Laureate of Melancholy
Tennyson: To Strive, To Seek, To Find
By John Batchelor (Chatto & Windus 428pp £25)
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was not among the eminent Victorians skewered by Lytton Strachey in his once-famous book, but he has remained in many ways the very idea of a Victorian, possessing the full mixture of suppressed turmoil, self-blindness, and strenuous achievement that Strachey found in the age at large. Even among that troubled company, Tennyson comes across as peculiarly uneasy in his own skin. There can be few other great writers, W H Auden thought, whose best work appears so wholly the consequence of a miserable childhood. Auden had in mind such inimitable passages as this:
but what am I? An infant crying in the night: An infant crying for the light: And with no language but a cry.
The whole world of Tennyson's early lyrical imagination is shaped by such ennui: he had a positive genius for emotional incapacity, articulating rumbling despair, paradoxically enough, in lines of the most sumptuous verbal invention. (He once boasted that he knew the metrical quantity of every word in English except 'scissors'.)
The intelligent and humane memoir left by his son, still the starting point for anyone interested in Tennyson, naturally remained discreet about the sorry details. But a fuller picture began subsequently to emerge in several notably good biographies, especially those of his grandson Sir Charles Tennyson (1949) and Robert Bernard Martin's study The Unquiet Heart (1980), which portrayed Tennyson's early life as a case history in demons, madness, and self-destruction, presided over by a gifted but ruined father, and set amid the bleak loveliness of the Lincolnshire landscape. The family, which was a large one, referred with survivor's pride to 'the black blood of the Tennysons': as with the home life at Wuthering Heights, there was a fierce, stoical comedy about it all, a grim humour that Tennyson retained from then on. Dante Gabriel Rossetti once recalled Tennyson's brother Septimus advancing towards him across a drawing room and introducing himself with the memorable words, 'I am Septimus, the most morbid of the Tennysons', which was saying something.
Into this dark world, when Tennyson was 19 years old, came the person who would dominate the rest of his life. Arthur Hallam, a fellow undergraduate at Trinity College, was in many ways Tennyson's antitype: the son of a prominent public intellectual, rich, effortlessly brainy, and full of Etonian accomplishment. Tennyson found him, says John Batchelor in his readable new biography, 'simply dazzling', though it is difficult to recapture exactly the grounds of his charm: he can come across as wearisomely arch and waggish in the surviving letters, and evidently he could rub people the wrong way - Batchelor has sleuthed out an unpublished journal in which one of the Cambridge circle describes him as 'the accomplished-vain philosophic Hallam'. But he and Tennyson became good friends very quickly, a relationship that was largely based on their recognition of one another's gifts. Besides being clever and dynamic, Hallam was also well-connected and he effectively took charge of his provincial friend's career: he ensured that Tennyson's Poems, Chiefly Lyrical found the right London publisher, and then anonymously placed a brilliant review in the Englishman's Magazine to celebrate its originality. At the same time, ensuring that the two men's destinies would be linked for ever, he had fallen in love with Tennyson's sister Emily - a courtship the more exciting for being conducted largely behind the back of his disapproving father - and they were soon engaged.
He died suddenly of an 'apoplexy', probably an aneurysm in the brain, in September 1833. Tennyson, who was a very remarkable poet before that happened (having already published 'Mariana', 'The Lady of Shalott' and 'The Lotos-Eaters'), was precipitated by grief into becoming the greatest poet of his time, writing in the months immediately following 'Ulysses', 'Tiresias' and 'Morte d'Arthur', as well as the first poems of what would become the In Memoriam A.H.H. sequence and the lovely verses that would later serve as the germ of his remarkable monodrama Maud:
O that 'twere possible, After long grief and pain, To find the arms of my true-love Round me once again!
Like T S Eliot a century later, Tennyson found in the depth of his own suffering a way of reaching into anxieties that defined an epoch: the circling, hesitant stanzas of In Memoriam piled up over the ensuing years until, finally published anonymously in 1850, they came to embody the uneasy, needy spirit of the age. Wordsworth's The Prelude, posthumously published in the same year, was quite eclipsed: it must have seemed like yesterday's news.
The extraordinary popularity of In Memoriam turned Tennyson into a very great success, which was never going to be unequivocally good news for someone whose métier was founded on the opposite of success. He became Poet Laureate; he married; he gradually turned into an institution. Batchelor is good on the days of fame, both the very great pleasure that Tennyson obviously took in celebrity and how simply awful he found it. His elder son, who was given the Christian name Hallam, remembered walking with his father one day when someone tapped him on the arm. 'Do you know who it is with whom you are walking?' asked the grammatically punctilious stranger. 'Yes, my father,' replied Hallam. 'Nonsense, man,' returned the pest, 'you are walking with the poet Tennyson.' His later narrative poems such as 'Enoch Arden' and the several instalments of his Arthurian cycle Idylls of the King were bestsellers; and if some of the later pages of his collected works can feel occasionally like someone doing Tennyson by the yard, an old residual melancholy genius is always ready to stir:
So dark a forethought rolled about his brain, As on a dull day in an Ocean cave The blind wave feeling round his long sea-hall In silence ...
John Batchelor has set about his task with all the data at his fingertips: he is lucid and explanatory, given neither to speculation nor sensationalism, and he offers a persuasive depiction of someone who was a striking mixture of Romantic ostentation and deep English reserve. 'That man must be a poet,' said an undergraduate contemporary as Tennyson swept impressively into Trinity College hall, looking the part; but his good friend Benjamin Jowett described him as 'the shyest person I ever knew, feeling sympathy and needing it to a degree quite painful'. It feels somehow exemplary that, having written a cumbersome philosophical poem for a new discussion society of which he was the leading light, he should then refuse to turn up to read it - though he still wanted to make sure that the person who was to recite it on his behalf should do it properly. 'It wants to be read in a big voice. Can you make yours big enough?'
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Seamus Perry's books include Coleridge on Writing and Writers and Alfred Tennyson.