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We sailed wherever ship could sail,
My enthusiasm for Tennyson has been much increased by the evidences in his Life of his love and appreciation of our colonies. As far back as 1871, long before our Cabinet Ministers dreamed of such things, Tennyson advocated inter-colonial conferences in London, and that the foremost colonial ministers should be admitted to the Privy Council, or to some other imperial council where they could have a voice in Imperial affairs. For many years he carried on a cordial exchange of ideas with Sir Henry Parkes, Premier of New South Wales, on the subject of Australian federation, of which the latter was the founder, and which is now all but accomplished.
One of the most remarkable episodes in colonial history took place twenty-five years ago, when Tennyson's poetry saved Canada to the Empire! From 1865 to 1872 there was much discontent in Canada with the Home Government, and a Canadian Independence Party was formed, with Mr. A. T. Galt at its head. He was assured by friends in England that the Liberal Cabinet of that day was quite prepared to let Canada go, if she wished. In October, 1872, the Times had a leader, evidently “inspired” by ministers, in which the costliness of maintaining Canada was harped upon, and even separation was hinted at. When this reached Canada, great was the indignation of the loyal Canadians—the majority, fortunately for us. Great also was Tennyson's wrath and shame at the remark of an eminent statesman, who said to him, “Would to God Canada would go !” The poet was just then writing an epilogue to the completed Idylls of the King, addressed “To the Queen,” and referring in touching terms to the recovery of the Prince of Wales from his almost fatal illness. He at once added an eloquent remonstrance in the lines that follow :
And that true North, whereof we lately heard
Our Ocean-Empire with her boundless homes.. The effect on the Canadians of these stirring lines was splendid; the poem rallied them round the Union Jack, sorely tempted as they were to fall away to the Stars and Stripes—for that is what the Independence Party were working for, secretly. Lord Dufferin, then GovernorGeneral, wrote to Tennyson: “Your noble words have struck responsive fire from every heart; they have ... effectually healed the wounds caused by the senseless language of the Times. Canada may well be proud that her loyal aspirations should be imperishably recorded in the greatest poem of this generation.”
The whole episode is an illustration of an apt obiter dictum of the poet, “It is the authors, not the diplomats, who make nations love one another."
Contrast the angry and justly-indignant Canada of 1872, with the vast Canadian Dominion of 1897, who sends her silver-tongued premier—an orator who recalled to me Gladstone in his best days—to assure the Old Country of her enthusiastic loyalty, and to make the generous and spontaneous offer of what is almost free admission of British exports to his country,-a noble example to other colonies.
If I were to summarise Tennyson's national and political principles in the form of a creed, it would be after this fashion : :
“I believe in the British Constitution, with such modifications as the age requires, equally assented to by the Three Estates of the Realm. I believe in Peace with Honour, but in a constant preparedness for war; in the maintenance of our Public Services, especially the Navy. Our boys should be drilled and our adults trained in the use of arms, but not by compulsion. I believe in Universal Free Education in which God and His Word are recognised; and in the Union of the Church with the State. I believe in conserving the unity of the three kingdoms; in the continual expansion of the Empire; in Colonial Federation, Imperial Federation, and in the Confederation of the Anglo-Saxon Races.”
This study of Tennyson would be incomplete without at least some allusion to the personal friendship of the Queen for the Laureate. Her Majesty's deep appreciation of his earlier poems, in which the Prince Consort also joined, was enhanced by the delicate and heartfelt sympathy shewn her by her Laureate at their first personal interview (1862) after the death of the Prince. The poet was profoundly moved to learn from the Queen's own lips that in her great sorrow “In Memoriam” had been her comfort, next to the Bible. The few letters that we are privileged to read in the Biography are most interesting, as showing the growth of respect and affection on both sides, without a scintilla of patronising or of adulation. Especially noteworthy is the letter written by Tennyson to the Queen, accepting the peerage, as a model of felicitous expression. In current political views, the Queen and her Laureate seem to have harmonised, especially upon the thorny subject of Home Rule for Ireland. “The Queen,', said Tennyson, in conversation with a friend, “has a wonderful knowledge of politics-quite wonderful—and her sagacity about them seems unerring. The Queen never mistakes her people." The annual return of Tennyson's birthday, August 6th, which happened to coincide with the natal days of the Duke of Edinburgh and the Marquis of Lorne-always brought a kindly message from Her Majesty, sometimes with the royal author's latest book. And in the great bereavement of his old age—the death of his younger son Lionel—the Queen's touching words, “From the depths of a heart which has suffered cruelly and lost almost all it cared for and loved best, I feel for you," must have soothed the poet's grief, so far as human sympathy could go.
In conclusion, our great Laureate's religious faith was typical of a National Representative Poet of this questioning, sceptical, analytic age. His “In Memoriam” shows his long spiritual conflict ended in victory. The testimony of his intimates (particularly that of his niece, Miss Agnes Weld), as well as of his biography, show that Tennyson was personally devout, a student of the Bible, a believer in prayer, and an attendant of public worship. “I hope,” he said, “ that the Bible will be more and more studied by all ranks of the people, and expounded by their teachers, simply; for the religion of a people can never be founded on mere philosophy, but can only come home to them in the simple, noble thoughts and facts of a Scripture like ours. ... Evil must come upon us headlong, if morality tries to get on without religion. ... One can easily lose all belief through giving up the continual thought and care for spiritual things.”
From that early sonnet, “ To Poesy," printed on p. 60 of vol. i of the Life, beginning—
O God, make this age great, that we may be
down to his exquisite “Swan Song," “ Crossing the Bar," the poetry of Tennyson is permeated with the principles and teaching of that sacred book, which our christian Sovereign, on a memorable occasion, solemnly declared has been the secret of England's greatness."
Three great national poets—Wordsworth, Browning, and Tennyson-have moulded for good the moral and spiritual thought of the last and of the present generation. Each of these great prophets, we are glad to know, was religious in spirit, pure in life, and happy in his domestic circle. In Alfred Tennyson, endowed with the aptest poetical form of the three, it seems to me that the love of solitary communion with nature which was Wordsworth’s characteristic blended with Browning's gift of studying man in all his types and emotions; and in his greatest poems both are transfused into original and profound expression by the alchemy of his individual genius. Wordsworth's best poems have a soothing yet elevating effect on the mind; Browning's knowledge of humanity, and his robust faith in the goodness of God, help us to fight the battle of life ; while Tennyson's whole life-work has had for its object the elevation of the ideals of his fellow-countrymen. As regards our national policy his ardent loyalty, sincere patriotism, and far-seeing British imperialism made our late Laureate the deadly foe of all that is foolish, mean, dishonest, or degrading in the conduct of our vast empire, the expansion of which makes for the material, moral, and spiritual welfare of the entire human race.
On the roll of Immortals place Tennyson's name
Chief bard of this fertile Victorian age;
As our National Patriot-Poet and Sage.