Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart
The Tennyson Album: A Biography in Original Photographs
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 …