Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Eminent Victorians

For some reason, my long-dormant interest in the "Victorian frame of mind" has stirred recently. Once upon a time, in what now seems like another lifetime, I was about to embark on research into that very subject, as manifested in the poetry of various bewhiskered personages.  I had been awarded a full three-year research grant at Oxford -- imagine that luxury, now! -- but I had last-minute doubts about the faith I had been brought up in (that is, the Church of English Literature), and decided to go over to the continental faith of Literary Theory, which could only then be studied at the University of East Anglia.  Yes, the Victorian Oxford Movement still had echoes in the 1970s. 

Among those bearded bards, none was more whiskery than Tennyson.  And of his poems, none is more conflictedly Victorian than the long sequence In Memoriam, written as Tennyson came to terms with his grief and shaken faith following the sudden death of his closest friend and prospective brother-in-law, Arthur Hallam, aged 22.  I've downloaded the poem onto my Kindle, and have been reading it through with interest.  Like much Victorian poetry, it can be pretty turgid, sentimental, pre-Freudian stuff, but is sporadically lit by brilliant flashes of language.  I am remembering all over again why we "moderns" have tended to prefer Robert Browning and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Tennyson, by Julia Margaret Cameron
The inscription reads:
"I prefer the Dirty Monk to the others of me"

I was partly reminded of Tennyson by the reviews of a recent biography, Tennyson: to Strive, to Seek, to Find, by John Batchelor.  He was an odd cove, Tennyson, well captured in this amusing vignette:
Batchelor’s biography is painstaking in its detail, but Tennyson was really a rather dull dog. As anyone knows from Julia Margaret Cameron’s immortal photographs, he was magnificent to look at — a big man, with charismatic presence, shaggy-haired, bearded, with a liking for wide-brimmed hats — but he eschewed flamboyance and excess in his personal life. No Lord Byron he. Both shy and incredibly self-centered, he would alternately thrill and bore the other guests at dinner parties by reading aloud his latest long poem. Once he did this with his friend the classicist Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol, who listened gravely and then said, “I think I wouldn’t publish that, if I were you, Tennyson.” As Batchelor writes, after a moment of frigid silence, Tennyson answered, “If it comes to that, Master, the sherry you gave us at luncheon was beastly.”

review by Michael Dirda of Tennyson: To Strive, To Seek, To Find, Washington Post, 25 Dec 2013
Genuine humourlessness there, I think.  But a certain playful mood ironically disguised as humourlessness was also a Victorian characteristic, again well illustrated by another Tennyson anecdote:

    Every minute dies a man,
    Every minute one is born —TENNYSON

drew from Babbage the remark that the world's population was in fact constantly increasing:

    "I would therefore take the liberty of suggesting that in the next edition of your excellent poem the erroneous calculation to which I refer should be corrected as follows: 'Every moment dies a man/And one and a sixteenth is born'."

This figure, he added, was a concession to metre, since the actual ratio was 1:167. Tennyson did eventually blur his assertion to the extent of changing 'minute' to 'moment'.

Hugh Kenner, The Counterfeiters
I wonder if, say, Richard Dawkins ever wrote to Ted Hughes in a similar manner, perhaps to point out the inaccuracy of his account of the evolution of corvids in Crow?  It wouldn't surprise me: we are still more Victorian in our various ways of being British than we like to admit.

But, even so, I find myself wondering, why was I so interested in these odd forebears of ours, back in the 1970s?  Well, obviously, that's what the research would have been for: expanding an inchoate fascination into knowledge.  But I think, looking back, it had a lot to do with what we now know to call "post-modernism", that charity-shop, pick-and-mix attitude to the past that really started in the pre-modern 19th century.

Sure, previous generations had their own obsessions with antiquity and chivalry -- the Romans themselves were obsessed with the Greeks, after all -- but it was the industrial Victorians who really rummaged in the historical dressing-up box in a big way.  Take their rather weird obsession with all things mediaeval.  Consider the vast, all-encompassing building programme of "Gothic" public and private edifices, from parish churches, through Glasgow City Chambers, to the Houses of Parliament. Then you have Julia Margaret Cameron, literally draping friends and neighbours (Tennyson was both) in items from the dressing-up box, and posing them for her new-fangled camera.

The fascinating thing is that it is always a Victorian face that peers from the literal or metaphorical costumery, in just the same way that a 1950s face looks out from under any 19th century cowboy hat or bonnet in all 1950s Hollywood films.  The contemporary re-imagination of the past is an intriguing subject. However, I made the right choice, back then:  the Church of English Literature could never have accommodated such un-literary heresy, even though it has, in the intervening decades, become the orthodoxy of Cultural Studies 101.  I really wasn't cut out to be a priest, of any particular faith.

And was the day of my delight
   As pure and perfect as I say?
   The very source and fount of Day
Is dash'd with wandering isles of night.

If all was good and fair we met,
   This earth had been the Paradise
   It never look'd to human eyes
Since Adam left his garden yet.

And is it that the haze of grief
   Makes former gladness loom so great?
   The lowness of the present state,
That sets the past in this relief?

Or that the past will always win
   A glory from its being far;
   And orb into the perfect star
We saw not, when we moved therein?

Tennyson, In Memoriam XXIV
I wonder if Jowett bit his tongue over that one?  "Yes, yes, Tennyson, 'distance lends enchantment to the view', tum-ti-tum, and do you perchance mean 'sunspots' in verse the first?  If so, why not say so?  More sherry, sir?"

Have you done yet?
"I Wait", 1872
Julia Margaret Cameron


Martyn Cornell said...

Tennyson's another one of those great artists with some pretty unpleasant political views: he was a strong supporter of Governor John Eyre, under whose leadership hundreds of Jamaicans were killed in the Morant Bay rebellion of 1865. Mind, so was Charles Dickens ...

Mike C. said...


Ashamed to say I had to look that one up. However, there are more obvious reasons to strip Tennyson of the tag "great artist"...