Charles and Alfred

J.I.M. Stewart

  • Studies in Tennyson edited by Hallam Tennyson
    Macmillan, 229 pp, £15.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 333 27884 4

The title page of this book tells us that it is ‘published to commemorate the centenary of Sir Charles Tennyson, the poet’s grandson and biographer, born 8 November 1879, died 22 June 1977’. Charles Tennyson was very far from being the most eccentric of all the Tennysons, but he is the most astonishing of them at least in one regard: that of enhanced, rather than merely sustained, activity in extreme old age. Through Summerfields, Eton and King’s, the Bar, the Office of Works, the Colonial Office, he made his way as a rather diffident if clearly able person. He became secretary to the Dunlop Rubber Company and Chairman of the Board of Trade Utility Furniture Committee; admiring Henry Moore, he was immensely proud ‘of having once helped him through the CIAD’ (Central Institute of Art and Design). He was also something of a literary man, who by the age of 51 had published 140 reviews and miscellaneous pieces; of these just four are in any way connected with his grandfather the Laureate.

But then Charles Tennyson began to loosen up. He was no longer under the inhibiting shadow of his uncle, Hallam, Lord Tennyson, son of the poet. The family archives, of enormous bulk, came largely under his control. He realised that of his grandfather’s life much that might properly be told had remained untold. The result was his Alfred Tennyson, published in 1949, and recognised ever since as the most authoritative work on its subject. Of the 70 further items added to his bibliography during the long course of his later life all but ten were concerned primarily with either Alfred Tennyson and his family or the Tennyson Society. Among them is The Tennysons: Background to Genius, a book published on his 95th birthday. He was fond of music, and changed his mind radically on the stature of Verdi when he saw his first performance of Otello on television at the age of 92. He was fond of travel; visited Greece on his own when 85; and six years later went on a lecture tour in America, beginning on a students’ charter flight with a granddaughter. He was fond of the arts, and in his last years visited the Turner exhibition at Burlington House eight times, and the Chinese exhibition and the Treasures of Tutankhamun (that unprecedented queue-creating occasion) almost as often. Such was his habitual impatience to get into the National Gallery that he regularly refused to be carried past its entrance to the nearest bus stop, preferring to leap from the moving vehicle at the foot of the Gallery steps. Up to the age of 95 he remained a tireless walker, maintaining correctly that there was no law of trespass in the English judicial system, and always furnished with the prescriptive sixpence to tender to some indignant landed proprietor in full satisfaction of damage if any.

In this alert longevity the present volume found its prompting occasion. Convinced when Charles Tennyson ‘reached 97 in undiminished mental and physical vigour’ that a centenary celebration lay before him, his son Hallam Tennyson projected a series of lectures to be given by leading Tennyson scholars in England and America. A list of the lectures was to form a surprise present on his father’s 99th birthday, and they were to be delivered during the following year and published in book form on his centenary. Charles Tennyson died (‘unexpectedly,’ his son is tempted to say) a few months before he was 98. But the project went ahead and here are the lectures – augmented by a substantial and altogether fascinating memoir of the man by Mr Tennyson, and an excellent study, often equally intimate in tone, of the writer and scholar by Professor R.B. Martin.

Of the lectures the most immediately striking is by Christopher Ricks, who among other endowments appears to have tucked away in his head something like a complete concordance to English poetry. In more than one previous publication he has investigated Tennyson’s sufficiently well-known habit of borrowing freely from earlier work of his own, and this inquiry is now extended in several directions. The poet frequently echoes the writing of others, and while much of this reminiscent matter is there to be spotted by any educated reader, a significant amount belongs to what Professor Ricks calls ‘an intimate world of private allusion’. Thus when we read in In Memoriam.

’Tis well; ’tis something; we may stand
  Where he in English earth is laid,
  And from his ashes may be made
The violet of his native land,

there is an allusion to a passage in Persius to which Arthur Hallam had himself alluded in turning a compliment to his friend. The violet moves, as it were, from Persius’s poem to Hallam’s essay, and from Hallam’s essay to Tennyson’s poem. So Tennyson is here ‘murmuring something special for some few special readers and for the poet himself’.

The last phrase is crucial in Professor Ricks’s argument.

Be near me when my light is low,
  When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
  And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of Being slow.

There are echoes in this of both The Cenci and ‘Queen Mab’, and Shelley is thus made present as a ‘supporting predecessor’ at a moment of fearful experience. Wordsworth is shown as bearing the same role in the stanza beginning, ‘The hills are shadows, and they flow ...’ And so in other places. While in the self-borrowings Tennyson is essentially stabilising an often torn and tormented mind by mustering evidences ‘of the continuity of his own creativity’, in the echoing of great poets who have gone before him he is seeking to enjoy ‘in the face of lonely suffering and anxiety ... the comfort of company’ to which the English poetic inheritance entitles him.

In ‘Tennyson and the Literature of Greece and Rome’ Theodore Redpath presents an orderly survey of this aspect of the poetry, ranging from a line-by-line scrutiny of one of Tennyson’s experiments in translating Homer, through a review of ‘touches of language, imagery, and thought ... probably taken consciously, subconsciously or unconsciously from Greek and Roman writers’, to the influence of the Theocritan Idylls and a detailed discussion of ‘Ulysses’ and its relationship to Odyssey XI and Dante’s Inferno XXVI. From Dante comes the theme of great longing for experience on Ulysses’s part, but the rough talk at the start of the poem is quite like the Homeric Odysseus. There is much of interest in this sort of inquiry. But Mr Redpath is surely right in maintaining that to go on from it to an attempt to determine which of the ancient poets Tennyson was most like is an idle endeavour: ‘He is sometimes like one poet, sometimes like another; and the width and depth of his knowledge of the ancient poets enabled him both to introduce special touches of great variety into poems not concerned with classical themes, and also to make out of classical themes themselves new creations sometimes deeper and sometimes of more permanent value than the specific sources on which he drew.’

‘Ulysses’ is also discussed at length by William Fredeman in ‘One Word More – on Tennyson’s Dramatic Monologues’. ‘Neither the Homeric or Dantean sources of the poem’, according to Professor Fredeman, provide much assistance in unravelling ‘the complex ambiguity that informs the poem as a whole’. Are we being shown ‘a recycling of those epical energies’ that impelled Ulysses during the twenty years of his active manhood, or ‘the senile imaginative meanderings of a vainglorious and impotent old man’? Or – an ingenious thought – is Ulysses ‘a kind of Ithacan Gerontion’? Even if he is, he remains something of a critics’ conundrum. To the abundant debate about it the author of ‘Gerontion’ himself contributed the remark that Dante’s character is in the first place a seaman telling a yarn, whereas Tennyson’s speaker is a self-conscious poet. This is true, but one has to add that the self-conscious poet is delivering to us one of the most perfect poems in the language. What is puzzling about it is its perfection. As W.W. Robson observed in an essay published 11 years ago, ‘there is a radical discrepancy between the strenuousness aspired to, and the medium in which the aspiration is expressed.’ But precisely in this the magic of the poem inheres.

Professor Robson contributes to the present volume an essay called ‘The Present Value of Tennyson’. Tennyson owns several kinds of excellence which happen not to be to the taste of our own day: an unabashed sentimentality upon due occasions, skill in ‘private celebration and commemoration’, a command of pomp in the sense in which Othello uses the word, a passion for the minute description of nature. But what of those excellences which are acknowledged by every age as the marks or ‘notes’ (Newman’s word) of great poetry? One of these is ‘abundant felicity of expression’, and it is in this that Tennyson is peculiarly strong. But is it, so to speak, a shade suspicious that this is what first comes into all our heads when we think of Tennyson’s achievement? Is not architectonic power, is not Longinus’s ‘echo of a great soul’ or command of the sublime, more important still – and does Tennyson attain to these? Professor Robson’s conclusions may be termed reassuring, but I think he is a shade nervous before that abundant felicity in concatenating words. The tremendous passage descriptive of Enoch Arden’s island, for example. Is it all too Tennysonian;. is it ‘Parnassian’ – as Gerard Manley Hopkins declared when he began to ‘doubt’ Tennyson? This distrustfulness turns up strongly again at the end of the book in a piece by John Bayley called ‘Tennyson and the Idea of Decadence’. There is a great deal to be said for Tennyson; he is quite like Gogol; there is a saving lurking humour or fun in the subtext of some dangerously Parnassian places. (This last discovery aids Professor Bayley to a deft and graceful approximating of the present Laureate to his Victorian predecessor.) But surely – we are given to understand – Tennyson is heading in a dangerous direction, since the ‘Tennysonian’ can readily ‘become a depersonalised and “beautiful” official style’. This is a brilliant and perhaps slightly mischievous essay. Hallam Tennyson on Charles and John Bayley on Alfred are the liveliest performances in a notable book.