Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Flowers of Freethought Vol. II (1894)


"A heterogeneous mass of clotted bosh."
—Thomas Carlyle.

The death of Tennyson has called forth a vast deal of nonsense. Much of it is even insincere. The pulpits have spouted cataracts of sentimentality. Some of them have emitted quantities of sheer drivel. A stranger would think we had lost our only poet, and well-nigh our only teacher; whereas, if the truth must be told, we have lost one who was occasionally a great poet, but for the most part a miraculous artist in words. No man in his senses—certainly no man with a spark of judgment—could call Tennyson a profound thinker. Mainly he gave exquisite expression to ideas that floated around him. Nor did he possess a high degree of the creative faculty, such as Shakespeare possessed in inexhaustible abundance. Surely it is possible to admire our dead poet's genius without telling lies over his grave.

Among the pulpit utterances on Tennyson we note the Rev. Hugh Price Hughes's as perhaps the very perfection of slobbery incapacity. He appears to be delivering a course of addresses on the poet. The first of these escaped our attention; the second is before us in the supplement to last week's Methodist Times. We have read it with great attention and without the slightest profit. Not a sentence or a phrase in it rises above commonplace. That a crowd of people should listen to such stuff on a Sunday afternoon, when they might be taking a walk or enjoying a snooze, is a striking evidence of the degeneration of the human mind, at least in the circles of Methodism.

Mr. Hughes praises Tennyson for "conscientiousness in the use and choice of words." He should have said "the choice and use of words," for choice must precede use to be of any service. Mr. Hughes says it is of great importance that we should all be as conscientious as Tennyson. He might as well say it is of great importance that we should all be as strong as Sandow.

Let us take a few examples of Mr. Hughes's "conscientiousness." He talks of "shining features" which "lie upon the very surface" of Tennyson's poems. Now features seldom shine, they do not lie, and they must be (not upon, but) at the surface. Six lines further the shining features change into "shining qualities," as though features and qualities were synonyms. Mr. Hughes speaks, in the style of a penny-a-liner, of Tennyson's "amazing and unparalleled popular influence." Will he tell us if anything could amaze us without being unparalleled? He remarks that Tennyson was "not merely and mainly a poet of the educated classes." He should have said "merely or mainly." He enjoins upon us to "define our terms" and "know the exact meanings of the terms we use"—which is absolute tautology. He says of flirtation—on which he seems an authority—that "I greatly fear, and am morally certain" it is as much perpetrated by men as by women. But if he fears he cannot be certain, and if he is certain he cannot fear. He calls duelling a form of "insanity and barbarism." But while it may be one or the other, it cannot be both at once. The disjunctive, therefore, not the copulative, is the proper conjunction. Mr. Hughes misspells the name of Spenser, translates mariage de convenance as a marriage of convenience, and inserts one of his own inventions in a line of Locksley Hall, which runs thus in the Hughes edition of Tennyson—

Puppet to a father's threat and servile to a mother's shrewish tongue.

"Mother's" spoils the line. It is not Tennyson's. Mr. Hughes may claim it—"an ill-favored thing, sir, but mine own." It does equal credit to his "conscientiousness" and his ears.

Mr. Hughes's style as a critic does not rise to the level of an active contempt. Let us look at his matter and see if it shows any superiority.

"Yet although," Mr. Hughes says, with characteristic elegance—"yet although he wrote so much, Tennyson never wrote a single line that would bring a painful or anxious blush to the cheek of the most innocent or sensitive maiden." What a curious antithesis! Why should a man write impurely for writing much? And is this the supreme virtue of a great poet? It might be predicated of Martin Tupper. Milton, on the other hand, must have made many a maiden rosy by his description of Eve's naked loveliness—to say nothing of the scene after the Fall; while Shakespeare must have turned many a maiden cheek scarlet, though we do not believe he ever did the maiden any harm. Tennyson was not as free-spoken as some poets—greater poets than himself. But what does Mr. Hughes mean by his "Christ-like purity"? Is there a reference here to the twelfth verse of the nineteenth chapter of Matthew?

Purity, if properly understood, is undoubtedly a virtue. Mr. Hughes forgets, however, that his eulogy on Tennyson in this respect is a slur upon the Bible. There are things in the Old Testament—not to mention the New Testament—calculated to make "the most innocent or sensitive maiden" vomit; things that might abash a prostitute and make a satyr squeamish. We suggest, therefore, that Mr. Hughes should cease canting about "purity" while he helps to thrust the Bible into the hands of little children.

The reward of Tennyson's purity, according to Mr. Hughes, was that "he was able to understand women." "The English race," exclaims the eulogist, "has never contemplated a nobler or more inspiring womanhood than that which glows on every page of Tennyson." This is the hectic exaggeration in which Mr. Hughes habitually indulges. Tennyson never drew a live woman. Maud is a lay figure, and the heroine of "The Princess" is purely fantastic. George Meredith beats the late Laureate hollow in this respect. He is second only to Shakespeare, who here, as elsewhere, maintains his supremacy.

Mr. Hughes's remarks on Locksley Hall are, to use his own expression, amazing. "How terribly," he says, "does he [Tennyson] paint the swift degeneration of the faithless Amy." Mr. Hughes forgets—or does he forget?—that in the sequel to this poem, entitled Sixty Years After, Tennyson unsays all the high-pitched dispraise of Amy and her squire. Locksley Hall is a piece of splendid versification, but the hero is a prig, which is a shade worse than a Philistine. Young fellows mouth the poem rapturously; their elders smile at the disguises of egotism.

Loveless marriage was reprobated by Tennyson, and Mr. Hughes goes into ecstacies over the tremendous fact. Like the Psalmist, he is in haste; he cannot point to a poet who ever hinted the dethronement of love.

A choice Hughesean sentence occurs in this connexion. "I very much regret," the preacher says, "that Maud's lover was such a conventional idiot that he should have been guilty of the supreme folly of challenging her brother to a duel." Shade of Lindley Murrey, what a sentence! A boy who wrote thus would deserve whipping. And what right, we ask, has a Christian minister to rail at duelling? It was unknown to Greek or Roman society. Indeed, it is merely a form of the Ordeal, which was upheld by Christianity. The duel was originally a direct and solemn appeal to Providence. Only a sceptic has the right to call it a folly.

Enough of Mr. Hughes as a stylist, a critic, and teacher. What he really shines in is invention.

His story of the converted Atheist shoemaker displays a faculty which has no scope in a sermon on Tennyson.

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