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Alfred Lord Tennyson: Poet Laureate of England

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Few of the world's great poets have woven into their verse so much autobiographical material as the late Lord Tennyson, Poet Laureate of England. All his early poetry is suffused with tints, sombre or bright, and breathes of sounds that recall the landscape of the Lincolnshire in whose sunniest spot he was born, but in near neighborhood to "the level waste, the rounding gray" of "the dark fen," and within sight and sound of the "sandy tracts" and "the ocean roaring into cataracts." Later, we find in some of the poems that have made for themselves a place in the heart of all English-speaking people, vivid pictures in words or phrases, recalling his travels in Italy and Greece; and in the latter half of his life we follow him to the southern part of England, to Surrey and the Isle of Wight, where we find him in his "careless-ordered garden, close to the edge of a noble down," or "hear the magpie gossip garrulous under a roof of pine." But, to quote the lines that illustrate this autobiographic element in Tennyson's poetry, or that show his happy way of making use of his actual experiences, by which again we are able to get an impression of his way of life, and of the manner of man he was, would be to transfer a goodly portion of his verse to these pages.

Alfred Tennyson was born August 5, 1809, at Somersby, Lincolnshire, and was the third son in a family of five sons and seven daughters born to the Reverend George Clayton Tennyson, who was rector of Somersby, and held, besides, the livings of Beg-Enderby and Great Grimsby.

Tennyson's father was a man of various tastes and accomplishments, dabbling in poetry, painting, architecture, music, the study of language and mathematics, but doing nothing of note in any of these things. Even as a preacher he seems to have made but little impression, if we may judge by the answer made by one of his old parishioners to the question: "What sort of sermons did Mr. Tennyson preach?" "Eee read um from a paäper, an I didn't knaäw what um meant." But the father's versatility doubtless did his children good service; for in such a village as Somersby, the opportunities for general culture were few. Up to the age of seven, when he was sent to the grammar-school at Louth, Alfred was taught at home by his father. We are told that in the case of each of his boys, Mr. Tennyson was in the habit, before presenting them at the grammar-school, of making them commit to memory and recite every day one of the Odes of Horace, beginning with the Ode to Mæcenas and ending with the "In Praise of Augustus"—the last Ode of the four Books. Alfred went to Louth, entering the grammar-school the Christmas after the battle of Waterloo. His brother Charles was already there, and the whole family moved to Louth from Somersby in order to make a home for the boys. In 1820, at the age of eleven, Alfred left the school, and returned with his family to the parsonage at Somersby. In 1828 he went to Cambridge, and the years that elapsed between his leaving the grammar-school and his entering the university were among the most important in the youth of the poet. His further instruction in preparation for college was carried on at home; but on the whole the teaching was desultory; although, judging from the results, what was done in the way of direct instruction was done thoroughly. As Mr. Graham tells us, there was not a clever man in the county who was not asked to give his assistance in the task. One tutor drilled Alfred in mathematics; another in music; and a Roman Catholic priest taught him and his brother linguistics with a view to the university; and Alfred was allowed to spend much time in wandering about the moors, or in the woods that covered the hills on whose skirts the village of Somersby stood. Carlyle writes to Emerson: "You see in Tennyson's verse that he is a native of moated grange and green flat pastures, not of mountains and their torrents," and this is true in part; but Mr. Graham tells us that the country about Somersby is not flat, but broken and hilly, and that the place is named Somersby, i.e., summer's town, because it abounds in birds and flowers; and, indeed, one may know by the frequent allusions to flowers and birds and the nice observation shown in these allusions, that these things must have made a strong impression on the youthful mind of the poet. He learned nature at first hand, and had his lesson by heart, unconsciously imbibing it from his walks alone, or with his dearly loved elder brother, Charles—elder by five years—over all the country-side; and there is no doubt that the wild and dreary side of that region, the flat expanse of the fens slowly rescuing from the ever threatening and invading sea, the long line of the coast with its beaches and ridged mounds of sand built by the winds, and strengthened by the bird-sown seeds of grass to be barriers against the ocean—that all these scenes made an impression on his mind strong to balance the sweet woodland pastoral note of the Somersby brooks and flowery hollows, no one can doubt who knows Tennyson's poetry. He had little love for the hardier sports of boys, but was not a retiring child either, nor over-contemplative, although he was described by one of the old Northern Farmers he has immortalized, as a boy who would "sit for hours on a gate gawmin about him!" But this indolence was a trait that he had in common with many men destined to greatness, and it clung to him all his life. It was no sign of an indolent mind, but rather evidence of, perhaps, an over-active one. His earliest volume of poems—made up of his own with contributions from his brothers, Charles and Frederick, and published when he was eighteen—though written all along the track of the preceding years, bears evidence of much youthful wrestling with the problems of life, mingled with much that witnesses to the boy's pure joy in living. He began to write poetry at a very early age, and he found in his family an audience by no means at one in their appreciation of his talent. After hearing some of his verses, his grandfather gave him a half-guinea, and prophesied that it would prove the first and the last of his earnings by that trade. Whether or not the old gentleman lived to hear of his getting a whole guinea a line for some of his work, as we think we remember to have heard was the case with "Sea Dreams," we do not know; but, with his probable taste in poetry, supposing him to have cared for the poetry of his time, he would doubtless have looked upon Alfred's success as another sign of the degeneracy of the age. As has been hinted, Mr. Tennyson was very careful of his money, and his boys were not allowed much spending money. Alfred and his brother Charles had the natural youthful desire to see their poetry in print, but they could not with all their savings raise the money to meet the expense of publication. An old nurse of the family, the wife of the coachman, is authority for the statement that it was her husband who first showed the boys a way out of the difficulty. "Why don't you make a book of some of these poems you are all the time writing, and sell it to a publisher?" Acting on this hint the boys offered their small collection to a publisher, who doubtless thinking that two families so well-placed in the county as the Tennysons and the Fytches would insure the success of their young offshoots' venture, assumed the expense of printing, and gave the budding poets ten pounds to boot. The "Poems by two Brothers" appeared in 1827. The news of its publication was greeted by one of the uncles with the remark: "I hear that my nephew has made a book. I wish it had been a wheelbarrow!" The thin volume has long ago passed into the domain of "books not to be had," and when by any chance a copy is brought to light the price it brings in the open market would have taken the uncle's breath away. The book has lately been reprinted, and in this form is now accessible.

Tennyson in his Library.

At Cambridge, Tennyson entered Trinity College, and while there made the acquaintance of Arthur Henry Hallam, which soon ripened into the friendship that has been made immortal in the poem "In Memoriam." The only distinction Tennyson would seem to have gained at Cambridge was the Chancellor's gold medal awarded for the prize-poem "Timbuctoo," a curious production long consigned to oblivion but now included in the authorized edition of the poet's collected work.

In 1811 the Rev. Mr. Tennyson died, and on leaving Cambridge, Alfred returned to Somersby and lived with his mother and sisters. In 1830 he published "Poems chiefly Lyrical," in 1832 "Poems," and in 1842 "Poems," in two volumes, which first opened the eyes of the English public to the fact that a new planet had appeared in the heaven of poetry, and Tennyson's name soon became a household word. In 1845 he was awarded a pension of £200 per annum from the Civil List, and in 1850 he was made Poet Laureate, on the death of Wordsworth. In the same year he married Miss Emily Sellwood, whom he had long known at Somersby, the daughter of a lawyer, and niece of Sir John Franklin. In 1855 he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law from Oxford and in 1884, being then in his seventy-fifth year, he was raised to the peerage under the title of Baron Tennyson of Aldworth and Farringford.

Tennyson was an ardent lover of England, and seldom left his native country, and never for any long time. He had two residences, one at Freshwater, in the Isle of Wight, and the other at Aldworth on the top of Blackdown, in Surrey. He changed from one of these places to the other according to the seasons and led in both the same quiet family life, devoted to poetry, and enjoying to the full the delights of the country, caring little for other society than that of his intimate friends—a strong contrast in this respect to his great contemporary Browning, who delighted in the social life of London, as that life delighted in him. Mr. Edwin Arnold has given in a recent number of The Forum (1891) a very pleasant account of a day spent at Farringford in the company of the venerable poet and his only surviving son Hallam, named after the friend of his father's early years. Although Tennyson was averse to mingling in general society, and was difficult of access in his home, except to his intimate friends, yet those friends were among the elect spirits of England, and he has recorded his feeling for some of them—for Maurice, Fitzgerald, Spedding, Lear, among others—in poems that deserve a place among his best. His friendship for Carlyle grew out of his admiration for the genius of the man as well as his character, and Carlyle has left more than one sketch of his friend among his inimitable word-portraits of notable men.

The interest of Tennyson's life really centres in his early days spent in his father's parish of Somersby; his later life has flowed on in a stream rarely interrupted by any events with which the public was concerned, or that can be said to have greatly influenced his poetry. He was no doubt the product of his time, and took a deep interest in what was going on in the world, especially in so much of it as affected England. But his strong conservatism made him unsympathetic with much that is called progress, and which at any rate is change; and change of any sort was little welcome to Tennyson. He was not born to be a reformer, and was ill-fitted by his temper to lead public opinion. But his lofty moral character, the noble purity and elevation of his life, and his singleness of aim, joined with his extraordinary powers as a poet, as a wielder of the English language—and no poet since the great days has had such a varied power over all chords of the lyre—these elements combined to make the name of Tennyson without a doubt the greatest of his time among the poets of the English-speaking race. He died at Aldworth House, in Surrey, October 6, 1892.


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