BOOKS / In living memory of a loved poet: Christopher Ricks reflects on Tennyson, who died 100 years ago next week

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ADMIT IT, nobody will do as well by Tennyson this year as he did by Dante and by Virgil upon the occasion of their centenaries. 'To Dante (written at request of the Florentines)': unpushy, Tennyson wreathed in one sentence a seven-line tribute, hailing another poet while sustaining himself, and coming to rest with the courtliness of a bow:

I, wearing but the garland of a day,

Cast at thy feet one flower that fades away.

Such a flower does not fade, not least because of the open-ended closing rhyme, uncurtailed and continuing: 'away', where there is not only a rhyme but a receding assonance: 'fades away'.

But this was not mock-modesty on Tennyson's part. A living poet knows that, as yet, he or she wears but the garland of the day, and can only hope that this will not prove the garland of a day. And what, in comparison with the 600 years of Dante's life after death, is the accomplishment of any poet still merely alive? Lovely that this poem, bowing before a poet who had then 'reigned six hundred years', is in seven lines - at once less pat than six would have been, and imaginatively apt, since Dante was entering upon his seventh century.

When, soon after, the aged Tennyson honoured a similar request to honour Virgil, he showed the same tact, intimating the precise passing of the centuries without announcing it. 'To Virgil: Written at the request of the Mantuans for the nineteenth centenary of Virgil's death': this is a poem in 20 lines (equably pressing on into Virgil's 20th century) which yet conveys a confidence that twice as long a glory will be Virgil's, for Tennyson's adaptation of a classical metre divides and doubles itself:

Landscape-lover, lord of language

more than he that sang the Works and Days,

All the chosen coin of fancy

flashing out from many a golden phrase.

The long line stretches forward, reaches outward, in calm succession. Yet how suddenly it can crystallise too:

All the charm of all the Muses

often flowering in a lonely word.

It is lonely which is the triumph there, unexpected and singular in a way that 'flowering in a single word' would never have been. The line unexpectedly flowers in, of all words, the word 'lonely' - and this from a poet who, like the poet he praises here, is so well aware that a word alone is all but meaningless, and that everything depends upon everything's co-operating.

Co-operating, even as Tennyson himself had done, with the poets to whom he pays his respects. Without Dante, there would never have been Tennyson's greatest monument of unageing heroism, 'Ulysses', bent as it is upon Dante's vision of the aged mariner's last voyage. And without Virgil, there would never have been Tennyson's 'Morte d'Arthur', a poem of empire which grasps thought as the revolving of many things in the mind, among them that revolving phrase itself and its Virgilian ancestry. Tennyson is granted life by honouring it in others.

He concluded 'Vastness', a poem of tender grief, in exactly such an unshaken confidence:

Peace, let it be] for I loved him, and love him for ever: the dead are not dead but alive.

Seldom has a mark of punctuation, the colon, done such sterling work: an entire conjunction of therefore and because. It is not only that the dead are not dead but alive; rather that they are thereby alive in certain ways in which the living cannot be. Tennyson's greatest successor, T S Eliot, voiced this assurance:

the communication

Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the

language of the living.

Tennyson's words echo thus, in your mind.

Sixty years ago, Eliot did some genial grumbling: 'What I chiefly dislike about Goethe is the fact that he is having a centenary. I always dislike everybody at the

centenary moment.' Those last two words do strike a spark off one another.

One knows what he means. Centenaries can be overkill - Yet once more . . . They can turn even a man whose braces creaked as loudly as Tennyson's into a stuffed shirt. Worst of all, they can give the impression to all concerned (not very concerned) that it is we who are doing the service, we who are being so good as to register our ability to recognise genius - even dead genius, so magnanimous are we - when we see it.

Someone in Punch, cleverly clowning, once went so farcical as to describe me as 'the domed genius who brought Tennyson out of the doghouse'. Well, domed I can understand (it is encoded baldism), and genius I know myself to be entirely without, but who ever believed that Tennyson had been in the doghouse? His poems have become dog-eared, so repeatedly have they been read and loved by millions, without interruption for a century and more. It is academic folie de grandeur, even if offered as praise to an editor of Tennyson, to suppose that what Tennyson livingly is, or what he amounts to, is what the likes of us conceive of ourselves as doing professionally by way of pro and con.

Dark house, by which once more I stand

Here in the long unlovely street

There neither is nor could be a doghouse for such a writer.

Sickert once made a characteristic point, on these lines: 'now that Sir Hugh Lane has been knighted for admiring Manet - I wonder if Manet would ever have been knighted for being Manet? . . .' Well, Tennyson was more than knighted for being Tennyson. Nevertheless, the well-meant invitation to respond, in 1992, to the question 'Why read Tennyson?' might invite in its turn 'Why read the Independent?' Does anybody really need to be reminded, or minded, that Tennyson wrote poems which will not die unless English poetry dies? That, among so much else, he knew - and could effect - consolation as no one else has in our tongue, knowing consolation in its substantiality as well as in its limits? That he understood madness, bereavement, fear, shivering, erotic loveliness, undying friendship, loss, exquisite courtesy, as it has been given to very few to understand them? That it is by grace of his gifts that we possess 'Tears, idle tears', 'Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white', 'Break, break, break', 'Mariana', 'The Lady of Shalott', and the great poem which William Empson summed up - in a phrase at once bizarre and exact - as 'a poem in favour of the human practice of dying'?

Anybody who could hear the opening lines of 'Tithonus' and still be intrigued by the question 'Why read Tennyson?' would need more than his or her ears seen to. Tithonus, cursed with eternal life because not blessed with eternal youth, mourns his own death-in-life, the ever-widening gap between him and the goddess whom he loves, goddess of the dawn:

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,

The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,

Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,

And after many a summer dies the swan.

Me only cruel immortality

Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,

Here at the quiet limit of the world,

A white-haired shadow roaming like a dream

The ever-silent spaces of the East,

Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.

The indispensable tribute paid to Tennyson came in 1887 from Walt Whitman, least similar of geniuses with words: 'To me, Tennyson shows more than any poet I know (perhaps has been a warning to me) how much there is in finest verbalism. There is such a latent charm in mere words, cunning collocutions, and in the voice ringing them, which he has caught and brought out, beyond all others - as in the line, 'And hollow, hollow, hollow, all delight'.'

There is much more to Tennyson than that, but all of it proceeds from some such fineness of voicing. And even when a poet-critic is moved to round upon Tennyson, something gives the game away. Eliot, needing in 1921 to make his case for the metaphysical poets, and proposing the idea of the 'dissociation of sensibility', had to deprecate the Victorians: 'Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose.' But would Eliot have put it like that, had Tennyson not embodied such a thought in In Memoriam? 'And every thought breaks out a rose'.

(Photograph omitted)