Coleridge likened the reviewing of books to the ‘occupation of a cormorant’. The low passivity of waiting for a book to swim past and be, possibly, annihilated with a quick downward thrust of the beak, makes one chary of accepting the reviewer’s role. Peter Levi’s book swims with an articulation of its own, chatty in style, self-indulgent in its manner of writing, egotistical and certainly arbitrary as to which element it discusses. It is cheerful and judgmental about life, about history, about a wide range of poetry from classical times to the present day. In his story of Tennyson’s life, Levi in a personal way marshals the vast material, gives it a chronological shape, and introduces a wide range of the Tennyson circle. And when it comes to discussing the puzzling delay in Tennyson marrying Emily Sellwood, Levi is adroit in suggesting that the Sellwoods were reluctant to allow another of their daughters to marry a Tennyson: Louisa had married Charles, Tennyson’s favourite brother, in 1836, but for some ten years they lived apart because of his addiction to opium. Charles’s recovery, Peter Levi suggests, was a prelude to Tennyson’s renewed proposals in 1849.
One’s enjoyment, then, of this book must be to accept it as an offering of conversation. Levi can have an arbitrariness in his speculative digressions – for instance, he discusses Tennyson’s supposed awareness of the translations of William Herbert from the Icelandic. Levi connects Herbert with Byron, who had, in