Are we there yet?

Seamus Perry

When Auden announced in his preface to a new selection that Tennyson was ‘undoubtedly the stupidest’ of all the English poets he must have known that he was asking for trouble. Trouble duly came in the shape of Sir Desmond MacCarthy, who doggedly stood up in the Sunday Times for the quality of Tennyson’s mind, deplored Auden’s account of the great man as ‘very patronising’, then sought to out-patronise him in turn: ‘It reads as if Mr Auden had been feeling while he wrote it like a middle-aged schoolmaster preparing a report on little Alfred’s work and behaviour.’ That counted as rough stuff in 1946. The magazine English devoted its front-page editorial to an excited account of this ‘spirited controversy’, and Auden himself evidently felt he had been knocked about a bit. ‘Desmond MacCarthy took me to task severely,’ he told a young admirer back home in New York: ‘He’s the Grand Old Man of English criticism … now the publishers over there are advertising it as “that controversial volume”.’ Auden had endured controversy anyway since his move to the US shortly before the outbreak of the war: MacCarthy was springing to the defence of a great and loyal Englishman of the old style. ‘I became Public Cultural Enemy No 1 over the Tennyson preface,’ Auden wrote to a friend, ‘a little comic seeing that T is one of my favourite poets.’

Auden’s peppery remark is now more than half a century old but it remains one of the best-known things said about Tennyson and keeps a curious currency in the criticism. It was no doubt mildly disingenuous to pretend that ‘stupidest’ hadn’t been intended to frighten the horses, but the lasting provocation of his assertion must be down to more than its being especially rude or wrong-headed. On the face of it, of course, it cannot be true: T.S. Eliot said that he could think of several poets more stupid and Auden had to agree. No doubt Tennyson didn’t get to grips with Feuerbach or Hegel as did, say, George Eliot; and he could sound quite bluff about esoteric matters in his table talk. ‘If I were an old Greek,’ he told a professor, ‘I should try to combine the doctrine of Parmenides with that of Heraclitus.’ (Well, what a bright idea.) Matthew Arnold sniffily told his mother that Tennyson was ‘deficient in intellectual power’. But, for all that, Tennyson was perfectly assiduous in keeping up with major developments, including scientific discoveries (something of which Auden, who was also keen on science, might have been expected to approve), and he regularly kept company with some of the forbidding brains of the age. Jowett of Balliol sent the Tennysons a copy of his revered Hegel’s Philosophy of History. They read it to each other after dinner.

So what was Auden on about? For a start, he wasn’t bluffing about his fondness for Tennyson: his essay is full of admiration, and shows a deep acquaintance with his works. The critic Gerhard Joseph once suggested that Auden might have had in mind the old sense of ‘stupid’ as ‘stunned’ or ‘benumbed’ – as when Satan in Paradise Lost, momentarily struck as he gazes upon Eve, stands ‘Stupidly good, of enmity disarmed’. It was not innocence that stupefied Tennyson, though, according to Auden’s account, but bad experience, some early and formative desolation – ‘violence/A long way back’, in Larkin’s resonant phrase. ‘There was little about melancholia that he didn’t know,’ Auden announced in his essay; ‘there was little else that he did.’ Auden knew his Freud well, and by ‘melancholia’ he would have understood the ‘crushed state’ of dejection that Freud describes in ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, a state in which the ‘respect for reality’ that normally marks the end of bereavement is perpetually deferred. Christina Rossetti’s brother once wrote that she was ‘replete with the spirit of self-postponement’, and in that regard at least she resembled her more eminent male contemporary.

For Tennyson’s lyrics are repeatedly, charismatically preoccupied by the idea of lives on hold, each moment of them informed by an unfocused sense of utter dismay: ‘I am void,’ as one of his early speakers says, ‘Dark, formless, utterly destroyed’. Few of the great poems of the 1830s and 1840s – ‘Mariana’, ‘The Kraken’, ‘The Lady of Shalott’, ‘The Lotos-Eaters’, ‘Œnone’, ‘St Simeon Stylites’, ‘Break, break, break’ – show much ‘respect for reality’: these are all poems, as Adam Roberts says in the introduction to his generous paperback, about ‘withdrawal from the world’. They tend to turn obsessively in on themselves, repeatedly imagining scenarios of isolation and abandonment and evoking strange conditions of paralysed self-imprisonment. He must be the greatest English writer on what it is like to be stuck in a rut, Beckett – his only serious rival – being that rather different creature, an Irish writer. The precocious masterpiece ‘Mariana’, for instance, turns the formal convention of a poetic refrain into a mounting nightmare of incapacity:

She only said, ‘My life is dreary,

He cometh not,’ she said;

She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,

I would that I were dead!’

Those lines, or close variations on them, come back again and again like a thought that the poem can’t get over. Their studied repetitions (‘she said;/She said’) articulate Mariana’s stupefaction with a stuttering eloquence, dramatising a state of mind in which it is impossible for her to imagine that things could ever be otherwise.

Gerhard Joseph’s suggestion is a bright one because it takes Auden’s swipe about stupidity as a way of getting at something that he genuinely did cherish in Tennyson. But a genius for portraying mental trouble might not have been the only thing Auden saw and sympathised with. Desmond MacCarthy, who was a good critic, intuited exactly what was going on when he compared Auden’s attitude to Tennyson to the sort of feelings one might have about a child. ‘If Wordsworth is the great English poet of Nature,’ Auden remarked, ‘then Tennyson is the great English poet of the Nursery.’ In the light of that, you can see his showy talk of stupidity as a blokeish way of referring to a kind of immaturity in Tennyson, some incompleteness in the process of growing up, of acquiring the mental equipment of an adult.

If Auden responded to the spectacle of Tennyson’s infantile genius with peculiar emphasis then that may have been because he felt similarly charged. ‘Must hear in silence till I turn my toes up,/“It’s such a pity Wystan never grows up,”’ he complained in his ‘Letter to Lord Byron’. Leavis wasn’t the only one who thought this way about Auden, but he was always the most damningly outspoken about Auden’s ‘very green immaturity’, and he thought something similar about Tennyson. Keats was good: in ‘To Autumn’, Leavis said, you would find ‘the expression of a rare maturity’, and that was a sign that Keats did things in poetry that were precisely ‘alien to the Tennysonian habit’. Leavis was much given to drawing lines and identifying currents, and he was in no doubt that Tennyson represented ‘the Victorian main current’, the flow of which had left modern poetry at one remove from what he chose to call the ‘adult intelligence’. Tennyson’s immaturity was a problem which had become everyone’s problem; Auden’s striking lack of ‘essential maturity’ was just a symptom of a more general malaise in letters, perpetuated by what Leavis described darkly in his influential New Bearings in English Poetry as the ‘pervasive presence of Tennyson’.

I don’t suppose anyone in literary criticism talks much about ‘maturity’ anymore, which is probably no bad thing, but Leavis was often a marvellously attentive critic even if his tone does seem to go badly wrong here and there. When he wrote in Scrutiny about Tennyson’s beautiful poem ‘Tears, idle tears’ and found in it ‘on grounds of emotional and spiritual hygiene, something to deplore’ you might think that the main thing to deplore is Leavis’s own creepy rhetoric. But he wasn’t the first to discuss Tennyson with ideas of healthy development in mind. Tennyson’s first publications appeared when he was still in his twenties, so it was natural enough for reviewers to notice the fact of his youth. The awful Christopher North patted the young poet on the head, praising ‘a promising plant’ while deploring an ‘infantile vanity’ (‘I forgave you all the blame,/Musty Christopher;/I could not forgive the praise,/Fusty Christopher,’ Tennyson wrote in a wounded rejoinder). But it is striking how his best reviewers continued to bring up the question of immaturity or childishness throughout his writing life. Leigh Hunt thought there was ‘a little too much of the spoiled child’ about the poems; and, later still, a spiky Swinburne detected elements of ‘beardless bluster’ and the ‘provincial schoolboy’. Those are remarks about the works, of course, but it is curious how often contemporaries described Tennyson as being a bit of a kid in person, too. Adam Roberts thoughtfully includes among his appendices a memoir by John Addington Symonds in which he records the impression of something ‘almost childish’ about Tennyson’s metaphysical opinions, and you can see what he means: ‘I do not know whether to think the universe great or little,’ he records the great man saying. ‘When I think about it, it seems now one and now the other.’ Symonds found that beguiling and so do I.

Ann Thwaite’s splendid biography, Emily Tennyson: The Poet’s Wife (1996), includes many such disarming testimonies. ‘Nothing could be kinder than both Mr and Mrs Tennyson,’ Sydney Dobell wrote, ‘he in his great blind superhuman manner, like a colossal child.’ Jowett, while keen to emphasise his friend’s manly virtues, nevertheless acknowledged that ‘he is as open as the day, and, like a child, tells any chance comer what is passing in his mind.’ He was very good at funny faces: he did a memorable impression of the sun coming out from behind a cloud. When he went to collect an honorary degree from Oxford he arrived at the ceremony with his uncombed hair looking like a haystack, and a wit in the audience thought to call out: ‘Did your mother wake you early?’ He knew and loved Hartley Coleridge, whose best poem is a fine sonnet about his own arrested development, ‘Long time a child, and still a child, when years/Had painted manhood on my cheek, was I.’

I remember that on one occasion Hartley was asked to dine with the family of a stiff Presbyterian clergyman, residing in the Lake district. The party sat a long time in the drawing-room waiting for dinner. Nobody talked. At last Hartley could stand it no longer, he jumped up from the sofa, kissed the clergyman’s daughter, and bolted out of the house … He was a loveable little fellow.

Tennyson’s fondness is as winning as Hartley’s naughtiness, the affection felt for another poet whose asocial eccentricities betrayed a child’s resistance to adult proprieties. ‘Men of slighter materials would have come more quickly to their maturity,’ Gladstone said nobly in a review, as though getting there had been a bit of a long haul in Tennyson’s case.

Leavis never showed his Victorian credentials more thoroughly than when he said of Auden: ‘The childlike vividness of imagination was accompanied by the disabilities of the childish.’ That concedes a virtue while deploring a shortcoming: such a mixture of attitudes is Leavis’s inheritance from the 19th century. A commitment to the grown-up values of manhood and humane rationality naturally casts infancy as a state in which something is lacking – as when John Stuart Mill in On Liberty writes in exasperation of the ‘mere children’ to which a stupid society reduces its adult population. But, on the other hand, Wordsworth and Coleridge and the other great Romantics, to whom Victorian intellectuals such as Mill were no less indebted, conceived childhood in quite a different way, as the grounds of a brilliant freshness of perception that constituted the source of continuing genius – ‘the buoyant child surviving in the man’, in Coleridge’s words. Auden thought about childhood in that spirit too (‘to grow up does not mean to outgrow either childhood or adolescence but to make use of them’), so when he singled out ‘Tennyson’s infantile approach to poetry’, as John Bayley once happily observed, he was doing so ‘with the knowingness of the man who recognises his obsession commenting on the man who doesn’t’. Real children are at least as fond of the routine and habitual as they are of the novel, no doubt: the ‘childlike vividness’ which Leavis grudgingly concedes is really a distinct kind of literary apprehension that characterises Auden’s grabbing combinations (‘Spring’s green/Preliminary shiver’). You find it all over the place, too, in Tennyson, in unexpected moments of strangeness and intensity which seem to stand suddenly free of their contexts. A case of samples:

The shining daffodil dead, and Orion low in his grave

The city sparkles like a grain of salt

The smell of violets, hidden in the green

The rabbit fondles his own harmless face,
The slow-worm creeps, and the thin weasel there
Follows the mouse

On the bald street breaks the blank day

The lizard, with his shadow on the stone,
Rests like a shadow, and the winds are dead

Unlifted was the clinking latch

The blue fly sung in the pane

– of which last Eliot observed that the hallucinatory effect would be ruined were you to replace ‘sung’ with the less peculiar ‘sang’.[*] Tennyson’s most characteristic verse is marked by such local vivacities, which overrun the poetry with a disproportionate wonder:

  and, high above, I heard them blast
The steep slate-quarry, and the great echo flap
And buffet round the hills, from bluff to bluff.

As with Auden, oddity is the mark of authenticity, as though something were being perceived for the first time, or perhaps through a weirdly super-tuned pair of eyes (or ears). Maud, which is narrated by an unhinged speaker, is the masterpiece of such skewed vision: the ‘dreadful hollow behind the little wood’ with which it begins is the grandfather of all those marvellous Audenesque landscapes of ‘silted harbours, derelict works,/The strangled orchard or the silent comb’; and, just like the Audenesque, the Tennysonian manner created an imaginative world which admirers could happily recognise and inhabit. When Alton Locke, the tailor in Charles Kingsley’s novel, reads Tennyson’s descriptions of the dreary Lincolnshire flats he feels he has had his eyes opened to an unexpected universe: ‘The desolate pools and creeks where the dying swan floated, the hint of the silvery marsh mosses by Mariana’s moat, came to me like revelations.’

Tennyson’s talented friend and early best critic, Arthur Hallam, singled out for praise from Tennyson’s first volume the poem ‘Recollections of the Arabian Nights’. It is a work manifestly full of what Hallam called ‘childish interest’, and shows how firmly established from the beginning Tennyson’s verbal wizardry was:

Anight my shallop, rustling thro’
The low and bloomed foliage, drove
The fragrant, glistening deeps, and clove
The citron-shadows in the blue.

‘Recollections of the Arabian Nights’ may not feel like one of the major Tennyson poems to modern readers (Roberts does not print it), but Hallam had good reasons for liking it: ‘That happy ductility of childhood returns for the moment … and yet there is a latent knowledge, which heightens the pleasure, that to our change from really childish thought we owe the capacities by which we enjoy the recollection.’ The poem is not so much childish, that is to say, as it is preoccupied by the idea of childishness: Hallam allows his friend some imaginative purchase on the immaturity that might otherwise seem like a besetting predicament. And in fact a lot of Tennyson’s best poetry shows how intently he set about exploring the thought of things immature or premature, the incompletely formed, the not-quite-ripe: one reason the critics return to the thought of immaturity so insistently, no doubt, is that that is what the poems do themselves. If you had asked, Tennyson would surely have put great emphasis on the value of being grown up. From time to time weighty and impressive Victorian adults crop up in his verse, chock-full of determination and ethical agency, such as the massive figure of Wellington in the ‘Ode’ written on his death, or in this wishful piece of barely covert self-portraiture (from an unpublished poem called ‘The Ante-Chamber’):

And look you what an arch the brain has built
Above the ear! and what a settled mind,
Mature, harboured from change, contemplative,
Tempers the peaceful light of hazel eyes,
Observing all things.

But, really, his best poetry comes from a part of his brain other than this. Spedding, the Bacon scholar and fellow Apostle, shrewdly identified Tennyson’s recurrent interest in ‘untried being’, meaning mythical things such as krakens and mermen; but being of all kinds is typically untried in Tennyson’s best work, suspended in pre-existence on the verge of some momentous experience that have might proved things one way or another. St Simeon Stylites still waiting for God, Ulysses ever ready to depart, the narrator of ‘Locksley Hall’ always just about to quit: many readers have observed the Tennysonian archetype of the life unled, of which the girl in ‘The May Queen’, destined never to grow up, might be the most lachrymose example. Like the little girl about whom Beckett once heard Jung lecture, she died without ever really having been born. Tennyson’s own first child was stillborn, and he wrote both poignantly and wonderingly about the identity of the little boy, ‘dear little nameless one that has lived tho’ thou hast never breathed’. The poem he wrote at the time went unpublished, but the memory was later reworked in ‘The Grandmother’, a dramatic monologue much admired by Larkin:

His dear little face was troubled, as if with anger or pain:
I looked at the still little body – his trouble had all been in vain.
For Willy I cannot weep, I shall see him another morn:
But I wept like a child for the child that was dead before he was born.

The death of Willy, the grandmother’s grown-up son, is comprehensible; but the stillborn baby remains perplexing. Tennyson was not alone among Victorians in having an interest in infant mortality, but these lines skirt the usual heavy-handed pathos by means of the underplayed wit of repetition in the last line, playing delicately and forlornly with what might constitute being formulaically ‘like a child’ and the mystery of something once having been ‘the child’.

The most important premature death in Tennyson’s life was that of Hallam, who died suddenly in 1833 aged 22. Tennyson’s protracted devastation grew gradually, piecemeal, into In Memoriam, finally published in 1850. It is perhaps the profoundest and most developed production of his genius for the imaginatively immature. For it is a poem which repeatedly announces its own unpreparedness, its reluctance to proceed, the inadequacy of its reflection, the incompleteness of its mourning. At once an elegy and a confession of the inability to write anything like an elegy, it is the work of a man professedly not ready to tackle the task: ‘What words are these have fallen from me?’ At the same time, Tennyson’s abiding tenderness for wonderful and premature things received its apotheosis in the idea of Hallam, who, in the last lines of In Memoriam, ‘was a noble type,/Appearing ere the times were ripe’. Within the chastened Christian world of the poem, one of its main would-be consoling thoughts is the fantasy that Hallam had somehow arrived on earth prematurely, ‘the herald of a higher race’, and so proved too good for this life. Graham Hough once wrote very wittily about so fantastical a use of evolutionary theory: everyone agreed that Hallam was a remarkable young man, but few even of his keenest admirers would have said he was the next step on the evolutionary ladder. Yet it is Tennyson’s strongest inclination to think of his lost friend as a premature arrival, all of his capacities locked perennially in-embryo: the subject of the poem is a creature of ‘glorious insufficiencies’, as Tennyson puts it, a phrase he glossed as ‘unaccomplished greatness’. And In Memoriam is itself a thing of glorious insufficiencies, its failure in one way constituting its accomplishment in another: it is an elegy which ends without completing its consolatory business, having interrupted itself throughout with an odd persistence, like a child interrupting grown-ups in conversation. ‘Is this the end? Is this the end?’ he complains at one point, as though asking, are we there yet?

Roberts includes both In Memoriam and Maud complete, and he has done his readers an additional good service by including the whole of The Princess, in one way a seriously unsatisfying poem (or an unsatisfying serious one) but still one of the most striking, inimitable things that Tennyson ever wrote. It arose from his perfectly genuine interest in the question of women’s education, a topic he chose to tackle in the unpromising form of a flirty romance in which a group of young men go in for a bit of cross-dressing and adopt falsetto voices so as to smuggle themselves into the all-women university founded by Ida, the princess of the title. The feminist ideologues behind the new academy are two unattractive characters called Lady Psyche and Lady Blanche, who have fed their student-princess ‘theories’: as the princess’s father is shocked to recall,

  my very ears were hot
To hear them: knowledge, so my daughter held,
Was all in all: they had but been, she thought,
As children; they must lose the child, assume
The woman …

Progressive writers such as Mill or Wollstonecraft would have agreed that the subjugation of women consisted largely in their being infantilised: the feminist argument in the poem, with which Tennyson evidently has much sympathy, is about women being allowed to grow up and put aside childish things. But as it happens, contrarily, the poem itself is very reluctant to ‘lose the child’. ‘The child is the link thro’ the parts,’ Tennyson said, meaning that a glimpsed narrative about a child crops up in several of the lyrics he wrote to join the sections of the story together. One of these short poems, ‘The Losing of the Child’, was in the event not used, although it is certainly one of the most striking: readers will have to go to Christopher Ricks’s immense edition to find it, since Roberts has not had the space to include cancelled poems and drafts. The lyric is about actually losing a child and then refinding it, as though seeking to test the political position by literalising its metaphor and seeing how things feel that way. It ends thus:

The river left the child unhurt,
  But far within the wild.
Then we brought him home again,
Peace and order come again,
The river sought his bound again,
The child was lost and found again,
  And we will keep the child.

It is a curious but effective little poem, partly because of Tennyson’s use of that strangely impersonal locution ‘the child’, as though naming a principle more than an individual infant. Anyway, it ends by stating the stark counter-thesis to Ida’s position: ‘We will keep the child.’ The gender politics of the poem were vigorously dissected by Kate Millett in Sexual Politics, and it is true that the feminist energies with which the story begins are dissipated or at least greatly compromised by its close; but whether that is a sign of some lurking chauvinism in Tennyson seems to me less clear. The poem’s political contradictions arise because the public positions of feminist thinking have become entangled with a much more private Tennysonian argument about immaturity and the attractions of putting off adulthood. The Princess is full of larky spirits which Tennyson only very awkwardly conscripts to the ends of his worthy ideological ambitions (‘I sang, and maidenlike as far/ As I could ape their treble, did I sing’). It is a bumpy ride in which elements of mock-heroic jumble along with genuine beauties; but its wayward and unruly life has an energy many of the later poems, and especially The Idylls of the King, conspicuously lack. The later verse, in its studied propriety, is often immensely accomplished and you wouldn’t be wrong to call it ‘mature’; but if it is any good then perhaps it is ‘good’ in the way that, as Barbara Everett once remarked in these pages, people (such as Leavis) say that Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ is good: ‘in the way that a child will be called “good”, when what is really meant is that its spirit is broken’.[†]

Auden was not the only writer to admire and learn from Tennyson’s peculiar genius. His most famous 20th-century follower was Betjeman, who used infantilism in his own way to great effect; and though among more modern poets the trail is more elusive it has not quite disappeared. The late Mick Imlah edited a very good selection of Tennyson for Faber, and his last book of verse, The Lost Leader, contains ‘In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson’. The speaker of the poem and his companion have gone to visit one of Tennyson’s houses in a spirit of literary piety only to find that it has become an institution of some kind, part lunatic asylum and part literary theme park. A young man dressed up as Tennyson speaks to them at some length, until finally our poet has had about enough:

And now from the folds of his frock coat he conjured the book, and affected
A cartoon myopia, cribbed from its cover (the Penguin Selected),
‘And so to that end it’s my pleasure to read to you – starting with: Maud.
I hate –’ But I couldn’t take any more of this – be it dementia, or fraud,
So I hushed him abruptly and fished out a quid for the in-patients’ kitty
And gathered my girlfriend to make our way back to her car and the city,
Casting a jibe at him over my shoulder – ‘You’re not Lord Tennyson!’ –
Catching the small, disembodied retort, ‘Well, neither’s Lord Tennyson.’

It is an enjoyably daft poem: you might even think it goes out of its way to be a bit stupid; but the jokes are not jokes at Tennyson’s expense. ‘He lived in a constant attitude of humour,’ Jowett remarked, and the humour of Imlah’s poem responds with a cheerfully intuitive sympathy to some childish element, one more usually concealed beneath the dignified figure of the Lord and Poet Laureate.

[*] Eliot’s observation was mentioned, too, by Frank Kermode in ‘Eliot and the Shudder’ in the LRB of 13 May 2010.

[†] ‘Somebody Reading’, LRB, 21 June 1984.