Friday, June 19, 2009

What's it all about, Alfy?

This year 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of a great Victorian, twice. Not only was Charles Darwin, naturalist and discoverer of the modern theory of evolution, born on the 18th of February, 1809; but so too, on 6 August, 1809, was Alfred Tennyson, poet laureate, second most quoted author in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, and author of some of the finest poems in the English language.

You'll probably have noticed the books dedicated to, and inspired by, Darwin going about. But you don't hear people going on about Tennyson so much, do you? Oh, no! He only revitalised the language; articulated the doubts and hopes of an entire age; wrote an early feminist work, the long narrative poem The Princess; was friends with many, many other fine writers; and was amongst the first to come to grips, in his poetry with - surprise surprise - current theories of evolution. You never saw Darwin write scientific treatises on current poetry, now, did you? Tennyson's got that one up on the old bugger.

Of course, the Victorians might be a little shocked by this treatment of one of their finest sons, but at the same time I wonder if they wouldn't bear the whole news with equinamity. "Time, like an ever rolling stream/bears all its sons away" saith the poet in that slightly smug, complacent way the poet has of saith-ing things that are undoubtedly true. But in the modern fashion, I think we should react to Tennyson's sorrowful neglect by the literary establishment of the day by granting him the victim status that we grant all our heroes nowadays.

And what a victim he was! Blighted from before his birth by a royal lineage, Tennyson's career was tragically marked out in his teenage years, when he first started writing poetry. Even worse was to come, for during his education, he not only attended the finest, and therefore worst, schools around, but he was also recognised at an early stage for his talent by receiving the Chancellor's Gold Medal for one of his early poems. He was treated disgracefully by his peers, when his published poetry was met with widespread acclaim, and he was later honoured, and obviously horrified, with the title of Poet Laureate. This was bad enough, and the fact that his colleagues attempted, at least, to encourage an incipient alcoholism in Tennyson by sending him a yearly butt of sack was never enough to make up for it. By that time, the damage had well and truly been done. Instead of becoming an alcoholic and drug abuser, and therefore an example to us all, Tennyson died, at the sorrowfully young age of eighty three, driven to an early grave by the love and affection of all around him.

Even after his death, the ignominy continued, with Tennyson's poems being read in schools around the world, and anthologised frequently. People couldn't leave well enough alone; many, indeed, have been moved to tears by his shockingly well-wrought and finely crafted verses. It was not until well in the twentieth century, when education standards began to degrade, and people began to forget about the verse forms, that they really began to deliver Tennyson the neglect and lack of appreciation that he so richly didn't deserve. And isn't that a disgrace!

So, drawing to my conclusion, I find, surprisingly, that I agree with you people. Fine! Have it your way. Neglect poor old Alfred, some 120 years after he's dead. See if he cares. It's not as if he couldn't have done with any of that ignorance and abuse when he was alive, after all. As a matter of fact, if you're going to completely ignore Tennyson, why not direct some of that neglect in Darwin's way as well? It's high time, clearly, that he got some of the same treatment as well. Come on, people! It's not as if Darwin's going to come alive again, is it? Neglect him while there's still time! There's so much less we can do for him!

Just be careful, or you might get a statue for yourself in Trinity College, too.


Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

It's Errol Flynn's 100th today.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

And we celebrated (?) the centenary of Algernon Charles Swinburne's death in April. Where are the Swinburne conferences, I ask you?

TimT said...

This ere Chesterton I'm reading has this to say on the matter, when Tennyson was only 100 years old: "But that Tennyson was a poet is as solid and certain as that Roberts is a billiard player. That Tennyson was an astonishingly good poet is as certain as that roberts is an astonishingly good billiard player."

Not knowing who Roberts is, I can't say for sure, but it certainly sounds about right.

M-H said...

Thanks for this. My father was a huge Tennyson fan - I think T. was much better appreciated in the first decades of last century when my father was at school. He used to read the long mock-medieval poems to me when I was young: "It was the time when lilies blow, and clouds are highest up in air. Lord Ronald brought a snow-white doe unto his cousin the Lady Clare. I trow they did not part in scorn, for lovers long-betrothed were they. They were to wed the morrow morn - God's blessing on the day!" And of course 'The mirror cracked from side to side...!"

I read Crossing the Bar at his funeral, and later at Uni (a very mature student, me) I returned to those poems and learned to read them all over again. I still love them.

TimT said...

He's fabulous. I love his shorter lyrics from The Princess, and a lot of his mock medieval stuff, and even his umpty-tumpty-tum patriotic verse. And some of his lines are just so resonant: "Oh sorrow, live with me and be my friend...." etc.

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