For example, this lady will be forever know as 'Woman grieving the death of Princess Diana'. Now I might be wrong but I'm guessing she didn't personally know Princess Diana, and was just one of thousands, possibly millions worldwide who felt personally devastated by the death of the Princess. I'm not sure what it was like everywhere else in the world (and I would be fascinated to hear) but in Britain in the week following 31st August 1997 the media and the country seemed to plunge into a state ably modelled by the lady above. I have to admit I found it puzzling and I didn't understand it. I think that is why I found the following so interesting...
|From the Burnley Express and Advertiser, 8 October 1892|
Today marks the anniversary of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's death in 1892. By that point he had been laureate for over 40 years and was 83 years old. Since 1869 he had split his time between Farringford on the Isle of Wight and Aldworth in West Sussex. Aldworth had been built as his escape from the tourists who pestered him in Freshwater, but he returned to the Wight in the winter. He was Queen Victoria's poet, he was revered by the nation and he was an old man. When he passed away in the early hours of 6th October 1892 I imagined that the reporting of his passing would be dignified and restrained. How wrong I was.
|Alfred Tennyson, crossing the bar, rather literally...|
I have studied the newspapers of October 1892 for the last few weeks, both national and local, in preparation for this post. I didn't set out to delve in so deep but as you will see, the subject just kept giving. On Wednesday 28th September Tennyson had complained of feeling unwell after being out for a drive on Black Down, near his home in West Sussex. On the Thursday he remained indoors and there were a few mentions of this in the papers but not really anything like what was to follow. Sir Andrew Clark, President of the Clinical Society of London and Fellow of the Royal Society, was summoned, along with Dr George Roqué Dabbs, Tennyson's doctor from the Isle of Wight. Dr Dabbs arrived on the Thursday and remained with the family. Sir Andrew visited on the Friday but left again, returning the following week. A velvet rope was put across the drive to Aldworth to keep away visitors, with a basket left for messages.
|The doctors, from the Graphic memorial supplement|
Over the weekend, the poet existed on a strict diet of beef tea, brandy and milk as any solid food was deemed to be detrimental to his recovery and indeed, Tennyson seemed to rally on the Monday, but then his health began to fail. He requested a copy of Shakespeare which he held in his hand even after he lost the strength to read from it. Sir Andrew returned on the Tuesday and by Wednesday morning all hope was lost. Shortly after midnight on Thursday morning, Tennyson gain enough strength to say goodbye to his wife, Emily before passing away at 1.30am.
|The Death of Lord Tennyson (1892) Samuel Begg|
How do I know so much detail about the death of a Victorian poet? Because once the man died every tiny detail was spun into a legend complete with illustration and poetry. The death of Alfred, Lord Tennyson became as great and epic as the Passing of Arthur and the newspapers could not dedicate enough column inches to every single detail. Both of the physicians attending Tennyson gave their accounts to the press. Sir Andrew proclaimed the poet's passing as 'a gloriously beautiful death. In all my experience I have never witnessed anything more glorious.' Dr Dabbs was hardly more restrained in his language: 'Nothing could have been more stirring than the scene during the last few hours. On the bed a figure of breathing marble, flooded and bathed in the light of the full moon...' Much was made of the moonlight that streamed in through the window, leading to such illustrations as Samuel Begg's which was reproduced in supplements to publications like Black and White and The Graphic. Beside the great man, with his copy of Shakespeare in his hand, weeps Hallam and his wife Audrey (Emily is absent, interestingly) and the young Dr Dabbs looking stoically resigned. The media drew a picture of a great man who just stopped like an unwound clock, drawing to a dignified and peaceful end. The public death of Tennyson was not one of gout, bronchial and stomachic trouble exacerbated by influenza and old age, it was glorious end of a poem.
|Memorial Requiem (1892) written by Hamilton Galt|
|'Conveying the Remains from Aldworth to Haslemere Station on the way to London.'|
from the Graphic memorial supplement, October 1892
It was reported that the velvet rope that had sealed the family away from the outside world was finally removed and the gates to Aldworth were opened once more to well-wishers, although the papers stated that the family were only seeing intimate friends. Tennyson remained in Aldworth until Tuesday 11th when he began his progress to Westminster Abbey, ready for interment on Wednesday 12th. It may as well have said that he was placed in a boat with handmaidens, floating off to Avalon.
Other than intimate friends and family, one thousand tickets were made available to gentlemen (note ladies not admitted!) to be guaranteed a seat at the funeral of Lord Tennyson. Eleven thousand people applied. The papers knew that this would be no ordinary funeral, despite the respectable reporting of such matters as the music and George Granville Bradley, Dean of Westminster, who would lead the service. This rapidly became not a funeral about the establishment, but about the people who all, it seemed, loved Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
|The Coffin in St Faith's Chapel, from the Graphic memorial supplement, October 1892|
Reading the descriptions of the funeral now I am struck by the uneasy balance I always feel in any reporting by the media of such public events. There is a palpable tension in the press reporting on the grief of ordinary people and wanting to sneer at the lack of dignity afforded them in certain situations. If 10,000 men had been disappointed in their application to attend Tennyson's funeral, then it can only be imagined how many of them, plus women, came to the Abbey on 12th October in order to claim one of the unticketed places. Along with perfunctory descriptions of the Queen's floral tribute (laurel leaves tied with a white silk ribbon) or what dignitaries were in attendance, a lot of column inches was dedicated to the attempts to find a place in the Abbey. Crowds, who had been waiting since 9am were finally allowed admittance around noon and poured in like a 'great human wave' (as the London Daily News reported it), streaming into the nave, aisle and transept, then up to the Triforium gallery to fill the seats not reserved for ticket holders. Women in fashionable mourning clothes took to their heels and ran or else were swept along with the masses. Many hundreds more waited outside, straining to hear the organ music and the singing. The papers reported that many of the people had brought flowers from the waysides to lay at the grave of their poet. It was stated that if the intellect of the nation was not more strongly represented in the Abbey than at Browning's funeral, 'then the heart of the nation certainly was'.
|'A Nation's Homage to the Late Laureate: The Wreaths in the Jerusalem Chamber, Westminster Abbey'|
from the Graphic memorial supplement, October 1892
It was noted that although it was an event of the establishment, the death of the Queen's poet being akin to a politician in many ways, there was not the show of uniform or presence of officialdom that other 'state' funerals had. There was a small assemblage of soldiers from the home nations but most notably in terms of pathos was one old gentleman who was a corporal from the 10th Hussars, a survivor of the Charge of the Light Brigade.
|Wedgewood Commemorative Jug, c.1900|
You would think that would be an end to the coverage, but the following day's papers reported how still more crowds of people 'most of them of the simpler class' (as charmingly reported by the Liverpool Mercury) flocked in to view the last resting place of the poet. All of the many floral tributes covered the floor of Poets' Corner and a beautiful pall, worked in Keswick, had been laid over the stone. Not slow to take advantage of the commercial opportunity, commemorative issues of his poetry were released: by 14th October Macmillan and Co were already advertising a new miniature edition of Poetical and Dramatic Works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, together with Anne Thackeray Ritchie's Records of Tennyson, Ruskin and Browning (available to download free here, should you fancy a copy).
|G F Watts working on the Tennyson memorial, begun in 1898|
|Unveiling of finished memorial outside Lincoln cathedral, 1905|
Public acts of memorial continued with the unveiling of the giant statue of Tennyson outside Lincoln cathedral, together with other memorial busts and portraits. However, reflecting the mood of personal connection, many small items could be purchased, such as the Wedgewood jug and calendars emblazoned with the poet's likeness and verses.
In a memorial sermon, preached to his congregation in North Shields, the Reverend Vian-Williams was reported as saying that Tennyson was loved because he wore the 'white flower of a blameless life', exactly what Tennyson himself had said of the Prince Consort. In the Reverend's own words Tennyson was 'white in thought, feeling and deed, white in lip and word' which is the feeling you get from the quite extraordinary news reporting of the time. Looking at the moon-drenched image of the dying Tennyson, it is akin to a saint and from the reports in the papers you would think that they would hardly have been surprised had he risen again three days later. The reporting of the 'simple' people who had gathered from all corners of the country with their wild flowers and unruly manners, seemed on some sort of pilgrimage of love and it is obvious that the media enjoyed the spectacle whilst not quite understanding what was happening even while they participated. It all comes down to Tennyson himself.
|My favourite portrait of Alfred Tennyson (1861) by James Mudd|
What was it about Tennyson that made them fight to get into his memorial, to queue to see his tomb, travelling to just be at the Abbey on the day of his funeral? Would having a blameless life be enough to bring you to him? Possibly for some, but I think that the answer is deeper than that for most people and equally as opaque. Why do we love certain celebrities as if they are family, because that is what it amounts to? Why do certain people that we do not know beyond their work attach themselves to our souls? I would offer that what we mourn when such a person dies is not the person themselves but the construct we build around their work. Poets and writers create stories for us and we feel we know them through the act of storytelling. Poetry has an immediacy and often, especially in the case of Tennyson, tells us about very visceral things - love, lust, death, war, betrayal. He may have allegedly been white in word and deed in life, but in writing he was the corners of human experience, the deeper layers of what it is to feel alive. Take a poem such as 'O Beauty, Passing Beauty', one of my favourites, and it is a description of the frustration in wanting another person so badly that you can barely think of the word 'kiss' in context of them without dissolving into a puddle of lust. Tennyson understood and put it much better than that, and that is why he was, and still is, loved.
It is a mark of the strength of Tennyson's work that his death, and with it the silence of his work, could inspire such a tremendous swell of feeling. The very heart of Britain filled Westminster Abbey at his passing and I am surprised yet again to see how very much the Victorian response resembles that of modern day. The past may be a different country but it seems when it comes to those we treasure, we appear to speak the same language.