A Reminiscence of Tennyson


ONE autumn in the fifties (I think it must have been 1857) I spent with my mother on the west coast of the Isle of Wight. I remember the sensation of amusement I felt when I first saw upon Freshwater Cliff boards bearing notices against various malfeasances, signed “ A. Tennyson, Lord of the Manor.” I had several friends who knew the Tennysons, but I did not feel justified in obtruding myself upon them as a mere curious outsider. The next year, however, Mr. Maurice was staying at Farringford, and I had a right to call upon him : indeed, before we left London it had been agreed that I should.

I went, accordingly, and saw Tennyson and his wife. I was admitted, moreover, into the upstairs sanctum, where he did his work over a pipe. Nor do I recollect anything more interesting in the course of my life than the talks between Tennyson and Maurice in that little room. Tennyson’s attitude toward Maurice was altogether deferential ; nay, reverential. I remember one particular talk about the book of Ecclesiastes. Tennyson said it was the one book the admission of which into the canon he could not understand, it was so utterly pessimistic, — of the earth, earthy. Maurice fired up. “ Yes, if you leave out the last two verses. But the conclusion of the whole matter is : 4 Fear God and keep his commandments : for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it he good or whether it be evil.’ So long as you look ouly down upon earth, all is ‘vanity of vanities.’ But if you look up, there is a God, the judge of good and evil,” Tennyson said he would think over the matter from that point of view.

I outstayed Maurice by several weeks. But I had henceforth my entrée into the sanctum. I usually called in the forenoon, and I think I always found Tennyson alone. I saw his two handsome boys ; I had many a talk with his very charming wife. It happened more than once that I remained in the drawing-room downstairs till it was too late to go up. Of course, after Maurice’s departure I never saw Tennyson under the same aspect as when they were together.

About that time the newspapers contained the story of some one who had fallen heir to a fortune on condition of his assuming the “ name and arms of Smith.” Tennyson raged about it. Nobody ever left fortunes to poets. Why did n’t some one leave him £50,000 on condition of his taking the name and arms of Smith ? He would do so at once. “No, you would n’t,” I put in. “ I would do it, and I would never write another line.” “ Yes, you would,” I persisted ; and so it went on. It is rather curious to observe that his brother Charles changed his name under somewhat similar circumstances, becoming Tennyson-Turner. But I still refuse to believe that Alfred would have become Tennyson-Smith for a consideration.

The recollection of my visits to him which is the most endearing of all to me is that of a day when we all went up the cliff together, Teunysou drawing his wife in an invalid’s chair. I relieved him for a short time, but, though I did not betray myself, I found the effort a tremendous one. He was, however, a very strongly built man. There was something infinitely touching in the sight of this great poet — to my mind the third greatest of our race, after Shakespeare and Milton — fulfilling thus the homelier offices of conjugal affection. He seemed to bring out the meaning of those deep words in the Church of England’s marriage service, “ With my body I thee worship.”

Although for those few weeks I was with the Tennysons on a footing almost of intimacy, I never saw either of them again. One evening at Macmillan’s, when I was in the drawing-room some one told me (I think it was Mr. Hughes) that Tennyson had come, but that he was in a very bad humor, would not leave the ante-room, and seemed determined to contradict everybody. I stayed where I was ! On several occasions I received very friendly letters from Mrs. Tennyson, who often acted as his amanuensis, but I do not possess a scrap of his handwriting. It so happens, however, that I have seen a good deal of it. When I was on the Council of the Working Men’s College, our secretary at one time was a man who had been secretary or clerk to John Forster. He still had charge of Forster’s papers, and these included the manuscripts of various songs of Tennyson’s published anonymously in The Examiner, and of Tennyson’s reply to the “ SchoolMiss Alfred ” passage in Bulwer Lytton’s King Arthur. Tennyson was very particular about his revises. He even required two or three revises of poems that he wrote for newspaper publication.

His anxiety to be accurate is well known. His intimate friend, George Venables, told me that Tennyson had once come to him in high dudgeon at having been served with a writ for a debt which he did not really owe. Venables advised him what to do, and his advice was justified by the event. But several years after he found in one of Tennyson’s poems a reference to a writ embodying the very terms of the one which had been served upon him, the form of which had in the mean time been superseded. Venables said he must have carried the terms of the writ in his memory, as he was not at all likely to have preserved it, for he was living at the time in lodgings, with as few impedimenta as possible.