Book Review

A New Tennyson

What justifies writing a new biography of an author whose life story has been often told? New material—manuscripts, diaries, letters—may create the basis for a new interpretation—Lyndall Gordon’s book about T.S. Eliot’s early life, Eliot’s Early Years, or Quentin Bell’s Virginia Woolf: A Biography. Different understanding of a social or cultural context can give new shape to a life, as in Ruby V. Redinger’s biography George Eliot: The Emergent Self, with its attention to gender, or Neil McKenna’s The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, with its emphasis on sexuality. Writers can bring together existing and known materials in a powerful new interpretation of the life and work of an author, such as Hermione Lee’s books on Virginia Woolf or Edith Wharton. And some biographers love the challenge of retelling a good story, like the life of Charles Dickens. John Batchelor’s new biography of Tennyson, Tennyson: To Strive, To Seek, To Find,[1] presents itself as a new interpretation of Tennyson’s life and career, presenting him as “stronger, more self-reliant, more businesslike, tougher, and more centrally Victorian than previous biographies.”

Biographers of eminent Victorians face a particular challenge. Many Victorian writers keenly resented the curiosity of the public about their private lives. Julia Cameron wrote of Tennyson that “he believed that every crime and vice of the world were connected with the passion for autographs and anecdotes and records,—that the desiring anecdotes and acquaintance with the lives of great men was treating them like pigs to be ripped open for the public; that he knew he himself should be ripped open like a pig; that he thanked God Almighty with his whole heart and soul that he knew nothing, and that the world knew nothing, of Shakespeare but his writings; and that he thanked God Almighty that he knew nothing of Jane Austen, and that there were no letters preserved either of Shakespeare’s or of Jane Austen’s, that they had not been ripped open like pigs.” To avoid such a sanguinary fate, Victorian writers, including Tennyson, frequently destroyed letters and papers and took great care to curate their posthumous biographies, not only appointing a biographer, but collaborating in the writing before they died. Thomas Hardy himself wrote most of his biography; when it was published after his death, its authorship was attributed to his wife. Tennyson chose his son Hallam as his biographer and talked frequently with Hallam in the decade before his death about what he wanted his son to include.

Hallam’s biography, Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir (1897), is consequently almost a hagiography (although an invaluable source for subsequent biographers). It ends, as is the convention in Victorian “Lives,” with a detailed diary of the poet’s final illness; the last page of the book is a holograph manuscript of “Crossing the Bar,” the poem that Tennyson stipulated should end any collection of his poetry. The poet’s grandson Charles published a more objective biography in 1949, but it was not until 1980, with the publication of Robert Bernard Martin’s Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart that readers and scholars had a full and searching portrait of this complex man, using all available source material. Martin’s biography portrays a very different Tennyson from the portrait that the poet and his family tried to create. Martin describes Tennyson’s painful and tumultuous family history, the disinheritance of the poet’s father in favor of his younger brother, the mental illness and alcoholism from which so many family members suffered, Tennyson’s own fears of mental illness, his conflicted feelings about his Lincolnshire origins, his slowness to assume the responsibilities of adulthood, his black moods, his difficulties with friendship, his eccentricities. It is a compelling story that gives us the Tennyson we now know.

It is this portrait to which Batchelor seeks to offer a mild corrective, presenting Tennyson rather like David Copperfield, a local boy who rises above his humble origins to make good, maintaining a steady determination to succeed even in the turmoil of his life. The trouble with this project is that the other narrative—the story of Pip, if you will, who cannot free himself from his past to arrive at his great expectations—keeps imposing itself; it is really the better story. So Batchelor’s narrative comes alive when he is telling us about the black blood of the Tennysons, about the poet’s depressions and angers, about his strange callousness toward friends, about his hunger for money and status. Batchelor’s Victorian project is continually unsettled by a more turbulent narrative—one ultimately more true both to the era and the poet.

In Tennyson: Aspects of His Life, Character and Poetry (1923), Sir Harold Nicolson, the British diplomat (and husband of Vita Sackville-West), first introduced the idea of the two Tennysons—the establishment figure whose ambition to speak for his age, in Nicolson’s view, led him to compromise his best poetic instincts, and the supreme poet of melancholy. W. H. Auden says it more wittily. Calling Tennyson the “stupidest” of the English poets, he wrote, “there was little about melancholia that he didn’t know; there was little else that he did.” This sense of two Tennysons—an eminent Victorian and a tortured Romantic soul—has been hard to escape, perhaps because of the assumptions that we still hold about the Victorian period. Batchelor’s biography falls into this pattern although he wants to give Tennyson’s establishment side more presence and respect. Yet his sense of what is “Victorian” often reflects one-dimensional stereotypes of the period. He calls Queen Victoria a “small, opinionated, narrow-minded monarch,” whom Tennyson poetically elevated into a deity. In his concluding paragraph, he calls Tennyson a romantic in an anti-romantic age. He continues, “Everything that makes Tennyson ‘Victorian’—the hunger for money and status, together with the pageantry of the Arthurian poems and the well-upholstered ponderousness of the historical plays— is essential to the story.” It limits Batchelor’s analysis to conceive of the Victorian period in this way, identifying it only with bourgeois aspiration and the celebration of status. These elements reflect a larger social instability whose dark and anxious side is an equally important part of the Victorian experience. Pip cannot shed Magwitch or his orphaned history.

Batchelor’s interpretive framework keeps him from complex analysis of the social anxieties that were so important an aspect of Tennyson’s life and a vivid subject of his poetry. Batchelor tells the story, as any biographer must, of Tennyson’s early passion for Rosa Baring— beautiful, rich, socially privileged—and her rejection of him. It is the biographical genesis of Tennyson’s long dramatic monologue Maud, a connection Ralph Rader first made in his 1963 monograph. Batchelor’s narrative of this incident, and its reflection in his poetry, is exclusively biographical; he misses the opportunity for social analysis.

Maud is a long monodrama (Tennyson called it a little Hamlet), spoken by a young man who alternately rails at the materialism of his society and speaks of his love for the rich and beautiful Maud. It was Tennyson’s first major poem after the extraordinary success of In Memoriam and his appointment as Poet Laureate. Tennyson identified with the poem deeply—he often offered to read it at social gatherings (a drawing, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, memorialized one of these readings, at the Brownings’ home)—and was stung by the mixed critical reception that greeted its publication. Batchelor is acutely perceptive about the biographical roots of Maud in Tennyson’s inner life. “The poem is about Tennyson’s state of mind for much of his earlier life—a man with a violent sense of entitlement, excluded, angry, ambitious, convinced of the disorder of a world which opposes his will—and brings the marginalized younger self into conjunction with the newly wealthy, established, confident, effective self who was actively supporting British militarism in the 1850s.” Batchelor thus makes the poem a kind of allegory of what he sees as Tennyson’s evolution from a disenfranchised angry young man into an establishment figure who embraces the politics of his age. Batchelor goes on to claim that the poem endorses violence as a way of vindicating manhood. But the speaker at the end of Maud is a psychological wreck, going off to fight the Crimean War with a sure sense that he will die in what seems, in essence, a socially sanctioned suicide—in the last words of the poem, “the doom assigned.” Tennyson is not the speaker of the poem; its subtitle is “The Madness.” Maud is Tennyson’s most trenchant exploration of the distorting psychological impact, on both men and women, of the materialism of the age, as powerful in this way as Dickens’ late fiction. Batchelor does not see anxiety about class as Victorian, only bourgeois success. His embrace of a narrative line for his biography that takes Tennyson from alienation (not Victorian) to gentlemanly status and material success (Victorian) depends on a conception of the period that simplifies its social dislocations as well as Tennyson’s power in portraying them.

Batchelor’s book is at its weakest in its discussion of Tennyson’s poetry. Although a number of recent major critical books on Tennyson appear in his bibliography (although not all of them; there are some important omissions), Batchelor does not use much of this work. Batchelor’s purpose, of course, is a biography, not a critical reading, but he devotes a fair amount of space to summarizing the poems and making critical judgments about them. It’s therefore disappointing that these judgments are often not sophisticated. In a paragraph about the power of In Memoriam, for example, he claims its organizing principle is not to be found in the elegy for Hallam, nor in the poet’s spiritual development, nor in the sequence of the poem’s Christmases nor in its developing senses of the word “Nature,” but in the ABBA stanza. Surely this is not an either/or proposition.

Batchelor’s book is at its strongest in describing Tennyson’s relationships with friends and acquaintances; Tennyson was a difficult man, and a difficult friend, sometimes oblivious of or callous to the needs of those around him, while craving their flattery and adulation. Batchelor is particularly good in portraying the poet’s relationship with his wife Emily. After an engagement in 1837, broken off in 1840, then resumed in 1849, when she wrote him perceptively about the manuscript of In Memoriam, they married in 1850, in a strangely secret ceremony, 13 days after the publication of the poem. As Batchelor observes, it took Tennyson 17 years to complete his poem and 16 years to bring his courtship to fruition. Five months later, Tennyson was appointed Poet Laureate and became the most famous poet of his age. Emily was critical to him, acting unofficially as his secretary and managing his social life. Batchelor is perceptive about the social texture of Tennyson’s life, both before and after the laureateship, and portrays his gnarly character with humor and grace.

Batchelor begins and ends his book with Tennyson’s encounters with Queen Victoria. He was first presented to her in 1851, after being appointed Poet Laureate. Tennyson wore a borrowed suit—the same one lent to Wordsworth when he was appointed Laureate in 1843. It was a bit small for Tennyson’s huge frame, but he was reportedly delighted with “the appearance of his magnificent legs in black silk stockings.” He had a more meaningful audience with her in 1862, a few months after Albert died, in which they connected deeply over In Memoriam and the expression it gave to grief. Batchelor ends his account of Tennyson’s relationship with the Queen with the telegram that his son Hallam sends her about the poet’s death. “My father’s last conscious effort was to call ‘Hallam’ and whisper to my Mother, ‘God bless you my joy.’ As he awaited death the full moon poured through the oriel window on his grand face and on his hand clasping the Shakespeare which he had been reading. Outside the window was the great landscape that he could see from where he lay flooded with glory. It was the noblest imaginable picture of the passing of King Arthur.” Batchelor is critical of this account, disappointed that it is not “personal and authentic” but “pageantry, a theatrical set piece.” But Hallam’s account is how the culture represented death—a symbolic tableau of the ultimate significance of a life. Batchelor’s account of Tennyson’s life, accomplished in so many ways, is flawed by his lack of sympathy with Victorian culture. Batchelor concludes: “The piety and propriety of his relationship with the Queen operated in the same way as did the pious prologue and epilogue to his own masterpiece, In Memoriam. They anchored him within his period, but they could not contain or compromise the strangeness, the strength, the individuality, and the timelessness of his extraordinary talent.”

The very interpretation on which Batchelor rests the claim for his biography—a Tennyson more centrally Victorian than other biographers have portrayed—thus ultimately limits his account, for in setting up a tension between a one-dimensional sense of the period and a strange and eccentric talent, he simplifies both.

[1] TENNYSON: To Strive, To Seek, To Find, by John Batchelor. Pegasus. $35.00.