Tennyson’s Nerves

Frank Kermode

  • Tennyson: The Unqulet Heart by Robert Bernard Martin
    Oxford/Faber, 656 pp, £12.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 19 812072 9
  • Thro’ the Vision of the Night: A Study of Source, Evolution and Structure in Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’ by J.M. Gray
    Edinburgh, 179 pp, £10.00, August 1980, ISBN 0 85224 382 0

Robert Martin’s book is not one of those literary biographies that reshuffle a familiar narrative and perhaps add a few bits of new information or conjecture. It is a full-scale life, founded on primary sources, many of them previously unpublished. As the first major biography since Hallam Tennyson’s pious memoir of 1897, it has obvious importance. Moreover, it is for the most part very well-written, affectionate without idolatry, well-proportioned and full of entertaining detail. Mr Martin, in short, has scored a considerable success.

His narrative will help us to a better understanding of the process by which Tennyson became the type, for his contemporaries, of what a poet ought to be. Only a few of them believed that apotheosis was bad for his poetry, or at any rate that it tended to obscure his genuine gifts, which were not of the kind that can expect the admiration of a large public. And of course it was the official Great Poet rather than the subtle inquisitor of language who provoked, a generation later, a reaction so violent that it has probably had more influence on the subsequent history of English poetry than anything Tennyson actually wrote.

It is true that there are more traces of him in the work of later poets – Eliot, for instance – than this account of the matter might suggest; it is difficult to forget altogether a once-loved voice. But the coexistence of such muted tributes with a general distaste for the Victorian cult of the poet merely confirms the rightness of the minority view – there was little correlation between the nature of Tennyson’s finest achievements and his character as the ideal type of poet. He was in truth so far from being true to that type that to read him after a long interval is to be astonished by his strangeness, almost his foreignness (the word, applied to one who prided himself on his mere Englishness or chauvinism, is paradoxical or even insulting). The effect of that entranced research into the possible sounds of English, that phonological potholing in the recesses of language, far below the level of official sense, is very private, very idiosyncratic. Try reading aloud, with exaggerated attention to what is going on phonetically, so well-known a poem as ‘Come down, O maid, from yonder mountain height.’ The topic may seem reasonably familiar, but the sound of the poem is extraordinarily remote from the commonplace, and it is clearly part of the peculiar strength of Tennyson’s verse that it can propose such a topic in such a way as to subvert its plainness.

Consider these stanzas as a further instance of such subversion:

Unwatched, the garden bough shall sway,
 The tender blossom flutter down,
 Unloved, that beech will gather brown,
This maple burn itself away:

Unloved, the sun-flower, shining fair,
 Ray round with flames her disk of seed,
 And many a rose-carnation feed
With summer spice the humming air ...

As year by year the labourer tills
 His wonted glebe, or lops the glades;
 And year by year our memory fades
From all the circle of the hills.

What is unwatched and unloved seems, and very properly, commonplace enough, but from the simplicities of ‘sway’ and ‘flutter down’ we move to the maple consuming itself in its own fire; the fire is repeated in the sunflower petals (though they magically protect the seeds, a future), and the waste is repeated in the scent of the carnations (which continues by attracting insects to perform its natural, inhuman function). The introduction of the labourer, human exploiter of natural growth, reducer of natural disorder, is a necessary link between the plants and the higher beings at present neither watching nor loving them. He is touched in with an 18th-century formality, part of the scene and not capable of grieving over it or over the sensitive who no longer see it. They have memories but become mere memories, distanced first by the brook which occupies the two stanzas I have not quoted and comes between them and the garden, then by the vague view of the circle of the hills, fading into permanent loss (unlike the plants or the labourer).

Verlaine’s criticism of In Memoriam (‘when he should have been broken-hearted he had many reminiscences’) is odd, coming from a poet who might, more than most, be expected to see how much thicker the plot of such lines is than the apparent simplicity of the topic (roughly, reminiscence) might seem to require. The disparity may provide a rough measure of the distance Tennyson habitually established between what, on the face of it, required to be said, and the far less public utterance that actually occurs. His strong sense of that distance is presumably what made him so docile about accepting other people’s proposals of themes to write about. On one occasion, often recalled, he remarked that in his opinion there had not been since Shakespeare ‘a master of the English language such as I’, though he added: ‘To be sure, I’ve got nothing to say.’ And on another occasion he told Edmund Gosse it was only the dunces who ‘fancy it is the thought that makes poetry live; it isn’t, it’s the form, but we mustn’t tell them so, they wouldn’t know what we meant.’ Among the dunces must be counted his adoring friends in Cambridge, the Apostles, who were always urging him to deal with important subjects. But Gosse, usually thought less bright, took the hint, and Mr Martin rightly commends his summing-up of Tennyson on the occasion of the poet’s 80th birthday:

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