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First volume of Tennyson's letters reads like a Jane Austen novel; The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson. Volume I: 1821-1850, edited by Cecil Y. Lang and Edgar F. Shannon Jr. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 404 pp. $30.

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This volume is the first in an edition of three, and it represents no mean literary feat. Lang and Shannon, professors of English at the University of Virginia, have organized this prodigious edition around those few extant bits and pieces penned by a poet ''who would as soon kill a pig as write a letter.'' In it, they have created a work as sparkling and witty as a Jane Austen novel. They observe the strict methodology required of a scholarly work, but vitality never succumbs to the abstruse, nor good humor to solemnity.

Volume I covers the poet's life from his youth in a country parsonage, where he was the fourth in a tribe of 12 children of a brilliant but violently embittered and alcoholic rector, to 1850, the year that saw publication of ''In Memoriam,'' as well as his marriage after a 14-year engagement, and his elevation to poet laureate.

As it turns out, Tennyson had an admitted distaste for the epistolary form. His letters routinely begin with the transparent excuses and apologies familiar to all delinquent correspondents - cries of postal inefficiency, accounts of immobilizing illnesses, untimely accidents, and letters gone astray. Many of the letters he did write were deliberately destroyed by his son and first biographer , Hallam. As a result, fewer than 250 letters (including fragments) written in his first 40 years, the period covered in this volume, have been located.

In a leap of scholarly originality and inspired editing, Lang and Shannon have assembled about these bare bones the flesh and blood of other letters - those of relations, friends, and business associates. The world around him teems with a Dickensian diversity, and it is rendered with the nice phrasings and attention to absurdities Jane Austen immortalized.

Consider this cast of characters, as presented in the book's Introduction, in a discussion of Hallam Tennyson's shortcomings as his father's biographer:


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