Sunday, 16 March 2014

Alfred Tennyson, 1809-92: Part I: An Introduction

I've been trawling through the archives at the library again, and in particular for Sundays, "The Pilot" which was the monthly magazine for the Church of England in Jersey for many years. Every month, there would be pieces from the minister of each church, along with various other articles of interest.
In 1995, the Reverend Tony Keogh began a series of articles in "The Pilot" under the umbrella title "God and the Poets", beginning with a four part look at Tennyson. I thought it was a shame that it should be buried in the past, so I've transcribed it for my blog. Here is part 1.
God and the Poets:
Alfred Tennyson, 1809-92: Part I: An Introduction
By Tony Keogh
Alfred Tennyson was a large, dark, untidy man, swarthy as a gypsy, clumsy in movement, with a bricklayer's hands, yet handsome in a way. In his youth, he was once rebuked for his dirty shirt. "So would yours be if you'd worn it for a fortnight," he rejoined.
Later on, Queen Victoria, whose laureate he was and neighbour on the Isle of Wight and with whom he was to become close friends, told Edward Lear that "he would not come to see her because he did not know how to bow." He smoked for nine hours - shag in a clay pipe - and drank at least a bottle of port a day. He could be gruff and growling, rude at times and in deep melancholy; yet his marriage at the age of forty-one seems to have been one of an almost mystical happiness, in spite of his wife's ill health for the last twenty years of her life. "The peace of God came into my life before the altar when I wedded her," he said.

He loved to read his own poetry to audiences of family and friends, this in his fine, deep voice, with a Lincolnshire accent. As well he might, for it is lyrical and mellifluous beyond most. "He had the finest ear, perhaps of any English poet," wrote W H Auden, "he was also undoubtedly the stupidest" - a harsh and debatable judgment, though there are many worthy people who are very unsure that poets or any artists of genius would score heavily in an intelligence test.
Like Shakespeare, Tennyson has contributed many well-known phrases to the language, still material for Trivial Pursuits if not now the staple diet of tabloid journalism or small talk:
a land in which it seemed always afternoon." (The Locust Eaters).
"In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love." (Locksley Hall).
"T'is better to have loved and lost; Than never to have loved at all."
"Nature, red in tooth and claw." (both, In Memoriam).
"More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of." (Morte d'Arthur).
"Theirs is not to reason why; Theirs but to do and die. " (The Charge of the Light Brigade).
He was nothing but a poet. From infancy to his death at the age of eighty-three, verses sang in his mind and he often wrote them down much later. He was essentially an oral poet. His major works germinated for years and he was a constant revisor. As laureate for forty-two years, he had to compose much official, establishment verse, by no means all devoid of inspiration or without captivating memorable images.
News items often prompted him, or the suggestions of his friends and his romantic views of the classical and mediaeval past, but his greatness comes from his awareness of nature and the depths of his own experience and solitary brooding. Greatness in poetry is not possible without sorrow and times of despair. He knew both to the end.
There is also nostalgia. From a youth he had Virgil's "sense of the tears of things," and a regret for the past even when there was so little that he needed to regret in his own direct experience. Poets are often old in youth and youthful image- Whatever their vicissitudes, their days - long or short - are in Wordsworth's phrase, "bound each to each", even if the cord is frayed or broken             early. Tennyson used to talk of "the passion of the past", "it is distance which charms me in the landscape, the picture and the past, and not the immediate today in which I move." He was always capable of the most beautiful images, whether of the country, the elm trees,
"their broad curved branches,
fledged and clearest green,
new from its silken sheath; or
the heavens, Mars following white Venus,
whiter than all the stars
Down to the quiet limit of the world."
Or the city, "Inextricable brickwork image in image. "
He is the poet of the new railway as well as of the flowing river and the waves of the seashore.
Next: Tennyson's early years.

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