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Tennyson remembered.

THE exhibition, Tennyson (1809-1892), which has been running at The Wordsworth Centre, Dove Cottage, Grasmere, and latterly at The Usher Gallery, Lincoln, was a celebration of the life and achievements of a poet who produced some of the most famous and popular poems in the English language, from the thundering cadences of |The Charge of the Light Brigade'-- that futile heroic gesture which highlighted the Crimean Campaign, to the erotic |Maud' which Tennyson described as |a little Hamlet, the history of a morbid poetic soul, under the blighting influence of a restlessly speculative age'. During the lifetime of the poet, the inventive Victorian mind had devised the means to record the human voice and the camera had been developed. The Crimean Campaign had started in an atmosphere of public enthusiasm and patriotism but blunders in the field led to charges of incompetent command under Lord Raglan, who is said to have died of a broken heart. Conditions at the front were hard and cholera was rampant. The public mood changed to doubt and despair.

It was against this backcloth that the celebrated photographer, Roger Fenton, went to the Crimea in 1855, leaving after six months with cholera and 360 unique war photographs. The exhibition displayed a collection of these photographs, several on loan from the Queen. Accompanying these prints was the voice of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, reading his epic lines.

The exhibition unfolded the life of the poet from a violent childhood, over-shadowed by poverty and the black bile of the Tennyson family. His father, epileptic and paranoid -- often drunk -- was nevertheless able to supervise Alfred's education at home. Two of his brothers became insane and the shadow haunted him all his life. In 1827 he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he met the ill-fated Arthur Hallam who died at the age of twenty-two, becoming the inspiration for Tennyson's great poem, |In Memoriam'. At Cambridge he became a friend of the talented portrait painter, James Spedding, who lived on the shores of Bassenthwaite. Spedding introduced Tennyson to Wordsworth, then living at Rydal Mount. The two poets became friends and when Wordsworth became Poet Laureate, he declared Tennyson, |decidedly the first of our living poets'.

April, 1827, saw Tennyson's first appearance in print. Poems by Two Brothers was published by Jacksons, booksellers at Louth. |Poems, Chiefly Lyrical' (1830) received an unfavourable review from John Wilson (Christopher North) in Blackwood's Magazine. Tennyson's reaction was bitter and for the rest of his life he remained sensitive to adverse criticism. In spite of this, the collection together with the publication of Poems (1833) and Poems (1842), established his reputation. 1850 proved a memorable year with his marriage to Emily Sellwood after an engagement of

fourteen years, the success of |In Memoriam' and his appointment as Poet Laureate, partly due to the admiration of Prince Albert.

Tennyson took his duties seriously but he disliked writing to order: |writing to order is what I hate. They think a poet can write poems to order as a bootmaker makes boots'. Nevertheless Tennyson enjoyed a friendly relationship with the Royal Family, and he was to become a favourite member of the Court, close to the Queen and her children, who were encouraged to draw scenes from the Arthurian poems.

In later life Tennyson turned to drama. His greatest stage success was |Becket'. The distinguished cast included Ellen Terry with Henry Irving in the title role. In old age Tennyson, living at Farringford, formed a late friendship with Edward Lear who revered the poet's work to such a degree that he developed an obsessive desire to produce a complete edition of Tennyson's poems, illustrated by himself, a work which not only paid tribute to the poetry but complemented Tennyson's poetic images with his imaginative landscapes.

On 6th October, 1892, Westminster Abbey was packed with leading public figures. Huge crowds paid tribute to their dead hero outside. Tennyson had come to enjoy extraordinary popularity. Some say that as his popularity had grown -- as the great public figure emerged -- the great poetry had become scarcer. On that theatrical occasion in Westminster Abbey, Henry James had noted, 'a lovely day, the Abbey looked beautiful, but something -- I don't know what -- of real impressiveness -- was wanting'.

The exhibition's success owes much to the inspired and devoted direction of Robert Woof, Director of The Wordsworth Trust, Dove Cottage, Grasmere. The accompanying, beautifully-produced catalogue is a desirable addition to the body of Tennyson bibliography. It is available from The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere.
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Title Annotation:various galleries; Alfred Lord Tennyson
Author:Tomlinson, Bernard
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Nov 1, 1992
Previous Article:Edinburgh International Festival.
Next Article:An Oxford garrison of poets in 1642.

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