Swans Commentary » swans.com November 4, 2013  



The Queen's Poet


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Batchelor, John: Tennyson: to strive to seek to find, Chatto & Windus, 2012, ISBN: 9780701180584, 448 pages. (US publication date Dec. 7, 2013)


(Swans - November 4, 2013)   "To strive, to seek, to find" were words from Tennyson's poem Ulysses inscribed on the wall of London's Olympic park in 2012. The PR men wanted to evoke muscular youth, gleaming with sweat and drug free, without a thought for corporate sponsorship, preparing in self-sacrifice to seek a laurel wreath for their nation.

The poem, however, is about a well-worn father reminding his son that there is still life left in the old boy.

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

In the UK nowadays the lines get quoted as an admonition to senior citizens not to slump in front of their TVs with drooping lids and a six-pack. Lord Tennyson and his imperial heroics are only good for a sour laugh. "The Charge of the Light Brigade" is not even an embarrassment any longer. There have been too many more recent ones, like the magniloquent question of what is to be Britain's post-imperial role. The answer was too painfully obvious in Tony Blair's come-hither smile for George W. Bush and David Cameron's dance to John Kerry's Syrian melodrama.

No surprise then that the publication of another biography of Alfred Tennyson, who as much as Queen Victoria stands for the British Empire at its peak, fell flat as just another rainy day in London. John Batchelor's book, however, will be read in a very different context in America where empires and their decline are still hot news.

An equivalent of Vladimir Putin's deflation of American "exceptionality" in the New York Times wouldn't have blown up a mental squall amongst the British establishment of the 1860s. They would have laughed it off. Subtle rhetoricians, they didn't use the word "exceptional" about themselves because they took it for granted they were superior to the rest of humanity. The nineteenth century went along, admiring and quavering.

If, for comparison, we place the two imperial regimes side by side, Tennyson stands out as a type of artist still very much among us, despite the inevitable surface differences. He felt deprived in youth because his branch of the family had been left out of an inheritance but still commanded sufficient privileged connections to remain independent and suffer no want. Recognized as a brilliant young poet in 1830, he was seen as heir to the recently deceased Shelley and Byron. His early poems took up their liberal romantic tradition. At Cambridge he belonged to a clique called the Apostles who were all either liberal or radical. They sided with the Spanish insurgents exiled to London and became involved in a plot to depose the Spanish monarchy of King Ferdinand. Tennyson and Arthur Hallam went as couriers to the Pyrenees where they delivered letters and money to the followers of the conspirator Torrijos. The support from inside Spain failed to turn up and the revolt ended with forty-nine would-be revolutionaries executed on the beach at Malaga.

The Cambridge liberals were thrilled but decided the revolutionary movements in Italy and especially in Poland had more style and seriousness. Tennyson continued to write poetry about political change. 1832 was the year of the Reform Bill in England and change was on everyone's mind. However, when the Cambridgeshire agricultural laborers began to riot for better conditions, politics at the university suddenly lost their charm. Student battalions led by their profs armed themselves with sticks and cudgels to protect the University from the rustics. This was the real thing, not Spain seen from the French side of the Pyrenees.

Tennyson's beloved friend Hallam died in 1833. Only twenty-two, he had nonetheless been the force behind the poet's success. Without Hallam's efforts the volumes of 1830 and 1832 would not have been published. His death threw the poet in on himself. His political interests faded and he entered a period of emotional turmoil that would last two decades. He began to write In Memoriam, about which John Batchelor says:

Perhaps in the outpouring of In Memoriam Tennyson was mourning above all the sense of being unconditionally and unequivocally venerated, promoted and admired.

Born to the branch of an upper-class family that had come down in the world, Tennyson had a precise idea of what it meant to be a poet. It meant being a "gentleman," which in turn meant having money and consequently a life of leisure. Along with his mourning Tennyson would spend the rest of the 1830s and 1840s striving to rise socially. He made a desperate attempt, in the lapidary phrase, to marry money. But the ironclad defenses of the upper classes easily held him off. His black Spanish cloak and broad brimmed conspirator's hat -- all that remained of his interest in the plot to oust King Ferdinand -- didn't convince the Lincolnshire magnate nor Rosa Baring, his daughter. Tennyson retreated full of bitterness and with several excellent poems.

When in 1842 more of his work was published in two volumes he changed his strategy. He was now the foremost poet of the day. (The Laureate Wordsworth slumbered through his last years till he died in 1850.) Tennyson sought out rich dilettantes like Samuel Rogers or Edward Fitzgerald for help and money. He made a point of meeting powerful figures like W.E. Gladstone, Thomas Carlyle, Robert Browning, and W.M. Thackeray. He had acquired gentleman status with a vengeance. It was no surprise when he was appointed Poet Laureate in 1850. He had just published a major work, In Memoriam, to world acclaim and married, quite conventionally, a plain and suitably submissive woman who had some money of her own.

Tennyson composed the occasional poem called for by his new office while he continued to review and extend his more personal work. It was the death of the Prince Consort in 1861 that boosted his career. He offered the Queen a poem of consolation that inevitably oozed sycophancy: "Break not, O woman's-heart, but still endure;/ Break not, for thou art Royal, but endure,/Remembering all the beauty of that star/ Which shone so close beside Thee that ye made/ One light together, but has past and leaves/ The Crown a lonely splendour." Victoria stowed it with the other ton of sentimental stuff she received from around the world. At the same it did remind her that Tennyson had written In Memoriam, the requiem that was an epic of personal grieving stretching to one hundred and thirty-three Cantos of sustained lyric tearfulness.

Now, the Queen was a woman with little taste for or interest in contemporary writing. Grieving, however, was a major pastime of the day and Victoria was gearing up for forty years of black sniffling widowhood. She binged on In Memoriam, declaring it the best book since the bible. In 1862 she called Tennyson to her and they sat talking bereavement together. It was the consecration of his fame. The poet's career, like Britain just then, moved into its higher imperial phase. John Batchelor sums up what had been Tennyson's logistics:

As the major poet of the age he determined the literary taste of the mid- to late-Victorian period; and then, strategically and with a secure instinct for the market, he fed that taste. The ascendancy of Tennyson was neither the irresistible triumph of pure genius nor an accident of history; he skillfully crafted his own career and his relationship with his audience.

His renown changed his poetry without weakening his skill. His imaginative daring could still startle. He remained, in his mastery of tone, music, and meter, one of the very great English poets. Some former enthusiasts complained that he re-ran old material. But that had always been his practice. He would keep revising and altering work that had been published. In his years of public glory, this invariably dulled its edge. The sexual desperation disappeared, as did anything that might be unworthy of not just a pillar of society but a whole colonnade supporting the empire. He became Lord Tennyson in 1884. True to the epoch he would juggle with the problem that Charles Darwin, born six months before him, had created for Victorian religious faith. However, he never came down hard on the nonbeliever's side, ever-respecting his pious wife, bible-thumping Queen, and of course, respectability itself.

In Locksley Hall of 1842, Tennyson's shift in values stands out. Years later the poet said the poem represented "young life, its good side, its deficiencies, and its yearnings." The deficiency Tennyson came to see in his own youth was his innocent utopianism. Locksley Hall clears all that away in favor of senile blustering. Women are put back in their place, and Europeans are urged on in their crusader role against the lesser races:

Weakness to be wroth with weakness! woman's pleasure, woman's pain -- Nature made them blinder motions bounded in a shallower brain: Woman is the lesser man, and all thy passions, match'd with mine, Are as moonlight unto sunlight, and as water unto wine.
Not in vain the distance beckons. Forward, forward let us range, Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change. Thro' the shadow of the globe we sweep into the younger day; Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.

Winston Churchill considered Locksley Hall "the most wonderful of modern prophecies." It foretold imperialism's triumph and transition to the global economy. Harry Truman reportedly carried sound bites from the poem in his wallet.

There are some old saws so trite we hesitate to repeat them. Let Churchill do it: "If you are not a liberal at twenty, you have no heart. If you are not Conservative by forty, you have no brain." But let's replace "brain" by "foothold in the dominant class."

In our empire, literary men don't have to kowtow to a queen. Grieving is no longer fashionable. They are simply called upon not to look with too much curiosity behind the cheery news that's made available. Victorian jingoism, which called a spade just that and and imperialism likewise, would be considered outrageous. Writers now are drowned in the mainstream that they willingly enter for a swim. They are suborned to institutions, largely academic, that operate like any commerce.

It has been pointed out, but deserves repeating, that every year our universities turn out graduates of creative writing programs whose only competence is to teach creative writing to other prospective teachers of creative writing. The Victorians, for all their funny beards and backward mores, were never so stupid as to believe anyone could be taught to write original fiction or poetry. Their aspiring writers simply read the good books that had somehow survived and sweat out efforts of their own.

Our empire, never outdone in the ways of Barnum, has even produced something called self-publishing. Here, having written something, the ex-student sends it to a commercial enterprise that for payment does something to it, maybe putting in punctuation or adding a shred of praise or light disapproval, supposedly bringing out its implicit creativity. Even literary magazines that in Tennyson's empire were severe guardians of artistic standards have become wannabe-writer friendly in our empire. They offer workshops or club-like get-togethers where the aspirant, for a fee, can feel what it would be like to be a writer if he could write.

In his Preface, John Batchelor promised his book would present "an Alfred Tennyson who is stronger, more self-reliant, more businesslike, tougher and more centrally Victorian than previous biographies have displayed." He had to answer the question in readers' minds of why another biography of the poet was necessary. He threw in the fact that since Robert Bernard Martin's impressive life of 1980, Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart, a good deal of new information has been uncovered.

But we don't need these justifications. Batchelor has written a useful book, and every academic pouring over archives to make sense of a great writer's life means one less academic engaged in the impossible task of teaching students to be creative writers.


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Published November 4, 2013