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The All-Star Victorian

Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart

by Robert Bernard Martin
Oxford University Press, 643 pp., $29.95

The Tennyson Album: A Biography in Original Photographs

by Andrew Wheatcroft
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 160 pp., $25.00

When Tennyson was a young man the French poet Gérard de Nerval used to walk about with a lobster on a lead, observing that “it doesn’t bark and it knows the secrets of the sea.” Such behavior, or variations on it, is wholly familiar and comprehensible where poets are concerned, in any post-romantic age. Eccentricity seeks familiarity, and in obtaining it yields up any claim to be inveterately peculiar. Baudelaire and Dylan Thomas would have understood each other very well, and both of them are on easy terms with the modern spirit in poetry, easy terms with Berryman, with O’Hara, with Lowell, with Pound and Eliot. Eliot was, figuratively speaking, leading his lobster about when he wrote his notes on The Waste Land.

This relation of the sacred monster with his client, both sophisticated and collusive, is quite unlike any relation that we have with the great Victorian poets. Not that the effect of their poetry was necessarily so different. Both kinds could equally depend on incantation, mystery, suggestiveness. But Cyril Connolly was right in remarking that the sonnets of Nerval have the modern spirit in them. Their mysteriousness addresses us intimately, their incantation seeks out the response of a fellow-feeling and intelligence, the family understanding of Baudelaire’s “mon semblable, mon frère.” Such effects in the poetry of Victorians like Tennyson are, by contrast, entirely popular and democratic, as wide open as their own movement and rhythm. They make no hidden arcane appeal.

The presence of such an appeal in modern poetry shows the diminishment of its audience, even in an age of mass culture and education. Poetry is now the captive maiden of the English Departments, neither expecting nor receiving a wider readership. More importantly from the biographer’s point of view, it shows how little worthwhile it would be to do and redo the life of a modern poet. Because of the nature of their appeal to us there is nothing in the least unimaginable in the lives and sensibilities of Eliot or Lowell or Berryman, and the same goes for Nerval or Baudelaire. But Tennyson presents the biographer with a perennial challenge. What was the secret of his appeal? What actually went on behind the hair and beard and glowing eyes, under the black hat? The past is not necessarily a foreign country, and they do not always do things differently there, but the popular charisma of the great Victorians has a quality about it which is unlike anything today. How can it be recaptured and made comprehensible to us?

On the whole it can’t, which is the source of the abiding fascination, but there are clues and parallels. Take Gérard de Nerval’s lobster again, which we might meet up with now at any happening, any experimental play or poetry reading. Compare it, and the motives of its master, with a recorded event in the life of Tennyson. In 1859 the Duke of Argyll was staying with him in the Isle of Wight. Tennyson took the nobleman for a long walk, in the course of which he complained incessantly about the unscrupulous copying of his unpublished poems. Then, as a mark of respect and favor, he led his guest into the middle of a large stubble field, in which no unauthorized copyists could possibly be lurking, and recited to him in conspiratorial tones a new poem, “Boädicea.”

Now where today in the world of poetry have we anything—anything at all—like that? Of course we haven’t, but the same kind of ingredients could come together in quite a different context. Tennyson was a pop star, one of the most successful and famous ever. It is all there—his own curious classlessness and the wide appeal to persons of all classes; the relations with the beau monde, with royalty and riches; the spontaneities, the simplicities, the suspicions; the generosities; the secluded estates and publicized progresses, the words on every lip, the public appearance known to all. In Tennyson a great poet became a great impresario, a magic performer, a legend. For perhaps the only time in its history real poetry was as potent and as widespread as pop music, and the man who made it as much of a star.

No wonder the reaction against it all was so intense. “Modern” poetry retreated into cult and fashion, secreted itself among connoisseurs and those in the know. It rejected Tennysonian popularity just as decisively as Bloomsbury sneered at Tennysonian manners and morals. Virginia Woolf’s feeble little charade, “Freshwater,” has a lot of what it feels to be superior fun with the absurdities of Tennysonian domesticity, the tears and recitals, the fervors and the reticences. Julia Margaret Cameron hovered adoringly about the bard with her photographic apparatus, taking those portraits which for depth and fidelity of expression have never been surpassed. Tennyson’s vanity was as open as everything else about him, and he was fascinated by her pictures, particularly the one which he called “the dirty old monk”; he wanted her to give him lessons in the techniques of photography.

But the style of living that seemed so hopelessly old-fashioned and comic to Bloomsbury now seems open, dignified, rather splendid. It is Bloomsbury itself which now appears grotesquely old-fashioned, affected, alienated; at least in so far as it claimed to stand for a return to honesty and clear-sighted intelligence after the era of Victorian evasiveness and hypocrisy. The fact is that Victorian art, as embodied and represented in Tennyson’s production and performances, was enjoyed by all and accessible to all. Together with Dickens he represented the peak of the Victorian populist achievement, an achievement which high art has not risen to since, nor seems likely to again. We have to leave those kinds of achievement now to other sorts of idols—the actor and film director, the football player, pop singer, and sportsman.

The “rehabilitation” of Tennyson has been in many ways as misleading as the post-Victorian slighting of him. Harold Nicolson in his book on Tennyson1 took the view that there was a good Tennyson, the neurotic young writer of black moods and haunted cadences, straying about the dreary wastes of the Lincolnshire seashore, the Tennyson of “Mariana” and “The Dying Swan” and “A spirit haunts the year’s last hours.”

The air is damp, and hush’d and close,
As a sick man’s room when he taketh repose An hour before death;
My very heart faints and my whole soul grieves
At the moist rich smell of the rotting leaves, And the breath Of the fading edges of box be- neath,
And the year’s last rose.

Success and recognition destroyed this darkly melodious poet, who then produces for the rest of his life official verses of little merit and conventionally popular sentiment. This reduced Tennyson to a minor Rimbaud, a blighted poet of the fin-de-siècle type, acceptable to an age which rejected the Victorian achievement.

Nicolson, it is true, later recanted. Professor Martin quotes a letter to his wife, Victoria Sackville-West, in which he said that Tennyson “truly was a poet, darling, and I wish I had realized that more deeply when I wrote that slight book about him.” But there persisted the idea of Tennyson as a true and strange small poet struggling to get out of a big and bloated official reputation. He had to be defended, championed, stuck up for. The excellent life by his grandson, Charles, is defensive in tone,2 so is J.H. Buckley’s valuable Tennyson, The Growth of a Poet.3 Christopher Ricks’s fine edition of the poems marked a real step forward in Tennyson appreciation, but his critical and biographical study is in subtle ways more misleading than earlier depreciations of the poet.4 Perceptions about the detailed virtues of the verse are punched out as precisely as on a computer, and as mechanically, the suggestion created that a finely tuned machine for producing poetical effects is being brilliantly decoded.

But Tennyson was not Herbert or Donne. His poetry, however full of “good things,” is essentially and continuously naïve, moving us altogether if it moves at all. Ricks’s is the last refinement of the intellectualized Tennyson which with the best intentions has been reconstructed out of the old blank Victorian image, to make him at home with modernism, able to rub shoulders with Eliot and Yeats. What makes Professor Martin’s to my mind the best biography that has appeared so far is the way in which he has been able to rid it of all such special pleading. He feels comfortable with Tennyson: he accepts him for what he feels him to be. Neither apologies nor rebuttals nor original claims are made. The result is a Tennyson whose success story, both financial and psychological, comes alive in simple human terms.

For simplicity is very much the clue, the kind of simplicity which is opposed to “seriousness.” Matthew Arnold, most thoughtful of Tennyson’s early detractors, thought his poetry provincial, lacking in the idea of “high seriousness” which Arnold had invented as the criterion of great European poetry. The idea is of course a phantom of Arnold’s own wishes for and about his own creative powers, but it has had a prolonged and damaging effect: “serious” is still a cliché word which any novelist asked about his intentions, or any critic on the radio, finds it necessary to come out with to indicate that what he is writing, or what he is praising, seems to him good.

Wordsworth, Arnold’s chief inspiration, is certainly a serious poet in his sense of the word; Tennyson is not. The young Tennyson, surrounded by his friends, was not unlike the idol of a rock group, picking out his music amid the hubbub, smoking pot (the strongest shag tobacco in Tennyson’s case), and delighting the others with recitals which had something of the quality of an improvisation. As Martin shows, Tennyson was a far more social person than the image of the solitary neurotic would suggest. He needed company, camaraderie of the kind that his friends Hallam and Spedding had a gift for, as he needed work, and uncritical admiration for his touch and his performance.

This is the atmosphere of The Princess, a kind of elaborate and aborted early musical, the theme of which Gilbert was later to turn into comic opera. Young men shouting and smoking and rolling sonorous vowels is the setting for the Morte d’Arthur, a setting significantly different from what it became when Tennyson blew up the whole thing many years later into the Idylls of the King, though even there an element of the shared and wondrous joke is never far away, as in the lines which Gladstone was so enchanted by, describing a guardsman at Arthur’s court surprised by news when eating a sandwich.

He spoke: the brawny spearman let his cheek
Bulge with the unswallowed piece, and turning stared;

It was probably in the same spirit that Tennyson solicited his friend Edward FitzGerald’s enthusiasm for his lines about the Lady of the Lake, and how she made the sword Excalibur.

  1. 1

    Tennyson: Aspects of His Life, Character, and Poetry (1923; Arno Press, 1972).

  2. 2

    Alfred Tennyson (1949; Shoe String, 1968).

  3. 3

    Harvard University Press, 1962.

  4. 4

    Tennyson (Macmillan, 1972).

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