In Whitman's Hand


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Title: The Poet Laureate as Philosopher and Peer

Creators: Walt Whitman, Henry Stevens Salt, Ernest Radford

Annotation Date: After February 1, 1884

Base Document Citation: Henry Stevens Salt, "The Poet Laureate as Philosopher and Peer," To-Day: The Monthly Magazine of Scientific Socialism 1 (1884), 135–147.

Whitman Archive ID: loc.03801

Source: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Transcribed from digital images of the original item. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the marginalia and annotations, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Laura Beerits, Ty Alyea, Lauren Grewe, and Matt Cohen


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The Poet Laureate as Philosopher and Peer.


IN one of Victor Hugo's most remarkable novels, "L'Homme qui Rit," we have a strange account of the discovery of an unknown Baron, and his sudden and startling appearance in the House of Lords. Gwynplaine, "the man who laughs," the hero of this fantastic story, was the heir to an English peerage, who, by a Court plot, had been stolen in his infancy, mutilated, and exposed to die on the shore of Dorsetshire. By a refinement of cruelty, the muscles of his face had been so cut as to cause him to wear a perpetual and ghastly grin, which had the effect of producing the contagion of irrepressible laughter in those who beheld him. Rescued from death, and brought up as a strolling stage-player, under the title of "L'Homme qui Rit," he was at last discovered to be a peer of the realm, and took that place in the august assembly to which his rank entitled him. A memorable scene then ensued. Rising to speak on the motion then before the House, which was the question of a grant of money to a member of the royal family, he succeeded in restraining, by a desperate effort, the laugh which was usually on his face, and delivered to the astonished peers a powerful democratic and revolutionary harangue. His audience sat in amazed silence; but, unfortunately, in the middle of his speech, he was so carried away by emotion that he relaxed the constraint which he had put upon his features, and broke forth into the fatal laugh. The effect was instantaneous. A vast

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136 TO-DAY.

and uncontrollable fit of laughter seized upon the whole assembly; dukes and lords clapped their hands and vied in their derisive shouts; bishops held their sides; the Lord Chancellor covered his face; and the House adjourned in the wildest excitement and confusion.

But what has this to do with Lord Tennyson? The gravity of his features, and his well-known aversion to any display of revolutionary sentiment, seem to preclude any possibility of a comparison of his appearance in the House of Lords with the scene I have just described. He is not a man who laughs, and he is not likely to say anything which would appear ridiculous to his fellow peers. And yet, rightly regarded, his advent to the House of Lords is perhaps a more laughable event than any which fiction has imagined. That a man who bore the name of Alfred Tennyson, a name which will always be remembered and revered wherever the English language is spoken, should be willing to enter an assembly which is in direct and glaring opposition to all the noblest instincts of the English people, this in itself is enough, one would imagine, to elicit laughter, loud and irrepressible, from the gravest of poets and the demurest of senates. And if it excites no such audible display of feeling among the parties most closely concerned, it is nevertheless a fact that it has caused much amazement and ridicule in the nation at large. The civilized world has laughed at this ludicrous spectacle—a man of genius, a man of the people, joining the ranks of the most bigoted and selfish of aristocratic assemblies.

Yet it should be remembered that this last act, which has excited such widespread surprise and disapprobation among almost all classes of Englishmen, is nothing more than the culminating point of a process which has long been going on. It cannot be denied that during the last ten years the whole weight of the Poet Laureate's influence has been thrown more and more in favour of the Conservative and reactionary party; while professing to stand aloof from the troubled

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element of politics, he has, for all practical purposes, done all that he could to arrest the march of free thought, and to hinder the awakening of the people. The bigoted and intolerant tone of many of his late poems has caused sorrow and disappointment to all true-hearted Reformers, and is the more deplorable and inconsistent since it comes from one who hitherto posed as himself a champion of independent thought and a lover of liberty. But, after all, it is perhaps better that we should now have in Lord Tennyson a professed opponent rather than a lukewarm friend; and, in spite of his great and deserved reputation as a poet, his loss to the cause of liberty will be found to be less serious than might at first sight be imagined. For, while we fully admit the greatness of his purely poetical powers, we have no hesitation in asserting that the thought which runs through his writings is as feeble as the expression is beautiful. His philosophy, if such it can be called, was false and hollow from the beginning, and has become more and more unscientific with increasing age and intolerance.

Here it may be objected that we are raising unnecessary difficulties in discussing the philosophy of a poet. "It is the duty of a poet," say some, "to sing, and not to teach." This may or may not be true as regards the duty of poets in general, but it certainly is not the course that has been followed by Lord Tennyson; it is not the view that he himself has taken of his own duties and capabilities. Would to heaven that it were so! It would have been better for him and for all of us if he had thought it well to follow the wise example of Gray, and Collins, and Keats, and restrain himself to that art of poetry in which he has so few rivals. For if ever a poet has come near to perfection in his work, Lord Tennyson has done so in those poems where a great but simple thought had to be expressed, and where there was no room for the introduction of any controversial matter. For example, in "Ulysses" we have a splendid representation of the indomitable energy of the will; in the "Lotos Eaters,"

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138 TO-DAY.

of rest; in "St. Agnes' Eve," of purity and resignation; in "Rizpah," of horror, and pity, and love. But, unfortunately, the Poet Laureate was not content with this simplicity of subject; he has deliberately descended into the arena of strife, and must be judged accordingly. Indeed, it is so obviously useless to attempt to exonerate him from this criticism that many of his admirers boldly take the bull by the horns and claim for him the position of a great teacher and thinker. It will be found, I fear, that his thoughts when sifted are light as chaff, and that his philosophical system is a mixture of opportunism and shallow optimist theories. In his delightful poem of "Will Waterproof's Lyrical Monologue," he has described the process of his own poetic inspiration, and the influence of his Muse:

"Until the charm have power to make
New life-blood warm the bosom,
And barren common-places break
In full and kindly blossom."

One could hardly desire a more correct description of Lord Tennyson's practical philosophy. It is expressed in language of the fullest and kindliest blossom; but the common-places of his thought will be found on investigation to be very barren indeed.

Let us now proceed to consider the tendency of the Poet Laureate's teaching on questions of religion, morality, and politics. Lord Tennyson is often claimed as an ally by the orthodox church party; but it may be doubted whether he is at heart a very 'sound' champion of the faith, at any rate on the question of the truth of Christian dogma. It should be noticed that on this subject the assistance he has given to orthodox belief has been less by any outspoken avowal than by hints and suggestions, which imply a sympathetic feeling, but are no guarantee of personal adherence. He gives the Christian the advantage, so to speak, of the best position in his poems; he loves to throw a favourable light on the orthodox portions of the picture and an unfavourable light on the reverse; and thus in an indirect way he has undoubtedly

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done service to the Church. But his attitude is always such as to suggest the idea that he believes Christian doctrine must be upheld less for its own inherent truth, than because it is bound up with some external advantage to mankind. As an instance of this indirect approval, we may refer to the passage in "The Two Voices," where the speaker, after long hesitation between the advantages of death or life, is cheered by the sweet and balmy airs of a lovely morning. It is of course a Sabbath morning.

"Like softened winds that blowing steal,
When meres begin to uncongeal,
The sweet church bells began to peal.
"On to God's house the people prest:
Passing the place where each must rest,
Each entered like a welcome guest."

The sight of this solemn scene rescues the would-be suicide from the gloomy depths of his despair. It is a slight touch, but it is characteristic of Lord Tennyson's narrow and partial delineations of human nature.

Other examples will readily occur to the mind; perhaps the most striking is to be found in one of his later poems, "In the Children's Hospital." There, among other characters, we have a description of a terrible doctor, with red hair, big voice, big merciless hands, fresh from the surgery-schools of France, and addicted to the worst practices of vivisection, who roughly informs the hospital nurse that one of the children under her charge is dying and will not need more of her care. When she timidly suggests that there is the more need "to seek the Lord Jesus in prayer," he treats her with brutal scorn.

"Then he mutter'd half to himself, but I know that I heard him say,
'All very well—but the good Lord Jesus has had his day.'"

In this passage Lord Tennyson has deliberately gone out of his way to couple disbelief with roughness and brutality, and I cannot imagine anything more disingenuous than to draw a picture which may conceivably be true in itself, but is calculated to suggest an absolutely erroneous inference to the mind. There may be doctors like the one described,

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140 TO-DAY.

devoid of all gentleness and humanity; but, as Lord Tennyson knows very well, it is not their belief or disbelief that has made them so. Gentleness is not an invariable concomitant of Christianity any more than of scepticism.

We shall come to still worse instances by-and-by on other questions, but this is no unfair example of the illogical and indirect aid which the Poet Laureate renders now and again to the church party on the subject of Christianity. He never meets the unbeliever face to face as an avowed opponent, but he sneaks behind him and trips him up unawares, or gives him a foul blow "below the belt," while posing all the time as the impartial and philosophical by-stander who wrote those famous lines (but that was many a year ago.)

"There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds."

Such is Lord Tennyson's attitude with regard to Christianity. But there is another question in which he has taken a far more pronounced part, and has shown himself more and more intolerant and dogmatic in his advancing age; though, unfortunately, here also he has adopted that circuitous and illogical method which I have just noticed. The immortality of the soul is not merely the cardinal belief of the Poet Laureate's philosophy—in that he would be at one with many of the best and noblest teachers of mankind; but it is the sine quâ non of his morality, the condition without which life is worthless, the criterion by which he passes immutable judgment on the characters of his fellow-men. To illustrate this it will be necessary to touch briefly on three or four of his poems, and first on "In Memoriam," the tenderest and noblest of all his works. It is worthy of remark that in this poem, where he has himself felt most deeply, he is least intolerant of the opinion of others. As he himself says:—

"If these brief lays, of sorrow born,
Were taken to be such as closed
Grave doubts and answers here proposed,
Then these were such as men might scorn."

This is a true and sensible estimate of the philosophical value not only of "In Memoriam," but of all Lord Tennyson's

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poetry; and had this wise thought been kept in remembrance such a poem as "Despair" would never have been written, and that ill-starred drama, "The Promise of May," would never have made its brief appearance on the stage. But even in "In Memoriam," tender and beautiful as the poem is, we may discover the germs of that fatal fallacy, lately developed to the full in the Poet Laureate's philosophy, that happiness and morality in this present life are dependent on a belief in a future existence.

"Not only cunning casts in clay:
Let Science prove we are, and then
What matters Science unto men—
At least, to me? I would not stay.
Let him, the wiser man, who springs
Hereafter, up from childhood shape
His action like the greater ape,
But I was born to other things."

Passing over this astounding misrepresentation of the theory of evolution let the reader note well the extraordinary idea of "not staying;" for therein is struck the key-note of much of the Tennysonian philosophy. It is indeed sad that a great writer should lend his sanction to the foolish clamour, so often raised by those who cling desperately to some particular form of belief, that unless their special doctrine be true, life would no longer be worth living, and the call of duty would no longer fall with authority on our ears. How different from this cuckoo-cry are the noble words of Frederick Robertson, himself a far firmer believerthan Lord Tennyson:—

If there be no God and no future state, yet, even then, it is better to be generous than selfish, better to be true than false, better to be brave than to be a coward. Blessed beyond all earthly blessedness is the man who, in the tempestuous darkness of the soul, has dared to hold fast to these venerable landmarks."*

This, however, is not the opinion of the Poet Laureate. With him there must be a sure belief in futurity, or there can be no action in the present. Virtue is not her own reward,


*Address to Brighton working men.

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as we have lately been taught by some mistaken moralists, but, as we learn from the poem entitled, "Wages," needs

"The glory of going on, and still to be."

But let me quote Lord Tennyson's own words:—

The wages of sin is death: if the wages of virtue be dust,
Would she have heart to endure for the life of the worm or the fly?"

One would have thought that even under these depressing circumstances a really religious and virtuous man would find much work to do in the world, and many a duty to perform; but virtue, in the gospel according to Lord Tennyson, thinks otherwise. Take away the eternity on which she has set her heart, and—"She will not stay."

But if there is some faulty teaching in "Wages" and "In Memoriam," what shall we say when we come to "Despair" and "The Promise of May"? In the former of these we have a terrible picture of a hopeless life and attempted suicide; in the latter of a life spent in deliberate vice and heartless libertinism; in both we are given to understand that the evil is the direct consequence of scepticism and unbelief. Can anything be more grossly unfair and misleading than this? No doubt cases may occur where, in a peculiar class of character, loss of belief leads to unhappiness and even ruin; but that can hardly be held to justify a poet or dramatist in taking such individual cases and representing them as a general law. It would be at least equally easy to produce instances where exactly the contrary has occurred, where disbelief in the supernatural has led to a surer morality, a sounder judgment, and an altogether happier estimate of life. But, we, know, any stick is good enough to beat a dog with; and, in his crusade against dogs of unbelievers, Lord Tennyson has no scruples as regards his choice of weapons.

Since morality, according to the Poet Laureate's teaching, is thus dependent on the holding of certain religious beliefs, we shall not be surprised if we find it taking strange forms in some of the characters which he has delineated in his poems. His treatment of the chief characters in the "Idylls of the

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King," especially at the close of the story, will furnish a remarkable instance of his modus operandi. Anyone who has read Sir Thomas Malory's "History of King Arthur" compiled about the year 1470 from still earlier romances, must have noticed how greatly Lord Tennyson is throughout indebted to the old historian for the subject-matter and even the words of his Epic. But there is one important difference in his version of the Arthurian legend, and that too in the most vital and interesting part—the love of Lancelot and Guinevere. In the old story, though the fatal results of this guilty love are narrated sternly and unsparingly, the fact is never lost sight of that the lovers are true to each other to the bitter end; it is Lancelot and not the King who visits Guinevere in the sanctuary; it is Lancelot who, after the Queen's death, bears her body from Almesbury to its resting-place at Glastonbury; it is Lancelot who lingers and agonizes over her tomb, until death relieves him from his sorrow, and "the angels heave up Sir Lancelot towards heaven, and the gates of heaven open against him." Nothing can exceed the simple pathos and dignity of the story as thus told by the ancient historian, and those who know and love it cannot readily forgive Lord Tennyson for the alterations he has thought fit to introduce, however beautiful the language, in his Idyll "Guinevere." The sudden repentance of the Queen; the discovery that Arthur, not Lancelot, is her own true lord; the one hope to be the mate of Arthur "hereafter in the heavens"—all this is very gratifying to the cheap Daily Telegraph morality of the nineteenth century, but it is very untrue to nature, and very unlike the work of a great teacher. It is worthy of Dr. Watts, of Martin Tupper, or of Canon Farrar —that complacent trinity of well-meaning moral mediocrities —but it is not worthy of Alfred Tennyson.

The defects of the teaching in "Maud" are as glaring as the poetry is beautiful; but they have been so often exposed before now, that there is no need to dwell upon them here. It may be said, of course, that the Crimean war was a national

Vol. I.—No. 2. New Series. K.

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and not an individual error; yet it is sad to think that the most furious denunciation of peace and the most foolish beatification of war are to be found in the works of the leading English poet of that generation. Lord Beaconsfield is popularly regarded as the chief author and exponent of the doctrine of Jingoism, but even that cynical statesman never advocated a spirited policy with such deliberate persistence as was done in the pages of "Maud" by that great moral teacher, Lord Tennyson, author of the famous lines—

"Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace."

I have no space here to consider the questions treated of in the "Princess" and "Enoch Arden." The more one studies the former, the more one is convinced that it was rightly styled by its author "A Medley"; and those who analyse the story of Enoch Arden may well feel a grave doubt whether it has been handled with the delicacy which is supposed to be one of the Poet Laureate's special characteristics. But, letting that pass, I should like to remark, before leaving this part of our subject, that the characters drawn by Lord Tennyson are, with few exceptions, conspicuous for some grave defect, some moral flaw, which is the more fatal because it is unintentional on the part of the author. For of all faults to which a teacher of morality is liable, the worst is obviously that of not knowing whether he is describing what is moral or the contrary. If we study the Tennysonian characters, whether it be the hero of "Maud," rushing off to the wars to kill other people because he has been unfortunate in his domestic career; or the hero of "Locksley Hall" departing "seaward," and invoking a thunderbolt on his Amy's residence; or Leoline, in "Aylmer's Field," committing suicide on the news of Edith's death; or the nurse in "The Children's Hospital" passionately asserting that she could not serve in the wards unless Christianity were true; we sha[cut away] recognise in all of them the same moral defect, the same lac[cut away] of any solid faith and well-founded enthusiasm, such as alon[cut away]

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can enable a man to fight the battle of life for the sake of virtue itself and without reference to any selfish ulterior consideration. They all mean well; but they are all subject to the same unfortunate weakness before alluded to, that, under the stress of trial or disappointment, they "cannot stay." Two noble exceptions readily occur to the mind, the character of Enoch Arden, which is all of the Poet Laureate's own creation, and that of Arthur in the "Idylls of the King," which, in its best points, is drawn from the old prose History.

Lastly, let us briefly consider the drift of Lord Tennyson's political tendencies. We shall find some fine sentiments concerning freedom and a limited monarchy scattered here and there among his earlier poems, but his system is at heart nothing more than pure opportunism coloured by a mild optimism. His opportunism appears most distinctly in the nameless poem beginning "Love thou thy land," which by a significant juxtaposition is placed in some editions next to "The Goose." Among other wise saws we are there taught to "pamper not a hasty time," to "watch what main-currents draw the years," "nor wed raw Haste half-sister to delay," while in the same poem it is admitted that

"Meet is it changes should control
Our being, lest we rust in ease."

It would be amusing to hear Lord Tennyson urging this last sentiment on his fellow peers in the House of Lords, and at the same time warning that sedatest of assemblies against the danger of wedding raw Haste!

In "Will Waterproof" we find an exposition of some of [cut away]he Poet Laureate's pet optimistic doctrines. He will not [cut away]cramp his heart," or "take half views of men and things," [cut away]r the outcome of the party warfare of Whig and Tory is "a [cut away]e result of good." Being assured of this satisfactory event, [cut away] Poet Laureate has naturally a lofty contempt for all [cut away]reme politicians, and considers those the truest statesmen [cut away]make it their aim to strike a balance between contending [cut away]ies, and are never guilty of any indiscreet enthusiasm in


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146 TO-DAY.

a great cause, which, in Tennysonian phraseology, would be termed "the falsehood of extremes."

If you ask the Poet Laureate why, though ill at ease, he continues to "subsist" in England, the answer is that it is the land of freedom; and so great is his love for that deity that if the time should ever come when individual freedom should be mute, we have (once again) his own word for it that "he will not stay." The thought never suggests itself to Lord Tennyson that Whig and Tory may, after all, not be working together for a true result of good; that our English freedom may, after all, not be of the most satisfactory kind; and that, if "banded unions persecute," it would be nobler to stay at home and fight them than to hurry off to the "palms and temples of the South."

After what we have seen of the Poet Laureate's opinions, religious, social, and political, I do not think we can justly be surprised at his having become a member of the House of Lords. He was always a half-hearted "Liberal" in his youth; and in his old age he has become more and more illiberal and dogmatic. He cannot correctly be called a Lost Leader for he never was a leader of thought, certainly not of advanced thought; yet, in one sense, he has done battle for the party of progress, for all true poets, apart from their teaching, must in some degree aid the great cause. And whatever we may think of Lord Tennyson's philosophical teaching, we must all alike admire and revere his grand poetical gifts; indeed it is just because we do so revere them, because we have known his poems from childhood, and have conned them over and over till they have become almost a part of our being, it is precisely for this reason that we deplore the intolerant tone of his later writings and the final hallucination which has made him deem it expedient to prefix [to] the name of Alfred Tennyson a foolish and inglorious tit[le.]. How can I conclude better than with Mr Browning's famo[us] words, which are certainly not less applicable to the pres[ent]

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Poet Laureate than to the predecessor to whom they are supposed to refer?

We shall march prospering,—not thro' his presence;
Songs may inspirit us,—not from his lyre;
Deeds will be done,—while he boasts his quiescence,
Still bidding crouch whom the rest bade aspire.


Shakespeare was of us, Milton was for us,
Burns, Shelley, were with us,—they watch from their graves!
He alone breaks from the van and the freemen,
He alone sinks to the rear and the slaves!"


One of the considerations of our age, literature, society, standards, &c, is, that they are in transition,— & that therefore T. fairly voices that immense part of all that is torn between the pulls of the past & the to-come— that lets "I dare not wait upon I would"—

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The Sun-Maiden.

I looked out over the ocean,
And saw a maiden stand,
Where billow and cloud commingled
In a vanishing golden land.
I passed out over the ocean,
And held the Sun-Maiden's hand,
And lost for ever a treasure
That was mine in the Fatherland.



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