To-night the winds begin to rise
And roar from yonder dropping day:
The last red leaf is whirl’d away,
The rooks are blown about the skies;
The forest crack’d, the waters curl’d,
The cattle huddled on the lea;
And wildly dash’d on tower and tree
The sunbeam strikes along the world:
And but for fancies, which aver
That all thy motions gently pass
Athwart a plane of molten glass,
I scarce could brook the strain and stir
That makes the barren branches loud;
And but for fear it is not so,
The wild unrest that lives in woe
Would dote and pore on yonder cloud
That rises upward always higher,
And onward drags a labouring breast,
And topples round the dreary west,
A looming bastion fringed with fire.
This is a passionate and difficult section. Tennyson’s anguish is depicted in images of a stormy evening in late autumn. The sunbeam, usually a sign of light and hope becomes a sign of disorder. Only the poet’s fancies allow him to bear the violence of this emotional weather. But what is the nature of that fancy? “That all thy motions gently pass/ athwart a plane of molten glass” Who is referred to by “thy” ? I think it must be Arthur, imagined as being in the heaven of Revelation with its “sea of glass” (Revelation 15) The fear that this might not be so, restrains him from dwelling on the rising cloud that hides the sun but is fringed with angry light. I may be misreading this, because its wording is not clear. Another interpretation may be that Tennyson is thinking of the ship conveying Hallam’s body, imagining it on a very calm sea, which is like molten glass. This too seems laboured. Perhaps I’ve ignored something obvious?
In any case, Tennyson is emphasising his contradictory emotions of calm bitterness and violent protest aroused by his friend’s death. There is an suggestion of apocalypse in the detail of this section, but no clarifying revelation.