…I have tried to confront greatness directly: to ask what makes the author and the works canonical. The answer, more often than not, has turned out to be strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange. Walter Pater defined Romanticism as adding strangeness to beauty, but I think he characterized all canonical writing rather than the Romantics as such.—Harold Bloom, The Western Canon
We wade into treacherous currents when we take up the canon, canon bashing being a fashionable pursuit within what Bloom calls the School of Resentment: too white, too male, too dead. By all means let us celebrate greatness wherever it may be found. The loss is ours when greatness is marginalized, forgotten, or never known, whether out of bias, ignorance, or benign neglect. It does not follow, though, that all who are excluded belong, no more than that we would be well served by consigning the canon to the waste bin of history alongside patriarchy, slavery, and the like.
The canon is not writ in a password-protected, read-only document, much less stone. Standards and authority on which canonical status rests are fodder for debate and disputation. That is the character of the intellectual adventure. It is fine to ask, and to ask indignantly, Who made Harold Bloom, or Helen Vendler or Frank Kermode or Camille Paglia or Kenneth Rexroth, the arbiter? No one did, of course. What authority they have is by dint of the persuasiveness of their thinking on these matters, thinking that comes from a love of literature and life devoted to reading and study, not that we are compelled to buy wholesale whatever they may be peddling. In the end we make our own critical judgment and choices, having read as widely and thought as well as we are able, aware that our knowing is always partial and inadequate.
I have not much interest in argument about whether a particular individual belongs in or out of the canon, nor in rankings, lists of top ten, twenty-five, one hundred poets, novelists, baseball players, what have you. There is a core around which general consensus may be found, allowing for curmudgeonly exception, while at the edges membership tends to be more contentious. Among other things the canon is a compendium of writers whom I might find it worth my while to check out. There is not time enough in our lives to read everything we want to read, much less devote serious study to what merits it. We must pick and choose on the basis of something. The canon is one basis. People whom I have read, whose opinions I respect and thinking I find persuasive, consider these writers and their works to comprise the best that has been thought and said, to borrow Matthew Arnold’s phrase. This does not mean that I must have the same regard for a particular writer as Bloom or Paglia or Rexroth, nor that they are the final word on the best that has been thought and said. The canon is simply a good place to begin. We can take up the argument from there.
So, Tennyson. No doubt I read something of Tennyson in school and smatterings after, although none of it comes to mind as having made any impression until a chance encounter last winter with the concluding lines of “Ulysses” quoted in a mystery novel (Matthew Pearl, The Dante Club):
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are, —
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
I was moved to commit the passage to memory and turned to the poem, where Ulysses has handed his kingdom over to his son and is exhorting his old pals to set off with him on one last adventure. Acknowledgement that time demands its toll on us, utterly at odds with contemporary American sensibility, is coupled with refusal to give in. Made weak by time and fate, we remain strong in will. That which we are, we are. The sentiment is all the more potent for being expressed with the lyricism for which Tennyson is noted and in some eyes unsurpassed among English poets. He is sufficiently well ensconced in the canon for me to wonder if I might be missing something. Bloom puts him the most accomplished English poet since Milton and Pope, while T.S. Eliot finds in Tennyson “three qualities which are seldom found together except in the greatest poets: abundance, variety, and complete competence…. He had the finest ear of any English poet since Milton.”
Thus was born the Tennyson project, not that I had need of another project. The dining room table is a mess of projects in progress and assorted states of dissolution and partial abandonment: Being and Time, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, and Aristotle’s Rhetoric for the Heidegger project; the Beckett letters; the Corso letters; the notebooks and journals that chronicle desperate attempts to rekindle a poetic spirit all but destroyed by what must be done to earn a living. An excursion to Powell’s turned up Robert Bernard Martin’s biography Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart and the Norton Critical Edition of the poems. To date I have read several shorter poems and am slogging through “In Memoriam,” not much taken with any of it apart from “Ulysses.” Of the poems, more anon. The life is another matter.
Alfred (1809–1892) was the fourth son of twelve children, the first of whom died in infancy, and was followed by four more boys and four girls in the family of George Tennyson, an embittered provincial clergyman, and Elizabeth, “easy-going, unworried by details, and more than a little feckless about running the household.” Martin refers to “their disastrous life together” (p. 15). George was forced by his father, also George, into the clergy by way of profession. The elder George was an old tyrant whose correspondence reflects “three recurrent concerns: money, filial ingratitude and disobedience, and health” (Martin, p. 8). He never cared for his first-born son and namesake, depriving him of what would have been his due as elder son by making the younger Charles his major heir.
Dysfunctional is hardly an adequate description for the Tennyson clan, a collection of alcoholics and opium addicts, poseurs and pretenders to nobility, misfits and layabouts afflicted by epilepsy and gout, hypochondria, and varieties of lunacy, to which Alfred was not exactly an exception. His great-grandfather married a woman from a well-do-do family of aristocratic origins and a legacy of “aberrant mentality” (Martin, p. 2) that would be passed down accordingly. Alfred’s grandfather did well for himself by way of connections from his mother’s family, acting as agent or legal adviser to big landholders in the county. Much to his father’s disappointment, the younger George married a beautiful woman with no money. He drank heavily, threatened his wife and children with physical harm, was subject to delusion and black depression, and became increasingly unstable with the passing years. This was the poet’s heritage.
Tennyson was educated at Cambridge, matriculated at any rate, for though intelligent he showed little more interest in his studies and making his way in the world than had his father. As poet though, he was precocious from an young age, and with his brother Charles, not without talent himself, in 1827 published a collection titled Poems by Two Brothers. He soon impressed his circle at Cambridge with his talent. That circle included Arthur Henry Hallam, the great friend of Tennyson’s youth, who himself impressed everyone as the most brilliant of the group.
While determined that poetry was his career, the only occupation to which he was ever inclined, young Tennyson was generally indifferent to publication. A thin skin for criticism and anxiety about rejection had something to do with this, as did a tendency to indolence that ran in the family. Encouraged by Hallam and friends, who readily proclaimed his genius, Tennyson put out Poems, Chiefly Lyrical in 1830 and Poems in 1832, albeit after hedging and procrastination. Neither volume produced much by way of sales, the latter earning only vicious criticism from the likes of Edward Bulwer (later Bulwer-Lytton) and the Quarterly Review‘s John Wilson Croker, infamous for his brutal review of Keats’s “Endymion” two decades earlier.
Nonetheless, Tennyson early on acquired a reputation as an up-and-coming poet. It was an era when eminent people traveled in the same or least concentric circles. Among friends and acquaintances were numbered some of the leading lights of the day, Edward Fitzgerald, Thomas Carlyle, Robert Browning, Hallam’s friend William Gladstone, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Makepeace Thackeray. Tennyson met Wordsworth and was acknowledged by him as the premier poet of his era.
His was something of a vagabond existence during the 1830s, what was described as “a kind of genteel vagrancy” (Martin, p. 288), crashing with friends, sprawled on chair or sofa, feet propped up on the furniture, indifferent to decorum, incessantly smoking the cheapest and foulest tobacco from a dirty little pipe. While not well off at this time, Tennyson was by no means as impoverished as he seems to have thought himself using his wealthy friends as a measure. He received an annual gift of £100 from an aunt and in 1843 Fitzgerald began giving him £300 annually. Martin writes,
Apparently it never occurred seriously to Tennyson that he might take any employment, although Carlyle and Fitz were constantly assuring him that his poetry would be vastly improved if he had some other occupation. An argument on the point would have been graceless at best while accepting Fitz’s help, but it was hard to swallow the advice from a man like FitzGerald who had never done a day’s work in his life.
At the bottom of a common attitude like that of Carlyle and FitzGerald lay a covert disbelief in the value of poetry, an assumption that it could occupy no more than a segment of the mind of a reasonable man. Because he was physically, and sometimes intellectually, slothful, Tennyson was constantly being confronted by those who thought he would be better occupied by taking more conventional employment and leaving his poetry for hours of leisure. Had he taken the advice of such counsellors, Tennyson would never have written any more poetry, for with him it was the whole concentration of a life or it was nothing. (Martin, p. 270)
Although priggish and puritanical in matters of sex, Tennyson was to a degree dissolute in other respects. He smoked prodigiously, a habit frequently commented on, and by 1835 he was drinking more than was prudent, as Martin has it, and did so until near the end of his life when he gave up port because of his gout. Friends remarked that Tennyson found alcohol necessary; “[Coventry] Patmore said that he needed at least a bottle of port daily for stimulation, although he was not particular about its quality but simply bought whatever was available at the nearest public house.” (Martin, p. 321)
Fitzgerald once wrote that “Alfred Tennyson has written to announce that he will pay me a visit here: and I have written back to stipulate that it shall be a very short one.” He offers this description from 1840:
When I got back to my lodgings, I found A. Tennyson installed in them: he has been here ever since in a very uneasy state: being really ill, in a nervous way: what with an hereditary tenderness of nerve, and having spoiled what strength he had by incessant smoking &c.—I have also made him very out of sorts by desiring a truce from complaints and complaining—Poor fellow: he is quite magnanimous, and noble natured, with no meanness or vanity or affectation of any kind whatever—but very perverse, according to the nature of his illness—So much for Poets, who, one must allow, are many of them a somewhat tetchy race—. (Martin, p. 250)
Another sketch comes from Carlyle, describing the poet for Emerson:
One of the finest looking men in the world, a great shock of rough dusty-dark hair; bright-laughing hazel eyes; massive aquiline face, most massive yet most delicate, of sallow brown complexion, almost Indian-looking; clothes cynically loose, free-and-easy;—smokes infinite tobacco. His voice is musical metallic,—fit for loud laughter and piercing wail, and all that may lie between; speech and speculation free and plenteous: I do not meet, in these late decades, such company over a pipe!—We shall see what he will grow to. He is often unwell; very chaotic,—his way is thro’ Chaos and the Bottomless and Pathless; not handy for making out many miles upon. (Martin, p. 242)
As it was, fortune turned for Alfred in middle age. In 1850 marriage followed fast on the heels of the publication of In Memoriam, his elegies for Hallam, each event a resounding success, bringing with it family, celebration as England’s greatest living poet, the poet laureateship.
Eliot had it that Tennyson was one of those poets that crop up now and then who “by some strange accident expresses the mood of his generation, at the same time that he is expressing a mood of his own which is quite removed from that of his generation.” Perhaps my temper is just not in tune with the temper of Tennyson or of his generation, and never with Eliot. Tennyson made friends and favorable impressions readily. While his family history and circumstances make for good reading and the circles within which he traveled are noteworthy, he does not strike me as particularly intriguing personally, intellectually, or as poet. I am surprised that I do not feel greater sympathy for a man so determined to devote his life to his calling as poet. I would think that would be right up my alley. Maybe the life would hold more for me if the poems held more—and vice versa. As it stands, the project is worth taking on but not delving into much more deeply unless I happen on in the poems something of Bloom’s strangeness that I have not found thus far. I remain open to the possibility.
Harold Bloom, The Western Canon. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994.
T.S. Eliot, “In Memoriam,” in Tennyson’s Poetry. W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.
Robert Bernard Martin, Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart. faber and faber, 1983.