The Tennysons Make One Music by Kimberly Eve

The Tennysons on the grounds of Farringford. Photo taken by Oscar Rejlander 1863

In November 1849, Alfred Tennyson sent Emily Sellwood two different versions of the lullaby ‘Sweet and Low’ for her to choose which to be published. This suggests that they had already seen a good deal of each other, had talked over The Princess and as he always would do, he valued her literary judgment, the greatest tribute any poet can pay. It seems such an extremely intimate gesture, sending for an opinion of this song:

The Princess A Medley by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Published by Houghton, Mifflin in 1884.

In the third edition of The Princess, Alfred included Emily’s choice of ‘Sweet and Low'. This would turn out to be one of the earliest gifts he would present to her in 1850, the year they were married. When she received the lullabies, Emily sat down at the piano and set the words to music, as she would often do in future. She would always try to make ‘perfect music unto noble words’. In her surviving manuscript book of her own music, Emily wrote by ‘Sweet and Low’: ‘Music written before publication of the words’. Alfred Tennyson was aged forty-one and Emily Sellwood was aged thirty-six.

In April 1850, after reading her copy of The Princess, Emily wrote this surviving note to Alfred,

Katie told me the poems might be kept until Saturday. I hope I shall not have occasioned any inconvenience by keeping them to the limit of the time; and if I have I must be forgiven, for I cannot willingly part from what is so precious. The thanks I would say for them and for the faith in me which has trusted them to me must be thought for me, I cannot write them. I have read the poems through and through and through and to me they were and they are ever more and more a spirit monument grand and beautiful, in whose presence I feel admiration and delight, not unmixed with awe. The happiest possible end to this labour of love! But think not its fruits shall so soon perish, for they are life in life, and they shall live, and as years go on be only the more fully known and loved and reverenced for what they are. So says a true seer. Can anyone guess the name of this seer? After such big words shall I put anything about my own little I?-that I am the happier for having seen these poems and that I hope I shall be the better too.

Shiplake on the Thames, near Henley, where Drummond Rawnsley was the Vicar, was an appropriate place for the wedding. Drummond and Emily’s cousin Kate were so deeply involved in bringing Alfred and Emily together again. The surroundings of the old Vicarage had not changed much. There were still the triple-terraced garden above the chalk quarry and the wide splendid view of the Thames valley with the shining river flowing through the water meadows. In June 1850 Emily said, wild snowflakes grew a large summer version of the snowdrop. In the garden now, high above the river, there are huge cedars, just as there were a hundred and fifty years ago. The church across the lane from the Rawnsleys’ Vicarage was then covered in ivy and famous for its medieval stained glass, brought from a ruined French abbey and were installed twenty years earlier, long before such adornments were fashionable.

Emily would speak of Kate ‘crowning’ her on this wedding day. She was thinking of those lines from In Memoriam, of the Maiden in the day, When first she wears her orange-flower! When crowned with blessing she doth rise, To take her latest leave of home, And hopes and light regrets that come
Make April of her tender eyes …

Emily remembered the syringe, the mock orange blossom; she said the smell and sight of the flowers was almost the only thing that made it look like a wedding party. Alfred Tennyson was well dressed and clean himself, and in his buttonhole he wore a white satin rosette. Emily Sellwood wore a wedding dress of silvery blue silk, a white bonnet with white ribbons, and a white veil with lace over her shoulders. Just before the ceremony Alfred went into the garden of the Rectory and picked a bouquet for her to carry. There were only half a dozen guests, since the date had been decided on so quickly that none of the Tennysons except Cecilia was able to attend. Charles Weld was there, signing the register along with the Lushingtons, the Rawnsleys and Emily’s father, Henry Sellwood. It was Lushington who produced the ring, which he had rightly guessed Tennyson would forget. But all went smoothly in spite of such haste, and much to the delight of those present Tennyson said it was the nicest wedding he had ever been at.

Their lives would now run together until and beyond that day when Tennyson would write:

She with all the charm of woman, she with all the breadth of man
Strong in will and rich in wisdom …
Very woman of very woman, nurse of ailing body and mind,
She that linked again the broken chain that bound me to my kind.

Once the wedding was over Tennyson found himself at ease in a way he had never been before, saying, ‘The peace of God came into my life before the altar when I wedded her’. Years before he had written:

Look through mine eyes with thine. True wife,
Round my true heart thine arms entwine
My other dearer life in life,
Look through my very soul with thine!

During their forty-two year marriage, Emily treasured what she called ‘double solitude’ which was alone time with Alfred. One day she recorded in her journal, they crossed Coniston Water, he rowing she steering among the water lilies and past a clump of firs where the herons were watching them until they came to the further shore. One day there was a rainbow strangely reflected in the flat surface of the lake. One night there was a wild storm and the window of the room where Emily and Alfred were sleeping was broken, letting in the wind and the rain. Rather than wake the servants, they moved themselves into another room – but Alfred was hopeless at bedmaking so they ended up with a ‘sort of apple pie creation’ and a lot of suppressed laughter.

In 1852, the Tennyson’s were married two years, Emily was pregnant with Hallam and they were still house hunting, staying with family members. They had not yet found their beloved Farringford on the Isle of Wight. It was while they were staying at Chapel House that Emily went into labor on 11 August 1852. The child was due on the 15th! Emily was left alone with the midwife when she went into the final stages of labor. At 91/2 a.m. she was delivered of ‘a fine boy’. Alfred saw her and their son immediately, and then started writing to tell everyone the joyful news. Tennyson says,

Now I will tell you of the birth of a little son this day. I have seen beautiful things in my life, but I never saw anything more beautiful than the mother’s face as she lay by the young child an hour or two after, or heard anything sweeter than the little lamblike bleat of the young one. I had fancied that children after birth had been all shriek and roar; but he gave out a little note of satisfaction every now and then, as he lay by his mother, which was the most pathetic sound in its helplessness I ever listened to. You see I talk almost like a bachelor, yet unused to such things . . .

Emily said,  Alfred watched the baby with profound and loving interest’. When there were no guests, he would take the baby in his bassinet into the drawing room, so that they might all enjoy each others company. Some of his acquaintances would have smiled to see him racing up and down stairs and dandling the baby in his arms.

On the third day of the baby’s little life, Alfred Tennyson had gone into the nursery to look at him as he was lying alone and ‘while I was looking at him I saw him looking at me with such apparently earnest wide open eyes I felt as awestruck as if I had seen a spirit.’

I wonder if it was at this time that Tennyson heard the words that would become part of his poem De Profundis, ‘Out of the deep, my child, out of the deep . . .
A babe in lineament and limb
Perfect, and prophet of the perfect man;
Whose face and form are hers and mine in one,
Indissolubly married like our love;

Out of the deep, Spirit, out of the deep,
With this ninth moon, that sends the hidden sun
Down yon dark sea, thou comest, darling boy.

There was some disagreement about the darling boy’s name. Emily wanted ‘Alfred’, in spite of Alfred's insistence that it would interfere with their son’s ‘sense of personal identity’ and cause ‘double trouble in signatures all his life’. ‘I cannot resist my desire to add the name of my old friend Hallam,’ Tennyson said. When it came down to it, he was simply Hallam. ‘They will not let me call him Alfred,’ Emily told James Spedding. Arthur Hallam's father Henry Hallam was approached and asked if he would like to be one of the godfathers to which he happily accepted.

The Summer House where Tennyson wrote Enoch Arden

Alfred Tennyson first saw Farringford on a cold and wet October day in 1853; leaving a pregnant Emily back home with in-laws. Farringord located on the Isle of Wight offered the Tennysons the privacy that Alfred craved. The trees provided this which was one of its attractions; to be concealed and yet to be able to see downs and cliffs and the sea itself. Alfred and Emily returned in November for a viewing of Farringford and the following day received the grand tour. Looking from the drawing room window, Emily thought, ‘I must have that view’ and told Alfred so when they were alone. The view was of Afton Down and Freshwater Bay and the long southern coastline of the island with St. Catherine’s lighthouse in the far distance. There was a door in the garden wall behind the house, and beyond it, crossing a lane that led to the nearby farm, a path over the field called Maiden’s Croft. This is where he wrote Enoch Arden. Beyond that was the High Down (now known as Tennyson Down), with the chalk cliffs – five hundred feet in places, plunging sheer to the sea, far below the screaming gulls fly overhead.

An early postcard of Farringford House on the Isle of Wight from 1904

So, it was on 25 November 1853 they moved into Farringford, the house that they would call home for the rest of their lives. Emily would say, perhaps it is most beautiful in the spring when the woods are full of anemones and primroses; narcissus grows wild in the lower fields; a lovely creamy stream of flowers flows along the lanes; and then with a later burst of glory, comes the gorse, lighting up the country round about the blazing Beacon Hill. From High Down you come at last to the Needles, and may look down upon the ridge of rocks that rise crisp, sharp, shining, out of the blue wash of fierce delicious waters. Sometimes Alfred would be reading and then be drawn down to the bay by the loud voice of the sea. I would enjoy what I could see with my own eyes and many other things with his, when he comes back from his walk.

A now heavily pregnant Emily Tennyson, at home at Farringford recorded a special day in her journal. She remembered when two year old Hallam picked her a snowdrop. She kept it all her life, writing on the envelope, ‘He said Mama when he passed the flowers’ on 23 February 1854. Emily was growing frustrated not to be able to walk on the down herself recording in her journal this remembrance, ‘A week or ten days before the birth Ally procured a small carriage in the village in which I could lie down. I would sit out in a bower of rushes Alfred made for me in the sheltered kitchen garden where it was always warm’.

When the new child was born on the evening of 16 March, around nine o’clock, Tennyson was observing the night sky. He wrote in one of his birth announcement letters, ‘Mars was culminating in the Lion’ and Emily wrote in her diary, ‘This afterwards determined us to give our baby the name of Lionel. The child was a strong and stout young fellow, another fine lusty boy’.

Tennyson described Hallam’s first encounters with his small brother, ‘He kissed him very reverently, then began to bleat in imitation of his cries; and once looking at him he began to weep, Heaven knows why: children are such mysterious things. I don’t think the younger one will turn out such a noble child as Hallam but who can tell’.

The earliest photograph of Hallam and Lionel Tennyson

Tennyson wrote a poem ‘Tennyson at Farringford’ in January 1854 and included it in a letter he wrote to his friend Reverend Maurice:

Tennyson At Farringford
Take it and come to the Isle of Wight:
Where, far from the noise of smoke and town,
I watch the twilight falling brown
All around a careless ordered garden,
Close to the ridge of a noble down.
You'll have no scandal while you dine,
But honest talk and wholesome wine.
And only hear the magpie gossip
Garrulous under a roof of pine:
For groves of pine on either hand,
To break the blast of winter stand;
And further on the hoary Channel
Tumbles a billow on chalk and sand.

One of the most touching letters Alfred wrote to Emily was two years into their marriage on 23 January 1852 from London:

Canst thou not hold on till Monday evening without me. And on Sunday all trains are so slow that I should be hours on the road. So rest thee perturbed spirit till Monday afternoon and sleep sound upon the certainty that I shall come then. The hills here have very fine lights on them as seen from my windows. I wish thou couldst see them. Now bear up! Be jolly-for to think of thee sad spoils me here for enjoyment of most things.
Thine, darling,
X X X X A.T.

Tennyson wrote the sweetest letters to his sons. On 29 April 1857 he wrote two separate letters to each of his sons, Hallam age 5 and Lionel age 3:

Dear little Hallam,
I have got your nice little letter and am much obliged to you for it. I wish you would learn to write for then you might write to me without troubling Mamma. I did not see you waving the handkerchief for I am short-sighted.
Kisses to you and little Lionel and be good biscuit boys.
Your affectionate papa
A. Tennyson

To Lionel Tennyson
29 April 1857

Dear little Lionel I hope that you are a good boy at your lessons and obedient to Mamma. Are the violets gone?
Your affectionate

According to Emily, the boys were becoming more and more intensely devoted to their father. Hallam thought the kisses on the paper had some sort of magic power to ‘bring Papa back in this drawing room’. Once when Alfred was about to depart, Hallam whispered over and over again, loud enough for him to hear, ‘Why does he go? Why does he go?, putting into words his mother’s well-suppressed feelings.

Alfred Tennyson with sons. Photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron. Housed at National Portrait Gallery

After forty-two years of marriage and almost a lifetime of knowing each other, Wednesday, 5 October 1892, at aged 83, Alfred Tennyson lay dying. Sadly, the Tennyson’s second son, Lionel had passed away but Hallam Tennyson was at his bedside as was Emily. At ten past four in the afternoon Dr. Dabbs gave Tennyson some drops of laudanum and they heard him say, after drinking it, ‘very nasty’. At quarter past five Hallam fetched his mother in that he might recognize her. Hallam wrote later, ‘My father’s last conscious effort was to call “Hallam” and whisper to his wife, ‘God bless you, my joy’. Tennyson’s hand was still lying quietly on his Shakespeare book opened to Cymbeline, the first Shakespeare play Emily had read as a child of eight and a passage they both loved: Hang there, like fruit, my soul, Till the tree die’.

Emily Tennyson passed away four years later on 10 August 1896 at aged 83. Hallam wrote down the things she was saying, ‘I have tried to be a good wife’. When Hallam tried to reassure her that no one could have been a better wife, she said, ‘I might have done more’. These were her last words. She went on to thank Hallam, ‘Thank you my darling for all your great goodness to me’.

Emily, Hallam and Alfred at Aldworth by Henry Cameron, late 1889. Henry called it 'one of my gems'. Hallam said it made his mother look like the Witch of Endor. 

Tennyson The Unquiet Heart A Biography by Robert Bernard Martin, Oxford University Press, New York, 1980
Emily Tennyson: The Poet’s Wife by Ann Thwaite, Faber and Faber Limited, Great Britain, 1996
The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson: 1851-1870, by Cecil Y. Lang and Edgar F. Shannon, Jr., Volume II, Harvard University Press, New York, 1987
The Letters of Emily Lady Tennyson, ed. James O. Hoge, 1974, pp.44

Please feel free to leave any comments,


Robert Parry said…
One of your best pieces, Kimberly. I have learned so much about Mr Tennyson through these. Thanks so much!
Kimberly Eve said…
Robert, thank you so very much for such lovely words! That is quite the compliment coming from such a writer as yourself and someone with such great knowledge of his own.
I wanted to attempt to capture Mr. and Mrs. Tennyson the loving couple and hopefully I have!
Anonymous said…
I know how much you love Tennyson. This is a labor of love. gigigirl
Kimberly Eve said…
Aw, thank you gigigirl. I'm glad my love came through :)
Hermes said…
Robert is right - great article. I've always suspected Cameron was in love with the great poet but I don't think he hardly noticed her.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Hermes, thanks so much.
I agree with you about Mrs. Cameron.
She was always making her presence known and Mr. Tennyson did not like anyone fussing or gushing over him. I think it made him quite uncomfortable.
WoofWoof said…
Fascinating piece with a wealth of information! Thank you so much for all the time and effort you put into your blog posts. Woofwoof (aka C Reginald on facebook!)
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi WoofWoof,
So nice to see you here again. You were missed! Thank you so much for commenting and stopping by. I am so glad you enjoyed my article. Have a wonderful weekend :)

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