Tennyson's Poems

The Vision Of Sin

First published in 1842. No alteration made in it after 1851, except in the insertion of a couplet afterwards omitted.

This remarkable poem may be regarded as a sort of companion poem to 'The Palace of Art'; the one traces the effect of callous indulgence in mere intellectual and aesthetic pleasures, the other of profligate indulgence in the grosser forms of sensual enjoyment. At first all is ecstasy and intoxication, then comes satiety, and all that satiety brings in its train, cynicism, pessimism, the drying up of the very springs of life. "The body chilled, jaded and ruined, the cup of pleasure drained to the dregs, the senses exhausted of their power to enjoy, the spirit of its wish to aspire, nothing left but loathing, craving and rottenness." See Spedding in 'Edinburgh Review' for April, 1843. The poem concludes by leaving as an answer to the awful question, "can there be final salvation for the poor wretch?" a reply undecipherable by man, and dawn breaking in angry splendour. The best commentary on the poem would be Byron's lyric: "There's not a joy the world can give like that it takes away," and 'Don Juan'; biography and daily life are indeed full of comments on the truth of this fine allegory.


I had a vision when the night was late:

A youth came riding toward a palace-gate.

He rode a horse with wings, that would have flown, [1]

But that his heavy rider kept him down.

And from the palace came a child of sin,

And took him by the curls, and led him in,

Where sat a company with heated eyes,

Expecting when a fountain should arise:

A sleepy light upon their brows and lips--

As when the sun, a crescent of eclipse,

Dreams over lake and lawn, and isles and capes--

Suffused them, sitting, lying, languid shapes,

By heaps of gourds, and skins of wine, and piles of grapes.


Then methought I heard a mellow sound,

Gathering up from all the lower ground; [2]

Narrowing in to where they sat assembled

Low voluptuous music winding trembled,

Wov'n in circles: they that heard it sigh'd,

Panted hand in hand with faces pale,

Swung themselves, and in low tones replied;

Till the fountain spouted, showering wide

Sleet of diamond-drift and pearly hail;

Then the music touch'd the gates and died;

Rose again from where it seem'd to fail,

Storm'd in orbs of song, a growing gale;

Till thronging in and in, to where they waited,

As 'twere a hundred-throated nightingale,

The strong tempestuous treble throbb'd and palpitated;

Ran into its giddiest whirl of sound,

Caught the sparkles, and in circles,

Purple gauzes, golden hazes, liquid mazes,

Flung the torrent rainbow round:

Then they started from their places,

Moved with violence, changed in hue,

Caught each other with wild grimaces,

Half-invisible to the view,

Wheeling with precipitate paces

To the melody, till they flew,

Hair, and eyes, and limbs, and faces,

Twisted hard in fierce embraces,

Like to Furies, like to Graces,

Dash'd together in blinding dew:

Till, kill'd with some luxurious agony,

The nerve-dissolving melody

Flutter'd headlong from the sky.


And then I look'd up toward a mountain-tract,

That girt the region with high cliff and lawn:

I saw that every morning, far withdrawn

Beyond the darkness and the cataract,

God made himself an awful rose of dawn, [3]

Unheeded: and detaching, fold by fold,

From those still heights, and, slowly drawing near,

A vapour heavy, hueless, formless, cold,

Came floating on for many a month and year,

Unheeded: and I thought I would have spoken,

And warn'd that madman ere it grew too late:

But, as in dreams, I could not. Mine was broken,

When that cold vapour touch'd the palace-gate,

And link'd again. I saw within my head

A gray and gap-tooth'd man as lean as death,

Who slowly rode across a wither'd heath,

And lighted at a ruin'd inn, and said:


"Wrinkled ostler, grim and thin!

Here is custom come your way;

Take my brute, and lead him in,

Stuff his ribs with mouldy hay.

"Bitter barmaid, waning fast!

See that sheets are on my bed;

What! the flower of life is past:

It is long before you wed.

"Slip-shod waiter, lank and sour,

At the Dragon on the heath!

Let us have a quiet hour,

Let us hob-and-nob with Death.

"I am old, but let me drink;

Bring me spices, bring me wine;

I remember, when I think,

That my youth was half divine.

"Wine is good for shrivell'd lips,

When a blanket wraps the day,

When the rotten woodland drips,

And the leaf is stamp'd in clay.

"Sit thee down, and have no shame,

Cheek by jowl, and knee by knee:

What care I for any name?

What for order or degree?

"Let me screw thee up a peg:

Let me loose thy tongue with wine:

Callest thou that thing a leg?

Which is thinnest? thine or mine?

"Thou shalt not be saved by works:

Thou hast been a sinner too:

Ruin'd trunks on wither'd forks,

Empty scarecrows, I and you!

"Fill the cup, and fill the can:

Have a rouse before the morn:

Every moment dies a man,

Every moment one is born. [4]

"We are men of ruin'd blood;

Therefore comes it we are wise.

Fish are we that love the mud.

Rising to no fancy-flies.

"Name and fame! to fly sublime

Thro' the courts, the camps, the schools,

Is to be the ball of Time,

Bandied by the hands of fools.

"Friendship!--to be two in one--

Let the canting liar pack!

Well I know, when I am gone,

How she mouths behind my back.

"Virtue!--to be good and just--

Every heart, when sifted well,

Is a clot of warmer dust,

Mix'd with cunning sparks of hell.

"O! we two as well can look

Whited thought and cleanly life

As the priest, above his book

Leering at his neighbour's wife.

"Fill the cup, and fill the can:

Have a rouse before the morn:

Every moment dies a man,

Every moment one is born. [4]

"Drink, and let the parties rave:

They are fill'd with idle spleen;

Rising, falling, like a wave,

For they know not what they mean.

"He that roars for liberty

Faster binds a tyrant's [5] power;

And the tyrant's cruel glee

Forces on the freer hour.

"Fill the can, and fill the cup:

All the windy ways of men

Are but dust that rises up,

And is lightly laid again.

"Greet her with applausive breath,

Freedom, gaily doth she tread;

In her right a civic wreath,

In her left a human head.

"No, I love not what is new;

She is of an ancient house:

And I think we know the hue

Of that cap upon her brows.

"Let her go! her thirst she slakes

Where the bloody conduit runs:

Then her sweetest meal she makes

On the first-born of her sons.

"Drink to lofty hopes that cool--

Visions of a perfect State:

Drink we, last, the public fool,

Frantic love and frantic hate.

"Chant me now some wicked stave,

Till thy drooping courage rise,

And the glow-worm of the grave

Glimmer in thy rheumy eyes.

"Fear not thou to loose thy tongue;

Set thy hoary fancies free;

What is loathsome to the young

Savours well to thee and me.

"Change, reverting to the years,

When thy nerves could understand

What there is in loving tears,

And the warmth of hand in hand.

"Tell me tales of thy first love--

April hopes, the fools of chance;

Till the graves begin to move,

And the dead begin to dance.

"Fill the can, and fill the cup:

All the windy ways of men

Are but dust that rises up,

And is lightly laid again.

"Trooping from their mouldy dens

The chap-fallen circle spreads:

Welcome, fellow-citizens,

Hollow hearts and empty heads!

"You are bones, and what of that?

Every face, however full,

Padded round with flesh and fat,

Is but modell'd on a skull.

"Death is king, and Vivat Rex!

Tread a measure on the stones,

Madam--if I know your sex,

From the fashion of your bones.

"No, I cannot praise the fire

In your eye--nor yet your lip:

All the more do I admire

Joints of cunning workmanship.

"Lo! God's likeness--the ground-plan--

Neither modell'd, glazed, or framed:

Buss me thou rough sketch of man,

Far too naked to be shamed!

"Drink to Fortune, drink to Chance,

While we keep a little breath!

Drink to heavy Ignorance!

Hob-and-nob with brother Death!

"Thou art mazed, the night is long,

And the longer night is near:

What! I am not all as wrong

As a bitter jest is dear.

"Youthful hopes, by scores, to all,

When the locks are crisp and curl'd;

Unto me my maudlin gall

And my mockeries of the world.

"Fill the cup, and fill the can!

Mingle madness, mingle scorn!

Dregs of life, and lees of man:

Yet we will not die forlorn."


The voice grew faint: there came a further change:

Once more uprose the mystic mountain-range:

Below were men and horses pierced with worms,

And slowly quickening into lower forms;

By shards and scurf of salt, and scum of dross,

Old plash of rains, and refuse patch'd with moss,

Then some one spake [6]: "Behold! it was a crime

Of sense avenged by sense that wore with time".

[7] Another said: "The crime of sense became

The crime of malice, and is equal blame".

And one: "He had not wholly quench'd his power;

A little grain of conscience made him sour".

At last I heard a voice upon the slope

Cry to the summit, "Is there any hope?"

To which an answer peal'd from that high land.

But in a tongue no man could understand;

And on the glimmering limit far withdrawn

God made Himself an awful rose of dawn. [8]

[Footnote 1: A reference to the famous passage in the 'Phoedrus' where] Plato compares the soul to a chariot drawn by the two-winged steeds.

Footnote 2: Imitated apparently from the dance in Shelley's 'Triumph of Life':--

The wild dance maddens in the van; and those


Mix with each other in tempestuous measure

To savage music, wilder as it grows.

They, tortur'd by their agonising pleasure,

Convuls'd, and on the rapid whirlwinds spun


Maidens and youths fling their wild arms in air.

As their feet twinkle, etc.]

[Footnote 3: See footnote to last line.]

[Footnote 4: All up to and including 1850 read:--]

Every _minute_ dies a man,

Every _minute_ one is born.

Mr. Babbage, the famous mathematician, is said to have addressed the following letter to Tennyson in reference to this couplet:--

"I need hardly point out to you that this calculation would tend to

keep the sum total of the world's population in a state of perpetual

equipoise, whereas it is a**[Footnote: well-known fact that the said

sum total is constantly on the increase. I would therefore take the

liberty of suggesting that, in the next edition of your excellent

poem, the erroneous calculation to which I refer should be corrected

as follows:--

Every moment dies a man,

And one and a sixteenth is born.

I may add that the exact figures are 1.167, but something must, of

course, be conceded to the laws of metre."]

[Footnote 5: 1842 and 1843. The tyrant's.]

[Footnote 6: 1842. Said.]

[Footnote 7: In the Selection published in 1865 Tennyson here inserted a] couplet which he afterwards omitted:--

Another answer'd: "But a crime of sense!"

"Give him new nerves with old experience."

[Footnote 8: In Professor Tyndall's reminiscences of Tennyson, inserted] in Tennyson's 'Life', he says he once asked him for some explanation of this line, and the poet's reply was:

"The power of explaining such concentrated expressions of the

imagination was very different from that of writing them".

And on another occasion he said very happily:

"Poetry is like shot silk with many glancing colours. Every reader

must find his own interpretation, according to his ability, and

according to his sympathy with the poet".

Poetry in its essential forms always suggests infinitely more than it expresses, and at once inspires and kindles the intelligence which is to comprehend it; if that intelligence, which is perhaps only another name for sympathy, does not exist, then, in Byron's happy sarcasm:--

"The gentle readers wax unkind,

And, not so studious for the poet's ease,

Insist on knowing what he 'means', a hard

And hapless situation for a bard".

Possibly Tennyson may have had in his mind Keats's line:--

"There was an awful rainbow once in heaven"