The Living and the Dead and Alfred Lord Tennyson

Although never fond of church going and heedless of doctrinal orthodoxy, Tennyson was profoundly religious, stating: “Two things I have always been firmly convinced of—God—and that death will not end my existence.”

Carbon print of Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1869, printed 1875/79 (Wikipedia)

Early and late, Tennyson’s theme was mortal beauty.  In The Princess (1847), when he was scarcely forty, he set it to an enchanting music.

The splendor falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story;
The long light shakes across the lakes,
And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

Later, as an older man, on the Isle of Wight, where he would live with his wife and two sons in his sequestered Farringford, he summoned the theme to honor his old friend and neighbor, Sir John Simeon, who was also a good friend of Cardinal Newman.

Nightingales sang in his woods:
The Master was far away:
Nightingales warbled and sang
Of a passion that lasts but a day;
Still in the house in his coffin the Prince of courtesy lay.

The historian James Anthony Froude spoke for many of his generation when he confessed how “Spiritually [Tennyson] lives in all our minds (in mine he has lived for nearly forty years) in forms imperishable as diamonds which time and change have no power over.”  The literary critic George Saintsbury corroborated this when he observed how “no age of poetry can be called the age of one man with such critical accuracy as the later Nineteenth Century is, with us, the Age of Tennyson.”  What makes John Batchelor’s new life of the poet so admirable is that while it recreates the Victorian Tennyson with meticulous care, it also attends to those aspects of the poet’s work that transcend his historical context.  There are not many good biographies of Tennyson—Robert Bernard Martin’s Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart (1980) is an exception—but Batchelor’s life can now be accounted the best.   Written with great learning and unusual grace, it will spur new interest in a poet who has much to say to our own contemporaries.

Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) was born at Somersby rectory, Lincolnshire into a rancorous, divided family.  His father, the Rev. Dr. George Clayton Tennyson, the eldest son, had been forced into the Church against his will after his father decided to make his youngest son, Charles his heir.  The resentment this bred in Tennyson’s father never went away.  It exacerbated his epilepsy and turned him into a violent drunkard.  Indeed, Tennyson would often have to flee the rectory to flee his father’s drunken rages.  Still, he never ceased to take his father’s part against his paternal grandfather and uncle, both of whom disdained the Somersby Tennysons.  Moreover, the distress that the patriarchal dispossession caused Tennyson’s mother, Elizabeth and his other siblings drove him to join “the men of many acres” whom he otherwise despised.

In addition to division, the Tennysons suffered from madness.   Mary, Tennyson’s eldest sister, struggled with religious mania; his brothers Arthur and Horatio labored under recurrent mental instability; his brother Edward was actually confined to an asylum; and his youngest sister Matilda was never the same after being dropped on her head in a coal scuttle.  Then, again, another brother would always introduce himself to guests by declaring, “Hello, I am Septimus: I am the morbid Tennyson.”

As for Tennyson himself, he not only feared madness but longed for death.  As his wife told his son Hallam when engaged in writing his father’s biography, Tennyson, terrified of his father’s rages, often ‘went out through the black night, and threw himself on a grave in the churchyard, praying to be beneath the sod himself.”  Then, again, the poet confessed that “In my youth I knew much greater unhappiness than I have known in later life. When I was about twenty, I used to feel moods of misery unutterable! I remember once in London the realization coming over me, of the whole of its inhabitants lying horizontal a hundred years hence. The smallness and emptiness of life sometimes overwhelmed me.”  For anyone intent on making poetry his life’s work, this was useful misery.  What was it that John Berryman once said?  “The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business…”

After attending Louth Grammar School, Tennyson went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he joined the Apostles and met the dazzling Etonian, Arthur Hallam, whose friendship and support would be crucial to his development as a poet.   The son of the Whig historian Henry Hallam, Arthur was handsome, brilliant, and a budding poet in his own right.  That he saw his young friend’s genius from the start gave Tennyson precisely the confidence he needed to turn his considerable talents to account.  Indeed, as Batchelor shows, it was Hallam who arranged publication for Tennyson’s first two books, which included such classic poems as “Mariana,” “The Kraken,” “The Lady of Shalott,” “The Lotos-Eaters,” and “A Dream of Fair Women.”  Considering Tennyson’s auspicious debut, it is easy to see why the young poet was so attached to his friend: Hallam helped Tennyson become Tennyson.

But then Hallam died suddenly in 1833 of apoplexy while visiting Vienna, and Tennyson was shattered.  When Hallam’s father asked for a reminiscence, the poet replied that he had “attempted to draw up a memoir of his life and character, but I failed to do him justice.  I hope to be able at a future period to concentrate whatever powers I may possess on the construction of some tribute …” Seventeen years later, the poet released In Memoriam A.H. H. (1850), a collection of 133 lyrics, which, taken together, constitute his far-ranging meditation on the meaning not only of his friend’s life and death, but of his entire age’s preoccupation with what Newman called the “great apostasia.”   For James Knowles, the founder of the Metaphysical Society and a good friend of Tennyson, the poem, confronting as it did the desolation of unbelief, “was the cry of the whole human race.”

That two of the most eminent of Victorians—the Queen herself and Benjamin Disraeli—had a special attachment to the poem underscored the deep chord it struck with Tennyson’s contemporaries.  If the Queen loved the poem because it echoed her own bereavement over Prince Albert’s untimely death, the romantic egotist in Disraeli saw in one of its cantos an oblique delineation of his own improbable rise to power.

Who breaks his birth’s invidious bar,
And grasps the skirts of happy chance,
And breasts the blows of circumstance,
And grapples with his evil star;

Who makes by force his merit known
And lives to clutch the golden keys,
To mould a mighty state’s decrees,
And shape the whisper of the throne…

In the writing of In Memoriam, Tennyson would take up three of his most abiding themes: loss, change, and transcendence.  Yet, while these cantos were still evolving, he would also publish a third book of verse in 1842, which included some of his greatest poems: “Break, break, break,” “Ulysses,” “Morte d’Arthur,” “Locksley Hall,” and “Tithonous.”  Hallam’s loss might have been a bane to his personal life but it was a boon to his poetry.

Apropos the poet’s rackety life in London in the 1830s and 40s with such footloose friends as Thackeray, Edward Fitzgerald, James Spedding, Edward Lear and Carlyle, Batchelor observes: “The nomadic, chaotic Alfred Tennyson of legend, a legend built up and lovingly transmitted for posterity by his many friends in these vagrant years, was in fact displaying an inner resolution.  He was a poet, nothing else, and he claimed no other identity, role or mode of existence.” From early youth, Tennyson also looked the poet, especially after he adopted his signature Spanish cape and sombrero.   For Henry James, everything about this consummate poet was “a thousand miles away from American manufacture.”  However, the dark side to his steely dedication to his art was a tendency towards solipsism.  As Batchelor remarks, “even with Arthur Hallam, it can often seem that what Tennyson loved was not Arthur himself, but Arthur’s love of Tennyson: his own image and his own genius as reflected in Arthur’s loyal admiration.”

Batchelor also quotes the strictures of Edward Lear, who remarked in his friend “the anomaly of high souled & philosophic writings combined with slovenliness, selfishness, & morbid folly.”  In this light, Batchelor’s Tennyson can sometimes remind one of that unforgettable ‘monster’ that Ted Hughes shared with his readers in “Famous Poet,” behind whose eyes one can see nothing “But the haggard stony exhaustion of a near-/Finished variety artist.” Certainly, a good deal of Tennyson’s later work was given over to writing narrative verse of questionable merit—Enoch Arden (1864) comes to mind–composed to satisfy the enormous demand for his work on the part of a public flattered that their Laureate should wish to please them.  At the same time, when speaking of the later Tennyson, Batchelor never falls prey to modish condescension, agreeing with Chesterton that it was “intensely typical of Tennyson’s philosophical temper that he was almost the only Poet Laureate who was not ludicrous.”  And he could often strike back at critics (indirectly) with epigrammatical nicety, as in Idylls of the King:  “Never yet/Was noble man but made ignoble talk/He makes no friend who never made a foe.”

Batchelor is also good at uncovering the many contradictions that animated his subject, showing how at once shrewd and gullible he could be in money matters.  While one of the most successful poets who ever lived—Enoch Arden, for example, sold 17,000 copies on its first day of publication and over 60,000 copies after its first year, earning the poet over £8,000, an immense amount for a volume of narrative verse—he also fell for a huckster’s scheme to streamline wood carving, which robbed him of his entire inheritance in a matter of months.  Then, again, with loyal friends, Tennyson could be oddly cold and aloof—Edward Fitzgerald was made to endure this froideur, especially after fame made Tennyson more than usually grand—but in his favor it must be said that after Thackeray handed in his dinner pail, Tennyson took in his orphaned daughters.  Indeed, on walks along Hampstead Heath, he would often confide in Annie Thackeray about his early poverty, self-doubts, and loneliness, proof that the adulated Laureate never entirely outgrew the unhappy boy from Somersby.

After the loss of Hallam, Tennyson became infatuated with Rosa Baring of Harrington Hall, a rich, haughty, trifling woman, whose rejection led him to write his great dramatic monologue Maud (1855), than which there is no poem in the language more rich and strange.  (That the monologue should have ended with his deranged hero speaking of “The blood-red blossom of war with a heart of fire” must have given the poets of the Great War an eerie shudder.)

When he married Emily Sellwood, another Somersby woman, who would become his agent, muse, and secretary, he made an inspired choice, though one observer was convinced that she immured him in “the sultry, perfumed atmosphere of luxury and homage…”  Drawing on Ann Thwaite’s marvelous biography of Emily, Batchelor paints a lively portrait of this devout, talented, enterprising woman.  In the partnership into which Emily entered with her necessitous husband, she might have given more than she received, but she gave without stint.  In “June Bracken and Heather“, written a year before his death, when Emily was seventy-seven, Tennyson wrote her a moving tribute, commending her for having “a faith as clear as the heights of the June-blue heaven/And a fancy as summer-new/As the green of the bracken amid the gloom of the heather.”

Although never fond of church going and heedless of doctrinal orthodoxy, Tennyson was profoundly religious.  As he told the diarist William Allingham: “Two things I have always been firmly convinced of—God—and that death will not end my existence.”  The loss of Hallam would test these certainties by infusing them with the reality of love.  His later years are packed with brilliant poetry—Batchelor shows again and again how his lyrical gift never left the poet, even in his eighties, as “Crossing the Bar” so splendidly attests—but there are no verses that better sum up this love than these from In Memoriam:

Love is and was my King and Lord,
And will be, tho’ as yet I keep
Within his court on earth, and sleep
Encompass’d by his faithful guard,

And hear at times a sentinel
Who moves about from place to place,
And whispers to the worlds of space,
In the deep night, that all is well.

For the great poet whose greatest poems grew out of loss and heartbreak, mortal beauty was an intimation, a herald of immortal love, and in “Vastness,” a poem Tennyson wrote at the end of his life, he expressed his discovery of this liberating truth with impassioned conviction: “Peace, let it be!  for I loved him, and love him for ever: the dead are not dead but alive.”

Tennyson: To Strive, To Seek, To Find
by John Batchelor
Pegasus, 2014
Paperback, 422 pp

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About Edward Short 34 Articles
Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries, Newman and his Family, and Newman and History, as well as Adventure in the Book Pages: Essays and Reviews. Recently, he chose and introduced the poetry for The Saint Mary’s Book of Christian Verse (Gracewing, 2022), as well as an Introduction. His latest book, What the Bells Sang, which includes essays on poets, moralists, novelists and historians, will be published by Gracewing this spring. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.

1 Comment

  1. As a Baptist of a somewhat “liberal” stripe, I have always approached Catholicism guardedly. And yet, in my deepest faith, I have always felt a brotherhood with my Catholic friends. I have participated in a service of matrimony for a Catholic friend whose father was dead. I have participated in worship in Catholic Churches at home and abroad, reading the assigned scripture aloud. I have had a Catholic daughter-in-law whose faith has been made strong in grief over the death of my son and her husband. I believe that Heaven is real and I expect to make it my eternal home. I will share it with innumerable Catholic friends. And we will be in perfect harmony in the presence of our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.

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