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The Vexations of a Poet

On Alfred Lord Tennyson's 206th birthday, a review of his biography from 1949.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

For half a century students of Tennyson have depended upon the Memoir and the supplementary Tennyson and His Friends, which were compiled by his son Hallam, and those volumes, with their many letters and solid chunks of Tennyson's table talk, are not superseded—as Sir Charles Tennyson is the first to recognize—by the new biography. But the Memoir is scanty just where we wish for fullness—in its account of the poet's formative years and the whole period before 1850.

Two main sources of Tennyson’s early (and indeed lifelong) troubles are well known, the religious problem that he shared with many contemporaries and the special torture that a morbidly sensitive young man suffered from the ferocity of some leading reviewers. The Memoir, however, only partly suggested the weight of manifold family difficulties that harassed the poet’s youth and early manhood; in later life he could not bear to talk freely even to his son and confidant. Sir Charles, who has personal memories of his grandfather’s old age and has drawn upon the recollections of intimate friends, has also read hundreds of hitherto unknown letters and, at this time of day, can write unconstrainedly. He greatly amplifies our knowledge of Tennyson’s earlier years, and gives a picture of home life and clan relations which might have furnished a theme for Samuel Butler or some more sympathetic novelist.

The Somersby parsonage with its eleven children, some of them precocious, was the scene of much reading and writing and much lively fun, but for more than twenty years it was also the scene of gloom and storms. The Reverend George Tennyson, eldest son of a rich, ambitious and strong-minded father, had been displaced as heir in favor of the younger Charles and had been pushed into the church. All the black-blooded Tennysons were nervously unstable, sometimes melancholy, sometimes explosive, and “the Doctor,” a man of forceful and erratic personality, given to brooding over his wrongs and over family problems, grew more and more difficult to live with, especially after he sought comfort in drink. The Memoir told of the boy Alfred, more than once “scared by his father’s fits of despondency,” going out in the night to throw himself “on a grave in the churchyard, praying to be beneath the sod himself.” Sir Charles Tennyson relates these incidents to the father’s alcoholic “paroxysms of violence” and to the young son’s sense of loyalty being torn between his father and his mother.

Later still when the grandfather died, Mrs. George Tennyson and her many children were left with relatively small means; Charles, an aspiring politician and the grandfather’s heir, proceeded to spend his new fortune in creating a Gothic castle. (If we think of the personal and family feuds in Locksley Hall and Maud as only tawdry theatricalism, there was harsh experience behind them.) After his father’s death, Alfred, who had his own full share of Tennysonian neurosis and personal anxieties, had to steer the ill-manned family through rough waters. Frederick, the eldest, and a poet of sorts, felt little responsibility; Charles, also a poet and a clergyman, was a victim of opium; Edward became so deranged that he had to be put in an institution; and the other brothers and sisters were temperamental and financial problems.

These are only samples of the much fuller detail supplied by the new biography; throughout, it gives a consecutive story in place of the often disconnected jottings of the Memoir. Sir Charles does not essentially alter the familiar Tennyson (and he produces no scandal to rehabilitate him for our age), but by filling in outlines he makes a more real and human figure, who remains, as man and as poet, a massive and shaggy bundle of paradoxes. The modern and usually hostile eye has been too much focused on, the Laureate, the “National Institution,” and it is well to see more of the younger Tennyson, poor, unhappy and care-ridden, who wrote so much of the great poetry. 

The account of his later life has less novelty, since here the Memoir was pretty full, but there are many good anecdotes—as of Tennyson’s desperate efforts to escape from the over-watchful Palgrave (p. 328)—and many of the sacred bard’s less sacred utterances are cited. In comparison with the piety of the son’s portrait (which reflected public piety too), the grandson is commendably candid in painting in the warts. He often illustrates that poetical vanity which was so disarmingly naïve and which went along with extreme shyness; he recognizes some unfortunate strains in both poetry and opinion; and he quotes some of the bitterest newspaper parodies attacking Tennyson’s imperialism and his acceptance of a peerage. If in the later years the air grows heavy with incense, that is part of the story; Tennyson came to live, in a unique and superlative degree, the life of a royal personage or—with some essential differences—of a Hollywood star.

Sir Charles Tennyson, a lawyer and government official, who in 1930-31 edited two valuable volumes of Tennyson’s early unpublished poetry, modestly admits his disadvantages in literary scholarship (one young American scholar, by the way, is assigned to “Oake University, Salem” instead of Duke University, Durham), and his comments on the poems, while respectable, are not always sophisticated. But he has done, with both sympathy and detachment, and without “the exercise of the imagination,” the competent, solid and honest piece of biography that he was especially qualified to do.