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Passion and Humdrum

The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson: Volume II, 1851–1870

edited by Cecil Y. Lang, edited by Edgar F. Shannon Jr.
Harvard University Press (Belknap Press), 585 pp., $35.00

Tennyson was in some ways the most professional poet in English. Even as a small boy he knew what he intended to make of his life, and aside from an awkward step or two when his family tried to divert him into the Church, he never wandered off the path he saw stretching straight before him. He was prodigally endowed with talents, and critics often point out that he had a better natural ear for rhythm and sheer splendor of sound than any other English poet; because he knew his future so early, he quickly learned to practice conservation of his gifts, refusing to squander them elsewhere.

In Keats and Byron we often sense a spillover from their poetry into their correspondence, but Tennyson reserved his talents for poetry rather than the post. Almost as if to balance the lyricism of his poems, his letters are plain and workmanlike, indicating considerable mastery of style but little passion, nearly the equivalent of what Hopkins called the “Parnassian” in his poetry.

The tendency to confine his correspondence to necessary information increased as he grew older. The first volume of his Letters opens with a rhapsodic analysis by the twelve-year-old Alfred of the beauty of “Sampson Agonistes”; by the time of the first letter in the present volume, written thirty years later, his spelling has improved but not his subject matter, for he is writing to his publisher about a tailor’s bill and printers’ corrections to a poem. The second letter, to his wife, is entirely about a place to live: “The Twickenham house is a very good one with lots of room. The only objection I have to it is its nearness to London: which is rather a horror to me. I will tell thee all about it tomorrow and other things.”

There were plenty of reasons for Tennyson’s growing impersonality, both in correspondence and in person. He had always been disinclined to speak or write directly about his inner emotions, instead turning them to symbolic use in his poetry. Rather than talk gloomily of his loneliness and perhaps of his sexual frustration as a young man, he objectified them in poems like “Mariana,” and he found “The Lady of Shalott” and “The Palace of Art” more acceptable ways of dealing with doubts about the place of poetry in the modern world than personal discussion with the friends who raised the problem.

The brief, almost unbelievable happiness he knew with Arthur Hallam and the Apostles in Cambridge ended after a little more than three years when he had to return to his dying father and the Gothic blackness of life in Somersby Rectory. When Hallam died two years later, Tennyson pulled back the tentacles with which he had begun to feel out a life of affection and trust. For seventeen years of comparative poverty he drifted unannounced in and out of his friends’ lives, disappearing for long periods into hydropathic establishments to battle alcohol and the fear of madness. He grew neurotically sensitive to criticism of either his life or his poetry, and it is clear from his friends’ letters that he confided little to them of what was happening to him. The most important record of those lost seventeen years is the series of lyrics he wrote in memory of Hallam and collected as In Memoriam. And even that wonderful poem was, as he insisted, not a direct transcription of his own emotions.

The previous volume of his letters ends with 1850, the events of which would have been staggering for any man; for Tennyson it was quite simply his salvation. Within the space of a few months he had published In Memoriam, he had been invited to be Poet Laureate, and he had married Emily Sellwood, to whom he had been sporadically engaged since 1836. Not unnaturally what followed 1850 was a slight anticlimax.

Part of what he had lost in the years since Hallam’s death was the habit of intimacy, which needs as much exercise as any part of the body, and with it went the ability to put himself unreservedly into a letter. But he had the command of language of a great poet, and when he wished, his letters were extraordinarily vivid. Almost always, however, his writing is more attractive when his eye is turned outward than when he is examining himself. The difference comes through in two letters written home from Whitby in 1852. The first of these is a description of the prospect of the old town:

at the very top a gaunt old Abbey, and older parish Church hanging over the town amid hundreds of white gravestones that looked to my eye something like clothes laid out to dry. Moreover there is the crackiness of an election going on and lots of pink and blue flags, and insane northland boatmen of Danish breed, who meet and hang each other for the love of liberty, foolish fellows. In the midst of the row yesterday came a funeral followed by weeping mourners, a great hearse, plumes nodding and mourning coach, and the gaunt old Abbey looked down with its hollow eyes on life and death, the drunkenness and the political fury, rather ironically as it seemed to me, only that it was too old to have much feeling left about anything.

Five days later he wrote once more to his wife, still from Whitby, this time more typically worrying about applications to him for money since he had become Laureate:

I think it is very hard that I am obliged to subscribe to all the bad poets, and I am indignant that I should be aidant in filling the world with more trash than there is at present. Besides this kind of demand (if it be found out that I respond to such claims) is likely to increase, and I do not believe that old Wordey [Wordsworth] paid any attention to such. He was far too canny.

The lurch from enthusiasm into complaint soon becomes too predictable in his letters.

What had once been an understandable care with money when he was almost without income lingered on and became something less attractive. In 1865 he was invited to become a member of The Club, a famous eating club that had been founded by Samuel Johnson, Reynolds, and Gibbon. Although he was by then the best-paid serious poet in the world, he complained to the Duke of Argyll, his proposer, about the cost: “I suppose one has not to pay some 25 guineas entrance and some 7 ditto a year, because then, I would not say that the game is not worth the candle, but that the candle is too dear for me. Does one only pay for one’s dinner when eaten, or how is it?” With admirable restraint Argyll replied “that the Entrance Fee is £5—(not one fourth of the value of 5 lines from your pen),” and Tennyson accepted the honor, but he seldom attended meetings.

In the introduction to their first volume the editors indicated the limitations of Tennyson’s letters: “They reveal no aesthetic creed, no theory of poetry, they conduct no inquiry into the sources of inspiration, they offer no observations or insights that we recognize, gratefully, as the germ of a poem, no speculative delving into the mystery of the creative process, and no hieratic claims for the role of the poet, or of poetry, in society.” We can be thankful for the absence of hieratic claims, but it is true that most of his letters are concerned with daily affairs. However, they do contain more about poetry than the editors suggest.

When he needed to be, Tennyson could be a good critic, even of his own work. After pages of dyspeptic letters grumbling about the reception of Maud by critics who had abused his “bantling,” Tennyson suddenly pulls himself together and writes a better summary of the point of view of the poem than has been produced in a century and a quarter since then:

I wish to say one word about Maud which you and others so strangely misinterpret. I have had Peace party papers sent to me claiming me as being on their side because I had put the cry for war into the mouth of a madman. Surely that is not half so wrong a criticism as some I have seen. Strictly speaking I do not see how from the poem I could be pronounced with certainty either peace man or war man. I wonder that you and others did not find out that all along the man was intended to have an hereditary vein of insanity, and that he falls foul on the swindling, on the times, because he feels that his father has been killed by the work of the lie, and that all through he fears the coming madness. How could you or anyone suppose that if I had had to speak in my own person my own opinion of this war or war generally I should have spoken with so little moderation. The whole was intended to be a new form of dramatic composition. I took a man constitutionally diseased and dipt him into the circumstances of the time and took him out on fire.

By the time Tennyson had settled into being famous, he was regularly invited to the drawing rooms of the great, such as the Duchess of Argyll and her mother, the Duchess of Sutherland. When staying with the latter he wrote to his wife to tell her of driving with his hostess to “Lord Grenville’s place…. Lord Dufferin is here this morning as pleasant as ever, and Lady Constance Grosvenor and Lady Taunton, the Duchess’s sister, also Gladstone. I read the Fisherman [“Enoch Arden”] yesterday to the Duchess and the Duke of Newcastle’s brother. They were very much pleased with it.” It would be unfair to call him a snob, but he loved rubbing shoulders with the aristocracy; the editors tell us that there are more extant letters from him to the Argylls than to anyone else but his wife. Initially they are forelock-tugging, then they relax after 1862, when he wrote: “If you call me Mr. Tennyson any longer, I think I must Your Grace you till the end of the chapter.” Within a few years the Tennysons and Argylls were regularly sending their love to each other.

For all his acquaintance with duchesses, he kept few intimate friends of his own age and social station and, with the possible exception of Sir John Simeon, no cronies after the death of Hallam. The worry he expressed to his wife about the proximity of Twickenham to London increased, and many of these letters are concerned with looking for, renting, buying, and furnishing houses far from the center of literary England. We read of his purchase of Farringford on the Isle of Wight, which has always been associated with Maud, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” “Crossing the Bar,” and many of the smaller works of the latter half of his career. But even that was not remote enough to exclude the world. His neighbor, the great photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, said that “the tradesmen cheat him—the visitors look at him—Tourists seek him—Americans visit him—Ladies pester and pursue him—Enthusiasts dun him for a bit of stone off his gate—These things make life a burden and his great soul suffers from these insect stings.” Another time he said he was “pursued full cry along the road by two fat women and sixteen children!” Aldworth, which he built in 1868–1870 as a further retreat from his public, was isolated, stately, almost an architectural metaphor for his own position as Poet Laureate.

Although he knew all the great writers of the day, he shied away from talking or writing about poetry with them. He grew disillusioned with Carlyle, in part because he was tactless about disliking Tennyson’s poems, and he kept Browning at arm’s length, writing the briefest of thanks when he received a new volume from the only Victorian poet who might have been described as a rival. Above all he tried to avoid anyone who might criticize his poetry adversely. He was the most conspicuous English writer in the latter half of the century, but he never belonged to the literary world or even lived near it for any length of time, and it is hard to avoid the feeling that his poetry suffered from the lack of give-and-take with his equals, so that the result was the faintly inhuman quality of many of his later works like Idylls of the King. Too often we miss the straightforward emotion that animates the philosophical discussion and religious doubt of In Memoriam and makes it a great poem on both the personal and speculative planes.

Emily Tennyson sensed that her husband needed more intercourse with his equals, and she constantly invited them to Farringford and Aldworth. She quietly saw to it that he was comfortably housed and well fed, and gradually eased his seedy appearance into mild respectability. More importantly, she took over the burden of his correspondence and business arrangements, which she managed for a quarter of a century until she had an emotional and physical collapse from overwork. Often Tennyson merely signed letters she had composed, sometimes she wrote for him, and when she wrote to strangers in the third person she usually composed the letter entirely. It all makes for difficult attribution, and I am not sure the editors have always solved the problem or, so far as I can see, even acknowledge its existence. On one occasion they suggest a third-person note from “Mr. Alfred Tennyson” is Tennyson’s own letter, although subject, composition, and handwriting are all demonstrably Emily’s. The reader’s reaction to the tone of a letter is very different when he knows that Tennyson was never near it, and it would have helped if the part Emily had in the letters were always indicated.

As if recognizing a certain thinness in Tennyson’s own letters, the editors have tried in the long and generously conceived volume under review to compensate by including letters from his contemporaries, as well as excerpts from the journals kept by his adoring wife and friends, most notably his disciples, William Allingham, Francis Palgrave, and Walter White. The result is not quite what the title promises, for it is so arranged as to form a skeleton biography, but it helps make Tennyson more accessible than his letters alone would do.

The journal entires are most valuable for showing us a more relaxed, more likable poet when he was relieved of the fear of criticism or contradiction. Benjamin Jowett’s opinion would have surprised most of Tennyson’s acquaintances whom he regarded as even remotely critical of him: “He is the shyest person I ever knew, feeling sympathy and needing it to a degree quite painful.” Allingham’s reactions were still simpler: “Most delicious! that the man whose company I love best should care about mine.” But for Tennyson the truth was what it had always been: “I would as soon kill a pig as write a letter.”

Daniel Albright says gratefully that for critics Christopher Ricks’s edition of Tennyson’s poems is “a labor-saving device roughly comparable to the invention of electric light.” Students of his life will feel similar thankfulness for the careful editing of the letters, even if the annotation is heavy going for all save specialists, as if the occasional bloodlessness of the letters were to be cured by pumping in a heavy transfusion of footnotes. Inevitably in a book of its size there are mistakes in detail, but the editors nod less frequently than might be expected. One can sympathize, for example, with their becoming so mired down in the confusion of Kamehamehas who occupied the throne of Hawaii as to tell us that Tennyson’s guest, Queen Emma, was the widow of her own half-brother, when in reality she and her husband were far less closely related than Victoria and Albert were. Professors Lang and Shannon sometimes put too much trust in information simply because it is in print. One engaging instance concerns Una, Lady Troubridge, the partner in the first quarter of this century in a well-known lesbian affair with Radclyffe Hall, who wore men’s clothing, insisted on being called John, and was the author of a then-scandalous novel about female sexual inversion. Innocently they reprint another editor’s misinformation: “Laura Troubridge…had a son Ernest, who married Una Taylor, who later married John Radcliffe Hall and wrote The Well of Loneliness.”

The oddly disturbing gap in the letters between the humdrum and passion is closely related to the central concern in Daniel Albright’s excellent new study. As he puts it, the poet was preoccupied throughout his life with the tug of war between Melpomene, muse of the commonplace, and Urania, muse of the sublime. On the one hand poetry strives to reproduce the world of specificity, the literal reality on which our feel of life is based, and on the other is impelled toward symbol and mythmaking, toward the abstraction of experience. However, the two activities are mutually dependent, and an extremity of either is dangerous. Without mythopoeia the individual action or emotion has no resonance, no sense of being more than random. But myths tend “to damage, to violate the world of precious small actualities, by their very attempts to control it.” It is a problem that Albright pursues first in shorter poems like “The Two Voices,” “Lucretius,” “Demeter and Persephone,” above all in “The Palace of Art.” The second part of the book examines the great trio of the 1840s and 1850s, In Memoriam, Maud, and The Princess.

Tennyson seldom had any difficulty in conveying the specific and detailed, as one would guess from his myopic habit of looking at objects from only inches away. But myopia also makes it impossible to see the distant very clearly, and he never saw the stars as more than vague concentric rings. It was always easier for him to invoke Melpomene than Urania.

Of course one of the problems is that the ineffable, by definition, is incapable of translation into specific language, and a poet may be reduced to silent pointing. Albright says that the most sublime passage in Tennyson is in section 95 of In Memoriam where the poet is rereading the letters of the dead man that lift him out of himself:

So word by word, and line by line, The dead man touch’d me from the past, And all at once it seem’d at last
The living soul was flash’d on mine,

And mine in this was wound, and whirl’d About empyreal heights of thought, And came on that which is, and caught
The deep pulsations of the world,

Aeonian music measuring out The steps of Time—the shocks of Chance—The blows of Death. At length my trance
Was cancell’d, stricken thro’ with doubt.

But the “empyreal heights” prove too high, too near Shelley’s “intense inane,” and the trance, so often in Tennyson emblematic of knowledge of the unknowable, falters without having been quite communicated to the reader, who feels a failure of language more than failure of cognition. When the sublime has become capitalized verbal affirmation the bubble bursts. Here the connection between extremes has proven impossible to maintain, and Tennyson is returned to Hallam’s letters themselves. (It is all curiously like the matter of Tennyson’s own correspondence.)

Poems like In Memoriam and Maud have as their object the search for a myth that will contain the diversity of their particulars. Probably the ending of In Memoriam is emotionally more satisfactory because, having stormed heaven throughout the poem, the narrator is content with an intermediate symbol of his reconciliation to the natural order, the great moonlight scene. It is as if he had given up trying to see the top of the stairway and was happy with seeing only the landing, knowing that its existence postulated the existence of the whole. Maud is perhaps the more aesthetically interesting, because the boom of cannon at its end contains its own assertion of hollowness, of the falsity of the constructed myth, as Tennyson suggests in his discussion of the poem I have quoted.

Albright is almost better on The Priness than the poem deserves, and I suspect that a reader who did not know the poem would find the analysis sufficiently absorbing to convince him that the poem must be absorbing too. He is particularly good on the intercalated song, “Tears, idle tears,” with its vagueness of reference, its strange, solipsistic insistence on emotion without apparent cause. As Albright puts it, it can be understood only as “thoroughly divorced from any ordinary stimulus, a feeling completely self-engorged.” But the ballooning sublimity is lightly tied to earth by the increasingly direct images to which the tears are compared, and it is paradoxically interesting that this celebration of the abstract should occur within the larger context of a poem devoted to the puncturing of the theoretical.

As is everywhere implicit in Albright’s book, Tennyson’s poetry is not smaller because he never found an easy answer to the conflicting claims of the two sides of his perception; it is his search that engages us, not his solution. With the freshness of his analysis of the poetic process and the vitality of his language, Albright is a provocative guide to the poetry.

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