Alfred Tennyson

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–92)

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 7, 385–388.

A poem by Leigh Hunt, concerning various women writers, appeared in The Monthly Repository for July 1837. The section on EBB (SD825.1) included: “(I took her at first for a sister of Tennyson),” as well as: “Only pray have a care, nor let Alfred beguile / Admiration too far into manner and style.” EBB, despite her deep and lasting admiration of Tennyson, always resented and denied implications—such as these—that she sought to imitate him. She wrote to RB on 7 January 1846: “I have faults enough … but let them be my faults!” Tennyson, though he achieved recognition earlier than did EBB, was born three years later—on 6 August 1809, in Somersby, Lincolnshire. He belonged to the large family of the Rev. George and Elizabeth (née Fytche) Tennyson. Alfred attended a grammar school at Louth for several years, then continued his education at home under the direction of his father, who had an excellent library. In 1827 he took part in the publication of an anonymous Poems by Two Brothers, though actually three Tennyson brothers—Alfred, Charles, and Frederick—were involved. By the following year, all three were students at Trinity College, Cambridge. Alfred, a leader in the prestigious “Apostles” literary society, won the Chancellor’s prize medal in 1829 for a poem entitled “Timbuctoo.” His first full volume of poetry, aside from the Two Brothers effort, was Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830). Also in 1830 he went to Spain with his closest friend, Arthur Hallam, and spent some time with an insurgent army in the Pyrenees. A volume entitled Poems, which included “The Lady of Shalott,” appeared about two years later, though carrying a publication date of 1833. The sudden death of Arthur Hallam in that same year threw Tennyson into a long period of grief and depression. He continued to write new poems and rework old ones, but his next major publication—again entitled Poems—did not appear until 1842. This work included “Locksley Hall,” with its references to future “heavens fill[ed] with commerce,” “nations’ airy navies,” and a “Federation of the world.” At about this time, Tennyson made an unwise investment in a “wood-carving machine” and was left penniless (see letter 1211). However, he recovered part of his money in 1845, and in that same year received a government pension of £200 annually. The year 1850 brought three major events for Tennyson: the publication of his In Memoriam , in honour of Arthur Hallam; his marriage to Emily Sarah Sellwood; and his appointment, after the death of William Wordsworth, as Poet Laureate. In 1853 the Tennysons took up residence near Freshwater, Isle of Wight, after brief stays at other locations. Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” appeared in 1854; Maud, in the following year. His Idylls of the King came in various segments from 1859 to 1885; Enoch Arden, in 1864. In his later years he wrote a number of poetic dramas, starting with Queen Mary (1875). Offered a peerage as early as 1873, he finally accepted and became Baron Tennyson in 1884. About 20,000 copies of his Demeter, and Other Poems (1889) were sold in the first week of publication. This work included the famous “Crossing the Bar.” The Foresters: Robin Hood and Maid Marian, appeared in 1892 and was staged in New York that same year. Tennyson reportedly was reading Shakespeare just a few hours before his death, which occurred on 6 October 1892. He, like RB three years earlier, was buried in Westminster Abbey.

In reply to a question from EBB, RB wrote to her on 26 February 1845: “I know Tennyson ‘face to face’,—no more than that.” EBB did not meet him until 1851, though Tennyson himself might have welcomed an earlier contact. On 13 March 1843 (letter 1175) EBB told her brother George that Tennyson had supposedly remarked to publisher Edward Moxon: “There is only one female poet whom I wish to see .. & that is Miss Barrett.” EBB questioned whether Tennyson had ever said such a thing; but, in any case, she was among his early admirers. Her letters to Mary Russell Mitford are sprinkled with comments such as: “a true, divine poet!” (no. 1080, 9 December 1842). On 20 August 1847, with allusions to Tennyson’s constant pipe-smoking, and to a woman who apparently had rejected him in favour of someone else, EBB told Miss Mitford: “I, personally, would rather be teazed a little & smoked over a good deal by a man whom I cd. look up to & be proud of, than have my feet kissed all day by a Mr. Smith in boots & a waistcoat, & thereby chiefly distinguished.” Nevertheless, EBB resented critics’ tendency to compare her writings to those of Tennyson. On 3 September 1844, concerning an Atlas review of her Poems of that year, she wrote to Miss Mitford: “I protest against being … called a follower of Tennyson in respect to the use of compound words,—it being a fact that I used them long before I ever read a line of Tennyson.” EBB exchanged notes with Tennyson (not extant) in 1843, as reported to Miss Mitford on 14 March (letter 1177). She forwarded to him some reviews that had been sent by her American correspondent Cornelius Mathews, and he responded with “a kind note.” Mathews wrote to her about Tennyson’s popularity in America, and she reported to RB on 7 December 1845: “Tennyson is idolized deep down in the back woods (to their honour be it said) but to understand you sufficiently, they wait for the explanations of the critics.” Tennyson received a copy of EBB’s Poems (1844) through courtesy of the publisher, Moxon, EBB having been too shy to send one herself. On 16 June 1845, she told RB of hearing that Tennyson had criticized her “want of harmony” but had acknowledged her possessing an “ear by nature.” Earlier, EBB had contributed substantially to the portion about Tennyson in R.H. Horne’s A New Spirit of the Age (1844). (See Reconstruction, D1374.) Tennyson’s portrait was one of five from A New Spirit of the Age that EBB hung in her room at 50 Wimpole Street. (The other four were of RB, Carlyle, Harriet Martineau, and Wordsworth.) Meanwhile, EBB’s brother George was in fairly frequent contact with Tennyson because of a mutual friend, the lawyer George Stovin Venables. EBB frequently pleaded with George, as in her letter of 4 August 1844: “Tell me everything about him [Tennyson]. You know what my interest is.” She commented favourably when Tennyson became Poet Laureate in 1850, though she herself had been mentioned as a possible recipient of the honour. She wrote to her sister Arabella on 19 December that Tennyson had “a claim to all honours in the eyes of all discerning men & women.” As for RB’s attitude, it is said that he “never wavered in his assertion of Tennyson’s supremacy” (G & M, p. 287). On the other hand, Michael Meredith in Meeting the Brownings (1986, p. 113) suggests that “there were times when Tennyson’s popularity and large sales rankled.” The Brownings met Tennyson and his wife in Paris in the summer of 1851, and a close friendship developed. “We were all friends at once,” EBB wrote to her sister Henrietta on 20–21 July. In London, the following year, the Brownings were invited to attend the christening of the Tennysons’ son Hallam, which occurred on 5 October. EBB wrote to Mrs. Tennyson on 29 September: “We had resolved on leaving England on the fifth, but you offer us an irresistible motive for staying, in spite of fogs & cold.” Actually, EBB was unable to attend, but RB did. In 1855 the Brownings were again in London, where Tennyson visited them on 26 and 27 September and read aloud his new poem, Maud. EBB described the event to her friend Julia Martin in a letter of 16 October: “One of the pleasantest things which has happened to us here … is the coming down on us of the Laureate, who … dined with us, smoked with us, opened his heart to us (& the second bottle of port) and ended by reading ‘Maud’ through, from end to end, going away at half past two in the morning.” Tennyson inscribed that copy of Maud to the Brownings, and RB dated it “September, 27” (Reconstruction, A2281). The artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti was present, and sketched Tennyson during the reading (Reconstruction, H114). His sketch is reproduced in Michael Meredith’s Meeting the Brownings (1986, p. 47). Meanwhile, the Brownings had formed a close friendship in Florence with Alfred Tennyson’s elder brother, Frederick, a member of the English expatriate community there. EBB wrote about him to Miss Mitford on 15 March 1853: “We like Mr. Tennyson extremely, & he is a constant visitor of ours.” Frederick himself wrote poetry, and a copy of his Days and Hours (1854) was inscribed to the Brownings (Reconstruction, A2290). RB kept in touch with Alfred Tennyson and family after his return to London in 1861. Hallam Tennyson wrote in Alfred, Lord Tennyson: A Memoir (1897, II, 229): “Browning frequently dined with us. The tête-à-tête conversations between him and my father on every imaginable topic … were the best talk I have ever heard, so full of repartee, quip, epigram, anecdote, depth and wisdom: but it is quite impossible to attempt to reproduce them, owing to their very brilliancy.” RB drew up a new will in 1864 and had Tennyson as one of the witnesses. When RB’s friend Alfred Domett published the long poem Ranolf and Amohia (1872), RB made sure that a copy went to Tennyson, who sent Domett a note of appreciation. Books of selections from RB’s own poetry were dedicated to Tennyson, both in 1865 and in 1872. In the latter year (on 17 December), RB wrote to Mrs. Tennyson concerning Hallam: “And now he is a man, and, you say, looks at my poetry sometimes,—I suppose on the principle that a youth kept in a plumcake-shop inclines to an occasional bite of black-sausage.” RB’s last letter to Tennyson, and one of the last he wrote before his final departure from England, was written on 5 August 1889 as a greeting on the approach (6 August) of Tennyson’s eightieth birthday. Tennyson sent his thanks on 11 August. RB was buried at Westminster Abbey on the final day of that same year, with Hallam Tennyson as one of the pall-bearers.

Known correspondence between the Brownings and the Tennysons (aside from EBB’s exchange of notes with Tennyson in 1843) extends from 1852 to the above-mentioned birthday notes of 1889. The Brownings’ library contained many books by Tennyson (Reconstruction, A2268–89), some of which he had inscribed. Reconstruction (Section C) also lists 21 copies of RB’s books given to Tennyson, as well as EBB’s Aurora Leigh (item C6).

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