The lone gray fields at night: When from the dry, dark wold the summer airs blow cool
On the oat-grass, and the sword-grass, and the bulrush in the pool
Alfred Tennyson was born on a summer’s day on the 6th of August in the year 1809. He was born in the home of his father’s rectory in the village of Somersby in Lincolnshire, England. Alfred Tennyson grew up surrounded by uplands, wolds and gray downs of chalk dotted by sheep. In 1898, the population of Somersby totaled forty people and the nearest train station was a good seven miles away. He would remain surrounded by downs for most his life living near the seaside where his soul was peaceful and his muses spoke to him best.
Author, Edgar J. Cuthbert describes the rectory as being quaint and rambling with its medieval looking dining hall built by Dr. George Clayton Tennyson, Alfred’s father, with its long pointed stained glass windows suggestive more of a chapel than a modern dining room. The front of the house was separated from the road only by a narrow drive, but at the back the lawn sloped down to an old fashioned garden. Alfred Tennyson reminisced of his childhood home in his nature poem, ‘Ode to Memory’ printed in 1830, ‘The seven elms, the poplars four, That stand beside my father’s door’. Arthur Hallam stated in 1832, ‘Fifty years hence people will make pilgrimages to this spot’.
Dr. George Tennyson was a man of great physical strength and stature; accomplished in the fine arts especially music and language with a fine imagination. His parishioners nicknamed him ‘The Stern Doctor’ even though his temperament verged on melancholia and gloominess. Perhaps, that’s where his son Alfred got it from!
Alfred Tennyson’s mother, Elizabeth Fytch, was a reverend’s daughter who grew up in Louth. She was remembered by parishioners and family members as being sweet, gentle and kind hearted. Traits she most definitely passed down to her poet laureate son! At the time of her passing, Alfred was fifty six years old and said of his mother as he turned away from her grave, ‘She was the beautifullest thing that God Almighty ever made!’ An early poem ‘Isabel’ printed in 1830; Alfred Tennyson characterizes his mother in this way:
When Mrs. Tennyson was almost eighty, one of her daughters, believing her mother to be too deaf to hear her remark, informed a small gathering of friends that twenty-four offers of marriage had been made to her mother. To the amusement of all present, Mrs. Tennyson at once corrected her, saying emphatically, ‘No, my dear; twenty-five!’
Alfred’s parents were married in 1805 and he was the fourth born to a family of twelve siblings; seven sons and five daughters. In fact, younger sister, Emilia Tennyson who married Alfred’s dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam, joked once, ‘We Tennyson’s do not die!’ It was for Arthur Henry Hallam that Alfred wrote his epic tome, In Memoriam, upon his passing. A task that tore him up inside and almost split his soul apart if it weren’t for the love of his dear wife Emily Tennyson. It can be said that The Tennyson’s were a prolific clan; his two elder brothers Frederick and Charles also became poets.
Growing up in Somersby being cut off from the outer world and with few friends their own age, they created an ideal world of their own. A world where romance was king and the armored knights of old again went forth in search of daring deeds. A friend of The Tennyson’s, Mrs. Ritchie, recalls of the children, ‘They played great games, like Arthur’s knights: they were champions and warriors defending a stone-heap; or again, they would set up opposing camps with a king in the midst of each. The king was a willow-wand stuck into the ground, with an outer circle of immortals to defend him, of firmer, stiffer sticks. Then each party would come with stones hurling at each other’s king, and trying to overthrow him.’
In the Tennyson household however, it was books not athletics that became the favored amusements for the Tennyson children. Their strong imaginative powers that crept into their outdoor games found freer play during the winter afternoons and evenings, when the shrill winds were up and away, and the gusty poplars swayed and creaked in the garden. Leaving jousting behind, they became storytellers instead. Competitively amongst each other seeing who could tell the longest or best endless tale! Not surprisingly, Alfred’s tales were the most diffuse and unending! One story of his lasted for months, and was derisively nicknamed ‘The Old Horse’. Nevertheless, he was looked on as the most thrilling storyteller of the family. He would have been between the ages of five and seven during this time!
At the age of seven, Alfred was asked, ‘Will you go to sea or to school?’ and he at once replied, ‘To school.’ So during the Christmas term Dr. Tennyson took him into Louth, so his name could be entered into the books of Somersby village school in Holywell Glen. Alfred remained there four years. They must have been quiet, uneventful years since Alfred himself stated before his death, ‘How I did hate that school!’ His son Hallam also relates how his father remembered sitting on the stone steps of the school on a cold winter morning, crying bitterly on account of a cuffing he had received from a big lad because he was a new boy. On a happier note, Alfred also remembered walking in a procession of boys decked with ribbon on the occasion of the coronation of George IV and how an old woman had said that the boys made the prettiest part of the show.
One day, when Alfred was only five years old, a storm was sweeping through the rectory garden, and he ran from the house, spreading his arms to the wind, cried out: I hear a voice that’s speaking in the wind. Those words he later recalled were, ‘far, far away had always a strange charm for him’. As a teenager Alfred would also shout his lines in ‘the silent fields, leaping over the hedges in my excitement’.
One Sunday afternoon, before leaving for church, his brother Charles, the elder of the two by about a year put a slate into Alfred’s hands and told him to write a poem in praise of flowers. This he did in blank verse, after the manner of Thomson, who’s Seasons, was the only poem he knew at the time. On his return Charles scanned the lines with critical eye, and pronounced the verdict, ‘Yes, you can write.’ When ten or eleven, Pope’s Homer’s Iliad became his favorite and he wrote thousands of lines in the regular Popedian meter. At his grandfather’s desire he wrote a poem on his grandmother’s death; and the old man gave him half a guinea, remarking at the same time, ‘Here is half a guinea for you, the first you have ever earned by poetry, and, take my word for it, the last.’
When he was between thirteen and fourteen years of age Tennyson wrote an epic several thousand lines long, in the manner of Sir Walter Scott, full of battles, and dealing with sea and mountain scenery. His father was proud of it, and said he thought the author would yet be ‘one of the great in English literature’. Dr. Tennyson was right even though Alfred after reading the earliest poems of Shelley burned his epic.
From his mother, Alfred Tennyson inherited a passionate love for animal life and took pity on all wounded wings. One night, as Alfred leant from his attic window, he heard the hoot of an owl, and answered back to the bird. So natural was his ‘tu-whit tu-whoo’ that the owl flew into the room and fed out of his hand. It was readily tamed, and was kept as a pet for a long time until one day it was found drowned in a well. An echo of this incident may perhaps be found in the second of his songs entitled, ‘The Owl’.
The impressions of youth are always the strongest; the scenes of boyhood become part of our very selves; and certain it is that the flats and wolds of Lincolnshire forever dwelt in the memory of Alfred Tennyson, in that innermost unconscious memory that shapes and colors all our work. As Carlyle wrote to Emerson he described Tennyson best, ‘You may see in his verses that he is a native of moated granges and green, flat pastures, not of mountains and their torrents and storms’.
Tennyson: the story of his life by Evan J. Cuthbertson, 1898
By Kimberly Eve