It’s that time again! I enjoy writing these posts for the King’s Ginger so much – digging through the history of fascinating people and places that had some association with King Edward VII give me much pleasure. I hope you enjoy reading them as much! With that, it’s time to delve into the life and times of a real Victorian rock star (sort of) – Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
In an age before recorded music, poets and writer were big celebrities. Look at Lord Byron! Tennyson was one of the most popular poets in his day and is still one of the most popular ever. Born in 1809, he took up the post of Poet Laureate when William Wordsworth died in 1850 and remains to this day the longest serving Laureate, holding the position until he died in 1892.
From here, we find out that ‘the Scottish historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle described Tennyson as “one of the finest-looking men in the world,” with “bright, laughing hazel eyes” and a “most massive yet most delicate” face. Later in his life, a photographer called him “the most beautiful old man on earth.” His resonant, booming voice riveted listeners when he read his poetry.’
Tennyson composed a lot of his more famous poems before he became Laureate. That should be fairly obvious, though, since he needed to be well-regarded to have been appointed to the top job in the country! The Lotos-Eaters (which I analysed at University… don’t ask me anything about it as I have long forgotten), the Lady of Shalott (as famously painted by Waterhouse – one of my favourites) and Ulysses (not the impenetrable Joyce version) are all well-known.
The job of the Poet Laureate, as appointed by the monarch (in Tennyson’s case, Queen Victoria) is to compose poems and verse to mark national occasions – Royal weddings and deaths in particular. It was actually Prince Albert’s influence that got Tennyson the top job but it was his ‘In Memoriam A.H.H‘, a requiem poem ,which reputedly brought Victoria some peace after the death of her beloved Prince in 1861. It contains some of the most memorable verses in the English language, perhaps ever:
‘I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.’
But the verse that so comforted the Queen (she swapped the genders) read thus:
Tears of the widower, when he sees
A late-lost form that sleep reveals, And moves his doubtful arms, and feels
Her place is empty, fall like these;
He notably once put his foot in it with Queen Victoria, whom he apparently only met in person twice – the first time being after the death of Albert, and after she had read and found comfort in the above poem. In 1863, she asked the Duke of Argyll to tell Tennyson to come and see her. After receiving the Duke’s letter, Tennyson was apparently rather alarmed and wrote back, ‘I am a shy beast and like to keep in my burrow. Two questions, what sort of salutation to make on entering Her private room? And whether to retreat backward? or sidle out as I may?’
The foot incident happened with his telling Victoria, ‘He would have made a great King’. Prince Albert, as Prince Consort could, of course never be king. Silly old Tennyson. ‘As soon as it was out of my mouth,’ he related to a friend later, ‘I felt what a blunder I had made.’ Victoria didn’t seem to mind at all, though.
It’s probably fair to say that art and creativity cannot be forced, so some of Tennyson’s least inspiring poems were those he wrote out of duty. The one that’s most important to my story is the one written for the marriage of Princess Alexandra of Denmark to our hero, Albert, Prince of Wales on March 10th, 1863, published in the Times.
The Wikipedia page for Tennyson describes it as ‘uninspired’, which may be a little unfair. Well, judge it for yourselves!
SEA-KING’S daughter from over the sea,
Saxon and Norman and Dane are we,
But all of us Danes in our welcome of thee,
Welcome her, thunders of fort and of fleet!
Welcome her, thundering cheer of the street!
Welcome her, all things youthful and sweet,
Scatter the blossom under her feet!
Break, happy land, into earlier flowers! 10
Make music, O bird, in the new-budded bowers!
Blazon your mottoes of blessing and prayer!
Welcome her, welcome her, all that is ours!
Warble, O bugle, and trumpet, blare!
Flags, flutter out upon turrets and towers! 15
Flames, on the windy headland flare!
Utter your jubilee, steeple and spire!
Clash, ye bells, in the merry March air!
Flash, ye cities, in rivers of fire!
Rush to the roof, sudden rocket, and higher 20
Melt into stars for the land’s desire!
Roll and rejoice, jubilant voice,
Roll as a ground-swell dash’d on the strand,
Roar as the sea when he welcomes the land,
And welcome her, welcome the land’s desire 25
The sea-king’s daughter as happy as fair,
Blissful bride of a blissful heir,
Bride of the heir of the kings of the sea,—
O joy to the people, and joy to the throne,
Come to us, love us and make us your own: 30
For Saxon or Dane or Norman we,
Teuton or Celt, or whatever we be,
We are each all Dane in our welcome of thee,
The catchily titled Opening of the Indian and Colonial Exhibition by the Queen, 1886 was written at the request of Prince Bertie and is similarly… meh. But it’s notable perhaps, that one of the very last poems Tennyson ever wrote was in memory of Bertie’s son, the Duke of Clarence in early 1892. Tennyson died later the same year.
I found a fascinating reference to Tennyson’s funeral in a newspaper from Sacramento, California, of all places. It reads:
The fact that the Prince of Wales absented himself from the funeral of Tennyson in order that he might attend the Newmarket races is provoking considerable comment. His action is especially dilated upon by the Radical journals. His absence from Westminster would have been less remarked upon but for the fact that not a single royal personage was present at the funeral. Since the Tranby Croft affair, public opinion has been very sensitive in regard to the conduct of the Prince, but the public takes a very common-sense view of the Prince’s present action. Efforts being made to arouse a feeling against him fall flat. It is generally felt that his partiality for the lighter side of national life is so marked that to show deep regret over the death of Tennyson would be mere hypocrisy. The Chronicle says: It is true the Prince went where the mass of the people went. Tennyson was never the people’s poet, but the point is whether in the hearts of the people they really prefer a Prince who cannot postpone one day’s shooting or racing in order to mark a great epoch in his mother’s reign. The Radical journals, while dilating upon the Prince’s absence, discreetly omit, as far as possible, Gladstone’s absence.
So interesting. And I will have to look up this Tranby Croft affair!
Onto my photos. In 1884 Victoria created him Baron Tennyson, of Aldworth in the County of Sussex and of Freshwater in the Isle of Wight. Preferring to do some of my own sleuthing for these pieces, I therefore set off to Sussex to find his primary seat.
Leaving the very last few metres of Surrey before entering Tennyson’s county, I started down his own lane before arriving at the pile. Here’s what I found:
Sadly, it is a private residence and the sign is at the start of a mile-long (literally) drive that I was too chicken to trespass on to take a photo. So here’s one the internet made earlier:
The views from the land around where the house sits, on Blackdown, are stunning. Tennyson often set out from home to walk, take the clean air (Haslemere is very high) and look across the country and be inspired by the amazing views.
I hiked to the mysteriously named Temple of the Winds, one of Tennyson’s absolute favourite views. Turned out it was named after the actual winds, of which there were lots.
Black Down was the property of various landowners until WE Hunter donated it in 1948, as a memorial to his wife. A nifty stone seat was installed at that time, so I pretended to be Tennyson looking at the view and thinking about poems… despite the fact the seat wasn’t there then. Artistic
On Tennyson’s death, William Morris was offered the position of Laureate, which he declined. Alfred Austin became the next, and he lived through the coronation and subsequent death of King Edward VII. But that is a story for another time.
I will leave you with another of Tennyson’s most famous excerpts, from The Charge of the Light Brigade, in which few short lines, he perfectly captured the futility of war.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Don’t forget to visit the King’s Ginger site if you get a mo and snap yourself up a bottle to see out the last chilly days before we get into summer cocktail season. Tis the perfect time of year for a King’s Spring Daisy!