Tennyson: to Strive, to Seek, to Find
Chatto & Windus, 448pp, £25
Alfred Tennyson did not approve of biographies. “The desiring of anecdotes and the acquaintance with the lives of great men,” he told the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron in 1862, “[treats] them like pigs to be ripped open for the public.” For a poet who wrote that “words, like Nature, half reveal/And half conceal the Soul within”, describing the inner life of a writer was more than just an invasion of privacy – it was a task nearly impossible to accomplish.
This has not stopped many lives of this Victorian poet laureate from being written. From his son Hallam’s memoir in 1897 (which included the caveat that though his father “disliked the notion of a long, formal biography . . . he wished that, if I deemed it better, the incidents of his life should be given . . . to preclude the chance of further and inauthentic biographies”) to the seminal critical study of his work, Tennyson by Christopher Ricks, different aspects of the poet’s life and his work continue to hold a certain interest for both critics and readers.
John Batchelor, an academic at Newcastle University, is the latest to try to capture the reasons why this shy, difficult and occasionally garrulous poet wrote as well as he did. Tennyson was born in Lincolnshire in 1809. By the time he was 41, he had written most of his poetic masterpieces, including In Memoriam A H H, “Ulysses” and “The Princess”. He would go on to write other great poems (“Maud”, “Tithonus”) but, from 1850, much of his life would be taken up with official duties and official poems as poet laureate for Queen Victoria.
Batchelor presents a scholarly, conventional, cradle-to-the-grave narrative of Tennyson. It traces his early life growing up in Lincolnshire, his time as a student at Cambridge, his reaction to the death, aged 22, of his closest friend Arthur Hallam (the “A H H ” in In Memoriam A H H), to his realisation, aged 65 (when he briefly attempted to become a playwright), that he was now a “national monument”, creatively stunted by mass public adoration.
Attentive to contextual details, Batchelor’s prose often reads like a who’s who of Victorian public figures. He evokes the houses Tennyson lived in, the people he dined with, and the various editions his poetry went through and the prices they attracted. Archives are namechecked and differing drafts of Tennyson’s poems are intimately described with all their doodles, revisions and annotations.
All of this makes Tennyson: To Strive, To Seek, To Find a learned but dry read. Among such thorough descriptions, certain anecdotes stand out: Tennyson carried In Memoriam A H H around with him for 17 years in what was, in effect, a “butcher’s account book” and he composed as he walked.
Yet these details – including the revelation that Walt Whitman and Tennyson exchanged photos with one another and that Tennyson was pleased with the “rough outward man W W not altogether unlike what I had pictured him in my fancy” – are not necessarily ones that cannot be found anywhere else.
This is disappointing. Batchelor prefaces his biography with the claim that it “presents an Alfred Tennyson who is stronger, more selfreliant, more businesslike, tougher and more centrally Victorian than previous biographies have displayed”. Yet the Tennyson who emerges – one who is “thin-skinned” and “surprisingly susceptible to easy flattery” and who required his wife, Emily, to sort out his financial details and social life up to the point at which she had a breakdown – is in many ways none of these things. Instead, he is depicted as reclusive and self-obsessed. At these moments, it is not hard to see why Tennyson demanded that so many of his papers were destroyed after his death and that his son’s official record came first.
Perhaps because of this scarce documentation, Batchelor resorts instead to meditations on Tennyson’s “exotic good looks”, repeatedly evoking, with certain nuances, the description of Tennyson as “well over six feet, broadchested, with a mysterious Spanish swarthiness and strikingly opulent dark curling hair, which he grew long”.
Tennyson’s attractiveness may have been legendary, as Batchelor claims, or integral to his image of himself as a poet, which in turn “became increasingly indistinguishable from his private self”. But over a dozen references to it add little to this biography.
What makes Tennyson’s life worth reading about – his work – is neglected in favour of these contextual descriptions in Batchelor’s book. Poems are paraphrased rather than looked at closely and scare quotes frequently appear in Batchelor’s occasional attempts at analysis (“It is hard to get a ‘handle’ on ‘The Princess’”). Focusing instead on Tennyson’s reasons for writing – his attitude to female sexuality or his love of Arthurian legends – Batchelor’s biography sadly obscures the work.
Tennyson’s skill as a poet – his ability to capture in a lyric phrase the impossibility of expressing grief or an old man’s woe in a poem written in his early twenties – is one of the reasons why, unlike so many of his contemporaries, he is still widely read today. Batchelor’s book is a useful reminder of what makes Tennyson a brilliant poet: it points the reader back in the direction of the poems. As a biography, however, it has failed to capture – or even to attempt to uncover – the man.
Emma Hogan is poetry critic for the Economist and was a judge of the 2012 Forward Prizes for Poetry