Tennyson: To strive, to seek, to find by John Batchelor

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Tennyson: To strive, to seek, to find by John Batchelor

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Poet Laureate for much of the Victorian era
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 422 Date: December 2014
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9781845950767

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Most readers, if they were asked to name the ultimate poet of the Victorian age, would almost surely choose Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He was Poet Laureate for over forty years of Queen Victoria’s reign, and inevitably her favourite versifier.

Taking a phrase from the poem Ulysses as the sub-title, Batchelor presents a thorough cradle-to-grave study of the man. In the Preface he calls his subject ‘stronger, more self-reliant, more businesslike, tougher and more centrally Victorian than previous biographies have displayed’. He was born in 1809, the third son of a Lincolnshire parson. The family grew up in the shadow of a father who drank heavily and was subject to depression, and perhaps as a result Tennyson seems to have been imbued with a lifelong sense of melancholy.

While he was a student at Cambridge he befriended a fellow writer, Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly of a cerebral haemorrhage and whose death had a profound effect on him, inspiring the work In Memoriam A.H.H., generally regarded as his masterpiece. It comes as something of a surprise to learn that Tennyson had written most of the great verse on which his reputation rests by the time he became Poet Laureate in 1850.

For the rest of his life, it appears, he conscientiously turned out ‘official poems’ as required, but apart from the oft-quoted ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, never really wrote anything which measured up to the standards of his earlier output. Nevertheless he remained popular, with every volume selling well to an eager public. At the age of 65 he also turned his hand to writing historical plays, possibly seeing himself as another Shakespeare. By this time, as he put it with some dismay, he had become something of ‘a national monument’, and could probably do little wrong. But although dramas such as ‘Queen Mary’ and ‘Becket’ were performed on stage, they evidently met with little success or enthusiasm from others and are scarcely remembered today.

It is certainly hard to argue with the author’s contention that Tennyson was ‘centrally Victorian’. He had regular audiences with the Queen, who took some comfort after the death of the Prince Consort in his verses for Hallam, telling the poet that next to the Bible, In Memoriam was ‘her comfort’. He received a visit from Garibaldi, the Italian liberator who visited England in 1864, came to call on him at Farringford, his home on the Isle of Wight, and planted a wellingtonia in his garden with some awkwardness as there was a high wind at the time. Both men had a conversation in the poet’s study but because of Garibaldi’s poor command of English, we are told that they struggled to understand each other. Six years later, he attended the funeral of Charles Dickens at Westminster Abbey in 1870, and others present lifted their children high above their shoulders so they could catch a glimpse of the great poet over the heads of the congregation.

The great man was also a conventional Victorian husband, a patriot, and not surprisingly a devoted royalist. Living to a ripe old age, he was a national hero by the time of his eightieth birthday. He was also a stern father to his two sons, and something of a domestic tyrant, or at least a not particularly sensitive husband. His devoted wife Emily eventually had a nervous breakdown after shouldering the burden of answering his correspondence for many years.

He did not relish the idea of having his life story written, noting to his friend Julia Margaret Cameron in middle age that ‘the desiring of anecdotes and the acquaintance with the lives of great men [treats] them like pigs to be ripped open for the public’. Therefore he might have derived some satisfaction from knowing that he was leaving succeeding generations of writers a hard task, although his son Hallam produced a memoir five years after his death, ‘to preclude the chance of further and inauthentic biographies’.

This is a painstakingly-researched account which tells us the story conscientiously and looks at his work in great detail, with frequent generous quotations from his poems as one would expect. While very readable, it is somewhat dry. The impression is that Tennyson was conventional and worthy to the point of dullness, and as such he is a difficult character for the present-day author to bring to life.

For the life of another contemporary Victorian author, may we also recommend Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation by Andrew Lycett

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Buy Tennyson: To strive, to seek, to find by John Batchelor at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Tennyson: To strive, to seek, to find by John Batchelor at Amazon.com.


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