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Written with great learning and unusual grace, it will spur new interest in a poet who has much to say to our own contemporaries. George Clayton Tennyson, the eldest son, had been forced into the Church against his will after his father decided to make his youngest son, Charles his heir.
After the loss of Hallam, Tennyson became infatuated with Rosa Baring of Harrington Hall, a rich, haughty, trifling woman, whose rejection led him to write his great dramatic monologue (1855), than which there is no poem in the language more rich and strange.
(That the monologue should have ended with his deranged hero speaking of “The blood-red blossom of war with a heart of fire” must have given the poets of the Great War an eerie shudder.) When he married Emily Sellwood, another Somersby woman, who would become his agent, muse, and secretary, he made an inspired choice, though one observer was convinced that she immured him in “the sultry, perfumed atmosphere of luxury and homage…” Drawing on Ann Thwaite’s marvelous biography of Emily, Batchelor paints a lively portrait of this devout, talented, enterprising woman.
The son of the Whig historian Henry Hallam, Arthur was handsome, brilliant, and a budding poet in his own right.
That he saw his young friend’s genius from the start gave Tennyson precisely the confidence he needed to turn his considerable talents to account.
Indeed, as Batchelor shows, it was Hallam who arranged publication for Tennyson’s first two books, which included such classic poems as “Mariana,” “The Kraken,” “The Lady of Shalott,” “The Lotos-Eaters,” and “A Dream of Fair Women.” Considering Tennyson’s auspicious debut, it is easy to see why the young poet was so attached to his friend: Hallam helped Tennyson become Tennyson.
But then Hallam died suddenly in 1833 of apoplexy while visiting Vienna, and Tennyson was shattered.Still, he never ceased to take his father’s part against his paternal grandfather and uncle, both of whom disdained the Somersby Tennysons.Moreover, the distress that the patriarchal dispossession caused Tennyson’s mother, Elizabeth and his other siblings drove him to join “the men of many acres” whom he otherwise despised.When Hallam’s father asked for a reminiscence, the poet replied that he had “attempted to draw up a memoir of his life and character, but I failed to do him justice.I hope to be able at a future period to concentrate whatever powers I may possess on the construction of some tribute …” Seventeen years later, the poet released (1850), a collection of 133 lyrics, which, taken together, constitute his far-ranging meditation on the meaning not only of his friend’s life and death, but of his entire age’s preoccupation with what Newman called the “great .” For James Knowles, the founder of the Metaphysical Society and a good friend of Tennyson, the poem, confronting as it did the desolation of unbelief, “was the cry of the whole human race.” That two of the most eminent of Victorians—the Queen herself and Benjamin Disraeli—had a special attachment to the poem underscored the deep chord it struck with Tennyson’s contemporaries.Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying, Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.Later, as an older man, on the Isle of Wight, where he would live with his wife and two sons in his sequestered Farringford, he summoned the theme to honor his old friend and neighbor, Sir John Simeon, who was also a good friend of Cardinal Newman.The smallness and emptiness of life sometimes overwhelmed me.” For anyone intent on making poetry his life’s work, this was useful misery. “The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him.At that point, he’s in business…” After attending Louth Grammar School, Tennyson went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he joined the Apostles and met the dazzling Etonian, Arthur Hallam, whose friendship and support would be crucial to his development as a poet.Then, again, another brother would always introduce himself to guests by declaring, “Hello, I am Septimus: I am the morbid Tennyson.” As for Tennyson himself, he not only feared madness but longed for death.As his wife told his son Hallam when engaged in writing his father’s biography, Tennyson, terrified of his father’s rages, often ‘went out through the black night, and threw himself on a grave in the churchyard, praying to be beneath the sod himself.” Then, again, the poet confessed that “In my youth I knew much greater unhappiness than I have known in later life.