Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was not among the eminent Victorians skewered by Lytton Strachey in his once-famous book, but he has remained in many ways the very idea of a Victorian, possessing the full mixture of suppressed turmoil, self-blindness, and strenuous achievement that Strachey found in the age at large. Even among that troubled company, Tennyson comes across as peculiarly uneasy in his own skin. There can be few other great writers, W H Auden thought, whose best work appears so wholly the consequence of a miserable childhood. Auden had in mind such inimitable passages as this:
but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.
The whole world of Tennyson’s early lyrical imagination is shaped by such ennui: he had a positive genius for emotional incapacity, articulating rumbling despair, paradoxically enough, in lines of the most sumptuous verbal invention. (He once boasted that he knew the metrical quantity of every word in English except ‘scissors’.)