“God bless you, my joy.” ~ The Death of Alfred Lord Tennyson ~ August 5, 1809-6 October, 1892
To the Unknown Land by Edmund Blair Leighton
Four letters written by Lady Emily Tennyson to her sister Anne and niece Agnes Weld taken from my copy of The Letters of Emily Lady Tennyson by James O. Hoge, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1974 edition.
1) To Anne Weld
Aldworth, 8 August 1892
My dearest Nanny,
I am sorry to say that my Ally is still suffering from gout in the
throat and jaw which greatly depresses him. We say as little as
may be about this; the newspapers, if they got hold of it,
would bring endless trouble of letters, etc. Very kindly meant
but very distressing to recipients.
Our lawyers and yours have sent us the particulars of the
Somersby estate which is to be sold in a few days and which
they want us to buy, but as £80,000 is waned and probably 50
or 60 will be got for it some millionaire must buy it for us as
we should have to sell all our belongings to purchase it
ourselves . . .
*Footnote: The present owner of the old rectory at Somersby, now called
Somersby House, is Lady Maitland, wife of Sir John Maitland, of Harrington Hall.
The present occupant is William Maitland, their eldest son.
2) To Anne and Agnes Weld
Aldworth, 18 September 1892
My dearest Nanny and Agnes,
My poor Ally has been very unwell. When Hallam came home
he telegraphed for Dr. Dabbs and I had had two doctors
before. Thank God Ally seems better now.
3) To Anne and Agnes Weld
Aldworth, 3 October 1892
(written three days before his death)
My dearest Nanny and Agnes,
He became very ill the day Sir Andrew left. Dr. Dabbs has
been most kind. He has been with us six nights; he stayed all
day yesterday and is coming again this evening and we have
two nurses. He has milk and brandy and such things every two
hours . . . Thank God Dr. Dabbs is hopeful now.
If you like to show this to dear Mr. Jowett, do. You may
consider that things are going on as well as can be expected if
you hear nothing. He is, of course, in bed.
*Footnote: Sir Andrew Clark, who came from London on 29 September, thought
the poet’s condition not so very serious, but the next day, after Clark left,
Tennyson was very much worse. With Emily, Hallam, and Audrey at his side, Tennyson died at 1:35a.m.
on 6 October.
4) To Anne and Agnes Weld (Emily Tennyson’s letter written just five days after the death of her husband, “Ally.”)
Aldworth, 11 October 1892
My dearest Anne and Agnes Weld,
My blessing on you both. I knew nothing of arrangements
made for me. We wished you both to be present as mourners.
. . . I am not able to have anyone with me except my Hallam,
at least only to look after me as far as my bodily want . . . He
and I feel that we live with Him still and that in this is our
best hope of a fuller life in God. I have indeed much beyond
words to be thankful for. I had been joyful in the hope of
going with Him but my Hallam tells me that I can be a help in
the work to be done and nothing I can do is too much to be
done either for the Father or the devote Son of our love.
*Footnote: At the funeral in Westminster Abbey, 12 October, Neither Emily
Tennyson nor Anne Weld was well enough to attend the service but
Agnes went, and she subsequently wrote her aunt a complete account
of the funeral.
The Illustrated London News, 1892 edition,
Lord Tennyson Last Idyll Man Death Bed.
Antique print Forestier.
An Account of the Death of Alfred Lord Tennyson:
“In the autumn of 1892, Alfred Tenyson lay dying at Aldworth, the house near Haslemere that he and his wife had planned together. Emily, in all the accounts, is a shadowy figure, led back and forth from the sickroom to her own nearby room by the devoted son, Hallam. She seems to be passive, to need protection from the nastier side of death. Her daughter-in-law, sensible, helpful Audrey, records nearly everything. But the vomiting and enemas will be left out of the son’s account, the massive Memoir for which Audrey is keeping these notes, just as Emily herself had recorded over the years, at Tennyson’s suggestion, the ‘something-nothings’ of the poet’s life-and of her own life with which for forty-two years it had been so intricately entwined. In this deathbed diary, Emily Tennyson Is not described. She is hardly there. All the attention is of course on the poet himself.
On 28 September Tennyson’s ‘sickness had gone on so long’ – an aching throat and jaw and other things too-that it was decided to summon to Aldworth Sir Andrew Clark, the distinguished physician whom Tennyson had first met socially at the Gladstones.’
He arrived in the evening with Lady Clark, and seemed quite annoyed at not finding him, as he considered, more ill, Audrey wrote in her diary, It was Dr. Dabbs, George Dabbs, arriving from the Isle of Wight, who realized how serious things were. At this stage the plan was to move Tennyson to Farringford, if he was fit to be moved. It was certainly in Emily’s mind that that was where he should die, if the time had really come for him to die. But Tennyson was too ill to be moved.
Over the days of Tennyson’s dying, Emily sat for the most part alone, praying and reading. ‘I went in to see my Mother in law,’ Audrey wrote in her diary, ‘and asked her if she would like me to sit in the room with her, but she said tho’ grateful she would rather be alone.
Emily’s own book of prayers was a collection of loose pages enclosed in a black binding with ELEGIES in gold on the spine. On the inside of the cover there still remained some lines in Tennyson’s neat young hand:
Thou seemest human & divine
Thou madest man without, within:
Yet who shall say thou madest sin.
For who shall say ‘it is not mine’
On 4 October Dr. Dabbs told them ‘there was no hope.’ Tennyson once told William Allingham: ‘Two things I have always been firmly convinced of, -God, -and that death will not end my existence.’
That same day, Audrey Tennyson wrote in her diary that her father-in-law kept ‘talking about a journey.’ ‘When H (Hallam) went in, he told him he must not take him on his journey today; he could not bear it. If thou shouldst never see my face again, Pray for my soul . . . I am going a long way . . . where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow, nor ever wind blows loudly . . .’
They tried to keep calm at Aldworth. The grandchildren, Hallam’s children: Lionel who was nearly three and Aubrey who was eighteen months had been sent off with their nurse to their uncle, Cecil Boyle, on 1 October. Lionel had been allowed to say goodbye to his grandfather. He understood he was very ill and that he would soon be going away too. Telegrams kept arriving including one from the Queen. ‘O, that Press will get hold of it now,’ Tennyson said. The newspapers and periodicals were alerted to the death of ‘the greatest living Englishman.’
On the day when Dr. Dabbs had given up hope, Emily wrote a list of her own small bequests and requests to her grandsons, to their mother Eleanor, to her niece Agnes Weld. She asked her son to give something to her sister Anne (Nanny) and to Horatio Tennyson (Alfred’s youngest brother) daughters, Cecy, Maud and Violet.
Wednesday, 5 October, was Tennyson’s last day alive. Audrey recorded her father-in-law asking for a Shakespeare and lying with his hand resting on the open page, discouraged by Hallam from trying to read. The lovely book had once belonged to his dearest brother Charles and carried the book plate of their Turner great-grandfather. It was open at Cymbeline, the first Shakespeare play Emily had read, as a child of eight, and at a tender passage they had both loved:
Hang there, like fruit, my soul
Till the tree die.
Tennyson was finding it hard to talk and when he did they could hardly understand what he was saying, ‘owing greatly I think to his having no teeth in,’ noted the unpoetic Audrey. ‘My mother is crushed but brave and thankful that he does not suffer,’ Hallam replied to the telegram from the Queen.
At ten past four in the afternoon on 6 October, Dr Dabbs gave Tennyson some drops of laudanum and they heard him say, after drinking it obediently, ‘Very nasty.’ At quarter past five ‘Hallam fetched his mother in that he might recognise her,’ Audrey recorded. 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, not, in its ‘last heat’ picking ‘at the deathmote on the sheet,’ as he had imagined in his misery after Arthur Hallam’s death so long before.” Excerpt from Emily Tennyson: The Poet’s Wife by Ann Thwaite, faber and faber, Great Britain, 1996 edition.
The Death of Lord Tennyson (1892) by Samuel Begg
I love you Alfred Lord Tennyson for your truest sense of self, for your gift of poetry, for your love of nature, for your love of family, the Lincolnshire Wolds and the Isle of Wight.
Portrait painting of Lord Tennyson by Frederic Sandys
My favorite Tennyson poem (aside from Maud) is Kate
I know her by her angry air, Her brightblack eyes, her brightblack hair, Her rapid laughters wild and shrill, As laughter of the woodpecker From the bosom of a hill. 'Tis Kate--she sayeth what she will; For Kate hath an unbridled tongue, Clear as the twanging of a harp. Her heart is like a throbbing star. Kate hath a spirit ever strung Like a new bow, and bright and sharp As edges of the scymetar. Whence shall she take a fitting mate? For Kate no common love will feel; My woman-soldier, gallant Kate, As pure and true as blades of steel. Kate saith "the world is void of might". Kate saith "the men are gilded flies". Kate snaps her fingers at my vows; Kate will not hear of lover's sighs. I would I were an armèd knight, Far famed for wellwon enterprise, And wearing on my swarthy brows The garland of new-wreathed emprise: For in a moment I would pierce The blackest files of clanging fight, And strongly strike to left and right, In dreaming of my lady's eyes. Oh! Kate loves well the bold and fierce; But none are bold enough for Kate, She cannot find a fitting mate.