‘one who would have adorned his age and country, a mind full of beauty and power’ (W.E.Gladstone)
‘I little dreamed how soon his name might become a sacred one’ (James Spedding)
Arthur Henry Hallam died, of a cerebral haemorrhage, in a hotel room in Vienna on 15 September 1833, aged 22. He was at the time on a European tour with his father, Henry. Arthur’s body was returned to England and was interred in the vaults of his mother’s family, the Eltons, in Clevedon church in Somerset, in January 1834. Hallam and Tennyson had first met as undergraduates at Trinity College, Cambridge and at the time of his death Hallam was engaged to Tennyson’s sister, Emily
Such are the bare bones of what has been described as possibly the most significant single event for Victorian poetry, leading, as it did seventeen years later, to the appearance of Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H., arguably the greatest poem of the Victorian age, which pays handsome tribute to Hallam, though is in fact selective in what it chooses to say about him.
As a Cambridge student Hallam was at the centre of an admiring coterie of intelligent young men, most of whom belonged to an elite intellectual society known as The Apostles (Tennyson was also a member), and his death sent immediate shock waves throughout this group. One member went so far as to describe Hallam’s death as ‘a loud and terrible stroke from the reality of things upon the fairy building of our youth’. At least five other members of Tennyson’s circle noted Hallam’s passing in verse, as indeed did Emily Tennyson (‘Renew my heart in heavenly love,/Take all my sin away,/That I may be his bride above/For an eternal day’). Hallam’s death was also the prompting of Tennyson’s Ulysses and Morte d’Arthur, and his literary canonisation would continue.
In the eyes of those who knew him, Hallam was clearly no ordinary mortal. He seems to have possessed an especial mixture of personal and intellectual qualities, which had become apparent at an early age. His father (the historian Henry Hallam) remarked of Arthur’s precocious childhood, that it was characterised on the one hand by ‘a peculiar clearness of perception, a facility of acquiring knowledge’, which was accompanied by ‘an undeviating sweetness of disposition’. Hallam’s Cambridge friend James Spedding highlighted his adult qualities when he recalled: ‘I never saw him idle. He might seem to be lounging or only amusing himself; but his mind, as far as I could judge, was always active and active for good…He could read or discuss metaphysics as he lay on the sofa after dinner, surrounded by a noisy party…And he was looked up to by all as the life and grace of the party.’
Spedding thus freezes Hallam in the role of the eternal undergraduate, full of casual brilliance and charm. Hallam’s intelligence and vigour are well documented, and other contemporaries commented on the restless and speculative nature of his mind, and his dexterity in argument and debate. Despite this, Hallam achieved surprisingly little in formal academic terms, either at Cambridge or, before that, at Eton. He had little taste for the minutiae of classical study (which comprised the entire curriculum at Eton), or of the mathematics which figured prominently at Cambridge. Hallam’s indifference to academic distinction caused tensions with his father. Henry Hallam had more conventional views of what constituted academic success, and the conflict between father and son on the issue contributed in large part to the prolonged mental breakdown which Arthur suffered towards the end of his first year at Cambridge.
The coexistence of what would now be called charisma, with unusual intellectual gifts explains why so much was expected of Hallam. Gladstone, the future Prime Minister, who had been Hallam’s closest friend at Eton, insisted that: ‘it was of him above all his contemporaries that great and lofty expectations were to be formed’, and these grave and lofty expectations were to become intrinsic to the Hallam whom Tennyson eventually evoked in In Memoriam. Hallam’s reputation, perhaps inevitably, solidified in the intervening seventeen years before In Memoriam’s appearance and, while there are passages in In Memoriam in which tender reminiscence and the shock of bereavement are described, the thrust of the poemis ultimately toward a larger world vision of which Hallam’s death is only a part. In Memoriam was undeniably a poem occasioned by Hallam’s death, but it is not in the end a poem about him. Hallam’s presence hovers over the poem and assists his elevation to an almost god-like status (‘A life in civic action warm,/ A soul on highest mission sent/, A potent voice of Parliament,/ A pillar steadfast in the storm.’) Tennyson makes a very good job of turning Hallam into an Eminent Victorian before his time, making a very nineteenth century connection between intellectual eminence and political distinction. It is worth remembering that Gladstone viewed his own abilities as inferior to Hallam’s.
At the same time, and almost from the outset, readers of In Memoriam have also taken a natural and sometimes prurient interest in what kind of relationship Tennyson and Hallam actually had, and attempts have been made to recruit In Memoriam to the canon of gay writing. However, despite Tennyson’s figuring of his relationship with Hallam in terms of sundered marriage, and of himself, variously, as both widow and widower, it was not a homosexual relationship which prompted the poem. Hallam himself was exuberantly heterosexual, greatly partial to female company, and quick to lose his heart to attractive young women. Whether there was a homoerotic element in Tennyson’s love for Hallam, is impossible to know, but it is certainly worth noting that Hallam met his fiancée and Tennyson his future wife on the same walk through a Lincolnshire wood in the spring of 1830. Tennyson’s own love life was not without its tribulations, but it was conventional enough in practice. It is easy to see how the poem can be appropriated by a homosexual readership (as indeed it has been), but any easy categorisation of In Memoriam as a queer poem must remain stubbornly counter-factual.
Of what did Hallam’s undoubted promise consist? There is little in his early life which immediately suggests the future statesman or national leader. It is, however, unfortunately ironic that Hallam’s proximity to Tennyson has obscured the fact that he was, just as much as his more famous friend, an essentially literary figure. It is well known that Hallam renounced the writing of poetry, fully conscious of his inferiority to Tennyson, but the two men had originally intended to publish a joint volume of poems in 1830. This project was aborted by Henry Hallam, but Arthur went ahead and published his own volume (containing 50 poems) anyway. Seen purely in terms of quantity, Hallam, at the time of his death, was not noticeably inferior to Tennyson, and for all Henry Hallam’s initial hesitancy, he arranged for the posthumous publication of a volume entitled Remains, in Verse and Prose, of Arthur Henry Hallam. This was subsequently reprinted several times in both England and America. Interest in Hallam’s reputation and writings thus persisted more robustly in the nineteenth century than has generally been thought.
The Remains consisted of 37 of Hallam’s poems, along with four prose essays. Among these was an extract from an essay entitled On Some of the Characteristics of Modern Poetry, And On The Lyrical Poems of Alfred Tennyson. Henry clearly appreciated the quality of this piece as literary criticism and as a critical text it has stood the test of time, though Henry valued Arthur the poet above Arthur the prose writer.
The Remains constituted the primary source for Hallam’s writings until 1943 when T.H.Vail Motter published The Writings of Arthur Hallam, which set out to provide a collected edition of all Hallam’s known writings. Although more poems have come to light since, this is the nearest there is to a ‘standard’ edition of Hallam’s works, containing over 100 poetic items, along with six extensive prose works and some translations and juvenilia. The prose pieces included not only material submitted for university prizes, but also some early journalistic efforts, clearly intended for a national readership. They are a testimony not only to Hallam’s energy and wide reading, but to his emergent dialectical and polemical skills.
By far the most substantial and revealing collection of Hallam’s writings, however, is contained in Jack Kolb’s monumental The Letters of Arthur Henry Hallam, published in 1981. It is no exaggeration to say that Hallam’s letters stand in the same relationship to the rest of Hallam’s oevre as those of Keats do to his. Keats’s letters, as is well known, are important documents in the history of romantic poetics, a claim which, in all fairness, cannot be made for Hallam’s, but Hallam’s letters comprise a significantly larger body of work than Keats’s, and add considerably to his prose corpus. Letters written on Hallam’s continental tours are excellent pieces of travel writing. His accounts of the travails which accompanied his mental breakdown in 1829 are powerfully confessional, providing, as they do, an insight into a tortured and almost disintegrating consciousness. His love letters to Emily Tennyson are revealing examples of the genre, and, like so much else in the correspondence, show the marks of a man who was every inch a writer and whose prose style was growing and developing rapidly during his short life. Above all else, the letters, along with the work collected first in the Remains and subsequently in the Writings are evidence not merely of how much was promised in Hallam’s life, but how much was achieved.
If Arthur Hallam’s life had attained to something like its biblical span, there is little doubt that he would have been a significant literary figure of the Victorian age: almost certainly as sage or philosopher rather than poet, and it is unfortunate for Hallam’s afterlife that he has come to be seen largely as an extension of Alfred Tennyson rather than as an author in his own right.
Author of A Life Lived Quickly: Tennyson’s Friend Arthur Hallam and His Legend (Sussex Academic Press, 2011)