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.
Nine years she wrought it, sitting in the deeps
Upon the hidden bases of the hills.
Every effective Tennysonian “hit” is on the basis of extravaganza. Who but Tennyson could take a line from Shakespeare and blow it up into the extraordinary tone-poem of “Mariana,” a mixture of topographical realism and pure mood, so potent in its effect on the most unlikely auditors that Queen Victoria could say with touching pathos to her Poet Laureate many years later, after the Prince Consort’s death: “I am your Mariana now.”
Indeed what is remarkable about Tennyson’s later popularity at court and among social and political grandees is the atmosphere of his early friendships and the style of life that made him the shy, uncouth, simple hero of an intellectual and apostolic band. He had the gift of putting his foot in it in such a way that everyone was pleased. In his first meeting with the Queen after Albert’s death all he could think of to say in desperation was what a good king Albert would have been. “I lost my head—big fool that I was.” But of course as was usual with Tennyson, who had the kind of luck that Napoleon would have envied, it was just the right thing to say: it had always been a sore point with the Queen that her subjects underrated her adored husband, and that the politicians would allow him no power. She was melted wholly, and invited the whole family to Osborne, where Tennyson’s wife Emily was overcome by the euphoria of the occasion.
She gave me her hand & I found myself on my knees kissing it but I don’t exactly know how I got there…. Ally talked very eloquently with the Queen & we all laughed & talked…. We talked of everything in heaven & earth almost—Jowett, Huxley, the stars, the Millennium. I never felt it so easy to talk with any stranger before.
Both Tennysons found the royal touch surprisingly easy to come by.
A short while before Tennyson had been in the Pyrenees with friends, walking along the valley of Cauteretz which he had visited with Arthur Hallam in 1830, when they were young men together. The result was what he believed to be the finest lyric he ever wrote.
Brook that runnest madly, brook that flashest white
deepening thy voice with the deep- ening of the night
All along the valley where thy mad waters go
I walked with Arthur Hallam two & thirty years ago.
All along the valley thou ravest down thy bed
Thy living voice to me is as the voice of the dead
All along the valley by rock & cave & tree
The voice of the dead is a living voice to me.
That first version holds in its most concentrated form the self-absorbed melody of Tennyson. There is in the fourth line, as so often in Tennyson’s verse, a kind of immanent comicality which is immensely effective and touching, the sonorous movement of the line taking in its stride the pedestrian syllables of the name, the real thing that had once been a real person. In fact, as Tennyson knew quite well, though he later claimed to have forgotten it (“A brute of a critic has discovered that it was thirty-one years and not thirty-two”) he had altered the timing in the interests of euphony, and in revising the poem he changed the name to “one I loved.” But the haunting second line was unchanged, and the “popular” motif that sings itself in a recurrent rhythm was further accentuated.
The whole thing is a remarkable instance of Tennyson’s powers of ingesting more deliberate kinds of poetry and giving them his own trademark melody. The landscape is brought to life by means of three other poems—one of Hallam’s called “The Soul’s Eye,” an echo of Meredith’s Love in a Valley, and a direct reference to Wordsworth’s “A Slumber did my spirit Seal.” The dead girl in Wordsworth’s lines is “rolled round in earth’s diurnal course / With rocks and stones and trees.” The sense of Hallam’s presence is more manic, more theatrical, and appealing more to a mass audience. The mechanical noise of the water tearing along itself becomes dead, but it brings in the very impersonality of its energy a sense of the vanished individual life. In the revised version Tennyson weakened this effect by changing “where thy mad waters go” into “where thy waters flow.”
Martin is the first biographer to have been able to make extensive use of the Tennyson correspondence. He combines encyclopaedic Tennyson scholarship with a great deal of intuitive common sense, a dry sympathy and intimacy with his subject, a leisurely and domestic awareness of the poet. He certainly gets in more about Tennyson than any previous biographer, and his book makes a foil to Christopher Ricks’s brilliantly incisive—too incisive—shorter study. To be comprehensible Tennyson needs space and clam, the calm that his own poetry made out of deprivations and resentments, boredom and unhappiness. We recognize the quality of the pop star, almost the sleepwalker’s capacity for success and survival, but the relation between unhappiness and fame is one that present sensibilities can make little of. Neurosis, with us, produces—if it produces at all—the kinds of creativity that lead to violence and self-destruction, our twin snobberies, the forms of authenticity most admired in the imagination of the writer, and in its preoccupations and inventions. We escape from coddled, uneasy boredom into willed and gratuitous horrors: the Victorians preferred to be taken out of themselves to nicer places.
Their fashions were for gracious pasts, Arthurian dignities of living; their literature did not admire the degradation by drugs and alcohol which was overwhelmingly present to their daily view. Tennyson was not proud of the madness of one of his brothers, the opium addiction of another (Charles, also a poet, and a good one), and of his own steady boozing—his tipple was cheap port, drunk in the fumes of strong shag tobacco. When famous he once poured a glass of hot water into the decanter of peerless ’34 vintage at some grand dinner. He was embarrassed by the general embarrassment and muttered, feebly defiant, that Horace used to water his Falernian.
There seems no doubt that public reaction, whether favorable or unfavorable, constantly took Tennyson by surprise. All his best poems have a quality of absurdity in their self-absorption that is sublime; Tennyson seems to have been genuinely taken aback by their success, as much as by the kind of criticism they attracted. His attachment to Maud—rightly—was so total, and his disappointment at its reception so obsessive, that he insisted on giving two-hour readings of it to all his friends—Jane Carlyle, though she adored him, was bored to tears—and he was still doing it years later. “That was rather a debauch wasn’t it?” the poet Clough remarked to his wife after one such reading; and an unwary guest at Farringford, who had told the two young Tennysons how much he enjoyed their father’s poetry, was trapped upstairs while changing his wet clothes, and compelled to listen, shiveringly, to the whole performance. But perhaps the most signal instance of Tennyson’s unawareness of other people’s responses was much earlier, when he included “O Darling Room” in his Poems of 1833, a selection including some of the best he ever wrote.
O darling room, my heart’s delight,
Dear room, the apple of my sight,
With thy two couches soft and white,
There is no room so exquisite,
No little room so warm and bright,
Wherein to read, wherein to write.
That gave the reviewers a field day. It was clear from the rest of the poem, with its reference to the German tour Tennyson had lately been on with Hallam, that this was not a dramatic effusion supposed to have been written by a girl—even then it would have seemed pretty artless—but a poem about the poet’s own room at Somersby Rectory. Croker in the Quarterly rubbed his hands. “In such a dear little room a narrow-minded scribbler would have been content with one sofa, and that one he would probably have covered with black mohair, or red cloth, or a good striped chintz; how infinitely more characteristic is white dimity!—’tis as it were a type of the purity of the poet’s mind.” Prurience, in its robust Victorian way, could produce hints of a certain complexity. Why did the poet need two couches? In view of his exquisite tone—what Bulwer Lytton called the “eunuch strain”—perhaps the other was not intended for a lady? In fact the explanation was very simple. The rectory was cramped; Tennyson and a brother, now absent, had shared the room: sometimes a guest, like Hallam himself, doubled up for the night.
Tennyson could only have produced such stuff because he had no idea of how it might be taken. This enormous, shaggy, thick-wristed man, the epitome of slovenly and tobacco-drenched masculinity, had a feminine side that came out in his poetry so naturally that he was unconscious of the fact. This is the key to the whole tone of In Memoriam. It embarrassed the Victorians—though not Queen Victoria, she had too much sense and feminine perception—by its feminine abandonment to the spirit of the dear departed. One reviewer, when it was still anonymous, thought it must have come from the full heart of a widow, an uncommonly talented one.
A spectral doubt which makes me cold
That I shall be thy mate no more…
The reviewer could hardly be blamed.
Stoop soul and touch me: wed me: hear The wish too strong for words to name….
That MS version became, as Ricks remarks, even more disconcerting in the published version. “Descend, and touch, and enter: hear….” But the clue was supplied by Tennyson himself, who as usual woke up too late to the implications of what he had written. About the line “Oh, wast thou with me, dearest, then…” he remarked: “If anybody thinks I ever called him ‘dearest’ in his life they are much mistaken, for I never even called him ‘dear.”‘ Exactly. It is because Hallam is dead that the poem can adopt a tone never imagined or contemplated in his lifetime; and in so doing has achieved that extraordinary universality of tenderness which has moved, and indeed comforted, so many readers ever since.
Hallam had an unsuspected cerebral deformity which hemorrhaged when he was sight-seeing with his father in Vienna, and he died instantly. Perfectly possible that he might have survived and dragged out a vegetable existence indefinitely, in which case not only would the poem, or anything like it, never have been written, but Tennyson himself would probably have managed to put him out of mind, as he had done in the case of his own mad brother, confined up in Edinburgh. Hallam, who comes across in his letters and in the many memoirs as an enchantingly attractive character, had literally saved Tennyson, by his discerning admiration, his gaiety, the warmth of his affection. He was engaged to Tennyson’s sister; in saving her brother he had saved, adopted, virtually wedded, the whole family. But his work was done; the legend remained. Had he lived on, even in perfect health, there could only have been a diminution in the relationship, as occurred with Tennyson’s many other and lesser friendships. As so often happened in Tennyson’s strangely fortunate career, the death itself was a kind of last blessing, a benefaction.
Tennyson is the great master of what may in general be a romantic invention, and is certainly something developed and exploited by the Victorians—the art of letting the incongruous die in the embrace of the elaborate. The most deeply soothing and comforting thing about In Memoriam is the strangeness of its honesty, clinging both to the total nothingness of death and the dead, and the wonderful constructions that living human sensibility can make out of that fact. It is like making a fortune or a factory as a response to the departure of God and the totality of death; and the Victorians, who were frequently doing things of that sort, must have felt that Tennyson and his poem were very much on their side, one of them. Nor were they wrong. A long poem of Tennyson is like an industrial enterprise, undertaken in the face of spiritual darkness and religious collapse. The death of Hallam was like the death of God, but it could be overcome; a poem could be written about it; language survived, like other forms of human enterprise.
But, for the unquiet heart and brain, A use in measured language lies; The sad mechanic exercise
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.
That is a sound, an admirable, a proper response to the fact that
He is not here; but far away The noise of life begins again, And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.
But Tennyson’s model, in so far as he had one, was not Victorian at all. It was Shakespeare’s Sonnets, deeply admired, and having the same air of occasional poems, lucidly reasoned and hauntingly metaphored, on a theme of friendship. In both cases the idea of that friendship was transformed in the writing.
T.S. Eliot observed that the faith of In Memoriam was a poor thing, but the doubt in it was a very intense experience. Martin queries this, suggesting that both are dramatized in an equally effective way. I feel he is right, and I would also feel that what really matters is the creation of a living poetry in the place of both. The poetry seems lucidly argued, rangingly reflective, but the important thing is its hypnotic authority as poetic statement, a statement that satisfies in itself and by its own being. The Victorians clearly underwent the force of this satisfaction: it was the source of Tennyson’s power alike over the philistine great and the ignorant poor. Lord Dufferin, who often came in his yacht to Farringford, and treated the poet with the most admiring deference, once told Tennyson that his poetry had suddenly shown him what poetry was all about—he had never been able to see the point of it before.
Noblemen can flatter as successfully as lesser mortals or more, but this is the kind of praise that rings true, and points to the source of the popularity. It was Lord Dufferin, incidentally, who when Viceroy of India won Kipling’s admiration for saying that “there can be no room for good intentions in one’s work.” There are certainly none in Tennyson’s best work—perhaps the intention is in any case irrelevant to the genesis of good poetry—and when he did have them the poetry suffers, not only in such obvious cases as the Idylls of the King, but where the scale is much smaller:
Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could under- stand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
That is surely as tiresome a little poem as “O Darling Room,” but Tennyson’s absorption has now grown portentous, however little deliberately so. He has no talent at all for the Why and the Wherefore of things, the questions that Browning and Hardy could ask in their poetry in their own way. Martin perceptively says that Tennyson has to imagine himself into physical reality “so that it melts into metaphor”: he cannot just wonder and record. In spite of the stately accuracy of detail in his verse—things like “as black as ash buds in the front of March”—he was emphatically not a man like Hardy, who “used to notice such things”: and of course, like Yeats, he was extremely short-sighted.
Reality melts into metaphor in a way that will surely remind us—once we have accepted how bizarre the process can be—of a more modern poetry, and specifically of the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Hugh Kenner remarked, with the same note of exasperation often found in comments by the more intellectual critics among Tennyson’s contemporaries, that for forty years Stevens’s poetry “revolves about nothing more profound than bafflement with a speechless externality which poets can no longer pretend to animate.” “Nothing more profound” used to be the note of complaint where Tennyson’s poetry is concerned; but the point would be that both Tennyson and Stevens are, in their different ways, animating externality: it is precisely what such poets in an age of materialism learn to do. In Stevens’s case the process is both self-conscious and in a muffled way deliberately funny: but his poems, especially the long ones, have something of the Idylls of the King about them. Those stately narratives should not be read as narratives about people and events at all but as prolonged and luxurious metaphor into which Tennyson has melted the externality of the tale. The incongruity between metaphor and tale is comical and should be seen as such; comedy represents a kind of triumph, as in Wallace Stevens, over externality, showing how the poet still can, and does, animate it in his own way.
But the American poet who most closely resembled Tennyson and revealed the continued vitality in his style of metaphor is Edward Arlington Robinson. There is a Crabbe side to Robinson but there is a Tennysonian side too, shown most obviously in the success in the early Twenties of his long narrative poem Tristram. Robinson of course didn’t believe in “knights in iron clothing,” but he was still able to write about them, and for the same sort of reasons that Tennyson could. Both poets had the temperament that thrives on anachronism, and both gave it their own sort of new look. They knew they could do nothing but write poetry, and that composition—the “sad mechanic exercise,” like embroidering or doing the dishes—was what kept them going, was as Tennyson put it, the thing
that handles daily life
That keeps us all in order more or less.
They wrote poetry as they drank, in large but controlled amounts that saved them from excess. And this form of composition has its own fascination for the public, who take to it largely because they feel that if they themselves wrote poetry then this is the kind they might be able to write. (Dufferin’s compliment suggests the same sort of reaction.)
It is a totally nonprogressive kind of poetry, just as it has nothing apparently original about it but suggests the timeless solidity of a purely verbal craft. That again makes for the deep reassurance in its popularity, and for its continual impulse to self-parody, turning movement into metaphor majestic and circular.
And like a downward smoke, the slender stream
Along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem.
Henry James, no mean judge of such matters, saw Tennyson’s style as poised and stationary—“the phrase always seems to me to pause and slowly pivot upon itself.” Even when movement takes place it is a movement that melts into its own confidence and sureness of movement, rather than into an advance of sense; and this process has a secret hilarity about it, the kind that must lurk in all eloquence that transforms the speechless externality of things. Undoubtedly the finest parody of Tennyson ever written is Robinson’s famous sonnet, “The Sheaves,” a poem which miniaturizes the whole process in fourteen lines which are as beautiful as they are subliminally funny. The field of wheat “waited there, the body and the mind”;
And with a mighty meaning of a kind
That tells the more the more it is not told.
“Like a tale of little meaning though the words are strong,” as Tennyson put it in “The Lotos Eaters.” Nothing of course can be said of the wheat, except that it is there, and the poem knows this quite well, but it turns the tables on its own profundity by slipping into metaphor, giving the scene an incongruous and unexpected animation. As the season (and the sonnet) draws on
A thousand golden sheaves were ly- ing there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay—
As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.
The scene, imagined literally, is pure Thurber, like his lady who leaps into the cartoon declaiming: “I come from haunts of coot and hern.” Robinson’s metaphor usurps the blankness of nature just as effectively as Tennyson’s, and with an exuberance which adds his own trademark to the original.
Martin is particularly good on Tennyson’s later life, and his relations with wife and children, matters which most biographers have tended to pass over rather perfunctorily. In spite of the virtual madness of his own father, and his lifelong resentment against the parvenu uncle at Bayons Manor whose side of the family had successfully engrossed its wealth and status, Tennyson had on the whole a happy childhood; and he was an adoring father to his own two sons, not at all the heavy Victorian pater-familias, and treated them as equals. The elder, Hallam, returned that adoration for the rest of his life, remaining fixated on his father’s memory after his death. He, more than anyone else, helped to create the Tennyson legend. The second son, Lionel, was very different and caused his parents considerable anxiety. Where the psychological strain of being the great man’s son caused the elder to bury his being wholly in the legend, the younger was determined to get away, if he could.
But to escape that sort of encumbrance is not easy. Sent to Eton, Lionel developed a bad stammer, became a dandy and a womanizer. Several muffled scandals preceded and followed his marriage to a beauty, Eleanor Locker, daughter of an old friend of his parents. Determined to make his own way and become financially independent, he entered the India office where he was a success, and then he died of typhoid on the way home after a routine tour of the Indian provinces. The same Lord Dufferin who admired his father’s poetry so much had been very kind to him; and his father, utterly stricken by Lionel’s death, wrote to the Viceroy a most moving poem, which revived the In Memoriam stanza, and inevitably recalled the ship which had brought home “the dark freight” of Hallam’s body.
But ere he left your fatal shore, And lay on that funereal boat, Dying, ‘Unspeakable’ he wrote
‘Their kindness,’ and he wrote no more;
And sacred is the latest word; And now the Was, the Might- have-been, And those lone rites I have not seen,
And one drear sound I have not heard,
Are dreams that scarce will let me be, Not there to bid my boy farewell When That within the coffin fell,
Fell—and flashed into the Red Sea,
Beneath a hard Arabian moon And alien stars. To question, why The sons before the father die,
Not mine! and I may meet him soon….
Tennyson could do anything with that stanza. The encapsulation within it of his son’s own gratefully polite, inevitably banal words, is deeply and directly touching.
In his later years Tennyson attempted, as Henry James was to do, a success upon the stage (it was about this time that the young James met him at a dinner party and had borne in upon him “the full, the monstrous demonstration that Tennyson was not Tennysonian”). The immensely long Queen Mary was a financial disaster, and Henry Irving, who found himself saddled with Tennyson’s ambitions as a playwright, confided to a friend as he struggled with the next play, Becket, “he is a great poet but he cannot write plays; what a pity he tries—they are the greatest rubbish.” Tennyson did try, however, and there is something engagingly indomitable about the old wizard plugging on—for money very largely—in hopes of scoring a West End hit. Immediately after Becket he was off on another, The Falcon, about a proud and impoverished count who serves up his falcon as the only food left in the house.
One wonders whether he felt anything symbolic in the old story, the falcon being the poetry he now hardly wrote. In keeping with Victorian ideas of staging, a real bird was put on, which terrified the actors until it killed itself accidentally and had to be replaced with a stuffed understudy. Then came The Cup (ancient history), The Foresters (on Robin Hood), and finally The Promise of May, a melodrama in prose about seduction and remorse in rural Lincolnshire. Its total flop induced the poet to abandon the stage at last, bitterly disappointed. Biographers have tended to ignore the whole episode, but Martin shows how significant it was in terms of Tennyson’s sense of his popularity, and what it could do.
Old, toothless, and rather bald, he had become the prisoner of his own image—that “defiling and disfiguring shape,” as Yeats called the persona of an aged poet—but his strong-willed wife remorselessly maintained the Tennysonian image, and living up to it did not improve his temper. Tennyson’s friends were never quite sure whether or not it had been a good thing that he married Emily Sellwood. Certainly she looked after him as only a Victorian wife could do. But it may be that insensibly she came to exercise a kind of censorship over his poetry, and her habit of applying to their friends for subjects for her husband to write on, although it suited his methods of composition, certainly resulted in a good many inferior poems. The publication of In Memoriam and his appointment as Poet Laureate meant that Tennyson became a rich man within a year of his marriage, though he had not been exactly poor before. He still grumbled however. He told his envious friend Henry Taylor that he was making about £2,000 annually, “but, alas, Longfellow receives three thousand, and there is no doubt that Martin Tupper makes five.”
His old friend FitzGerald was sure that the marriage was a mistake. “She is a graceful lady, but I think that she and other aesthetic and hysterical ladies have hurt AT, who, quoad Artist, wd have done better to have remained single in Lincolnshire, or married a jolly woman who would have laughed and cried without any reason why.” A subtle diagnosis of the loss of the old Tennysonian spontaneity which he and Carlyle had so much valued. But “Fitz”s’ affection for Tennyson was, or had been, certainly homosexual, though Tennyson was quite unaware of that, and his feeling of estrangement both from the poet himself and his work made him increasingly bitter. Edward Lear took quite a different view. The gentle creature adored Mrs. Tennyson and said of the marriage: “I believe no other woman in all this world could live with him for a month.” But Lear abominated Julia Cameron, whose arrival at Freshwater to be near Tennyson, to a house she called “Dimbola” from her Indian past, spelled the end of the peace and quiet he had previously enjoyed with the Tennyson family.
Julia Cameron is inevitably the heroine and presiding genius of the superb pictorial biography which Andrew Wheatcroft has put together, and to which John Betjeman, most Tennysonian of contemporary poets and most adept at bringing out the latent ebullience of his rhythms, contributes an introduction. The text is perceptive, and excellent on the relation of the poet with various friends, fellow-poets, illustrators, tutors, and the two children of amazing beauty who appear like slightly disheveled angels against the background of Farringford House. Wheatcroft has assembled a fine collection of Victorian notables and nonentities, contemporaries of the poet, filling his margins with out-of-the-way information about them, and his book will certainly be the best record of its kind. Not all the other photographers are outshone by Julia Cameron: Oscar Rejlander, a Swede who achieved a great reputation in England as a pioneer of high art photography—a forerunner of Cecil Beaton—and I. Mayall both run her close. Rejlander’s picture of the family in the garden is uncanny in the way it brings together the vanishment and unknowability of the Victorians with the ordinary, faintly complacent simplicity with which an author’s family might be snapped for the Sunday papers in their garden today.
December 18, 1980