Do people still read poetry aloud? In old novels, set during Christmastime, the long winter evenings were often devoted to singing songs around the piano, telling ghost stories and reciting poems, usually patriotic anthems, brokenhearted accounts of lost love or sad, stoic reflections on the passage of time.
Tennyson (1809-1892) — or, as he was always known in my youth, Alfred, Lord Tennyson — is probably the greatest and most versatile master of such public verse. His rousing “Charge of the Light Brigade” — “Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred”— and the soul-stirring “Ulysses” are classics that invite declamation. Tennyson’s Greek hero could be any Washingtonian who doesn’t want to retire: “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! / As tho’ to breathe were life.” More than one baby boomer, at a class reunion or memorial service, has used as his peroration the poem’s thrilling climax, beginning with “Come, my friends, / ’Tis not too late to seek a newer world,” then slowly building to its defiant final words:
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Surprisingly, Tennyson composed this paean to undaunted old age in 1833, when he was in his early 20s. As John Batchelor’s biography reveals, the poet was almost as much a prodigy as Keats. For example, his visionary poem “The Kraken” — about the legendary sea monster that lies somnolent on the ocean floor — was published in 1830. It concludes when this leviathan is finally awoken from its dreamless sleep by nothing less than the biblical apocalypse: “Then once by man and angels to be seen, / In roaring he shall rise . . . ”
Tennyson has always been admired, if only for the sheer musicality of his language and his astonishing metrical skill. To illustrate onomatopoeia — words that imitate the sounds they represent — handbooks of rhetoric often cite his lines from “The Princess”: “The moan of doves in immemorial elms / And the murmuring of innumerable bees.” These words move with a slow, summertime laziness, but Tennyson can be speedy too, as when Sir Bedivere — in “Morte d’Arthur” — finally resolves to obey his king’s command and cast the sword Excalibur back into the lake from which it came:
Then quickly rose Sir Bedivere, and ran,
And, leaping down the ridges lightly, plunged
Among the bulrush-beds, and clutch’d the sword,
And strongly wheel’d and threw it.
Isn’t that wonderful? To convey the inexorable, repetitive cycle of nature, “Tithonus” opens with a gentle singsong that segues into the autumnal music of its most famous line:
The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Yet this is just the beginning of this anguished soliloquy. Those who remember their classical myths know that the gods granted Tithonus eternal life but not eternal youth: “Me only cruel immortality / Consumes.”
Tennyson was, in many ways, a poet of loss. The early death of his close friend Arthur Hallam inspired his great elegiac sequence, “In Memoriam” (“Oh yet we trust that somehow good / Will be the final goal of ill”). When the wealthy Rosa Baring married a man of her own class, Tennyson memorialized his disappointment and anger in “Locksley Hall”: “Every door is barr’d with gold, and opens but to golden keys.” As Batchelor stresses, the poet had long felt he had been cheated of his proper inheritance by the whim of his grandfather, and never quite got over his resentment. Prey to depression, a restless wanderer in his youth, a dilatory lover (it took him years to finally decide to marry Emily Sellwood), he felt disenfranchised and yearned for success, recognition and honors. He eventually got them all, and wealth to boot.
Batchelor’s biography is painstaking in its detail, but Tennyson was really a rather dull dog. As anyone knows from Julia Margaret Cameron’s immortal photographs, he was magnificent to look at — a big man, with charismatic presence, shaggy-haired, bearded, with a liking for wide-brimmed hats — but he eschewed flamboyance and excess in his personal life. No Lord Byron he. Both shy and incredibly self-centered, he would alternately thrill and bore the other guests at dinner parties by reading aloud his latest long poem. Once he did this with his friend the classicist Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol, who listened gravely and then said, “I think I wouldn’t publish that, if I were you, Tennyson.” As Batchelor writes, after a moment of frigid silence, Tennyson answered, “If it comes to that, Master, the sherry you gave us at luncheon was beastly.”
Tennyson couldn’t bear criticism, sucked up flattery, relied on his pious wife to manage his affairs and regularly exploited the kindness of his friends. These last constitute a roll call of notable mid-Victorians, including nonsense poet Edward Lear, historian Thomas Carlyle, the great letter-writer Edward Fitzgerald, now remembered for his English version of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” and even, surprisingly, Robert Browning, whose rough vigor would attract 20th-century modernists far more than Tennyson’s polished smoothness. Yet long before then, Queen Victoria’s laureate had already begun to be regarded as primly official and school-mistressy, and his work little more than — in Batchelor’s phrase — “measured decorativeness,” despite its frequent obsession with religious doubt and Darwinism.
Tennyson’s last great sequence, “Idylls of the King,” proved a thing of shreds and patches, albeit packed with memorable lines: “My strength is as the strength of ten / Because my heart is pure.” Yet what runs through all his poetry and makes it so appealing, especially to the young, is his fascination with love and desire. Recall “Mariana” longing for the lover who will never come; the doomed “Lady of Shalott,” who has grown half sick of shadows; the protagonist of “Maud; A Monodrama,” who awaits his beloved at the garden gate: “The red rose cries, ‘She is near, she is near;’ / And the white rose weeps, ‘She is late.’ ”
For Tennyson, love could be “the honey of poison-flowers and all the measureless ill” or the tug of lust and adultery that destroys the noble brotherhood of the Round Table. Yet he can also declare, “ ’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all” and, in “Tears, Idle Tears,” achingly recollect first love and the memory of kisses “sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned / On lips that are for others.”
Batchelor’s “Tennyson” isn’t lively enough to be read purely for its own sake, unlike say, Richard Ellmann’s “Oscar
Wilde.” However, if you’re already an admirer of “Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white,” “Crossing the Bar” and some of the works mentioned above, this biography will tell you much about their author, his work and his world. But first spend some time — perhaps during this post-Christmas week — with Tennyson’s exquisite poetry itself.
Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.
To Strive, To Seek, To Find
By John Batchelor
Pegasus. 422 pp. $35