Sunday, 13 April 2014

Alfred Tennyson, 1809-92: Part III: Marriage and Fame

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 3.
Tennyson's In Memoriam can be read at   
And there is a discussion of Tennyson and the poem with Melvin Bragg on "In Our Time" at:  
which can be listen again, or download as Podcast.
God and the Poets:
Alfred Tennyson, 1809-92: Part III: Marriage and Fame
By Tony Keogh

After the tragic death of Tennyson's youthful friend and companion Arthur Hallam, he sought solace, not in any out-ward show of grief, but in restless travelling.
He journeyed extensively throughout England and Scotland- With his widowed mother and family still at home, he moved from Lincolnshire, with mixed feeling of grief and relief, to Hertfordshire, to Kent and to Cheltenham. He flirted somewhat, wrote verses to attractive women of his acquaintance, but never descended to the low life, though once it was only fear of being seen by some journalist which kept him from going to Holborn Casino, but this, one has to say, was out of innocent curiosity, almost like Graham Greene's Monsignor Quixote.
His heart seems to have been stolen early by Emily Sellwood, four years his junior, though there were gaps in their relationship. A fairly plain looking woman, she was gentle and good. After a while, she and Tennyson became engaged but the engagement was broken off through her father's opposition and they did not marry until 1850, by which time he was established as a great poet and had been made Laureate in succession to Wordsworth.
Prone to depression and a victim of financial mismanagement, he had some severe hydropathic treatment in Cheltenham in 1840, but his poetry rarely faltered. W H Auden summed up his years from his marriage and recognition, "From then on he led the life of a famous author. He bought a house in the Isle of Wight at Osborne, he built another house in Surrey, he went on writing, he visited the Queen at Windsor, he was gazetted to the peerage, he still wrote. On 8th October 1892 he died and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
His first child was stillborn. Thereafter, he had two sons, Hallam, called after Arthur, to whom he was particularly close and who become his secretary; and Lionel, who pre-deceased him as a young married man.
He was a "Great Victorian" in the charmed circle of Carlyle, Thackeray, Browning and Gladstone. He combined imperial patriotism and loyalty with Dickensian indictment of injustice and the state of the poor. "City children soak and blacken sense in city slime," and amid his hopes of "one far-off Divine event to which the whole creation moves." Perhaps he had some premonition of 1914 and the horrors of our century.
Unlike his wife, he seldom went to church. He did not need the benefit of clergy or involvement in institutional religion, sacraments or sermons. In this, he was typical of great sections of middle and upper Victorian society. They often saw the sense of the stability of an established church, but could not always understand what being a member of the Church of England had to do with going to church.
He did, however, enjoy breathing in the spiritual and intellectual atmosphere of his time as he did the air of Lincolnshire or Cambridge or the Isle of Wight, and this in the age when bishops and theologians
were at home in the salons. He had a faith which, every now and then, gleamed forth in Christian affirmation, but paid lip service also to Victorian agnosticism and "honest doubt," though his reaction to the modernist crisis of the 1860s was to learn Hebrew.
His was an evolutionary creed before Darwin and he wrote of "The Higher Pantheism" for the somewhat curious Metaphysical Society. This poem contains the lines: "Speak to Him thou for He hears, and Spirit can meet .Closer is He than breathing and nearer than hands and feet."
His was an inward vision, often blurred through personal sorrow and his struggles with the fact of death and nature, so indifferent and, at times, ruthless. He did not believe in hell and in "The Lotus Eaters," implicitly attacks Christianity for committing some to "endless anguish." Personal relationships were at the heart of the universe and each individual was of incalculable value, in spite of evidence to the contrary. He cherished the hope of immortality, though "dimly." He prayed, though in his last days, he sometimes felt that God was not listening.
His belief in prayer was mystical rather than prophetic or intercessionary. After reading his "Holy Grail" to a woman friend, he said that there were moments "when the flesh is nothing to me when I feel and know the flesh to be only a vision. God and the spiritual the only real and true ... depend on it - the spiritual is the real."
These are lines written at Aldworth, his Surrey home:
"Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower - but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is."
That is not dissimilar from a famous passage of Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth century English mystic. The Lord showed her "something small, no bigger than a hazel nut lying in the palm of my hand, and I perceived that it was as round as any ball. I looked at it and thought: What can this be? And I was given this general answer; It is everything that is made."
Julian's faith is more convincing and deeply Christian. The hazel nut lasts because God loves it. Her work "Shewings" is about the Passion of Christ in which is contained the whole meaning, not only of life, but of the life of God, the Blessed Trinity.
Tennyson is not a poet of the Passion, like Herbert or Hopkins, and the Trinity passes him by. The "Holy Grail" contains the precious blood, but this is the mystic prize of the human quest for purity through chastity and discipline rather than the token of the self-giving love of God for human kind, streaming over all the earth, descending into hell, washing away sin, praying to the Father for us.
Postscript: I have been asked about books on Tennyson. The most recent and probably the best biography is by Peter Levi, published by MacMillan. There is an excellent book of selected poems in the Penguin Poetry Library Series.

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