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 It is a full-scale life, founded on primary sources, many of them previously unpublished.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:

He is wise and full of intelligence; but in mere intellectual capacity or attainment it is probable that there are many who excel him ... He has not headed a single moral reform nor inaugurated a single revolution of opinion; he has never pointed the way to undiscovered regions of thought ... Where then has his greatness lain? It has lain in the various perfections of his writing. He has written, on the whole, with more constant, unwearied, and unwearying excellence than any of his contemporaries ... He has expended the treasures of his native talent on broadening and deepening his own hold upon the English language, until that has become an instrument upon which he is able to play a greater variety of melodies to perfection than any other man.

Mr Martin can tell us, sometimes, how the feel of a scene got into Tennyson’s head, where, for whatever length of time necessary, it would lap around, changing slowly into the shape his mind must give it. A visit to a sea cave at Ballybunion produced these lines from (or worked into) Idylls of the King:

So dark a forethought roll’d about his brain
As on a dull day in an Ocean cave
The blind wave feeling round his long sea-hall
In silence ...

These are lines to which Keats, and perhaps nobody else, might have aspired: accurate, melancholic, menaced; inaugurating no revolution of opinion, of course, but emblematic of the poet himself, and not of the sage publicly venerated. And any biography of Tennyson as full and communicative as this one is bound to raise the question how it came about that so private a gift, an endless mouthing into shape of sounds, a fumbling at dark phonetic limits, could be transformed so completely into the statuesque representative of poetry as a popular force.

Most of his contemporaries, great and small, saw him thus; as I have said, a few abstained, including his friend Edward FitzGerald, but at the same time had to acknowledge the majority view; and Tennyson himself came to share the general opinion of the nature of his greatness. Confident of an exclusive vocation, he was able to devote his entire life to poetry (he simply assumed that it would be wrong for him to do anything else) and to make himself rich in the process. His title, the friendship of the Queen, the affection and admiration of such peers as Dickens, Carlyle, Browning and George Eliot, and the veneration of almost everybody else, somehow came to seem the natural outcome of his use of his talent; and much in his later life may be attributed to his having grown into his role. Yet through it all he retained his right as poet to be a bit odd, unconforming, eccentric in manner, demanding and even selfish, victim and exploiter at once of poetic ‘nerves’.

Reading this volume, one may wonder at the social and genetic cost of making a major poet. Tennyson’s father was the eldest son of a tough Lincolnshire businessman who accumulated a great fortune, but he was early disinherited and made into a clergyman, though wildly unsuited to such a career. Noisy and ungovernable from earliest youth, he was, as father of a family, morose, drunken and idle; one of the nicest things about him was that he rose in the late afternoon and then played the harp, but he was also violent and spendthrift. His wife was odd in more agreeable ways, and their 12 children exhibited a great variety of eccentricities, ranging from downright insanity to opium addiction, alcoholism and every kind of psychic instability. Edward entered a home for the insane at 19 and died there 60 years later, Charles went in for opium, Arthur for alcohol. Septimus would introduce himself to a stranger by rising from the hearthrug where he had been lying, extending a languid hand, and saying: ‘I am Septimus, the most morbid of the Tennysons.’ The daughters were noted for their strange manners; Mary, very beautiful till savaged by a mastiff, took to Swedenborg, Spiritualism and Mesmerism; Matilda was never quite right after a fall into a coal-scuttle as a child, and would embarrass Emily (who had been engaged to Arthur Hallam) by raising her umbrella in church to keep off the draught.

Since the crowded rectory had plenty of books as well as many peculiar persons, it provided an atmosphere conducive to poetry. But no less helpful were the fears that Tennyson experienced in perhaps even greater measure than his kin. A general anxiety about inheriting ‘the black blood of the Tennysons’ was more sharply focused in the fear of epilepsy, a disease to which the family was probably prone; it was, at the time, thought to be a shameful affliction, related to excessive sexuality and masturbation. Tennyson experienced ‘trances’, and his verse is much indebted to them, but they must have been terrifying in the early days, when he could think of them as manifestations of the disease. He feared to become like his father, and there must have seemed a fair chance that any member of the family would be mad, suicidal or addicted. The poet also feared blindness, and spent a lot of his youthful time reading the medical literature on the subject.

Martin is very good on all this, unsensational and asking the right questions – for example, about the relation of these fears to the poet’s long delay in marrying. As to addiction, Tennyson hated opium but was always a heavy smoker, and he drank rather a lot. In time, he lost his fears (lost also his trances) and tended to attribute his troubles to gout, a much more elastic diagnosis then than now; as it happens, he did, in later life, become gouty in the narrower and still current sense.

Before he was seven, Tennyson knew the Odes of Horace by heart, and at eight was capable of writing verses of remarkable felicity. It may be said, then, that a talented family justified its extravagances and unmannerly ways by producing a prodigy, for Tennyson was such as surely as his contemporary Mendelssohn, though prodigious musicians are much more spectacular. Since, conscious of such endowments, he never intended to do anything except write poetry, the question arose as to how his career was to be financed. Like the rest of the family, he always assumed that he was owed a living. When the rich grandfather died, all his descendants seemed to expect that his estate would keep them in comfort for ever; the bulk of it went to the uncle who had replaced Tennyson’s father as heir, but the rector and his family, though they complained stridently, still did quite well out of the transaction. Tennyson lost much of his inheritance, and that of his family, by a rash investment; but he was never desperately hard up, though he often represented himself as being so.

Relations between the rector and his father were always bad, and some of the trouble arose from the son’s combination of financial extravagance and outrageously-phrased demands. The poet inherited a tendency to require lots of money on demand, and he was also remarkably stingy. At the time when he accepted a Civil List pension it was already possible to ask whether his case was truly deserving: what is remarkable is that he went on accepting it for the rest of his life, in times when he was making £10,000 a year (£150,000 in our money?) from poetry, while others sought relief in vain. In his bad years, FitzGerald gave him £300 a year out of an income of £800; later, though he never actually dropped him, Tennyson treated FitzGerald very offhandedly, and with little sense of gratitude for such a favour. This meanness extended to very small matters, such as his borrowing Samuel Rogers’s court dress when received as Laureate, though Rogers was a short and Tennyson a tall man; later he borrowed robes to enter the House of Lords, and often schemed to avoid paying his full dues to clubs. Perhaps his habit of hanging onto his money (except when spending it on his own houses and bella figura) was necessary to his survival as a poet. Carlyle and FitzGerald both told him that he should take some employment, not only to ease his financial position but to strengthen his work. He refused to listen – very properly, says Martin, and one is inclined to agree.

If part of his right as a poet was to be kept in some style, another part was to lead a life of what must, to more obviously industrious friends, have seemed like indolence. He rose late, like his father, but instead of playing the harp, wrote poems. He kept other people up half the night, belching tobacco or reading Maud (Jane Welsh Carlyle claims that he once read it to her three times in an evening, over six hours of it altogether, though there may be some hyperbole there). Invited to stay, he would lay down conditions: he need not come down to breakfast, must be allowed his pipe, must be provided with port. Or he would descend, often inconveniently, on old friends, and stay as long as he chose. From his earliest days he had needed adulation; the Apostles had provided it at Cambridge, later friends served, and then his wife; when old friendships fell away, he replaced them with relationships of a different sort, and adulators like Allingham and Palgrave. At the same time, he required to be protected from hostile reviews (he never got over his early savaging by Wilson and Croker). Sensitive as well as demanding, he was clearly difficult: yet he was evidently much loved, and not merely as a great man. His gaucherie was itself charming.

He was to reach an eminence almost beyond criticism, and beyond self-criticism too. With great fame, he grew somewhat snobbish and reactionary. Martin, who gives admirable accounts of Tennyson’s houses at Farringford and Aldworth, deftly points up the parallel between the aging poet and his extraordinary cousin Charles, an endearing snob who had inherited the grandfather’s estate and spent it on a strange and extravagant house encapsulating the history of English building under the Plantagenets and Tudors. Callers would likely be told that the master was walking on the barbican. He changed his name to Tennyson d’Eyncourt (though his claim to noble ancestry was more than dubious) and waited to be granted a peerage. The cousins despised each other, and the poet was particularly hard on the pretentious name and the house – the newly-rich and their mansions always had the power to annoy him. Yet, says Martin, Aldworth is ‘a distant and diminished cousin’ of Tennyson d’Eyncourt’s Bayons; the Idylls of the King, whatever else may be said of them, faintly reflect the Victorian medievalism of Charles; and, most remarkably, the poet, when ennobled, seriously considered taking as his title Tennyson d’Eyncourt.

Such foolishness is a reflex of his extraordinary fame, an indication that he thought it no more than his due, though some aspects of celebrity he found disagreeable. He thought himself hounded by the press, by ‘cockneys’ – the lower classes who took trips into the country in the hope of seeing him – and Americans, for whom he had an unreasoning contempt. One anecdote suggests that his fears were not altogether groundless. Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne stalked the Tennysons round an exhibition, without presuming to accost them: but before they left, Sophia seized the younger Tennyson boy and kissed him. ‘I was well pleased to have had in my arms Tennyson’s child,’ she boasted. The poet could not sign hotel registers until his departure, for fear of being mobbed; and at public readings there was a real risk of hysterical outbursts on lines now familiar from the recitals of rock stars. All this makes him sound intolerable, yet he was, as I say, though vain and selfish, capable of winning genuine affection: Browning, for instance, was perfect in his generosity to a more successful rival, though Tennyson treated him with some suspicion, reluctant to praise his poetry and thinking him forward because he dandled one of the Tennyson children at its christening.

Despite his fear of publication and reviewers, his success was almost unbroken. Enoch Areden sold 40,000 copies on publication in 1864, and made him £8,000 within the year – in terms of financial success, at any rate, no falling-off from In Memoriam, ‘the pinnacle of success’, 14 years earlier. Without ever thinking himself a secure man, he was always able to do his work at his own pace – In Memoriam was 17, Idylls of the King 40 years in the making. He gave the public poetry, but also a commodity it perhaps wanted more – the image of the Poet who, inspired as he was, fitted the general preconception of what a great man must be, aloof and grandly moral. He feared that the story of Vivien might be called immoral, but by that time nobody would have thought of saying so. The man himself hardened in the mould of his greatness, growing reactionary in politics (his relations with Gladstone, Hallam’s other great friend, were uneasy on political as well as personal grounds) and very puritanical in matters of sex.

J.M. Gray, in a thoughtful new book on the Idylls of the King, argues that Tennyson took a strong line on masculine morality because he knew there was no possibility of relaxing the rules for women, and so the only way to get equality was to tighten them for men. Mr Gray thinks so highly of the Idylls, and makes out so elaborate a case for their refined structural complexity, that he is understandably keen not to fall out with Tennyson about sex: but his line of defence remains curious, rather as if the inhabitants of Margate should be forbidden sea-bathing on the ground that it is not available to the inhabitants of Wolverhampton. Of course the poet believed, and told the Queen, that England was going to blazes, and that sexual wickedness was an important cause of this state of affairs, as it is nearly always held to be. But his own undoubted chastity didn’t stop him from cuddling young girls. He took the 21-year-old Margot Tennant on his knee and told her an improper story, afterwards condemning her because she did not blush.

Martin is, of course, required to speculate on the poet’s sexual interests, especially in regard to Arthur Hallam. He does so very judiciously. Hallam died at 22, and was perhaps never quite the phoenix he was made out to be, but that says nothing about the quality and endurance of Tennyson’s attachment to him, which was the occasion of much great poetry. An ardent lover of neither men nor women, Tennyson is unlikely to have thought of Hallam as other or more than his best friend, though the maps of love have been so redrawn that such observations are likely now to seem naive. Martin thinks it possible that the poet was particularly upset by Croker’s sneering at ‘O darling Room’ because he suspected that the reviewer had ‘caught him saying more than he intended, or even knew, about his affection for Hallam’. But this seems uncharacteristically far-fetched, a concession to modern knowingness. On the matter of Tennyson’s marriage, Martin seems convincing. He delayed it for years, and rather inconsiderately; fear of poverty and anxiety about epilepsy may have had something to do with this procrastination, but to marry, a virgin, at 41 does not argue hot blood. It is fair to add that a man so interested in, and so fearful of, madness, and so taken with the idea of ‘nerves’ as a necessary element in the poetic temperament, might well choose less risky comforts. ‘I doubt poets are an ill-starred race,’ said FitzGerald, thinking of his friend – ‘that is poets who deal in their own susceptibilities.’ Tennyson was a voluntary patient in an asylum, and when the law was changed to prevent that practice, he frequented hydropathic establishments in which simple water, in large quantities, purged one of everything from gout to nerves. Presumably all this was instead of sex. Tennyson’s half-hearted courtships – quite lacking the fervency of his love for the true alter ego, Hallam – also suggest that he was simply incapable of being as interested in another person as in himself, and his indifference to others’ feelings, and carelessness in friendships, support the view, proposed by Martin, that he was constitutionally insensitive to the personalities of others. Martin indeed kindly suggests that a man so myopic could never see the reactions on other people’s faces, and so had no idea of how he was affecting them, but this is not easy to believe of someone who claimed to have seen the reflection of the moon in the eye of a nightingale, and the truth must be that there was a profound narcissism in the poet – some arrestation of the power to invest emotionally in others.

Time and again Martin’s narrative produces evidence of this. The poet had a powerful and personal epistolary style, but hated writing letters. Even among the Apostles at Cambridge he found it difficult to speak; and later he was silent if he could not dominate the company. He had a taste for sycophantic admirers; at first, Cambridge, ungratefully described as ‘that college-studded marsh’, provided them, later they offered themselves plentifully as the tribute due to fame. With his strong Lincolnshire accent and occasionally uncouth manners he passed for a very natural man (an important element in public greatness). But it was hardly probable that as he grew in age and celebrity he would separate his life from the myth of supreme greatness. Martin’s account of the deathbed finely celebrates the immersion of the man in the myth.

Almost to the end there was a stream of visitors, keen to be among the last to see the poet alive. Then, the visitors forbidden, the family prepared for the end, notebooks in hand. ‘It is perhaps churlish,’ says Martin, to feel that Hallam ‘occasionally lost sight of a worn-out old man dying in a draughty bedroom on a Sussex hillside and saw instead the apotheosis of Victorian poetry’. Tennyson asked for Cymbeline, but could not read it; the next day he was forbidden it. He spoke of the Queen, the Press and Gladstone, then called again for his Shakespeare; ‘he fumbled with it, then put it face down with his hand laid heavily upon it, cracking the spine, so that today it still falls open to the speech of Posthumus to Imogen: “Hang there like fruit, my soul,/Till the tree die.” a passage that had always moved him to tears.’ According to Hallam his last words were ‘Hallam, Hallam’, and, to his wife, ‘God bless you my joy,’ though Hallam’s wife, the practical Audrey, recorded that ‘it was almost impossible to make out more than a word here and there of what he said owing greatly I think to his having no teeth in.’ The presiding physician, in his account, paid more deference to the myth: ‘On the bed a figure of breathing marble, flooded and bathed in the light of the full moon streaming through the oriel window; his hand clasping the Shakespeare which he had asked for but recently, and which he kept by him to the end; the moonlight, the majestic figure as he lay there, “drawing thicker breath”, irresistibly brought to our minds his own “Passing of Arthur”.’ Almost everybody, but not Gladstone, went to the Abbey funeral.