Early in his new biography on Tennyson, Newcastle academic John Batchelor describes his subject with vigor: “Alfred was well over six feet, broad-chested, with a mysterious Spanish swarthiness and strikingly opulent dark curling hair, which he grew long. He also had magnificent eyes, deep-set and melancholy, with a distant longing in them. That he was woefully short-sighted added to the mysteriousness of his gaze and his air of looking above and beyond his immediate surroundings. His resonant bass chest voice was so melodious (despite his Lincolnshire accent) that he was constantly in demand to perform his own poetry.”
This romantic description of the poet seems odd when considering Batchelor’s goal for his new biography, which he notes in his preface: to show Tennyson as “stronger, more self-reliant, more businesslike, tougher and more centrally Victorian than previous biographies have displayed.” And Batchelor does pay strict attention to Tennyson’s desire for wealth and accolades, his concern for his social status, and his late-life pomp and pageantry. But his best efforts to show Tennyson’s Victorian nature are foiled, alas, by the poet himself.
"Batchelor’s biography is thorough, and while his diction can veer toward preciousness and he often editorializes, the book does indeed paint a picture of a poet very concerned about his station in society."
Batchelor’s biography is thorough, and while his diction can veer toward preciousness and he often editorializes, the book does indeed paint a picture of a poet very concerned about his station in society. Yet not enough to learn how to climb on his own. Tennyson’s life is defined by his relationships --- especially with Arthur Hallam, famously commemorated in In Memoriam A.H.H., and with his wife Emily.
Hallam, in the few short years he knew Tennyson, worked tremendously to help the poet’s work reach the eyes of the reading public, and was his fearless and doting champion, helping him initially break into the London writing scene. Hallam’s tragic death in 1833 at age 22, likely of a cerebral hemorrhage, set Tennyson deep into depression, and remained on his mind for 17 long years. In 1850, he published In Memoriam, the painfully gorgeous cycle of meditations on love and loss that is still considered his masterpiece.
Also in 1850, the perennially penniless drifter married Emily, née Sellwood, and suddenly his outlook was bright. Soon to be named Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, Tennyson settled down, and with Emily serving as confidante, advisor, and household and financial manager, was able to dedicate himself almost entirely to his poetry --- although much of it would lose its romantic fire, as his duties as Poet Laureate soon became inextricable from his dedication to his art. In his later years, spent chiefly at work on Idylls of the King, his poetic reworking of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Tennyson finally achieved the wealth and status to which he had always aspired, thanks in no small part to the dedication of his bride.
Batchelor seems to be aware of the irony of endeavoring to undertake a project like this in the first place. Despite the existence of a number of life histories --- some of which even written by his descendants --- Tennyson despised biographies, considering them intrusive, and even asked Emily to burn correspondences between them after his death. The irony Batchelor seems to miss, however, is that of writing a biography on a poet in which the poems are not allowed to speak for themselves. Which is not to say that the works are overanalyzed. Instead, they seem to be put firmly to use attempting to show the poet’s growth into a proper Victorian. In Batchelor’s hands, the poems are context for Tennyson’s life, not central to them.
And yet there they are, lurking in the pages, gorgeous and fiery and syllabically resplendent. Even Tennyson’s later work on Arthur, which some critics saw as pandering to Victorian nationalism and neo-medievalism, shows sincere passion for the sexually driven failures of the faltering Lancelot, the luckless Elaine, the grief-stricken Bedivere.
Tennyson cared, as most humans do, about his comfort and station. But the fervor of his love for words and experience, and for those he held dear, is what seems truly central. Inspired by Keats, Shelley and Byron, Tennyson was a Romantic born just a little late. He shows us that in his poems for Hallam --- which, read years later, seem to apply just as aptly to the poet himself:
“So, word by word, and line by line,
The dead man touched me from the past,
And all at once it seemed at last
His living soul was flashed on mine,
And mine in his was wound, and whirled
About empyreal heights of thought,
And came on that which is, and caught
The deep pulsations of the world.”
Reviewed by John Maher on December 20, 2013