Poetic Biographies: writing the lives of Keats and Tennyson

Nicholas Roe, John Keats: A New Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

John Batchelor, Tennyson: To Strive, To Seek, To Find. London: Chatto and Windus, 2012.

2012 was a good year for biographies. In November I wrote about a new biography of Dickens, discussing it alongside a couple other Dickens biographies that challenge the traditional “cradle to grave” approach. This approach is not dead, however, and both Nicholas Roe and John Batchelor discuss their subject’s life essentially in chronological sequence. Yet Keats and Tennyson led very different lives, and these differences are exemplified in their recent biographies.

For a man who lived a very short life, John Keats left a remarkable quantity of evidence for biographers, and Roe makes good use of it. He begins with two seemingly opposite descriptions of Keats, written by his contemporaries, and then poses the question that the biography will purport to answer: “Who was John Keats? The sturdy twenty-two-year-old, who strode six hundred miles around Scotland? Or ‘a sickly boy of pretty abilities’ who had missed his path in the world?” (xvi). Roe traces Keats’s life from his childhood (about which little is known) to his days at Enfield Academy (about which we know more) through his medical training and final years (about which we know a lot, including, often, where Keats was at a particular moment on a particular day). As we would expect from the author of Wordsworth and Coleridge: the Radical Years and John Keats and the Culture of Dissent, Roe highlights the political aspects of Keats’s life, and the sections on Leigh Hunt are particularly good.

Whether Keats is an athletic political radical traipsing through Scotland or an ill consumptive dying in Italy, it’s his poetry that made him famous. Roe discusses the poems in the context of Keats’s life, paying close attention to the publication and reviewing of Keats’s work. His reading of John Gibson Lockhart’s “Cockney school” review (about Endymion) nicely links the poetry to the politics:

[Lockhart] took Keats and his poetry very seriously indeed: Napoleon had been routed at Waterloo and now the enemy lurked within, assiduously plotting a cultural revolution that would, Lockhart feared, prove as damaging as an invading army. Poems were their weapons of choice, not pikestaffs, and the battle was for cultural authority … Lockhart saw how Keats’s challenge to existing poetic paradigms and aesthetics … was inherently and — to his eyes — dangerously political. A change in poetic idiom towards a more natural, vernacular style might well anticipate a transformation of political realities; loosening the heroic couple, as Keats had done in Endymion, might help undo the bonds of society, too. (265)

Roe’s biography is impressively detailed, an approach that seems fitting for a poet who died at 25. But Tennyson lived to be 83 years old, and while he wrote some of his best work in his early 20s, he remained prolific for another half-century. A biography as detailed as Roe’s would take up several volumes.

Batchelor takes a more narrative approach, and while he still provides glimpses of specific moments — like Tennyson’s dinner with Browning and Gladstone — he is more selective, and splits Tennyson’s life into two distinct parts:

The middle year of Tennyson’s life, 1850, was also the midpoint of a two-part story. Part one could be called “local boy makes good”; the lad from Lincolnshire published In Memoriam in May, he was married in June, he was appointed Laureate at the end of the year. In short, he had arrived. Part two could be called “consolidation and desire”; in the big ambitious Laureate enterprises, Idylls of the King and his Shakespeare-like history plays, he bought into the identity of the ‘national poet’ and tailored his works to fit that identity and the market that came with it. (166)

Early in his career Tennyson relied on his friends (Arthur Hallam of course being the most famous) to get his work into the public’s hands, and Batchelor argues that “The young men around him were playing a game: he was their tame poet and genius, aligned with Shelley and Wordsworth. It was an important part of his role that he should be the visionary figure with no capacity for practicalities,” while his friends “looked after his worldly interests” (68). It’s the Tennyson of these early years whom we tend to remember most, a “nomadic, chaotic Alfred Tennyson of legend, a legend built up by his many friends in these vagrant years.” But Batchelor argues that Tennyson “was in fact displaying an inner resolution. He was a poet, nothing else, and he claimed no other identity, role or mode of existence” (84).

The payoff of Batchelor’s split-narrative approach is that we can keep our image of the young Tennyson while still understanding the care with which he constructed his public image later in life: “Everything that makes Tennyson ‘Victorian’ — the hunger for money and status, together with the pageantry of the Arthurian poems and the well-upholstered ponderousness of the historical plays — is essential to the story” (369). In the second half of his life Tennyson developed into “a supreme craftsman who pursued wealth and fame in ways that his age applauded” (366) and who befriended the major literary figures of his day (his biography feels at times like a who’s who of Victorian culture). Yet in a post-Romantic culture commercial success had its costs. Tennyson was out of fashion by 1870, and just as Shelley and Browning came to resent Wordsworth’s conservatism, a younger generation of Victorian poets turned against Tennyson.

The difference between Roe’s and Batchelor’s biographies is perhaps most palpable in the closing chapters, describing Keats’s and Tennyson’s deaths. When his friend Richard Monckton Mills published Life, Letters and Literary Remains of John Keats in 1848, Tennyson saw it as “a posthumous invasion of Keats’s privacy” (Batchelor 33). He might have shuddered at Roe’s closing chapters, which by relying on Severn’s letters give an intimate, almost hourly account of Keats’s last days. Batchelor, by contrast, works to separate Tennyson from the pageantry surrounding his death, reminding us that “The old man who had died was neither King Arthur nor any other kind of hero” (366). Tennyson was shaped by economic forces as well as personal and cultural, and the importance of these forces is even more apparent when his biography is considered alongside Keats’s: had Keats lived into the 1860s, how would he have reacted to fame and fortune?

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