Acknowledging his debt to Robert Bernard Martin's Tennyson (1980), Levi (formerly, Poetry/Oxford Univ.; The Frontiers of Paradise, 1988, etc.) dispels the biographical fog emitted by Tennyson descendants, apologists, and idolaters, and—in a relatively brief but penetrating analysis—reveals the man behind the icon, the poet laureate whose odd appearance and eccentric behavior distanced him from the intimacies his fame encouraged.
Tennyson (1809-92), the fourth of 12 children, was born into a parsonage family beset by madness, addiction, and melancholy. He published his first poems with his brother when he was only 18, and, by 1850—in spite of recurrent depression, fits of wandering, excessive drinking and smoking, misguided idealism, and equally misguided medical treatment for various hypochondriacal illnesses—he'd become the most popular poet in England, a status he achieved largely through In Memoriam, an epic elegy to his late friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. He spent many years dithering with Idylls of the King, a 12-book poem that combined the fashion for medieval romance with contemporary social criticism, and that captured the voice and values of England—industrial, competitive, moralistic, pious, sentimental, and nostalgic—in hundreds of poems, each characterized by his talent for felicitous turns of phrase. Tennyson married a 37-year-old who bore him two sons, one of whom was to write his biography; his friends included Wordsworth, Arnold, Browning, Carlyle, and, after he became poet laureate, even Queen Victoria, who forgave his crusty manners because he could deliver on time the occasional verse she required. Throughout, Levi skillfully sketches Tennyson's background (the chaotic undergraduate life at Cambridge), recounting many vignettes (Tennyson riding on the first steam railroad train) and anecdotes (the poet among his many siblings, eating dinner, courting).
Levi's tact, good sense, respectful insight, and talent for the telling detail would have won even the heart of Tennyson himself, whose special aversion was biographies.