TENNYSON: The Unquiet Heart by Robert Bernard Martin
Kirkus Star

TENNYSON: The Unquiet Heart

Email this review


In speaking of a figure as monumental as Tennyson, ""definitive"" is a dangerous word, but this large and masterful biography will probably not be rivaled for many years to come. Martin, who is Professor Emeritus of English at Princeton, has devoted his life to Victorian literature; and that enormous labor has stood him in good stead in framing the achievement of the greatest Victorian poet and one of the essential human symbols of the period. Tennyson was a tortured individual, a man of tremendous gifts and terrible failings, and Martin does justice to all of them. He explores at length the paradox of Tennyson's desperate need for friendship (enshrined in his mourning for Hallam) and the shabby way he often treated his friends--Gladstone, FitzGerald, Lear, etc. Martin likewise traces the morbid sensitivity to criticism that marked Tennyson's entire career: this splendidly built, darkly handsome, genial (when he wanted to be), charming, popular poet reacted almost hysterically whenever a critic took him to task for anything. In the end Tennyson retreated into a haze of public adulation which, thanks in part to the efforts of his wife and elder son, practically never lifted. Shy and nervous as he was, Tennyson could always find an audience ready to burst into tears when (weeping himself) the poet launched into a dramatic reading of, say, ""Guinevere."" By our standards Tennyson was so priggish (though capable of obscenity in all-male gatherings), so naively egotistical, and in general such a pill (after crying poverty all his life he left an estate of £57,000) that a less patient biographer than Martin might invoke the spirit of Lytton Strachey and consign the Poet Laureate to a debunker's hell of 19th-century neurotics. But Martin stresses the greatness (for all its limitations) of the poetry, not the moody quirks of the poet. A thoroughly satisfying work of mature scholarship: sensitive, judicious, urbane.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1980
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press