Tennyson: To Strive, To Seek, To Find by John Batchelor (Pegasus Books, 2013, 448 pages)
Sitting next to my desk, as it has for years now, is a plain 8 x 10 frame, and in that frame is a print-out of "Ulysses" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
I had loved this poem upon first encountering it, but something really clicked when I studied it in my Victorian Lit grad seminar several years ago. The timeless voice of the narrator, alternating between determination and resignation, is hypnotic and tender. The lyricism of the poem's shimmering imagery and melodious language made it what I like to call "memorization-worthy" (a high honor bestowed on few poems). What joy to be able to walk around with a poem like this in your head, and call it up at any time like a favorite piece of music!
Tennyson, then, has a special place in my heart. Several volumes of his poetry adorn my shelves. And now, wonderfully enough, I have a biography of the great poet to place next to them.
A biography is a complex animal. It is supposed to sum up a life and deliver it, metaphorically, with a neat little bow, into a reader's hands. But of course that's impossible. No life, especially not one as long and varied as Tennyson's, can be compressed between two covers. And yet, we want to know about the lives of great thinkers, writers, artists, musicians, and scientists. Possibly some childhood incident, or influence, or idea helped them become so great- we want REASONS. We also just love a good story.
Batchelor doesn't pretend to deliver the Entire Life of Tennyson, complete and unabridged, for no one could. Rather, he constructs a narrative out of what is known about Tennyson and weaves it together with literary analysis and historical-cultural context. We learn about Tennyson's troubled childhood, ultimately the result of a rift between his father and grandfather that was never healed. Tennyson's father's depression and violent outbreaks kept the family on edge for years. Young Alfred found solace in writing poetry and attending school with his older brothers, and ultimately realized that he could only be a poet. No other occupation could suit him.
From there, Batchelor leads us through the complicated and brilliant career of a poet who remained confident in his literary abilities but also eager and at times obsessively desirous of approval from friends and family. The untimely death of Tennyson's best friend, Arthur Hallam, marked a major turning-point in the poet's development, ultimately acting as a source for some of the most moving and beautiful poems in the English language, including, of course, In Memoriam A.H.H. and "Ulysses."
In the latter, we read that "all experience is an arch wherethro'/
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades/ For ever and forever
when I move." Tennyson himself never stopped moving- visiting friends, travelling around the British Isles and the continent, picking up experiences and sorting memories that would all find their way into his poetry. Like many brilliant creators, he seemed unkempt and shaggy, uninterested in presenting a polished, snappy surface. Indeed, he was too absorbed in the process of creation and the materials that he had to work with to bother with such niceties.
By moving between incidents in Tennyson's life and analysis of his poems, Batchelor can offer us important glimpses into the inner life of a brilliant, melancholy, reserved writer, one who deeply loved his wife and children and friends. We imagine that we understand Tennyson more after reading this biography, and that says a lot.