ANY biographer of Tennyson has a particular problem to overcome. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Queen Victoria’s poet laureate, was one of the first poets to be instantly recognisable to the public.
By John Batchelor
Chatto & Windus, 428pp, £25
Batchelor includes a lovely anecdote of Tennyson being accosted by a “dissipated-looking” individual: “Now you are Mr Tennyson; I know you from your photos.” “Well, if I am”, said T, “that is not reason why I should be stopped in the street in this way.” “Mr Tennyson”, said the other, “I’ve been dead drunk half a dozen times this week; if you’ll only shake hands with me I’ll never get drunk again.”
The Tennyson of the popular imagination is fixed in photographs by Julia Cameron, portraits by John Everett Millais and George Frederic Watts: the unkempt hair, the prophet’s beard (grown to conceal his mouth after false teeth changed its shape), the cape, the hat (Gladstone, on contemplating offering Tennyson a peerage, reportedly said “Ah! Could I be accessory to introducing that hat into the House of Lords?”), the rheumy, watery eyes looking into the middle distance (Tennyson wore glasses much of his life but was vain enough to take them off for portraits).
But compare these to the portrait done by Samuel Laurence, probably painted when Tennyson was around 30. Instead of looking poetically distrait, he looks purposeful. He is not dishevelled but elegantly turned-out. Above all, he looks Byronically beautiful. It is worth holding this image in mind when so many of his contemporaries, from Carlyle to his fellow members of the Apostles in Cambridge, referred to how finely made and handsome the young Tennyson was.
The Victorian Tennyson has rather overshadowed the Tennyson who grew up under the reigns of George IV and William IV; both biographically and critically. There is a tendency to backread from the Idylls Of The King, with their morally perfect Arthur and slightly pasteboard medievalism, onto the odder, earlier works like “The Lady of Shalott”, “Mariana” and “Morte d’Arthur”. It is to Batchelor’s credit that he gives us both the later, sage-like and respectable Tennyson and the earlier, more chaotic version.
Tennyson was in some ways a representative Victorian: a local lad, from Lincolnshire, made good and assiduously precise about his public image and private income. He was a shrewd businessman (made more so when his wife Emily took over managing his copyrights and publications) and partook of some of the less agreeable prejudices of his age (“Niggers are tigers” was one disparaging remark; he also supported the Queen against his friend, Gladstone, on Irish Home Rule). He was sensitive to criticism to an astonishing degree, breaking friendships with Edward Fitzgerald (author of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam) and Lewis Carroll. When Benjamin Jowett, a close friend and Master of Balliol College, said to him, “I think I wouldn’t publish that, if I were you, Tennyson”, the laureate seethed and replied, “If it comes to that, Master, the sherry you gave us at lunchtime was beastly”. The family feuds around the disinheritance of Tennyson’s father complete a picture which could have come from the quill of Wilkie Collins.
But there is the younger Tennyson as well: the man who, fired by revolutionary zeal, gadded off with his closest friend Arthur Hallam to assist with the Spanish liberation being plotted by Torrijos y Uriarte. In his twenties, Tennyson was itinerant, ambitious and to use an anachronistic word, bohemian. Tennyson rushed into the poetic vacuum left by the deaths and silences of the Romantics: in a short space of time, we have the deaths of Keats (1821), Shelley (1822), Byron (1824), Blake (1827), and Scott (1832). Coleridge had given up poetry; Wordsworth would not publish “The Prelude” in his lifetime and had given up publication, more or less, by 1820 (his one laureate poem was written by his nephew); John Clare was in an insane asylum; and Southey was a standing-joke. That Samuel Rogers was considered for the laureateship on Wordsworth’s death is telling (the aged poet eventually lent Tennyson his morning suit for the royal audience, a piece of generosity he had previously shown to Wordsworth).
Tennyson’s early poetry was virtuosic, and suffused with a sense of the penultimate: even a poem like “St Simeon Stylites”, which Batchelor describes as a satire but which might equally be called a gothic fantasia, where the saint (who describes himself as “from scalp to sole one slough and crust of sin”) has the bathetic prediction of his death “to-night / A quarter before twelve”. Like Mary Shelley – whose novel The Last Man was published in 1826 – Tennyson was drawn to the moments before final voyages and last speeches, to solitary survivors and those who have lived beyond an allotted span.
But it was the untimely death of Hallam in 1833 that was the inspiration for Tennyson’s most enduring work “In Memoriam AHH”. It was eventually published in 1849; its 17-year gestation is linked, rather brilliantly by Batchelor, with the almost equally long and equally vacillating courtship of Emily Sellwood. “In Memoriam AHH” is wracked and ambiguous, with Tennyson entertaining, questioning, rejecting and reaffirming ideas about nature, immortality, death, humanity and the persistence of both the soul and the grieving survivor. It spoke to an intellectually anxious generation, offering both consolation and complexity. Nothing in the rest of Tennyson’s oeuvre quite manages that elaborate surface tension, the sense that the artefact is actually supported by its own imminent collapse.
At one point Batchelor offers I think the best analysis of Idylls Of The King, setting it alongside other long-form verse narratives (Robert Browning’s The Ring And The Book, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, his rival Bulwer Lytton’s King Arthur) but also other Victorian productions such as Coventry Patmore’s sententious The Angel In The House and Martin Tupper’s Proverbial Philosophy. The Idylls are less interesting in terms of narrative architecture than the Brownings, and capture some of the moral improvement of Tupper and Patmore. They are judiciously reflective of a taste that in part Tennyson created; they align perfectly with the Pre-Raphaelite enthusiasms for the Arthurian corpus. But they were not “epic”, a point Tennyson repeatedly made. The age of epic was over: this was long-form poetry for the age of the novel.
Batchelor does a fine job of interpreting the poetry in the light of Tennyson’s life, a practice the poet would have been typically incensed by (even though it is clearly and indisputably the case that poems like “Maud” rely on Tennyson’s memory of slights and unfortunate romantic attachments from his youth). He does not shy away from the melancholy frequency of mental illness, alcoholism and opium use among the Tennysons (Septimus Tennyson used to introduce himself as “the most morbid of the Tennysons). That Alfred managed this propensity makes him appear a braver man than might otherwise be thought.
Late in life, Tennyson thought back on Hallam and said that he could have been anything, except a great poet. That role was Tennyson’s and he guarded it furiously. (There is an exceptionally funny account of Tennyson reading his own poems, and interspersing it with “that’s good”). His very mellifluence sometimes tells against him: one rarely has the sense of him battling to incarnate his ideas in language, the way one has with Browning or Gerald Manley Hopkins. But that sonorous perfection, at its best, left us with poems that seem to have always existed, rather than being products of the Victorian age.