by Mary Cook
Historic Lincolnshire, popularly known as “Tennyson County”, is a beguiling mixture of rolling hills (The Wolds) and fenland, scattered with old towns and villages, and defined on its eastern side by miles of golden sands bordering the North Sea. It is here that Alfred Tennyson, the “Pop Idol” of Victorian times, first saw the light of day in 1809.
No signposts point to the fact that Tennyson, hailed as one of England’s greatest poets, came from the tiny village of Somersby. Instead, there is a sense that he still lives there and has just stepped out for a walk. His life is signposted in old brick, stone, running water and rolling fields. Little of Somersby has changed to this day, with only token gestures being made towards the twenty-first century in the form of motorized transport and made-up roads.
The fourth of twelve children, Alfred was born at Somersby Rectory to George Clayton Tennyson and his wife Elizabeth. George Tennyson was the rector of two parishes, Somersby and Bag Enderby. (The endearing name of Bag Enderby simply means cul-de-sac.) Less than two miles from Somersby is the village of Harrington. It was this diminutive rural triangle, comprising the three villages, that formed the greater part of Alfred Tennyson’s world before the family moved away in 1837, inspiring some of his major works.
The Rev. George Tennyson’s mental and physical health gave cause for concern throughout Alfred’s childhood and early manhood. He suffered bouts of epilepsy and mood swings and was given to overuse of alcohol. His mental condition has been variously described as “paranoia” and “depression”, though it seems likely that some of his black moods were caused by brooding resentment. His own father had been disinherited by his wealthy grandfather, leaving his branch of the family to live in comparative poverty.
George’s moods were unpredictable and violent, frightening Alfred who was recorded on one occasion as having fled to the cemetery to pray for death. And at one stage, Alfred’s parents separated for a brief period because of the rector’s drunken rages.
The Tennyson children were not restricted by petty disciplines. Their manners were unrefined and they could sometimes be found roaming the local countryside after dark. The rectory was modest in size, which meant that the children sometimes had to sleep five or six to a room. Alfred would entertain his brothers and sisters with his tales of romantic chivalry.
Somersby’s Old Rectory, now a private house, is close to the unassuming fifteenth century Church of St. Margaret where Alfred’s father preached his sermons. The Rev. George Tennyson’s impressive stone tomb can be seen today close to the church entrance. Like the church, it is built of the locally quarried greenstone. Inside the church is a bronze bust of his poet son Alfred, as well as displays of Tennyson memorabilia.
Opposite the church is Somersby Grange, a large and ornate brick building dating from 1722 and attributed to the architect, Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726). It is likely that this grand castellated building seeming to belong to an even earlier age would have helped to fuel Alfred’s passion for romantic times past.
Inspired by the works of Sir Walter Scott featuring medieval chivalry, he wrote a three-volume epic of his own between the ages of thirteen and fourteen. In fact, he began writing poetry at the age of five. Much of his early work was influenced by the poetry of Lord Byron (1788-1824).
At Harrington, the tourist attraction Stockwith Mill houses a collection of Tennyson memorabilia. The mill, dating back to the early 17th century, is believed to be the inspiration for “The Miller’s Daughter:”
“It is the miller’s daughter,
And she is grown so dear, so dear,
That I would be the jewel
That trembles in her ear:
For hid in ringlets day and night,
I’d touch her neck so warm and white.”
It is also the “Philips Farm” of The Brook:
“Till last by Philip’s farm I flow
To join the brimming river,
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on for ever.”
The mill was nearly lost to Tennyson County in 1914 when there were plans for it to travel to America, shipped there brick by brick by a wealthy buyer. Fortunately for Lincolnshire, the sale fell through.
One of Tennyson’s youthful haunts, Harrington Hall was founded in the 14th century and over the years has undergone several major alteration schemes. It is said to be the inspiration for Tennyson’s poem, “Maud,” published in 1855. Maud is believed to have been written about a local girl of his acquaintance, Rosa Baring, whom he saw on the terrace, the “high hall garden” of the poem:
Come into the garden, Maud,
For the black bat, Night, has flown,
Come into the garden, Maud,
I am here at the gate alone;
And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad,
And the musk of the roses blown.
Parts of Maud and Other Poems suggest an almost obsessive love on the poets part, but it seems likely that it was more of a boyhood “crush”. Rosa Baring was one of a number of local girls who would ride from neighboring Harrington to Somersby, fascinated by the young Alfred’s highly developed intellect, shyness, and romantic appearance. (He usually wore a cloak and broad-brimmed hat and he kept his hair long and wild.)
Alfred would often pen verses to any girl who had captured his attention. But it was Rosa who claimed to be “Rose of the rosebud garden of girls.” Their relationship, if it ever amounted to such, was short-lived. Rosa eventually married Robert Shafto.
Like Stockwith Mill, Harrington Hall was nearly lost to Lincolnshire but for an entirely different reason. It had to be rebuilt after a major fire ripped through the east wing in 1991, the result of a carelessly placed blow-torch during refurbishment work. Television viewers of the time were shocked to see dramatic footage as the fire took hold. The house is now lovingly restored and the gardens are opened on occasional days to raise money for local charities. A handsome herd of Lincoln Red cattle can be seen grazing the surrounding fields.
At the age of seven, Alfred followed his older brother Charles to Louth Grammar School. The headmaster of the time, a Rev. J. Waite, was known to be a sadistic bully. When Alfred’s father found out how badly his boys were being treated, he recalled them and educated them at home, much to Alfred’s relief.
He said later: “How I did hate that school!” His only pleasant memories of his time spent there were of a single phrase of Latin and of an old wall outside the classroom window, covered with weeds.
Today, King Edward VI Grammar School, founded over 700 years ago in the historic market town of Louth, is a thriving academic institution specializing in the sciences.
Together with his brother Charles, Alfred spent childhood holidays at the east coast seaside resorts of Skegness and Mablethorpe, where the wind blows uninterrupted off the North Sea. Nowadays Skegness is a commercial seaside resort, hailed as the caravan capital of Europe, though it still retains some of its old-world charm. It would have been a mere village in Tennyson’s day when he spent many hours walking the sand dunes between Seacroft and Gibraltar Point.
In 1827, the year Alfred entered Cambridge University, he and Charles jointly published at Louth a poetry book, Poems by Two Brothers. When it first came into print, they traveled to Mablethorpe, where they declaimed their poems to the sea.
Alfred was underprivileged compared to other members of his family, some of whom lived in castles, and he worried about finance for most of his life. Although he lost money through unwise investments, his money worries were largely unfounded and he amassed a fortune through his prolific writing. His popular following was equal only to that of today’s pop singers and film actors. And how many people today have quoted or misquoted Tennyson without realizing it?
To the east of the old market town of Spilsby is Gunby Hall, a William and Mary brick residence, believed to have been Tennyson’s “haunt of ancient peace” in “The Palace of Art:”
“And one, an English home gray twilight pour’d
On dewy pastures, dewy trees,
Softer than sleep all things in order stored,
A haunt of ancient Peace.”
There is a copy of the verse at the house, written and signed by him and dated 1849.The house was built in 1700 by Sir William Massingberd. Administered by the National Trust, it remains in his family to this day. On selected days during the summer the house and gardens are open to the public.
While at Cambridge, Tennyson was invited to join an undergraduate club, “The Apostles”. Its members were to remain his lifelong friends, most of whom, like him, gained fame. The list of his friends and acquaintances reads like a Victorian Who’s Who of literature. It includes James Spedding, Edward Lushington and Richard Monckton Milnes. But his closest friend was fellow poet Arthur Hallam, on whose sudden early death in 1833 he wrote “In Memoriam.” It included the frequently sometimes inaccurately quoted lines:
“Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.”
The friendship between Tennyson and Arthur Hallam was particularly intense. Shortly after their first meeting, Tennyson wrote a poem to Hallam containing the lines:
“So, friend, when first I looked upon your face,
Our thoughts gave answer each to each so true
Opposed mirrors each reflecting each
That tho’ I knew not in what time or place,
Me thought that I had often met with you,
And either lived in either’s heart and speech.”
It was scarcely surprising that such powerful emotion on this meeting of great minds, almost of “love at first sight”, should result in an equally powerful outpouring of grief through In Memoriam on Hallam’s Death just four years later. It was this poem, among others, which was to bring comfort to Queen Victoria on the death of Prince Albert in 1861.
Tennyson published his book Poems in 1833. It was harshly criticized in The Quarterly Review as being over sentimental. The reviews dealt the poets confidence a major blow that resulted in a barren period of several years.
In 1850, Tennyson married a woman from Horncastle, Lincolnshire: Emily Sellwood, whose sister had married one of his brothers. The marriage took place after an on-off engagement spanning around 14 years. The “off” period was at the instigation of her family who had reservations about his suitability as his financial position was not very secure at the time. But any problems of that nature were removed when Tennyson, experiencing a resurgence of his literary powers, succeeded William Wordsworth as Poet Laureate later that same year.
The couple moved to the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England, later moving to Aldworth, Surrey. They had two sons and, unsurprisingly, the first was named Hallam. Tennyson was said to be a doting father.
Whether Emily had innate poetic tendencies or whether some of her husbands abilities were transferred to her is unclear. But she wrote in her journal on making the crossing to the Isle of Wight:
“It was a still November evening. One dark heron flew over the Solent backed by a daffodil sky.”
Tennyson enjoyed the admiration of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. He was offered a baronetcy in 1873 which he declined, though he later reluctantly accepted a peerage, becoming Alfred Lord Tennyson.
He died at Aldworth in 1892, arguably the most influential poet of his time, and was buried in the Poets Corner of Westminster Abbey. His funeral was attended by some of the most prominent literary figures of his time, including Thomas Hardy and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
On hearing of his death the Queen, referring to him as “dear old Lord Tennyson”, said: “He was a great poet, and his ideas were ever grand, noble, elevating.”
Visitors to Lincoln can see an enduring Tennyson tribute outside the cathedral in the form of a splendid bronze statue designed by George Frederick Watts (1817-1904). In addition, there is a Tennyson collection at Lincolns Usher Gallery, for it is Lincolnshire where Tennyson’s presence is still keenly felt. And the poets most fitting epitaph is the one murmured by “the babbling brook” that turns the wheel at Stockwith Mill:
“But I go on forever.”