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From 1816 to 1820, Alfred attended the Louth Grammar School. “The only good I got from it,” he said, “was the memory of the phrase sonus desilientis aqua.” The poems of Horace were thoroughly drummed into him during these years and he disliked Horace in proportion. In later life he used to exclaim tragically: “ They use me as a lesson book in school and the pupils will call me that horrible Tennyson.” While he was at Louth he wrote his first poem. It was in blank verse in imitation of Thomson and was written on a slate.
It's wonderful,” says Professor Jebb, “how the whelp could have known such things." He also taught himself Italian by the mantelpiece method, which was invented by him, and consists of writing words that are to be remembered upon the white enamel of one's mantelpiece.
At the age of nineteen, that is to say in 1828, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge. Though he found the country level, the revelry monotonous, and the studies tame, he contrived to extract a good deal of satisfaction from his college career. His Johnsonian common sense and the union in him of strength with refinement made him the hero of his days in college. He and his friends formed a kind of club called the Apostles, the chief members of which were: (1) a tame snake, the sinuosities of which Alfred loved to watch; (2) A. T. Brookfield, whose jokes were so funny that he often made the whole party lie on the floor for purposes of unrestrained laughter; (3) Richard Monckton Milnes, who played Beatrice in "Much Ado About Nothing" but was so heavy that when he sat down the marble stage seat collapsed; and (4) Arthur Henry Hallam, who was destined later to inspire “ In Memoriam ” and was as near perfection, according to Tennyson, as mortal could be. For exercise, Tennyson rowed, fenced, and walked during these years. Of his tutors the most famous was Whewell, the lion-like, who tolerated some irregularity; for instance, when he caught Tennyson reading Virgil in his geometry class he called him to order thus: “Mr. Tennyson, what is the compound interest of a penny put out at the Christian Era up to date? ” Billy Whistle was Whewell's nickname. At 12 o'clock one night, horns, and trumpets, and bugles, and drums began to play from all the windows around Trinity New Court, and a man who had been expelled that day strummed on a piano on the lawn and, to quote Tennyson's own words, “ There was the fiend's own row.” Soon Whewell, who lived in Neville's Court next to New Court, was heard thundering at his door, which had been tied with a rope.
Finally, he broke through but found only silence and order and the expelled man by the piano in the moonlight. Whewell strode to the piano. The man fled. At last Whewell caught him, “Do you know me?” said Whewell panting. “Yes, sir,” replied the man, "you are Old Whistle, who made that mistake in his dynamics." Thereupon Whewell, seeing that he was the expelled man, took him by the scruff of the neck, carried him to the great gate, and shot him out like bad rubbish. During his college career, it should be added, Tennyson took a decided interest in politics. When somebody asked him to what party he belonged, he replied, “ The same as Shakespeare, Bacon, and every sane man.”
In 1830 he published, in collaboration with his brother, a volume called “Poems, Chiefly Lyrical,” and in 1832 a volume called “Poems.” Though the book reached Ralph Waldo Emerson across the ocean, it was unfavorably received by the “Quarterly," and Tennyson, in consequence, published nothing else for ten years. Instead he devoted himself to study and preparation.
During those years, we find him in 1835 in the Lake country but refusing to call upon Wordsworth lest he intrude. In 1839 he was so poor that he could not go from London to Lincolnshire to see his fiancée, Emily Sellwood. In 1840 he met Thomas Carlyle, who described him at that time as a fine, large-featured, dim-eyed, bronzecolored, shaggy-headed man; dusty, smoky, free and easy; who swims outwardly and inwardly with great composure in an articulate element as of tranquil chaos and tobacco smoke; great now and then when he does emerge; a most restful, brotherly, solid-hearted man. Carlyle wrote to Emerson in 1842: “ Alfred is one of the few British and foreign figures who are and remain beautiful to me, a true human soul, or some approximation thereto, to whom your own soul can say 'Brother ’! ” During these years, Tennyson lived mostly in London on Norfolk Street. His favorite place for dining was at Bertolini's, or ‘Dirtolini's,' as he called it. He used to say that a perfect dinner consisted of a beef steak, a potato, a cut of cheese, a pint of porter, and a pipe. When joked on his fondness for salt beef and new potatoes, he would answer: “All fine-natured men know what is good to eat.”
In 1842 Tennyson finally emerged from obscurity through the publication of a third volume, called “Poems.” It contained, among other pieces, "Locksley Hall,” “ Godiva," “ The May Queen,” “Morte d'Arthur," "The Lord of Burleigh," " Ulysses," and "The Lotus Eaters." The volume was well received. Wordsworth praised
it. Carlyle sent a flattering letter, and Dickens presented him with a set of his works. His financial difficulties, however, were not yet at an end. In 1844 he lost what little money he had in an unfortunate speculation, but was rescued from his difficulties the next year by a pension which Thomas Carlyle persuaded Richard Monckton Milnes to secure for him. It is recorded in this connection that one day Carlyle said to Milnes: “When are you going to get that pension for Alfred Tennyson?” Milnes replied: “ The thing is not easy; my constituents will cry fraud.” Thereupon Carlyle said solemnly and emphatically, “ Richard Milnes, on the day of judgment, when the Lord asks you why you didn't get that pension for Alfred Tennyson, it will not do to lay the blame on your constituents; it is you who will be damned.” There was a contest between James Sheridan Knowles and Tennyson for the pension, but it was settled by Sir Robert Peel's being shown Tennyson's “ Ulysses.”
Two years later he published “ The Princess,” of which Sir W. R. Hamilton, a mathematician, said, “How much wiser than my Quaternions!” The poem is an exposition of the woman's rights question, thrown into the form of a story, but, unlike most expositions, is full of exquisite poetry. Some of the lyrics which it contains will probably be remembered as long as the English language is read. When it was finally published, Tennyson wrote to his friend Edward Fitzgerald: “ My book is out and I hate it.”
Three years later, in 1850, he published “In Memoriam ” in memory of Arthur Henry Hallam, who had died in 1834. One of Tennyson's keenest critics says of this: “To my mind and heart the most satisfactory things that have ever been said on the future state are contained in this poem.” The student will find its central thought in the short poem beginning:
“ Break, break, break
On thy cold grey stones, O Sea!”
In this same year, owing to the death of Wordsworth, Tennyson
bard, “ because Venables told me that when I dined out I should always be offered the liver wing of a fowl.” The most important event of the year to Tennyson was, however, his marriage to Emily Sellwood. When somebody asked him how he enjoyed the ceremony, he is said to have replied, "It was the nicest wedding I have ever been at.” As a honeymoon trip, the newly-married couple went next year to Italy. Tennyson has described their experiences for us in the poem called “ The Daisy."
After their return to England, they lived at Twickenham, where, in 1852, their eldest son Hallam Tennyson was born. Tennyson called him a little monster and wrote his poem “ De Profundis a record of the thoughts which the child aroused in his mind. Somewhat later he said to one of his friends: “I used to think old painters overdid the dignity and beauty of infant Christs, but I see now they did n't. This morning Hallam lay half-an-hour worshipping the bedpost on which the sunlight flickered.” As soon as he could, he took the baby to see old Samuel Rogers, who had once had his hand on Dr. Johnson's knocker,
In 1853 he moved from Twickenham to Farringford, where the air was worth sixpence a pint, so that he might enjoy the pleasure of ‘rustic life. Here in 1854 Lionel Tennyson was born. He studied nature and geology and played football with his boys. He taught Horace's “ Fons Bandusiæ ” to Hallam, but would not allow him to learn his own poems and insisted that his boys show courtesy to the poor. Later we find him giving Hallam this sound bit of advice: “Learn your lessons regularly; for gentlemen and ladies will not take you for a gentleman when you grow up if you are ignorant.” On December 9, 1854, he saw in a newspaper, which was commenting on some phase of the war in the Crimea, the phrase, “Some one had blundered." This suggested to him “The Charge of the Light Brigade," which he wrote in a few moments and which was printed the next year for the soldiers in the trenches.
In 1855 appeared his third long poem, "Maud.” Of its excellence he, himself, said: The oftener I read Maud the more I am convinced of its merits." Farringford was paid for with the proceeds from“ Maud,” which may have had something to do with Tennyson's