BOOK REVIEW / You we'ant find his like: 'Tennyson' - Peter Levi: Macmillan, 20 pounds

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The Independent Culture
TENNYSON hated biographers, journalists and tourists. 'He would have wished,' said his friend Benjamin Jowett, 'that, like Shakespeare, his life might be unknown to posterity.'

However, people wrote about him constantly, providing a running commentary on his jokes, his smoking habits, his taste in food, as well as his marvellous poems. So there have been many biographies, beginning with his son Hallam's memoir in 1897, four years after the poet's death. Peter Levi, Tennyson's latest biographer, delayed writing his book until the 1990 publication of the final volume of Tennyson's letters, and he acknowledges his special debt to these and to Christopher Ricks's edition of the poems.

Tennyson was born at Somersby Rectory in Lincolnshire in 1809, the third of 12 children. His father was a bitter and reluctant parson, pushed into the church by his own father and eventually destroyed in a welter of alcohol and violence. Tennyson's mother loved animals; she travelled about the Lincolnshire lanes in a wheeled chair drawn by a Newfoundland dog; her children trooped around her, declaiming her own compositions as they went, or listening to her read from James Thomson and Mrs Hemans. They all wrote poetry - Alfred, Charles and Fred with distinction. By the age of 11, Alfred had filled a notebook with Latin elegiacs; when he was 18, he and his older brothers brought out a book of poems.

This degree of literary precocity was not unusual at that time, but the family themselves, as Levi admits, 'were extremely odd'. Their cook put it more strongly: 'If you raked out Hell with a small toothcomb, you we'ant find their likes.' A profound melancholy intermittently afflicted all of them, driving Edward to madness and permanent asylum at the age of 18, Septimus to serious depression, Charles to laudanum, and Arthur to drink. Yet they remained a strong family, and there are many glimpses of happy times: playing with Alfred's monkey; dancing through summer dusk to the music of Emily's harp; and tramping about the Lincolnshire landscape which always haunted Alfred, even though the family left the rectory at Somersby when he was in his late twenties.

At Cambridge, he made a wide circle of friends and won a poetry medal. Following the publication of Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, his reputation as a great poet began. His father died; he left Cambridge and brought out Poems, which was less well received. Then his dearest friend, Arthur Hallam, died, plunging him into agonised grief. He began to work on In Memoriam, his masterpiece, revising and rearranging and adding to it for almost 20 years. At the same time, he was writing Ulysses, Morte D'Arthur and other important poems. But he published nothing for 10 years. He was also now estranged from Lincolnshire. Though he wrote prolifically, his spirits remained low. By 1841, he was smoking his shag tobacco for 12 hours a day, using the edges of his manuscripts as spills, and drinking two bottles of port each evening.

Despite his elation at the great success, in 1842, of New and Revised Poems, his melancholy did not leave him. It was aggravated by financial anxieties. Aubrey De Vere observed that Tennyson 'will not be right until he has someone to love him exclusively'. This was not to happen until 1850, when his long-postponed wedding to Emily Sellbrook finally took place. 'The peace of God came into my life before the altar,' he said. In the same year, In Memoriam was published, and Tennyson was made Laureate. It was at a time when he had declared that he might have the greatest mastery of the language of any poet since Shakespeare. But he had nothing more to say.

Through 40 years of great domestic happiness, he continued to revise and improve earlier poems and did produce astonishing new work, notably Maud, whose sales enabled him to buy Farringford on the Isle of Wight. It is extraordinary to consider the enthusiasm of Victorian England for verse: even Enoch Arden sold 17,000 copies on its first day of publication. Tennyson enjoyed his Laureateship, but was obliged to write many dull poems on public affairs. Idylls of the King, once hugely popular, now seems a pre-Raphaelite embarrassment. 'Superlative lollipops,' said Carlyle; 'a huge botch,' says Levi. Yet his best poetry was as good as ever. No one has surpassed him as a poet of landscape or of grief; only Milton can rival the music of his language.

Peter Levi's enthusiasm informs and illuminates on every page. I particularly enjoyed his discussions of In Memoriam and Maud, and of Tennyson's inspired alterations, often consisting of one or two words only: the revision of 'the sweet narcissus' to 'the shining daffodil'; or 'after many a summer dies the swan', previously 'the rose'. The book is a triumph of condensing, for everything about Tennyson was huge - his family, his range of friends, his work, his intellectual curiosity, even his voice. The deep affection which infuses Levi's clear, genial, and witty prose cannot but involve the reader. I have never before finished reading a biography with such a sense of loss and grief:

Ah Christ, that it were possible

For one short hour to see

The souls we loved, that they might tell us

What and where they be.