Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)
From 1800-1829 Literary Anecdotes

Sunday, August 5 . . . Chop at `The Cock'. Curious old mantelpiece, which I sketched on fly-leaf of Poe's Poems, bought at a book-stall. Had the waiter ever heard of a Mr. Tennyson? — `Mr. Tennyson, sir?—No, sir.' Tried the other waiter: he had heard of him, but had never seen him.

I— 'You're not the plump head-waiter?'—'Oh, you mean William, sir. He's here every day but Sunday.'

Thursday, August 9 . . . Chop at `Cock' with half a pint of port to drink the Poet's health. The veritable William waited on me.

`Are you Mr. Tennyson's friend?'
William.—' He says so, sir.'

This answer puzzled me. (Does William think it was a liberty to put him in rhyme?) `Has he been often here?'

William.— `I don't know his appearance at all, sir. A gen'elman might be coming here for twenty years without my knowing his name. Thousands have asked me the same question, and some won't believe but that I know all about it. But I don't. I should like to see him — very much. I'm told he's breakin, sir. I should like to see him.'

William evidently felt sorrowful, and in a manner aggrieved, at never having identified the man who spoke of him so familiarly.

— Allingham, Diary, pp. 52-53.

Every minute dies a man,
Every minute one is born —TENNYSON

drew from Babbage the remark that the world's population was in fact constantly increasing:

`I would therefore take the liberty of suggesting that in the next edition of your excellent poem the erroneous calculation to which I refer should be corrected as follows: "Every moment dies a man/And one and a sixteenth is born."'

This figure, he added, was a concession to metre, since the actual ratio was 1:167. Tennyson did eventually blur his assertion to the extent of changing `minute' to `moment'.

Hugh Kenner, The Counterfeiters (Bloomington, Ind., 1968), p. 106.

AFTER some supper Patmore ... went on to tell me:

`I have in this room perhaps the greatest literary treasure in England—the manuscript of Tennyson's next poem. It is written in a thing like a butcher's account-book. He left it behind him in his lodging when he was up in London and wrote to me to go and look for it. He had no other copy, and he never remembers his verses. I found it by chance, in a drawer; if I had been a little later it would probably have been sold to a butter-shop.'

Before I went away Patmore took out this MS. book from a cabinet and turned over the leaves before my longing eyes, but Tennyson had told him not to show it to anybody. Mrs. Patmore had copied it out for the press, and Tennyson gave her the original.

I was not even told the title at this time. It was In Memoriam.

Allingham, Diary, pp. 54-55.

WHEN Tennyson entered the Oxford Theatre to receive his honorary degree of D.C.L.,(1st June 1855) his locks hanging in admired disorder on his shoulders, dishevelled and unkempt, a voice from the gallery was heard crying out to him, `Did your mother call you early, dear?'

Young, Memoir, p. 283.

. . . London visits enabled Alfred to renew the acquaintance made at Pontresina with little Elspeth Thompson. She would accompany him an long tramps through the streets, trotting beside him to keep pace with his long massive stride, never wearying, though he was often silent and plunged in deep contemplation, for his very silences were companionable. He would always wear his great Spanish cloak and sombrero, which excited much interest. The real cause of this he never seemed to realize, for he would say to his little companion:

`Child, your mother should dress you less conspicuously; people are staring at us.'

Sir Charles Tennyson, Alfred Tennyson (1949), p. 425.

I was at an hotel in Covent Garden, and went out one morning for a walk in the Piazza. A man met me, tolerably well-dressed but battered-looking. I never saw him before that I know of. He pulled off his hat and said,

`Beg pardon, Mr. Tennyson, might I say a word to you?' I stopped. `I've been drunk for three days and I want to make a solemn promise to you, Mr. Tennyson, that I won't do so any more.' I said that was a good resolve, and I hoped he would keep it. He said, `I promise you I will, Mr. Tennyson,' and added, `Might I shake your hand?' I shook hands with him, and he thanked me and went on his way.

Allingham, Diary, p. 119.
This anecdote is also recorded by Lady Ritchie, Records of Tennyson, Ruskin and ... Browning (1896), p. 64.

I was told a characteristic story of Tennyson. . . . An enthusiastic admirer of his, who was staying at Aldworth, was, to her intense delight, invited to accompany him for a walk in his old English garden. They paced the terrace together in silence; he said nothing and she was afraid to speak for fear of losing some priceless utterance. The silence remained unbroken until they had returned to their starting-point, when he remarked abruptly, `Coals are very dear.' She received this without comment and he remained in abstraction for another tour of the terrace, when he spoke again. `I get all my meat from London', he said, and again she did not see her way to following up the subject. Another long silence, and then he stopped beside a clump of carnations which were obviously drooping, and she waited hopefully for a comment that she could always treasure. But all Tennyson said was: `It's those cursed rabbits!' which was the sum total of his conversation on that particular afternoon.

F. Anstey, A Long Retrospect (1936), p. 134.

LADY Tennyson was an invalid; and we were received on our arrival by the poet. Tennyson was a magnificent creature to look at. He had everything: height, figure, carriage, feature, and expression. Added to this he had what George Meredith called `the feminine hint to perfection'. He greeted me by saying: `Well, are you as clever and spurty as your sister Laura?' I had never heard the word `spurty' before, nor indeed have I since. To answer this kind of frontal attack one has to be either saucy or servile; so I said nothing memorable ...

Tennyson: . . . `Have you read Jane Welsh Carlyle's letters?'

Margot: `Yes, I have, and I think them excellent. It seems a pity', I added, with the commonplace that is apt to overcome one in a first conversation with a man of eminence, `that they were ever married; with anyone but each other, they might have been perfectly happy.'

Tennyson: `I totally disagree with you. By any other arrangement four people would have been unhappy instead of two.'

After this I went up to my room. The hours kept at Aldworth were peculiar: we dined early and after dinner the poet went to bed. At ten o'clock he came downstairs and, if asked, would read his poetry to the company till past midnight.

I dressed for dinner with great care that first night and, placing myself next to him when he came down, I asked him to read out loud to me.

Tennyson: `What do you want me to read?'

Margot: `Maud.'

Tennyson: `That was the poem I was cursed for writing! When it came out no word was bad enough for me! I was a blackguard, a ruffian and an atheist! You will live to have as great a contempt for literary critics and the public as I have, my child!'

While he was speaking, I found on the floor, among piles of books, a small copy of Maud, a shilling volume, bound in blue paper. I put it into his hands and, pulling the lamp nearer him, he began to read. . . .

He began `Birds in the high Hall-garden' . . . When he had finished, he pulled me on to his knee and said:`Many have written as well as that, but nothing ever sounded so well!'

I could not speak.

He then told us that he had had an unfortunate experience with a young lady to whom he was reading Maud.

`She was sitting on my knee,' he said, `as you are doing now, and after reading,

Birds in the high Hall-garden,
When twilight was falling,
Maud, Maud, Maud, Maud,
They were crying and calling,

I asked her what bird she thought I meant. She said,

"A nightingale." This made me so angry that I nearly flung her to the ground: "No, fool! . . . Rook!" said I.'

The Autobiography of Margot Asquith (Penguin edn., 1936), pp. 166-168.

IN the summer [1860] the usual wandering fit came on the poet. Emily took the boys to Grasby to see Charles and her father, and Alfred met Woolner, Spedding, and other friends in London to discuss plans—he spoke of going to the Levant, or the West Indies, or Cornwall, or Brittany. Palgrave was for the latter place. . . . In the end, however, Cornwall was decided on.

When the time came to start, Palgrave was detained by the necessity of seeing his brother Gifford off on his perilous pilgrimage to Mecca, and Woolner went with the poet through Bath, Bideford, Clovelly, Bude, and Boscastle to Tintagel and Trevenna, where Palgrave joined them; thence they went through Camelford to Penzance to meet Holman Hunt and Val Prinsep. The choice of district showed that the Arthurian saga was still very much in Tennyson's mind. At first all went delightfully. . . . After some days in the Lizard and Land's End districts, diving off steep rocks and scrambling about the thymy promontories (Alfred always with his Homer or Virgil in his pocket), the party crossed to the Scilly Isles, over the sea said to cover the legendary land of Lyonesse, returning to the Lizard about September 10th.

Here, unfortunately, signs of strain began to appear. Palgrave, who felt himself bound by instructions, which he imagined that he had received from Emily, never to let the poet out of his view, for fear that through his short sight he might fall over a cliff or come to some similar harm, was perpetually pursuing him over the rocks and calling out, `Tennyson! Tennyson!' which drove poor Alfred to frenzy. One evening there was a violent upheaval between the two, after which Alfred took up his candlestick to light himself to bed, saying:

`Each must do as he thinks best, but I have no doubt what to do. There is no pleasure for any of us in this wrangling. I shall go tomorrow to Falmouth and take the train home.'

Palgrave went up soon after, and then, while the three younger men were sitting below talking over the trouble, the door was quietly opened and Tennyson appeared in his dressing-gown and slippers. Taking a chair, he spread both his hands out on the table and said:

`I've come to say to you young fellows that I'm sorry if I seem to be the cause of all the bickering that goes on between Palgrave and myself. It is, I know, calculated to spoil your holiday, and that would be a great shame. I don't mean to quarrel with anyone, but all day long I am trying to get a quiet moment for reflection. Sometimes I want to compose a stanza or two and to find a quiet nook where I can wind off my words; but before I have finished a couplet I hear Palgrave's voice like a bee in a bottle, making the neighbourhood resound with my name, and I have to give myself up to escape the consequences. I know he means well, but it worries me and I am going away tomorrow morning ... but I hope you will all stay and enjoy yourselves.'

The last scene of the comedy, as reported by Hunt, shows Tennyson moving off in the dog-cart and Palgrave jumping up beside him to his evident surprise, and driving away with him amid protests and explanations.

Sir Charles Tennyson, Alfred Tennyson (1949), pp. 327-328.

ON 8 September 1883, he and Hallam joined Gladstone at Chester, and went with him and a large party for a cruise in the Pembroke Castle, which Sir Donald Currie had put at their disposal for the purpose. . . . Sir William Harcourt joined the ship at Ardnamurchan Point and sailed with them to Tobermory, and it was then that he made the classic pun which has been so often quoted. Tennyson was, as he frequently did, talking about tobacco and saying that the first pipe after breakfast was the best of the day. `Ah,' said Harcourt, `the earliest pipe of half-awakened bards.' It was observed that the poet did not at all appreciate this burlesquing of one of his most treasured poems.

Sir Charles Tennyson, Alfred Tennyson (1949), p. 469.

DURING the twenty-minute crossing over to Yarmouth from Lymington, on his way from Aldworth to Farringford, there came to him, almost in a flash, the most famous of all his lyrics, Crossing the Bar. He unfolded a used envelope and jotted the sixteen short lines roughly down on the inside of it, but showed them to no one at the time. That evening when Nurse Durham went to light the candles in his study at dusk, she found him sitting at his desk, with a paper before him.

`Will this do for you, old woman?' he asked, remembering what she had said to him about writing a hymn of thanksgiving for his recovery — and he recited the poem, almost in the form in which it is now printed. The lines came as a great shock to her, for, as she listened, it seemed to her that he had written his own death song. Without a word, she turned and ran from the room. When she came back a few minutes afterwards, he was still sitting silent in the darkness. After dinner that night he showed the lines to Hallam, who said:

`That is the crown of your life's work.' He replied: `It came in a moment'

Sir Charles Tennyson, Alfred Tennyson (1949), p. 515.

« NEXT » « Anecdotes 1800-1829 » « All Anecdotes » « Humour » « Library »