Magazine article The Spectator

The Most Inscrutable of Poets

Magazine article The Spectator

The Most Inscrutable of Poets

Article excerpt

Tennyson: To Strive, To Seek, To Find by John Batchelor Chatto, £25, pp. 429, ISBN 9780701180584 Where our great Victorian writers are concerned we live in an age of rolling biography and contradictory interpretation. I've read half a dozen lives of the poet since picking up, as a schoolboy, the Penguin paperback of Harold Nicolson's Tennyson:

Aspects of his Life, Character and Poetry, with its diagnosis of a crippling case of Victorian timidity: 'Tennyson was afraid of death and sex and God.' I got the point, and read In Memoriam with knowing condescension. Case settled.

But not for long. Since then there have been biographies which have focused, by way of explanation, on the 'black blood' running through the Tennyson family; the traumatic domestic regime imposed by the poet's dipsomaniac clergyman father; morbid fear of epilepsy and/or venereal disease; addiction to opium and/or alcohol; psycho-sexual hysteria on being rejected by his true-love Rosa Baring; suppressed homosexuality;

furtive homosexual practice; incestuous desire for his sister Emily; excessive masturbation. The list goes on, each producing a different Tennyson. It's come to resemble something of a biographical freak show.

The wildly incompatible explanations of his life-long melancholy, intermittent decades-long paralyses and personal oddities would seem to bear out Tennyson's defiant challenge to any would-be biographer:

Vex not thou the poet's mind For thou canst not fathom it Privacy was his obsession. He wished that, like the Queen (his neighbour on the Isle of Wight), he could have a man with a loaded rifle at his gate. His principal requirement in any of the many houses he occupied was that they be impregnable to any droppers-by. Biographers he regarded as 'ghouls'. Peter Levi, in his 1993 life of the poet, sees one overriding fear darkening Tennyson's last decades: 'He felt he would be ripped open like a pig by biographers.'

The poet's son and grandson dutifully forestalled any such ripping with defensive biographies which erected more fences than they pulled down. Three-quarters of his 40,000 surviving letters were destroyed by the estate, loyal to his wishes. 'Of Tennyson's sexual life we know nothing, ' lament the editors of the three slim volumes that make up the collected Letters. One can only speculate about what went up in flames - and speculate the biographers certainly have.

The virtue of John Batchelor's new life is its cool inspection of the known facts and its refusal to conjecture beyond them.

He faithfully depicts the grotesque domestic world in which Alfred, one of a dozen children, was brought up, but sees him as a survivor, not a life-long casualty, of that Somersby madhouse. …

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