Alfred Lord Tennyson – on the bicentenary of his birth
“Perhaps Tennyson does not deserve it,” Cranmer hears his communicants mutter under their cynical breath. “Who’s Tennyson?” muse some of his readers. “What the hell’s this weirdo on about today?” blogs the green-eyed god.
Alfred Tennyson was born on 6th August 1809, to become arguably the most popular and certainly the most prolific of the Victorian poets. He was Poet Laureate, succeeding William Wordsworth, from 1850 to 1892 – the longest tenure in the post’s history. His verse is pure melody – its musicality is a symphony of luxurious shapes and textures which beguile any who yield to the rhythmic imagery. And he was among the first generation of poets to leave audible and visual corporeal traces of himself — he was photographed and his voice recorded on wax cylinders reciting his own poetry.
According to the Oxford Book of Literary Quotations, he is (surprisingly) the most quoted English poet after Shakespeare. He created a number of phrases which have entered the vernacular, including: ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’; '’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all’; ‘Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die’; ‘Knowledge comes, but Wisdom lingers’; and ‘The old order changeth, yielding place to new’.
He twice refused the Peerage offered by Disraeli, only finally to accept it from Gladstone.
But Cranmer can forgive him this awry politicking.
Towards the end of his life, Lord Tennyson revealed that his religious beliefs defied convention. He wrote in In Memoriam - a work he publish anonymously after the death of his closest friend: ‘There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.’ The poem was a great favourite of Queen Victoria, who found it a source of solace after the death of Prince Albert in 1861. She said of it: "Next to the Bible, In Memoriam is my comfort."
In Maud, he wrote: ‘The churches have killed their Christ.’ In Locksley Hall Sixty Years After, he observed: ‘Christian love among the churches look'd the twin of heathen hate.’ And in his dramatic work Becket, he opined: ‘We are self-uncertain creatures, and we may, Yea, even when we know not, mix our spites and private hates with our defence of Heaven.’
The churches have killed their Christ.
Christian love among the churches look’d the twin of heathen hate.
There will doubtless be a little something on Radio 4, and the odd speech on the Isle of Wight. But that’s about it.