I’m afraid that it escaped my notice in 2009 – what with the octocentenary of the University of Cambridge and the bicentenary of Charles Darwin, to say nothing of the birth of the Cambridge Library Collection – that it was also the bicentenary of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Who, in the Victorian heyday, would have imagined that two hundred years later it was Darwin who would get all the attention, while Tennyson, the Poet Laureate for forty-two years (he succeeded Wordsworth in 1850), the baron, the visionary, the patriot whose verses ‘rivalled Shakespeare’ and were quoted with enthusiasm throughout the English-speaking world, would be almost ignored?
Who now reads Tennyson at school, let alone learns him by rote? (He hated this idea, incidentally: remembering how it took him half his adult life to get over the loathing of Horace instilled in him by lessons at school, he would lament: ‘They use me as a lesson-book at schools, and they will call me “that horrible Tennyson’’.’ I would guess that more people would recognize him from the (in)famous photograph taken by his neighbour in the Isle of Wight, Julia Margaret Cameron, which he himself called ‘The Dirty Monk’, than would recollect a line or two of his verse?
One of the most striking things about the two-volume biography by his son Hallam Tennyson which we have just reissued is the account of his boyhood. Admittedly, he came from a large and eccentric family, but by this account, nobody seems to have noticed much his amazing precocity. His first poems were published when he was eighteen, in a volume called ‘Poems by Two Brothers’ – in fact, three of them were involved – printed by a stationer at Louth in Lincolnshire, so perhaps the constant versifying that went on in the family home concealed his gifts, but did many children of the early nineteenth-century rectory or parsonage (always excepting the Brontës) exhibit such a command of metre, rhyme and vocabulary as the teenage Tennyson?
Cambridge did not do a lot for him: he seems to have had contempt for the unreformed university where he matriculated in February 1828. A wonderful story sets the tone: he and his brother Charles had arrived on the coach and were walking down Trumpington Street when they were accosted by a proctor (see Stokes on this gentleman’s quasi-policing functions) who asked ‘What are you doing without your cap and gown, sir, at this time of night?’ Tennyson, ‘not being aware of the dignity of the personage who addressed him’, replied, ‘I should like to know what business it can be of yours, sir.’ Unfortunately, what happened next is not recorded…
His tutor was William Whewell, for whom he had great respect, and about whom some entertaining anecdotes are told; but it was the quality of the friendships he made in him time at Cambridge, rather than the quality of the education he received, which were the lasting legacy. (He did not in fact take his degree: his father became seriously ill and he returned home to support his mother.) Most famous of the ‘Apostles’ in whose company Tennyson spent most of his time was Arthur Henry Hallam (whose room was No. 3, G staircase, New Court, next time you are passing through Trinity), though of course it was his tragic early death and Tennyson’s response to it that have immortalized him. Indeed, the Laureateship was apparently offered because Prince Albert had read and loved In Memoriam.
Another lifelong friend from Cambridge was J.M. Kemble, though whom he met his sister Fanny, the actress, who described him as ‘our hero, the great hero of our day’. In later life, he (inevitably) knew and was known to almost everyone in the Victorian social and intellectual scene: Wordsworth, the Carlyles, Ruskin, the Brownings, Dickens (and Forster), Gladstone, Mary Howitt, Mrs Gaskell (there is a charming anecdote about her arranging to have Tennyson send an inscribed copy of one of his books to an elderly handloom weaver who loved his works). Jenny Lind came to stay. Prince Albert dropped over unannounced one day from Osborne House and completely overwhelmed the parlour-maid. Famously, Queen Victoria found some consolation in Tennyson’s works, especially In Memoriam, after Albert’s death.
One wonders how he found the time to write – the answer is that he married a wonderful woman, who managed his life. Emily Sellwood (who incidentally was a niece of Sir John Franklin) was born in Horncastle (across the market square from Sir Joseph Banks’ house) and first met Tennyson when she was nine. Her sister Louisa married Tennyson’s brother Charles, and it was when she was a bridesmaid at the wedding that Alfred, he says, fell in love with her. Various reasons – lack of money, the notorious mental instability of the some of the Tennyson family, Alfred’s religious doubts, the difficulties of Charles and Louisa’s marriage – meant that an engagement was broken off in 1840. The couple met again in 1847, and were married in 1850, when she was 37 and he 41: Alfred said that said the peace of God came into his life when he married. Benjamin Jowett said: ‘It was a wonderful life – an effaced life, like that of so many women … He could never have been what he was without her.’ Some people suggested that happiness and comfort were bad for the poetry, and a bit more Sturm und Drang would have been better for the Art, but Tennyson himself probably wouldn’t have agreed. It seems likely that Emily, who had always kept a journal, drew on it to write some parts of this biography – which also includes copious quotations from letters, as well as previously unpublished poems. An inevitably uncritical work, but a great read for insights into a true giant of the nineteenth century.
The heading to this blog is the title of the poem which Tennyson ‘thought would be enough of biography for those friends who urged him to write about himself’. Read it by all means – but read the book as well!