Tennyson: To Strive, to Seek, to Find by John Batchelor
At age fourteen, in a fit of despair, Alfred Tennyson rushed outside his Somersby home, tromped into the woods surrounding the rectory, and located a rock, a large handsome one. With tears, or rage, or a combination of both, he carved into it the words "Byron is dead." In a certain sense, he was a typical teenager; always at odds with his reverend father, moody, dramatic, writing death-centric poetry with a suicidal slant. Tennyson's first sting of grief was not terribly different from that of a grungy skater kid destroyed over the untimely death of his favorite rock star. Only, with this single act of creative vandalism, Tennyson was marking his place in the lineage of English poetry and cementing his destiny. God had prematurely clipped the wings of two other brilliant poets; Keats died in 1821, Shelly in 1822, and Byron, the most punk-rock of them all, in 1824. With the Romantics all but snuffed out, room opened up for one sensitive soul in particular, and as John Batchelor writes in Tennyson: To Strive, To Seek, To Find, "much of the nineteenth century would be the age of Tennyson."
With dim awareness of their origins, I've had stray lines of Tennyson rolling around in my cranium for years. As a timid kid, uprooted by constant moves, I formed a lasting bond with our family VHS player. My sisters and I sat inches from the TV screen watching Anne of Green Gables completely enrapt by a little red haired girl named Anny Shirley, who recited lines of poetry oh-so-thrilling:
Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro' the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four grey walls, and four grey towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.
Many years later, I would attempt to self-soothe the burn of being dumped -- yet again -- by writing in my journal, not without a sneer of contempt, that it was "better to have loved and lost / than never to have loved at all." It is a testament to Tennyson's sheer strength that this potent little line is as culturally engrained in us as Shakespeare's "To be or not to be." It is also a testament to the great skill of Batchelor, whose description of Queen Victoria -- the little powerhouse, all of four feet, eleven inches in height, who penciled into her copy of In Memoriam her preferred pronouns so that she could more easily relate her grief over the death of Prince Albert -- is so utterly perfect that I headed straight for the library shelves to locate the book.
In Memoriam, the book which would make Tennyson poet laureate, is devoted to his friend Arthur Hallam, who died at the age of twenty-two from a brain aneurysm. For a modern ear that has grown to distrust the feather-light airy chime of the pentameter line, it is a bear of a poem. In order to keep my concentration afloat, I need to mouth the poem aloud, and just when fatigue settles in I strike upon perfectly crafted stanzas such as this one:
So word by word, 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,
The stanza form is ABBA, and it's easy to see that quatrains composed of an AABB rhyme scheme would have been grotesquely chimey, a disaster for eulogizing Hallam. It's useful to remember that poets of that time were not writing "little" poems, they were writing tomes of technical virtuosity. The Romantics had in their favor such works as "The Prelude" (Wordsworth), "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (Coleridge), "Hyperion" (Keats), and "Don Juan" (Byron). In order to play with the big boys, Tennyson would have to discover a form that communicated what seemed beyond words: grief.
In Memoriam wouldn't be published until 1850, and Tennyson would carry around his bulging manuscript in a "butcher's book" -- a long narrow ledger-like book -- bringing it to friends, reading from it, allowing a trusted few to copy poems from it, once even losing it. An appropriate question might be, why would Tennyson spend seventeen years writing about his dead friend? What was it about Arthur Hallam?
In one of the most famous friend-crushes in English literature, Tennyson and Hallam would meet at Cambridge. They shared brilliance, handsome looks, loneliness, and dominating fathers. What they didn't share is equally important: money. Tennyson's father, George, was the black sheep of the family. "The Old Man of the Wolds," as Tennyson's grandfather was known, in a sense banished George to become a clergymen, while his younger brother, Charles, would be given all the resources to become wealthy and successful. George couldn't have been more resentful, and when he married the kind-hearted Elizabeth and moved to the rectory at Somersby, life for the eleven Tennyson children could not have been easy, or particularly roomy. Things would not end well for George; he would suffer bouts of violent madness brought on by alcoholism, and die with nothing to leave his family. Tennyson would drop out of school to return home to care for his mother and sisters, shouldering the burden of the inevitable: the family would have to leave their beloved Somersby home; it didn't belong to them.
In some ways, Hallam outshines Tennyson in this biography. This isn't a reflection on Tennyson, who is by no means boring, but he is, like many poets, very interior. It's also certainly not a reflection on Batchelor, as skilled as he is at drawing characters. The fact that Hallam is a larger than life presence is as it should be. He was simply the sort of charismatic man that other men, including Tennyson, wanted to be. Hallam is magnetic, kind, forever searching for noble political causes to get behind. Youthfully idealistic to a fault, yet brilliant beyond his years. Even what could be considered his faults are charming, he goads his homosexual friends on, basking in their attention, and he shrugs off a promising career as a lawyer. Rebelling against his father's wishes, he proposes to a young woman beneath his rank, Emily, Tennyson's sister. He couldn't care less whether she has money; his heart is his compass, and he remains devoted to her to his dying day. But perhaps most importantly, he believes wholeheartedly in Tennyson's ability as a poet and aims to shuttle his friend's career onto the path of fame.
Full confession; I combed Batchelor's biography for signs of homosexual love between Tennyson and Hallam, but in the end came up empty handed. In his latter years, Tennyson was a bit of a pervy old man, asking young women to sit on his lap while he read his poems. (A warning, ladies!) In Memoriam expresses grief beyond what seems typical of friendship, even brotherly love; there's something very complex at work in the poem, a sort of twined grief at work. Since Tennyson's father died in 1831 before Hallam in 1833, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that all of the love he couldn't express for his father was poured into Hallam, the first man to reciprocate in the way his sensitive soul demanded. Batchelor brilliantly observes that "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." By carrying around his butcher's book for seventeen years, Tennyson wasn't simply clinging with a vice grip to his grief, but to his identity as a poet.
Tennyson needed constant validation as a poet, to be seen, heard, read, admired, and there were plenty of wealthy, famous, and famously wealthy people jockeying to invite him over to dinner. But there's something slightly degrading about his role; as Batchelor points out, it often seemed that he was made to sing for his supper. A wayward bachelor until his early forties, he was constantly on the move from one notable's house to the next. And boy, was he a sight to behold. Sporting a Spanish-style hat, a monkish cape, dark-complected (and later with a wiry beard to disguise ill-fitting implanted teeth), he was handsome, but, well, kind of grody. He had an oafish short of etiquette; and his gaffes are wickedly delightful. At a dinner party he laid back to relax with his grubby shoes on the couch only to be quickly scolded by the hostess. Even when Tennyson read his poetry, he seemed worlds away, as if in his little room, papers strewn about everywhere, reading aloud to himself, commenting on a line that pleased him, not out of vanity, but as if congratulating his muses with a faraway detachment.
If I were to mention one element that sets this biography worlds above others, it is Batchelor's keen understanding of how to fold in the finer details in order to make specters of the past come alive. Ever the ham, Walt Whitman sends Tennyson a photograph of himself along with his poetry. A young Henry James endures a private Tennyson reading with smug boredom. George Eliot and Henry Lewes are a stone's throw from the Tennyson's country house at Aldworth. The people Tennyson knew is astounding: Darwin, Dickens, Wordsworth, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Thackeray, Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, Bram Stoker, the Duke and Duchess of Argyll, and numerous other lords and ladies.
Batchelor's biography is absolutely indispensable for its panoramic view of the tectonic shifts in English literature. The next generation of poets would react against Tennyson, in particular Gerard Manley Hopkins would aspire to new heights with sprung-rhythm, making him a favorite of contemporary poets today. And the rise of the novel, as Batchelor points out, threatened to upstage poets for, well, good, with the rise of Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontės, Jane Austen, and George Eliot. So why read Tennyson today?
A friend of mine said recently that poetry has become a weddings-and-funerals affair. As an aspiring poet, I choose to see this as a positive; there are simply some things that other forms cannot do. Batchelor mentions that Tennyson's poem "Crossing the Bar" is still read today, and yes, typically at funerals. For the most part, Tennyson spent most of his life trying to articulate grief. He wrote this poem for his son Lionel, who died suddenly of a fatal infection in India in 1855. Sadly Tennyson had subjected his son to a similar favoritism that his father had endured, and Lionel grew up knowing that his parents loved his older brother Hallam, Arthur's namesake, more. Tennyson spent nearly two decades writing In Memoriam; writing "Crossing the Bar" took twenty minutes. Readers, it is a gorgeous poem.
Like Arthur Hallam, this biography has very few faults. The mentioning of Tennyson's minor-character friends in later life can be cumbersome, and I'm not sure I shared Batchelor's sense of sympathy for the handful of school chums who Tennyson shrugged off once he reached the height of his fame. I was also a bit encumbered by what I assume is a British style in-line citation method of retaining first person.
Overall, Batchelor holds all the virtues of a great biographer and then some. His careful and dare I say loving treatment of Tennyson, shows the utmost respect for a man who held a near-paranoid contempt for biographers. Witnessing how beautifully his life story comes together, I can't help thinking that Tennyson, wearing his Spanish hat, would have given a slight nod of gratitude in Bathchelor's direction for a job well done.
Tennyson: To Strive, to Seek, to Find by John Batchelor