Wisdom that lingers
In the latest in his series on eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley looks at the enduring legacy of Alfred, Lord Tennyson
08 August, 2019 — By Neil Titley
Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson (1809-1892) with his wife Emily (1813-1896) and his sons Hallam (1852-1928) and Lionel (1854-1886)
WHEN in May 2019 Simon Armitage was appointed Poet Laureate, he joined the list of lugubriously Northern-accented national bards led by Carol Ann Duffy and Ted Hughes. They had all been preceded by the equally non-RP tones of the resolutely Lincolnshire Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892).
Tennyson never quite fitted the cliché of “Victorian poet”. He was an unusually tall man and so powerfully built that he once picked up a donkey and carried it out of his garden. Far from being a closeted intellectual, his favourite reading included murder mysteries and light romantic novels, and at times his rough manner could be an embarrassment.
One evening after dinner at the Oxford and Cambridge Club with friends, Tennyson put his feet on the table and tilted his chair back in the American style. His friends complained but he ignored them, saying he was comfortable with the position.
“Everybody’s staring at you” insisted one of the friends.
“Let ’em stare” retorted Tennyson.
Then one man had an idea. “Alfred, people will think that you are Henry Longfellow.”
The feet descended.
However, his mastery of the English verse form was never in doubt. Famously described by TS Eliot as “the saddest of all English poets” he created such renowned lines as “Nature, red in tooth and claw”, and “’Tis better to have loved and lost, Than never to have loved at all”.
The death of his Cambridge friend Arthur Hallam at the age of only 22 prompted Tennyson to write his masterpiece In Memoriam, finally published in 1850.
This was followed by the popular success of his resounding Charge of the Light Brigade. It was said that “Tennyson had the British Empire for God and Queen Victoria for Virgin Mary”. Less bombastically, he said that the line of which he was most proud was: “The mellow ouzel fluted in the elm”.
After a slow start to his career, the year of 1850 saw a profound upturn in Tennyson’s fortunes. Firstly his wedding in the village of Shiplake (near Henley-on-Thames) to Emily Sellwood marked the start of an enduring and hugely happy marriage.
They spent their honeymoon in the Lake District, which led one American newspaper to comment: “We hope now that Mr Tennyson is married and has returned to his native lakes, he will give up opium”.
They had confused him with the notorious Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Later that year he was appointed to the Laureateship. In 1883 when Tennyson became the first poet to be given a peerage, EF Benson commented that: “The House of Lords was more honoured by his entering it than he was by entering.”
His connection to Camden was sealed when he installed his mother at 40 New End Square in Hampstead, and his sister just round the corner at 75 Flask Walk.
He said that he walked back from his visits to see them “over fields not yet built on”.
He did not suffer from excessive modesty, a trait his contemporaries were not slow to point out. William Morris reported walking with Tennyson when they spotted two cyclists approaching in the distance.
Tennyson started to grumble that they were sure to stop and demand autographs. When they swept past without halting, he turned to Morris and indignantly exclaimed: “They never even looked at me!”
Neither did he thrive in social situations. At one garden party he was introduced to a shy young girl who was tongue-tied at meeting the great man. For a few minutes they sat in embarrassed silence. Finally, Tennyson spoke: “Your stays are too tight.”
The girl stammered out: “I – I don’t think so, sir.”
“Yes, indeed” insisted Tennyson. “I can hear them creaking.”
Red-faced with confusion, the girl leaped up and scurried away to mingle with the other guests. Half an hour later she was mortified to see Tennyson lumbering towards her again. When he spotted her, the poet bellowed across the heads of the garden party: “Young lady, my apologies! I was wrong! It was not your stays. It was my braces!”
Tennyson delighted in reading his poetry aloud to awed guests, although yet again things did not always go to plan. On one occasion he sat a young lady on his knee while he read to her from Maud. When he reached the lines: Birds in the high hall-garden, when twilight was falling, Maud, Maud, Maud, Maud, they were crying and calling, he asked the girl which bird she thought he had been describing. She answered: “A nightingale?”
Tennyson: “This made me so angry that I nearly flung her to the ground. ‘No, fool! Rook! Rook! Rook!’”
His end was almost theatrically appropriate. As the full moon shone on his deathbed, he called for a copy of Shakespeare. He turned the pages till he reached Cymbeline, then expired, his hand still holding the book.
At his funeral in Westminster Abbey, the nave was lined by men of the Balaclava Light Brigade.
• Adapted from Neil Titley’s book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. For more details go to wildetheatre.co.uk/the-oscar-wilde-world-of-gossip/