Tuesday 6 October 2015

The Passing of Alfred

Public grief.  It is such a tricky subject that I have started and restarted this post about seven times now. I think I find it most tricky as I don't really understand it. Until recently I thought it was a modern phenomenon to weep in public for strangers, save for monarchs, or those who could have been monarchs...

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
As soon as his death was announced, speculation began on what sort of funeral would happen.  By 8th October, the papers were full of news that he would be laid to rest in Westminster Abbey in a grave adjoining that of Robert Browning who had died in 1889.  The media coverage of Browning's funeral had been quite restrained, reporting that Tennyson had attended but keeping the details quite sparse. There was no hope of that for Tennyson: there was speculation on the coffin, which had both an inner shell for the body made of elm and an outer oak case.  Tennyson had expressly requested that his body should be laid to rest in a heart of oak coffin, which held a plate inscribed with his name and birth and death dates.  His copy of Cymbeline that had been in his hand at death was buried with him, enclosed in a tin box, and on his head was his silk skull cap.

'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.


  1. In the States, on the east coast, the news of Diana broke sometime before midnight, if I recall correctly. My sons were young and in bed sleeping, but I was up watching 'The Twilight Zone' when the phone rang. It was my best friend, who lived in Florida at the time, and she asked if I knew what had happened, that Princess Diana had been in a car accident...put on CNN.
    We ended up staying up nearly the whole night together on the phone, watching the same news being relayed back endlessly. Then, the day of her funeral, again we watched it together on the phone, both of us crying like idiots. Diana's boys walking behind the casket was heartbreaking.
    I never particularly cared for the royal family, until Diana. She seemed to actually give a damn about people and issues. This could be a misconception on my part, just really good PR, and if it was, it's the best PR snow job since L.Ron Hubbard invented Scientology.
    I still have a soft spot for her, and her boys.

  2. Just to add I wholeheartedly agree with your last paragraph. I am sure one of the reasons for the outpouring of grief and emotion was that Tennyson's poetry does touch the emotions so deeply, especially that nostalgic longing and regret which infuses so much of his verse. "The times that are no more, the times that are no more"

  3. Thank you both for your comments. I too ended up watching the news coverage partly because it was so unusual to have all programming stopped. Interrupted is one thing, but stopped was quite another.

  4. I think partly the reaction to Diana's death was the way it came as such a complete shock to everyone plus the fact that she had completely dominated our media for so long; all the ups and downs of her marriage, it was almost like she was a member of everyone's family. Tennyson's death would not have come as a shock in the same way but I think he had been around for so long. I suppose it will be similar to when the Queen herself passes on. It's interesting though how Diana is almost completely forgotten now; similarly Tennyson's reputation has been in the doldrums for most of the time since his death - the bicentenary hardly marked (cf Darwin and Dickens). Anyway - thanks for a wonderful post with so much fascinating information. I feel as though I've really experienced his death and funeral this year!

  5. Thanks, I'm rather comfortable with the fact that the only newspapers I read come from the 1890s, but I was astonished at the level of detail they went into. I spared everyone the poems that the newspapers published in tribute: all very emotional...


  6. The extraordinary thing is that one can't imagine a contemporary poet. composer or painter being accorded the same outpouring of love, as well as pomp and circumstance, which followed in the wake of Tennyson's death. The last major poet to be accorded such am outpouring was Thomas Hardy. And the last artist to be honored at Westminster Abbey and placed in the poet's corner with all attendant rites and reverence was Lord Lawrence Olivier. Beauty and art seem increasingly remote and alien
    to our disenchanted contemporary world .

  7. Interestingly, when I was researching the post I thought about which cultural figures had inspired any sort of grief outpouring. The one that touched me was Rik Mayall last year - probably a demographic thing, but all the people I knew of my generation were bereft when he died suddenly and there were so many tributes to his humour and work. I suppose there might be a class issue about it now - we'd all be very embarrassed to sob in public as we are all too middle class and English. Thanks for your thoughts.

  8. Naughty Kirsty! "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there".

    1. Ha! Ah, Simon, you are such a pedant, but it is why I love you. Now please stop reading my blog and finish my proof!

    2. An unapologetic pedant, to boot. It's not the only reason you love me, I hope. Proof reading will be completed tomorrow, I hope and trust.

  9. One of the many, many reasons, m'darling...

  10. Now pull yourselves together and have a cup of tea.

  11. Indeed, remember we're British, for heaven's sake!

  12. Wonderful to read this again today, the 125th anniversary!


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx