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 …

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