Compared with Peter Levi's learned, insightful Tennyson (p. 1370), Thorn's life of the poet is journalistic—a series of short, anecdotal chapters devoted to tableaux or gossip—and is, despite its fast pace, out of tune with the character and achievement of his subject. The Tennyson revealed by British scholar Thorn is a popular poet whose lyrics, romances, and even his elegiac epic, In Memoriam, reflected the tastes and values of his readership. While elitist critics of the time dismissed Tennyson as childish, superficial, morbid, or sentimental, he was, Thorn emphasizes, the voice of Victorian England. On a personal level, he was haunted by his bleak and disordered childhood in a country rectory—and by drinking, madness, violence, insanity, melancholy, and an adolescence that extended until 1850, when, at age 40, he became poet laureate, married, and transformed his eccentricities— hypochondria, vulgar manners, excessive drinking and smoking, and bizarre costumes including a huge cape and wizard's hat—into something incidental and colorful. As for the gossip about his homosexuality, opium-addiction, womanizing, and epilepsy: Thorn presents it, however irrelevant, refuting some rumors and dismissing the rest as superfluous color in an already vivid life. In place of the subtle intellectual insights of Levi—the dignity of his Tennyson—Thorn offers some ``laughable bathos'' about Tennyson at home, beset by dental problems, marital rifts, and other petty problems that, the author points out, he shared with his readership. And in place of the vision, imagination, and vocation of Levi's Tennyson, Thorn refers to a ``poetic impulse'' that needed a ``kickstart.'' Levi and Thorn both recognize the disparity between the child and the man, the public and the private life—between the poetry and the person—but neither undertakes the psychological analysis that would relate them into a whole. Affable, familiar, sentimental—in fact, rather like Tennyson's worst reputation: popular, simplified, an impersonation rather than a representation. Read the Levi instead.
Read full book review >