Alfred Tennyson's life has now been picked over enough. Better to revisit his greatest poem…
It's sometimes hard to believe how famous Tennyson once was. As Mick Imlah has it in his wry and plangent poem, In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson: "No one remembers you at all." But in his day the extravagantly bearded creature who succeeded Wordsworth as poet laureate was as well known as Katie Price, and twice as much the product of his times. There were audiences with Queen Victoria, who found solace after the death of her beloved Albert in the poet's verses for his friend, Arthur Hallam ("Next to the Bible, In Memoriam is my comfort," she told him). There was a visit from the great Italian liberator, Garibaldi, who planted a wellingtonia at the Tennyson home on the Isle of Wight. And there was the funeral of Charles Dickens at Westminster Abbey in 1870, during which men lifted their children high above their shoulders that they might catch a glimpse of the great poet over the heads of the congregation.
A new biographer of Tennyson, then, has his work cut out. It's the worst of both possible worlds. Literary reputation, though fading, dictates that the poet's life has already been dutifully picked over (most notably in 1980 by Robert Bernard Martin in Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart), and research papers continue to tumble out of our universities. The reading public, however, could not care less. John Batchelor has used a phrase from Tennyson's poem, Ulysses – "To strive, to seek, to find" – as his book's subtitle, presumably because these words are now inscribed on a wall in the Olympic Park. But if he hopes this will make his book appear more relevant, he will be disappointed. I sat on the committee that selected this line for the athletes' village (it ends: "and not to yield"), and all I can tell you is that we chose a sentiment, not a poet. Judging by the looks on people's faces, the name Tennyson struck doom into more than a few hearts around that particular table.
Batchelor's USP is that he presents Tennyson as "more centrally Victorian" than previous biographers – which seems to me to be about as radical as calling the aforementioned Price "deeply tanned". The third son of a Lincolnshire parson, Tennyson was as steeped as any man in the pieties of his day. His drunk, depressive father having been disinherited by his grandfather, he was ever sensitive when it came to social class, anxious that his income would not allow him to live like a gentleman. Like many of his contemporaries, he was au fait with the new science – with Darwin, Lyell et al – but equally troubled by change. A hypochondriac, he was daffy about fashionable fads such as hydropathy. He was a traditional husband (his devoted wife, Emily, eventually collapsed beneath the burden of answering his correspondence), a stern father, a patriot and a devoted royalist. His poems were extremely popular, selling out in every edition. Difficult, in the circumstances, to see how he could be described as anything other than "centrally Victorian".
Batchelor's book is good as far as it goes, taking Tennyson from Lincolnshire to Cambridge, and thence from pillar to post during his younger, itinerant years until, in old age, he becomes a national treasure, as central to British life as tea and muffins, and the happy recipient of some of the most unrestrained brown-nosing ever recorded in the annals of literature ("odious incense, palaver & fuss", as Edward Lear succinctly put it). The detail is all here, up to and including the fact that he was smelly (advised by a friend to change his shirt, he replied: "H'm, yours would not be as clean as mine if you had worn it a fortnight.") But the author's plain style, not to mention his oh-so-measured readings of the major poems, never send you running to the bookcase where (or perhaps this is just me) a once-loved Selected Tennyson now sits beneath a grey toupée of household dust.
Batchelor, over-fond of his subject, plays down Tennyson's weirdness – this is a man who slept in the sheets in which his father had died, the better to evoke his spirit – and his monstrous self-regard. Why, Bachelor wails, did a fellow so shy spend so much time travelling among grand acquaintances? It seems not to occur to him that this is the same man who declined a baronetcy in the hope of something better (he accepted a peerage in 1883).
And what of Arthur Hallam, his fellow poet, whose death in 1833, at the age of 22, inspired Tennyson's masterpiece? (In Memoriam A H H was finally published in 1850). When I was a student the queer theorists had duly staked their claim to this friendship and were spending an awful lot of time worrying away at such phrases as "descend, and touch, and enter". But I never felt their hearts were truly in it, and their theories did not convince. I don't think that Tennyson was one thing or another. Like all of us, he was a muddle. For his part, Batchelor notes that, sometimes, it seems that what Alfred, in retrospect, loved most about Arthur was his love of him: "his own image… as reflected in Arthur's loyal admiration".
There's something in this, though that doesn't make the poem any the less lovely on the page. For the 21st-century reader, In Memoriam has been tarnished successively by fashion, by scholarship and by reputation. Batchelor's book doesn't polish it up terribly much, in spite of the literary elbow grease involved in researching it. But those verses glister, still, if you only give them a chance, their fathomless shadows a mystery, and a balm.