BOOK REVIEW / In mine age the owls, after death the ghouls: A S Byatt on Peter Levi's sympathetic consideration of the life and works of Tennyson. 'Tennyson' - Peter Levi: Macmillan, 20 pounds

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PETER LEVI'S biography of Tennyson has two great virtues. It is a biography of the poet and it convinces its reader that the biographer knows and likes his subject. Levi is himself a poet and a classicist, and he puts Tennyson's reading and writing, and his own lively response to these, where they ought to be, at the centre of his book. He is concerned neither with psychoanalysis nor with investigative intimacies, although he is shrewd and imaginative. His Tennyson is much less odd, portentous and tortured than previous ones. He claims to have found Tennyson more sympathetic than did some of his predecessors, and this sympathy makes his book a pleasure to read.

He sees the life through the poems, and depicts the life in the crowded Lincolnshire rectory of Tennyson's childhood across the classical learning of the Rector, the civilised poetry-writing of the whole gifted family, and the gloomy, Hell-ridden religion that gave rise to Tennyson's youthful poems about sin and devils. Tennyson's miserable schooldays were also the time when he discovered Ovid's phrase 'Sonus desilientis aquae' (the sound of water leaping downwards) which Levi traces through his later writings. I have never seen a better account than Levi's of just why Tennyson's renderings of classical metres into English are so much more satisfactory than anyone else's.

Levi follows Tennyson through Cambridge, the terrible death of Arthur Hallam, the madness and drug-addiction of various brothers, near-bankruptcy, belated marriage, laureateship, ennoblement, lionisation, monied security, the death of his son, sudden old age, and death. He makes little of things that others have made much of - possible epilepsy, Tennyson's early flirtation with Rosa Baring, hydrotherapy. He offers a new and entirely plausible reason for the fact that Tennyson married so late. He first met Emily Sellwood in 1830 and married her only in 1849. Levi points out that Tennyson's brother Charles had married Emily's sister, Louisa, in 1836 and had then become an opium addict. Louisa had a breakdown after his cure, and Tennyson was married shortly after that household was respectably re-established after these disasters.

Some minor characters in the story are more strongly drawn than others. Hallam, about whom much is now known since the publication of his letters and writings, remains shadowy, and Levi is inclined to play down the effect of his death. He is good on the general atmosphere of the early Cambridge Apostles, of whom he writes engagingly: 'I am not sure whether his generation or the Apostles within it were as amazing or important as has sometimes been said: I believe that they were.' The character he brings to life out of these friends is James Spedding, whose wit he finds congenial, and who became Tennyson's friend after Hallam's death.

He quotes an irresistible witticism of Spedding about another later friend, Edward Fitzgerald, homosexual, eccentric and author of the Rubaiyat: 'Half the self-sacrifice, the self-denial, the moral resolution, which he exercises to keep himself easy, would amply furnish forth a martyr or a missionary. His tranquillity is like a pirated copy of the peace of God.'

Levi's depiction of the poet himself strikes a good balance between the complex private thinker - he is good on his self-education in languages and sciences - the devoted family man, the self-protecting innocent, and the blandly farcical. Levi tells the story of the young lady at a garden party who was 'horrified when he rushed away from her complaining of the creaking of her stays, but then he came back and apologised, saying that his own braces were to blame'. Levi comments: 'Farce flourished around him because of his vast ungainly presence, but also because he relished farce, not because he was spoiled or had his head turned.'

Levi parts company from his subject during Tennyson's attempt to be a dramatist, of which he remarks, after describing Lionel Tennyson's embarrassment at the poet's behaviour in a theatre box: 'It was an awful evening. Indeed, the entire episode of Tennyson and the theatre is awful.'

I think Levi pays too little attention to the devastating effect of the death of this son as a young man, as I think he underplays Hallam, but this is because he intuits the truth about Tennyson, that his head is full of poetry, and everything else comes after that. Levi writes about the poems from the inside and the outside - the choice of words and rhythms, the effects on modern readers, the final standing of the masterpieces and the misses and the perfect small pieces - with grace and constant illumination.

He understands by feeling what it meant for Tennyson to compose long poems in his head before writing them down, and one of his most surprising suggestions is that we should have had a quite different, more Virgilian epic about King Arthur if Tennyson had not been distressed by Sterling's harsh review in 1843 and lost much that was already formed in his head.

I particularly love Levi's summings-up of the great poems, which are both surprising and usually just. He says of the Idylls of the King that they were 'his lifework in a way, though in another way only as he said 'my hobby' '. Levi manages to describe the sense we have that they are 'dangerously easy to mock' and yet 'never fall to a disastrous level'.

His final description is his own yet Tennysonian: 'The moral of course is absurd, or at least remote from us, and the fundamental scheme does not work. And yet a certain formidable and beautiful presence does brood over the entire work, it comes and goes like a marsh-light.'

Of In Memoriam, which he considers Tennyson's masterpiece, he writes that in inventing its repetitive lyric form 'he tapped his own deepest emotions, fused the intimate with the monumental, and set them free'. He makes too much of the apparent formlessness and unevenness of that poem. I have been reading it for over 30 years, and each time it seems more powerful, more complex, more coherent, and less conventional. But he sees its greatness as he sees both the greatness and innovatory power of the 'Morte d'Arthur' and 'Ulysses'. He is surprisingly interesting on the huge cultural power of the 'Charge of the Light Brigade', which changed a nation's memories of a war, and of 'Locksley Hall Sixty Years After' and its focused social anger. He quotes one of Tennyson's epigrams:

In my youth the grewls,

In mine age the owls,

After death the ghouls

and adds: 'He felt he would be ripped open like a pig by biographers (a recurring theme in his conversation).'

As biographers go Levi is benign and humane. There are things he misses and seems happy to miss. He confesses to not having come to grips with Hallam Tennyson's collection of his father's gruesome anecdotes, for instance. Scholars will still need Bernard Martin's standard biography, Hallam Tennyson's enthralling memoir, and Sir Charles Tennyson's collections of Tennysoniana to get the feel of the poet's life. But Levi's account is written with the ear of one poet hearing the true power and achievement of another poet's words and rhythms, which is both rare and valuable.

(Photograph omitted)