Rewarding Tennyson biographies also illuminate the Victorian era; Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart, by Robert Bernard Martin. New York: Oxford University Press. $25; The Tennyson Album: A Biography in Original Photographs, by Andrew Wheatcroft. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. $25
Alfred Tennyson intensely disliked the passion for biographies, which, he said, could be "connected with every crime and every vice in the world." He protected himself from public exposure by talking to his son Hallam every day for a decade about the proper tone and character Tennyson's own biography should present. In these two books, Robert Martin and Andrew Wheatcroft have revised the idealized portrait the younger Tennyson presented in the official biography of his father, looking much more deeply into the poet's turbulent nature, but these biographers have done so with considerable care and warmth.
In his comprehensive work, Professor Martin weaves newly researched, unpublished material into a portrait of a flawed but striking man, afraid of his family's "black blood," self-absorbed, terribly vulnerable to criticism, frequently callous to others, and yet capable of inspiring the most profound affection. We see Tennyson arriving unannounced at his friends' homes for a week's stay, disconcerting his own guests by reading his poetry aloud for two or more hours, and, during his later life, ignoring old and previously very dear companions.
Martin's numerous excerpts from letters reveal the interest and sympathy Tennyson aroused in spite of this behavior. Thomas Carlyle, the essayist and historian, described Tennyson as "one of the finest looking men in the world. A great shock of rough dusty-dark hair; bright-laughing hazel eyes; massive aquiline face. . . . His voice is musical metallic -- fit for loud laughter and piercing wail, and all that may lie between; speech and speculation free and plenteous . . . we shall see what he will grow to." Although Tennyson was eccentric and sometimes socially insensitive, his associates perceived his genius and found him to be excellent company.
Martin provides an intriguing view into Victorian society. Like Lillie Langtry, the celebrated beauty of "Masterpiece Theatre," Tennyson was surrounded by artists and aristocrats who were often devoted admirers and sometimes sharp critics. William Thackeray, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Prince Albert, and Queen Victoria were among his friends and hosts. Poets and statesmen mingled: One evening, after Poet-Laureate Tennyson and Prime Minister Gladstone had fought over foreign policy, they began a new battle over the precision of Tennyson's translation of "The Iliad." These gatherings were often meant to spark controversy: Carlyle remarked that if Christ Jesus and the Devil were both in London, Richard Monckton Milnes would invite them to dinner together.
Martin's biography swells with accounts of Tennyson's evenings in society, tales of his frequent travels abroad, and his long midnight walks through town. Unfortunately, such a wealth of information often makes the book seem jumbled and disorganized. Nevertheless, it is rewarding reading for those interested in Victorian society or its foremost poet.
Using the medium of original photographs, Andrew Wheatcroft also explores Tennyson's world. This well-designed and moving photo album traces the circumstances of Tennyson's childhood and deals compassionately with the poet's great loss, the death of his friend, Arthur Hallam, for whom he wrote the famous "In Memoriam." As well as Hallam, the album also includes portraits of those literary and political figures who became Tennyson's friends.
Wheatcroft is most successful at characterizing Tennyson's married life, which, according to a friend, soothed the poet's grief over Hallam and made him "far happier." The family portraits of his wife and sons, the stately houses, and their elegant gardens speak of the stability and comfort of this period of his life. Most striking, however, is Tennyson's expression in these later photos. His eyes are no longer bright and laughing; they are passionate and extremely stern -- perhaps reshaped by the difficult events of his life. This extraordinary expression is captured in several impressive late photographs, which themselves make Wheatcroft's capable and attractive book worthy of attention.
It is far from certain that Tennyson would have approved of these biographies , but clearly both investigate his character with skill, tact and affection.