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  • Tennyson and the Gleam
  • A. J. Nickerson (bio)

O young Mariner,You from the havenUnder the sea-cliff,You that are watchingThe gray MagicianWith eyes of wonder,I am Merlin,And I am dying,I am MerlinWho follow The Gleam.

"Merlin and the Gleam" (1889)

In the spring of 1889, Tennyson was very sick with rheumatic gout. He had fallen ill the previous September and suffered two serious relapses in the subsequent nine months. Tennyson seemed to be dying. Benjamin Jowett wrote in December, worrying that "the hour of hope had passed" and commending his friend to God.1 Robert Browning wrote early in the new year, seeking reassurance that "the danger is, if God please, over" (Memoir, 2: 351). Hallam Tennyson later recalled that his father had "been as near death as a man could be without dying" (Memoir, 2: 354). He would eventually recover. But, as Michael Millgate has described in Testamentary Acts (1992), he became increasingly preoccupied with managing his posthumous reputation as he faced what looked like imminent death during his long illness of 1888–1889.2 He had always been sensitive about how he was represented by the press, but death, he thought, would signal the start of an unrestrained and bruising criticism of his life and work.3 W. G. McCabe, reminding Tennyson of the apocryphal stories that had begun circulating after Thackeray's death, suggested that he might authorize a "Life" that would "forestall the 'free-lances.'"4 Tennyson's response, however, was emphatic: "I don't want to be ripped up like a hog when I'm dead" (Page, p. 160). He feared the press, but he also feared the exposure of biography. As McCabe later reflected: "the truth is that the man was by nature so thoroughly a recluse … and that his privacy had been so outrageously invaded by utter strangers, that he had become morbid on the subject" (Page, p. 160). But [End Page 223] Tennyson's illness of 1888–1889 made him reconsider this position. With his posthumous vulnerability now an imminent prospect, Tennyson set about writing a literary history that would speak for him from beyond the grave, securing the parameters of biographical revelation, critical interpretation, and editorial intervention. This literary history took the form of "Merlin and the Gleam" on the one hand, and, on the other, the copious "notes" which Tennyson with the help of his household assembled as a preliminary to a "Life" that would be "final and full enough to preclude the chance of further and unauthentic biographies" (Memoir, 1: xii). The priority, however, lay not with the biography but with the poem: in the preface to his Memoir, Hallam Tennyson insisted that "for those who cared to know about his literary history he wrote 'Merlin and the Gleam'" (Memoir, 1: xii).

This essay takes its cue from Tennyson. It begins with the assumption that there is some truth in Hallam Tennyson's claim that "Merlin and the Gleam" offers an account of his father's "literary history." It takes strength from Hallam Tennyson's suggestion in the Memoir that this account is peculiarly suited to those careful readers or "friends" who (unlike the critics and gossips who would devour the "Life") are both attentive to the verse and sympathetic to the man himself (Memoir, 1: xv). This is an intimate "literary history" for those who cared to know Tennyson as he himself wished to be known: not as a subject for scandalmongering "free-lances," but as a poet who (as Hallam put it) "gives himself" best "in his own works" (Memoir, 1: xi). As such, my claim here is that "Merlin and the Gleam" offers us a unique insight into the ways in which Tennyson understood his own "literary history." Tennyson's late poem draws our attention to the "Gleam," a figure that is present throughout his mature work and which marks out what Stephen Halliwell calls a "domain of self-conscious poetics"—a strand of thought within Tennyson's verse that is explicitly occupied with the aims and affordances of his own verse writing.5

But first we need to establish how, exactly, we ought to read "Merlin...