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All study is a quest of something. One seeks, in order to find. Before undertaking the study of the Princess, therefore, it is only proper to inquire toward what objects this quest may most profitably be directed. Considering the nature of the poem for it is in this that the answer is to be sought — we find that The Princess abounds in beauty, and that its object is to set forth and illustrate a truth or truths of which the poet is, profoundly convinced. This being conceded, it follows that, while opinions are likely to vary concerning the degree or amount of beauty and of truth attained, it is improbable that any one who has qualified himself by reflection to form a judgment on the matter will assert that the poet has compassed both absolute beauty and absolute truth. In other words, we must hold ourselves prepared, however we may at first sight be dazzled by the many and varied excellences of the poem, to recognize in it the presence of more or less imperfection.
From what has been said it follows that our quest in the study of The Princess is threefold. Stating the objects in the order of their importance relatively to this particular poem, we accordingly have :
I. A QUEST OF BEAUTY.
In order that the true character of the third quest, the quest of imperfection, may not be misapprehended, we must remind ourselves that, in poetry, what we have here named the quest of imperfection might as properly be called the endeavor to educate oneself up to higher and higher standards of judgment. In the course of the following pages Churton Collins and Bayard Taylor
– the latter himself a poet do not hesitate to criticize certain indications of inferiority which the poem here and there affords. It will not on this account be inferred that these scholarly students of literature are less sensitive than the generality of readers to the beauty and truth with which the poem is replete ; it ought rather to be concluded — provided their criticisms, after protracted and repeated study, prove to be just — that they perceive a higher beauty or a more absolute truth than those to which the poet has succeeded in giving perfect embodiment. Instead of being less sensitive to the presence or absence of high quality than the generality of readers, these lovers of literature are far more so ; their ears are attuned to nobler melodies than can always be realized by even a poet of Tennyson's exquisite feeling for the music of verse; and a presentation which fully satisfies the ordinary person may to them seem in some respects inadequate or faulty. Hence, if at a first reading we are repelled by the insinuation that Tennyson is open to the reproach conveyed in the following paragraph from Shairp's Aspects of Poetry (pp. 133, 134), we must not immediately condemn the writer for a failure to perceive so much of loveliness and noble thought as the poem contains, but rather endeavor to elevate ourselves, by the help of Tennyson and all other true poets, to a plane where we can perceive the element of rightness, be it greater or smaller, which the criticism embodies. Professor Shairp says :
"“A dressy literature, an exaggerated literature, seem to be fated to us.
These are our curses, as other times had theirs." With these words Mr. Bagehot closes his essay to which I have alluded. No doubt the multitude of uneducated and half-educated readers, which every day increases, loves a highly ornamented, not to say a meretricious, style, both in literature and in the arts; and if these demand it, writers and artists will be found to furnish it. There remains, therefore, to the most educated the task of counterworking this evil. With them it lies to elevate the thought, and to purify the taste, of less cultivated readers, and so to remedy one of the evils incident to democracy. To high thinking and noble living the pure style is natural. But these things are severe, require moral bracing, minds which are not luxurious, and can endure hardness. Softness, luxuriousness, and moral limpness find their congenial element in excess of highly colored ornamentation.'
Can you love Tennyson, can you admire The Princess, and yet read without violent indignation a passage like the foregoing? Can you calmly and resolutely set yourself to the task of learning the reasons why the critic has indulged in such severity, and of correctly appraising the value of his judgment? Finally, if there be any justice in his view, can you come to recognize it, without ceasing to appreciate at their full worth all the beauty and truth which The Princess contains? If so, you will have exemplified at its best the quest of imperfection, and will have found that under this name you have really been pursuing the highest beauty and the highest truth; and that you have formed some conception, however insufficient, of what the attainment of perfection means, and of the infinite pains which are required for even a tolerable approximation to it in such an art as poetry.
But these matters are high and hard, and the quest of imperfection necessarily follows, rather than precedes, the quest of beauty and truth. To perceive, to take and give account of, and, above all, to enjoy the beauty and truth resident in a fine piece of literature, can any exercise of human faculty, short of the creative, surpass this? I except the creative, for surely the poet's act of conception, and much of the subsequent execution, — or any similar exercise of creative power, even if of lower degree, — must transcend the mere reception of impressions from the works thus created. But, neglecting this alone, what can vie with such apprehension, such laying hold upon, of a noble poem, for instance? We must never forget, for it is a truth of prime order, what Wordsworth has taught us :
We live by admiration, hope, and love.
And surely the study of the best literature affords most ample scope for the cultivation of at least two out of these three emo