Queen Victoria’s favorite poet gets a richly detailed new life.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1882), England’s poet laureate and one of the most famous literary figures of his time, hated biographers. He feared that after he died he would be “ripped open like a pig” by writers lusting after details of his private life. He was not wrong: Tennyson scholarship has produced volumes of his letters, books about his friends, a memoir by his son and several biographies, including one by a grandson. Batchelor (Emeritus, English/Newcastle Univ., Lady Trevelyan and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 2006, etc.) draws on these works and considerable new published and archival material, resulting in a well-balanced, insightful portrait of a prolific poet and a man so “strikingly handsome…splendid of face and strong of limb” that he exuded greatness—which was, indeed, Tennyson’s aim. Rising from provincial roots, he strived for acceptance by the upper class but never felt comfortable among them. His first great love was a woman too wealthy to consider him a serious suitor, and this failure haunted him forever. In his early life, Batchelor writes, Tennyson was “a man with a violent sense of entitlement, excluded, angry, ambitious.” Even when he became indisputably famous, lauded by Wordsworth, Thomas Carlyle and Robert Browning, “he needed constantly the reassurance of being feted by the rich and the great.” He also needed constant attention. His wife served as amanuensis, servant and buffer, and friends endured his long, dramatic readings, responding with the requisite admiration. Batchelor contextualizes and illuminates scores of poems, including “In Memoriam,” “The Lady of Shallott,” “Idylls of the King and Maud,” which met with criticism that wounded Tennyson deeply.
By the time of Tennyson’s death, a new generation of readers threatened to erode his monumental reputation. This fine biography revives the difficult, moody, complex man whose works captivated the Victorian world.