“Tennyson’s rank is too well fixed and we love him too much.” — Oscar Wilde

“He was not only a minor Virgil, he is also with Virgil as Dante saw him, a Virgil among the Shades, the saddest of all English poets.” – T.S. Eliot

It’s Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s birthday, born on August 6, 1809.

Before we get started, here’s a short poem from the man who wrote super long poems. I think it’s perfection. Every. Single. Word.

The Eagle
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

Tennyson’s father was a rector, and also alcoholic, abusive, and prone to fits of rage, black moods, even actual fits (epilepsy? Nobody really knows). There was “madness” in Tennyson’s family line, a fact of which he remained acutely aware. His grandfather, his uncle, his great-grandfathers, and both of his brothers also had irritable melancholy dispositions, so much so that one of his brothers was in an asylum for sixty years. He feared that he, too, had the same affliction.

Tennyson went to Trinity College, and was already publishing books of verse in his late teens. He met Arthur Hallam at Trinity, a friend and critic, whose early death in 1833 affected Tennyson greatly and inspired him to write In Memoriam, a series of elegies that really “hit” with the public. Tennyson had a gift for hitting with the public.

There’s so much Tennyson I can’t get through … like, he does go on and on and ON … but then there are lines which reverberate through my whole life, which I reference constantly, as though they were my own original thoughts, and not just the most famous ones, like “red in tooth and claw” – although I JUST used it in a movie review! Here’s another example. This is my favorite in all of Tennyson, and I have L.M. Montgomery to thank for introducing me to it as a child (she referenced it in one of the Anne books, I think, or maybe one of the Emily books:

THE splendour falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story:
The long light shakes across the lakes,
And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, farther going!
O sweet and far from cliff and scar
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!
Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O love, they die in yon rich sky,
They faint on hill or field or river:
Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
And grow for ever and for ever.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.

My GOD that is satisfying.

Tennyson also wrote what I consider to be one of the most perfect descriptions of despair:

On the bald street breaks the blank day.

Many writers go their whole lives without ever writing such a line.

I have some beef with his philosophical statement “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” (I’m with Tommy Lee Jones’ character in Men in Black, whose response when someone says that to him is perfection, and I have used it myself: “Try it”). Tennyson was a poet of deep feeling, but who was a very public man. He did not just “write for himself,” he was Poet Laureate after all (succeeding Wordsworth in the job), and he did love to pontificate. So while I may not agree that it is “better” to have “loved and lost”, I am still amazed that someone actually WROTE such a line. A line we continue to argue about today!

He was hugely influential in his day. He was world-famous. This is one of the reasons why T.S. Eliot felt the need to cut him down to size (see quote at top of post). Tennyson was a Tradition, and in the context of Modernism, traditions needed to be abolished. Tennyson had few rivals (maybe Robert Browning, but that’s about it) – not because he was so great, but because that was the state of poetry in the Victorian era, when everyone was a poet, but few were really good or distinctive. People still seem conflicted about Tennyson. There were some detractors among his contemporaries, too, but the establishment loved him. Turning away from him took courage (see Gerard Hopkins’ quotes below). So whether poets were paying homage to him, or fighting against him, the fact remains: Tennyson was the one to beat.

In 1850, he became poet laureate. Tennyson was suited to the job. We don’t live so much in a poetic age now, and Poet Laureate has become a job argued about on a political and sociological front: Can a poet, assumed to be left-wing, write FOR an “establishment” such as a government, often assumed to be intrinsically bad and evil? It’s a stupid conversation, in my opinion, and everyone needs to relax. Billy Collins, poet laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, wrote a poem about September 11 called “The Names“, that I took (and still take) enormous comfort from. It’s great laureate art. Collins understood the nature of his job. He rose to the occasion. Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” memorializing the Battle of Balaclava in 1854, is the quintessential Poet Laureate poem. It’s a classic and it must – I say, it MUST, be read out loud.

With Tennyson there is a lot of … silliness and sentimentality, but there are always stray striking lines, lines you never forget, lines that become a part of how you see the world, conceive of things, either for/against. I love the last verse of “Ulysses”.


It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honoured of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers;
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breath were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle –
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me –
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads – you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


Capt. Robert Walker, on D-Day:

Here I was on Omaha Beach. Instead of being a fierce, well-trained, fighting infantry warrior, I was an exhausted, almost helpless, unarmed survivor of a shipwreck. I saw dozens of soldiers, mostly wounded. The wounds were ghastly to see. [The scene reminded me of Tennyson’s lines] in ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’: ‘Cannon to right of them / Cannon to left of them / Cannon in front of them / Volley’d and thunder’s.’ Every GI knew the lines ‘Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die.’”

From James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

— And who is the best poet, Heron? asked Boland.

— Lord Tennyson, of course, answered Heron.

— O, yes, Lord Tennyson, said Nash. We have all his poetry at home in a book.

At this Stephen forgot the silent vows he had been making and burst out:

— Tennyson a poet! Why, he’s only a rhymester!

— O, get out! said Heron. Everyone knows that Tennyson is the greatest poet.

— And who do you think is the greatest poet? asked Boland, nudging his neighbour.

— Byron, of course, answered Stephen.

Of course.

Aubrey Thomas de Vere on Tennyson:

“Large dark eyes, generally dreamy but with an occasional gleam of imaginative alertness, the dusky, almost Spanish complexion, the high-built head and the massive abundance of curling hair like the finest and blackest silk…”

Ezra Pound, 1915:

Poetry must be as well written as prose. Its language must be a fine language, departing in no way from speech save by a heightened intensity (ie. simplicity). There must be no book words, no periphrases, no inversions. It must be as simple as De Maupassant’s best prose, and as hard as Stendahl’s … Objectivity and again objectivity, and expression: no hindeside-beforeness, no straddled adjectives (as ‘addled mosses dank’), no Tennysonianness of speech; nothing – nothing that you couldn’t, in some circumstance in the stress of some emotion, actually say. Every literaryism, every book word, fritters away a scrap of the reader’s patience, a scrap of his sense of your sincerity.

Arthur Henry Hallam, 1931 review of Tennyson’s poems:

That delicate sense of fitness which grows with the growth of artist feelings, and strengthens with their strength, until it acquires a celerity and weight of decision hardly inferior to the correspondent judgments of conscience, is weakened by every indulgence of heterogeneous aspirations, however pure they may be, however lofty, however suitable to human nature.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

Tennyson always feared his own imagination, and distrusted its tendency to assert autonomy. Hallam’s gift to Tennyson was to give the poet enough confidence in the value of his own imagination to allow him to indulge it, for a time. The best early poems–“Mariana,” “The Lady Shalott,” “The Palace of Art,” “The Lotos-Easters” (all except the magical “The Hesperides”)–manifest an uneasiness at their own Spenserian-Keatsian luxuriance, but in all of them the poetry is at work celebrating itself, so that as readers we believe the song and not the singer. What stays with us is the embowered, self-delighting consciousness in the sensuous prison-paradise, and not the societal censor that disapproves of such delight.

Tennyson, on writing poetry at age five:

I covered two sides of a slate with Thomsonian blank verse in praise of flowers.

Leigh Hunt, critic and essayist:

We have seen no such poetical writing since the last volume of Mr. Keats.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, on meeting Tennyson:

[He was] cultivated, quite unaffected … the air of one who is accustomed to be petted and indulged by those he lives with.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson
By Dorothy Parker

Should Heaven send me any son,
I hope he’s not like Tennyson.
I’d rather have him play a fiddle
Than rise and bow and speak an idyll.

Michael Schmidt, on the impact of In Memoriam:

The debt to the Greek poets, to Horace and to other classical writers, is clear in the images and conventions such as the garden of Adonis. The suppressed sensual – even sexual – feeling has a strange potency. There are phrasal echoes of the full-fledged classical elegies. Those models helped him imbue personal loss – physical, emotional and spiritual – with universal reverence. The widowed Queen Victoria took solace from the poem; it was read by soldiers and widows as though written out of their own grief. In the sixth elegy he writes, “Never morning wore / To evening but some heart did break.” He invites readers to attach their own grief to his. With Virgilian tact he touches the deep sentiment of the age: helpless sadness of loss, fear of a shrouded future, a generalized guilt and religious doubt. The poem enacts a “ritual of recovery” – moving from despair by stages not to happiness but to a wan wisdom, metaphysical rebirth, a meeting beyond the grave, “soul in soul.”

W.H. Auden:

He had the finest ear, perhaps, of any English poet; he was also undoubtedly the stupidest; there was little about melancholia he didn’t know; there was little else that he did.


L.M. Montgomery, journal entry:

I cannot think he is a supremely great poet. There is something lacking in him. He is very beautiful — very graceful. In short, the Perfect Artist. But he seldom lets us forget the artist — we are never swept away — Not he — he flows on serenely. And that is good. But an occasional bit of wild nature would make it better still.

Michael Schmidt:

The Ode on Wellington and The Charge of the Light Brigade are masterpieces of laureate art. Few laureates are so transparently sincere, prompt and prosodically competent in the execution of their duties. ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade‘ entered the common memory.

Tennyson, letter to his uncle about his brother Septimus:

I have very little doubt but that his mind will prove as deranged as Edward’s…I have studied the minds of my own family–I know how delicately they are organized–At present his symptoms are not unlike those with which poor Edward’s unhappy derangement began–he is subject to fits of the most gloomy despondency.

T.S. Eliot, on “In Memoriam A.H.H.”:

It happens now and then that a poet by some strange accident expresses the mood of his generation, at the same time that he is expressing a mood of his own which is quite removed from that of his generation…[Tennyson has] emotion so deeply suppressed, even from himself, as to tend rather towards the blackest melancholia.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

If Tennyson is something of a poetic split personality, this does not make his work less powerful, nor does it affect his poetry where it is strongest, in style, by which more than diction and metric is meant. Tennyson’s style, the most flawless in English poetry after Milton’s and Pope’s, is itself a sensibility, a means of apprehending both the internal and the external world. Intuitively, Tennyson understood what poetry was; argument that could not be separated from song, gesture, dance, and the rhythms of a unique but representative individual’s breath-soul. Browning and Yeats, and the High Romantics before Tennyson, were all of them masterful and original conceptualizers than Tennyson, and all of them mastered a great style, but none of them wrote so well so consistently as he did.

Philip Larkin:

I shouldn’t normally show what I’d written to anyone; what would be the point? You remember Tennyson reading an unpublished poem to Jowett; when he had finished, Jowett said, I shouldn’t publish that if I were you, Tennyson. Tennyson replied, If it comes to that, Master, the sherry you gave us at lunch was downright filthy. That’s about all that can happen.

Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Do you know, a horrible thing has happened to me. I have begun to doubt Tennyson.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

Even excluding the plays, it is a vast body of work: poems of feeling and of sentiment, poems of thought and of received opinion. When Browning acquired an audience, he turned garrulous. Tennyson turned sententious. But the Representative Voice does not merely entertain doubts, he actually feels them; his politics, like his religion, are rooted in memory of the past and fear of the future. A liberal, he distrusts progressivism even as he acknowledges the injustices and evils that make it necessary. Tennyson is an intellectual enigma, which is why many take him to be a philosopher speaking for their own indecision and doubt.

L.M. Montgomery, “The Waking of Helen”:

The next day Reeves took his Tennyson to the shore and began to read the Idylls of the King to her.

“It is beautiful,” was her sole verbal comment, but her rapt eyes said everything.

George Orwell:

There are people (Tennyson is an example) who lack the mechanical faculty but can see the social possibilities of machinery.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language, on “In Memorial A.H.H.”:

This is Tennyson’s most ambitious poem, and as much the defining work of its time as Eliot’s Waste Land was of the 1920s and 1930s.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, letter to Robert Bridges, October 25, 1879:

I sometimes wonder at this in a man like Tennyson: his gift of utterance is truly golden, but go further home and you come to thoughts commonplace and wanting in nobility (it seems hard to say it but I think you know what I mean).

A.S. Byatt, on writing Possession:

My mind has been full since childhood of the rhythms of Tennyson and Browning, Rossetti and Keats. I read and reread Emily Dickinson, whose harsher and more sceptical voice I found more exciting than Christina Rossetti’s meek resignation. I wanted a fierce female voice. And I found I was possessed – it was actually quite frightening – the nineteenth-century poems that were not nineteenth-century poems wrote themselves, hardly blotted, fitting into the metaphorical structure of my novel, but not mine, as my prose is mine.

Camille Paglia, “Love Poetry”:

Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites revive the medieval cut of idealized women, supporting the Victorian view of women’s spirituality. Tennyson’s heroines, like weary Mariana, love in mournful solitude. His Idylls retell Arthurian romance. In Memoriam, Tennyson’s elaborate elegy for Hallam, is homoerotic in feeling.

Philip Larkin:

Of course, the days when Tennyson would publish a sonnet telling Gladstone what to do about foreign policy are over. It’s funny that Kipling, who is what most people think of as a poet as national spokesman, never was laureate. He should have had it when Bridges was appointed, but it’s typical that he didn’t – the poet isn’t thought of in that way. It really is a genuine attempt to honor someone.


I wrote as much as seventy lines at one time, and used to go shouting them about the fields after dark.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

He became the perfect model of a poet who is a bereaved lover, and the largest we clue we can have as to the meaning of his poetry is in its relationship to [Arthur Henry] Hallam. Hallam represented Romanticism to Tennyson, and the later Tennyson would have been more of a High Romantic and less of a societal spokesman if Hallam had lived.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, letter to R.W. Dixon, December, 1881:

Tennyson and his school seem to me to have struck a mean or compromise between Keats and the medievalists on the one hand and Wordsworth and the Lake School on the other (Tennyson has some jarring notes of Byron in Lady Clare Vere de Vere, Locksley Hall and elsewhere).

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, November 24, 1965:

The great Victorians for me are Tennyson, Browning, Lear, Fitzgerald, Arnold and Hopkins.

Matthew Arnold in a letter to his mother, 1860:

The real truth is that Tennyson, with all his temperament and artistic skill, is deficient in intellectual power; and no modern poet can make very much of his business unless he is pre-eminently strong in this.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

In the better mode of the memorable, cognition is a vital element in possession. Thus, I tend to recite Tennyson’s superb dramatic monologue “Ulysses” to myself, on days when I have to battle depression or adversity, or just the consequences of old age. Frequently, I ask classes to read and reread “Ulysses” out loud to themselves while thinking and rethinking it through. What could be more inevitable, in the grand sense of what must be? … “Though much is taken, much abides”: that seems to me the essence of positive inevitability in phrasing.

Nancy Milford, Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay:

When he asked whose influences she recognized in her own work, she acknowledged Housman and Tennyson. “The former for his emotional attitude and spare poignancy of expression; the latter for narrative power and technical innovations.” He thought it “singular” that she credited Housman for he ranked her a far better poet. And while he admired Tennyson, he was puzzled that she regarded him as a technical innovator. He insisted that Swinburne was far superior. Edna looked at him quizzically and asked him to read favorite stanzas. When he began to quote

I hid my heart in a nest of roses,
Out of the sun’s way, hidden apart;
In a softer bed than the soft white snow’s is,
Under the roses I hid my heart,

she said he could have his Swinburne; the passages he quoted were ‘but sound’; the debt she recognized was to Tennyson.”

Leigh Hunt, critic and essayist:

We have seen no such poetical writing since the last volume of Mr. Keats.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, letter to R.W. Dixon, December 22, 1880:

Absolutely speaking, I believe that if I were now reading Tennyson for the first time I should form the same judgment of him that I form as things are, but I should not feel, I should lose, I should never have gone through, that boyish stress of enchantment that this Ode and the Lady of Shalott and many other of his pieces once laid me under.

Michael Schmidt:

His instinct for appropriate rhythm is unmatched among the Victorians. And it is an instinct.

L.M. Montgomery, journal entry:

I detest Tennyson’s ‘Arthur’! If I’d been Guinevere, I’d have been unfaithful to him too. But not for Lancelot — he is just as unbearable in another way. As for Geraint, if I’d been Enid, I’d have bitten him. These ‘patient Griseldes’ of women deserve all they get! I like Tennyson because he gives me nothing but pleasure. I cannot love him because he gives me nothing but pleasure … I love best the poets who hurt me. But I think I shall have some love for Tennyson after this — for today I read a verse in ‘In Memoriam’ which I do not think I can ever have read carefully before — which scorched me with a sudden flame of self-revelation and brought to me one of those awful moments when we look into the abysses of our own natures and recoil in horror. The verse was:

Do we indeed desire the dead
Should still be near us at our side?
Is there no baseness we would hide,
No inner vileness that we dread?

T.S. Eliot on Tennyson’s religion:

It is not religious because of the quality of its faith, but because of the quality of its doubt.

Tennyson, “Maud”, 1855:

The churches have killed their Christ.

Michael Schmidt:

In 1850 Tennyson received public laurels and fulfilled a private desire. He was married after a courtship whose length reflected not reluctance but lack of money. He published In Memoriam. And he became poet laureate, succeeding Wordsworth. The “Ode on Wellington” and “The Charge of the Light Brigade” are masterpieces of laureate art. Few laureates are so transparently sincere, prompt and prosodically competent in the execution of their duties. ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ entered the common memory.

Jeanette Winterson:

The particular struggle of Tennyson, how to be sensitive in an age that disliked sensitivity in men, was clearly not a problem for a woman.

Tennyson on Nyron:

When I heard of his death I went out to the back of the house and cut on a wall with my knife, “Lord Byron is dead.”

L.M. Montgomery, journey entry on “Guenivere”:

Tennyson says ‘We needs must love the highest when we see it.’ But that is false — utterly false! There is no such compulsion — more’s the pity. We must admire the highest when we see it — but it does not command our love. Guenivere was right when she said, ‘The low sun makes the color.’

Matthew Arnold, letter to his mother:

It might be fairly urged that I have less poetical sentiment than Tennyson, and less intellectual vigor and abundance than Browning; yet, perhaps because I have more of a fusion of the two than either of them, and have regularly applied that fusion to the main line of modern development, I am likely enough to have my turn, as they have had theirs.

L.M. Montgomery, April 1, 1907, letter to pen pal George MacMillan:

I loved one man in whom nobody could see anything to admire. I couldn’t care for the other who was in all respects admirable. If I had married B, I should have been unhappy all my life. If I had married A I should I believe have been happy but I would have deteriorated in every way – “lowered to his level,” as Tennyson says. But Tennyson is not always right. When I was a schoolgirl I very much admired and believed a line in his poem “Lancelot and Guinevere.”

“We needs must love the highest when we see it.”

I don’t believe it now. It is not true. We must admire the highest but love is an entirely different matter and is quite likely to leave the best and go to the worst. Oh, it is a horribly perplexing subject and I grow dizzy thinking of it.

Michael Schmidt:

Elegies and poems of aftermath were Tennyson’s forte. He was a gray beard from the beginning.

Gerard Manley Hopkins:

It seems to me that the poetical language of an age shd. be the current language heightened, to any degree heightened and unlike itself, but not (I mean normally; freaks and graces are another thing) an obsolete one. This is Shakespeare’s and Milton’s practice and the want of it will be fatal to Tennyson’s Idylls and plays, to Swinburne, and perhaps to Morris.

Oscar Wilde, letter to Walt Whitman:

Tennyson’s rank is too well fixed and we love him too much. But he has not allowed himself to be a part of the living world and of the great currents of interest and action. He is of priceless value and yet he lives apart from his time. He lives in a dream of the unreal. We, on the other hand, move in the very heart of today.

From “An Ancient to Ancients”
By Thomas Hardy

The bower we shrined to Tennyson
Is roof-wrecked; damps there drip upon
Sagged seats, the creeper-nails are rust,
The spider is sole denizen;
Even she who voiced those rhymes is dust,

The Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline: on Deborah Warren:

The formation of a writer occurs in many ways, but a fine teacher can reveal a poet in the way a sculptor finds the statue within the stone. At a formative time in her life, Deborah Warren and her connection with Miss Florence Hunt helped form this adolescent poet in her writing, poetry and prose. Keats, particularly the Odes, infused her memory; perhaps Warren’s examinations of time and dimension have their origins in “Ode to a Nightingale”. As Warren’s high school poetic foundation moved from Keats toward Tennyson, she became cognizant of a more modern diction, further drawn to meter. Tennyson’s tribute “To Virgil” speaks of meter, “. . . Though thine ocean-roll of rhythm / sound forever of Imperial Rome–“.

Michael Schmidt:

Tennyson and Browning did not immediately hit it off, though a few years later at the publisher Edward Morton’s dinner table (three months before Browning’s elopement with Elizabeth Barrett) they became friends, and though not intimate they remained friends – meeting in France, Italy and England – for the rest of their lives. Tennyson had not relished Browning’s consonantal cacophony since he read Sordello in 1840. But both men swallowed hard and spoke well of one another’s verse, dedicating poems to each other. Browning liked Tennyson’s verse better than Tennyson liked Browning’s.

Great actress Ellen Terry, in her wonderful memoir The Story of my Life (my review here), leaves a fascinating glimpse of Tennyson, the private man, and his kindness to her, a young woman suddenly in his orbit:

Little Holland House, where Mr. Watts lived, seemed to me a paradise, where only beautiful things were allowed to come. All the women were graceful, and all the men were gifted. The trio of sisters – Mrs. Prinsep (mother of the painter), Lady Somers, and Mrs. Cameron, who was the pioneer in artistic photography as we know it today – were known as Beauty, Dash, and Talent. There were two more beautiful sisters, Mrs. Jackson and Mrs. Dalrymple. Gladstone, Disraeli and Browning were among Mr. Watts’ visitors. At Freshwater, where I went soon after my marriage, I first saw Tennyson.

As I write down these great names I feel almost guilty of an imposture! Such names are bound to raise high anticipation, and my recollections of the men to whom some of the names belong are so very humble.

I sat, shrinking and timid, in a corner – the girl-wife of a famous painter. I was, if I was anything at all, more of a curiosity, of a side-show, than hostess to these distinguished visitors…

Tennyson was more to me than a magic-lantern shape, flitting across the blank of my young experience, never to return. The first time I saw him he was sitting at the table in his library, and Mrs. Tennyson, her very slender hands hidden by thick gloves, was standing on a step-ladder handing him down some heavy books. She was very frail, and looked like a faint tea-rose. After that one time I only remember her lying on a sofa.

In the evenings I went walking with Tennyson over the fields, and he would point out to me the differences in the flights of different birds, and tell me to watch their solid phalanxes turning against the sunset, the compact wedge suddenly narrowing sharply into a thin line. He taught me to recognize the barks of trees and to call wild flowers by their names. He picked me the first bit of pimpernel I ever noticed. Always I was quite at ease with him. He was so wonderfully simple…

It was easy enough to me to believe that Tennyson was a poet. He showed it in everything, although he was entirely free from any assumption of the poetical role…

At Freshwater I was still so young that I preferred playing Indians and Knights of the Round Table with Tennyson’s sons, Hallam and Lionel, and the young Camerons, to sitting indoors noticing what the poet did and said. I was mighty proud when I learned how to prepare his daily pipe for him. It was a long churchwarden, and he liked the stem to be steeped in a solution of sal volatile, or something of that kind, so that it did not stick to his lips. But he and all the others seemed to me very old. There were my young knights waiting for me; and jumping gates, climbing trees, and running paper-chases are pleasant when one is young.

It was not to inattentive ears that Tennyson read his poems. His reading was most impressive, but I think he read Browning’s “Ride from Ghent to Aix” better than anything of his own, except, perhaps, “The Northern Farmer”. He used to preserve the monotonous rhythm of the galloping horses in Browning’s poem, and made the words come out sharply like hoofs upon a road. It was a little comic until one got used to it, but that fault lay in the ear of the hearer. It was the right way and the fine way to read this particular poem, and I have never forgotten it.

In after years I met Tennyson again, when with Henry Irving I acted in two of his plays at the Lyceum…To him and to the others my early romance was always the most interesting thing about me. When I saw them in later times, it seemed as if months, not years, had passed since I was Nelly Watts.

I like that he was kind to her. The same cannot be said for the rest of that group.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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8 Responses to “Tennyson’s rank is too well fixed and we love him too much.” — Oscar Wilde

  1. Ken says:

    “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is my favorite poem (by a narrow margin over “The Innkeeper’s Tale” and Southey’s “Battle of Blenheim”). Thank you.

  2. red says:

    It’s quite a poem, isn’t it? Wow.

  3. Lizzie says:

    Reading Ulysses aloud is something I do when I’m feeling down, and it’s so stirring it always gets my pulse up! I wish that someone, maybe Ian McKellan, would perform it as a monologue because I think it would work so well in a theatrical setting. And I loved the TS Eliot quote about the quality of doubt in his religion.

  4. red says:

    Lizzie – wow, I’m going to have to try to read ulysses out loud – I love to hear your experience of it.

  5. Eric Shackle says:

    Greetings from Sydney, Australia.

    You may like to see two stories I’ve written about the six Barons Tennyson.

    They’ve been posted in the UK daily literary web magazine “Open Writing”: http://www.openwriting.com/archives/2009/08/birthday_beniso.php#more

  6. johnny says:

    Hello. Thank you for this great info! Keep up the good job!

  7. “Blow Bugle Blow” is so amazing. Just reading it aloud…Tennyson’s not my favorite poet for nothing.

    My introduction to him was when I was in college and I went into my huge King Arthur phase, reading everything about Arthur and the surrounding body of legend and myth. I found, in my sister’s old books, a copy of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, his own poetic retelling of Arthur…so I read it. Just astonishing, even if I had NO idea what I was getting into.

    • sheila says:

      // Just astonishing, even if I had NO idea what I was getting into. //

      I love this, kelly – I love how you discovered him through an obsession with something else. I can’t tell you how many times I have had the same journey – I get so obsessed with one thing, I end up branching out into unknown territory – discover something that ALSO sweeps me away!

      speaking of which: I got into Tennyson very early – as a child – for one reason only: because he was referenced so often in Anne of Green Gables, and Anne Shirley got equally swept away by him. IIRC, she and her friends “played” at Lady of Shalott, with disastrous results! But since Anne was so into this Tennyson guy, I had to check him out.

      Thank you LM Montgomery!!

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