This morning as I write this, or yesterday when this is posted, I was giving an all day tour to a family from New York and we went inside the incredible Westminster Abbey. As we were there 15 minutes before opening time, despite 60 or 70 people being ahead of us, there were hundreds behind us and knowing the intricacies of the Abbey quite well, we were soon able to get ahead of the crowds.
One of the most popular spots in Westminster Abbey is the area known as Poets Corner which has memorials to seemingly dozens of literary names from Geoffrey Chaucer onwards. I noticed when there that it was actually the birthday of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In the Victorian Age, it was said that Lord Tennyson was the third most famous person after Queen Victoria herself and Prime Minster William Gladstone.
He was born at Somersby in Lincolnshire on the 6th August 1809. His father, George Tennyson, was the rector at Somersby but he suffered from epilepsy, mental instability and had a drug and alcohol problem. However, he was a learned man and educated his son at home.
Part of the family heritage was a strain of epilepsy, a disease then thought to be brought on by sexual excess and therefore shameful. One of Tennyson’s brothers was confined to an insane asylum most of his life, another had recurrent bouts of addiction to drugs, a third had to be put into a mental home because of his alcoholism, another was intermittently confined and died relatively young. Of the rest of the eleven children who reached maturity, all had at least one severe mental breakdown. During the first half of his life Alfred thought that he had inherited epilepsy from his father and that it was responsible for the trances into which he occasionally fell until he was well over forty years old.
It was in part to escape from the unhappy environment of Somersby rectory that Alfred began writing poetry long before he was sent to school, as did most of his talented brothers and sisters. All his life he used writing as a way of taking his mind from his troubles. One peculiar aspect of his method of composition was set, too, while he was still a boy: he would make up phrases or discrete lines as he walked, and store them in his memory until he had a proper setting for them.
In 1827 Tennyson went to Trinity College, Cambridge where he soon became friendly with Arthur Henry Hallam a fellow member of The Apostles. Hallam also fell in love with Tennyson’s sister Emily. Unfortunately, in 1833 Arthur Hallam died while travelling in Austria with his father. This event affected Tennyson greatly and prompted him to start writing a series of lyrics which would later became In Memoriam.
In 1836 Tennyson fell in love with Emily Sellwood – the daughter of a Lincolnshire solicitor – however their marriage was delayed until 1850 due to his precarious financial circumstances and worries by Emily’s family concerning the general mental health of the Tennysons.
Their situation improved dramatically when Tennyson was appointed poet laureate in 1850 following the death of William Wordsworth – possibly on the recommendation of Prince Albert. This enabled him to move to Farringford on the Isle of Wight.
1850 also saw the publication of In Memoriam to great popular and critical acclaim.
Tennyson was one of the most popular poets of the Victorian age with his reputation was secured by Maud, and Other Poems (1855) and Idylls of the King (1859). Even Queen Victoria was among his admirers.
He was a consummate lyricist – and his work is full of melancholy and a sense of mortality. T.S.Eliot said of him that he had: ‘the finest ear of any English poet since Milton‘. It is said that sometimes he would scare passersby as he passionately recited poetry as he was going about his business.
There are memorials to Tennyson on the Isle of Wight and in the grounds of Lincoln Cathedral and of course in Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey where I visited just a few hours ago.
At his funeral, his poem Crossing the Bar was set to music by Sir Frederick Bridge.
If you’d like to read about a contemporary poet to this great man, then why not read my post which in passing touches on Robert Browning who is also commemorated at Westminster Abbey. Or venturing further into the past you can read about Christopher Smart and his famous poem about his cat, Jeoffry.