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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Number 73: Alfred, Lord Tennyson "The Eagle"



He clasps the crag with crooked hands;

Close to the sun in lonely lands,

Ringed with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

--Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Hap Notes: I don't suppose you'll ever see a pair of eyes filled with greater sadness than those of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892). His vision was not good and he wrote most of his poetry in his head (!) and recited it to people who acted as secretary and wrote it down. He scribbled out some of his poetry himself though but it was usually fully formed in his head first. So some of this sad look may be just poor vision. However, he was a sensitive soul who retracted at criticism, was very shy and had deep heartaches over the loss of his soul-mate friend (Arthur Henry Hallam) and from the fear of mental illness which plagued his family. He was often a little depressed and required quite a bit of "alone time."

Tennyson's father, the Reverend George Clayton Tennyson, was an imposing big man with a "high temper." He had an alcohol problem and was, as he aged, somewhat erratic and difficult with his kids (he had 12 of them). One of Alfred's brothers had an opium problem, one had an explosive temper and another one was institutionalized. George suffered from several mental breakdowns which were aided somewhat by the alcohol. George said of his children,"They are all strangely brought up." It's no wonder Alfred was happy to go to Trinity College, Cambridge. His father died a couple of years after he'd been in college and he had to leave with no degree.

It was in college where Alfred met Arthur Hallam, his best pal. Hallam was later engaged to Tennyson's sister (Hallam wrote her sonnets) and when he died in 1833 (cerebral hemorrhage), it was a life blow to the shy Tennyson who enjoyed Hallam's intellect and confidence. That same year Tennyson published a book of poetry that met with unfavorable reviews. It was a crappy year for Alfred and he suffered. Of course there's always talk of the homoerotic nature of a male-male friendship. The allegations about Hallam are merely contemporary speculation, there's no proof that anything other than genuine, deep extraordinary friendship existed between the two men (and by the by, even if there was, so what?) And Alfred married the love of his life, Emily Selwood. They named their first child after Hallam.

Now before I go any farther into stories about Tennyson let me say that I believe this poem is about Tennyson himself. The "falling like the thunderbolt" may be a bit of imaginative wish fulfillment but the loneliness is all Tennyson's. [The picture at top is a Golden Eagle- he probably wasn't talking about a Bald Eagle which are indigenous to the U.S. hence it's our "national bird." Golden Eagles were common on the Isle of Wight in this era and Tennyson spent some time there.] It wouldn't be uncharacteristic of Tennyson to think of himself in this way, not in a pretentious way but as a supreme loner. He was certainly treated in a respectful and majestic manner as he was both Poet Laureate of England and given a Lordship (which he turned down when offered by both Gladstone and Disraeli and ended up taking it because Prince Albert, who loved his work, asked him to.) Notice that the bird is so high on a crag that the waving sea just looks wrinkled. All the words in the poem all so well-chosen for sound aren't they?

Queen Victoria considered Tennyson a friend and they corresponded by letter. She even wrote of the times he visited her in her diaries.

Lewis Carrol was a friend of Tennyson and took many of the photographs one sees of Tennyson and his children.

Tennyson had a large voice to equal his large frame and his usual Spanish hat and cape. If you'd like to hear it visit where you can hear a wax cylinder recording of him reading "The Charge of the Light Brigrade." The recording is eerily crackling but his voice is stern and dramatic still.

Tennyson is the second most quoted author in Oxford Dictionary of quotations. It is Tennyson who wrote, "Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." In fact, it would take forever to quote all the bright passages in Tennyson's work. His ear for English is divine.

Tennyson was sort of obsessed by the Arthurian legends and visited many of the places reputedly to be Arthur's stomping grounds. Honestly, without Tennyson it's hard to imagine that anyone would have the same feelings or images about King Arthur and the round table. Tennyson wrote many poems based on the legends and pretty much characterized all the people in the stories from Arthur to Lancelot to Guinevere to Galahad and Elaine.

Tennyson out-sold Longfellow even here in the states and he made a rather good living from it. When I was in junior high, I spent many rainy afternoons reading Idylls of the King or Maud ("Come into the garden, Maud") or The Princess or The Lady of Shallot and I thought at the time that Ulysses was one of the greatest poems ever. I still think it's mighty good. I always loved Mariana in the Moated Grange, too.

Crossing the Bar is one we may do later in the year. Tennyson said it came to him all at once and he hastily scribbled it out on the back of an envelope. He asked that any of books of his collected poetry should end with Crossing the Bar.

Here's a good Tennyson quote: "No man ever got very high by pulling other people down. The intelligent merchant does not knock his competitors. The sensible worker does not work those who work with him. Don't knock your friends. Don't knock your enemies. Don't knock yourself."

And another: "We cannot be kind to each other here for even an hour. We whisper, and hint, and chuckle and grin at our brother's shame; however you take it we men are a little breed."

You can find more Tennyson lots of places but here's one:

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