My Literary Passions, by William Dean Howells

XXIII. Tennyson

I cannot quite see now how I found time for even trying to do the things I had in hand more or less. It is perfectly clear to me that I did none of them well, though I meant at the time to do none of them other than excellently. I was attempting the study of no less than four languages, and I presently added a fifth to these. I was reading right and left in every direction, but chiefly in that of poetry, criticism, and fiction. From time to time I boldly attacked a history, and carried it by a ‘coup de main,’ or sat down before it for a prolonged siege. There was occasionally an author who worsted me, whom I tried to read and quietly gave up after a vain struggle, but I must say that these authors were few. I had got a very fair notion of the range of all literature, and the relations of the different literatures to one another, and I knew pretty well what manner of book it was that I took up before I committed myself to the task of reading it. Always I read for pleasure, for the delight of knowing something more; and this pleasure is a very different thing from amusement, though I read a great deal for mere amusement, as I do still, and to take my mind away from unhappy or harassing thoughts. There are very few things that I think it a waste of time to have read; I should probably have wasted the time if I had not read them, and at the period I speak of I do not think I wasted much time.

My day began about seven o’clock, in the printing-office, where it took me till noon to do my task of so many thousand ems, say four or five. Then we had dinner, after the simple fashion of people who work with their hands for their dinners. In the afternoon I went back and corrected the proof of the type I had set, and distributed my case for the next day. At two or three o’clock I was free, and then I went home and began my studies; or tried to write something; or read a book. We had supper at six, and after that I rejoiced in literature, till I went to bed at ten or eleven. I cannot think of any time when I did not go gladly to my books or manuscripts, when it was not a noble joy as well as a high privilege.

But it all ended as such a strain must, in the sort of break which was not yet known as nervous prostration. When I could not sleep after my studies, and the sick headaches came oftener, and then days and weeks of hypochondriacal misery, it was apparent I was not well; but that was not the day of anxiety for such things, and if it was thought best that I should leave work and study for a while, it was not with the notion that the case was at all serious, or needed an uninterrupted cure. I passed days in the woods and fields, gunning or picking berries; I spent myself in heavy work; I made little journeys; and all this was very wholesome and very well; but I did not give up my reading or my attempts to write. No doubt I was secretly proud to have been invalided in so great a cause, and to be sicklied over with the pale cast of thought, rather than by some ignoble ague or the devastating consumption of that region. If I lay awake, noting the wild pulsations of my heart, and listening to the death-watch in the wall, I was certainly very much scared, but I was not without the consolation that I was at least a sufferer for literature. At the same time that I was so horribly afraid of dying, I could have composed an epitaph which would have moved others to tears for my untimely fate. But there was really not impairment of my constitution, and after a while I began to be better, and little by little the health which has never since failed me under any reasonable stress of work established itself.

I was in the midst of this unequal struggle when I first became acquainted with the poet who at once possessed himself of what was best worth having in me. Probably I knew of Tennyson by extracts, and from the English reviews, but I believe it was from reading one of Curtis’s “Easy Chair” papers that I was prompted to get the new poem of “Maud,” which I understood from the “Easy Chair” was then moving polite youth in the East. It did not seem to me that I could very well live without that poem, and when I went to Cleveland with the hope that I might have courage to propose a translation of Lazarillo to a publisher it was with the fixed purpose of getting “Maud” if it was to be found in any bookstore there.

I do not know why I was so long in reaching Tennyson, and I can only account for it by the fact that I was always reading rather the earlier than the later English poetry. To be sure I had passed through what I may call a paroxysm of Alexander Smith, a poet deeply unknown to the present generation, but then acclaimed immortal by all the critics, and put with Shakespeare, who must be a good deal astonished from time to time in his Elysian quiet by the companionship thrust upon him. I read this now dead-and-gone immortal with an ecstasy unspeakable; I raved of him by day, and dreamed of him by night; I got great lengths of his “Life–Drama” by heart; and I can still repeat several gorgeous passages from it; I would almost have been willing to take the life of the sole critic who had the sense to laugh at him, and who made his wicked fun in Graham’s Magazine, an extinct periodical of the old extinct Philadelphian species. I cannot tell how I came out of this craze, but neither could any of the critics who led me into it, I dare say. The reading world is very susceptible of such-lunacies, and all that can be said is that at a given time it was time for criticism to go mad over a poet who was neither better nor worse than many another third-rate poet apotheosized before and since. What was good in Smith was the reflected fire of the poets who had a vital heat in them; and it was by mere chance that I bathed myself in his second-hand effulgence. I already knew pretty well the origin of the Tennysonian line in English poetry; Wordsworth, and Keats, and Shelley; and I did not come to Tennyson’s worship a sudden convert, but my devotion to him was none the less complete and exclusive. Like every other great poet he somehow expressed the feelings of his day, and I suppose that at the time he wrote “Maud” he said more fully what the whole English-speaking race were then dimly longing to utter than any English poet who has lived.

One need not question the greatness of Browning in owning the fact that the two poets of his day who preeminently voiced their generation were Tennyson and Longfellow; though Browning, like Emerson, is possibly now more modern than either. However, I had then nothing to do with Tennyson’s comparative claim on my adoration; there was for the time no parallel for him in the whole range of literary divinities that I had bowed the knee to. For that while, the temple was not only emptied of all the other idols, but I had a richly flattering illusion of being his only worshipper. When I came to the sense of this error, it was with the belief that at least no one else had ever appreciated him so fully, stood so close to him in that holy of holies where he wrought his miracles.

I say tawdily and ineffectively and falsely what was a very precious and sacred experience with me. This great poet opened to me a whole world of thinking and feeling, where I had my being with him in that mystic intimacy, which cannot be put into words. I at once identified myself not only with the hero of the poem, but in some so with the poet himself, when I read “Maud”; but that was only the first step towards the lasting state in which his poetry has upon the whole been more to me than that of any other poet. I have never read any other so closely and continuously, or read myself so much into and out of his verse. There have been times and moods when I have had my questions, and made my cavils, and when it seemed to me that the poet was less than I had thought him; and certainly I do not revere equally and unreservedly all that he has written; that would be impossible. But when I think over all the other poets I have read, he is supreme above them in his response to some need in me that he has satisfied so perfectly.

Of course, “Maud” seemed to me the finest poem I had read, up to that time, but I am not sure that this conclusion was wholly my own; I think it was partially formed for me by the admiration of the poem which I felt to be everywhere in the critical atmosphere, and which had already penetrated to me. I did not like all parts of it equally well, and some parts of it seemed thin and poor (though I would not suffer myself to say so then), and they still seem so. But there were whole passages and spaces of it whose divine and perfect beauty lifted me above life. I did not fully understand the poem then; I do not fully understand it now, but that did not and does not matter; for there something in poetry that reaches the soul by other enues than the intelligence. Both in this poem and others of Tennyson, and in every poet that I have loved, there are melodies and harmonies enfolding significance that appeared long after I had first read them, and had even learned them by heart; that lay weedy in my outer ear and were enough in their Mere beauty of phrasing, till the time came for them to reveal their whole meaning. In fact they could do this only to later and greater knowledge of myself and others, as every one must recognize who recurs in after-life to a book that he read when young; then he finds it twice as full of meaning as it was at first.

I could not rest satisfied with “Maud”; I sent the same summer to Cleveland for the little volume which then held all the poet’s work, and abandoned myself so wholly to it, that for a year I read no other verse that I can remember. The volume was the first of that pretty blue-and~gold series which Ticknor & Fields began to publish in 1856, and which their imprint, so rarely affixed to an unworthy book, at once carried far and wide. Their modest old brown cloth binding had long been a quiet warrant of quality in the literature it covered, and now this splendid blossom of the bookmaking art, as it seemed, was fitly employed to convey the sweetness and richness of the loveliest poetry that I thought the world had yet known. After an old fashion of mine, I read it continuously, with frequent recurrences from each new poem to some that had already pleased me, and with a most capricious range among the pieces. “In Memoriam” was in that book, and the “Princess”; I read the “Princess” through and through, and over and over, but I did not then read “In Memoriam” through, and I have never read it in course; I am not sure that I have even yet read every part of it. I did not come to the “Princess,” either, until I had saturated my fancy and my memory with some of the shorter poems, with the “Dream of Fair Women,” with the “Lotus–Eaters,” with the “Miller’s Daughter,” with the “Morte d’Arthur,” with “Edwin Morris, or The Lake,” with “Love and Duty,” and a score of other minor and briefer poems. I read the book night and day, in-doors and out, to myself and to whomever I could make listen. I have no words to tell the rapture it was to me; but I hope that in some more articulate being, if it should ever be my unmerited fortune to meet that ‘sommo poeta’ face to face, it shall somehow be uttered from me to him, and he will understand how completely he became the life of the boy I was then. I think it might please, or at least amuse, that lofty ghost, and that he would not resent it, as he would probably have done on earth. I can well understand why the homage of his worshippers should have afflicted him here, and I could never have been one to burn incense in his earthly presence; but perhaps it might be done hereafter without offence. I eagerly caught up and treasured every personal word I could find about him, and I dwelt in that sort of charmed intimacy with him through his verse, in which I could not presume nor he repel, and which I had enjoyed in turn with Cervantes and Shakespeare, without a snub from them.

I have never ceased to adore Tennyson, though the rapture of the new convert could not last. That must pass like the flush of any other passion. I think I have now a better sense of his comparative greatness, but a better sense of his positive greatness I could not have than I had at the beginning; and I believe this is the essential knowledge of a poet. It is very well to say one is greater than Keats, or not so great as Wordsworth; that one is or is not of the highest order of poets like Shakespeare and Dante and Goethe; but that does not mean anything of value, and I never find my account in it. I know it is not possible for any less than the greatest writer to abide lastingly in one’s life. Some dazzling comer may enter and possess it for a day, but he soon wears his welcome out, and presently finds the door, to be answered with a not-at~home if he knocks again. But it was only this morning that I read one of the new last poems of Tennyson with a return of the emotion which he first woke in me well-nigh forty years ago. There has been no year of those many when I have not read him and loved him with something of the early fire if not all the early conflagration; and each successive poem of his has been for me a fresh joy.

He went with me into the world from my village when I left it to make my first venture away from home. My father had got one of those legislative clerkships which used to fall sometimes to deserving country editors when their party was in power, and we together imagined and carried out a scheme for corresponding with some city newspapers. We were to furnish a daily, letter giving an account of the legislative proceedings which I was mainly to write up from material he helped me to get together. The letters at once found favor with the editors who agreed to take them, and my father then withdrew from the work altogether, after telling them who was doing it. We were afraid they might not care for the reports of a boy of nineteen, but they did not seem to take my age into account, and I did not boast of my youth among the lawmakers. I looked three or four years older than I was; but I experienced a terrible moment once when a fatherly Senator asked me my age. I got away somehow without saying, but it was a great relief to me when my twentieth birthday came that winter, and I could honestly proclaim that I was in my twenty-first year.

I had now the free range of the State Library, and I drew many sorts of books from it. Largely, however, they were fiction, and I read all the novels of Bulwer, for whom I had already a great liking from ‘The Caxtons’ and ‘My Novel.’ I was dazzled by them, and I thought him a great writer, if not so great a one as he thought himself. Little or nothing of those romances, with their swelling prefaces about the poet and his function, their glittering criminals, and showy rakes and rogues of all kinds, and their patrician perfume and social splendor, remained with me; they may have been better or worse; I will not attempt to say. If I may call my fascination with them a passion at all, I must say that it was but a fitful fever. I also read many volumes of Zschokke’s admirable tales, which I found in a translation in the Library, and I think I began at the same time to find out De Quincey. These authors I recall out of the many that passed through my mind almost as tracelessly as they passed through my hands. I got at some versions of Icelandic poems, in the metre of “Hiawatha”; I had for a while a notion of studying Icelandic, and I did take out an Icelandic grammar and lexicon, and decided that I would learn the language later. By this time I must have begun German, which I afterwards carried so far, with one author at least, as to find in him a delight only second to that I had in Tennyson; but as yet Tennyson was all in all to me in poetry. I suspect that I carried his poems about with me a great part of the time; I am afraid that I always had that blue-and-gold Tennyson in my pocket; and I was ready to draw it upon anybody, at the slightest provocation. This is the worst of the ardent lover of literature: he wishes to make every one else share his rapture, will he, nill he. Many good fellows suffered from my admiration of this author or that, and many more pretty, patient maids. I wanted to read my favorite passages, my favorite poems to them; I am afraid I often did read, when they would rather have been talking; in the case of the poems I did worse, I repeated them. This seems rather incredible now, but it is true enough, and absurd as it is, it at least attests my sincerity. It was long before I cured myself of so pestilent a habit; and I am not yet so perfectly well of it that I could be safely trusted with a fascinating book and a submissive listener. I dare say I could not have been made to understand at this time that Tennyson was not so nearly the first interest of life with other people as he was with me; I must often have suspected it, but I was helpless against the wish to make them feel him as important to their prosperity and well-being as he was to mine. My head was full of him; his words were always behind my lips; and when I was not repeating his phrase to myself or to some one else, I was trying to frame something of my own as like him as I could. It was a time of melancholy from ill-health, and of anxiety for the future in which I must make my own place in the world. Work, and hard work, I had always been used to and never afraid of; but work is by no means the whole story. You may get on without much of it, or you may do a great deal, and not get on. I was willing to do as much of it as I could get to do, but I distrusted my health, somewhat, and I had many forebodings, which my adored poet helped me to transfigure to the substance of literature, or enabled me for the time to forget. I was already imitating him in the verse I wrote; he now seemed the only worthy model for one who meant to be as great a poet as I did. None of the authors whom I read at all displaced him in my devotion, and I could not have believed that any other poet would ever be so much to me. In fact, as I have expressed, none ever has been.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38