The Pre-Eminent Victorian: A Study of Tennyson

By Joanna Richardson | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

'To get at him,' said Browning of Tennyson, 'there is always the oyster to open.' The statement (recorded by Alfred Domett) was true, for though few people were as publicized as Queen Victoria's Poet Laureate, few people had such a horror of publicity, and very few were so reticent by nature. Tennyson was that paradox, a reticent egotist. The poet who had a morbid dislike of sightseers and admirers took small pleasure in the prospect of biographers; and Hallam, his son, records that Tennyson enjoined him to let any documents speak for themselves in his Memoir, and to give as little commentary as possible. Tennyson would have been delighted if no Life of Tennyson had been written.

It seems, today, a strange act of piety and appreciation to keep silent about him; and, a century and a half after Tennyson's birth, we should know all we can about this great poet and this great Englishman. But though his son has left us a massive Memoir, his grandson an erudite and complete biography, though there are many books on many separate aspects of his work, one facet, strangely enough, remains in darkness. Tennyson was -- above all -- a Victorian. He was the friend and Laureate of the Queen, the friend of nearly all his eminent English contemporaries. He inspired their painting, sculpture and music, even their comic operas, certainly their poetry; he followed their theological feuds, recorded their scientific discoveries. He tried to influence their politics, he determined to set their moral standards. He reflected his age, and the great age in which he lived reflected him. Now that the Victorian era is distant enough to be history, now that it is not ridiculed, but respectfully considered, it seems time to recall Alfred Noyes's prediction in 1932:

The chief indictment that has been brought against Tennyson will, in fact, be the chief ground upon which he will be praised by posterity -- the fact that he did so completely sum up and express the great Victorian era in which he lived.

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