G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”
Richard Garnett (1835-1906) was an accomplished linguist and writer. He wrote biographies of many famous European writers; he also translated books from at least five languages, and held a position at the British Library.
Tennyson is one of a series of eight brief biographies of writers (“The Bookman Biographies”), which were produced by Chesterton and other writers in 1902 and 1903. Chesterton co-wrote six of them:
- Thomas Carlyle (with J. E. Hodder Williams)
- Robert Louis Stevenson (with W. Robertson Nicoll)
- Charles Dickens (with F. G. Kitton, J. E. Hodder Williams)
- Leo Tolstoy (with Edward Garnett, G. H. Perris)
- Tennyson (with Richard Garnett)
- Thackeray (with Lewis Melville)
They are a mere 40 pages each, focusing on basic overviews of the works of these five writers (five of them being novelists, and Tennyson the only poet).
These six books are too short for proper biographies, but they have some redeeming qualities—especially if you are interested in eminent writers, and Chesterton’s view of them. In each book, Chesterton dives right into an essay about the author’s thought-life for many pages before giving you the facts about his birth, schooling, and accomplishments. He does this, I believe, lest we get “the facts right and the truth wrong” (Thackeray, ch. 1).
Alfred, Lord Tennyson became Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom in 1850, after William Wordsworth’s death, and held it until his own death in 1892—the longest tenure of any British poet laureate.
His writings show a deep interest in science and nature alongside a profound respect for spirituality; even so, his thoughts on religion were unconventional. He considered his magnum opus to be The Idylls of the King (last volume published in 1885), an cycle of poems set in Arthurian narrative; but today, his most famous work is “In Memoriam A.H.H” (1849), a long poem published at the death of Arthur Hallam, whom Tennyson regarded very highly.
“In Memoriam” is a most perfect expression of the average theological temper of England in the nineteenth century. (Garnett)
Many of his other poems are still highly regarded, such as “Locksley Hall,” “Crossing the Bar,” “The Lady of Shalott,” and “The Lotos-Eaters.”
Although Tennyson was meticulous in revising his own poetry, he mostly wrote in blank verse, and was not obsessed with form (as Browning). His works are a fresh start from both the metaphysical poets (seventeenth century) and the Romantic movement that preceded him. Rather, he is great not mainly because of any novel design or content in his poetry, but because he was a story-teller.
The book at hand, Tennyson (1903), is one of the less ambitious of the Bookman Biographies. The opening essay (by G. K. Chesterton) is not nearly as thrilling as the others in the series. Chesterton connects Tennyson’s writing on nature to the advent of Darwinism (beginning in 1859) and its relation to religion:
It has been constantly supposed that they were angry with Darwinism because it appeared to do something or other to the Book of Genesis; but this was a pretext or a fancy. They fundamentally rebelled against Darwinism, not because they had a fear that it would affect Scripture, but because they had a fear, not altogether unreasonable or ill-founded, that it would affect morality. . . . The first honour, surely, is to those who did not faint in the face of that confounding cosmic betrayal . . . Of these was Tennyson. (Chesterton)
In the second essay, “Tennyson as an Intellectual Force,” Dr. Garnett paints Tennyson as memorable, not so much because he was a great poet, as because he was an English poet. Both Chesterton and Garnett regard Tennyson as closely identified the times in which he wrote (namely, the late Victorian era):
In the main the great Broad Church philosophy which Tennyson uttered has been adopted by everyone. This will make against his fame. For a man may vanish as Chaos vanished in the face of creation, or he may vanish as God vanished in filling all things with that created life. (Chesterton)
[Tennyson] reveals, not new truth to the age, but the age to itself. . . . In truth, Tennyson’s fame rests upon a securer basis than that of some greater poets, for acquaintance with him will always be indispensable to the history of thought and culture in England. (Garnett)
At first, I was inclined to rate this book lowly because it did not make me want to read Tennyson; having read (and loved) Enoch Arden and a few of his other short works, I felt discouraged by Garnett’s emphatic statement that Tennyson was “not quite” worthy of the greats who preceded him.
Tennyson’s writings have all the advantages and all the disadvantages of the golden mean. (Garnett)
However, having looked at the statements of some other critics, I believe that Garnett was astute in saying so. Tennyson’s popular appeal does not come from being at the apex of his art; rather, it comes from being a signal representative of the time in which he lived—which is by no means a poor reflection on a nation’s poet laureate.
He is the interpreter of the Victorian era—firstly to itself, secondly to the ages to come. (Garnett)