The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson. Volume I. 1821—1850. Edited by Cecil Y. Lang and Edgar F. Shannon, Jr. Harvard. $30.00.
A short time since,” wrote a distraught woman to her father-in-law in 1829, her husband “had a large knife and loaded gun in his room. The latter he took into the kitchen to try before he went to bed. He was going to fire it off through the kitchen window but was dissuaded. With the knife he said he would kill Frederick by stabbing him in the jugular vein and in the heart.” Moreover, she said, she feared for “the impression which his conduct may produce upon the minds of his family not to mention the perpetual one of such degrading epithets to myself and children as a husband and a Father and above all a person of his sacred profession ought particularly to avoid.” The man whose “ungovernable violence” made it impossible for her and their children to remain in the same house with him was the Reverend Doctor George Tennyson, rector of the remote Lincolnshire parish of Somersby; and one of the children so endangered was the future poet laureate.
This chilling document accurately expresses the atmosphere in which Alfred Tennyson grew up. The “black blood of the Tennysons” produced, first, pathological violence and alcoholism in the father, and in his children Oedipal struggles, insanity, squalid sexual escapades, broken engagements, opium addiction, extended nervous collapses, intra-family feuding; lucky was the Tennyson who suffered only from “indolence and morbidity” (Septimus) or mere “hypochondria” (Alfred). The crisis of 1829 was but one of the earliest and most melodramatic of the many which kept the Somersby household and later temporary residences of the family in constant turmoil for more than two decades.
In the midst of it all, the young prospective poet somehow managed to protect the germs of genius. In his first surviving letter, written to his maternal aunt at the age of eleven, he had given alarming evidence of his precocity in the form of a grave and lengthy discourse on Milton’s Samson Agonistes. But in the family papers this first glimmer of possible distinction disappears at once, overwhelmed by the flood of agitated, often desperate letters and other documents generated by the seemingly irremediable Tennysonian wretchedness. As his relatives continue interminably to canvass the situation back and forth, Alfred resembles Hamlet in the second scene of the play, present but overlooked, a brooding young man set apart from the action and saying nothing, at least for the surviving record.
The last poisoned drop in his cup, of course, was the news contained in a letter Tennyson received from one Henry Elton in October, 1833: “Your friend, Sir, and my much loved nephew, Arthur Hallam, is no more. . . . He died at Vienna on his return from Buda, by Apoplexy, and I believe his Remains come by Sea from Trieste.” How Tennyson’s poetic gifts survived domestic tempests and the loss of his adored friend, as well as his subsequent wandering, aimless life down to 1850, is a mystery that the first volume of this long awaited collection of his letters, in which many family documents are published for the first time, cannot answer. And while a much larger volume, published coincidentally with this—Jack Kolb’s Letters of Arthur Henry Hallam (Ohio State, 1981)—throws much light on the brief life of that golden boy of Trinity College, Cambridge, who most people were convinced would end up as prime minister, it adds only incidental, though often valuable, details to our knowledge of the friendship commemorated in In Memoriam.
The sensational popularity of the poem when it was published in 1850 was one event of the three in that wonderfully compensatory year which marked the turn of Tennyson’s fortunes, the other two being his long delayed marriage and his succeeding Wordsworth as poet laureate. This is the point at which the first volume of the Tennyson letters ends. A third book continues the narrative in a fashion: James Hoge’s edition of Emily Tennyson’s journal, begun just after her marriage and maintained until her near-fatal collapse 24 years later. As Lang and Shannon say, “Opinion varies astonishingly as to her suitability to be Tennyson’s wife, though one thing seems clear—she was playing no role. She was herself. She seems to have been either the worst wife possible, or the best wife possible, or both.” To which one might add with equal certainty, in neither spirit nor intellect was she a Jane Carlyle or an Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Devoted to her husband “Ally” she assuredly was. She acted as his amanuensis and handled much of his correspondence (deftly imitating his signature), but of this role we learn little. More typically we see her, a woman whom her contemporaries would have described as having a delicate constitution, being hauled by her husband across the lawn at Farringford and down the country lanes in her wheeled garden chair. Running a household that was always entertaining guests must have occupied much of her time. Scores of men and women with the best social, intellectual, and artistic credentials come and go—people like Edward Lear and Benjamin Jowett are forever checking in or out—but we never see them. All seem to be stamped from the same pattern, because the only word Emily uses to describe them, and she uses it with deadening regularity, is “kind.” For all we discover to the contrary, the Tennyson circle was composed wholly of swans, with not a single goose in sight.
Otherwise, the journal consists mainly of notes on the weather, the seasonal flowers, and gratifications and anxieties relating to their two boys, who appear to have had more than their share of school troubles and illnesses. Their cute sayings are dotingly recorded: “Lionel seeing a thick column of smoke go straight up says, “how smoky God will be!”“, and when Emily tells Hallam that, unlike twins, he and his brother and their parents came into the world separately, “he indignantly replied, . . .not you, you came down from Heaven with Papa.” Their conduct in church is less favorably received: “I could scarcely restrain Hallam from dancing during the sermon & he was continually asking me, “What does that mean?”—repeating the words. One day he wanted to know if the man were a soldier or a policeman for he talked about punishing him.” Tennyson, year in and year out, persists in offering to read Maud in his deep booming voice to the company around the fireside, or, when he and his wife are alone, reads aloud from Juvenal, Shakespeare, a philosophical or scientific treatise, or the latest issue of a review. He does household chores such as painting the floor of the summer house; he is eternally solicitous for her comfort; sometimes he goes off to London, to see his publisher or his dentist, attend a meeting of the Metaphysical Society, and (one cannot help suspecting) enjoy a brief release from oppressive domesticity.
“When I think what he was between twenty & thirty in face & form I can scarcely imagine anything more glorious in human form,” Emily writes 18 years after their marriage. Given such a bias, it is not surprising that nowhere do we see the man so admirably portrayed in Robert B. Martin’s relentlessly candid biography, Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart (1980), grumpily, gauchely shambling his way through life, forever smoking his blackened short pipe and polluting the air with what his friends agreed was an unholy stink. But we do not see him, either, in his letters; his was not the sort of personality that is apt to be revealed in intimate correspondence. The Tennyson his friends knew was so singular a character, gaunt countrifiedness, dirty shirt, abrupt manner, muddy feet on the sofa and all, as to warrant someone’s putting together an anthology of anecdotes called Tales of the Bard, a delectable composite portrait such as Simon Nowell-Smith compiled in 1948 under the title The Legend of the Master, from the testimony of those who knew a very different sort of individualist, Henry James.
The appearance of the new edition of Tennyson’s letters (not only “new” but actually, hard as it is to believe, the first ever) is a further milestone in the recently accelerated progress of Tennysonian studies. Like Hoge’s edition of the journal and Kolb’s Hallam letters, it exemplifies modern editorial scholarship at its best. All three volumes are equipped with an efficient apparatus of explanatory notes, and the editors of the Tennyson letters contribute to their pages, in addition to their exhaustive knowledge of the minutiae relating to their subject, a suavity and dry wit that compel the reader to attend to every sentence of the 23-page introduction and every footnote, lest he miss a well-turned throwaway line.
But both Tennyson volumes are bound to disappoint those who have expected to see the poet from new angles, in new situations, in sharper focus. The fact is that much of their material is already well-known, either through Hallam Tennyson’s selective and frequently misleading use of it in his Memoir of his father (1897) or through Sir Charles Tennyson’s and R. B. Martin’s more reliable biographies. Some of the best things in the Letters have long been part of the legend. James Spedding reports to Monckton Milnes, “Yesterday I dined with Alfred Tennyson at the Cock Tavern, Temple Bar. We had two chops, one pickle, two cheeses, one pint of stout, one pint of port, and three cigars. When we had finished I had to take his regrets to the Kembles; he could not go because he had the influenza.” In a sadly damaged letter whose holograph text the editors salvaged “with the aid of enlarged photographs, infra-red photography, prolonged, intense scrutiny with fluorescent and ultra-violet lamps of several frequencies, plundering of other FitzGerald letters, intuition, outside help and occasionally pure guesswork,” Edward FitzGerald writes, “Dear Tennyson, though I am no Rothschild, my wants are fewer than my monies; and I have usually some ten or twelve pounds sitting very loosely in my breeches pocket. . . I could not have a greater pleasure than transferring it to you. . . .” FitzGerald again (to another correspondent): “Tennyson is emerged half-cured, or half-destroyed, from a water establishment; has gone to a new Doctor who gives him iron pills; and altogether this really great man thinks more about his bowels and nerves than about the Laureate wreath he was born to inherit.” It is pleasant to meet such significant trifles again, but they are not new finds.
The importance of Emily’s domestic journal as biographical evidence is diminished by the fact that we have it, not as she originally wrote it, but as she drastically condensed it for Hallam to use in the Memoir, recopying illegible passages and, as her eyesight failed, dictating revisions to Hallam’s wife. As Hoge says, “one would suppose that she deleted certain items of highly personal material preserved in her antecedent diaries.” Such a loss may have spelled the difference between a genuinely important document and the existing innocuous compilation of domestic trivia.
Lang and Shannon make no extravagant claims for Tennyson as a letter writer. “Individually or collectively,” they concede, the letters “are in no sense literary—they do not characteristically discuss his reading, they are not carefully constructed compositions, they do not often deal with poetry. They reveal no aesthetic creed, no theory of poetry, they conduct no inquiry into the sources of inspiration, they offer no observations or insights that we recognize, gratefully, as the germ of a poem, no speculative delving into the mystery of the creative process, and no hieratic claims for the role of the poet, or of poetry, in society.” Tennyson no more wore the badge of Poet on his epistolary sleeve than Browning did. In moving with him through what were arguably the richest years of his life as lyric poet, we are unaware, except for the occasional footnotes, that he is creating from time to time the “short swallow-flights of song” that will eventually become In Memoriam, or that he publishes, in 1842, the two-volume collection which includes not only the skillfully revised “Lady of Shalott,” “Oenone,” and “Palace of Art” but such notable new poems as “Morte d’Arthur,” “Ulysses,” “Locksley Hall,” and “The Vision of Sin.” The printed documents simply have nothing to do with this crucial event in Tennyson’s career as well as in the history of English poetry.
Both volumes pay the inevitable penalty for the frequent destruction and mutilation that marks the history of Tennyson-related papers. Not a single letter from Tennyson to Hallam is extant, though it is this which, of all Tennysonian correspondences, we would most wish to have been preserved. The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson is itself something of a misnomer. Only about 60 percent of the letters in the volume are from his pen; they are mostly short, and many are mere excerpts, already available in the Memoir, from destroyed originals. The rest are letters written by relatives during those troubled years of his adolescence and young manhood, and later by friends whose testimony fills out the record as Tennyson’s fortunes begin to prosper.
For many years we have looked forward to the publication of Tennyson’s letters; now we are getting them (two more volumes are to come). But both the letters and Emily’s journal, welcome and respected though such products of research undoubtedly are, suggest a quandary by no means unknown elsewhere in contemporary literary scholarship. What kind of balance should be struck between necessity and superfluity? The editors have done their work on the highest level of responsibility, and it is unlikely that it will ever have to be done over. But such contributions to knowledge as their books contain do not amount to fresh information of any consequence. They consist instead of numerous small details which may make the biographical record a trifle neater and fuller but which do not deepen our understanding either of the poet or of his poetry. Literary scholarship is not exempt from the law of diminishing returns.