In addition to division, the Tennysons suffered from madness.
Mary, Tennyson’s eldest sister, struggled with religious mania; his brothers Arthur and Horatio labored under recurrent mental instability; his brother Edward was actually confined to an asylum; and his youngest sister Matilda was never the same after being dropped on her head in a coal scuttle.
After the loss of Hallam, Tennyson became infatuated with Rosa Baring of Harrington Hall, a rich, haughty, trifling woman, whose rejection led him to write his great dramatic monologue (1855), than which there is no poem in the language more rich and strange.
(That the monologue should have ended with his deranged hero speaking of “The blood-red blossom of war with a heart of fire” must have given the poets of the Great War an eerie shudder.) When he married Emily Sellwood, another Somersby woman, who would become his agent, muse, and secretary, he made an inspired choice, though one observer was convinced that she immured him in “the sultry, perfumed atmosphere of luxury and homage…” Drawing on Ann Thwaite’s marvelous biography of Emily, Batchelor paints a lively portrait of this devout, talented, enterprising woman.
Although never fond of church going and heedless of doctrinal orthodoxy, Tennyson was profoundly religious, stating: “Two things I have always been firmly convinced of—God—and that death will not end my existence.” (1847), when he was scarcely forty, he set it to an enchanting music.
The splendor falls on castle walls And snowy summits old in story; The long light shakes across the lakes, And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
For Henry James, everything about this consummate poet was “a thousand miles away from American manufacture.” However, the dark side to his steely dedication to his art was a tendency towards solipsism.
As Batchelor remarks, “even with Arthur Hallam, it can often seem that what Tennyson loved was not Arthur himself, but Arthur’s love of Tennyson: his own image and his own genius as reflected in Arthur’s loyal admiration.” Batchelor also quotes the strictures of Edward Lear, who remarked in his friend “the anomaly of high souled & philosophic writings combined with slovenliness, selfishness, & morbid folly.” In this light, Batchelor’s Tennyson can sometimes remind one of that unforgettable ‘monster’ that Ted Hughes shared with his readers in “Famous Poet,” behind whose eyes one can see nothing “But the haggard stony exhaustion of a near-/Finished variety artist.” Certainly, a good deal of Tennyson’s later work was given over to writing narrative verse of questionable merit— (1864) comes to mind–composed to satisfy the enormous demand for his work on the part of a public flattered that their Laureate should wish to please them.
Written with great learning and unusual grace, it will spur new interest in a poet who has much to say to our own contemporaries. George Clayton Tennyson, the eldest son, had been forced into the Church against his will after his father decided to make his youngest son, Charles his heir.
Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) was born at Somersby rectory, Lincolnshire into a rancorous, divided family. The resentment this bred in Tennyson’s father never went away.