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Tennyson's 200th - spreading his arms to the wind and love


Yesterday was the 200th anniversary of the birth of poet Alfred Tennyson, and I want to say something about the small boy and poet who grew up amid "the black blood of the Tennysons" - drug addiction, alcoholism, insanity and melancholy - and resisted it with every ounce of his creative power, despite feeling at times overwhelming depression.

The fourth child in a family of twelve brothers and sisters, Tennyson loved poetry before he could read. "I was in the habit on a stormy day of spreading my arms to the wind, and crying out ‘I hear a voice that's speaking in the wind’, and the words ‘far, far away’ had always a strange charm for me". When he became a teenager, he used to shout his lines in "the silent fields, leaping over the hedges in my excitement".

Cambridge proved a let-down - the fields too flat, the classes too dull - but he met Arthur Henry Hallam, a charismatic fellow student, more brilliant and generous than any man he had known, and they became close friends. Hallam was also a good friend of the future Prime Minister, Gladstone. Though he was only 21, Hallam understood Tennyson's poetry before most of it was ever written. You might almost wonder if Hallam became Tennyson's Virgil, a guide and mentor in the dark years that followed. In an essay Hallam wrote not long before he died at 22, he described Tennyson's abilities -

First, his luxuriance of imagination, and at the same time his control over it.

Secondly his power of embodying himself in ideal characters, or rather moods of character, with such extreme accuracy of adjustment, that the circumstances of the narration seem to have a natural correspondence with the predominant feeling, and, as it were, to be evolved from it by assimilative force.

Thirdly his vivid, picturesque delineation of objects, and the peculiar skill with which he holds all of them fused, to borrow a metaphor from science, in a medium of strong emotion.

Fourthly, the variety of his lyrical measures, and exquisite modulation of harmonious words and cadences to the swell and fall of the feelings expressed.

Fifthly, the elevated habits of thought, implied in these compositions, and imparting a mellow soberness of tone, more impressive, to our minds, than if the author had drawn up a set of opinions in verse, and sought to instruct the understanding rather than to communicate the love of beauty to the heart.

The two men drew closer when Hallam fell in love with Tennyson's sister. Hallam's death - he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while travelling in Vienna - devastated Tennyson and would inspire some of his greatest poetry, including 'Ulysses' and 'In Memoriam'.

The decade of the 1830s was difficult. Tennyson fell deeply in love with Emily Sellwood, but broke off the engagement due to money problems. His father had died, leaving Tennyson responsible for his large family of brothers and sisters. He tried to make money, but lost everything in a bad financial investment. He was determined to earn an income as a poet, but though he was writing wonderful poems he stopped publishing them. Meeting adverse criticism, he had become convinced his work wasn't good enough. He constantly rewrote - and rewrote again, polishing and perfecting poems - even poems that had already been published.

He returned to publishing when he discovered that American publishers - notorious for ignoring copyright - were going to republish his poems. Copyright infringement was bad enough - Tennyson didn't want old and unrevised poems published. He published a volume of new and revised poems immediately. (And happily American publishers did pay him royalties.)

In 'Tithonus', an earlier companion piece to 'Ulysses', the young Tennyson revealed his appreciation for Classical myth and the delights of woman and nature while exposing the terrible bargain made by the lover who wants to live forever. Tithonus had been given immortality, but not eternal youth by the goddess who loved him -

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-haired shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.

Alas! for this gray shadow, once a man -
So glorious in his beauty and thy choice,
Who madest him thy chosen, that he seemed
To his great heart none other than a God!
I asked thee, "Give me immortality."
Then didst thou grant mine asking with a smile,
Like wealthy men who care not how they give.
But thy strong Hours indignant worked their wills,
And beat me down and marred and wasted me,
And though they could not end me, left me maimed
To dwell in presence of immortal youth,
Immortal age beside immortal youth,
And all I was, in ashes. Can thy love,
Thy beauty, make amends, though even now,
Close over us, the silver star, thy guide,
Shines in those tremulous eyes that fill with tears
To hear me? Let me go: take back thy gift:
Why should a man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men,
Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance
Where all should pause, as is most meet for all?

A soft air fans the cloud apart; there comes
A glimpse of that dark world where I was born.
Once more the old mysterious glimmer steals
From thy pure brows, and from thy shoulders pure,
And bosom beating with a heart renewed.
Thy cheek begins to redden through the gloom,
Thy sweet eyes brighten slowly close to mine,
Ere yet they blind the stars, and the wild team
Which love thee, yearning for thy yoke, arise,
And shake the darkness from their loosened manes,
And beat the twilight into flakes of fire.

Lo! ever thus thou growest beautiful
In silence, then before thine answer given
Departest, and thy tears are on my cheek.

Why wilt thou ever scare me with thy tears,
And make me tremble lest a saying learnt,
In days far-off, on that dark earth, be true?
"The Gods themselves cannot recall their gifts."

Ay me! ay me! with what another heart
In days far-off, and with what other eyes
I used to watch -if I be he that watched -
The lucid outline forming round thee; saw
The dim curls kindle into sunny rings;
Changed with thy mystic change, and felt my blood
Glow with the glow that slowly crimsoned all
Thy presence and thy portals, while I lay,
Mouth, forehead, eyelids, growing dewy-warm
With kisses balmier than half-opening buds
Of April, and could hear the lips that kissed
Whispering I knew not what of wild and sweet,
Like that strange song I heard Apollo sing,
While Ilion like a mist rose into towers.

Yet hold me not for ever in thine East:
How can my nature longer mix with thine?
Coldly thy rosy shadows bathe me, cold
Are all thy lights, and cold my wrinkled feet
Upon thy glimmering thresholds, when the steam
Floats up from those dim fields about the homes
Of happy men that have the power to die,
And grassy barrows of the happier dead.
Release me, and restore me to the ground;
Thou seest all things, thou wilt see my grave:
Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn;
I earth in earth forget these empty courts,
And thee returning on thy silver wheels.

With the help of good friends, Tennyson survived this difficult but productive period. On the strength of his poems - 'Locksley Hall', 'Morte d'Arthur', 'Ulysses', and the 'Lady of Shalott', to name a few - he was granted a civil-list pension of £200 per year for life by Sir Robert Peel. (We are fond of Peel.) In May, 1850, Tennyson published his great poem 'In Memoriam', inspired by Hallam. In June, twelve years after they were first engaged, he married 'incomparable' Emily, and in November he was made poet laureate.

About 'In Memoriam', Tennyson wrote, "It is rather the cry of the whole human race than mine. In the poem altogether private grief swells out into thought of, and hope for, the whole world. It begins with a funeral and ends with a marriage—begins with death and ends in promise of a new life—a sort of Divine Comedy, cheerful at the close."

I love the energy and spirit and hope of Canto CVI -

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.


Tennyson loved the spirit of Christianity. He detested fights about dogmas.

'The Charge of the Light Brigade', perhaps the most quoted of his works, was very different from 'In Memoriam'. Tennyson wrote the poem swiftly, in response to a news report from the Crimea - "Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred. . .Some one had blunder'd".

It's hard to do Tennyson justice - his melancholy and sweet, wild hopefulness; his music and mysticism; his attentive knowledge of the earth. T. S. Eliot said, 'Tennyson is a great poet, for reasons that are perfectly clear. He has three qualities which are seldom found together except in the greatest poets: abundance, variety, and complete competence'. And, I would add, courage.

I'll end with a simple poem, written a year before Tennyson died. He wrote it for Emily -

June Bracken and Heather

There on the top of the down,
The wild heather round me and over me June’s high blue,
When I look’d at the bracken so bright and the heather so brown,
I thought to myself I would offer this book to you,
This, and my love together,
To you that are seventy-seven,
With a faith as clear as the heights of the June-blue heaven,
And a fancy as summer-new
As the green of the bracken amid the gloom of the heather.

Quotes thanks to Oxford's Dictionary of National Biography.

Comments (1)


Tennyson, although utterly different, had the same ability as Burns: to reach out to the unpoetic soul and fill it with vivid images and an irrepressible rhythm.

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