOD OF CRITICISM
[The scheme here suggested for the study of poetry is based upon the methods followed in this book. The student is advised to select some one poem, and to analyse its content and form as carefully as possible, in accordance with the outline printed below. The thought and feeling of the poem should be thoroughly comprehended as a whole before the work of analysis is begun; and after the analysis is completed, the student should endeavor again to regard the poem synthetically, i. e., in its total appeal to the aesthetic judgment, rather than mechanically and part by part.]
Form / Content
Of Nature. What sort of observation of natural phenomena is revealed in this poem? Impressions of movement, form, color, sound, hours of the day or night, seasons of the year; knowledge of scientific facts, etc.?
Of Man. What evidence of the poet’s direct knowledge of men? Of knowledge of man gained through acquaintance with Biblical, classical, foreign or English literature? Self-knowledge?
Of God. Perception of spiritual laws? Religious attitude? Is this poem consistent with his other poems?
B “Transforming Imagination”
Does the “raw material” presented by “sense impressions” undergo a real “change in kind” as it passes through the mind of the poet?
Do you feel in this poem the presence of a creative personality?
What evidence of poetic instinct in the selection of characteristic traits? In power of representation through images? In idealization?
What is to be said of the range and character of the poet’s vocabulary? Employment of figurative language? Selection of metre? Use of rhymes? Modification of rhythm and sound to suggest the idea conveyed? Imitative effects?
In general, is there harmony between form and content, or is there evidence of the artist’s caring for one rather than the other?
TENNYSON’S LYRIC POETRY
[Write a criticism of the distinctively lyrical work of Tennyson, based upon an investigation at first hand of the topics suggested below. Do not deal with any poems in which the narrative or dramatic element seems to you the predominant one, as those forms of expression will be made the subject of subsequent papers.]
A. “IMPRESSION” (i. e., experience, thought, emotion).
General Characteristics. Does the freshness of the lyric mood seem in Tennyson’s case dependent upon any philosophical position? Upon sensitiveness to successive experiences?
Is his lyric egoism a noble one? How far does he identify himself with his race? With humanity?
Is his lyric passion always genuine? If not, give examples of lyrics that are deficient in sincerity. Is the lyric passion sustained as the poet grows old?
Of Nature. What part does the observation of natural phenomena–such as form, color, sound, hours of the day or night, seasons, the sky, the sea–play in these poems? To what extent is the lyrical emotion called forth by the details of nature? By her composite effects? Give instances of the poetic use of scientific facts.
Of Man. What human relationships furnish the themes for his lyrics? In the love- lyrics, what different relationships of men and women? To what extent does he find a lyric motive in friendship? In patriotism? How much of his lyric poetry seems to spring from direct contact with men? From introspection? From contact with men through the medium of books? How clearly do his lyrics reflect the social problems of his own time? In his later lyrics are there traces of deeper or shallower interest in men and women? Of greater or less faith in the progress of society?
Of God. Mention lyrics whose themes are based in such conceptions as freedom, duty, moral responsibility. Does Tennyson’s lyric poetry reveal a sense of spiritual law? Is the poet’s own attitude clearly evident?
B. “Transforming Imagination.”
What evidence of poetic instinct in the selection of characteristic traits? In power of representation through images? Distinguish between lyrics that owe their poetic quality to the Imagination, and those created by the Fancy. (Note Alden’s discussion of this point; “Introduction to Poetry,” pp. 102-112.) How far is Tennyson’s personality indicated by these instinctive processes through which his poetical material is transformed?
What may be said in general of his handling of the lyric form: as to unity, brevity, simplicity of structure? Occasional use of presentative rather than representative language? Choice of metres? Use of rhymes? Modification of rhythm and sound to suit the idea conveyed? Evidence of the artist’s caring for either form or content to the neglect of the other? Note whatever differences may be traced, in all these respects, between Tennyson’s earlier and later lyrics.
TENNYSON’S NARRATIVE POETRY
[Write a criticism of the distinctively narrative work of Tennyson, based upon the questions suggested below.]
A. “IMPRESSION” (i. e., experience, thought, emotion).
General Characteristics. After classifying Tennyson’s narrative poetry, how many of his themes seem to you to be of his own invention? Name those based, ostensibly at least, upon the poet’s own experience. To what extent do you find his narrative work purely objective, i. e., without admixture of reflective or didactic elements? What themes are of mythical or legendary origin? Of those having a historical basis, how many are drawn from English sources? Does his use of narrative material ever show a deficiency of emotion; i. e., could the story have been better told in prose? Has he the story-telling gift?
Of Nature. How far does the description of natural phenomena, as outlined in Topic II, A, enter into Tennyson’s narrative poetry? Does it always have a subordinate place, as a part of the setting of the story? Does it overlay the story with too ornate detail? Does it ever retard the movement unduly?
Of Man. (Note that some of the points mentioned under General Characteristics apply here.)
What can you say of Tennyson’s power of observing character? Of conceiving characters in complication and collision with one another or with circumstances? Give illustrations of the range of human relationships touched upon in these poems. Do the later narratives show an increased proportion of tragic situations? Does Tennyson’s narrative poetry throw any light upon his attitude towards contemporary English society?
Of God. (See Topic II, A.)
B. “Transforming Imagination.”
Adjust the questions already suggested under Topic II, B, to narrative poetry. Note especially the revelation of Tennyson’s personality through the instinctive processes by which his narrative material is transformed.
What may be said in general of his handling of the narrative form, i. e., his management of the setting, the characters and the plot in relation to one another? Have his longer poems, like the “Idylls,” and “The Princess," the unity, breadth, and sustained elevation of style that are usually associated with epic poetry? What can you say of Tennyson’s mastery of distinctly narrative metres? Of his technical skill in suiting rhythm and sound to the requirements of his story?
[Reference books for the study of the technique of the drama are easily available. As preparatory work it will be well to make a careful study of Tennyson’s dramatic monologues, both in the earlier and later periods. These throw a good deal of light upon his skill in making characters delineate themselves, and they reveal incidentally some of his methods of dramatic narrative. For this paper, however, please confine your criticism to “Queen Mary,” “Harold,” “Becket,” “The Cup,” “The Falcon,” “The Promise of May,” and “The Foresters.” In studying “Becket,” compare Irving’s stage version of the play (Macmillan).]
A. Classify the themes of Tennyson’s dramas. Do you think that these themes offer promising dramatic material? Do you regard Tennyson’s previous literary experience as a help or a hindrance to success in the drama?
Nature. Apply what is suggested under this head in Topics I, II, and III, to drama.
Man. Apply to the dramas what is suggested under this head in Topics II and III, especially as regards the observation of character, the conception of characters in collision, and the sense of the variety of human relationships. Do these plays give evidence of a genuine comic sense? What tragic forces seem to have made the most impression upon Tennyson? Give illustrations, from the plays, of the conflict of the individual with institutions.
God. Comment upon Tennyson’s doctrine of necessity and retribution. Does his allotment of poetic justice show a sympathy with the moral order of the world? Are these plays in harmony with Tennyson’s theology, as indicated elsewhere in his work? Do they contain any clear exposition of the problems of the religious life?
B. Compare Topic II, B. In the historical dramas, can you trace the influence of the poet’s own personality in giving color to historical personages? Compare Tennyson’s delineation of any of these personages with that of other poets, novelists, or historians. Do you think he has the power of creating a character, in the same sense as Shakespeare had it? How much of his dramatic work do you consider purely objective, i. e., untinged by what was called the lyric egoism?
C. What may be said in general of Tennyson’s handling of the dramatic form? Has he “the dramatic sense”? Of his management of the web of circumstance in which the characters are involved and brought into conflict? Comment upon his technical skill as displayed in the different “parts” and “moments” of his dramas. Does his exhibition of action fulfill dramatic requirements? Is his vocabulary suited to stage purposes? Give instances of his purely lyric and narrative gifts as incidentally illustrated in his dramas. Instance passages that cannot in your opinion be successfully acted. In your reading of these plays, or observation of any of them that you have seen acted, are you conscious of the absence of any quality or qualities that would heighten the pleasure they yield you? Taken as a whole, is the form of the various plays artistically in harmony with the themes employed?