Saturday, November 3, 2018

You are invited to a party at The Brownings

Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Albumen print by Julia Margaret Cameron

One of the most enduring friendships of the Victorian era was that of poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Alfred and Emily Tennyson.  It lasted throughout their lifetimes. However, I've always wondered how it started?

 According to, Alfred Lord Tennyson:  A Memoir by his son (Baron Hallam Tennyson) it was Frederic Tennyson, Alfred's older brother who was living in Florence, Italy where his friends The Brownings were visiting at the same time Alfred happened to be there. As it happens, all got on well and as you do both poets said they must get together when they are back in England. 

Portman Square, London, England, 1850s
The Brownings lived at 13 Dorset Street at this time

On September 27, 1855, friends such as: Arabella Browning (Roberts sister), Poet Laureate Tennyson, painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his brother William Michael Rossetti amongst others gathered at 13 Dorset Street the London home of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning for dinner and poetry readings. Everyone was so excited to hear the poet laureate read from his proof sheets of his new poem, MAUD! 

Original very first sketch by Rossetti 
drawn during the reading of Maud.
Never presented archived at Birmingham Museum.

As poet laureate Tennyson sat on a sofa next to Elizabeth Barrett Browning reading his poem Maud, quietly sketching away was pre-raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The above sketch was found on the back of the third and most recognized sketch of Tennyson believed to be the very first drawing.  It was never presented to The Brownings that night because the painter wanted to make two more complete drawings; one to be a gift to his girlfriend Lizzie Siddall who loved Tennyson and the final drawing to the hosts of the party.

Second drawing of Tennyson by Rossetti

I hate the dreaded hollow behind the little wood

Have you noticed these words handwritten atop Rossetti's second sketch? It is the first line of opening stanza 1 of Tennyson's Maud but who in the world wrote it? In an interview twenty years later in 1874, poet Robert Browning reminisced about his then beloved deceased wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning who wrote the words when presented the drawing by Rossetti. 

Final version

During Alfred Tennyson's lifetime (1809-1892), when asked if he knew he was being drawn while reading Maud he would only be quoted saying, 'I have no recollection'. This was corroborated by William Michael Rossetti who said in an unpublished letter, 'So far as I remember, the poet laureate, neither saw what my brother was doing nor knew of it afterward'. In an excerpt from Tennyson's own letter diaries written the day after the party (28 September) while still staying with The Brownings, 

I dined yesterday with The Brownings and had a very pleasant evening. 
Both of them are great admirers of poor little "maud." The two Rossetti's 
came in during the evening.'

My favorite fond memory of Tennyson from that night was from party guest, Lady Geraldine,

The close is magnificent, full of power, and there are beautiful thrilling lines all through. If I had a heart to spare, the Laureate would have won mine. (Tennysons voice) like an organ music rather than speech. He stopped every now and then to say, "there's a wonderful touch!"










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