Lloyd Evans celebrates Tennyson’s miraculous musicality
‘He had the finest ear of any English poet,’ said W.H. Auden. ‘He was also, undoubtedly, the stupidest.’ This famous jibe aimed at Tennyson (whose bicentenary falls on 6 August) is revealing in its shrill and almost triumphant bitchiness. Every age rejects the one before and it’s no surprise that Auden, a gay, left-wing, pacifist democrat, was keen to advertise his contempt for the uxorious, High Church, monarch-loving imperialist. But the severity of his scorn and its blatant falsehood (Tennyson knew half a dozen languages and was famed for the brilliance of his conversation) suggest that Auden’s real feelings may have been more complex than he liked to admit. Samuel Beckett, his near contemporary, adored Tennyson and it would be no surprise to learn that Auden secretly shared his enthusiasm.
Tennyson is particularly cherished by all lovers of verse and for reasons that aren’t fully appreciated. Those who enjoy poetry find themselves envying those whose first love is music because a lyric poem can never be more than a poor copy of pure melody. With Tennyson that deficit is reduced because musicality is his most striking and constant effect. From the start of his career he was able to create beautiful imagery in language whose magical sounds complemented its luxurious shapes and textures. The pictures and the notes that create them unfold with a miraculous familiarity and an easy interdependence. The man himself was blessed with physical beauty. ‘The best-looking man in the world,’ said Carlyle. Elizabeth Barrett Browning declared herself ready to ‘kiss his shoe-tyes any day’.
The third son of a hard-drinking Lincolnshire clergyman, Alfred Tennyson was sent to Cambridge in his early twenties where, according to Harold Nicolson’s mischievously sarcastic biography, ‘he was in advance of his time.